The bosses and the state are determined to make the working class pay for the economic crisis. Despite their nervous outcries claiming that workers are not re-entering the labour market and forcing their hand into giving “unheard-of” wage rates, the reality is that real wages across the board have declined in the face of rising prices.
In the United States, the real average wage decreased by 0.5% from pre-pandemic levels (in actuality, the decrease is even higher since the Fed does not factor in gas and heating prices in inflation), while in Canada it is expected that they will decrease by 1.6%. This phenomenon is not new. In reality, real wages have been stagnant since the mid 1970s despite a massive intensification in general working conditions. Furthermore, the bosses are forcing the working class into dangerous work conditions amidst the pandemic and have sought to increase the tempo of work in order to maintain their profits. This assault has put the working class on the defensive as can be noted by an uptick in strikes and a rise in general combativity.
The squeeze the bosses put on workers is exemplified by the Frito Lay’s workers of Topeka, Kansas. Forced to work overtime – twelve hours, seven days a week – in grueling conditions and with stagnant wages, the workers of the Topeka plant found themselves dominated by their employers to the extent that “they didn’t even have time to mow their lawns or do their laundry because they were always at work.” Meanwhile, the Frito-Lay workers were forced to continue production after multiple deaths at the assembly line, and during an ice storm were given only kerosene lamps to warm themselves while on the job. In response, they launched a 20-day strike action in July, supported by other workers inside the local community. Although they won some concessions, the contract the union drew up comes with multiple caveats. For example, though they now have a six-day workweek, the Frito-Lay workers can be forced to work a seventh if they refuse overtime for any day during the week. North of the border in Alberta, in the early days of the pandemic, the Cargill meat packing workers found themselves at the mercy of the virus due to decades of deteriorating health and safety standards. With workers being squeezed more and more into tighter spaces, the plant was ripe to become the largest outbreak of the virus at the time. A year later, the Cargill bosses recognized this suffering by locking out the workers in the middle of contract negotiations. While these examples are particularly egregious, they signify a “new normality” for large sections of our class.
The tier system has long been a method by the bosses to ensure profitability by depressing wages and dividing the workers they claim to represent. It has long been a system facilitated by the unions to the peril of the working class. For example, in 2019, General Motors tactically shuttered their plant in Oshawa, Ontario for a year in order to introduce an even more precarious tier encapsulating 90% of the workforce, slashing wages and benefits for the purpose of maintaining profitability. The union, trapped in its sectoral outlook and tied to the viability of the company to ensure profits, accepted a measly deal protecting only a small section of the workforce.
Throughout this generalized assault on the working class, the state has stood at the ready on behalf of the bosses. Prior to the pandemic, the bosses’ elected representatives ‘mediated’ the struggle between the classes brought on by the intensification of capitalist exploitation through the forces of public service and justice. In Canada in 2018, Trudeau declared the illegality for postal workers to strike against an increase of workplace injuries brought on by a rise of parcel packages. Across the Atlantic in the same year, Spanish police brutalized striking Amazon workers boxing those very same packages.
For capital during the convulsions of the current economic crisis, any further interruption in production or circulation cannot be tolerated. The Montreal port workers’ strike pushed this anxiety to the limit. Under the condition of extreme working hours, up to nineteen days in a row, the port workers began to push for a strike in 2020, however the CUPE union, in the interest of class peace, agreed to halt all strike actions for seven months. This gave the bosses’ state enough time to prepare their next move, drawing up legislation that would make a future strike illegal and temporarily preparing distribution networks to take on extra pressure. Such actions reflect the importance of the port for capital as a whole, especially in this time of crisis. If capital appears as an immense collection of commodities, then ports and other distribution infrastructure are the arteries of its flow. It is clear from its actions that the state will resort to any viciousness to ensure the lifeblood of capital to flow.
In the midst of a greater militancy of the working class, the unions’ role has been to contain and dampen working class initiative. The exemplar of this was the struggle of daycare workers across Quebec, which was divided and disrupted by the union apparatuses. Although the daycare workers faced the same worsening conditions at the workplace, the same rising prices at the grocery store, and ballooning rents, the three major unions- the CSN, CSQ, and FTQ- coordinated strike activity independently of each other. Even though the daycare (CPE) workers striked on the same week, they did so on different days, thereby sapping the workers' class strength. Furthermore, the tactics taken by the unions have themselves been isolating, demoralizing, financially draining and self defeating. Desperate to go to the negotiating table to be told “no” again the unions pursued delaying tactics. Even though the strike mandate was voted in August the unions took their time to take action lest they appear confrontational. The CSN was uninterested in any appearance of militant action while the FTQ divided the workers on a shop to shop basis. These tactics have been the unions' go to for decades and rips the mask of claimed “necessity” from the unions.
The solution to the union suffocation must be workers’ self-organization. We can see this stepping stone germinating with the daycare workers of the FTQ. In conversation with those workers, we found that they recognized in our leaflet, “The Generalized Crisis Requires a Generalized Struggle,” the limitation of their own union’s action and the need to go beyond it. This was demonstrated when they communicated with each other to go to the CSN’s demonstration of their own initiative. Furthermore, at the CSQ picket in front of the Ministere de la Famille, the FTQ workers broke with the constraints placed by the CSQ and led the other workers into the streets. The spontaneous actions taken by the workers themselves must be solidified in their self-organization through the formation of real, working class structures such as strike committees. Through such committees, workers’ initiative can open up the possibility for active creativity and the generalization of the struggle on their independent terrain.
The importance of workers’ self-organization and self-activity can be seen in the struggles of the Iranian workers today, who now stand as the beating heart of the international working class.
In contrast to the union domination, lessons can be taken from the oil workers of Iran. Despite open and brutal repression by the Iranian state and its lackeys in organized labour, the Islamic Shuras, the workers created their own Organizing Council and held mass assemblies as their real bodies of class power. Through this Organizing Council, itself a product of workers’ solidarity and struggle, wide layers of the working class found common initiative against sectoral division. Not only are such bodies real products of the working class itself: their organizational structure is in sync with the class nature of the working class. Their self-organization along the principles of wide decision-making and active-initiative is in contrast to “representatives” who take their “mandate” and make the decisions. The experience of the Iran workers reveals that the independent self-organization of workers is the lifeblood of the class and that the struggle itself is the school of socialism.
With the global crisis in capitalism seeking to attack the conditions of workers on all continents, the need for a world communist party is apparent. Such an organ is indispensable if we as a class are to unify on an international basis against this international crisis of capital and for the revolutionary transformation of society. For us, this party is not a government in waiting, rather it is an organ capable of connecting the struggles of the past and today to the logical conclusion of the class struggle- abolition of wage-labour and a society organized around social need rather than profit and exploitation. This party cannot be merely an intellectual group, or even a collection of propaganda cells, rather it must have an active life inside the class and seek to be on the front lines of its battles.
The above article is taken from the current edition of Mutiny, bulletin of Klasbatalo.