Every great struggle has a rallying cry.
The French Revolution of 1789 saw the masses storming the Bastille for “Liberty, Fraternity, Equality.” The workers and peasants in the Russian Revolution of 1917 called for “Bread, Peace and Land.”
What will be the stated goal for the emerging mass struggle in the United States?
What can union leaders across this country be thinking when they advance the slogan “Defend the Middle Class”? This slogan isn’t just coming from one or two confused individuals. It has been promoted by AFL-CIO International President Richard Trumka, United Auto Workers President Bob King, and countless state and local union leaders.
Of course, these union officials should be commended for finally calling mass protests against the vicious union-busting, wage- and benefit-cutting onslaught, especially against public workers. Workers have been eagerly responding by the thousands and tens of thousands — in Wisconsin by the hundreds of thousands — to the numerous marches and rallies as they see their right to bargain collectively destroyed, their wages slashed and their pensions threatened. A long-delayed mass fightback seems to be taking shape.
But raising the banner “Defend the Middle Class” at the front of this movement is not only an inaccurate description. It is also harmful to the very struggle they are trying to promote. The Merriam-Webster on-line dictionary describes the middle class as “occupying a position between the upper class and the lower class ... composed principally of business and professional people, bureaucrats, and some farmers and skilled workers.”
While most workers may not have consulted Merriam-Webster, they know they are part of the working (disparagingly called “lower”) class.
It is true that some union leaders, like UAW’s Bob King, explain that they support workers “in having and maintaining a decent middle-class standard of living.” (Solidarity, March/April 2011) But in the next paragraph he confuses a decent standard of living with the “need to rebuild the Great American Middle Class.”
Why can’t these union leaders come out and say they are defending the working class and the right of all human beings to a decent standard of living?
Following World War II, the labor unions and their leadership in the U.S. were shaped by two powerful forces. First, the capitalist ruling class of bankers and corporate bosses, along with their bought-and-paid-for politicians, opened up a political attack to drive most socialists and communists out of the unions — unions they had often founded.
Second, the pre-eminent economic and military position of the United States worldwide led that same ruling class to distribute a few crumbs to a section of the U.S. working class. From around 1947 to 1972 the average standard of living rose 50 percent. For those workers who benefited from this rise, class struggle concepts seemed unnecessary.
Talk of the “working class” and the “capitalist class” disappeared from their vocabulary. Workers were now called “employees” or “associates.” Some theoreticians advanced the idea that this ideology was dead, such as Daniel Bell in his 1960 book “The End of Ideology.”
Relearning the class struggle
The current ruling-class offensive against the workers and the unions catches most union leaders untrained in class struggle action. Even where they may sincerely want to put up a fight, and are gathering their troops to do battle, they are hampered by misconceptions. Perhaps they fear that the ruling class will attack them for fomenting “class struggle.” Maybe they also fear that their own members might not respond to a call to build a fighting, mass, working-class-led struggle.
Certainly there was a time when many better-paid, unionized industrial workers looked down upon those below them on the economic ladder. But today those same workers have been laid off by the hundreds of thousands. Plant closings and outsourcing overseas have decimated the once-powerful industrial unions.
Many workers have accepted savage wage/benefit cuts, while newly hired autoworkers are being paid half the wages of older autoworkers in a system called “two tier.” Teachers and public workers in many fields are seeing firsthand that they have no job security or rights respected by the ruling class.
Now is precisely the time when clear and correct slogans are needed to rally and educate the millions of workers entering into the struggle.
We can’t go back to the time when only a small percent of the workers enjoyed a “middle-class standard of living.” It isn’t only that. The ruling class won’t allow it.
More importantly, that reactionary vision leaves out the vast majority of other workers who have no unions.
It leaves out the unemployed and underemployed, who now number 30 million people.
It leaves out the millions of undocumented and persecuted workers.
It leaves out the disabled and homeless, the victims of racism, sexism and anti-lesbian/gay/bi/trans/queer oppression.
All of them are part of the vast working class of the United States. All of them are also looking for a decent standard of living. Calls to defend or rebuild the “middle class” can only serve to alienate and insult the majority of the working class, exclude them from the struggle and weaken the ability of our class to fight back and win.
Time to revive working-class slogans
The fact that this so obviously erroneous slogan was quickly taken up across the country by most prominent union leaders makes one think that it emerged from internal discussion that included some think-tank “specialists.”
The close relationship of the unions to the Democratic Party and the unions’ long-time, overriding dependence on electoral rather than mass struggle make it reasonable to assume that the union leaders are using this slogan to really appeal to — not their own members — but the actual middle class.
Since a large part of the workers, the unemployed and the poorest people of the country don’t vote most of the time, and a significant part of the middle class has come under Tea Party/Republican influence, union leaders may think they can woo them to a progressive position with this slogan for the next election.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with the working class and its organizations putting forth slogans to support middle-class groupings that are suffering from the economic attack by the banks and corporations. But only a powerful working-class struggle that unites all parts of the working class for jobs, health care, housing, education, decent wages and pensions — only this kind of fighting force — can and will draw behind it a growing section of the middle class.
It is time to revive working-class consciousness and a working-class struggle in the streets. For that we need working-class slogans.
Sole, a member of the United Auto Workers for the past 40 years, is past-president of UAW Local 2334, Detroit.
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