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How Workers Can Win the Class War Being Waged Upon Them

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Organized labor led no mass opposition to Trump’s presidency or the December 2017 tax cut or the failed U.S. preparation for and management of COVID-19. Nor do we yet see a labor-led national protest against the worst mass firing since the 1930s Great Depression. All of these events, but especially the unemployment, mark an employers’ class war against employees. The U.S. government directs it, but the employers as a class inspire and benefit the most from it.

Before the 2020 crash, class war had been redistributing wealth for decades from middle-income people and the poor to the top 1 percent. That upward redistribution was U.S. employers’ response to the legacy of the New Deal. During the Great Depression and afterward, wealth had been redistributed downward. By the 1970s, that was reversed. The 2020 crash will accelerate upward wealth redistribution sharply.

With tens of millions now a “reserve army” of the unemployed, nearly every U.S. employer can cut wages, benefits, etc. Employees dissatisfied with these cuts are easily replaced. Vast numbers of unemployed, stressed by uncertain job prospects and unemployment benefits, disappearing savings, and rising household tensions, will take jobs despite reduced wages, benefits, and working conditions. As the unemployed return to work, most employees’ standards of consumption and living will drop.

Germany, France, and other European nations could not fire workers as the United States did. Strong labor movements and socialist parties with deep social influences preclude governments risking comparable mass unemployment; it would risk deposing them from office. Thus their antiviral lockdowns keep most at work with governments paying 70 percent or more of pre-virus wages and salaries.

Mass unemployment will bring the United States closer to less-developed economies. Very large regions of the poor will surround small enclaves of the rich. Narrow bands of “middle-income professionals,” etc., will separate rich from poor. Ever-more rigid social divisions enforced by strong police and military apparatuses are becoming the norm. Their outlines are already visible across the United States.

Only if workers understand and mobilize to fight this class war can the trends sketched above be stopped or reversed. U.S. workers did exactly that in the 1930s. They fought—in highly organized ways—the class war waged against them then. Millions joined labor unions, and many tens of thousands joined two socialist parties and one communist party. All four organizations worked together, in coalition, to mobilize and activate the U.S. working class.

Weekly, and sometimes daily, workers marched across the United States. They criticized President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s policies and capitalism itself by intermingling reformist and revolutionary demands. The coalition’s size and political reach forced politicians, including FDR, to listen and respond, often positively. An initially “centrist” FDR adapted to become a champion of Social Security, unemployment insurance, a minimum wage, and a huge federal jobs program. The coalition achieved those moderate socialist reforms—the New Deal—and paid for them by setting aside revolutionary change.

It proved to be a good deal, but only in the short run. Its benefits to workers included a downward redistribution of income and wealth (especially via homeownership), and thereby the emergence of a new “middle class.” Relatively well-paid employees were sufficient in number to sustain widespread notions of American exceptionalism, beliefs in ever-rising standards of working-class living across generations, and celebrations of capitalism as guaranteeing these social benefits. The reality was quite different. Not capitalists but rather their critics and victims had forced the New Deal against capitalists’ resistance. And those middle-class benefits bypassed most African Americans.

The good deal did not last because U.S. capitalists largely resented the New Deal and sought to undo it. With World War II’s end and FDR’s death in 1945, the undoing accelerated. An anti-Soviet Cold War plus anti-communist/socialist crusades at home gave patriotic cover for destroying the New Deal coalition. The 1947 Taft-Hartley Act targeted organized labor. Senate and House committees spearheaded a unified effort (government, mass media, and academia) to demonize, silence, and socially exclude communists, socialists, leftists, etc. For decades after 1945—and still now in parts of the United States—a sustained hysteria defined all left-wing thought, policy, or movement as always and necessarily the worst imaginable social evil.

Over time, the New Deal coalition was destroyed and left-wing thinking was labeled “disloyal.” Even barely left-of-center labor and political organizations repeatedly denounced and distanced themselves from any sort of anti-capitalist impulse, any connection to socialism. Many New Deal reforms were evaded, amended, or repealed. Some simply vanished from politicians’ knowledge and vocabulary and then journalists’ too. Having witnessed the purges of leftist colleagues from 1945 through the 1950s, a largely docile academic community celebrated capitalism in general and U.S. capitalism in particular. The good in U.S. society was capitalism’s gift. The rest resulted from government or foreign or ideological interferences in capitalism’s wonderful invisible hand. Any person or group excluded from this American Dream had only themselves to blame for inadequate ability, insufficient effort, or ideological deviancy.

In this context, U.S. capitalism strode confidently toward the 21st century. The Soviet threat had imploded. A divided Europe threatened no U.S. interests. Its individual nations competed for U.S. favor (especially the UK). China’s poverty blocked its becoming an economic competitor. U.S. military and technological supremacy seemed insurmountable.

Amid success, internal contradictions surfaced. U.S. capitalism crashed three times. The first happened early in 2000 (triggered by dot-com share-price inflation); next came the big crash of 2008 (triggered by defaulting subprime mortgages); and the hugest crash hit in 2020 (triggered by COVID-19). Unprepared economically, politically, and ideologically for any of them, the Federal Reserve responded by creating vast sums of new money that it threw at/lent to (at historically low interest rates) banks, large corporations, etc. Three successive exercises in trickle-down economic policy saw little trickle down. No underlying economic problems (inequality, excess systemic debts, cyclical instability, etc.) have been solved. On the contrary, all worsened. In other words, class war has been intensified.

What then is to be done? First, we need to recognize the class war that is underway and commit to fighting it. On that basis, we must organize a mass base to put real political force behind social democratic policies, parties, and politicians. We need something like the New Deal coalition. The pandemic, economic crash, and gross official policy failures (including violent official scapegoating) draw many toward classical social democracy. The successes of the Democratic Socialists of America show this.

Second, we must face a major obstacle. Since 1945, capitalists and their supporters developed arguments and institutions to undo the New Deal and its leftist legacies. They silenced, deflected, co-opted, and/or demonized criticisms of capitalism. Strategic decisions made by both the U.S. New Deal and European social democracy contributed to their defeats. Both always left and still leave employers exclusively in positions to (1) receive and dispense their enterprises’ profits and (2) decide and direct what, how, and where their enterprises produce. Those positions gave capitalists the financial resources and power—politically, economically, and culturally—repeatedly to outmaneuver and repress labor and the left.

Third, to newly organized versions of a New Deal coalition or of social democracy, we must add a new element. We cannot again leave capitalists in the exclusive positions to receive enterprise profits and make major enterprise decisions. The new element is thus the demand to change enterprises producing goods and services. From hierarchical, capitalist organizations (where owners, boards of directors, etc., occupy the employer position) we need to transition to the altogether different democratic, worker co-op organizations. In the latter, no employer/employee split occurs. All workers have equal voice in deciding what gets produced, how, and where and how any profits get used. The collective of all employees is their own employer. As such an employer, the employees will finally protect and thus secure the reforms associated with the New Deal and social democracy.

We could describe the transition from capitalist to worker co-op enterprise organizations as a revolution. That would resolve the old debate of reform versus revolution. Revolution becomes the only way finally to secure progressive reforms. Capitalism’s reforms were generated by the system’s impacts on people and their resulting demands for change. Capitalism’s resistances to those reforms—and undoing them after they happened—spawned the revolution needed to secure them. In that revolution, society moves beyond capitalism itself. So it was in the French Revolution: demands for reform within feudal society could only finally be realized by a social transition from feudalism to capitalism.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

About the Author: Richard D. Wolff is professor of economics emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a visiting professor in the Graduate Program in International Affairs of the New School University, in New York. Wolff’s weekly show, “Economic Update,” is syndicated by more than 100 radio stations and goes to 55 million TV receivers via Free Speech TV. His two recent books with Democracy at Work are Understanding Marxism and Understanding Socialism, both available at democracyatwork.info.


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AFL-CIO presentation: Five Principles for building Powerful Coalitions

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Amanda TattersallOn Wednesday 25 August 2010, Power in Coalition was launched in Washington DC at an event held at the AFL-CIO. Below is an extract of a talk given by Amanda Tattersall. It can also be downloaded as a PDF: AFL Presentation Five Principles for building Powerful Coalitions.

In Power in Coalition, I argue that not all coalitions are made equal. While alliances between unions and community organizations are an important and useful strategy for social change, their power and success varies greatly depending on the strategic choices of those involved.

The most successful coalitions are ones that seek to achieve social change goals (such as individual victories and shifting the political climate) at the same time as they strengthen the organizations that participate in them. Yet these goals can be somewhat illusive. In the book I found that most coalitions, at different times, end up trading social change goals for strength goals – for instance by burning relationships with community or union partners in order to win a particular policy reform.

The book establishes FIVE PRINCIPLES for building strong coalitions that were consistent across different places and different times.

1. Less is more

Coalitions are more successful when organizational membership is restricted and there are fewer groups making decisions and sharing resources. Instead of long lists of partners, in Power in Coalition long term coalitions traded breadth for depth and sought to build a narrower agenda that more deeply engaged the commitment of their members and leaders.

A “less is more” approach helped avoid lowest common denominator positions where coalitions end up a “mile wide and an inch deep” and tend to only be able to agree on what they are against rather than what they are for.

But the strategy of “less is more” runs counter to typical coalition practice. Too often “coalition power” is thought to be created by the number of organizations that can be fitted on to a letterhead or press release. But in the Toronto and Chicago case studies, it was only when the coalitions restricted membership that they built sufficient trust to keep organizations at the table working together.

Similarly in Sydney, a remarkable coalition of public education allies built an unprecedented independent public education inquiry, staging hearings across the state, mobilizing parents and teachers in dozens of local communities and won $250 million in reforms to public education through a reduction in class sizes for young children. And it was won by a coalition of two organizations – the teachers union (NSW Teachers Federation) and the Federation of Parents & Citizens.

Less is more requires coalition organizers to be strategic with “the less.” There is a need to identify partners that have the right mix of power, interest and potentially, unpredictability. Power must not be defined narrowly. It does not only include “organized numbers and organized money” but also diversity. After all, if the coalition can’t stand for the whole of the constituency it claims to represent then it has a limited ability to act.

With less people around the table there is then an incentive to do “more” together – in particular to focus on building close, respectful public relationships between the individuals involved that explore their personal and organizational interests. In Chicago, this took the form of informal breakfast meetings at a south side diner where people got to know each other over several years before they started campaigning together.

2. Individuals matter

Despite coalitions being defined as an alignment of organizations, alliances can live or die depending on effective leadership from individuals, in particular:

  1. organizational leaders
  2. champions inside of organizations
  3. coalition coordinators/staff

For each of these people the most important qualities are an ability to build bridges across different kinds of organizations and the ability to act as campaign strategists.

In the case studies, it made a difference when leaders directly participated in coalition decision making. Their participation was a sign of their commitment as well as facilitating quick and strong decision making in the coalition. Contrast the public education coalition which consisted of a table of positional leaders with the Ontario Health Coalition which was a table of staff. Sydney had much greater success at maintaining organizational commitment and tapping into significant organizational resources than in Toronto where the arm’s length relationship with the leadership made it difficult to engage the unions.

Strong leaders were frequently supported by champions in their ranks. In Sydney and Toronto, staff organizers helped leaders guide the formation of coalition relationships.

Coalition coordinators were also critical for holding together organizational relationships and strengthening the coalition. In Chicago, a coalition coordinator helped the coalition stay the course over an eighteen month campaign plan, and in Toronto the coordinator’s personal experience in a local health coalition motivated her to support and mentor local organizing. These coordinators helped smooth over differences between organizations, and sought to mitigate union dominance when it arose. In contrast, in Australia where there was not a coalition coordinator, the relationships were more unstable and fell away over time.

3. To Wield Self-Interest with a Sword of Justice

This principle is about the kind of issues that coalitions work on. It requires a coalition to simultaneously pursue issues that feed the direct strategic needs of their organizational partners while those issues also need to be connected to a sense of communal justice, or the public interest.

Organizational self-interest is necessary but not sufficient to build a strong coalition. In Canada, the health coalition sometimes struggled to connect with union self-interest. Medicare, abstractly framed as a national icon, was a challenge to prioritize as an issue of importance above the noise of bargaining and contract campaigning. At the same time, self-interest alone has limited political impact. In Sydney the contract campaign by the teachers, and in Chicago, the UFCW’s anti-Wal-mart campaign were dismissed by the media and politicians as unions just acting for themselves.

The key ingredient for opening up self-interest to public interest, or the common good, is the capacity to negotiate mutual self-interest. This is where organizations identify discrete but shared interests that allow them to pursue their own goals together. The public education alliance found a mutual self-interest in the issue of reduced class sizes. Teachers had an interest in smaller classes because it made their workload more manageable, and parents had a related but different interest in that smaller class sizes were shown to improve educational outcomes for their children.

There is an immense creativity, and unpredictability, in mutual self-interest. It is a space where new ideas and campaigns can be created based out of an innovative exploration of shared need and power. For instance, in Chicago, an anti-Wal-Mart site fight was translated into a campaign for a living wage ordinance for retail workers

Coalition campaigns can more successfully shift the political climate when they are positively framed demands, rather than negatively framed “no campaigns”. Consequently the Ontario Health Coalition struggled to set an agenda for positive health care reforms while working on the issue of “no-public private partnerships.

Coalition campaigns were most successful when they combined a broad narrative with specific demands. Successful broad public interest narratives included references to living wages, public education or Medicare, as they were iconic moral claims. But to be powerful these slogans needed to be linked to specific surface demands that linked these abstract claims to member interests – for instance the public education campaign was made concrete when linked to a specific policy around reducing class sizes. The big box living wage campaign actively engaged other union members, such as SEIU homecare workers, when it was explained that winning a wage raise for retail workers could help homecare workers in their next contract fight.

4. Timely exercise of power through conscious planning

In Power in Coalition successful sustained coalitions had long term plans to build then exercise power against decision makers. The Sydney public education coalition had a two year plan that included an independent inquiry, with reports released periodically in the lead up to the political opportunity of a state election. Similarly the Chicago living wage campaign was timed to move its ordinance six months out from aldermanic elections. This meant that the threat of popular election encouraged councilors to vote for the ordinance, and, even when the ordinance was vetoed by the Mayor, coalition partners could use the election cycle to react. Which they did. As a consequence 7 hostile aldermen were removed in the 2007 elections.

Disciplined planning ensured the coalitions could deliver political pressure rather than just reacting to the media cycle.

5. Multi-scaled coalitions

In the same way that one organization cannot win on its own, most issues cannot be solved at a single scale. Political and economic power is multi-scaled – traversing the local, regional, state, national and international, and to be most effective coalitions frequently need the versatility to act at multiple scales.

In the case studies, coalitions were most effective at acting at multiple scales when they supported the establishment of local city or neighborhood coalitions. These local coalitions (or broker organizations) helped enhance their organizational strength and their political influence.

For instance, in Canada, the Ontario Health Coalition established 40 coalitions around the province so it could run a campaign that collected hundreds of thousands of petitions and then move issues in a coordinated way across the province. These local town based coalitions were led by union members, retired teachers and community activists, providing a space for organizational members to build their skills and capacity to campaign.

But there are specific ingredients for successfully managing multi-scaled coalitions.

First, there is a need for a feedback loop between the different scales. It is not just about setting people up locally to run a state or national agenda, there needs to be local control. In Canada, when the OHC began coordinating tours through the local coalitions to raise awareness about public private partnerships, most of the strategy was developed in Toronto. While successful at first, the cycle of holding event after event had diminishing returns and participation at these events fell away.

The Canadians did come up with a partial solution to the feedback loop, which was ensure local coalitions were represented on provincial steering committees in the same way organizations were.

Second, there is a need for local coalitions to have some relative autonomy – to pursue local demands in conjunction with national/state demands. In Canada, the local coalitions were most successful when state action was driven by locally relevant and locally planned strategy. For instance, a plebiscite campaign was run around hospitals threatened with privatization – where communities one at a time were asked to vote in a referendum. These campaigns were planned and executed by the local groups, and this higher degree of control stimulated significant local participation and commitment.

This is a cursory glance at some of the findings about strong coalitions. These ideas are elaborated in much more detail in Power in Coalition, in particular in Chapter Five.

About The Author: Amanda Tattersall is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Sydney, Australia. Her dissertation looks at community unionism—which occurs when trade unions campaign with community organisations and social movements on issues beyond wages and condition—and involves a comparative study of industrial relations and social movement practice in Australia, Canada and the United States.


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