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USA: reviving working class traditions
Like in Britain, working people in the US are fed up. Told recovery is on the way, the reality is that over 90% of new wealth since the economic crisis has gone to America's richest 1%. The almost 100,000 votes that elected Socialist Alternative member Kshama Sawant onto the Seattle city council last November signified the mood for struggle that is developing. Peter Taaffe, Socialist Party general secretary, visited the US and attended a 15Now campaign conference on 26 April. The event gathered working class fighters and young people together and set out the steps to win $15 an hour minimum wage in Seattle. Peter also sets out the context for this historic event.
Fighting for $15 an hour and for socialism
15Now hosted what can only be described as a marathon of a conference which ran from 11am to nine at night. Exhausting yes, but the event was absolutely fantastic. There were over 500 there, mostly from Seattle but also from all around the country - Boston, New York, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Mobile, Alabama, Florida, Oakland, Chicago, and other areas, including Vancouver in Canada.
There was also a big and impressive mixture of serious trade union cadres, energetic youth, Latino and Afro-American workers. The overwhelming impression was one of huge enthusiasm and huge optimism, made audible in the whooping and hollering, traditions of the American workers. This was combined with very serious discussions of a strategic and tactical nature on how to continue the struggle against vicious manoeuvring Seattle capitalists, who are working to water down the claim for $15 an hour.
Into the detail
It got quite detailed. Kshama Sawant explained the latest developments. Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, whose election campaign was concurrent to Kshama's successful race, came out for $15 an hour before the election. His first act as mayor was to establish an Income Inequality Advisory Committee. Kshama sits on the committee, along with trade union reps - but so too do representatives of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce.
In the week before the conference the committee secretly discussed a proposal which watered down the demand for a $15 an hour minimum wage, including that employers could take so-called 'tip penalties' into account. That is, if a waiter gets tips, these can be counted towards the $15! One woman in the commission on this issue in the afternoon reported that as a waitress she got a zero pay check. In theory the boss should make up the money if the pay falls short!
Also the bosses want healthcare plans that employers sometimes offer to be traded off for $15. Outrageously they propose that $15 is 'phased in' over three to four years for big business and over five to seven years for what they term 'small' business. Even worse they 'offer' no cost-of-living increase until the $15 level was reached.
The 15Now campaign is fighting for $15 an hour for all in 2014. It argues that increased taxes on big business be used to subsidise any smaller employers who genuinely cannot afford to pay. But 15Now has debated and democratically agreed to offer some small temporary concessions. The campaign demands that big business pays $15 this year to all and those businesses with fewer than 250 workers and some non-profit service providers have a phase in over three years. But all workers, irrespective of workplace size, will get an immediate increase. They oppose any postponement of cost-of-living increases and all exemptions, such as teenage rates and tip credits.
The debate became quite involved - some in the conference did not want to make any concessions at all to small businesses, and also some hotel workers who had an acceptable healthcare plan, did not want to lose this in the trade off. There were some small abstract groups who opposed any concessions at all, and moved picky amendments. However these were answered, in particular by Kshama and a leading member of Socialist Alternative, Phillip Locker. In the vote the strategy was passed overwhelmingly, at least two to one.
Kshama Sawant, Socialist Seattle councillor, hands out placards at protest for $15 an hour, photo Socialist Alternative (Click to enlarge)
Kshama also explained that 15Now has a multi-pronged approach to the struggle, pushing for the City Council committee to adopt a strong $15 position, but given the participation in the committee of those who funded the campaign against the successful ballot in nearby town SeaTac, they understand that they cannot put all their eggs in that basket. The key to success is building grass roots support and the campaign is expanding its local support groups in the city.
Now, in order to start to achieve the $15 minimum, the campaign has begun collecting thousands of signatures to be able to have a vote in next November's elections on a city $15 law it has drafted. Kshama asked everyone to ensure that each day they aim to speak to new people about the campaign, getting them to sign in support of the campaign's $15 law and ask others to do the same.
In the evening rally she also made a stark announcement. Winning $15 an hour is not the end. The job is not done. The movement must go further. She explained that winning $15 would only be the start of the necessary task of rebuilding the mass movements of the American working class. The cheering she received showed that these words are welcome among the exploited masses in the 'belly of the beast'.
In the course of the discussion Linda Taaffe was able to bring greetings from the National Shop Stewards Network in Britain (NSSN). She pointed out how we had managed to help get the unions to start to move on the issue of a general strike, and drew parallels with the possibility of 15Now doing the same in the American unions - despite the conservative offialdom that exists. This was enthusiastically received.
In the evening rally, which drew all the threads together, a number of prominent speakers enthusiastically welcomed the 15Now campaign and pledged support. Seattle journalist and blogger David Goldstein, sacked partly for his firm support for 15Now, advised the campaign to tell its story boldly.
On behalf of Occupy Wall Street Mary Clinton said she was "super-honoured" to be there. She explained that Occupy had been a "rupture", no one had expected it to achieve what it had achieved. The enthusiasm of young workers had pushed the leadership of the AFL-CIO to back Occupy.
Paula Lukaszek, a leading member of the Washington Federation of State Employees, spoke about the scandal of government workers on food stamps and earning less than "eleven bucks". Her small Local had donated $20,000 to the campaign. Carlos Hernandez, the leader of the Seattle fast food workers strike and movement, also brought greetings and the energy of the fightback.
"You are truly seizing the time and we salute you", said Glen Ford from Black Agenda Report. He had travelled from New York, where he said the reverberations of the movement could be felt. He quoted from the Socialist Alternative paper, saying that the starting point for socialists is the living conditions of working people and the power they possess in society.
This was the theme that Socialist Party general secretary Peter Taaffe, visiting from Britain, developed. "We are all about empowering working people - giving them confidence in their own strength." When he announced 561 candidates for the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) there was an enormous response, as also when he mentioned the Workers And Socialist Party (WASP) in South Africa. Defeating Thatcher twice, in Liverpool city council and in the poll tax battle also showed the might of the working class.
He spoke on the electrifying effects of Kshama's victory in the US and throughout the world. In the "citadel of world capitalism and world imperialism" a socialist had won with almost 100,000 votes. But, Peter said, the conference is also "historic". The momentum behind 15Now is a challenge to the whole capitalist system. A "blizzard of facts" prove that it isn't that the super-rich 1% can't afford to pay a living wage - they will relentlessly resist any challenge to their system. But we will also be relentless. As Peter said: "this is a system that is sick until death and needs to be replaced. That's why we're socialists." His contribution was met with a standing ovation.
This was a great day for all those who participated, and could represent a turning point in the struggles of the US working class with the 15Now campaign spreading like a prairie fire to other parts of the US and beyond.
May Day from USA
"The day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you are throttling today".
These were the last words cried out by August Spies, a labour activist, as he went to the gallows. His words, which had a dramatic effect on us, are inscribed on the monument of the 1886 Haymarket Martyrs in Forest Cemetery in Chicago. In 1867 the eight-hour day had become law, but employers everywhere ignored it.
Conditions, however, were so bad and pay was so low that the fight to get hours reduced without loss in pay caught the imagination, and the Organized Trades and Labor Unions organised a march on 1 May and a few days later a rally in Haymarket Square. A bomb was thrown - it was never discovered by whom - but the rally was attacked by police. Several police and workers died.
Afterwards a massive crackdown was ordered. Martial law was decreed all over the country, and eleven local activists were rounded up, regardless of whether they had been at the rally. They were framed up and four were hanged. The US capitalists could not have imagined the worldwide movement they would ignite in protest against their brutal actions which took up the cause which the martyrs had fought for - the eight-hour day. May Day, 1 May, became international workers' day.
The world working class took up this demand through the Second International in mass demonstrations for the eight-hour day, in which Friedrich Engels, the co-founder with Karl Marx of scientific socialism, participated. We have still not achieved the demand more than 100 years later. The same struggle is now being undertaken by Kshama Sawant and the comrades of Socialist Alternative in the campaign for 15Now. We participated in a tremendous conference over the weekend of 25-27 April.
We have observed at first-hand the indescribable conditions of the poor and the working class in what is still overall the richest country in the world. 46 million people are officially poor and their position is worsening. The New York Times reports that the poverty rate declined from 1960 to 1980, but it soared to nearly 38% in 1990 and is now near to 41%.
The picture of the position of the poor in the rural areas in particular is like a description of the third world. For instance in Tennessee the death rate from drug overdoses - a product of mass unemployment and searing poverty - is more than eight times the national average.
In one area of Tennessee, a former coal-mining area, "Of the 115 babies born in 2011 ... over 40 had been exposed to drugs ... whole families have been wiped out in this county: mother, father, children," said the local sheriff. Another woman added: "When coal was king, there were two movie theatres and a high school and everybody worked."
But it is not just the poor who have been affected by the crisis. Again the New York Times reports: "US middle class no longer world's richest". You have to remember that the capitalists and their press here are unable to even concede that a working class exists and therefore puts working people into the category of "middle class".
However, the dire economic situation forces them to admit that "the idea that the median American has so much more income than the middle class in all other parts of the world, is not true these days... surveys by government agencies suggest that since 2010 pay in Canada has risen faster than pay in the United States and is most likely higher. Pay in several European countries has also risen faster since 2010 than it has in the United States."
Conversely the incomes of the rich are skyrocketing. "Companies in the United States' economy distribute a smaller share of their bounty to the middle class and poor than similar companies elsewhere. Top executives make substantially more money in the United States than in other wealthy countries. The minimum wage is lower. Labour unions are weaker." Union membership in the private sector shamefully stands at 6-7%.
This is a searing condemnation of the ultra-conservative bureaucrats who dominate the trade unions in the US. But a revolt is coming against the scandalous conditions of American workers. There is bitter anger without which Kshama would not have won her spectacular victory in Seattle.
More Seattles are on the way, both in the US and worldwide.
In The Socialist 30 April 2014:
Socialist Party election campaigning
International socialist news and analysis
International workers' day
Socialist Party news and analysis
Socialist Party reports and campaigns
Socialist Party workplace news