May Day, May 1, a day celebrated by workers around the world for 130 years. What many don’t know is that it all began right here in the US, in Chicago, in 1886. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) passed a resolution in 1884 to decrease the 10-16 hour workday to 8 hours. By May 1, 1886, over a quarter of a million workers became involved in this campaign, including the Trades and Labor Assembly, the Socialist Labor Party and the Knights of Labor. Much of the leadership of these organizations was made up of socialists and anarchists, so there was also a consciousness of the evils of capitalism and the limits of the 8 hour demand.
As this is being published, Amazon announced that it won the vote on unionizing the plant in Bessemer, Alabama. Workers at the warehouse launched a union campaign last year to improve working conditions and pay. As of April 9, 7:00PM EDT, the initial count is 1,798 opposed to 738 in favor (out of approximately 6,000 voters). Amazon and the union intend to challenge the validity of some votes.
The workers’ efforts could still spark an international movement at other Amazon centers and in other industries that deliver unlivable wages, poor benefits, and unsafe working conditions. Workers at Walmart, Target, and fast-food restaurants may also be inspired to form unions, threatening the owners with a rebellious workforce and a loss in profit. A disproportionate number of workers in these industries is black, immigrant, female, and Latin. Their role as essential workers and their poverty create disproportionate exposures to Covid 19. Over 20,000 out of 1.3 million (2%) Amazon employees have contracted Covid 19 as of October 2020.
Placing the fight for economic security at the jobsite sharpens antiracist and class struggle beyond the legislative approach in the Fight for 15 campaign. Unions may not win every campaign or contract demand, but they provide a structure for workers to engage in many struggles, such as housing reforms, anti-war movements, and other activist mobilizations. It is important for all of us to support the Amazon workers in all ways possible.
This post will present the issues behind the Amazon organizing, its significance to the working class, the ways we can help, the current and historical role of black workers in the labor movement, and how an egalitarian society could deal with consumerism.
Background – The Roots of International Women’s Day
March is Women’s History Month that is celebrated with marches and cultural programs around the world. International Women’s Day, observed in the US on March 8, was sparked in 1909 when 20,000 women waistmakers in the International Ladies Garment Workers Union in New York City shut down the sweatshops to oppose disastrous working conditions, sexual harassment, and low wages. They inspired the German socialist, Clara Zetkin, to establish International Women’s Day with a march dedicated to universal suffrage, free childcare, and other reforms to improve women’s lives (The Socialist Origins of International Women’s Day (jacobinmag.com). Socialist parties in other countries adopted it with marches and demonstrations to create an international movement for justice for women.
In 1917 in Petrograd, Russian working-class women held a militant march (pictured above) that launched strikes and revolutionary actions that established socialism in Russia. Lenin celebrated the role of working women in the Russian revolution as the Bolshevik Party endorsed International Women’s Day:
“For under capitalism the female half of the human race is doubly oppressed. The working woman and the peasant woman are oppressed by capital, but over and above that—they remain in ‘household bondage,’ they continue to be ‘household slaves,’ for they are overburdened with the drudgery of the most squalid, backbreaking and stultifying toil in the kitchen and the family household.”
Today, we see rote, performative recognition of Women’s International History Month by politicians, the media, and companies who advertise sales to commemorate it while maintaining conditions that oppress women workers.
This article describes the role of capitalism in women’s oppression, the effects of Covid 19 on women, examples of women workers organizing against sexism and capitalism, and a class-based strategy to abolish sexism.
Burma or Myanmar? Neither name connotes any progressive political position. Burma is what the British colonialists called their territory. The military victors in a 1989 coup changed the country’s name to Myanmar. Many local opposition groups prefer Burma, so we’ll go with that.
Every day the news from Burma grows more shocking. The military leaders of the February coup are shooting at and killing large numbers of peaceful demonstrators, at least 51 over the March 13-14th weekend alone. Over 1800 protestors have been arrested. Nonetheless, hundreds of thousands continue to protest the military seizure of power, reflecting hatred of the many brutal military regimes during recent Burmese history. A general strike was called on March 8, demanding a return to democracy. Even several hundred police have resigned rather than fire on their own people; youth have set up self-defense committees.
Capitalism uses police as agents of social control in our neighborhoods, jobs, and schools, using their power to put kids on a school-to-jail pipeline. In 2013-2014, school police in 8000 schools arrested 70,000 students with black children overly represented (Ed Week). Detentions and arrests of students can affect college admissions and future incarceration. Criminal justice reformers have been fighting for years to interrupt this pathway by freeing schools of police and punitive policies like the use of metal detectors. Such measures do not prevent violence or its causes, and create an antagonistic climate. Parents, politicians, and teachers take different positions, some claiming School Resource Officers, SROs, are necessary to ensure safety and others protesting the increased risk of arrest and brutality mostly directed to black and Latin students as well as those with disabilities.
Alternate methods to deal with behavioral problems in the schools exist. Researchers have shown that students who face racial discrimination are more likely to feel alienated in schools, disengaging from them by dropping out or not trying academically. Supportive teachers who acknowledge and show interest in students’ cultural backgrounds help mitigate this alienation (Bottiani, Gottfredson). Abolitionists point out that SROs do nothing to prevent mass school shootings, and a simulation study verified this finding (Child Trends).
Organizers mobilize for outreach to tenants in Mt. Rainier, MD
by Karyn Pomerantz and Linda Green, 3-1-2021
Over 30 million people face evictions from their homes during the deadly Covid 19 outbreak. Losing housing is nothing new. As neighborhoods gentrify, public housing deteriorates, and people lose jobs, more people have no or unstable homes. The US lost four million affordable housing units and seven million apartments for low-income residents over the last decade. Before the pandemic, 25% of renters spent 50% or more of their income on rent, and 25% of people under the poverty line spent 70% (Aspen Institute)! This serves the financial interests of the developers and banks who build and finance luxury, high priced apartments and houses, adding to the oppression of the entire working class. Since black, Latin, and indigenous people earn less and face higher rates of unemployment, this situation exacerbates the racism fundamental to capitalism. Larger proportions of families of color, including Asian families, expect to apply for assistance. Families with children have higher eviction rates, causing long-term trauma and other health problems.
The pandemic has worsened housing security. What kind of society kicks people out of their homes during a public health crisis!? Obviously, the drive to profit off of workers’ lives has no limits. The moratoriums on evictions only postpone pay-up day. Despite the federal moratorium and financial assistance to landlords, property owners apply laws that allow them to evict, such as requesting evictions for people who stay in their homes past their leases. As of March 1, 2020, a judge has ruled that the moratorium is illegal, throwing millions of people into limbo.
Racist healthcare rationing is nothing new under capitalism. Enabling enough people to work and produce profit is the major imperative. There is no need for universal health care unless the economy is threatened as we see with the Covid-19 pandemic. Wealthy people can always buy themselves the care they need, whether it’s meds for Covid-19 or HIV drugs. As Cuba, China, the USSR, and Partners in Health in Peru and Haiti (Netflix’s Bending the Arc) proved, public health workers can take health promotion and treatment to millions of poor people through prioritizing health as a social good and organizing community members to deliver care and prevention. Unfortunately, without workers holding power, these improvements can be defunded and eliminated.
The article below describes the life-threatening situation when hospital administrators ration vital supplies and staff in a respiratory therapy unit in Chicago and how workers opposed these practices. It is part of our series on organizing at work and in the community.
Thousands of Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 to stop Congress from validating Biden’s and Harris’ win, and to warn people fighting to reform or overthrow capitalism that they would face violent retaliation. This was an action to terrorize activists demanding antiracist equity and related changes. The response highlighted the extreme differences between the violent attack by Trump supporters and the uprisings against police murders, the ongoing hunger strike by 140 immigrants held in New Jersey detention centers, the union campaign by Google workers, demands for Covid-19 protections and universal healthcare, and demonstrations for jobs, housing, and debt relief. The likely collusion between the police and the Trump mob, the ease with which the mob entered the Capitol, and the ability to recruit thousands will embolden right wing groups, leading to their growth and confidence.
On the other side, the medical and economic repercussions of the pandemic, the wider visibility of police violence, and the acknowledgement of centuries of racist oppression have inspired large uprisings across the US and other countries of multi-generational, and multiracial and multiethnic groups of workers and students. The movement against police murders of black men and women sparked by the killing of Trayvon Martin expanded with the execution of George Floyd with thousands taking to the streets. The diversity of the rebels alarms the people who control the economy and government (the ruling class). At this point, antiracist leaders call for abolition of the police, prisons, and other oppressive conditions, trusting that abolition is possible when we have no power. Their hesitancy to call for and build revolutionary change weakens our fight and obstructs the possibility of a better future.
The potential of a growing, more militant movement threatens US capitalism, which leads to the ruling class building and supporting fascist organizations to terrorize and repress us. We have a tremendous opportunity to unite millions of black, white, Asian, indigenous, and immigrant workers over these common problems around the world. We can build a movement to demand radical changes and to seize power. We have a long way to go but must prepare now
As I write this, thousands of racist proto-fascists are storming the US Capitol while over 140 immigrant detainees at Essex County and Hudson County, NJ ICE detention centers are on hunger strike, the third wave of such strikes at NJ facilities in 2020. While protesting inmates are being threatened and coerced, masses of rioting white people are being gently removed from the Capitol, only 13 arrested (that number may grow) after breaching the legislative chambers and causing death and injury. The chasm between the treatment of those who struggle against hatred and oppression, who have fled from violence and poverty, who sicken and die disproportionately from disease, and between those who have been won to hatred and racist violence is gaping and widening.
Public attention to issues of incarceration and policing have grown in recent years. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow revealed stark inequities in US prisons and jails, building on the long-time work of abolitionists, such as Angela Davis and Ruth Gilmore Wilson of Critical Resistance, Mariame Kaba of Project Nia, and many others. The horrifying murders of black people, the impact of Covid-19 in jails and prisons, and the persistent organizing by public health activists pushed the American Public Health Association (APHA) in October 2020 to approve a policy to abolish prisons, release imprisoned people for health and humane reasons, and reallocate funds for community mental health, jobs, and housing. To surprised supporters, the governing body passed Advancing Public Health Interventions to Address the Harms of the Carceral System with a 92% vote after a hearing where more than 50 people lined up virtually to speak on it. This vote followed the 2018 policy affirming law enforcement violence as a public health crisis that took three years to overcome opposition. The persistent and dedicated authors of the End Police Violence Collective wrote and steered both resolutions to passage (see https://endingpoliceviolence.org). Many national and local organizations have applied its action steps in campaigns across the US.
On the local level, public health and education activists in Prince George’s County, MD organized a campaign to abolish police presence in the schools by removing School Resource Officers (SROs), armed police funded by the Police Department, from the schools to prevent physical and psychological abuse, arrests, and contact with police.
These policies are labeled as abolitionist, a strategy to eliminate repressive and typically racist practices, like policing, to create a more just and equitable world. Citing abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore, the APHA resolution defines abolition as “a process of changing the social and economic conditions that lead to harm and of ensuring that people have what they need to thrive and be well, thereby eliminating the need for jails, prisons, detention centers, and policing.”
This article discusses the APHA policy and SRO removal campaign to fight racist carceral policies at the national and local levels, the potential for abolition under capitalism, and the replacement of punishment with restorative justice.