The ongoing battle for “$15 an hour and a union” has captured the imaginations of millions of low-paid workers in the U.S. service sector, which now employs 19 million people. Millions more are angry at how massively profitable companies – Walmart made $15.7 billion in profit last year – rely on their workers claiming public subsidies to survive.
Energetic, though so far relatively small, strikes and rallies have propelled this movement forward. Black Friday will see a new chapter in this struggle. But how can the fight against low pay succeed?
These actions have been a resounding success in terms of putting these issues in the public spotlight and raising the confidence of an important section of low-wage workers. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has played a key role in building these initiatives in the fast-food industry, and they should be complimented for taking it on.
At the same time, it is clear that the movement so far has not been strong enough to force any real concessions from the corporations. As soon as the pressure is off, the bosses have shown their teeth. In Arkansas, Walmart recently disciplined 70 workers, including 20 firings, for their participation in an extended strike in June. This will send a chilling message that these companies are not interested in playing ball.Other companies will follow Walmart’s example by trying to fire activists who manage to build a base of support in their stores. The disciplinary action provoked 80 workers to walk off the job on October 18, (www.salon.com, 10/18/2013).
Taking the Movement Forward
It is clear that we need to continue and escalate one-day actions, with selected strikes and bold outreach to the wider public.
We also need to dig in and organize workers so that they can respond to corporate retaliations by being able to effectively shut down the stores. Much of this work will need to be underground organizing outside of the eyes of the company, so that strong organizing groups with sufficient support among the workforce can be forged to withstand company retaliation. This applies both to “Our Walmart” launched by UFCW as well as the low-wage organizing campaigns initiated by SEIU. Building links between worker activists in different stores will be essential to building the kind of coordinated actions needed in the coming months and years ahead.
This dynamic unionism demands different kinds of organizing and structures than most labor unions currently use as a model. These unions have long since broken from the movement-based methods of struggle and membership participation that were necessary to win the major battles of the past. Instead, most modern unions have adopted a top-down model, where the members do not participate in the active life of the unions, where business agents – not active worker committees – are the basic organizing force in the workplace. The members are seen as bodies to be brought into action when needed. This does not allow for developing a powerful and conscious membership – and that is key to winning the major struggles that will be necessary to defeat McDonald’s, Target, etc.
Building Fighting, Democratic Unions
We should be under no illusion that these corporations will give any significant concession without workers organizing a significant struggle. Charity doesn’t come into it! Only by stopping the flow of profits – by workers withdrawing their labor through collective action – have companies been forced to grant major concessions, and it is in this way that we will be able to win the major concessions from them that we need. Our present tactics and strategy must be aimed at building that power. The recent teacher strike in Chicago gives a glimpse of the power of workers when mobilized into a vibrant strike.
Only by workers gaining confidence in their own ability to stand up to management through collective action can strong unions be built. That’s why we call for powerful rank-and-file committees to be the core of these new organizing campaigns, and for all important decisions to made by workers themselves.
Only dynamic, membership-driven actions will help workers to gain the necessary experience and confidence to defeat the many obstacles that companies will try to erect to defeat our organizing efforts. Our actions will need to include organizing effective strikes and defending the picket lines, as well as defending our campaigns from the intervention of the courts and the police to support the company. We will need mobilization of the wider working class to defeat the corporations and their servants.
Building Independent Political Movements
Building effective unions is essential. But to succeed this must be linked to building a broader working-class political movement. Occupy Wall Street gave a glimpse of the power of a widespread social movement. The success of the public initiative for a $15-an-hour minimum wage in SeaTac, WA demonstrates how the public will rally around such a demand. This needs to be replicated in other cities. Also important was the success of Kshama Sawant’s independent socialist city council campaign in Seattle. Not only did she win, but by building her campaign around a demand for $15 an hour she spoke to low–paid workers across the city, many of whom got involved in the campaign. Also, her energetic campaign forced the $15-an-hour demand to become part of the political debate in Seattle.
The $15-a-hour demand can inspire and mobilize a wide section of workers, most of whom are customers at fast-food and retail stores. However, to mount a successful campaign we need to break from the present practice of looking to Democrats as our allies. Despite comments by certain liberal Democrats, the Democratic Party as whole does not support a $15-an-hour minimum wage. Look at Obama’s complete inaction on this issue.
There is a real danger that the $15-an-hour demand will start to be downplayed, or even submerged, as labor unions look to embrace corporate Democratic Party candidates in the buildup to the 2014 elections. Every effort needs to be made to defend the $15-an-hour demand and keep the movement from being neutered into a support group for Democratic Party politicians.
The $15-an-hour movement should experience a massive growth in 2014. But this can only be done by organizing mass rallies across the country, keeping the $15-an-hour banner high and organizing dynamic actions and campaigns. The success of the Sea Tac $15-an-hour initiative should be spread to other cities. The success of Ty Moore and Kshama Sawant’s independent electoral challenges in winning public support for the 99% and uniting workers’ struggles must be repeated in cities across the county.
This poses the broader goal of building a new political party of workers and the poor. Such a party will be decisive in coordinating the struggles of low-wage workers and other struggles of the 99% into an unstoppable force to win gains for workers and to expose and defeat the power of the big corporations and capitalism.