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.
The essential feature of class-divided societies, including capitalism, is exploitation – exploitation of one (very large) class of people by another (much smaller) class. It is the one thing that absolutely prevents the reforming of capitalism to turn it into an equitable system. (This analysis is based on Capital, Vol.1 by Karl Marx)
Exploitation in capitalist society is the exchange of money for labor in which the money is less than the value of labor’s product – uneven exchange. Exploitation is the bedrock on which two economic (and social) classes exist, with a third group comprising people who may exhibit features of each class, such as small business owners who work alongside their employees or people who are self-employed, independent professionals, or managers.
Nothing demonstrates, nothing verifies the chasms of race, power and wealth in this world better than the differential rates at which the rulers of wealthy countries are distributing Covid-19 vaccines. On March 10, protestors demonstrated at Pfizer and Moderna headquarters in New York City, Boston, London, South Africa and other places to demand equitable availability of vaccines around the globe. As of that date, 130 countries had not received a single dose of vaccine, and many are not on track to be fully vaccinated before 2024. In order to attain herd immunity for the approximately 7.8 billion people in the world, 11 billion doses are needed to give 70% of adults two shots. According to Duke’s Global Health Innovation Center, high income countries, which represent one-fifth of the world’s population, possess six billion doses, but poor countries representing four-fifths of the population have only 2.6 billion. This figure includes the 1.1 billion doses under COVAX, the international plan to vaccinate in poor nations.
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).
In The Sum of Us (2021), Heather McGhee refutes the pervasive idea that racism, specifically white supremacy, benefits white workers. She contradicts the paradigm of a “zero-sum game” in which gains for black workers diminish the economic and social status of white workers. Instead, she advocates for “social solidarity” that would create a “solidarity dividend” that enriches the lives of all workers.
McGhee is another liberal capitalist author who has stong antiracist arguments but a weak analysis of the role of capitalism that requires racism to create profit and enforce divisions among workers. Liberal reformers, such as Sanders, the Ford Foundation, and unions, try to preserve capitalism by making it more equitable. McGhee was president of Demos, a liberal think tank for economic reforms. Her book reflects the insights she gained there.
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.
The largest strike in history, a truly awe-inspiring struggle, has been underway in India since September 2020. Over 250 million farmers and other workers from finance, transport, steel, energy and power, health care, communications, ports and docks have participated in this ongoing uprising(1). It is a response to policies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi that aim to increase the control of private corporations over the Indian economy and decrease the income and rights of workers. Where, we must ask, will this struggle lead?