Recent Class Struggles in the USA
(transcription of the talk given
in the city of Brno/Czech Republic on 2.
What I would like to do here today, is to present two parts of an analysis
of class struggle in the United States. The first part will be more historical
and the second part will be about the developments of the last twenty years
or so. And the reason that the historical parts is very important, is because
of the centrality of the race question in the formation of the American working
One of the things that always seems to strike Europeans, when they look at
the United States, is that it is a very strange country. And it is strange
above all in the fact that it never had a mass workers party, even though
it had a mass workers movement. The history of the American workers movement
from the 1870s to the 1940s was the most violent history of the workers movements
of any major Western country. So I would like to start out explaining, why
in such a violent history no working class party like a socialist or communist
party ever really developed in America. So I am going to touch very briefly
on some historical points going from the 17th century to the end of the World
Probably the two most important events in the early history of the United
States took place in the year 1676. This was, of course, at a time when the
United States did not exist, but there was a series of British colonies.
The first of these events of 1676 was a rebellion of white workers and African
slaves together against the planter class in a colony of Virginia. And the
reason that this rebellion was important, was that at then time the white
workers and the black slaves had roughly similar working conditions and the
race difference, that later developed, did not exist. After the planter class
crushed the rebellion, they began to develop an ideology of white supremacy
that served to divide the workers and gave the white workers a sense that
they had a stake in the system. And this created an ideology that still exists
today and in which many white workers think of themselves first as white
and secondly as workers. And this ideology is one of the main reasons, that
there was never a mass workers party in America.
The second event of 1676 was a war in the North-East New England states that
was known as the King Philip´s War. And in this war the puritans, who
were radical protestants from England, killed about 30,000 Indians and established
a total military control of the New England North-East part of America. The
early history of the United States created a dynamic based on a mixture of
radical protestantism, the African slaves and the Indians. And these two
events seen together created a basic ideological dynamic in America of on
one hand racial oppression inside the society and expansion to the West outside
the society. And this dynamic continues right up to the present.
On the other hand there are some very positive aspects of the development
of the workers movement in America, which I will mention briefly. America
had some of the first unions in the 1820s and it had the first actual working
class political party in the late 1820s. The problem was that these unions
and this independent political party was completely contained within this
ideology of white supremacy and was not at all interested in the problems
of the slave population. And this created also an aspect of the ideology
that still exists today, where something that appears as class struggle,
actually as long as only whites are involved, is something more like a family
These movements achieved their first political expression in the Democratic
Party, which became the party of the white working men in the 1820s and 1830s.
And the Democratic Party has never been an anti-capitalist party and yet
has always had an important base of support in the working class. The Democratic
Party ruled American politics from 1828 until the outbreak of the Civil War
in 1860. But it is very interesting to observe, that in 1848 at the time
of the first worker uprisings in above all France, in which Communism appeared
as a serious working class current, the workers movement in the United States
was completely caught up with the question of slavery. In 1848 the Democratic
Party split over the question of slavery. As you know in early 1860s the
United States had a Civil War that lasted for five years, which was the real
creation of the American state. Prior to that time you can think of America
as being almost two countries: one capitalist, one slave.
In 1877 was the first real outbreak of mass class struggle in railway strikes
all across the country. But it is very interesting that 1877 was also the
year that the Northern troops withdrew from the Southern states and allowed
the restoration of the power of the old slave-holding elite. And it was also
in the very same year that the Indian wars ended in the West. So you can
see that going for two hundred years from the events of 1676 to 1877: the
same dynamic of expansion against the Indians, the slave question within
the society and a workers movement that was essentialy a white workers movement.
A very important exception to the things that I am talking about was the
IWW. The IWW refused to be a union movement of the white working class elite
and organised all of the immigrant groups as well as black workers in the
South. Before World War One the IWW actually organised unions and strikes
of white and black workers together in the Southern states – something that
was very dangerous. The American capitalist class used tremendous violence
against the white workers but it used even greater violence against any attempt
in which blacks and whites tried to organise together on an equal basis.
Unfortunately the IWW was destroyed by repression after World War One as
well as by a lot of mechanisation of the industries in which it was able
to organise; and particularly the mechanisation of agriculture in which the
IWW was very powerful.
The result was, that a real union organisation in the United States succeeded
in a form of the CIO, which was far less radical and not an anti-capitalist
union movement. And it is important to understand, that the CIO was really
not a national movement but a regional movement, in which the Southern states
– in which the blacks remained completely excluded – was not affected by
most of the laws and progressive aspects of the 1930s´ New Deal. The
role of the CIO was very important in mobilising American workers to support
American capitalism in World War Two. And so it is possible to say, that
the triumph of the CIO happened at the time of the triumph of US capitalism
as the Number One world capitalist power.
Now that I have desribed the rise of US capitalism and the rise of the US
official workers movement, I am going to start talking about the decline
through a series of struggles that began in mid-1950s. And four aspects of
this change after World War Two was first of all the wildcat strike movement
in industry that started in 1955; the second aspect was the rise of the black
movement, which began also in the mid-50s and achieved its greatest successes
in the second half of 1960s; all this occurred in a context of the Vietnam
War, which polarised the American society like nothing since the Civil War
in 1860s; this basicaly for a second time destroyed the rule of the Democratic
Party as it had occured in the years before the Civil War. So we can see
a direct line of development from the events of 1676 and puritans to the
beginning of the end of an American world hegemony with the radical black
movement and the American defeat in Vietnam. It is also important to understand
that in response to the wildcat movement and black movement, which often
became the same thing, the American capitalists started to deindustrialize
the country and move industry to Canada, Europe and to Asia. I would argue
that this began a period of open decline of American capitalist world power
and a kind of political vacuum in America that has never been filled.
That is the end of my historical presentation and now I am going to move
into the struggles of the last twenty years in this period of decline and
political vacuum. This first became clear in the 1980s with a series of very
widespread plant-closings and direct attacks on the working class. This period
began most dramatically with the strike of the air-traffic controllers in
1981. The air-traffic controllers were government employees, who were simply
fired by Ronald Reagan and replaced by a military personnel. And it was very
ironic, that at this time the Reagan government was talking about the great
union of Solidarność in Poland, at the very same time, that there were pictures
in the newspapers of American air-traffic controllers being carried away
in chains from their workplaces. The American government loved unions and
workers strikes as long as they were happening in the Soviet sphere of influence,
but they were destroying them in their own sphere of influence.
This was followed by a whole series of working class defeats. In 1983 was
the strike of the Greyhound bus drivers, that was completely smashed. In
1984 large thousands of copper workers in the state of Arizona struck, because
the company was planning to close the mine and move its operations to Chile.
And during the strike thousands of workers fought the National Guard and
fought the state police. In 1985 the workers in the fruit-packing plants
in California struck for eighteen months. They managed to win the strike,
but within a few months the companies closed the factories and moved to Mexico.
In 1986 the strike broke out in the state of Minnesota of meat-packing workers,
who also were on strike for about eighteen months before being completely
defeated. One of the few strikes of importance, that actually did win something
in this period, took place in 1989 – the strike of coal miners in the Eastern
part of the United States. And it was interesting, that at the height of
this strike in the summer of 1989 five thousand coal miners confronted two
thousand state police and the leader of the coal miners union had to be flown
in by helicopter to tell everybody to go home and avoid the battle. This
strike actually did manage to win a number of concessions that miners were
In 1992 occurred the Los Angeles riots, which lasted for three days and in
which approximately 60 blacks and latinos were killed. And it is important
to understand, that in 10 years prior to these riots ten or eleven large
factories had closed in that area of Los Angeles with the loss of 40,000
jobs of mainly black workers. And it was the Los Angeles riots, that convinced
the American capitalists, that they needed a change of ideological direction
and that was what brought Bill Clinton to power in 1992. But it is important
to understand, that Clinton´s programme was a complete continuation
of the neo-liberal programme, that had been in power since 1980 and Ronald
Clinton ruled with the support of the Republican Party. He was the most conservative
democrat, who ever hold office to be a president in the 20th century. The
first thing he did, was to push through the NAFTA legislation creating the
free trade area of Canada, the United States and Mexico. And the result of
NAFTA has been, that hundreds of thousands of industrial jobs have gone from
Canada and the United States to Mexico. The second thing that Clinton tried
to do, was to have a national health-care programme, but a national health-care
programme that did not in any way affect the interests of either the insurance
industry or the pharmaceutical industry. Which is an impossibility and therefore
his attempt to have a national health programme was completely failed. The
next major thing that Clinton did, was to destroy the welfare system in the
United States and replace it essentially with the workfare system. Workfare
means that you work for your welfare check mainly doing jobs, that were previously
done by wellpaid organized workers. Then Clinton managed to have China accepted
into the World Trade Organization. And it is important to understand, that
there was a tremendous opposition to this coming from the American organized
trade union movement with a lot of nationalist and protectionist ideology.
For example, in the Seattle demonstrations in 1999 many of the steel workers
came with very openly anti-Chinese and pro-protectionist kinds of slogans.
Now in the final part of this presentation I want to talk about some of the
new kinds of struggles, that have appeared in the last eight years and that
are beginning to go against this trend of defeat. The first part of this
was in 1995 – a guy named John Sweeney took over the AFL-CIO, the main American
trade union federation. But he was not very successful, given that when he
came into office, 14% of American workers belonged to unions and as for now
it is down to 9%.
Nevertheless, two years later a very important strike took place, the strike
of UPS – these were truck drivers of the national delivery system. The UPS
strike did not really win very much. In a five year contract the workers
got 10 cents per hour increases over a five year period going from 8 dollars
and 50 cents to 9 dollars an hour. But what was important about this strike,
was that it had a massive support from the population for the first time
in 25 years. And it really frightened the American capitalists. The result
was, that within a few months of the strike the leader of the truckers union,
a guy named Carey, was indicted from corruption. Unfortunately, the accusations
were true. But what was interesting, was that Carey had actually been carried
to power by a campaign of Trotskyists, who have entered the truckers union.
And the overall result was, that the American press and media went crazy
in a campaign against Carey as a way of discrediting the popularity of the
The next step in this process of a new kind of struggle was, of course, the
demonstration in Seattle in 1999. And what was important about Seattle, was
that it took, it forced a discussion of the whole globalization of the economy,
that previously had been a discussion of specialists – in spite of the fact
that, as I said few minutes ago, some of the workers, who participated in
Seattle, were very oriented towards protectionism and anti-immigration, anti-Chinese
and anti-Latin American immigration. A few months after Seattle came the
crash of the high-tech stock-market boom. And during the year 2000 and year
2001 on a world scale with the demonstrations in Gothenburg, Prague and in
Genoa, the anti-globalization forces were growing in their momentum and the
capitalists were very much on the defensive.
It was in this context, that September 11 occurred, which again changed the
entire political and social climate. There had been another militant strike
in the summer of 2000 of telephone workers on the East coast. And the same
workers are probably going on strike right now or next week. But I would
like to conclude with two examples of strikes that happened and in which
the climate after September 11 was very important. The first one was the
West coast dockers strike of the fall of 2002, which shut down all the ports
on the West coast of the United States. This strike was very quickly attacked
by the government as a threat to national security in the struggle against
And more recently was a strike that did not happen, but almost happened in
New York City last December, December 2002. Three years earlier in December
1999 there had also almost been a strike in the New York City subway system.
Both of these strikes would have taken place in December, right in the middle
of the Christmas commercial season. In both cases the city government of
New York threatened the workers with unbelievable fines and prison sentences
if they struck. But in the last situation of December of last year there
was the further element of the anti-terrorist ideology, which came into play.
The New York newspapers in their headlines said, the strikers will succeed
where Osama Bin Laden and Al Quaeda failed in paralyzing the city of New
York. Another newspaper said, that the threat of strike was a jihad by the
transport workers union against the city.
So you can see that after September 11 the climate was created, in which
almost all opposition can be immediately accused of either terrorism or sympathy
with terrorism. This makes it very funny to see an American specialist in
constitutional law going to Iraq to write a new constitution at the very
time, that the Constitution in the United States is being torn up. In September
2001 two or three thousand people of Muslim background were arrested and
held in jail without being able to see lawyers, without being able to see
their family and with no charges. And in the last month or two most of these
people have been released with again never being accused of anything and
with no apology, with no compensation for two years in interrogation.
So that is basically what I had to say and I would like to now hear your
questions and we can go into different aspects of the things that I have
mentioned and I can go into more detail.
QUESTION: What you have
said about unconstitutional behavior of the US state does not appear here
in the news. Has this hysteria had some impacts on the anti-globalization
movement in the US?
LOREN GOLDNER: I am not at all surprised
that it is not in the headlines. But it is important to understand, that
there is hardly anything new about these witch-hunts. Back in the 1692 protestants
claimed to discover a large number of witches. There was a whole phenomena
of witch-trials in the North-Eastern United States creating a whole kind
of social hysteria. This is something that has reoccurred in American history
many times as a way of creating social solidarity. The most famous example
of this is the McCarthy hysteria against Communists in the early 1950s. And
this is now being revived in the form of witch-hunts against terrorists connected
to anybody of Muslim origin. I think it gave the American capitalists a tremendous
opportunity to fight back against the rising opposition to the globalization,
that was clear from 1999 to 2001.
Q: Can this new anti-terrorist
ideology serve as a tool to again integrate the American working class into
the capitalist system, break any possibility of its autonomous resistance
and mobilize it for the war effort of the US ruling class as in the case
of World War Two?
LG: I think, actually, what was very
interesting about the current situation, is that people are seeing very quickly
that this hysteria is designed to conceal very deep social problems in the
United States. For example, the recent war in both Afghanistan and above
all Iraq were justified in the name of the struggle against terrorism. At
the same time thirty out of fifty American states are essentially bankrupt
and are cutting back on all kinds of social services. And this is at the
same time, that it is becoming clear that the American war and occupation
of Iraq is going to cost 200 billion dollars. Already in the first Gulf War
in 1991 Bush’s great military victory was completely forgotten because of
economic crisis and attack on working class living standards. So I think
that Bush, the son, the current president will have even greater problems
in justifying these huge expenditures on foreign wars at the time that in
America itself hospitals and schools and workplaces are being closed.
Q: As for the strikes
of the last twenty years, you have been talking about, and especially of
the new wave of working class fight-back, were they mainly organized by the
unions or did they occurred outside of them?
LG: I think, that it is very difficult
to talk about a lot of struggles outside of unions since the 1970s. I was
talking earlier about the wildcat strike wave from mid-1950s to 1973 which
ended with the beginning of the Oil Crisis and the beginning of the real
economic decline of the United States. After 1973 and very large layoffs
in American industry workers, who still had jobs, were very happy they have
jobs and were no longer interested in wildcat strikes. This is not to mean
that there has not been some kind of an independent wildcat activity since
the 1970s. For example, after the restructuring of industry and the layoff
of hundreds of thousands of people the workers, who were left, discovered
that they actually had a tremendous amount of power. And for example, it
has been significant, that a lot of the most important strikes have happened
in the transportation sector, where workers have the power to choke off the
circulation of goods. Are you familiar with the Japanese system called ”just
in time”? No? ”Just in time” means, that companies have organized production
and circulation of goods in such a way, that there is never any kind of building
up of unsold goods, but if something is supposed to be delivered at 8 a.m.
on a certain day, it is delivered at 8 a.m. on that day and that is it. This
allows companies to lay off many workers, but the workers, who are still
there have the power to disrupt this kind of organization of work very easily.
But nevertheless, in general I think that in comparison to the earlier period
before the 1970s the amount of this kind of activity has declined considerably.
Approximately one third of the total workforce in the United States has been
casualized into part-time and temporary jobs. So the actions outside of the
union framework of a kind was talking about with the ”just in time” system
can only be carried out by workers, who are still employed in steady jobs
with some kind of organization.
Q: It seems to me, that
the kind of workers resistance you were talking about might lead to a revival
of anarcho-syndicalism, revolutionary syndicalism in the US. What is your
opinion about this possibility?
LG: There are small anarcho-syndicalist
currents in the US and the IWW has revived in a very small way. But they
have been able to organize only in very small and marginal kinds of workplaces.
And in many of the cases, where they have been successful, the company has
immediately gone bankrupt. I wish the situation were more optimistic, but
I think they still are very much trapped in a kind of very marginal organizing.
Nevertheless, the memory of the old IWW still is important in the United
States and perhaps some day workers in larger firms will be influenced by
it. But I do not see any sign of it at this time.
Q: So do you really
think, that if there will be a new round of working class resistance, it
might take a kind of syndicalist form: unionization and things like that?
LG: I think in the current situation
most American workers still are completely on the defensive against the new
international organization of work. For example, in the next 10 years three
and a half million service jobs are going to be relocated to India. At the
same time large numbers of plants are closing in the United States as well
as in Mexico and going to China. This means, that American workers have to
come to terms with a kind of international organization, that has never existed
Unfortunately, here the tape recorder, out of some mysterious reasons, stopped
recording. Loren, could I possibly ask you to finish this answer in a written
form? And just in case you would have some free time and would feel like
reconstructing your another lost answers, here is my recollection of the
questions which followed in that discussion. Thank you very much, for your
Q: Could you possibly
illustrate a bit the fall in living standards of American workers?
Q: Some anti-war activists
have seen the recent Iraq war as a show of the American strength. But your
description of the United States as a world capitalist power Number One would
indicate something completely different. Could you possibly comment a bit
on a nature of the current US foreign policy?
Q: Do you think that
a prospect of a new global pole of capital accumulation – of a new world
power – arising probably in Asia is a real one? Many communist advocates
of a kind of the decadence theory claim that the current crisis is not just
the crisis of the system based on the US domination, but the crisis of capital
itself, because it is no longer able to reproduce itself since there is still
less and less need for labor – as this is replaced by machines, etc. – which
is the only force able to produce surplus value. Such a crisis would probably
made a new pole of accumulation an impossibility. What is your opinion?
Q: Well, let’s suppose
that a possible gradual emergence of Asia as a new world capitalist power
will bring about a new innovative working class movement in Asian countries,
as you have said, a movement that will play a leading role in the next revolutionary
breakthrough. But these countries still have a very relevant agrarian question.
So the next revolutionary breakthrough might easily be an analogy of what
happened after World War One – the workers movement in those countries might
be contained within a new framework of a kind of social democratic counter-revolution
(perhaps based on many ideas of the current anti-globalization movement)
completing the tasks of bourgeois revolution and developing capital. Could
not other parts of the global proletariat play also a decisive, if not a
leading, role; especially given the fact that the struggle will probably
be much more internationalised?
(From the Break Their Haughty
Power web site http://home.earthlink.net/~lrgoldner)