- Created: Saturday, 16 May 2009 17:01
- Written by Steve Palmer
Millions of immigrant undocumented workers all across the US took to the streets to protest against proposed racist immigration laws.
Following the immigrant-led Haymarket Riots in Chicago in May 1886 that led to the eight-hour day and adoption of 1 May as international workers’ day, Engels enthused:
‘The way in which they have made their appearance on the scene is quite extraordinary: six months ago nobody suspected anything, and now they appear all of a sudden in such organised masses as to strike terror into the whole capitalist class.’
He was talking about the first explosion of the working class into US politics. ‘I only wish Marx could have lived to see it!’ he said.*
What has happened?
Again as if from nowhere, on another May Day, the working class in the US has leapt dramatically onto the political stage in the form of a mass movement led by undocumented workers. Five million workers and their families poured onto the streets of more than 150 US cities and countless smaller towns in almost every state. In Los Angeles, two marches totalling one million; 700,000 marched through Chicago’s forest of sky scrapers; 100,000 stretched 15 blocks of San Francisco’s Market Street; in New York, between half a million and a million working people swelled through Manhattan; in Atlanta, in Seattle, in San Jose, in Washington DC, in Denver in Boston…The vast tide rolled on and on and on. From Anchorage and Juneau in frozen Alaska, to the southern desert border crossing at Tijuana; from Honolulu, on the Pacific island of Hawaii to Miami, Florida, ‘from Sea to Shining Sea’, workers proudly stood up to oppose racist immigration legislation.
The millions of Latinos in Las Megamarchas have drawn in Chinese, Irish, Nigerians, Koreans, and Filipinos – every nationality. The youth were dragged in, awakened from the anaesthetic nihilism of Gangsta culture, angered that their parents are threatened with arrest and deportation. In Los Angeles, 72,000 school students bunked off; in San Francisco, more than 12,000 – 20% of the public school population.
These are the largest protest marches in United States’ history ever – not the US labour struggles in the 1930s, not even the civil rights movement in the 1960s, nor the anti-war movement in the 1970s were this big. The enormous significance – the world-historical significance – of this development absolutely must not be underestimated. When the post-capitalist histories of this period come to be written, this will be remembered as the first hammer-blow within North America in the 21st century, which will nail shut the coffin of US imperialism.
We are entering what will be an extraordinary period in the politics and history of US imperialism. The US economy, superficially healthy, keeps itself afloat through ballooning debt and relentless attacks on the workers. Internationally, it faces unprecedented strategic challenges from the rival proto-imperialism of Chinese capitalism as well as European imperialism. Dependent on the Middle East for its oil, riveted to the Zionist regime and the archaic and reactionary regime in Saudi Arabia, US imperialism is forced to face directly the hostility of the masses in the Iraqi insurgency and the Palestinian Intifada. Internally, the US ruling class is deeply riven: the most recent example is the extraordinary spectacle of retired generals speaking out against, and trying to restrain, an increasingly rabid and out-of-control civilian administration. And now the most oppressed section of the working class has stood up and dusted itself off. Thoroughly proletarian, instinctively internationalist (for Latinos, ‘the Americas’ stretch from the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego), with the vivid and familiar examples of the Cuban, Venezuelan and Bolivian anti-imperialism to hand, declared by imperialism to have no country, these workers have nothing to lose but their chains. The deepening of these contradictions – in US capitalism, in its imperialism, in the ruling class’s ability to rule and in the activity of the masses – is what leads to a revolutionary situation – not immediately, maybe not for years, but inevitably and irreversibly.
The highest point in struggle previously reached in the US in recent years was by the anti-war movement during the San Francisco protests in March 2003 (see FRFI 172). Although it forcefully showed the world that there was principled opposition within the US to the Iraq war, and although that movement included sections of advanced workers – native and immigrant, it failed to build the truly deep connection needed with the broad masses of the proletariat, and exhausted itself, inflicting only pinpricks and bruises on US imperialism.
A year ago, analysing the reasons behind the Bush election victory of 2004, we wrote that it was a ‘futile past reliance on a declining pro-imperialist labour aristocracy that brought us to where we are today... Real change requires finding a section or sections of the US working class, uncompromised by, and uncompromising with, imperialism’ (FRFI 184). Well, here it is.
Where did this come from?
Latino workers have been struggling to organize and defend themselves for decades. Back in the 1960s the United Farm Workers of America (UFW), led by the legendary Cesar Chavez, waged a heroic struggle among the ruthlessly exploited Latino farm workers in California’s vast and fertile Central Valley. As US imperialism ravaged and brutalized Latin America throughout the 1970s and 1980s, it forced working people to emigrate through the porous US-Mexican border in search of work. Now there are more than 40 million Latinos in the US. Half of all births in the US are to Latinos. By 2050, whites will be a minority in the US as they already are in California.
This movement is not simply an immigrant movement, but a workers’ movement as well. Forced into the least-skilled, poorest paid, most exploitative jobs, it was inevitable that these workers would organize themselves. Starting in the early 1990s, they have begun to rebuild the rotten, crumbling US trade union movement from the ground up, beginning with the massive Los Angeles hotel workers’ strikes in 1992 and strikes in the fashion sweatshops there. These tremors toppled the old AFL-CIO leadership in 1995 when the ‘Committee for Change’ threw out pro-imperialist Lane Kirkland and his clique. These advances have steadily continued. In 2003 the leaders of five unions with major immigrant membership – the ‘New Unity Partnership’ – announced the retirement, in 2005, of Kirkland’s successor, John Sweeney. At the 2005 AFL-CIO convention, these unions led a split away from the old trade union movement, under the banner ‘Change To Win’. They include the SEIU (Service Employees International), UNITE-HERE (textile, hotel and restaurant employees), the Carpenters’ (construction workers), the Laborers’ International Union, and the UFW. This split bewildered the US Left who either decried the ‘disunity’ or dismissed it as just a maneouvre by union bureaucrats.
According to the International Socialist Organization (ISO), US equivalent of the British SWP:
‘Some have likened the Change to Win breakaway to the militant Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the 1930s, which organized in the mass production industries. But ...[t]he CIO, after all, was launched by dissident AFL leaders in 1935 as a means to put themselves at the head of a rank-and-file rebellion that resulted in general strikes in Minneapolis, Toledo and San Francisco the previous year.
The current split, by contrast, comes amid the lowest ebb in strike activity since the late 1940s.’
(Socialist Worker, 5 August, 2005)
The laughable absurdity of this remark is self-evident when measured against the massive working-class self-activity – directly political activity – represented by Las Megamarchas. This was not a split imposed upon the workers’ movement by a fractious bureaucracy: it was a split forced upon the bureaucracy by the objective development of the division, created by imperialism, within the working class.
The ‘old’ section of the AFL-CIO represents the relatively privileged section of US workers in declining industries – for example, autos and steel – earning $30-$50 per hour, fighting to hang onto their disappearing jobs and the attendant benefits of health insurance and retirement plans. Largely Anglo and white, that section is conducting a defensive struggle to preserve its privileged position. It has the money needed to sit and play at the Congressional political table: it can afford lobbyists, can buy influence and sway elections through the purse strings.
The ‘new’ section of the union movement lives precariously on around $10 per hour, rarely with any benefits, overwhelmingly drawn from immigrants, women and the black community.** Unlike the poorest sections of the working class in other imperialist countries, this section of the working class is near-destitute, living hand-to-mouth, with no health insurance or retirement plan to defend, no ‘welfare state’ to fall back on and has no choice but
to wage an offensive campaign largely outside established bourgeois politics.
The union activists whose struggles changed the union movement are also, at the same time, community activists. When they leave work, they go home to communities where they have to fight drug-dealing, decaying public schools and environmental waste dumps. Police helicopters clatter overhead all night; children sleep on the floor hoping to avoid stray shots from the incessant nightly gunfire which pervades the ghettos. It was not the union leadership, but its activists who organized Las Megamarchas, uniting organized workers with the unorganized domestic workers and day-labourers. SEIU, UNITE-HERE and other CTW union banners filled the marches.
Where is this going?
None of this is to suggest that a fully conscious and united proletarian anti-imperialist movement has arrived overnight in the United States. The leadership and direction of this movement are still in play: religious leaders want to see it off the streets, in their churches, safely on its knees; union leaders want to contain it, strip it of its internationalism and bring it into the ‘mainstream’ of US politics; revanchist Mexican sects, like Aztlan, want to split it and to spend its energy on a futile and reactionary project to reclaim swathes of the US as part of a Greater Mexico. So this movement will meander and advance and retreat. Yet, ultimately, none of these diversions are adequate to satisfy the needs and aspirations of this working class. Already, currents are spontaneously espousing revolutionary solutions: it is no accident that, amid the Mexican and US flags, portraits of Che Guevara are being carried on Las Megamarchas.
This places a huge responsibility on the US left. The tasks which face it are enormous: it has to develop a serious foothold in this workers’ movement; it has to clearly articulate the connection between specific issues and US capitalism and imperialism; and it has to be able to offer clear and organized revolutionary leadership to the various struggles. The outlook is bleak: riven with a rainbow of ideologies, much of the left displays little understanding of the political geology behind the deep and obvious rumblings of the historical volcano it is perched on. We can ignore the petty sects. There are broad progressive and democratic movements of the radical petit-bourgeoisie – against environmental degradation, to defend abortion rights, for peace, for example. But these are just currents in what must be a broad movement and can only be successful when joined with the struggle against capitalism and imperialism.
The petit-bourgeois self-styled ‘left’ occupies two extremes. One is crass economism, exemplified by the ISO, which cannot connect the class struggle with the struggle against imperialism, dismissing Cuba and the Venezuelan struggle. The other is Third Worldism, which celebrates the struggle against imperialism without being able to connect it with the struggle against capitalism inside the US and which sneeringly dismisses the US trade union movement. There are small sections that work consistently to unite the struggles against racism, imperialism, capitalism, and for socialism – such as Workers World Party and Party for Socialism and Liberation. They not only support important workers’ struggles such as the recent New York Transit strike, they also fight racism, defend immigrant workers, oppose imperialism in the Middle East and support the Cuban and the Bolivian and Venezuelan struggles. Although they have had great success giving anti-imperialist leadership to the anti-war movement with ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism),† this latest eruption of the working class is on a much more massive scale. They will be forced to confront their political, organizational and ideological weaknesses if they are to help this movement find its true direction. It will only be the unity of this mass proletarian movement with revolutionary socialist, anti-imperialist politics that will finally put an end to the monster of US imperialism.
* Engels to Florence Kelley Wischnewetsky, June 3, 1886.
** See, for example, Barbara Ehrenreich – Nickel and Dimed; Beth Shulman, The Betrayal of Work; Susan Sered and Rushika Fernandopulle, Uninsured In America which expose the true condition of the US working class.
FRFI 191 June / July 2006