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Brief History of the Working Class
"Ten thousand times has the labor movement stumbled and bruised itself. We have been enjoined by the courts, assaulted by thugs, charged by the militia, traduced by the press, frowned upon in public opinion, and deceived by politicians. But notwithstanding all this and all these, labor is today the most vital and potential power this planet has ever known, and its historic mission is as certain of ultimate realization as is the setting of the sun." --Eugene Victor Debs (1894)
The modern working class shares our birthday with the capitalist class which created us. “Free” workers, as opposed to the slaves or to the serfs who were bound to their lords for life, are necessary for the capitalist class. The better we are educated, especially in a technical sense, the more profits the capitalists can wring from our labors.
The freedom extended to us when the capitalists ended serfdom is limited. It is true that we may choose which capitalist enterprise exploits us, but we do not have, and never had, the freedom to choose no exploitation at all.
To exist under capitalism, workers must sell our labor power.
As long as we live under the rule of the capitalist class, we can obtain only temporary improvements in the terms of our employment by organizing. Unorganized workers have virtually no voice in capitalist society. If we were completely organized and able to select our own working class leaders, we could remove the capitalists from power and improve our lives in a permanent sense.
It’s extremely difficult for our gigantic class to organize, and the capitalists in power make it as difficult as possible.
Our history is defined by our efforts to overcome the obstacles to organization. Here are some of them:
From the first stirrings of unionism in the United States, which pre-dates the revolution of 1776, to the Second World War, American unionists made steady progress against the divisions in our class. The percentage of the workforce in unions rose to 35%, and many American union leaders were militant advocates of inclusion and internationalism.
But the post war period brought the U.S. capitalists unprecedented power, which they skillfully hurled against the working class at home and abroad. The Taft-Hartley Law of 1947 was a turning point in which corporate America united itself and its government allies in an all-out war against the working class at home and abroad. Even with its full force, this assault could not have been as successful as it was were it not for the unprecedented prosperity of the postwar period.
While the anti-communist and anti-labor drive increased to a fury, the big corporations were also able to entice opportunist labor leaders into taking wonderful benefits for their own members -- but to the exclusion of the rest of the working class! Previous internationalism, efforts to organize minority workers, and social projects such as national health care were abandoned as America's union leaders negotiated separate benefits for only their own members.
The result was predictable. The union movement became more and more isolated from the majority of American workers. Union members began to think of themselves as a part of the elite, and often voted with the big corporations.
Of course, there were exceptions. The United Farm Workers, for instance, formed strong alliances with church, community,and civil rights organizations to win wage and benefit increases for some of the most downtrodden of all American workers.
In general, though, when the long postwar prosperity ended and other nations recovered their productive abilities, unions had many bad habits and very few friends. In the 1980s, when American corporations began to go bankrupt, and began to use bankruptcy judges to break union power, union contracts stopped getting better every negotiation and started a long slide downhill.
In 1995, the main federation of American labor, the AFL-CIO elected a leadership that was in opposition to the previous leadership. It hadn't happened since for a century! Things changed rapidly.
The rate of loss of membership, and of percentage of the workforce organized, stopped increasing. Unions began to involve themselves in social issues. The old International Department, which was infamous for cooperating with the government's imperialism, was changed into a Solidarity Center with fewer ties to secret agencies. At the 1997 convention, the long-standing anti-communist constitutional clause was quietly removed. American unions began to develop international ties with workers abroad.
Perhaps the biggest change was the new emphasis on progressive politics. A trend was established in which the union vote became substantially larger and more united behind working class policies. The effect on national politics was palpable.
Labor's ability to confront big corporations and their friends in government is on the ascent as this is written, in 2009.
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