How can working people achieve fundamental changes?

Nurses, Teachers, and other unionists marched on June 27 in Chicago for Black Lives Matter and an end to racist discrimination in health care. In September, the Nurses and SEIU highlighted similar demands in their Chicago strike. (Sarah-Ji / / Labor Notes)


The miscarriage of justice in the Breonna Taylor case has been heartbreaking and astonishing to many, particularly given many months of sustained protests for Black lives. People by the millions are now forced to come to grips with the realities of American “justice.” American capitalism cannot bring itself to prosecute its own defenders, despite the obvious wrongness in murdering innocents in their homes while they sleep.

One thing that we can learn from the experience is this: Street demonstrations alone are insufficient to change the United States fundamentally for the better. By no means, however, should we think that demonstrations, as a pressure tactic, are useless. They are an indispensable entry point for the vast majority of people into real politics—i.e., the exertion of working class power.

We must also acknowledge that while insufficient, protests scare the ruling class and their puppets. We have a plethora of examples in which legislators in the misleadership class push laws to criminalize protest [1], local Democratic governors use armored cops to violently quell them [2], and the ruling class is perfectly comfortable with the normalization of vehicular homicide, a tool that civilians aligned with the state’s goals can use against their political opponents. Tyrannical governments, in short, do their best to demonize and criminalize protest.

Indeed, very recent history shows the effectiveness of mass demonstrations of the working class and oppressed. Take Sudan and Haiti; both countries had mass uprisings of the working class in 2019, and both deposed major military leaders and a president respectively. While largely symbolic gestures, mass action got results. The Lebanese uprising hasn’t yet deposed the Lebanese ruling class, but has resulted in the similar government shuffling of personnel that is typical of capitalism.

The same phenomenon has happened in the U.S., where in response to protests we see surface-level reforms that do nothing to address the systemic core. The question must be asked, if these demonstrations, made of thousands of people in most cities, (including sustained multi-month protests in Portland), are unable to make radical and lasting changes in the U.S. system, then what precisely will? What exertion of workers’ power will make the ruling class bend a knee? Or even better, what will act to depose the rulers altogether?

Stop production, stop profits

The economic system of the U.S., like most of the world, is capitalism. It exists because the majority of the population needs to sell their ability to work to an employer, the capitalist, to survive. All corporations and all world governments can only function if this class of labor, the working class, keeps working.

Following from this, it is self-evident that all the guns, bullets, armor plating, tear gas, and drones used by the state are made and transported by workers. The police cannot function if there is no one to produce their gear.

Even indirectly, workers have power to stop the system. If logistics workers, including transportation workers like truck drivers and airplane pilots, were to stop working, the cycle of buying and selling in the capitalist system would stop or at the very least be seriously curtailed. This would put severe pressure on particular capitalists and companies, driving their profits down (time is money!). One should not underestimate the political power of the act of the workers going on strike.

 An example of workers leading the way on a strike with political overtones is the week-long nurses’ and hospital employees’ strike, including 5300 SEIU workers, in Chicago, this past September [3]. Many of the strikers’ signs read, “Black lives matter!” and “Racism is a public health crisis.” The strike occurred against the backdrop of the Floyd/Blake/Taylor protests; the majority of the hospital clerical and tech workers are Black and Latino.

Strikes can demonstrate to the bosses, the capitalist class, that the workers are in this together politically. If workers nationwide were to go on strike in solidarity with street demonstrations, if they were to do enough damage to the profits of the capitalist class, the pressure to enact political change would be increased substantially.

While street demonstrations alone can be contained (or ignored) by the ruling class by various means, worker strikes do far more direct harm to the economics of capitalism. Remember well the fetishism of the Trump administration (as well as Democratic administrations) for the economy. They couldn’t even be brought to slow down economic activity to contain a global pandemic. The economy is the modern God of capitalism, and is used as the measure of all things of value. This points to the obviousness of the strike weapon as a means that the workers can use to make genuine political change.

Of course, organizing the working class for political strikes is not going to be a quick adventure. Merely organizing unions can take many years of struggle and is not a uniform process for each workplace. The conditions at work vary, and many workers are deluded by anti-union propaganda. Furthermore, the bosses have many methods of siphoning off individual workers into individualized agreements, or use the threat of firing to drive away unions.

These and other attempts to intimidate us must be resisted. The more that workers are organized into unions, and are able to build the strength and militancy of the rank and file (often in spite of the bureaucratic officialdom), the more power the class as a whole will have to resist the capitalist class and its politicians, cops, and other means of repression. The need for political strikes will certainly become more apparent in time.

A workers party

Millions of U.S. workers are well aware of the futility of voting. That is, voting for bourgeois candidates in bourgeois elections. A man who drafted racist crime bills, and a vice presidential pick who had been tasked with enforcing them, are certainly not going to “stop fascism.” The Democratic Party and self-described “socialists” who willingly, knowingly, play ball with this capitalist party aren’t capable, even on the local level, to make a real opposition force.

But what if working-class people ran their own campaigns? What if a genuine opposition to state oppression was established in the elections? To do this, a working-class party is what’s needed—one that will bravely and resolutely break with the two-party establishment. One that will break with capitalism and side with the struggles for emancipation.

There are no good excuses not to do this. The Floyd/Blake/Taylor protests brought 15-25 million into the streets. Besides, there exist 100 million Americans who do not vote because they know there are no good choices, yet. This country is rich soil for a party of radical racial justice and radical economic transformation.

A militant Black party that is completely independent of the Democrats and Republicans would be a breath of fresh air! Neither of the two capitalist parties are concerned with ending racial disparities in the United States, particularly with front-line communities facing climate change and environmental racism. If a Black party were to center its program on the needs of the poor and working class, it would be sure to draw a significant portion of the white working-class vote.

The Democratic Party’s abandonment of the working class has allowed the Republican Party to demagogically fill that void—at least among a section of the working class. Millions of Trump supporters back the current president through ignorance and lack of a genuine workers’ alternative.

Alternatively, a labor party is possible. Unions in the United States have the organizational capacity to run their own candidacies, if only their bureaucratic leaderships were not tied to the capitalist Democrats. These bureaucracies have failed to mobilize their immense memberships, except to lapdog for capitalist Democrats.

A fighting working-class program will speak to these memberships more then milquetoast Democratic reformism, which does little more than complain about the excesses of Trumpism in its campaigns (lesser evil-ism is traditional in Democratic Party politics), and is capable of offering nothing of real value to working people. Pressure groups outside of the Democratic Party will not convince this fund-raising machine to put people over profits. Likewise, history proves that entry into the Democrats will fail; the brief history of Bernie Sanders’ reformist “socialism” should make this fact crystal clear.

The point is to create a political entity that can struggle at all levels in the electoral arena, in the workplaces, and in the streets for the needs of the working class—including for environmental and racial justice. Only this kind of party can think outside of the suffocating nightmare of “capitalist realism.” Once working people create their own political party and their own political program, with their own candidacies opposed to the two-party duopoly, the power of street protests, strikes, and other campaigns will be amplified.

Ultimately, of course, working people in the U.S., as in all countries, must construct a revolutionary socialist party, which can guide the struggle toward replacing the capitalist system with a new system that seeks to fulfill human needs instead of private profits. Without a revolutionary workers’ party that pushes for system change, this country won’t live up to its hitherto unfulfilled promise of equality and freedom for all.

[1] 2017 ACLU map of anti-protest laws, passed and failed.

[2] The RSN’s Steve Leigh reports on racist Democratic governance in Seattle.

[3] UIC workers ‘strike for our lives.’

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