In the US an alliance of unions and progressive groups called a one day strike on Monday as a show of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM). Participating unions and activist groups include the SEIU (public services), the Brotherhood of Teamsters (truckers), the American Federation of Teachers (teachers), the United Farm Workers (laborers), the Fight for $15 and a Union, March On, the Center for Popular Democracy, the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the Movement for Black Lives. They are kneeling as a symbol of atonement for racism, they demand the approval of the HEROESact, they encourage unionization… and they raise four demands expressing the basic objectives of the American unions and the reasons for their confluence with the BLM movement.
Justice for Black communities, with an unequivocal declaration that Black Lives Matter, is a necessary first step to winning justice for all workers. To win higher wages, better jobs, and Unions for All, we must ensure that Black workers can build economic power. To win Healthcare for All, we must address disparities in accessibility and quality of care. Action on climate change must center communities of color. Immigrant communities stand in solidarity with Black workers to build power together. Education, housing, and criminal justice reform must start by listening to Black workers and leaders. We will support and align with Black-led organizations and their demands.
First goal: Justice for black communities. Even if we leave out the fact that asking for justice is as empty a demand as asking for love and goodwill, it is striking for a strike not to demand justice for workers in general, nor for those who suffer discrimination. It is demanded for black communities as a whole. As if a black worker had the same interests and suffered the same discrimination as the black owner of the company in which he works, or as if the possibilities of acting and defending oneself were the same for a precarious worker and a high state official just because they are both black.
All of these false premises are reinforced by the statement that for there to be justice for all workers the Black Lives Matter movement must be supported. It’s actually consistent. The BLM movement places particular emphasis on the need for solidarity with companies owned by the black petite bourgeoisie (black-owned business). They have been reminding us for weeks that which are highly concentrated in retail, hospitality and service industries, these businesses are particularly affected by the pandemic. Nothing new about what we see since the origins of the movement. It is not strange for the BLM strikes to be aimed at aligning the workers behind the interests of the black petty bourgeoisie.
Economic power for whom?
Another surprising key idea: to get better wages and better jobs, we should help black workers build economic power. When have workers ever held economic power? But no, they really aren’t talking about anything like power. California unions like AFSCME, SEIU and the California Teachers Association want to repeal Proposition 209, a legislative initiative passed in California in 1996 declaring that the state cannot discriminate, or give preferential treatment to any individual group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin. A basic principle of equality. But the unions want to encourage companies to have racial quotas. The aim, according to them, would be to diversify workplaces and thus to do justice to the black community. The problem is that this divides the workforce, opens the way to wage diversity for the same work and, by classifying everyone by race, inevitably discriminates against everyone. Instead of affirming the proletariat] equality and the universality of the interests of all workers, they artificially create divisions between co-workers who will suddenly be forced to defend their race if they want to keep their jobs.
This is not new, either. During the civil rights movement -the first big demonstration of the black petty bourgeoisie fighting to abolish the impediments to their social advancement- one of the demands was to increase the number of black workers in skilled jobs. At first it might seem that there was a common interest between the movement and the workers. For the workers, equalizing conditions of exploitation, eliminating discrimination based on sex or race, is a basic part of their process of constituting themselves as a class ‘above’ the artificial divisions imposed by capitalism. But for the black petty bourgeoisie the objective was not equality – as it is not for feminism – but to increase the potential demand for black-owned-business and to secure a piece of the economic power it was seeing if it could guarantee a space for growth in the corporate petty bourgeoisie.
That’s why the means of the civil rights movement, like those of the BLM now, further deepened racial categorization, division and separation, far from overcoming discrimination. Only in this way, by establishing quotas by race, could black workers come to identify with the products of Black businessmen and the black petty bourgeoisie maintain a united and legally recognized lobby in the bureaucratic apparatus of big American corporations, universities and all kinds of organizations. Since it was obvious that this had nothing to do with equality in the face of exploitative conditions, they called it promoting diversity.
The unions themselves were subjected to the diversification imposed by the movement. In the USA, agreements signed between unions and companies in principle only affect the workers who are members of the unions signing them, not the entire workforce. Establishing a monopoly in a certain trade or position in the production chain, with better wages and social protection, is the main argument for unionization. But since most workers in unions, especially skilled workers, were white, unions were an obstacle to the movement’s goals of either unions for black workers at all levels and in all trades, or for the unions existing at the time to diversify and become the drivers of the racial quota system at the expense of their own members. Something they didn’t do by choice.
Civil rights lawyers launched a series of legal proceedings that recognized racial quotas as a form of restorative justice and were systematically supported by the federal courts. In doing so, they not only broke the union monopoly of skilled trades, often held by truly racist unions that denied black workers the opportunity to join – and thus access to better wages and jobs, but also using the judicial apparatus, disbanded unions that simply did not have a numerically sufficient number of affiliated black workers. The unions had to adapt to this change in order to survive as organs of the state. Businesses and industries that transformed themselves along the lines of the civil rights movement needed racially just unions that would transform the forms of racial division. It was not a matter of eliminating such division, but of shifting from a vertical model, in which black workers were more in unskilled jobs and virtually non-existent in skilled trades, to a horizontal model in which the workforce was divided into racial quotas for each level and trade.
From there also arises a new generation of unions, such as the United Farm Workers, an organization created to fill the gap created the National Labor Relations Act by not including farm workers within its protections. This union, a good representative of the reorientation of the labor movement by the black petty bourgeoisie, worked hand in hand with racialist organizations during the 1960s such as the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Black Panthers.
Unions for All” and “Medicare for All”
Unions for All is a campaign of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and Fight for 15. Their claims are:
- Bringing employers, workers and government together at industry-wide bargaining tables to negotiate wages, benefits and working conditions.
- Establish the National Labor Relations Act as the floor and not the ceiling of laws governing worker organizing, allowing states and cities to empower workers to join a union that operates beyond the limits of federal law.
- Ensure that every public dollar is used to create good union jobs and that every federal worker and contractor earns at least $15 per hour and has the opportunity to join a union.
- Put at the center of any major economic proposal such as Medicare for All or the Green New Deal, the creation of well-paid jobs for unionized workers.
It couldn’t be clearer. U.S. unions, restricted by federal labor laws, seek to play a much greater role in determining the overall conditions of exploitation. They want a model like the European or Argentinean one: with the labor relations law converted into something equivalent to a Worker’s Statute, to sign nationwide agreements with the value of law that affect all workers and in the process be the managers of part or all of the massive training funds paid by local and federal administrations. This transformation would be accompanied by the implementation of an Argentine-style health system, articulated around the mutual funds of the unions. By ensuring that the state-created good jobs of the Green New Deal would be monopolized by unionized workers, their fees would serve to capitalize the fund in the first place.
And here is also introduced the objective of declaring the importance of Black Lives. Focusing action on climate change on communities of color means securing a union base among skilled black workers with good wages linked to the Green New Deal. But it also means driving the black petty bourgeoisie into the new green state bureaucracy and guaranteeing black business a good share of state contracts. That’s what it really means to make the ecological transition racially conscious. Following the model of development of feminism as a state ideology in Spain and other European countries, they even project to create a bureaucratic-political layer dedicated especially to evaluate how racially conscious each materialization of the program is through its racial impact.
Education, housing and criminal justice
Education, housing and criminal justice reform must begin by listening to Black workers and leaders. We will support and align ourselves with Black-led organizations and their demands.
History courses taught in schools would become racially conscious. Teachers of a certain race will be favored for hiring in order to revolutionize education. Black teachers and principals would teach white teachers, supposedly privileged because they are not black, how to atone for their privilege. A legion of petty-bourgeois professionals of interracial dialogue would be hired to eradicate white fragility from the schools. Black academics and their publications would be promoted. In short, it would mean situating the vision of the black petty bourgeoisie as a state ideology.
As for penal reform: to defund, or divert some money from a disproportionate police force and a gigantic prison system to social protection systems is indeed urgent and necessary during a pandemic that has exacerbated the deterioration of living conditions to the point of reducing social cohesion to a point dangerous to capital itself. But it is not just a question of providing social services. The racialist programme of the trade unions proposes to reduce police funds to reinvest themin black communities. Again: more bureaucratic positions, markets and investments for the black petty bourgeoisie.
This is the background behind the slogan of listen to black leaders. The black leaders, the black petty bourgeoisie, tell us to listen to them, to take their concerns seriously. It has nothing to do with black workers, who not only cannot be black leaders, but have no interest other than those of the working class as a whole.
Elected officials and candidates at every level use their executive, legislative, and regulatory authority to begin to rewrite the rules and reimagine our economy and democracy so that Black communities can thrive. They must ensure fair and safe voting in-person and by mail so everyone can fully participate in our democracy. As we continue to address the COVID-19 pandemic, we must protect the health and safety of all workers, returning people to work and into public spaces with a rational, safe, well-managed plan designed with workers and community stakeholders.
They call for a democracy that is supposed to be defended from corruption and tell us that the more people go to vote the closer we would get to a fair system. Not that anyone would think that this has anything to do with the Democrats looking for voters for the November presidential election… even though their analysts were saying, weeks before George Floyd’s murder, that the key to the election was the black vote.
In fact, what the unions and the Democrats are proposing is so fair, that the plan to deal with the pandemic that has not yet peaked in the United States is… to force people to go out to work, but under a rational plan worked out hand in hand between the government and the unions. Very rational from the point of view of capital. As the Titanic of the health care system sinks the unions are shouting profits and investment first!
Corporations take immediate action to dismantle racism, white supremacy, and economic exploitation wherever it exists, including in our workplaces. This includes corporations raising wages, allowing workers to form unions, providing healthcare, sick leave and expanded healthcare coverage to people who are uninsured or have lost coverage as the result of losing their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic, child care support and more, to disrupt the multigenerational cycle of poverty created by their anti-worker attacks. Workers must have ample personal protective equipment (PPE) and have a voice in the plan to create safe workplaces during and after the pandemic.
For companies to dismantle racism sounds great. In principle it means promoting the supposed revolution that has led the big companies to issue declarations of solidarity with BLM. In practice, it means reproducing the ideological machinery that is desired for the schools in each company: activities to remind white workers of the privilege that separates them from their black comrades and equates the latter to black bosses and cadres.
And of course, the demand for an extension of health coverage that would bring the US closer to the levels of Argentina is such an obvious need, even for capital, that it cannot even be considered today as a classist demand.
Every worker has the opportunity to form a union, no matter where they work. Every worker in America must have the freedom that comes from economic security and equity in opportunity. We demand the immediate implementation of a $15/hour minimum wage, fully-funded healthcare coverage and paid sick leave for all.
Trade unions for all is nothing other than the demand that trade unions become a much more influential piece of the state in the labor market, rising to a position similar to that of their European or Argentinean equivalents. The laws on the so-called Right-to-work that operate in twenty-seven states effectively prevent unions from signing closed shops, i.e. parity agreements or collective agreements. In the U.S. legal framework, where unions are assumed to represent only their members, this means that unionization cannot be mandatory and no worker can be forced to join a union and pay union dues to work at a company with active unions. Thus the power of U.S. unions, which depends on membership lists and the collection of dues, is therefore severely restricted by Right to Work laws. Even public sector unions, such as teachers’ unions, are losing more and more strength as they become discredited among workers.
But in a context where a global struggle and strike wave is plaguing the capitalist world with hundreds of strikes outside the unions, the unions need to present themselves as political agents capable of improving the general conditions of the workers. They need the state and offer themselves to it as a tool to implement new state ideologies -racialism of the black petty bourgeoisie, sacred climate union, etc.- and above all as a way to avoid the potential development present in every strike that escapes their control. That is why there is no lack of trade unions and activists who talk about the importance of trade unions precisely at this time of crisis. It is a matter of channelling the discontent of the unionized workers towards… more of the same thing leading nowhere.
A certain alliance of interests… against workers
It’s not just the unions. A sizable part of the petty bourgeoisie – not only the black petty bourgeoisie – has discovered in Black Lives Matter an opportunity to recover ground in the market and in the state with the implementation of a new ideology that serves to defend bureaucratic quotas and consumer identities.
The unions, when they tell us that we must concentrate our demands on black people’s lives, are telling the workers as a whole, that our own struggle, the struggle that expresses universal human needs, must be subordinated to the struggle of the black petty bourgeoisie to regain its economic power: that is, positions and customers. We are told to accept the new consensus that the main victim of the pandemic is the black petty bourgeoisie and that therefore everyone, including the working class, must do what they can to support it. It means that our needs, the universal human needs, must be subordinated to those of small capital… to capital’s life and health. The same old story, now with a mask of social justice to the American style.
The activists who are organizing and leading the mobilizations say they are fighting against climate change and for the prominence of Black Leadership. The left says of these mobilizations that their mere existence is an act of radical resistance.
And instead, the workers who went on strike, when asked, said they were protesting for better working conditions. The contrast couldn’t be starker. When the direction of the movement is not questioned even to the slightest extent and its discourse differs so radically from that of the workers it mobilizes, we are not faced with the kind of ambiguous movement in which a class response can emerge. We are facing a full-blown subordination of the workers to the needs of their employers.
This strike, which is marketed to the workers as a fight for the improvement of working conditions and against the discrimination of black workers, affirms nevertheless in its demands segregation among workers, amplifies the racialistic guilt and ends up merging everything into the achievement by the unions of a status similar to that of their European or Argentinean equivalents. All well seasoned and limited by the electoral interests of the Democratic Party. Where is the working class potential of the BLM movement of which the American left talks about?