Monday, November 03, 2008

Workers in struggle: the other America

As the US presidential election reaches its final stage, Martin Smith looks at trade unions, Barack Obama and workers’ struggle

The enormous enthusiasm that surrounds Barack Obama’s presidential election campaign is an expression of the desire of millions to see change.

Only the most cynical person could fail to be inspired by the massive turnouts at his rallies and the idea that 40 years on from the civil rights movement the US could elect its first black president.

Underlying this surge in support for the Democrats are fundamental changes taking place in that section of the US rarely talked about – the working class.

The main US trade unions have thrown themselves into the Obama campaign.

The AFL-CIO (the equivalent of the CTU) plans to visit ten million homes, make 70 million telephone calls, distribute 20 million leaflets and 25 million pieces of mail, and send out more than four million email messages in support of Obama.

Workers in the US are angry at low wages, poor working conditions and lack of health provision. This has led to struggles we rarely hear of in Britain.

This anger has been exposed by workers at Boeing – a major aerospace and defence corporation. It is the largest private employer in Washington State and one of the richest corporations in the US.

In 2007 it recorded profits of $4.1 billion and in the first six months of this year it had already made $2.1 billion. And the future looks just as bright – Boeing has $346 billion worth of orders to fill over the next seven years.

But apparently that is not enough, this greedy corporation wants to squeeze even more out of its workforce.

Seven weeks ago over 27,000 machinists working for Boeing walked out on strike against the outsourcing of their jobs, to prevent the imposition of higher costs for healthcare, and improve their pension fund and wages. They are still on the picket lines.

In the opposite corner of the country is the state of Florida. Here agriculture is vital to the economy.

In contrast to the skilled workers of Washington, here unskilled workers pick tomatoes, vegetables and citrus fruits grown for multinational food corporations like McDonalds, Taco Bell and Burger King.

Thousands of mainly Latino, Haitian and Mayan Indian immigrants travel along the east coast of the state following the harvest season. As you can probably guess they are mainly low paid casual workers.

In 1993 a small group of workers set up the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) as a community-based workers’ organisation.

Snapshot

The CIW has organised three strikes of all of its members since 2005. In 2005 it took on Taco Bell and won all its demands to improve wages and working conditions.

In 2007 it won a two-year battle against McDonalds. Not only did the global food giant agree to the same agreement reached by Taco Bell, it also agreed to a third party mechanism for monitoring conditions and investigating abuses of the workforce. Burger King is now in the CIW’s sights.

This is just a snapshot of the struggles taking place right now against some of the most powerful corporations in the US.

This is a hidden history rarely reported by the mainstream media in this country. And it puts paid to the lie that US workers won’t fight and that they all buy into the “American Dream”.

But the resistance of the Boeing workers and CIW trade unionists is only part of the story.

For the rich in the US the last 30 years have been very good. Since 1979 the income for the top 0.01 percent of the US population has quadrupled. But for the working class it has been a different story.

Neoliberalism and years of trade union defeats have undeniably worsened the conditions of the US working class.

The standard of living for the average US worker is in decline. It is not uncommon for workers to hold down two, three or even four jobs to make ends meet.

With the onset of the economic crisis, it is going to get even harder. According to the Economic Policy Unit, between 2001 and 2006 the US economy grew in size from $9.8 trillion to $11.2 trillion – an increase in real terms of 14 percent.

Productivity, the measure of output per worker, grew even more, by 16.6 percent. But over the same period, the median family’s income fell by 2.9 percent.

The New York Times wrote recently, “Income for the median household – the one in the middle of the income distribution – will be lower than it was, amazingly enough, a full decade earlier. That hasn’t happened since the 1930s.

“Already, median pay today is slightly lower than it was in 2000, and by 2010, could end up more than 5 percent lower than its old peak.”

Today a quarter of US workers live on poverty wages and two million will have their homes repossessed this year. The fear of unemployment is beginning to stalk the country.

Unemployment

According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, 9.5 million US workers are unemployed. Unemployment has risen by 2.2 million in the last year and it looks set to rise to 10 percent of the workforce in the short term.

The figures are stark enough, but when you look at the breakdown in more detail you see how racism and class have an impact on unemployment.

The unemployment rate for white males stands at 5.4 percent, yet for black males it is 11.4 percent and for Hispanics 7.8 percent. Unemployment for women stands at 5.4 percent. For young men entering the workforce the situation is dire – the jobless rate for teenagers currently stands at 19.1 percent.

Food stamps are the symbol of poverty in the US. In this era of the economic crisis, a record 28 million Americans are now relying on them to survive.

The US Department of Agriculture says the cost of feeding a low-income family of four has risen 6 percent in the last 12 months.

The increase in the amount of food stamps given to the poor has not gone up by one cent.

But as Gary Younge said in the Guardian newspaper recently, “An Obama victory would symbolise a great deal and change very little.”

Obama’s main proposal to deal with the economic crisis is to offer companies a $3,000 tax break for every new job they create, this year and next.

Other measures he wants to introduce will require financial firms that participate in the Wall Street bailout to abide by a 90-day ban on foreclosures for families “making a good-faith effort” to keep up with payments, and to allow state and city governments get emergency access to cash.

Many in the trade union movement are well aware that the election of Obama will not bring about the kind of policies that millions of US workers need and desire.

Already trade unions are calling on Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress to pass the Employee Free Choice Act – legislation that would make it easier for workers to organise and form a union.

Equality

But something is changing, and Obama’s campaign has reinvigorated ideas of equality and justice for ordinary people.

After eight miserable years of tax cuts for the rich and endless wars brought by George Bush – working people want and need something different.

There are signs that the US trade union movement is going through a small but real revival. According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, union membership rose by 311,000 to 15.7 million in 2007.

As a result, union membership as a share of the total workforce rose last year for the first time since 1983.

Over a third of public sector workers belong to unions but just 7.5 percent of private sector workers are unionised.

Stuart Acuff, the organising director of the AFL-CIO announced, “This represents real growth and has resulted from a variety of union drives, including those that organised 40,000 care workers in Michigan and more than 40,000 in New York.”

Interestingly Las Vegas is seeing a massive growth in trade union recruitment in catering and the hotel industries.

It would be a mistake to exaggerate this modest increase in union membership. Union levels are still lower that at any time since the 1920s.

But despite the devastation of working class communities there is a long tradition of resistance in the US, such as the massive strike waves of 1934-36 and the union insurgency of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Yet these struggles were blunted as the union leaders repeatedly chanelled them into support for the Democrats.

The Democrats are wedded to a system that makes workers fund the lifestyles and profits of the rich.

In more recent times we have seen the inspirational struggle in Seattle in 1999, which spawned the anti-capitalist movement.

In 2005, 34,000 transport workers in New York struck for three days to defend their pensions. Again in 2006 we saw massive demonstrations and “stay aways” in a number of US cities in defence of migrant workers.

The economic crisis that is hitting the US right now is going to bring with it fear, anger and resistance. The potential for rebuilding the unions, creating rank and file organisation, connecting the demands of union and non-union workers, black, white and Hispanic exist.

Support for Obama represents something deeper than the desire for a Democratic president – workers are prepared to fight for fundamental changes in society.

Real change in the US will ultimately depend on the very people who have been so often written out of the history of America – the working class.

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