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After decades of retreat, it might just be that workers are coming into their own as a force for social change. Forty years of punishing austerity and a two-tiered labor system pitting new, temporary, or part-time workers against regular workers have finally found the lowest pay and conditions workers will tolerate. The risk of death and illness from COVID was a profound trigger magnifying an already dire situation. The bosses’ “race to the bottom” finally found the bottom.
The working class is cornered but the working class is fighting back.
It’s a two-pronged labor revolt: an organized strike wave and an unorganized but much larger movement in which millions of workers are quitting their damned jobs. The corporate media is calling it the “Great Resignation.” It’s less polite than that — millions have simply walked off without giving notice. They are not looking back.
This is good news. The only way for us to learn how to exercise power is to practice exerting it. The strike wave and the record-setting walkouts are so full of promise because the people are acting on their own behalf — on their own interests — both collective and individual. We hope people will see the connection between the two. Will the millions of discontented workers form unions? Will the unions field an army of organizers to help out?
Workers have reached the breaking point but not before inequality reached epic proportions and COVID revealed just how little the bosses cared if we live or die. Fifty trillion dollars have been redistributed to the 1% since the mid-1970s with the corporate-bought politicians playing bag man. And as teams of scholars studying wealth inequality have suggested, this problem cannot be resolved through normal means.
The same researchers found that pandemics sometimes redistribute wealth. At first, the covid crises led to a concentration of wealth unprecedented in its speed and scope. Corporations and their political servants saw the pandemic as a business opportunity or a chance to loot the public treasury (see CARES Act) instead of a public health crisis. But what goes up must come down and maybe — just maybe — it’s our turn.
1,600 Strikes Since the Start of the Pandemic
There is nothing better than the power of a good example. Strikes have been on the rise since 2017 and 1,600 strikes have been recorded by Payday Strike Tracker since the pandemic began.
Wildcats strikes and non-union workers were the cutting edge of the initial Covid strike wave. The current strike wave has shifted toward existing unions and national contracts with the rank and file leading the way. Remember, the Deere workers rejected the first UAW contract.
Bottom-up momentum will intensify internal conflict such as we are already seeing in the Teamsters election, the Carpenter’s struggle over picketing, and the discontent with the IATSE tentative agreement.
The strike wave will also push conflicts within the ruling class as the liberals push for incremental change while the hard-liners double down demanding even more blood sacrifice. Either way, it’s a strategic difference over the best route to preserving and securing their power and position.
A Tale of Two Tiers*
At Kellogg and Deere workers are rejecting not just low pay but also a system — the two-tiered labor system. The two-tier system has been one of the structural weapons used by bosses to break worker solidarity, weaken unions, and lower wages and benefits. Two-tier systems were innovated by the liberal management of higher education beginning in the mid-1970s when the corporatization of education and austerity kicked in.
The evil genius of two-tier systems is that it entices existing workers with minor privileges and short-term benefits while luring new hires with the promise of work experience, or at least survival. The two-tier system makes class traitors out of people by encouraging them to sell out the next generation of workers.
Bill Gates’s big invention was not some smart computer program but the “permatemp”— permanent temporary workers. Amazon relies on millions of seasonal and part-time workers baited by bonuses and then trapped by non-compete contracts. Half of Google’s global workforce is part-time or temporary.
If workers can break the two-tiered labor system. then we will have a fighting chance to rebuild the labor movement.
Millions Walk Out
The great walkout is an unorganized yet powerful game-changer for workers because it has altered the labor market. The end of the meager unemployment benefits has not pushed workers back to poverty wages and abusive management.
Even marginal changes to the labor market can have considerable impacts because staffing is already stretched so thin. We are already overworked with millions working multiple jobs. The fear of covid deaths and illness are powerful motivations for staying home or seeking safer jobs. Vaccine mandates, when used by management as a way of breaking unions or attacking workers will add to the upheaval. The pilots’ union at Southwest put it this way:
We want to be perfectly clear: SWAPA is not anti-vaccination, but we do believe that…it is our role to represent the health and safety of our Pilots and bring their concerns to the Company….We will not sit idly by while the Company blatantly ignores our legal right to represent you.
The combination of strike wave and walk-off will intensify conflict within the labor movement. Will the loyalty of union officials to the Democratic Party’s weak incrementalism be stronger than their loyalty to their own members and the working class in general? Will class collaboration or class struggle shape negotiation strategies?
General Strike or General Election?
There is talk of a general strike again. It is unlikely that a general strike can be organized without a major rank and file upheaval that changes labor leadership. But a general strike will never happen unless we keep the idea alive.
The only time recently even a few labor officials mentioned a general strike was to halt Trump’s “stop the steal” campaign. Well, Jan. 6 came and went and there was no action at all. I can only guess that the specter of independent worker action on the national stage was just too scary to consider for the party bosses that hold sway over labor strategy. For them, it was better to let the ruling class deal with the rioters and to support increased funding for the Capitol Police.
If some modest concessions can be won in Congress I am all for it. But the strike wave and walk-off are good evidence that it is far better to “vote with your feet” than electing lesser evil politicians and lobbying the trusted servants of the corporate class.
Austerity is not over but it’s possible that we are turning a corner. But, the pandemic and tight labor markets alone will not produce democracy: that must be fought for.
If everyday workers can force the strike weapon and organizing into the center of labor strategy and repurpose the millions funneled to the Democratic Party, then we will see a new form of pressure far stronger than phone banking and GOTV efforts.
Electoral politics may not be a total dead end but it sure as hell is a long winding detour compared to a direct confrontation with the corporations that dominate both the workplace and the electoral process. Why lobby politicians when you can challenge their masters?
*I worked with the contingent faculty movement in higher education for over 15 years where you can still find some of the clearest thinking about two-tiered systems. See Joe Berry and Helena Worthen’s, Power Despite Precarity and Keith Hoeller’s Equality for Contingent Faculty: Overcoming the Two-tiered System