Chris Hedges: The workers are on the march – America’s new class war
Exploited employees across the country are rising up and taking direct action to tackle low pay and appalling working conditions.
There is one last hope for the United States. It does not lie in the ballot box. It lies in union organizing and strikes by workers at Amazon, Starbucks, Uber, Lyft, John Deere, Kellogg, the Special Metals plant in Huntington, West Virginia, owned by Berkshire Hathaway, the Northwest Carpenters Union, Kroger, as well as teachers in Chicago, West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona, fast-food workers, hundreds of nurses in Worcester, Massachusetts, and the members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.
Organized workers, often defying their timid union leadership, are on the march across the United States. Over four million workers, about 3% of the workforce, mostly from accommodation and food services, healthcare and social assistance, transportation, housing, and utilities, have walked away from jobs, rejecting poor pay along with punishing and risky working conditions.
There is a growing consensus – 68% in a recent Gallup poll, with that number climbing to 77% of those between the ages of 18 and 34 – that the only way left to alter the balance of power and force concessions from the ruling capitalist class is to mobilize and strike, although only 9% of the US workforce is unionized. Forget the woke Democrats. This is a class war.
The question, Karl Popper reminded us, is not how we get good people to rule. Most of those attracted to power, figures such as Joe Biden, are at best mediocre and many, such as Dick Cheney, Donald Trump, or Mike Pompeo, are venal. The question is, rather, how do we organize institutions to prevent incompetent or bad leaders from inflicting too much damage. How do we pit power against power?
The Democratic Party will not push through the kind of radical New Deal reforms that in the 1930s staved off fascism and communism. Its empty political theater, which stretches back to the Clinton administration, was on full display in Atlanta when Biden called for revoking the filibuster to pass the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, knowing that his chances of success are zero. Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, along with several of the state’s voting rights groups, boycotted the event in a very public rebuke. They were acutely aware of Biden’s cynical ploy. When the Democrats were in the minority, they clung to the filibuster like a life raft. Then-Senator Barack Obama, along with other Democrats, campaigned for it to remain in place. And a few days ago, the Democratic leadership employed the filibuster to block legislation proposed by Sen. Ted Cruz.
The Democrats have been full partners in the dismantling of our democracy, refusing to banish dark and corporate money from the electoral process and governing, as Obama did, through presidential executive actions, agency “guidance,” notices and other regulatory dark matter that bypass Congress. The Democrats, who helped launch and perpetuate our endless wars, were also co-architects of trade deals such as NAFTA, expanded surveillance of citizens, militarized police, the largest prison system in the world and a raft of anti-terrorism laws such as Special Administrative Measures (SAMs) that abolish nearly all rights, including due process and attorney-client privilege, to allow suspects to be convicted and imprisoned with secret evidence they and their lawyers are not permitted to see.
The squandering of staggering resources to the military – $777.7 billion a year – passed in the Senate with an 89-10 vote and in the House of Representatives with a 363-70 vote, coupled with the $80 billion spent annually on the intelligence agencies, has made the military and the intelligence services, many run by private contractors such as Booz Allen Hamilton, nearly omnipotent. The Democrats long ago walked out on workers and unions. The Democratic governor of Maine, Janet Mills, for example, killed a bill a few days ago that would have allowed farm workers in the state to unionize. On all the major structural issues, there is no difference between the Republicans and the Democrats.
The longer the Democratic Party does not deliver real reforms to ameliorate the economic hardship, exacerbated by soaring inflation rates, the more it feeds the frustration of many of its supporters, widespread apathy (there are 80 million eligible voters, a third of the electorate, who do not cast ballots) and the hatred of the “liberal” elites stoked by Donald Trump’s cultish Republican Party. Its signature infrastructure package, ‘Build Back Better’, when you read the fine print, is yet another infusion of billions of government money into corporate bank accounts. This should not surprise anyone, given who funds and controls the Democratic Party.
The suffering and instability gripping at least half the country living in financial distress, alienated and disenfranchised, preyed upon by banks, credit card companies, student loan companies, privatized utilities, the gig economy, a for-profit health care system that has resulted in a quarter of all worldwide Covid-19 deaths – although we are less than 5% of the world’s population – and employers who pay slave wages and do not provide benefits, is getting worse.
Biden has presided over the loss of extended unemployment benefits, rental assistance, forbearance for student loans, emergency checks, the moratorium on evictions and now the ending of the expansion of the child tax credits, all as the pandemic again surges. The handling of the pandemic, from a health and an economic perspective, is one more sign of the empire’s deep decay. Americans who are uninsured, or who are covered by Medicare, often frontline workers, are not reimbursed for over-the-counter Covid tests they purchase.
The Supreme Court – five of the justices were appointed by presidents who lost the popular vote – also blocked the Biden administration from enforcing a vaccine-or-testing mandate for large employers. And on the horizon, fueled by the economic fallout from the pandemic, are large-scale loan defaults and another financial crisis. The worse things get, the more discredited the Democratic Party and its ‘liberal’ democratic values become, and the more the Christian fascists lurking in the wings thrive.
As history has repeatedly proven, organized labor, allied with a political party dedicated to its interests, is the best tool to push back against the rich. Nick French, in an article in Jacobin, draws on the work of the sociologist Walter Korpi, who examined the rise of the Swedish welfare state in his book ‘The Democratic Class Struggle’. Korpi detailed how Swedish workers, as French writes, “built a strong and well-organized trade union movement, organized along industrial lines and united by a central trade union federation, the Landsorganisationen (LO), which worked closely with the Social Democratic Workers’ Party of Sweden (SAP).”
The battle to build the welfare state required organizing – 76 % of workers were unionized – waves of strikes, militant labor activity and SAP political pressure. “Measured in terms of the number of working days per worker,” Korpi writes, “from the turn of the century up to the early 1930s, Sweden had the highest level of strikes and lockouts among the Western nations.” From 1900-13, as French notes, “there were 1,286 days of idleness due to strikes and lockouts per thousand workers in Sweden. From 1919-38, there were 1,448.” (By comparison, in the United States last year, according to National Bureau of Economic Research data, there were fewer than 3.7 days of idleness per thousand workers due to work stoppages.)
There are a few third parties, including the Green Party, Socialist Alternative and the People’s Party, that provide this opportunity. But the Democrats won’t save us. They have sold out to the billionaire class. We will only save ourselves.
Unions break down political divides, bringing workers of all political persuasions together to fight a common oligarchic and corporate foe. Once workers begin to exert power and extract demands from the ruling class, the struggle educates communities about the real configurations of power and mitigates the feelings of powerlessness that have driven many into the arms of the neo-fascists. For this reason, capitulating to the Democratic Party, which has betrayed working men and women, is a terrible mistake.
The rapacious pillage by the elites, many of whom bankroll the Democratic Party, has accelerated since the financial crash of 2008 and the pandemic. Wall Street banks recorded record profits for 2021. As the Financial Times noted, they milked the underwriting fees from Fed-based borrowing and profited from mergers and acquisitions. They have pumped their profits, fueled by roughly $5 trillion in Fed spending since the beginning of the pandemic, as Matt Taibbi points out, into massive pay bonuses and stock buybacks.
“The bulk of this new wealth… is being converted into compensation for a handful of executives,” Taibbi writes. “Buybacks have also been rampant in defense, pharmaceuticals, and oil & gas, all of which also just finished their second straight year of record, skyrocketing profits. We’re now up to about 745 billionaires in the US, who’ve collectively seen their net worth grow about $2.1 trillion to $5 trillion since March 2020, with almost all that wealth increase tied to the Fed’s ballooning balance sheet.”
Kroger is typical. The corporation, which operates some 2,800 stores under different brands, including Baker’s, City Market, Dillons, Food 4 Less, Foods Co., Fred Meyer, Fry’s, Gerbes, Jay C Food Store, King Soopers, Mariano’s, Metro Market, Pay-Less Super Markets, Pick ’n Save, QFC, Ralphs, Ruler and Smith’s Food and Drug, earned $4.1 billion in profits in 2020. By the end of the third quarter of 2021, it had $2.28 billion in cash, an increase of $399 million in the first quarter of 2020. Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen made over $22 million, nearly doubling the $12 million he made in 2018. This is over 900 times the salary of the average Kroger worker. Kroger in the first three quarters of 2021 also spent an estimated $1.3 billion on stock buybacks.
“Kroger is the only employer for 86 percent of their workers, making it their sole source of earned income,” Economic Roundtable in a survey of Kroger workers found. “Working full-time to earn a living wage would require Kroger to pay $22 per hour for an annual living wage total of $45,760. The average annual earnings of Kroger workers, however, equal $29,655. This is $16,105 short of the annual income needed to pay for basic necessities required for the living wage. More than two-thirds of Kroger workers struggle for survival due to low wages and part-time work schedules. Nine out of ten Kroger workers report that their wages have not increased as much as basic expenses such as food and housing have increased. Since 1990, wages for the most experienced Kroger food clerks have declined from 11 to 22 percent (adjusted for inflation) across the three regions surveyed. Across the entire grocery industry, 29 percent of the labor force is below or near the federal poverty threshold.”
More than one-third (36%) of 10,000 employees at Kroger-owned stores in southern California, Colorado, and Washington said they were worried about eviction. More than three-quarters (78%) are food-insecure. One in 7 Kroger workers faced homelessness in the past year. Nearly 1 in 5 (18%) Kroger employees said they hadn’t paid the previous month’s mortgage on time.
More than 8,000 unionized Kroger’s King Soopers employees went on strike on Jan. 12 in Colorado, demanding higher wages and better working conditions from the country’s largest grocery store chain and fourth-largest private employer.
This is where one of the emerging front lines in the class struggle is located. It is where we should invest our time and energy.
Our capitalist democracy from the start was rigged against us. The Electoral College permits presidential candidates such as George W. Bush and Trump to lose the popular vote and assume office. The awarding of two senators per state, regardless of the state’s population, means that 62 senators represent one quarter of the population while six represent another quarter. The founding fathers disenfranchised women, Native Americans, African Americans, and men without property. Most citizens were intentionally locked out of the democratic process by the ruling white male aristocrats, most of them slaveholders.
All the openings in our democracy were the result of prolonged popular struggle. Hundreds of workers were murdered, thousands were wounded, tens of thousands were blacklisted in our labor wars, the bloodiest of any industrialized country. Abolitionists, suffragists, unionists, crusading journalists and those in the anti-war and civil rights movements opened our democratic space. These radical movements were repressed and ruthlessly dismantled in the early 20th century in the name of anti-communism. They were again targeted by the corporate elites following the rise of new mass movements in the 1930s.
These popular movements, which rose again in the 1960s, moved us, inch by bloody inch, towards equality and social justice. Most of these gains made in the 1960s have been rolled back under the onslaught of neoliberalism, deregulation, and a corrupt campaign finance system, legalized by court rulings such as Citizens United, which allow the rich and corporations to bankroll elections to select political leaders and impose legislation. The modern incarnation of 19th-century robber barons, including Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, each worth some $200 billion, summon us to our radical roots.
Class struggle defines most of human history. Marx got this right. It is not a new story. The rich, throughout history, have found ways to subjugate and re-subjugate the masses. And the masses, throughout history, have cyclically awoken to throw off their chains.
This article first appeared on Scheerpost here.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.