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This May Day, the Stage Is Set for Class Struggle

This May Day, we reflect on the state of the U.S. labor movement and some of the demands we must fight for in the next period.

Left Voice

May 1, 2023
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People in New York march on May Day 2022 holding a banner that reads "No contract no peace."
Photo: Luigi Morris

This May Day, hundreds of thousands of people are in the streets of France in a show of force after months of protest against President Macron’s pension reforms. This protest movement has raided the stock exchange, blocked railroads, and physically stopped the police from requisitioning workers and forcing them back on the job. 

While the movement in France has slowed, primarily as a result of the passivity of the union bureaucracy, the creative rage of the working class that continues to shake France should send chills down the spine of the capitalist class around the world. And it serves as an example to the workers and oppressed people around the world who are similarly feeling the effects of a system in crisis. 

The workers taking to the streets in France remind us that May Day has a combative legacy rooted in the struggles of working people against a system that exploits us. In the United States, we must reclaim that legacy as the capitalists prepare to make the working class and oppressed pay for the crises they create.

France is just the start for the working class. 

A System in Crisis 

It’s increasingly clear that the capitalist system and the neoliberal world order are in crisis. For workers, this crisis is felt perhaps most acutely in the inflation that devalues our wages every day, all while corporations make steady profits off our labor. 

The reactionary proxy war in Ukraine and increased tensions with China highlight the decline in U.S. imperialist hegemony and the possibilities of more explosive situations between world powers. The United States continues to increase its military budget, lining the pockets of the defense industry while claiming that there isn’t any money for healthcare, education, and quality public transit.

The war in Ukraine is about advancing the interests of the ruling class in a context of increasing tensions between world powers. This conflict is not in the interests of the working class — not those in the United States, nor in Ukraine, nor in Russia. 

We are in a time of great economic and geopolitical instability — which creates, as Kim Moody put it, an accumulation of flammable materials on the world stage. That is why France is on fire. In the United States, the tendency is towards the working class awakening from a long slumber, despite relatively low levels of class struggle today. Even in the United States, the pieces are in place for explosions of activity. 

Awakening from Slumber

It’s no secret that the labor movement has been on the decline for decades. Neoliberalism was a series of attacks on workers’ rights — lowering wages, attacking unions, and, worse still, creating an ideological onslaught that convinced people that capitalism was the greatest system on earth and that unions were their enemy. 

The neoliberal onslaught against workers was helped along by union leaderships themselves, which put labor peace above fighting for the interests of the workers. They were machines for manufacturing passivity in the face of the attacks by the bosses. They also became appendages of the Democratic Party, mobilizing workers to vote for the likes of neoliberals like the Clintons and Barack Obama. Business unionism from the top down was the norm. Companies like UPS imposed measures that fundamentally changed the way work looked across the world, including creating a two-tier system to undermine the historic conquests of the working class. Alongside other companies like Amazon, these corporations created an army of low-wage, part-time workers who work multiple jobs just to make ends meet.

But times have changed. Neoliberalism is in crisis and the hegemony of anti-union, and pro-capitalist ideologies are also in crisis. Workers are rejecting the anti-union and anti-worker lies that characterized neoliberalism and the working class is in the process of waking up from a long slumber to defend themselves against the attacks of a ruling class trying desperately to find a way out of these crises. 

Generation U

In the past few years we have seen important strike actions, from the 2018-2019 teachers strike wave, to Striketober in 2021. Now, a new political generation — “Generation U” for union — is changing the terrain for class struggle in the United States. 

This is a generation that has lived through not one, but two “once in a lifetime” recessions and knows that capitalism is a system full of crises with nothing to offer the working class. Many of these young people identify with socialism, and some have drawn the conclusion that joining an organization is the best way to fight back against the monstrosities this system creates. 

Generation U experienced Black Lives Matter in 2020 and the Women’s movement of 2017 and 2018. From these experiences, this generation is beginning to see that the way to fight not just against exploitation by the bosses, but the oppression engendered by this system, is through the methods of the working class, including using our unions as weapons.

This new labor phenomenon holds immense possibility for the labor movement and its potential to unite with social movements to build an unstoppable struggle in the streets and in our workplaces. This new labor movement could not only use our strongest weapon, the strike, to win higher wages, but also to make sure not one penny goes to the police or military, and for reproductive rights and trans rights. Generation U holds immense potential in future explosions of class struggle. 

But we will have to be prepared to use our labor power. Because the attacks will keep coming along many different fronts.

As the Far Right advances in attacks against reproductive rights, trans rights, and teaching history in schools, we will need a strong and united labor movement to respond — a labor movement that refuses to enforce “don’t say gay” laws, and is ready and willing to fight and even break the law against these attacks. 

Class Struggle Unions 

Yet, the new labor movement is still weak. The new unions that have emerged have not yet been able to win a contract, most notably from Starbucks or Amazon. In many cases, the bosses won’t even sit down with workers. This isn’t just a problem for new unions. Often, the bosses won’t even sit down to negotiate until a contract has expired. In New York City, teachers have been working without a contract for almost a year. In the meantime, wages and benefits don’t keep up with inflation. 

We need class struggle unions that are ready to stop working if the bosses refuse to negotiate. That might mean breaking no-strike clauses like the Taylor Law in New York City that bars all public sector workers from striking. We should fight to break all no-strike clauses and to impose strong contracts in every workplace. That includes real raises that not only keep up with inflation but raise our wages beyond the rate of inflation. We need class struggle unions that reject the divisions among the working class, understanding that we are stronger together. This means fighting against the two-tier system, and to fight together for the whole workplace, especially the demands of the lowest waged workers. 

An Impending UPS Strike

Perhaps the most exciting thing about the U.S. labor movement is the possibility of a strike at UPS, with workers challenging the two-tier system, as well as the system of ultra-precarious part-time labor. The firepower of this company is almost unparalleled: UPS moves 6 percent of the U.S. GDP, and 40 percent of their packages are business parcels. There are nearly 350,000 UPS workers, which would mean that if they strike, it would be one of the biggest strikes in U.S. history, one which could disrupt the daily grind of capitalist profit-making. 

And there is so much to fight for at UPS: against the two-tier system for drivers, for a $25 minimum wage for part-time warehouse workers who currently make just $15.50 in New York City, for air conditioning and heat in warehouses and cars, for days off on Juneteenth and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. To win this, UPS workers must be ready to strike, uniting drivers and warehouse workers in a single, strong struggle to demand a strong contract from the company. 

An Independent Labor Movement, An Independent Party 

These auspicious phenomena are not without their contradictions. The labor movement in the United States has experienced a major defeat in the last few months: the Biden administration’s decision to break the railway strike, with the support from “progressive” Democrats in the Squad, was a massive blow to the labor movement. The intervention by the so-called “most pro-labor president” of our time to impose a contract and deny sick days to railway workers shows exactly what side he is on: the side of the bosses, not the workers.

This experience showed clearly that workers need to advance their interests independently of the capitalist class that exploits them. We can only get concessions if we commit to fighting, in the full realization that the bosses and their representatives in the government won’t give up anything for free. 

This is the legacy of May Day that we must retake, against the defeats of neoliberalism. In that sense, the working class and oppressed need our own political representation in order to organize for the fights ahead. It is a question of life or death for this new labor movement to understand and organize against all of our enemies: the bosses, as well as the bosses’ parties. This new labor movement needs our own party, our own political representation: a working class party that fights for socialism. 

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