From Marx to Trump: Labor’s Role in Revolution

by Noah Karvelis

© Joko Narimo

Throughout the history of political thought, leftist revolutionary ideology has consistently placed a particular emphasis on the importance of an empowered working class. From the Marxist notion of the “proletarian revolution” to anarcho-syndicalist support for a free and powerful proletariat managing itself, the concept of a strong working class has long been viewed as central to a revolutionary society. In the view of many influential scholars from past movements (as well as modern thinkers such as Noam Chomsky), when a revolution lacks support from the working class, there is little hope for its success. This applies to modern society as well. It is crucial for us to understand that for any progressive revolution to take place, we must bolster the working class and allow it to function not only as the underpinning of the movement but as the locus of control and action as well.

However, the realization that the working class is essential to a political revolution is not unique to the Left. It is also well-understood by those who oppose the revolution. Realizing the power of the proletariat, the ruling class (to borrow Marxist terms) has constantly attempted to extinguish the potential for a working-class revolution. As Noam Chomsky noted it in his book OCCUPY: Class War, Rebellion and Solidarity: “The case of labor is crucial, because it is the base of organization of any popular opposition to the rule of capital, and so it has to be dismantled.” As Chomsky relays in striking clarity, the political power of labor simply cannot be allowed from the point of view of the ruling class, who will consistently do everything they can to “dismantle” it.

The history of popular movements is filled with examples of this organized opposition to organized labor, and the opposition continues unabated today in America, most notably in the form of ‘right-to-work’ laws. These laws operate under the guise of being pro-worker and pro-business, but in reality, they only seek to bolster corporate power and diminish what little strength the working class wields, by restricting the ability of unions to organize and bargain collectively. Along with defeating collective bargaining, employers can also petition to “oust an unwanted union” from the workplace. The establishment of right-to-work laws has been a major success for corporate America and has dealt a devastating blow to the working class.

The shocking decline in union membership and power is symptomatic of the general instability and lack of power of the American working class. As Alan Greenspan infamously stated in a 1997 Congressional hearing, worker “insecurity” is one of the key architectural features of the United States’ economy. This insecurity is accomplished primarily through increasing already-long working hours, lowering wages, attacking unions, and fostering an economic climate that creates a constant state of uncertainty for the working class. Ultimately, these forces not only benefit the capitalist interests of the elites through establishing a weak working class and pitting its members against one another in a perpetual race to the bottom; they also create an extremely effective restraint upon the potential for democratic (and revolutionary) activity on the part of the working class.

Take, for example, the average full-time worker in America, who, according to a recent Gallup poll, works nearly 46.7 hours weekly- nearly six full days. Compare this with Finnish workers who generally work between 30 and 34 hours a week. Or take the case of Italy, where employers can face fines for making employees work more than 40 hours a week. In the United States, home to some of the longest working days in the world, it is hard to imagine a typical worker having the time to critically analyze one’s position in society, let alone the time required to engage in meaningful, sustainable political action.

Beyond this general lack of time, the workers are also severely limited by their financial stability. The average employee working at McDonald’s with five to eight years of experience earns only $9.15 per hour. This shockingly low wage actually puts McDonald’s slightly ahead of its competitors Burger King and Wendy’s, yet still far behind those attempting to pay a living wage. The consequences of long hours and low wages are tremendous: a completely unstable, insecure working class that has neither the time nor the resources to study, assess their position in society, or organize for change.

Of course, there are many examples of corporations that do operate ethically and do refrain from exploiting the working class. Some corporations such as Publix Supermarkets have become employee-owned and operated with tremendous success, and others such as Starbucks have become dedicated to helping fight alongside their immigrant employees after the Trump travel ban was implemented. These are just two examples of some of the ways progressive corporations are re-evaluating their treatment of the working class.

However, while we must laud the efforts of such companies, they are the exception rather than the rule. Many corporations, such as CKE Restaurants, pay staggeringly low wages, offer almost no job security, and exploit workers routinely. Take, for example, the practice of deliberately leaving employees underpaid so that they can benefit from taxpayer-funded assistance programs, as CEO Andrew Puzder pointed out in an interview with Fox News. Puzder’s CKE Restaurants is just one example of a corporation that intentionally pays its employees low wages and restricts their working hours so that it can benefit from the most labor for the lowest possible cost. Under such exploitation, the corporate employer is no longer responsible for offering any assistance to its employees, such as adequate health insurance or a living wage. Instead, this responsibility is thrown onto the backs of taxpayers by forcing workers to over-rely on publicly-funded assistance programs such as SNAP. Unfortunately, unlike the more ethical practices of Starbucks or Publix, this type of exploitation is the norm for an overwhelming number of American corporations such as McDonald’s where workers “pay $14 a week for a policy that won’t cover more than $2,000 in medical bills in a year”.

Undoubtedly, the best place to turn to for support in such a situation is the American labor movement. In the early 20th century in America, we saw a significant push for workers’ rights that was led by organized labor unions. However, although the labor movement was strong, so was the opposition. Take, for example, the anti-labor propaganda that spread in the first “Red Scare” during the Boston Police Strike of 1919, or the use of violence in breaking the Homestead Strike. Through efforts such as these, the fire at the heart of the labor movement was all but extinguished in its earliest stages, and with it died any hope for a left-wing, working-class revolution, proving yet again that the power of the worker is necessary for a revolution to survive.

These attacks upon labor did not end with the Red Scare. Today, politicians such as Scott Walker, who rose to national prominence for his union breaking in Wisconsin, remain fiercely anti-union. Through Walker’s success with the Right-to-Work campaign, statements claiming that “collective bargaining is not a right. It is an expensive entitlement” and his plan to “divide and conquer” unions show that this type of anti-labor sentiment is still alive and well in the United States. These types of statements and actions ultimately contribute to the common misconception that unions are greedy, corrupt, and counterproductive to the best interests of their members and the nation as a whole. As a result approval ratings of American unions have dropped nearly 20% and union membership is currently astonishingly low, with only 10% of all workers belonging to a union in 2010. Of those few who do belong to a union, many reside in one of the growing number of right-to-work states, where unions are stripped of any remnants of power. As Noam Chomsky pointed out in a 2014 speech: “That’s part of the business model… It’s a part of a corporate business model designed to reduce labor costs and to increase labor servility… They [corporations] want to keep costs down and make sure that labor is docile and obedient.”

As we pick up where the labor movement left off and work towards a political revolution once again in America, we must be cognizant of this reality and the unique role the working class plays in any political revolution. This is especially pertinent given the early days of Donald Trump’s presidency. With the withdrawal of Andrew Puzder’s nomination, an important battle has certainly been won. Nonetheless, more challenges to the labor movement and to the revolution are waiting just around the corner. With at least one Supreme Court nominee, two new appointees to the National Labor Relations Board, and the potential increase in the number of Right to Work states, the Trump Administration and its cabinet of billionaires have the power to deliver a devastating blow to the already-enfeebled American labor movement.

In the face of this, we must become more resolute than ever in our dedication to the fight for a living wage, affordable education, and a restructured tax system which benefits the working and middle classes. Without the empowerment of the working class and of organized labor, any revolution is destined from the outset for failure. In these early days of the Trump Era, we must continue our fight and bolster the working class as we strive towards a progressive political revolution. By doing so, we will move our revolution ever closer to imminent success.