100 Years of Class Struggle: On the Road to Emancipation

“The emancipation of man is the emancipation of labor . . .”

—  Du Bois, Black Reconstruction

W.E.B. Du Bois is probably best remembered for writing in 1903 in The Souls of Black Folk that the “problem of the twentieth century” would be “the problem of the color line.”  But he came to recognize that the race problem was closely related to a larger tragedy: racism was the white working class’s fatal weakness, causing its leading organizations to adopt reactionary positions counter to the interests of their American members as well as their brothers and sisters in the colonized countries.

Du Bois used the word “labor” broadly to indicate a person’s class position in society and not whether they are lucky enough to belong to a union.  But he of course understood the power of organization and, as a partisan of the struggling masses, saw a unified, inclusive labor movement as a necessity.

His Marxist/revisionist interpretation of the Civil War and Reconstruction was published in 1935.  It devastated the standard lies taught in Ivy League universities and public schools alike.  It told the inspiring story of an oppressed people’s patient, resolute and astonishing transition from property to “freedmen” in the face of overwhelming, murderous hostility. And it laid bare the working-class tragedy described above.  When Du Bois wrote of “the emancipation of labor,” he was writing not only about the past, but the situation in 1935, and the future as well.  He was thinking of, and writing on behalf of, black and white working people in the US; he was considering the plight of the world’s “basic majority of workers who are yellow, brown and black.”

The dictum, that the liberation of humanity begins with the liberation of the working masses, is as true today as ever. The analysis of how things were in 1935 – or 1865 – is instructive for present-day activists.

Du Bois, a great scholar – he was the first African-American to earn a Ph. D. from Harvard – and activist – he was a founder of the NAACP, a pan-Africanist and future peace activist and Communist – well understood how American capitalism’s relations to its working classes evolved up to his day:

After the Civil War, poor Southern whites betrayed their class interests by uniting with land-owning, ex-slaveholders to keep African-Americans in peonage; organized white labor, North and South, betrayed its class interests in favor of its “racial interests” by excluding black workers, leaving the latter little choice except to work wherever and whenever they could – including as strikebreakers.

Furthermore, organized labor, under the spell of the ruling-class rhetoric of free land and individualism, made little effort to organize the great mass of unskilled white workers – many of whom were immigrants – believing that the highest achievement was to one day become a wealthy exploiter of one’s own class. Finally, organized labor, now almost totally ignorant of the class-based reasons for its very existence, supported capital’s exploitation and the government’s military oppression of working people in the Caribbean, Latin America, Asia and Africa.

And today?  Well, for starters, we can at least say that organized labor no longer excludes people of color – at least, not most of organized labor.  In fact, some of the most dynamic and respected leaders nationally, and always some of the most stalwart members at the local level, are women and people of color. This inclusion is a strength whose potential has yet to be fully realized. The future of organized labor will depend in large part on the continued inclusion of working people of all races and the development of leaders like Karen Lewis of the Chicago Teachers.

But also consider this: today barely 10 percent of US workers belong to unions.  By contrast, when Black Reconstruction was published in 1935, there had been such an explosion of worker militancy and organizing that no one could really say how many union members there were.  By 1955, when the AFL and CIO merged to form one labor federation, there were more union members than there are today, and organized labor accounted for close to 40 percent of the workforce.

US labor is too weak at home to presume leadership of the international labor movement.  And to the extent that US labor is so inclined, it slavishly follows the ruling-class party line of “human rights” imperialism.

The dead past and the living present

One hundred years ago, the United States entered the bloody European conflict that became known as the First World War.  Patriotic pundits are wrapping themselves in the flag, using this anniversary to stir up support for the many wars we are currently involved in, covert and overt.  But I want to use this occasion to illustrate a very different moral.  Like Du Bois, I believe that the emancipation of the working classes of all races and nationalities is the paramount necessity.  And like Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave and abolitionist who lived well into Du Bois’s day, “I do not ask you about the dead past.  I bring you to the living present.”

Douglass famously said: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.”  The most thoughtful leaders of the labor movement agreed, even back in Douglass’s time.  Not long after the end of the Civil War, William Sylvis, leader of the first national labor federation, said, “We are now all one family of slaves together, and the labor reform movement is the second Emancipation Proclamation.”

Sylvis was right: Northern capitalists had become fabulously wealthy and influential during the war.  The end of black Reconstruction in the South placed the entire nation under “the guidance and dictatorship of capital,” even to the extent that the Supreme Court transformed the Fourteenth Amendment – designed to protect the citizenship rights of African-Americans – into the “chief refuge and bulwark of corporations.” Meanwhile labor failed to live up to the promise of Sylvis’s words; it was ill-prepared for the Great Railroad Strike of 1877.

Pittsburghers played a pivotal and heroic role in the first nationwide strike in the US.  Spontaneous strikes first broke out on railroad lines in Baltimore and West Virginia and spread across the country like wildfire.  In Pittsburgh, miners, steelworkers, the unemployed and their families joined the strikers; the local militia fraternized with the crowds so the militia from Philadelphia was called in.  They arrived by train, promptly proceeded to shoot down strikers and supporters, leading to the Battle of the Roundhouse where the militia was besieged with flaming railroad cars. The strike was crushed nationally within two weeks.  As one striker put it, “We were shot back to work.”

Power concedes nothing without a demand.  At the turn of the century, the greed of the capitalist class forced workers to continue perfecting their organizations and to keep fighting back – for a living wage, for an eight-hour day, for decent working conditions, for death and dismemberment benefits.  In Coeur D’Alene and Homestead, shooting wars broke out between striking workers and the state militias, police and private gunmen arrayed against them.  The workers lost, but they also always regrouped, continued organizing and eventually struck again.

An 1894 strike against the Pullman Company, which manufactured sleeping train cars outside of Chicago, put an exclamation point on nineteenth century labor relations.  George Pullman ran a company town, requiring employees to live there and thus rent from him, buy groceries, supplies and utilities from him, and be underpaid to boot.  The American Railroad Union of Eugene Debs voted to support the Pullman strikers by refusing to move or handle Pullman cars, and soon there was a nationwide strike of some 120,000 railroad workers.

President Grover Cleveland’s attorney general and the special attorney assigned to the strike were both former lawyers for railroad companies.  (I don’t speak of the dead past.  Look at the corporate connections of Trump administration appointees, or of Obama administration appointees before that.) The power of the executive branch, including Army troops, the press, the railroad companies and the police were brought to bear on the strike.  Scores of working men and women were killed; scores more seriously wounded.  Debs and other strike leaders were arrested and thrown in jail – lo and behold, the Supreme Court found that the Sherman Anti-Trust Act applied not to corporations but to unions!  In essence, the entire machinery of the federal government supported Pullman’s “right” to treat people like vassals.

The quick and the dead

American capital entered the twentieth century powerful and confident.  In1901 Bankers’ Magazine wrote: “As the business of the country has learned the secret of combination, it is gradually subverting the power of the politician and rendering him subservient to its purposes . . .”

Although the period from 1901 to 1917 is called the Progressive Era, “few reforms were enacted without the tacit approval, if not the guidance, of the large corporate interests.” Workers had to organize and fight for their very lives during these years, just as in any others.  The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) were formed in 1905 and led militant struggles, including a massive textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1912, and a shooting-war strike of 6,000 steelworkers in McKees Rocks in 1909.  In Colorado in 1912 and 1913, a strike erupted into a shooting war between miners and the bosses, culminating in the horrific Ludlow Massacre.  In Lyndora, also in 1909, steelworkers engaged in a bitter strike with the Standard Car company with the aid of the IWW.

Every major US war has resulted in increased power and profit for capital.  The US involvement in WWI would be no exception; indeed, it would act as a springboard for the powerful international ambitions of our ruling class. One hundred years ago, organized labor, as well as the fate and aspirations of the people it could and should represent, appeared dead in the water.  But as I’ll demonstrate in the second part of this article, working people – labor – had not finished fighting yet.

To be continued . . .

— James Collins

A note on sources

I, of course, relied heavily on Du Bois for the first part of this article and all quotes (except for those of Frederick Douglass) are his up to the Great Railroad Strike, where Howard Zinn and Boyer and Morais take over.

Boyer, R.O. and Morais, H.M.  Labor’s Untold Story.

Du Bois, W.E.B.  Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880.

Grystar, E.  “A Brief Essay on the 1909 and 1919 Steel Strikes in Lyndora,” Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine, Vol. 71, no. 3/4.

Zinn, H.  The Twentieth Century.


Single-Payer Health Care Now!

Wake up, America, and wipe the sleep from your eyes.  You’re not dreaming but a nightmare is in the making.

It’s 17 years into the twenty-first century and our ruling – er, governing— Republican Party thinks there are currently just too many people with health insurance in this country.  While people living in all the other advanced nations of the world have the security of universal coverage and access to health care, the Republicans are divided only on just how many people should go without.

As one commentator put it, “Under the GOP’s bill, the more help you need, the less you get.”  They weren’t quite able to figure it out this time but rest assured that they’ll continue working until they get it “right.”  No matter the final outcome of the GOP plan, the bottom line is that more people will lose coverage – 10 million, 24 million, who knows? – and the cost of health care will continue to rise.

And the newly uninsured will be added to the current staggering figure of 25 million Americans who are without health care, even under the so-called Affordable Care Act.  Somehow, both Republicans and Democrats are able to sleep while knowing all this.

It’s time to end this madness.  It’s time to demand universal single-payer health care now!

Class war by other means

Obamacare and other recent attempts to reform the health care system have all fallen victim to the same forces: the powerful health insurance and pharmaceutical company lobbies and the ideological opposition of Republicans, yes, but of most Democrats too.  It’s almost a religious duty for mainstream politicians, liberal or conservative, to oppose the socialization of health care.  Health care is big business and, as such, it is run as part and parcel of the class war on working people, a war that transfers wealth and reserves the benefits of society for the well-to-do.

Health insurance companies are nothing more than huge bureaucratic middle men who collect fees and allocate a crucial service according to metrics that have nothing to do with true human need.  They keep the price of health care artificially high while “earning” huge profits for executives and shareholders.  And while pharmaceutical companies provide useful benefits, the experience of Canada and other advanced countries shows that they can provide those benefits at lower prices.

While the Republicans are licking their wounds and regrouping, we should not let the Democrats breathe a sigh of relief or celebrate.  If they really want to live up to the promise of Obamacare, let them support single-payer health care.  Rep. John Conyers (Mich.) has been introducing into Congress the National Health Care Act, or the Expanded and Improved Medicare for All Act, (H.R. 676) since 2003.  Bernie Sanders has just promised to introduce similar legislation in the Senate.

It’s time to demand that elected officials put up or shut up about health care.  We know that politics is war by other means; the health care aspect of the class war is literally killing people and that’s got to stop.

— James Collins

Class War in the Keystone State

Pennsylvanians are in the middle of a class war.

It has been a less-than-dramatic event.  Instead, it’s been a protracted affair, a slow but steady, one-sided war that’s been waged for decades now, and things have gone very nicely for the ruling, upper classes, thank you very much.

This war has been waged in the open right before the eyes of the public, and the public suffers the consequences of a losing combatant.  Even though this is a class war, nobody calls it that.  Is it because there are no cops and scabs smashing through picket lines, no strikers’ heads being busted, and no jailed workers or union leaders to rally around?

Certainly that’s part of it: workers rarely strike any more.  There were only three major work stoppages (those involving 1,000 workers or more) in the entire state last year, including the multi-state Verizon strike.  No, the arena of this class war isn’t the workplace or the streets. This life-and-death struggle is something of a stealth war, fought and won during semi-annual elections and in halls of the state capitol over the crucial issues of revenue raising and spending.  The battleground is the state’s budget.

It’s the budget, stupid

As Gov. Tom Wolf enters his third year in office, he faces the same obstacle that has plagued him the previous two – a huge Republican majority of “fiscally-responsible” yokels in both houses of the General Assembly who are pledged to oppose the level of spending required to run a modern state.  As a result, Pennsylvania faces a budget deficit for the current fiscal year, as well as for 2016-17 which is against the state constitution.

Wolf’s current budget proposal attempts, to his credit, to return spending for public education to pre-Corbett levels (but without accounting for inflation).  He has chosen to limit expenditures on everything else while raising revenue through regressive taxation: personal income and general sales taxes account for 69 percent of increased revenue in this year’s budget and 62 percent in next year’s.  Another huge portion will come from still higher taxes on tobacco products.

The sales tax and the flat income tax now regularly account for 70 percent of the general revenue raised by the state.  (Visit the Pennsylvania Budget Policy Center for a detailed analysis.)  Politicians and pundits say that Pennsylvania faces an intractable “structural” debt problem, but the reasons for this situation aren’t hard to fathom and the problem is far from unsolvable.  It is now unheard-of for our state “leaders” to suggest levying taxes on those who can afford to pay.  Wealthy Pennsylvanians and corporations that make huge profits here are considered sacrosanct.  So the money has to be raised from those of us of more modest means.

Royal Dutch Shell will receive some $1.65 billion in taxpayer incentives for locating its ethane cracker plan in Beaver County.  Shell says building the complex will create thousands of jobs, and that once it is up and running it will employ 600 workers.  This is all well and good but, besides the fact that many of those jobs will be taken by people living in neighboring Ohio and West Virginia, why should Pennsylvania taxpayers subsidize a profitable corporation like Shell?

The conventional answer is that if we don’t offer incentives to the company, another state will.  Large corporations and their executives are engaged in dividing and blackmailing the country, state by state, municipality by municipality.  And yet, they’re lionized in the general and financial media as fine, upstanding citizens whose goodness and motives are not to be questioned.

The biggest beneficiaries of state and local subsidies in Pennsylvania include Alcoa ($5.7 billion from 1995 to 2016), U.S. Steel ($100 million from 1995 to 2016), BNY Mellon ($76 million from 1997 to 2016), and PPG Industries ($54.6 million since 1992).  You can track government subsidies to corporations at Good Jobs First.

Wolf is to be commended for substantially raising K-12 spending, and he proposes small increases in vital programs that had either disappeared altogether (for example, the Conservation Corps) or were receiving next to nothing to begin with (shelter for the homeless, domestic violence and rape centers, mental and behavioral health services, long-term care, help for those with intellectual disabilities, and many other county-based services).  Funding for other crucial services hasn’t fare as well.  In just one example, the failure to restore cuts to the higher education budget leaves Pennsylvania’s spending 49th in the nation!

As mentioned earlier, corporations no longer shoulder a fair share of the state’s tax burden, nor do wealthy individuals, who pay taxes at the same rate as a fast-food worker.  Corporate and business taxes now generate about 15 percent of the state’s General Fund revenue, down from 28 percent in the 1970s.  According to the Budget Policy Center, “From 1988-1989 to 2002-2003, when business tax cuts first began, taxes on corporations were, on average, 22.25% of all General Fund revenues.”

To those of us who were around in the 1960s and 1970s, Pennsylvania may not have seemed like a Utopia but at least an adequately funded safety net existed and helped people.  There was money coming in from federal programs and the state raised enough money to fulfill its obligations while balancing the budget because corporations paid higher taxes – at federal and state levels.

Taxes on corporations and wealthy people have been low for more than three decades now.  They accumulate, hoard and waste great amounts of wealth, in turn increasing their lock on political power.  Life will get better for everybody when we start taxing these people at a socially just rate.  Taxes have been low for decades at the federal level, as well as the state level, so there is no legitimate “crying poor” on the part of the wealthy and corporations.

We must demand that the corporations contribute to the general fund at rates like those in the 1970s and 1980s.  We must demand a progressive state income tax and an end to endless sales and sin tax increases.  The future of the quality of life in this state hinges on these changes.

— James Collins