Workers Vanguard No. 1052
19 September 2014
Democrats Buy Votes with Minimum-Wage Ploy
Fight Poverty Wages Through Class Struggle!
On September 5, the day after thousands of fast-food workers staged rallies for higher pay and a union in some 150 cities, family and friends of Maria Fernandes gathered at her funeral service in New Jersey. The 32-year-old woman had died while catching some sleep in her car in between part-time shifts at three area Dunkin’ Donuts, which all paid her the minimum wage. As was the case with Fernandes, most new employment has been in low-paying service industries like fast food, where jobs are no longer held by kids looking for a little gas money. The median age of that workforce is 28, with more than a quarter caring for dependents, 70 percent working part-time and many holding second jobs in a scramble to make ends meet. At the available starvation-level wages, employees cannot possibly pay out-of-pocket medical expenses, put aside money for their children’s education or save anything for retirement.
With the net median paycheck now roughly $27,000 a year, many American workers, who tend to vote for Democrats, are in dire straits. Well aware of this widespread suffering and faced with the prospect of losing ground to the Republicans in November, the Democrats have attempted over the past year or so to refurbish their image as the party of the working man by promoting campaigns to raise the minimum wage. In reality, the Democratic Party is simply the other main party of the U.S. capitalist exploiters.
“Refurbish” is the operative word here, as President Obama is, with justice, known for having lavished billions on the fat-cat bankers at the onset of the Great Recession while doing nothing to remedy the plague of joblessness and declining living standards that have followed in its wake. Soon after his election, Obama—with the able assistance of then-United Auto Workers president Ron Gettelfinger—bailed out the giant auto companies while forcing the union to accept tens of thousands of layoffs and sign on to a six-year no-strike pledge. The wage for most new hires was more than halved to $14 (now $16) an hour.
On Labor Day, President Obama cynically pontificated, “Give America a raise” while claiming that his hands are tied in this regard for the foreseeable future by the House Republicans. Taking a page from his former employer in the White House, Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, noteworthy for his layoffs of thousands of union teachers in the aftermath of their 2012 strike and his continuing campaign to slash their pensions, has recently raised the minimum wage for city employees working for private contractors to $13 an hour. The Lord taketh away and then he pretends to giveth.
Whether the minimum-wage ploy will draw people to the polls is still to be determined, but it cannot be denied that the issue of hiking wages at the bottom has animated many. Most Americans, including Republican voters and self-designated conservatives in the labor force, are for it. Fast-food workers have turned out to hundreds of demonstrations over the past two years, risking their jobs in the process. Given the continued decline in wages and benefits, many workers are hoping for an improvement, however slight, in their dismal prospects.
Support to minimum wage hikes has also been promoted by many in bourgeois quarters who argue that giving people more disposable income will help stimulate the economy or reduce dependency on government subsidies and food stamps. This year alone, the minimum wage has been increased to at least $10.10 an hour in four states, and smaller increases have been passed in three other states. Similar campaigns are underway in South Dakota, Alaska, Arkansas and Nebraska.
Obama’s nickel-and-dime proposal for $10.10 an hour, if ever enacted, would raise the federal minimum wage from a crushing $7.25 and give full-time workers a yearly salary of roughly $21,000, still hardly enough to eke out an existence. The federal minimum wage has seen its real value fall by more than a quarter since its peak in 1968, when it was over $10 in today’s dollars. More “generous” measures are slated for the ballot this November in San Francisco and elsewhere, coming on the heels of the Seattle City Council passing a purported $15 an hour minimum-wage ordinance at the beginning of the year.
Obviously, we are for increases in the minimum wage. But it should be recognized that what has been and is being offered is woefully inadequate. What is really needed is an all-out mobilization of the working class to fight for sharply higher wages as well as for access to free, quality medical care and full pensions for all. History has shown that the gains of working people and the oppressed—including better wages and basic democratic protections—were won through determined class struggle and battles in the street. However, for decades the pro-capitalist labor bureaucracy has caved in to the wage-slashing attacks of the bosses, helping to drive down everyone’s wages. Meanwhile, they continue to throw millions into Democratic Party coffers.
The drive for profits is the motor force of the capitalist system and results in the increasing immiseration of the working masses at one pole and the increasing wealth of the owners of the means of production at the other. The general trend is to “reward” workers for their productive activity by paying them barely enough to be able to return to the job the next day, while the bosses get all the rest. But given their central role in production, workers can bring the flow of profits to a grinding halt. As such, the proletariat is the only force with the collective social power and objective interest to overthrow the bourgeois masters. Until that happens, the tendency of the capitalists to sink wages will always be reasserted with a vengeance whenever working-class struggle ebbs.
“Socialists” Shortchange Working Class
Latching on to the minimum-wage increases being pushed by Democrats, Kshama Sawant of Socialist Alternative (SAlt), who ran openly as a socialist, made the issue a central focus of her successful election campaign to the Seattle city council last year. Underscoring the actual liberal content of Sawant’s platform, this demand was also taken up in the 2013 campaign of Democrat Ed Murray for mayor of Seattle. Since the passage of the ordinance, Sawant and her cothinkers have hyped it as a “historic moment” and the outcome of a “real fighting voice in City Hall.” The lesson, according to SAlt, is that reforms are “winnable” through electoral campaigns; so long as you don’t sound too radical, you will get something concrete.
In fact, the Seattle ordinance came with a number of escape hatches. Crafted carefully, it contains such a conciliatory phase-in period that $15 won’t actually be reached until between 2017 and 2021 depending on the size of the company. Accounting for the current rate of inflation, the minimum wage will be well below $15 in today’s dollar terms by the end of the phase-ins. The ordinance that passed had been watered down to assuage the concerns of business elites and Democratic Party city council members, resulting in a bill that is even weaker than the one put forward by Mayor Murray’s advisory committee.
When SAlt is not engaging in inane hyperbole it does, at times, admit that the ordinance has more than a few loopholes. Among these are tip and health care credits that allow businesses to pay less for longer, and a lower wage for teenage workers. The wage increase doesn’t begin until April 2015 and from that point involves a two-year phase-in for big companies and up to a six-year phase-in for small companies, defined as any enterprise with fewer than 500 employees!
As a member of the mayor’s handpicked advisory committee, Sawant was the one who recommended the phase-in for small businesses, with the goal of not appearing “extremist” to Seattle’s petty bourgeoisie. During the final vote, Sawant tried to dodge some of the concessions by putting forward a series of amendments. But after all were rejected, she touted the compromise as a “victory.” San Francisco’s mayor, the liberal Democrat Ed Lee, has proposed a $15-an-hour ballot measure that would take effect faster and without the same exceptions—no weak-kneed “socialist” conciliator he.
Reformists of SAlt’s ilk are fond of declaring their intent to drive the liberals and Democrats to the left. In actuality, the only motion these social democrats display in their quest for a “reasonable” compromise with the powers that be is to the right. With SAlt now taking its “15 Now” campaign nationwide, these inveterate reformists undoubtedly went gaga when on Labor Day President Obama stated: “Until we’ve got a Congress that cares about raising working folks’ wages, it’s up to the rest of us to make it happen.”
By SAlt’s lights, the 15 Now campaign is the modern-day version of the great class battles of the 1930s, presented as the “reflection of what workers and the labor movement have won on the streets.” This is to equate a bake sale with a general strike. From the get-go, the whole exercise in Seattle was about legislative wheeling and dealing. The 15 Now coalition was formed in mid January, two months after the elections. Its members then held meetings and rallies to popularize the demand, all carefully calibrated not to rock the boat or embarrass their ally in the mayor’s office. The coalition levied a “threat” to gather signatures for an alternate “stronger” ballot proposal, but dumped even that idea after the weaker measure passed.
In their 30 June article “The Fight Against Inequality Reaches New Heights” (socialistalternative.org), SAlt details 15 Now’s actual strategy: petitions, neighborhood action committees and backing candidates who make a pretense of running independently of the Democrats (which for them has always included those of the small-time capitalist Green Party). What it calls “democratic, visible, grassroots tactics” are, in plainer language, the permissible forms of begging for crumbs from so-called friends of labor in the Democratic Party.
SAlt is peddling the snake oil that such activity will bring the “resurgence of the workers’ movement.” In reality, revitalizing labor will require breaking through the legal constraints of bourgeois rule. SAlt, however, would have workers pulled closer in the orbit of the Democratic Party, which operates to suppress labor struggle through the agency of the union bureaucracy. With Sawant declaring that “the $15 demand marks a decisive challenge to capitalism,” one can only wonder why many bourgeois politicians see no problem in supporting it.
Abolish the Wage System!
Since long ago, the labor tops have essentially renounced the class-struggle methods that actually built the unions, such as picket lines that bring business to a grinding halt and plant occupations. As a consequence of this recipe for defeat, unionized workers have suffered one setback after another while the masses of non-union workers fall into further destitution. The union misleaders devote little energy to organizing the unorganized, and having voluntarily disarmed, they are frequently defeated when they do make an effort.
Today, Mary Kay Henry, president of the SEIU service workers union, expresses support to fast-food workers who want to unionize, without committing the SEIU to doing so. On the ground, the SEIU has pursued “alternate” strategies like boycotts and community advocacy peppered with mini-rallies and civil disobedience by the workers, which no doubt have drawn attention to their plight. But these workers have no defense against possible employer repercussions. And what the labor bureaucrats do not say is that it will take shutting down the outlets through strike action to secure real gains.
In line with their legalistic pursuits, the sights of the SEIU tops are entirely set on the National Labor Relations Board issuing a favorable ruling against McDonald’s, which ought to be considered a joint employer rather than an anthill of thousands of franchises. Whatever the ruling, Henry & Co. have given no indication that they are going to do anything more to bring these workers into the union.
The organization of the atomized fast-food workforce poses the need to mobilize the power of unionized workers along the supply lines of the fast-food chains, where once-strong union concentrations, such as in trucking and meatpacking, have been eroded by the craven policies of the union bureaucrats. A hard struggle to organize fast-food workers would rapidly fuel a resurgence of union strength in those industries.
The SEIU tops are now using the “$15” rhetoric to leverage the Democratic Party into supporting higher minimum wages as a substitute for waging a fight to extract higher pay from the bosses. In a September 5 interview with Democracy Now!, Henry stated that workers “were incredibly thrilled that the president of the United States is saying that what they’re doing makes complete sense.” After sitting back in the face of the wage-slashing, anti-union onslaughts accompanying the Great Recession, labor misleaders look to the very forces—the president, Congress and state and city legislatures—that were responsible for these attacks on workers, especially unionized teachers.
SAlt criticizes the “business union approach” of the union bureaucrats and begrudgingly admits that in order to organize on a mass scale there would “likely” need to be “mass strike action.” But their conclusion is that the role of strikes today is to simply “back up fights for increased wages on the legislative plane.” In making a fetish of electoral politics, SAlt is at one with the labor statesmen.
Sawant’s actions belie even this failed attempt to sound militant. One of the proposed 15 Now ballot initiatives that she had pushed included an opt-out clause exempting HERE hotel workers from the new minimum wage. The reason: HERE officials wanted the option of negotiating lower wages to preserve health benefits, with one spokesman invoking the union’s supposed “unique relationship with the boss.” A similar exemption for unionized workforces was included in the $15/hour measure passed last November in the nearby suburb of SeaTac, penned by the sellout bureaucrats themselves. These exemptions are an affirmation by the union tops that they will not challenge the wretched compensation they have negotiated in subservience to employer demands.
Reformists like those in SAlt have always claimed that the way forward is to look for “realistic” solutions in the here and now, i.e., liberal panaceas. The 15 Now campaign is no different. But any reform wrested from the capitalists today will be easy pickings tomorrow in the absence of the mobilization of the working class to defend and extend its gains.
The goal of revolutionary Marxists is to link the daily struggles for immediate demands to the need to abolish the entire capitalist system of wage slavery that keeps the masses in a state of perpetual want. We call for jobs for all through shortening the workweek at no loss in pay, for fully indexing wages to inflation and for a massive program of public works to rebuild the country’s crumbling infrastructure. Such demands will not be delivered through liberal pressure politics.
In Value, Price and Profit (1865), Karl Marx makes the point that the working class must fight the encroachments of the capitalist system or be “degraded to one level mass of broken wretches past salvation.” He goes on to emphasize that anything short of the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism would be merely “applying palliatives, not curing the malady.” Workers need to understand that: “Instead of the conservative motto, ‘A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work!’ they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword, ‘Abolition of the wages system!’” It is necessary to forge the revolutionary internationalist proletarian party of socialist revolution, the only force that will carry that banner with conviction.