Workers Vanguard No. 1067
1 May 2015
Capitalism Means Wage Slavery
For Class Struggle Against Poverty Wages!
Break with the Democrats! For a Workers Party!
While profits are booming for the rapacious U.S. capitalists, wide swaths of the working population struggle daily to survive. More than 40 percent of wage-earners make less than $15 an hour. One-quarter of the workforce depends on some form of public assistance, which itself has been slashed to the bone. One out of every five households with children is unable to put enough food on the table. The exorbitant cost of health care means that an accident or illness can plunge a family into crippling debt. People working two and three jobs to get by still cannot afford the spike in rents, driving many families into homelessness.
On April 15, rallies calling for a higher minimum wage took place across the country as part of the Service Employees International Union’s (SEIU) Fight for 15 campaign. The protests had wide appeal, drawing in non-union employees from fast-food chains and other service sectors as well as unionized UPS, airport, hospital and hotel workers, many of whom also get rock-bottom wages. However, the SEIU tops’ Fight for 15 campaign is based on the lie that the way to raise wages is to lobby capitalist Democrats, like those given pride of place at the rallies, and to appeal to the supposed good conscience of the employers. To begin to address the burning needs of working people requires a completely different approach: mobilizing the power of the multiracial working class against the capitalist exploiters.
In the course of the two-year Fight for 15 campaign, the largely female and heavily black and Latino fast-food workers have demonstrated their courage and militancy. Rallying in front of their workplaces and taking to the streets, they have risked their jobs as well as arrest. The struggle of the fast-food workers has the potential to inspire broader layers of the working class to action. Food-service workers, easily replaced and dispersed among hundreds of thousands of establishments, cannot win this battle alone. It is necessary to mobilize food processing, warehouse and transportation workers, who have the potential to shut down the fast-food chains by stopping the delivery of food. The unions must fight to organize the unorganized!
In opposition to such a class-struggle perspective, the existing leadership of the unions promotes the so-called partnership of labor and capital, subordinating the needs of the working class to what is acceptable to the bourgeoisie. By chaining the unions to the class enemy, primarily through support to the Democratic Party, the trade-union bureaucracy has effectively done the dirty work of keeping class peace while yielding to the bosses’ wage-slashing attacks. In the process, they have grievously undermined the strength of the labor movement—over the last four decades, unionization in manufacturing, transportation and construction has been cut in half.
All the while, the trade-union tops have poured hundreds of millions of dollars and countless man-hours into Democratic election campaigns. In contrast to the Republicans, Democrats occasionally strike a pose as “friends of labor,” which can make them more effective in wresting concessions from workers and sticking it to the poor. For example, Bill Clinton rammed through Ronald Reagan’s dream project of “ending welfare as we know it,” forcing people to work for their benefits. That measure also aimed at undercutting the unions. Barack Obama escalated his predecessor’s attacks on public education and the teachers unions. At the April 15 rally in San Francisco, SEIU president Mary Kay Henry gushed over Hillary Clinton’s purported solidarity with the working poor—Clinton’s regard for workers and the poor can be seen in the carnage and destruction unleashed in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and beyond when she was Secretary of State.
In bourgeois quarters, there is some sentiment for slightly raising the minimum wage. With an eye to the 2016 elections, Democrats have come out for miserly increases. The Wall Street Journal has reported that some retail and fast-food employers are raising wages slightly to reduce employee turnover. Liberal commentators and establishment ideologues alike complain that taxpayers are having to subsidize Wal-Mart and McDonald’s workers who are on welfare because their wages are so low. Some more far-sighted elements of the U.S. bourgeoisie also worry that they are sitting on top of a tinder pile of discontent that could be ignited by the spark of social protest.
Even if the minimum hourly wage were increased to $15, an amount higher than what Democrats are generally proposing, it would amount to only $31,000 a year, assuming a 40-hour workweek. And many employers try to avoid hiring full-time workers because they do not want to pay for benefits. Of course, any increase in the minimum wage would be welcome. But what is on offer is still poverty wages.
The drive to pauperize the working class is inherent to the capitalist system of wage slavery. The profits of the capitalist class, which owns industry and the banks, come from the exploitation of labor. On average, the wages that workers receive are equal to the amount necessary to maintain themselves and raise the next generation of toilers. Wages correspond to only a fraction of the value that labor creates during the workday. For example, a worker may produce eight hours’ worth of value but be compensated for only three of them in his wages. The other five hours create “surplus value,” the source of profit for the capitalist.
The capitalist class is constantly driven by competition to ratchet up the rate of exploitation (the ratio of surplus value to wages) by lengthening the workday, reducing wages, speeding up production, etc. By withholding their labor and cutting off the flow of profits, workers have the power to wrest better wages and working conditions from the capitalists. The level of wages at any given time is determined by the balance of forces between the working class and the bourgeoisie.
To emancipate itself, the proletariat must sweep away the system of capitalist production for profit through socialist revolution. In the 1848 Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels observed:
“The bourgeoisie is unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society, and to impose its conditions of existence upon society as an overriding law. It is unfit to rule because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery, because it cannot help letting him sink into such a state, that it has to feed him instead of being fed by him.”
More than 150 years later, the indictment is even more damning of the obscenely wealthy U.S. bourgeoisie, the world’s dominant imperialist power, which has unleashed untold misery on working people and the oppressed around the globe.
For a Fighting Workers Movement!
Even in auto manufacturing, which historically had high-paying union jobs, half of all production workers currently make under $15 an hour. The anti-union assault on auto workers kicked into high gear when the U.S. auto giants ceased to be competitive with their German and Japanese imperialist rivals, who had rebuilt their industrial base in the two decades after World War II. With the aim of keeping U.S. auto manufacturing competitive, the United Auto Workers (UAW) bureaucracy has for many years presided over a sharp decline in wages and working conditions.
The floodgates were opened by the 2009 bailout of the U.S. auto industry that the Obama administration engineered with the complicity of the UAW misleadership. As part of that betrayal, the union tops agreed to the slashing of wages and tens of thousands of jobs, the gutting of the retirement fund and a six-year no-strike pledge.
When the auto bosses expanded production again, adding 350,000 jobs, new-hires were brought in at half the pay of senior workers. Temp agencies have been increasingly used to undermine union protections and divide the workforce, with temporary contract workers toiling side by side with permanent employees for a fraction of the pay and no benefits. Many of these jobs are located in the open shop South, where not only U.S. companies but also German, Japanese and Korean corporations have opened plants to take advantage of low labor costs.
The struggle to unionize the South cannot be conducted on a narrowly economic basis but will have to directly confront the deep racial divide that has crippled past organizing efforts, depressing the living standards of all Southern workers. The importance of this struggle is underscored by the fact that low-wage production in the South has driven down the wages of workers more broadly—the wage and benefit gap between Midwestern and Southern workers narrowed from $7 in 2008 to $3.34 by the end of 2011.
Conditions in auto today are a clear condemnation of the UAW leadership’s class collaboration. In fact, the UAW was built through militant class struggle like the heroic 1936-37 Flint sit-down strike, which defied court injunctions and faced down brutal cop assault. Such tumultuous class battles gave rise to the CIO unions. At Ford’s River Rouge plant, union recognition was won through strike battles in 1941 that were forced to confront the racial prejudice that set white workers against their black class brothers.
The class-struggle methods that built the unions—strikes, mass pickets, plant occupations—are what is needed to secure higher wages, organize the unorganized and otherwise reverse the one-sided class war that the American bourgeoisie has been waging. The starting point must be the understanding that there is no common interest between workers and their capitalist exploiters. In the crucible of the struggles to revitalize the labor movement, a new, fighting leadership of the unions must be forged.
This task goes hand in hand with the fight to build a revolutionary internationalist workers party, a section of a reforged Fourth International—world party of socialist revolution. Such a party is needed to arm the workers with the political understanding of their capacity to liberate the working class and all the oppressed from the chains of capitalist bondage. A revolutionary workers party would champion full citizenship rights for immigrants and take up the fight against black oppression, the cornerstone of American capitalism, linking labor’s cause to the struggles of all those ground down by capitalist rule.
In order to unite unionized and unorganized workers with the unemployed, a workers party would demand jobs for all and a shorter workweek with no loss in pay! Rising food and rent costs are eating away at pay—the workers need a sliding scale of wages to keep up with the cost of living. Quality medical care, including access to abortion and contraception, must be provided for all, free at the point of service, so that health care is not dependent on employment. These demands are not contingent on the bourgeoisie’s ability to provide them—they flow from the needs of working people. As revolutionary Marxist leader Leon Trotsky wrote in the Transitional Program (1938), such demands provide a bridge starting from “today’s conditions and from today’s consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat.”
Reformism vs. Revolution
The reformists of Socialist Alternative (SAlt) have become the poster boys of the left in the fight for raising the minimum wage. In imitation of the SEIU’s Fight for 15 campaign, SAlt launched its own initiative for a $15 minimum wage, based not on class struggle but on getting state legislatures, city councils and mayors to mandate a higher wage. Rather than viewing the unions as potential organs to wage class struggle, SAlt presents them as lobbyists. In an article building for the April 15 protests, SAlt’s Ty Moore complains that “while many union leaders will demand McDonald’s and other employers pay $15, few put this same demand on city, state, and federal politicians” (15Now.org, 28 March).
SAlt’s claim to fame is its spokesman Kshama Sawant’s election to the Seattle city council in 2013, following a campaign focused on the $15 minimum wage. Sawant and her co-thinkers have hyped the subsequent passage of a Seattle minimum wage ordinance as a “historic moment.” Beginning this month, big companies will have two years to phase in the $15 minimum wage and small companies—defined as having fewer than 500 employees—will have six years. SAlt’s perspective of relying on capitalist politicians to raise wages reflects its reformist view that “socialism” can be achieved through legislative reform of the capitalist system. SAlt’s ultimate demand is to take into public ownership the largest corporations and run them under democratic control. Thus its newspaper’s “What We Stand For” column does not even mention the word revolution.
It will take a workers revolution to wrest control of the productive capacity of society from the capitalist exploiters. The capitalist state, a machine for the repression of working people and the oppressed, will be swept away and a workers state set up in its place. Socialism, a society of material abundance, cannot be achieved short of workers revolutions on an international scale that will allow the tremendous expansion of the productive forces of society, creating conditions for the disappearance of all social inequalities.