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Sharon Smith

Letter from the US

Dogs bite back

(September 1994)

From Socialist Review, No. 178, September 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

‘US bosses have only succeeded in provoking workers to begin to fight back’

Two years ago millions of workers believed Clinton’s campaign promise to reverse the Reagan-Bush ‘decade of greed’. But like so many Democrats before him, Clinton appealed to the working class vote to win the election, and then proceeded to act in the interests of big business from the moment he became president.

Clinton’s labour secretary, Robert Reich, admitted as much when he summed up Clinton’s first year in office, stating, ‘We essentially have collaborated and responded to the business community.’ At Clinton’s behest, Reich has set up a commission to study how to rewrite labour laws that were passed in the 1930s in order to allow for greater ‘cooperation’ between labour and management – otherwise known as company unions. Last month Clinton betrayed the last of his promises to the labour movement. Without uttering so much as whimper of protest, he allowed the Republicans to defeat the Workplace Fairness Act, which would have banned the bosses’ favourite union busting tactic – permanently replacing striking workers with scabs.

As far as the US ruling class is concerned, the 1990s should be a repeat of the 1980s decade of greed – it plans to continue its sustained attack on working class living standards and union organisation. Business Week magazine recently acknowledged:

‘Few American managers have ever accepted the right of unions to exist ... [but] over the past dozen years, US industry has conducted one of the most successful anti-union wars ever, illegally firing thousands of workers for exercising their right to organise. To ease up now, many executives feel, would be to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.’

This frank admission is no exaggeration. In the late 1970s about 200 workers per year filed lawsuits claiming they were illegally fired by their employers. That figure has now jumped to 25,000 workers per year.

The goal of the employers’ offensive has always been the same: fewer workers who work much harder for ever falling wages. The biggest US corporations are cutting jobs at the rate of 3,000 per business day on average – a figure which is twice as high as in 1990.

Today one in every five workers earns below a poverty level wage. Since 1973 real wages have fallen by about 20 percent, while the time necessary for a worker to earn the average household’s living expenses has jumped by 43 percent. The immiseration of workers is so widespread that in summer opinion polls, while 61 percent of respondents said they believe the nation’s economy is no longer ‘in recession’, 65 percent said they do not believe that the recession has ended in the area where they live.

But while US bosses may believe they can continue to attack workers indefinitely, they have only succeeded in provoking workers to begin to fight back. Strikes have risen markedly in 1994 compared with last year – reversing two decades of continuous decline in strike activity. During the first four months of 1994 the number of workers on strike tripled, and the number of workdays lost to strikes quadrupled compared with the same period last year. Overall strikes are up by 50 percent from a year ago, including several significant industrial struggles.

Miners struck for seven months and won their main demand late last year. Thus far 1994 has witnessed two national Teamster strikes – among United Parcel Service (UPS) workers and truck drivers, a company wide strike of 15,000 United Auto Workers (UAW) against Caterpillar, and strikes against four different companies involving 8,000 rubber workers. Moreover, for the first time in 35 years the proportion of US workers in unions didn’t fall last year. It remained at 15.8 percent of the labour force, and the actual number of workers in unions increased slightly from 16.4 to 16.6 million.

Perhaps most importantly, US workers are beginning to struggle with a degree of determination and solidarity not shown since Reagan’s election in 1980. And even in the face of the most vicious union busting by companies, as in the case of Caterpillar, groups of workers are refusing to back down.

Before their strike began in June, Caterpillar workers had been working without a union contract for more than two years, since they lost a strike in 1992. Since then management has slashed some Cat workers’ wages from $17 to $7 or $8 an hour and engaged in systematic harassment of union members. But rather than give up, Cat workers maintained their sense of solidarity by wearing T-shirts with slogans like ‘Cat treats workers like dogs’ and chanting anti-company slogans inside the plant. At eight different Caterpillar plants workers took unauthorised strike action to protest at management policies, which pressured the union to call a company wide strike in June.

After nearly two decades of retreat consciousness within the labour movement is understandably uneven. This is reflected in the contrasting slogans in two disputes. ‘Defending the American Dream’ is the slogan of the Caterpillar strikers, whereas the 700 workers at Staley manufacturing in Decatur, Illinois, who have been locked out by owners Tate and Lyle for over a year, have adopted the slogan, ‘Illinois is a War Zone.’ Even among some of the most militant groups of workers consciousness is mixed. For example, a strong dose of anti-Japanese sentiment has weakened the strike by rubber workers against Firestone, which is Japanese owned.

But the US labour movement has turned a corner. The class anger and bitterness which have been accumulating over nearly two decades have finally begun to translate into working class fightback. And, whatever confusion may exist, a layer of workers has begun to understand that the only way to turn the tide for labour is for workers to take matters into their own hands. As Robert Borders, a striking rubber worker from Decatur, told Socialist Review:

‘I’m working for a company that treats me like a dog. That makes me want to fight back. It makes me dislike the people that are doing this to me. And eventually if they keep doing this all over the country there’s going to be a revolution ... I’m not trying to sound radical or off the wall, but there’s getting to be an underlying feeling in this country by people who are suppressed and kept down, and someday in the future that’s going to explode, because they’re not going to be able to keep it under control for ever.’

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