Labor's Gotta Play Hardball to Win!

Showdown on West Coast Docks: The Battle of Longview
(November 2011).
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Chicago Plant Occupation Electrifies Labor
(December 2008).
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May Day Strike Against the War Shuts Down
U.S. West Coast Ports

(May 2008)
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The Internationalist
June 2014

Don’t Fall for Democrats’ Campaign Promises

Fight Low-Wage Slavery,
Mobilize Workers’ Power

Demonstration outside McDonald’s restaurant near Times Square, New York City, during May 15 fast food workers “strike.” (Internationalist photo)

For Class Struggle Against Capitalism 
Build a Revolutionary Workers Party!

Even $15 Is Poverty Pay

What “economic recovery”? You seen any recovery in your pay lately? Rents are up – along with food, transportation and everything else – and wages are down. Better-paying jobs are being replaced by low-wage jobs. Despite the government’s lying statistics, mass unemployment hasn’t gone away. The reality is that we are well into the sixth year of a capitalist economic crisis with no end in sight. But workers won’t take this forever: an outbreak of class struggle is coming.

“Recession”? No way. A recession is a cyclical dip. This is a depression: the economy went down and it’s staying down. Sure, the bosses are making money hand over fist, while we the workers pay the price – low-wage workers most of all. The fight against poverty wages must be the fight of all working people – and it must be waged first and foremost against the Democratic Party, from the White House to the State House and City Hall.

President Obama’s call to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 is peanuts. The Republicans won’t even agree to that, which is why the Dems proposed it, as a ploy to get votes in the 2014 elections. But even the $10.10 Obamawage would leave workers stuck deep in poverty. The Democrats are no “friends of labor”: like the Republicans they are a capitalist party that represents the interests of the bosses who exploit low-wage workers – and all workers.

Over the last year and a half there has been a groundswell of calls to raise the minimum wage to $15. Beginning in 2012 with nationwide rallies outside Walmart stores and a fast food workers “strike” in New York City that December, protests in numerous cities against low wages have coalesced around the demand for a $15 minimum wage. On June 1, the Seattle City Council voted to raise the local minimum to $15 but taking four to seven years to reach that level.

$15 would be a raise rather than an insult, but one that is wholly inadequate. Low-wage workers chant, “we can’t survive on $7.25” and call for a living wage. But you can’t live on $15 either and make ends meet, particularly with a family. A worker in Seattle would have to put in two and a half weeks full-time to pay the average monthly apartment rent ($1,540) – and that’s before taxes! In NYC, a one-bedroom apartment ($2,666) would be more than a month’s pay!!

Fact is, $15 is still a poverty wage. You would have to triple the current minimum wage to $25 an hour and more to even begin to climb out of poverty. But beyond the numbers, the rulers will use every trick in the book to whittle it down (in NYC the liberal hope Bill de Blasio is talking $13.33), delay it and load it up with all sorts of exemptions like health care. Appeals to the Democrats are a dead end: workers are going to have to use their power to strike.

Yet the various campaigns (15 Now, Fight for 15, Fast Food Forward, etc.) all focus on pressuring the Democrats. Even when led by ostensible socialists, they are basically electoral gimmicks. The “strikes” that have been called are purely symbolic: very few low-wage workers actually join in for a simple reason – without union protection they run a huge risk of being fired. To counter that what’s needed isn’t appeals to “elected officials” but to mobilize union power.

Workers today are being told not to expect a secure retirement, steady employment or decent and affordable housing. We are beset by an aggressive police apparatus armed for civil war that lays its bloody hands on one in three black men in this country and persecutes the 12 million undocumented immigrant workers, breaking up families and throwing them into concentration camps awaiting deportation. Unions are under constant assault yet they are shackled by a sellout, flag-waving bureaucracy that seeks to chain the workers to “their” capitalist bosses.

Straining under this burden of exploitation and oppression, insulted by the gross inequality that subverts any promise of “democracy,” the working class is heading for an explosion that will make the middle-class Occupy protests look like a firecracker. The question is not whether a labor revolt will break out, but what will be its result. Will its energies be sapped by symbolic actions, will there be a rotten compromise that leaves low-wage slavery intact? The will to struggle is there. The outcome depends on two things: leadership and program.

The issue here is power. The opposition to raising the minimum wage is not being led by mom-and-pop delis and the corner bodega, it’s coming from multi-billion-dollar corporations like McDonald’s and Walmart. The sky-high profits of these mega-capitalists depend on rock-bottom wages. They will never be defeated by business unionists whose stock-in-trade is class collaboration. Real victories for low-wage workers require forging a leadership based on a program of unflinching class struggle.

“Stick Together for $15 and a Union” read the signs outside the Wendy’s on Fulton Street in Brooklyn last December 5. Wendy’s response was to close the store. Yet for all the media attention and hopes incited by low-wage worker protests, these have not organized a single shop. Why not? Because the goal of the union bureaucrats and the reformist “socialists” who tail after them is to contain the class struggle and use it as a bargaining chip for political influence within the ruling party of racist American capitalism, the Democratic Party.

The fact is, the union tops are not trying to unionize workers in low-wage industries. They even say so. On 29 January 2013, the Organization United for Respect at Wal-Mart (OUR Walmart) and its backer the Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW), threatened by a suit brought against them by Walmart, called off picketing for 60 days and categorically promised the National Labor Relations Board that they did not, and would not, seek to unionize Walmart workers. All they’re trying to do is keep Walmart out of the urban centers.

Meanwhile, despite the millions of dollars in members’ dues poured into the project, the Service Employees International bureaucracy behind the “Fast Food Forward” campaign limits itself to cheap stunts where a handful of workers are used as stage props for Democratic politicians to promote their undeserved reputations as “friends” of the workers. But millions of low-wage workers are fed up with empty promises, want real results and have all the courage and initiative that the struggle requires.

A class-struggle fight against poverty wages would seek to build fighting unions, beginning with assemblies of low-wage workers. It would appeal for working-class support to picket and, where there is sufficient support among workers, shut down particular businesses (particularly of national chains) that don’t pay at least $15 per hour. Opposing bureaucratic sellouts, it would insist on mass mobilization and independence from the Democrats and all capitalist parties and politicians, who are the servants of the bosses and the patrons of the racist, strikebreaking cops.

A class-struggle offensive must not limit itself to narrow “bread-and-butter” economic demands. Recognizing that a majority of low-wage workers are women, it would call for free, 24-hour child care. Particularly since a huge percentage of low-wage workers are undocumented immigrants, it would demand full citizenship rights for all immigrants. Well aware that young African American workers are targets of police terror the minute they walk out the door, it would call for workers mobilization against racist repression. And it would oppose the drive to war.

Above all, we must fight for political independence from the bosses’ parties, to begin building a workers party now, not just to fight back against capitalist attack but to lead a counteroffensive for a workers government that can do away with modern wage slavery and begin the work of international socialist revolution. $15 is not enough. Low-wage workers, and all workers, need a whopping raise, fighting unions, and a revolutionary workers party!

Seattle’s “$15 Later” Law –
A “Historic Victory”? Hardly

Last November, the liberal “socialist” Kshama Sawant was elected to the Seattle city council, on a platform for a $15 an hour minimum wage. The victorious Democratic candidate for mayor, Ed Murray, also called for $15/hr., as did his Democratic rival.1 After some weeks deliberation a select “Inequality Advisory Committee” of corporate lobbyists and labor bureaucrats produced a bill that do that … by anywhere from 2017 to 2021. The Seattle Times (2 May) headlined, “Mayor’s plan lifts minimum wage to $15 – eventually,” saying the “lengthy and complicated” route “lacks the punch of ’15 now’,” but had business and labor support. On June 2, the bill was approved by the city council as activists chanted “we are unstoppable, another world is possible.”

The Seattle Times (3 June) called it “historic,” as did Sawant. Her party, Socialist Alternative (SAlt), had earlier denounced the lengthy phase-in (only after 11 years – in 2025 – will workers who receive tips catch up to the rest) and elements on the “big business wish list.” Sawant (who was on the advisory committee) presented a series of amendments to eliminate provisions for a lower “training wage” for teenagers and disabled workers, as well as delays for tips and health care benefits. All were voted down. She then joined her Democratic colleagues to make the final vote unanimous, later calling it “an absolutely historic movement” (Democracy Now, 5 June). An article on the SAlt website hailed the “victory” as “an historic achievement.”

Was it? Sawant said the measure “signifies a transfer of income of $3 billion from the richest in the city to the bottom-most workers,” and the SAlt article claimed that that “one hundred thousand workers will be lifted out of poverty” Nonsense, workers earning $15 an hour won’t even be able to pay the rent, which by 2017-21 is bound to be quite a bit higher. Certainly the vote shows that Democrats are feeling the need to do something to defuse unrest over inequality. Ballot measures calling for minimum wage hikes are being proposed in San Francisco, Oakland, Chicago and other cities. Yet “Council members acknowledged it would take more than a gradual pay increase to make the city more affordable,” the Seattle Times account noted.

Democracy Now journalist Juan Gonzalez questioned Sawant about her turnaround on the mayor’s plan, and the International Socialist Organization (which is every bit as reformist as Socialist Alternative) took her to task for proclaiming it a historic victory and for “abruptly dropping the campaign for a ballot measure to win a stronger law” (, 13 June). SAlt’s answer is given in its headline on the city council vote, “Victory for $15 in Seattle! How Socialists Built a Winning Movement.” For the social democrats – whether SAlt, ISO or the other brands – what’s key is not mobilizing the working class against capitalism but projecting the image of a “winning movement” (led by them), no matter how paltry the gains.

Revolutionaries can support reforms that significantly improve conditions for the working class and oppressed, while emphatically denouncing their limitations and underscoring the need to bring down the whole system of production for profit. But the ballot initiative being pushed by Socialist Alternative was not, in fact, better than the mayor’s bill. In particular, it included a provision, similar to one in Proposition 1 to establish a $15 minimum wage in the Seattle-Tacoma Washington “airport city” of SeaTac last November, that allowed unions to agree with employers to contractually exempt their members from the higher minimum wage. This grotesquely anti-union clause was written into the law by the labor bureaucrats who drafted it!

In SeaTac, a county judge struck down the $15 ordinance, agreeing with Alaska Airlines that the city had no right to set wages at the airport. In Seattle, SAlt’s “15 Now” campaign drafted a ballot initiative as a pressure tactic against waffling by the Democratic mayor and city council. But at the request of Hotel and Restaurant Workers (HERE) union bureaucrats, at an April 26 conference SAlt included a clause similar to SeaTac’s allowing lower union wages. Trying to hide its capitulation to the sellout bureaucrats, SAlt cynically called this sub-minimum wage clause “language defending the family health care plans won by unionized Seattle hotel workers” (“$15 in Seattle is not the end – It is the beginning!”,, 30 April).

The HERE labor fakers no doubt figured they could offer sweetheart deals of lower wages and lousy medical insurance to the bosses in exchange for union recognition. But while filling union coffers with dues money, this would fatally undermine the unions as a defense of workers against unlimited capitalist exploitation. For ostensible socialists to support such a dirty deal is shameful. So when SAlt tries to cover its left flank with cheap criticisms of the “corporate loopholes” in the Seattle minimum wage law it voted for, just keep in mind that it wrote the mother of all corporate loopholes into its “alternative” proposal.

P.S. Now that Socialist Alternative has dropped its ballot initiative and hailed the mayor’s law as “historic,” perhaps it should rebrand its campaign from “15 Now” to “15 Later.” ■

  1. 1. See our article, “‘Socialist’ Elected in Seattle on Platform of Liberal/Populist Reforms,” The Internationalist No. 36, January-February 2014.