Rank and File Forge Ahead, Moderate Leadership and Capitalist Government Pull Them Back
The past months saw some of the most significant labor strikes in recent American history. Across the country, nearly 50,000 UAW workers struck against General Motors, demanding a clearer road to full-time employment for temps, pay improvements, and the restoration of shuttered factories. Just weeks later, over 35,000 teachers and support staff with the Chicago Teacher’s Union and Service Employees International Union Local 73 went on strike to demand better pay for support staff, better support for students (nurses, counsellors, social workers, etc.), and a financial commitment away from police and towards students. The UAW struck for a remarkable and harrowing 40 days, and the CTU and SEIU strike lasted a record 11 days.
The amount of workers who have gone on strike this year rivals the numbers of the golden age of organized labor in the United States in the early-20th century. It is not only the number of workers who march together that gives us inspiration, hope, and an occasion for reflection as working people in the United States, but also the nature of their demands and collective action. Each strike saw varying degrees of success, but there were two major takeaways for working class people, socialist organizers, and unionists: one encouraging, and one challenging.
Part-Time and Full-Time Workers Unite for Larger Demands
Both strikes saw full-time and part-time workers unite and fight for each other, a rare occurrence in the labor struggles of the mid to late-20th century. In an economy that increasingly fractures workers’ lives into multiple part-time trades and jobs, the unity of part-time and full-time labor in both the UAW and CTU strikes should be an example to follow for subsequent strikes.
While Trump and his capitalist allies continue to brag about record-low unemployment, workers understand that this does not mean prosperity for working class people. Instead, it means that people are working for Uber or Lyft in highly exploitative environments, working several demanding part time jobs, delivering for Amazon in inhumane conditions, and others, to pay the rent, support their families, and finance their educations. The UAW and CTU strikes mobilized thousands of workers to reckon this problem, and foster unity between full-time and part-time labor. The “I made it” mentality of full-time workers, and the reluctance of contingent workers to strike given their precarious employment, was in this powerful moments of working class unity, vanquished.
And in both cases, these united forces argued not simply for wage increases, but for fundamental changes in the way their workplace was run. The UAW fought for 40 days to see shuttered factories re-opened, and for a more robust profit-sharing system to proof against skyrocketing corporate salaries. The CTU struck for over a week to secure increased funding so that every school, despite its location and racial composition, would have a nurse, counsellor, and social worker, to decrease class size, and fight against bloating police budgets while schools suffer. Alex Forgue, a physics teacher in the Chicago Public Schools, told the Red Phoenix that he and his colleagues were striking to push City leadership to “invest in putting staff that heal our students (both emotionally and physically) and the staff that educate our students rather than incarcerate them. Our students deserve better. We are telling her that the status quo policies and the austerity of the past are no longer acceptable.”
In both strikes, the goals leaped over the traditional demands of wage increases and better pensions. Organized laborers in 2019, of all types, ranks, and backgrounds, reckon that their problems have a systemic root. To succeed and win its demands, teachers in Chicago knew that they would have to unite with movements against police violence, racism, and oppression, leading ultimately to the CTU sponsoring and hosting the Conference to Refound the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression in November of 2019. Thus, both strikes laid out the path forward: unity between all kinds of workers, towards more general aims against austerity, racism, sexism, anti-LGBTQ+ bigotry, and all forms of separatism and oppression.
Moderate Leaders and “Budget Realities”
Martin Tutwiler, a 42 year old UAW worker, said after the strike “that it lasted 40 days, and cost GM an estimated $2 billion dollars, shows how hard a fight it was,” concluding ultimately, though, that “that there was some doubt whether it would be ratified, that it wasn’t ratified in every factory, indicates that the issues raised have not been fully settled.” The end of the UAW strike saw mixed feelings and reactions across the diverse body of UAW workers, with many feeling that leadership had compromised too much. The shuttered factories were not re-opened, and the part-time to full-time path was only marginally improved.
Facing real financial difficulty after 40 days off the job, the conflict over the leadership-endorsed contract underlines both the militancy that had developed, and the simple fact that the proposal would likely have been rejected in the previous weeks when rent and grocery payments did not cast as profound a shadow. Thus, as was seen in the #CountMeIn labor movement in New York City, a rift between leadership and members has developed within the UAW. Like most progressive people in the US, organized labor has now grown more militant than extant political institutions. In Chicago, too, while the new contract was hailed as “the most progressive” contract in CTU’s history, and it won key staff additions, aid for homeless students, and pay increases, it failed to achieve all of the striker’s aims due to “budget realities” in the city of Chicago, in part due to the city’s enormous police budget.
Thus while these strikes showed us the way forward as organized workers in the United States, they also underlined the real obstacles the union movement will face as it moves forward. Even as part-time and full-time workers unite to demand institutional change, those institutions will resist us bitterly, and test our resolve in prolonged strikes. So long as the capitalist class wields the purse strings and state power, the union movement will face an uphill battle. But the growth of that union movement and its increasingly radical demands, underlines the way to remove that obstacle.
The Task of Communists
Both strikes are an occasion for self-reflection and criticism from the Communist left in the United States. In the UAW strike particularly, Communists were slow to respond and support the strike in meaningful ways. This is in part due to the general skepticism amongst Communists regarding the potential of unionism in the US given the long history of the Democratic Party’s co-opting of the labor movement, and also due to the particularly moderate UAW leadership.
But the failure and lack of action of moderates and democrats should not push the communist left away, but rather attract it. Where moderates tell a worker that the raise is generous, a Communist must organize and keep the fight alive for greater changes that will bring about real workplace democracy. Where concessions are praised as great victories, a communist must record and amplify the voices that say no.
And not only should Communists be willing to enter these spaces, they must be relevant in those spaces. They must provide financial support for striking workers, bring food, items, and solidarity of all kinds to the picket line. They must circulate papers that resonate with working class people and their concerns, and actively include and be a platform for their voices.
The growing rift between leadership and members should be for communists a wake-up call. The historic role of the Communist movement has been as a leader of the working class rights movement, doing things no other political forces can, or will do. Fascists will and are attempting to make inroads in the labor movement—it falls to us to seize on the history of radical American unionism, and the great courage and initiative of striking workers across the country today, in reforging a diverse, active, militant, and powerful labor movement to openly confront growing fascist bigotry.