USA: May Day, 2017
The irony of May Day in the USA is that this workers’ holiday, celebrated officially in 66 countries in the world and unofficially in most of the rest, had its origins in the United States. Most American workers will blithely go about their business on May Day, 2017, and work their eight hours without a thought to the fact that it was the May Day strike in Chicago for the eight hour day that became the focal point for the movement that actually allowed them to have an eight hour day. The anarchists and socialists who struck, fought and, yes, died, for this most basic and embedded of all of today’s workers’ rights have been all but forgotten in their own country.
There is little reason to think that May Day 2017 will be much different for the vast majority of workers, but there are hints that this apathy and ignorance might finally be ending. Thanks to the anti-everything agenda of Donald Trump and his merry band of right-wing psychopaths, sociopaths, and opportunists, there exists a very real possibility that this year’s May Day could be significantly different from those in the recent past.
The resistance to Trump, up to now, has focused on his bombastic personality and divisive rhetoric against minorities, but his rule by executive order has shown that it isn’t all rhetoric. There are obvious xenophobic, racist, and misogynistic tendencies by his right-wing supporters, not only in his administration and in Congress, but also among some that voted for him. The rise of the so-called Alt-Right, thinly disguised, if disguised at all, fascists and racists, has seen them take powerful positions in the Trump administration and has also led to a rise in grass roots terrorism against minorities throughout the country .Trump and his cabinet of billionaires have been the focal point of the rage, but the Republicans in both the national legislature and in the state houses all across the country are also deserving of scorn for supporting these abominable policies. And Democrats have been as ineffective in resisting him as they were in getting things done when they controlled the levers of power in government.
And finally, attacks on what’s left of the rights of workers are on the agenda in the near future if not already occurring at state level. So why is it that the organized working class has been missing in the struggle up to this point?
Trump and the Working Class
A segment of the working class, including those organized in the unions, have been, if not supportive, at least neutral on the subject of Trump and his economic agenda. They have been ambivalent to the resistance. This should not be surprising. The appeal of economic nationalism goes to the root of right-wing authoritarian populism. Workers have been taken in by divisive rhetoric about “(Insert vilified minority here) taking the jobs of Americans” for decades, if not centuries. Whether it’s immigrants, present or past, women, blacks or any other ethnicity, some American workers have always been easy prey for this type of hateful, simplified, and incorrect analysis of the economic woes foisted on the working class by the agents of capitalism.
But the liberal and neo-liberal view that Trump was elected by an angry working class is also largely incorrect. Angry, white voters played their part in the last election, but to blame the “working class” for Trump leaves out one important point about working class voters. The working class is not made up of just angry, racist, white men. The vast majority of workers come in a rainbow of colors and ethnic backgrounds, genders, and orientations. Even among the white majority voters, those in the lower income strata more often voted for Clinton. And it should not be forgotten that white women went for Trump rather than Hillary, who seemingly based a large part of her campaign around her gender. So, to say that the “working class” elected Trump is disingenuous at best.
No, the working class support that Trump did garner in the last election mostly came from those who were desperate for someone in the political class to listen to and address their concerns about an economy that has become increasingly rigged in favor of the wealthy elite, the owners in the capitalist system. While Trump promised jobs, Clinton promised more of the same, a low paying stagnation. These voters overlooked the racism of the Trump campaign in their desperate cry for help.
Of course, Trump is no more pro-worker than any other billionaire, as his working class supporters are rapidly finding out. The policy differences between Clinton and Trump reflected differences among the ownership class as to whose vision would provide the most profit for which segment of the bourgeoisie. At no time did either candidate think of anything other than the bosses when making policy prescriptions. Trump’s agenda of deregulation and tax cuts to spur job growth are the very same policies that both the Republicans and Democrats have pursued since Ronald Reagan introduced them in 1981. For decades now, they have proven to be worthless for making the life of the working class better.
The “General Strike”
Ever since Trump was inaugurated, there have been calls on social media for a “general strike”. At first it was for late February. Then for International Working Women’s Day on March 8th. Now it’s for May Day. Both of the previous dates have had some actions, including workplace actions. The “Day Without Immigrants” in late February closed some shops and restaurants on the east coast. The “Day Without Women” in March closed some schools, also on the east coast. And there were rallies and demonstrations that coincided with the workplace actions in many cities and towns. But none of these came anywhere near the disruption of a general strike. For the most part, except in certain localities, they didn’t even rise to the level of mass strikes.
Perhaps for an American audience a small refresher course on exactly what a general strike means might be in order. A strike is the working class’s main weapon in class war. We withhold our labor until we get a satisfactory settlement to our grievances. Mostly these are economic actions and limited to a single workplace or sector of the economy over strictly limited economic issues like wages or working conditions but, occasionally, they rise to the level of a militant protest on more general, political grounds. When this occurs across all sections of the economy, in both the public and private sector, we have a general strike. These strikes are militant because they call into question who holds the power in society, the owners or the workers, and they are general because all sectors of the economy are involved. A general strike doesn’t have to be 100% to be effective, but it does have to be widespread. For the duration of the strike, the economic engine of capitalism shuts down because of workers’ power. In a general strike, even if you want to scab, the likelihood is that you can’t because most businesses are shut down, either in sympathy or because there’s not enough people to either work or buy.
There are two ways to look at these recent “general strike” calls in the present class struggle context. First, it is progressive that the idea of a “general strike” is being raised at all. It’s been 80 years or so since the last wave of general strikes in the US and just for the idea to gain widespread circulation must be considered a positive. It’s also progressive that economic actions have actually taken place, even if on a limited scale. For the planned May Day actions, there is also at last some sporadic union involvement. Finally, both of the days of action have had a decidedly socialist bent in tone and leadership. All of these minor progressive steps prove that there is a growing recognition that to really resist Trump’s right-wing agenda, the struggle must spread into the wider economic sphere and that the unions must be involved for it to truly work.
Of course, such actions have not been able to achieve their stated purpose of shutting down commerce in the US, even for a day and, in terms of numbers, they have not reached the level of the massive Inauguration weekend demos. But this must not be allowed to dissipate the energy of the original resistance to the Trump agenda and or to discourage the resistors. That would play directly into the hands of the Democrats who, being just as much supporters of capitalism as the Republicans are, want “resistance” to Trump to be confined to voting for them in the next round of elections. Nothing too radical or disruptive. That way the globalist bosses would profit rather than the economic nationalists represented by Trump. No one among the bourgeoisie, including the Democrats, wants any part of a real general strike, even a one day action. That would be too much of a systemic risk to capitalism, an economic blow to all of the ownership class as well as potentially empowering people over parties, which could be dangerous for the ruling class as a whole.
Identities and May Day, 2017
Up to now and except on the socialist left, the support for a general strike and other actions on May Day have been focused around the plight of oppressed minorities, especially the immigrant Latino community. The main union support is coming from the SEIU on the west coast which is heavily lower-wage and heavily Latino. This union support is tied to resistance to the vicious attacks on immigrants rather than the general economic issues that are plaguing capitalism in the era of Trump. In addition, teachers in the Pacific northwest support a May Day action because of the attacks on public education. Of course, teaching is a sector heavily reliant on another especially oppressed group, namely women workers.
Some might decry this emphasis on “identity” politics over economic policies. We don’t. At this stage the focus is understandable. The main attacks have been on immigrants, with raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents on their communities and, so they need to be resisted first. To use an analogy from any hospital emergency room, an immediately threatening gunshot wound needs to be treated before the systemic cancer. This doesn’t mean that the cancer is ignored, only that the patient needs to be alive for further treatment. To put it bluntly, attacks on minorities are the gunshot wounds while the cancer is capitalism. So we treat the gunshot wound first.
In short, all persecuted and oppressed minorities, as well as all socialist groups, should support and take action on May 1st, 2017 to stop these attacks. An attempt to shut down capitalism for at least a day is a worthwhile endeavor and every effort should be made to involve the unions and make them more active in the struggle. The attacks on all of the persecuted groups are also attacks on workers, whether they are currently organized or not. Most unions now recognize the need to gain community support for their struggles and the best way to foster community support is to support the community. It’s a two way street.
A Workers’ Party
In order to effectively coordinate the resistance to the right-wing agenda now ascendent in government what’s really needed is a workers’ party. We need a party that is unequivocally on the side of the vast majority of the populace and not committed to some sort of “compromise” that keeps the bosses in control and the rest of us chained to the wheels of capitalism. The compromise may bring some temporary respite, but the chains still remain.
For most people today, even the ostensible “socialists” of the reformist left like the Democratic Socialists of America, the Democratic Party takes the place of a “workers’ party”. But even the Democrats have never claimed this mantle for themselves. From their inception, they have been a bourgeois party, on the side of the owners. They won their revolution against the feudalism of the British throne and that’s where they stayed. Yes, during the FDR years of the 1930s, they flirted with left-wing populism and enacted some legislation that gave a few more crumbs to the working class, but the most the Democrats have ever claimed is to be a “party of all classes, workers and owners”. As if such a thing is possible, especially during the most blatant periods of class struggle like we see today. Democrats are capitalists and will always be capitalists. And to capitalists, workers and the oppressed come last in their thoughts and policies. Only the owners really matter.
A workers’ party would encompass the needs of all of the workers and oppressed, without regard to the needs of profit and capital. In addition, it would not only be concerned with elections every couple of years, but would also be actively involved in mobilizing the working class in their workplaces and communities on a day to day basis. It would lead and organize resistance to any attacks on the human rights of, not only workers, but all of the oppressed. Perhaps most importantly, any workers’ party worthy of the name would lead a resistance that didn’t limit itself to the legislative halls and courts, but also involved the streets, shops, and workplaces of the capitalist system itself.
On May Day, 2017, we call on all members of the working class, working and non-working, organized and unorganized, to bring this about as quickly as possible. The journey begins with everybody asking “Why not?” and demanding that we have, at least, the same representation in the system that a billionaire owner does. We won’t get that without a party of our own.
A realistic reading of class struggle conditions and working class consciousness leads to the inevitable conclusion that a true general strike in the USA on May Day, 2017 is not on the cards. Union involvement is too little and too sporadic to be effective and the issues that are being fought over at this stage are too localized, marginalized, and atomized to gain a mass character. So far, only aspects of the capitalist system are being questioned and not the entirety of the system itself. Internationally, it will probably be a different story. All of Latin America, especially Brazil and Argentina, are likely toy see significant actions. Possibly Pakistan and India will be involved in mass working class action. Parts of Europe and the UK could also see actions of a mass character, but in the US we’re not there yet.
That does not mean that things are entirely bleak. In fact, we could see a May Day strike as big as the 2005 “Day Without Immigrants”, possibly even bigger. May Day should be a day of united action by all groups who are facing the spearpoint of Trump and the right wing’s oppressive agenda. And, of course, wherever possible, workers should take part, whether in strike action, in demonstrations and rallies, or a boycott of purchases.
One real possibility is shutting down the west coast ports, if not directly by strike action, then by causing“safety” violations that can stop work while they are cleared. The ILWU is one of the more militant and class struggle oriented unions in the US today and its membership should be sympathetic to this action. If we can get masses of people to demonstrate at the docks where Pacific trade ships are unloaded, then those demonstrations could be enough to cause, at least temporary, stoppages – and disrupting Pacific trade will cause damage to at least one sector of the owners.
Regardless of the success or failure of particular May Day actions, no one should be discouraged. Resistance is not a one day event, no matter how historically significant the day. This will be a building process in a dialectical response to continuing attacks by the owners on the rest of us. We all need to work towards a summer of discontent and opposition until the critical mass of resistance is reached and a real general strike becomes feasible.
Today, capitalism is being questioned by almost half of all Americans. Tomorrow, it will be challenged by a majority. And soon after that, it will fall under the weight of its own contradictions or with a push from the working class. In times of continuous crisis, a rush to war will be the next step by the owners to keep their wealth and power. As Rosa Luxemburg said a century ago, the choice is socialism or barbarism. Today, the prospects are even more dire than in Red Rosa’s time. Today, the choice is socialism or extinction.