by Larry Holmes, published on Workers World, May 3, 2021
To all fighters for the workers and the oppressed of the world, especially those who dwell in the belly of the world’s biggest imperialist beast, the United States: We can no longer ignore, evade or otherwise deny the fundamental problems blocking the path of the workers to class struggle and socialist revolution. The need for political direction, combined with the need for class wide organization, and the need for the development of new revolutionary leadership altogether, constitute an urgent crisis for all who consider themselves serious revolutionaries.
Addressing this crisis will take time, patience, determination and endless work. If it is not done, there will be no chance of reversing the balance of forces that have favored capitalism and disarmed the working class for far too long. Going forward, there is no practical reason why the mass of workers cannot be organized and thereby better able to engage in class struggle for their immediate needs and for a new world. All that is required for the mass organization of the working class is some understanding of the Marxist theory of historical materialism, some imagination and political will.
If workers don’t organize, they will be defenseless against merciless capitalism
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly $4 trillion has been pumped into the capitalist economy to keep it from collapsing. The Biden administration wants to inject another several trillion dollars into the economy in order to stave off another financial system collapse and, with that, an uprising of workers.
How long can the government continue to pour these massive infusions of money into the debt-ridden capitalist economy without cutting into the wealth of the superrich?
There is already an eviction crisis, an unemployment crisis, a hunger crisis and a health care crisis. What happens when the various moratoriums on eviction expire? What happens when all the unemployment benefit extensions end — for those workers who have been fortunate enough to qualify for them? The working class will need organization in order to fight for its very survival and to ensure as much as possible that its struggles are coordinated, instead of separate and divided.
Lessons of Bessemer
The crisis facing the working class was recently made painfully apparent by the lopsided loss of the union vote in Bessemer, Ala. There, the Amazon workers who led the union drive at the warehouse are heroes. The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) should be given credit for having the courage to take on Amazon. If the union’s strategy in Bessemer was flawed, it was certainly no more flawed than the approach of the entire labor movement, with a few exceptions.
What chance did the union have against the most powerful global capitalist corporation in the world? Amazon is ready to do whatever it takes to terrorize workers in order to prevent the unionization of its nearly one million workers in the U.S. (This includes Whole Foods employees.) Amazon blatantly threatened the workers in Bessemer, day in and day out, daring them to vote for a union.
The results of the Bessemer union vote reflect the weaknesses of the entire labor movement. The Amazon workers there will continue to fight and ready themselves for the next battle. The larger question is: Will the labor movement learn from this and prepare itself? If it does not, this will be a blow to the whole working class from which it will be very hard to recover.
The only way for the working class to take on a behemoth like Amazon is for the unions to carefully organize a labor movement-wide, coordinated, long struggle to organize Amazon. This would necessitate the involvement of many unions working together in solidarity, instead of competing with each other.
Moreover, it would require unions to replace the current top-down bureaucratic approach to worker organizing with a militant rank-and-file one. Many of the most political Amazon workers who are engaged in worker organizing, including radical young workers who are getting jobs at Amazon and Whole Foods in order to organize workers, have the right idea!
That is, to begin building the union within the workplace, finding and attracting the most militant workers, getting to know the workers, fighting for them and winning their trust. Some of these militants are wary of the top-down, non-struggle, business-unionism approach of most union leaders. The unions involved in organizing will have to win the trust of the militants; they can only do that by changing.
The struggle to organize Amazon or any other company must no longer be seen as solely the responsibility of the workers inside. Naturally, what workers inside do is decisive, but these struggles must be classwide. There are ways to make them classwide struggles, if there is the political insight and determination to do so. Eventually, the working class must be organized to the point where it is able to conduct a coordinated general strike to force a company like Amazon to recognize a union.
At the moment, it seems like the response of the labor movement’s leadership to the Bessemer defeat is to rely even more on Biden and the Democrats to pass the Protect the Right to Organize Act, which would make organizing workers from a legal perspective somewhat easier. Of course, it would be swell if Congress passed the PRO Act, but as it stands now there are not enough votes to pass it in the Senate.
If Biden were really for helping workers organize, he could, among other things, enact the PRO Act into law by executive order. The working class should demand that he do so immediately! But the reality is this: Capitalist politicians don’t just give concessions to the workers. Concessions are won in the course of the class struggle. It was the workers’ struggle in the 1930s that frightened President Franklin Delano Roosevelt into making concessions. No doubt, this will be the case today as well.
Why is Biden acting like FDR? Because he, too, is desperately trying to save capitalism
President Joe Biden is proposing some of the most ambitious social programs, the scope of which have not been raised since the New Deal. Will anything come of this that is beneficial to the workers and the oppressed?
Not without a struggle from below.
The reason that Biden is acting like Roosevelt is because his advisors have told him what bad shape the U.S. capitalist economy is in and warned him that if he does not do something about it, not only would the Democratic Party suffer, but sooner or later the workers would rise up against the capitalist system. It was these same fears that motivated Roosevelt to act. More immediately, Biden wants to shore up U.S. imperialism as against China and the rest of the world.
The Bessemer struggle illustrates the need for a revolutionary transformation of the labor movement. In today’s capitalist economy, the approach of organizing workers based on rules and goals adhered to by trade unions since the 1930s effectively limits the number of workers who can be unionized to a smaller and smaller percentage of the working class.
Changes in capitalism require the transformation of existing workers’ organizations and development of new ones
Global capitalist economic production has entered a phase of irreversible decline. Capitalism is struggling to survive by constantly applying technology to reduce the need for human labor, and by utilizing technology to organize production on a coordinated global scale. The application of new technology to the productive process has never been more rapid, more unrelenting and more destructive to workers and all of society than it is today.
Eighty-five years ago, craft unionism could not embrace workers in big automobile plants and steel mills. The labor movement had to transform itself in order to unionize manufacturing workers. Today, the labor movement must undergo another transformation in order to survive, but one even more radical than in the 1930s.
Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote in the “Communist Manifesto”:
“The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones.”
New technology and globalization have dispersed and atomized the working class. This makes older forms of organization more difficult. This is why each new stage of capitalist technological development requires greater and greater working-class solidarity, wider and wider organizing and more unified class wide struggle.
In order for trade unions to remain viable as organizations that can defend workers, they must embrace all workers, instead of merely trying to hold on to the dwindling numbers of unionized workers. Unions must become internationalist in their outlook and work, viewing all workers everywhere as part of the same class. They must become the hardest fighters for the most oppressed workers. And they must abandon their reliance on capitalist politicians, and their political parties, and return to the political strategy of class struggle.
New conditions make it more difficult for workers to win union elections, engage in collective bargaining and have their union dues collected by their employers. This kind of unionism reflects a period of relative capitalist stability. However, capitalism has been descending into a deeper and deeper crisis, and with this has come an all-out attack on the working class and on labor unions.
A wider class struggle, accompanied by mass worker organizing, can push back the capitalist assault on workers. But ultimately, there will be no stability for the working class until the dangerous, destructive and decaying capitalist system is ended.
Marx pointed out that trade unions, initially concerned with fighting for the interests of a small section of workers, must evolve to a higher level in order to remain relevant in the struggle against the capitalist system.
In a document that Marx prepared for the founding of the First International in 1866 entitled “Trade Unions, Their Past, Present and Future,” he wrote that trade unions
“apart from their original purposes … must now learn to act deliberately as organizing centers of the working class in the broad interest of its complete emancipation. They must aid every social and political movement tending in that direction. Considering themselves and acting as the champions and representatives of the whole working class, they cannot fail to enlist the unemployed into their ranks.”
Another problem with the norms of this kind of trade unionism, which has not been working for the working class for a long time, is that it was based on an understanding between the unions and the capitalists that they would accommodate each other in the interest of achieving a mutually beneficial class peace agreement. The problem is that the capitalists ripped up the agreement a long time ago and replaced it with class war on the working class.
The working class needs to do the same. Even as unions undergo transformations, they cannot organize the masses of workers under the present conditions. This requires the formation of new workers’ organizations.
How do we achieve the mass organization of workers? Workers’ assemblies
How do we achieve the mass organization of workers? One way is to commence organizing workers’ assemblies. The need for them grows out of the limitations of trade unionism in its present form.
Workers’ assemblies cannot provide what unions do for those workers who are fortunate enough to be in unions. But workers’ assemblies can be places that provide those millions of workers who cannot be unionized in the traditional way with a critical level of organization and affiliation with other workers.
The category of workers who desperately need such an organization is growing daily. It includes gig workers, sex workers, fast food workers, domestic workers, migrant workers, incarcerated workers, women workers including stay-at-home mothers, workers with disabilities, LGBTQ+ workers, temporary and part-time workers, contract workers, street vendors, students and young workers, the unemployed, tenants and homeless workers.
If the concept of workers’ assemblies were to be seriously embraced and acted on, before long hundreds of thousands of workers — perhaps even millions of workers — could be organized.
It should come as no surprise that the region which has had the most recent experience with workers’ assemblies is the South. The Southern Workers Assembly, led by Black workers, was formed 10 years ago. Racism and white supremacy have historically made it very hard for the labor movement to be strong in the South. This is one of the reasons why a large percentage of the capital investments seeking the lowest wages is drawn to the South.
Some Black workers decided they would not be deterred by hostility to unions in the “right-to-work” South, and they organized workers’ assemblies. The Durham, N.C., workers’ assembly meets every month. At the assembly, workers representing different local governmental workplaces, as well as Amazon workers, farm workers, domestic workers and fast food workers, report on the conditions they face and ask the assembly to provide concrete support for their events and struggles. The Southern Workers Assembly regularly works with labor unions.
Workers’ assemblies need not be identical. Some of them may focus on building support for workplace organizing. Other assemblies may focus on fighting evictions or organizing the unemployed.
An important function of a workers’ assembly movement would be to organize class wide solidarity with crucial workers’ struggles. Every small class struggle, like every big struggle, should more and more be seen as a class wide struggle.
Reviving revolutionary internationalism
At the global level, this would mean reviving revolutionary internationalism. Modern communications technology enables workers everywhere, regardless of their circumstances, to act together in solidarity with the struggles of other workers who are thousands of miles away. If the working class takes advantage of the conditions that capitalism has imposed upon them, the day will come when the whole class can conduct a general strike.
Workers’ assemblies would not be like NGO organizations, which may have progressive politics but are politically constrained because they get most of their funding from liberal bourgeois foundations. Workers’ assemblies must get the resources they need from the working class, so they can be uncompromised organizations of anti-capitalist class struggle.
It is possible that the formation of workers’ assemblies could be the basis of the formation of a real mass workers’ party in the future.
Left unity for the purpose of organizing workers
Four short months ago, the critical call for left unity was based on stopping the Trump forces from staging a coup. Today, if a call for meaningful, real left unity is to be anything more than rhetoric, then it must be about uniting behind a plan to carry out a campaign of mass worker organizing. Actually, organizing the working class may be the best way to check the threat of fascism.
The left tendencies in the U.S. are far too small, apart from the Democratic Socialists of America, which has a large membership but a comparatively small number of dedicated organizers who are active — and they prioritize electoral politics.
The most dynamic part of the left is the Black Lives Matter movement. It can alternately bring millions of people into the streets and then disperse — which makes it easy and convenient for liberal politicians and media figures to pose as its leaders.
Still, with all these contradictions, if the left could actually unite around the goal of organizing workers, it would not only make the left immediately more relevant to the workers’ struggle but it could potentially transform much of the left into a serious force in the class struggle, with a real base in the working class.
The weaknesses of the labor movement — in particular, the narrowness, conservatism and non-struggle orientation of much of its leadership — have, in turn, weakened the class-consciousness of the left. A labor movement that all too often acts like it is attached to the system, instead of rebelling against the system, is not going to have much gravity for young radicals.
Nowhere is this problem more acute than the relationship of labor to the struggle against racist police terror. Objectively, the mass uprising after the lynching of George Floyd was a working-class rebellion. However, those who marched against racism last summer did not do so in the name of the working class.
There were some trade unions that made good statements in support of the anti-police revolt. Some trade unionists even went a step further and called for kicking so-called police unions out of the labor movement, because the cops are not workers — they repress workers. But the best efforts of a few trade unionists were not enough to change the impression that the labor movement was absent from the revolt. On Labor Day in 2020, more than 40 unions released a statement calling for work stoppages in solidarity with Black Lives Matter.
Now would be a good time to fulfill that promise.
For many, the workers’ movement will seem irrelevant to the struggle against racism and white supremacy until the workers’ movement demonstrates that this fight is not peripheral, but central to the class struggle. This problem makes it all the more essential that workers’ assemblies prioritize the struggle against racist police terror.
Everywhere, workers are rising up. May Day 2021 is a good occasion for the left to make a big turn to the working class. If that happens, the workers’ movement will not only change, but take a step toward the road to revolution.
Larry Holmes is First Secretary of the Workers World Party