By Lindsay Mímir
American labor experienced a powerful resurgence this spring. The teachers’ strikes in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Colorado, and Arizona were the most visible. Additionally, 49,000 workers at the University of California launched a three-day strike. 50,000 casino workers in Las Vegas, Nevada authorized a strike, forcing hotels and casinos to negotiate new contracts for their workers. And in Seattle, the Academic Student Employees at the University of Washington and the school bus drivers of Seattle Public Schools also went on strike.
These strikes come at a time when most workers have found they can no longer trust their elected representatives to protect them, and in some cases, like the West Virginia teachers, they can’t trust their union bureaucrats, either. As state legislatures undercut and undermine public funding and public trust, rank-and-file workers are sending the message that the politicians and bureaucrats who determine their standard of living don’t have any power in the face of an organized and agitated workforce.
A conservative and reformist take on this labor upsurge is that unions are reminding state legislatures that the politicians work for the people, not the other way around, and that unions are only on strike to win wages that are commensurate with the cost of living and inflation.
This perspective is almost certainly true for most of America’s unionized workers. They want fair wages, fair healthcare, and respect for the invaluable services they provide to their states and communities. This perspective interprets this spring’s strikes as backlash for years of neoliberal austerity.
But this conservative approach fails to account for the actual labor unrest in this country. And when I say “labor unrest,” I don’t mean just unionized workers who have been mistreated; I mean the entirety of the American workforce. Every working-class person, regardless of political affiliation or ideology, knows that there is something deeply wrong with America’s economy. I see it on the bus every day when I go to work: exhausted people with downcast eyes traveling into a city that’s too expensive to live in, going to a job that doesn’t pay nearly enough, working for bosses and corporations who only care about their profitability. They go to work before sunrise and return home after sunset. They pass by dozens of people who are homeless encamped along the freeway or under bridges. Their lives seem to be beyond their control.
This is not merely unrest and discontentment with wages, benefits, cost of living, or even our government’s austerity measures. There is a growing awareness that the intertwined systems of government and capitalism are fundamentally immoral. The strikes of this spring and the election of Donald Trump both indicate the same phenomenon: workers are increasingly aware of their own alienation. Sometimes this manifests positively, like in union fights for better wages. Sometimes it manifests in capitalism’s ugliest spawn: fascism, when workers become reactionary and attempt to reclaim an idealized past that never existed.
Some writers on the left have used the teacher strikes as evidence that now is the time for socialist and communist groups to insert themselves into the melee and steer the fight in a particular revolutionary direction. This perspective is as equally uninformed as the conservative, reformist view.
These opportunists see workers as a means to an end and see the strikes as an opportunity to reaffirm their own ideologies. The workers’ movement itself—as diverse, multifaceted, complicated, and problematic as it is—becomes nothing more than a tool for leftist opportunists to attempt to hijack workers’ successes for themselves, and for their particular ideologies.
This is not a moment for opportunism. We aren’t nearing “class consciousness.” These moderate gains for teachers and public workers are not evidence that the great American proletariat is realizing itself as a revolutionary force. Instead, this is a time for militant and radical organizers to remember our place in the workers’ movement. We aren’t the vanguard of the revolution. We can’t force people to become radical and to realize their revolutionary potential. We aren’t an outside force, enlightened interlopers, or foreign agitators who are separate from the workers.
We are the workers.
All that we can do is continue to bring workers together into a union that will fight for them and with them. Of course, it’s no surprise that there were Wobblies and radicals among every strike I’ve mentioned. I don’t have a pessimistic or cynical view of our organization; rather, these strikes give me a lot of hope about what we can accomplish if we continue the work that the workers themselves started.
This spring has been an outburst of spontaneity. The teachers in Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Colorado clearly took inspiration from the West Virginia teachers, who defied both the law and union bureaucracy when they went out on a wildcat strike for better working conditions. All it took was one union in one small state standing up for themselves, and suddenly there were thousands of other workers across the country doing the same.
We can bring workers together. We can fight for modest gains without compromising on our radical goals. Every time labor wins, we win. Every successful strike shows other workers that they have the power to take back control over not just their livelihoods, but their lives. Our job as organizers is to help workers recognize that power.
The IWW is a revolutionary labor union. We will build a new society in the shell of the old. But we will never reach this goal if we don’t build worker power, and we will never succeed if we delude ourselves into believing we are separate from working people. We should take this opportunity to educate and agitate, all the while resisting opportunist impulses to lead workers. Instead, we must organize with workers so that they can lead themselves.
[This article was originally published in the June-July 2018 Seattle Worker. You can read the full issue here.]