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Pat Wall

US Labour Faces Big Battles

(September 1977)

From Militant, No. 373, 16 September 1977.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Heavily burdened by the crushing weight of inflation, unemployment, trade deficit and low investment, the giant American economy is trying to stagger to its feet like a weightlifter who has grown too old and too fat.

Millions are idle, while only 83% of industrial capacity is made use of. High prices imprison millions more in poverty, while acres of wheatland are deliberately left fallow.

Such is the huge influence of this, the leading industrial nation, on the world economy, that the leaders of the world’s ailing capitalist economies like Britain intently scour her progress in desperate hope of a general revival of trade. In the coming years of bitter class battles the eyes of the world’s workers will look to the mighty American working class to deliver its own body blows to international capitalism.

The USA’s emergence as the dominant world economy during the early years of this century marked the end, not only of the privileged position of British capitalism in the world markets, but also the privileged status of a certain layer of British workers as compared with those of other countries. Together with the effects of the capitalist cycle of booms and slumps the reduced capacity of the British ruling class to give concessions to the organised workers as a means of avoiding direct conflict led to a marked radicalisation of the labour movement.

The links between the trade union leaders and the Liberal Party were cut and replaced by an independent workers’ party. A series of explosive strikes prior to the First World War and semi-revolutionary strikes from 1918 to 1921 showed the changed temper of the workers.

Today the USA remains the dominant world power, with a continental economy and an enormous home market. Yet this very predominance has led to a sapping of the strength of America. By taking over the role of the world’s policeman from senile British Imperialism the US economy has poured valuable resources down the drain in wasteful arms production for the Vietnam debacle and other increasingly costly military aid. Their replacement by paper dollars poured petrol on the fires of world inflation.

This and the end of the prolonged post-war boom and the return to a more accentuated “pre-war” economic cycle marks the end of the relatively privileged standards enjoyed by large sections of the US workforce. During the past seven years the standards of American workers have not risen; on the contrary, they have fallen. Stormy industrial battles loom increasingly near for organised labour.

Dollar Falls

Since last Autumn, the US economy has shown a marked upswing, following two years of depression. This year estimates of the growth of the economy have been revised upwards to 6.9% and corporate (pre-tax) profits are expect to grow by $160 billion.

The labour force has increased by 1½m in the last six months, mainly through women and teenagers taking jobs. But this has been predominantly in the service sector, while employment in productive industry has stagnated or declined. This is reflected in the continued rise in unemployment, which jumped from 6.9% to 7.1% in June. A permanent pool of at least 5m unemployed is now a fact of capitalist life in America.

The economic upswing is based on shaky foundations. While factory output has increased by 10% over the past year, productive capacity has only grown by 2.4% according to Federal estimates. The decline of the dollar means higher import prices and a further increase in the rate of inflation.

During the recent run on the currency, the dollar declined by 9.3% against the yen and 2.7% against the Mark. Behind this weakening is the massive trade deficit, now projected at $25 billion for 1977. With its economy growing faster than Japan or the EEC, the US has been sucking in imports at record rates.

The strategy of the Carter administration is partly to force its major competitors, West Germany and Japan, either to convert their trade balances into deficits, or to revalue their currencies upwards against the Dollar. The latter could gain export markets for the US at the expense of avoiding the necessity for cutting back on oil imports. While OPEC oil bills continue to be settled in US Dollars this would in effect mean Germany and Japan subsidising the US energy bill.

Contrary to the cosy harmony exuded at the seven-power “economic” summit held in London earlier in the year, the major powers continue to carry out policies in their own national interest.

The attitude of European bankers was reflected by a German official who remarked: “If the US continues feeding Dollars into the world economy, then we shall have more world inflation and more currency revaluations.” From the other side of the Atlantic, an American economist wryly remarked: “I cannot see the Germans and Japanese revaluing by so much that we can go on wasting energy.”

All the signs are that the mini-boom is slowing down and that 1978 will see a return to recession, rising inflation and a growing world trade war.

Carter Administration

The election of Jimmy Carter as President was due to a coalition of organised labour, the blacks and sections of the white collar workers and intellectuals. His victory raised the expectations of these groups; but Carter has already abandoned the vague electioneering promises, of cutting unemployment , increasing public works and tax credits for the lower paid.

More than anyone, the leaders of the AFL/CIO trade union federation, led by the ageing George Meany, had illusions in a Carter administration. Having delivered the votes, Meany presented Congress with a list of modest reforms, only to find Carter less amenable than Nixon.

The minimum wage has been fixed well below trade union demands of $3 an hour and, indeed, for the average family, below the poverty line. The Situs Picketing Bill, established picketing rights of construction sites, was defeated and now the AFL/CIO has dropped demands for the repeal of section 14B of the notorious Taft-Hartley Act.

Section 14B is the legislative cover for the “right-to-work” laws which operate in some twenty states. “Right-to-work” in this context means “right to scab”: 14B forbids union closed shops in those states with “right-to-work” laws. What is the reaction of the trade union leadership? Will they really launch a mass recruiting drive in the Southern states, something that has been threatened for two decades or more? Will they mobilise the enormous strength of American labour in the key industries to smash 14B? Will they defy, as the miners have done, the numerous court injunctions designed to prevent or delay union shops and union agreements? Will they explain to millions of American workers that the Democrats, as much as the Republicans, are a party of big business?

No! The policy of the AFL/CIO leaders, despite the enormous potential power of American labour, is to water down their modest proposals and continue the lobbying of the same politicians who have just spat in their faces. The policy of the trade union leadership can be summed up in the following: “Let labour get more write-ins [to Congressmen] than big business.”

The dependence on the good will of the “Democrat” party of big business over the years, in place of relying on the strength of their own forces, has weakened the unions. Legislation which gave certain advantages to the unions, like the 1935 Wagner Act, have had reduced effect “because the employers have consciously, intentionally and habitually broken the law.” (The Times, 8.9.77). Carter’s answer to the unions is more legislation, but in discussions over this the unions had to make so many compromises that even Meany complains “The President’s Bill would not change in the slightest the rules governing established labour-management relations. Indeed, it does not change the general rules stating what unions and employers may do at all.”

But the union leaders cannot now guarantee sufficient support from the Democrat Party even for modest concessions. Whereas their lobby could once count on the support of at least 200 Congressmen for their mild pleas, this has dwindled to 130–140, and a majority vote is 218.

As the economic crisis makes the conflict of interests between labour and capital more apparent, the capitalist politicians are coming under greater pressure from big business to toe the line in Congress. Well-financed right-wing lobby organisations are being formed to lobby against pro-union legislation. More and more will we see the public representatives of capital dropping their ‘labour’ mask to reveal their real interests openly.

Already reforms are giving way to counter-reforms. People depending on public welfare are to be denied the right to certain operations on the ‘Medicare’ scheme. The unemployed are to be put to work on pitifully low wages below union rates to pay off their welfare benefits – reminiscent of reactionary ‘poor law’ legislation in Britain 150 years ago! This must have an effect on the rank and file of the unions. Seeing the spectacle of their leaders crawling to the Democrats only to be kicked in the face, the workers will turn their backs and look for a new political voice.

The Unions

Until recently, the majority of American workers, especially the skilled sections, have enjoyed fabulously high living standards compared to the rest of the world. As long as the boom lasted, and “free enterprise” delivered the goods, the outlook of the workers was dominated by capitalist thinking. The ruling class, through the powerful mass media at its disposal, skilfully directed its propaganda at the totalitarian nature of the Stalinist states of Russia and Eastern Europe, equating communism and socialism with the one-party state and this denial of basic human and democratic rights. Meanwhile, the leaders of the trade unions behaved like big business executives, and enjoyed the same life-styles. They clung on to the coat-tails of the Democratic Party.

The results of this complacency and class collaboration are plain to see. While union membership, power and influence has increased in almost every advanced capitalist country, in the USA trade union membership has actually declined, from the low figure of 33% in the early post-war years to less than 22% of the workforce today. In the South, under 10% of the workforce are unionised, providing a paradise of cheap labour for employers fleeing from the closed shops of the North.

As Marx said, “conditions determine consciousness”; so it is no accident that “free enterprise” ideology should have reached its highest point in the USA. The CIO (Congress of Industrial Organisations) abandoned its pre-war crusading policies to follow the AFL (American Federation of Labor) into “business unionism”. This process may have been more marked in the USA, but the degeneration of the AFL/CIO was paralleled by a similar process as far as organised unionism, social democracy and Stalinism were concerned throughout the advanced capitalist countries.

Only a Marxist leadership, firmly rooted in the mass organisations, linking the day to day struggles of the workers with perspectives for changing society, could have acted as an antidote to this disease. Until such a leadership is established, the workers of America and the world will continue to pay the price in sacrifice, struggle and hardship.

Just as in Europe, the harsh realities of capitalist decline are having a profound effect on the American workers. Large numbers of strikes have already broken out and major conflicts impend for miners, railway and steel workers.

The movement of the class from below is reflected in changes in the top leadership of the trade unions. Following the dramatic defeat of the old Boyle leadership of the United Mineworkers’ union in 1974, came the campaign of Ed Sadlowski to wrest the leadership of the Steelworkers from I.W. Abel.

Raising class demands, while campaigning for union democracy and the ending of the “no-strike” clause, Sadlowski was narrowly defeated in last year’s elections for the President of the 1.3 million Steelworks. Sadlowski in fact won a majority among steel workers, but lost through the votes of ancillary groups. The election of many of his supporters to key local positions in the UWSA provides Sadlowski with a firmer basis for the 1979 elections. Already, “Steelworkers Fight Back” committees have been formed throughout the industry. The days of the Abel leadership are numbered.

Similar processes can be seen in many of the smaller unions, and a similar reform movement is developing in America’s largest, most corrupt, most gangster-ridden union, the Teamsters. This movement from below, reflected dramatically in changes in the top leadership, marks a growing awareness among the rank and file of the need to transform the unions into fighting organisations on behalf of the class.

The election of Miller or even Sadlowski will only mark a stage in this process of transforming the labour movement, just as the emergence of Jones, Daly, Scanlon and Basnett was only a stage in the movement of the British workers to the left. In the fight for a socialist society the workers will have to transform and re-transform their organisations until they become suitable vehicles for the transformation of society.

American big business can no longer afford concessions to the working people except of the most temporary and fleeting nature. Far from “new deal” Keynesian economics, Carter is attempting to balance the budget by 1979. This is a programme of welfare and education cuts, of increasing resistance to wage increases and higher unemployment.

Already local government workers, including teachers, have been forced into struggle as cuts in local and national government expenditure take effect. This section of workers has suffered a whole series of defeats. During the Heath government the same process took place in Britain with defeat for the postmen and partial defeats for health workers, dustmen and other council workers. However, when the “big battalions” of labour moved into action, railway workers, dockers and miners, we saw an entirely opposite process, culminating in the defeat of the Tory government by only 250,000 miners.

Tomorrow the most organised sections of US labour, led by the miners, will be forced to defend their living standards. Titanic clashes face American trade unions in the coming months and years, which will give new life to the struggle of America’s oppressed minorities and will unleash a tremendous campaign of union organisation, particularly in the Southern states.

The cosy relationship of negotiation and compromise with the Democrats has turned the union leaders into election agents of liberal capitalist politicians. Yet even the election “achievements” the unions have made indicate the widespread influence they could have, given a direct political appeal to the working class for their own party.

In the last election, “A highly elaborate political organisation reached out to more than 12 million voters on computer records and the union claim a large measure of success in persuading their members to turn out and support their candidate.” (The Times, 8.9.77) In the state of Illinois alone “the unions’ vote-getting machine is a million dollar a year operation… Illinois trade unionists turn out in larger numbers than non-unionists and 90% of them vote the union way.”

Thus, the American trade union movement already possess far more funds, machinery and experience for political campaigns than their British equivalents had just prior to the foundation of the British Labour Party by the TUC in 1900. It was only after a whole series of militant strikes by the most downtrodden labourers – dockers, gas workers, etc. – which drew fresh millions of desperately impoverished men and women into the ‘New Unions’, that the ‘aristocracy of labour’ with its narrow craft outlook and craft consciousness was swamped and the conservative ‘respectable’ leaders of those unions who preached class collaboration with the Liberal Party were overruled.

These bureaucratic leaders had held back the emergence of labour as an independent political force for years, but when the capitalist state bared its fangs against union activity and the rank and file pushed the TUC into creating a political arm of the movement, this developed rapidly, leading to the demise of the Liberals. The Liberal Party won a landslide victory in Parliament in 1911, but with the rise of the Labour Party it was reduced to a small rump in 1918, its support being polarised behind the two parties representing the two great classes in industrial society.

The tempo will be even faster in America. The meteoric rise of industrial unions in the 1930s demonstrates this. Had the process not been cut across by the Second World War the movement of the workers would have been impelled towards the formation of a Labour Party.

Now, after three decades of economic upswing on an unprecedented scale, the wheel has turned full circle and a powerful, confident working class stands poised before social battles that will put the heroic struggles of the 1930s into the shade. It is in the fire of these battles that the illusions held by many in ‘free enterprise’ will be destroyed and the militants of a Labour Party will grasp the need for a socialist programme as the only alternative it can offer to the voracious waste, corruption and violence of capitalism.

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