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Labor takes the lead: a new day in the class struggle

By Gus Hall, in People's Weekly World
25 July 1998

In his report to the meeting of the Communist Party USA National Board, Gus Hall, the party's national chair, said new developments "force the working class to rethink its role in what is a new situation." An except from the report follows.

This is a new era of class struggle, where the overall setting, context and conditions are very different from what they were a few decades ago.

In fact, they are so different that the working class has to completely rethink its strategy, tactics, and demands - and, in a larger sense, its role in this new situation.

Not to do so would reduce labor to an insignificant player in the great struggles that are reshaping the political and economic direction of our country.

Aware of this, the labor movement is changing to meet the new challenges as the century comes to a close. More and more, our nation's working people are confronting problems that are altogether new to them with militancy, courage and creative tactics.

Of course, there are some hitches and unevenness in labor's revitalization process. Cold War residue lingers in the thinking of some trade unionists.

Class collaboration has a hold on fewer, but still too many labor leaders. Anti-Communism surfaces once in a great while.

And even some good leaders, accustomed to the old way of doing things, find it difficult to fight in a new way.

But the main and dominant trend is that millions of trade unionists are ready to fight, to unite, to put their jobs on the line, to stay out one day longer than the boss, to dump the ultraright.

In fact, not since the early period of the CIO have we seen such bitter and militant clashes between the working class and its class enemies.

It is not just one battle, but a whole series of battles. What we see is an escalating pattern of militant struggles, involving broad sections of labor, rather than a single battle of one or another sector of labor.

If it were confined to a single sector - no matter how militant the struggle - our assessment would be quite different, but that is not the case. The class struggle is broad in scope and gaining in intensity.

One day it's the steelworkers at Ravenswood, Pa. and Warren, Ohio victoriously battling corporate conglomerates. Another day it's the Boeing workers.

Last year, the UPS workers routed their corporate enemy and, in so doing, set a new standard in terms of strike tactics, militancy and outreach. In Philadelphia, striking transit workers shut down the public transportation system.

In New York City thousands of building trades workers blocked streets. The next day hospital workers brought traffic in midtown Manhattan to a grinding halt.

GM strike

And now the auto strike is shaking the country. Nearly a quarter of a million GM workers are on the front line of the class struggle.

To see the auto strike as confined to 10,000 auto workers in Flint, or even to a quarter of a million GM workers nationwide, is to view the strike much too narrowly.

This strike is a pivotal confrontation between the working class and monopoly capital. Its outcome is sure to leave its mark on the entire course of the class struggle in our country.

If ever there was a strike in recent memory that brings into bold relief both the new trends in the global economy and the new framework of the class struggle, this strike is it. This auto strike is a defining moment for the entire working class.

At the core of this bitter clash is the issue of jobs. GM wants to eliminate them by bringing in a whole new family of labor-displacing technology, by outsourcing to semi-independent suppliers in countries like Mexico, Brazil, China, Thailand, and the newest preserve of exploitation - Eastern Europe - and by exhausting speedup, increased workload, and job combination.

The GM workers, on the other hand, are determined to protect their jobs for themselves and for their children.

The GM strike brings to the surface a longer-term and broader transformation that is taking place in the way corporations are structured, do business and exploit workers.

This transformation is global in nature although it develops at a different pace from country to country.

Step by step, the way in which production is organized is changing under the impact of the scientific and technological revolution and the new level of inter-capitalist competition.

The vertically organized corporation - standard for most of the 20th century - is less and less the dominant form of corporate and industrial organization as we enter the 21st century. An example is the Ford Motor Company.

At one time, nearly every phase of the production process in the making of cars was housed under Ford's roof. And most of its assembly and sub-assembly operations were concentrated in metropolitan Detroit. At the close of WWII, for example, nearly 100,000 workers were employed at the giant Rouge plant.

But that is not the case now. Ford, and most corporations, are trimming their in-house operations to what they call their "core competencies," even as they merge with rival corporate giants at home and abroad. Meanwhile, other production tasks are outsourced to an outer ring of low-wage, sweatshop producers on a regional and global scale.

Decentralization of production

What we end up with is an industrial pyramid, at the top of which sit large corporate transnational giants who not only ruthlessly exploit workers, including children not yet in their teens, but also dominate the less capitalized shops in the rings.

In this new production scheme, the decentralization of production goes hand in hand with increasing control of all phases of the production process by the biggest transnational corporations, and accounts for their enormous profits.

All of this is made much easier because of new computer and information technologies. Such technologies allow corporations to coordinate far-flung activities, enter and exit markets quickly, alter production designs rapidly, install just-in-time delivery systems and closely monitor work performance on the shop floor.

This new form of industrial organization translates into growing income and racial inequality, widespread impoverishment, ruthless intensification of labor, more contingent workers and the massive displacement of full-time union workers.

Indeed, not since the Great Depression have so many people felt such economic insecurity.

What then is needed to preserve and create jobs in these new circumstances? First of all, the present approach of the labor movement is inadequate.

Major international unions, like the UAW, are pursuing an approach that slows down, but does not stop, the loss of jobs.

Their strategy is more like an orderly retreat than a direct struggle over the issue of job preservation and creation.

What adds to the problem is that issues of outsourcing, new technology, and job loading - in other words the main causes of the job crisis - are pushed down to the local union level.

This gives a huge advantage to the corporations. And, not surprisingly, they use it to whipsaw and squeeze concessions from local unions.

No better is the AFL-CIO's approach to the question of jobs. The issue barely has a place on its agenda. To some degree, the leadership has bought the spin of Wall Street and the Clinton administration that a booming economy has put the issue of jobs on the back burner for now.

But the economy is not booming. And even if it were, the present jobs crisis is a long-term structural problem that operates during all phases of the economic cycle.

To resolve this crisis in the interest of the working class calls for a different approach.

New demands necessary

First of all, new demands that take into account the new economic realities are necessary. A good starting point is a shorter workweek with no cut in pay.

Some say that the trade union leadership is not ready to fight for shorter hours. If that is the case, the task is to convince them. There is no other choice.

The new developments in the capitalist economy, and especially the revolution in science and technology, are forcing the issue of shorter hours to center stage.

In Europe, shorter hours has been a fundamental demand of the labor movement for some time and victories have been won.

Our labor movement has some catching up to do. And the broad left in labor has to help out in this regard.

In addition, we should raise the demand for workers' control over technology and capital flight, as well as dust off the demand for public ownership under democratic control of auto and other mass production industries.

Taken together, these demands would shift the cost of corporate restructuring to where it belongs - the pocketbooks and bank accounts of the transnational corporations.

Another aspect of any approach to preserving jobs must include a broad appeal to the entire working class and its allies - and especially the racially and nationally oppressed communities.

Limited mobilizations of labor and labor's friends will not curb the power of the transnational corporations.

Because of the new global realities, narrow approaches have defeat inscribed on them almost from the start. A labor-led, all-people's concept fits today's situation.

Finally, industry-wide collective bargaining has to be restored. Otherwise, mass production workers will experience death by a thousand cuts.

"One Industry, One Contract, One Class" must once again become the battle cry of the labor movement as a whole.

All of this is a big challenge to every supporter of the labor movement. But the immediate task is to win broad support for GM workers.

These workers are fighting on the frontline of the class struggle. They're courageously battling a ruthless, profit-driven transnational corporation.

They're fighting for all of us.

Everything should be done to bring public opinion and pressure to bear on GM. No jobs should be eliminated.

GM's earlier commitment to renovate its Flint plants should be met without delay. Outsourcing to low wage, non-union shops should be immediately suspended.

And GM should end its outrageous threats to eliminate health care benefits of striking workers.

It takes a fight to win and the auto workers' fight against GM is a winnable fight.

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