National Sections of the L5I:

Fight for 15!

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In the last three years, the US economy grew on average by 2-3%, and in doing so it outperformed such well established competitors as Japan and Germany. Overall, the US economy appears to have stabilised. Stock markets are celebrating unprecedented heights, with the Dow Jones reaching 15,000 and more for the first time in history. At the same time, the unemployment rate declined and is now, according to official statistics, below 7%.

With Wall Street setting new records and US financial capital recklessly flooding the markets with dollars, with zero percent interest rates for fresh money from the FED for almost 5 years now, some people might really think the crisis has been completely overcome, but this is certainly not the case!

The flood of cheap credit that has led to soaring stock markets will most likely also lead us into the next crisis, just as in 2007/08. In the current situation, US imperialism is attracting massive amounts of capital from other countries and markets, the crisis in the emerging markets being a consequence of this. Thus, US financial capital has been stabilised through a combination of a state “bail-out” of trillions of dollars and a flood of hot money from overseas. That is the price for maintaining its leading role on the stock markets and other financial markets.

National Debt
The “bail-outs”, however, have to be included in the balance sheet of national debt. In this respect, the US economy can almost be considered a “failed state” .Under the Obama administration, the US has already acquired more new debt than in 8 years under Bush, who used that financial expansion to pay for two wars. Now, Obama can only pay for the outcomes of those wars and the financial crisis by creating even more debt. Not too surprisingly, the US debt is now at $17 trillion. This means that the United States’ debt has grown larger than its annual GDP in the last few years. According to capitalist standards, as they are applied for example in Southern Europe, the US is pretty much broke.

Correspondingly, the US budget has become the subject of fierce argument within the bourgeoisie and its parliamentary institutions. The Senate and the House of Representatives both have to approve every rise in debt levels. In this process, various austerity measures in the public sector over the next 10 years have been enacted, and the health care reform that Obama promised has been significantly weakened.

The job market has experienced a massive restructuring. It is true that some of the millions who were fired in 2008/09 have now found new jobs in the service industry. However, through this process, well-paid jobs disappeared while low-pay jobs were created. The part of the US working class forced into these jobs, the “working poor”, already makes up the majority of the work force. Public sector jobs, which used to guarantee a reasonably adequate life in the cities 10-15 years ago, no longer provide the necessary means for a decent life. The affected people are forced to move to the suburbs and to waste hours commuting back and forth. Especially huge parts of the African-American and Hispanic workers toil in the low-wage sector as the “working poor”.

In 2011, there was important resistance to austerity and job-losses in the public sector in Wisconsin, as well as the “Occupy” movement. Although both suffered heavy defeats, they did highlight the potential for resistance in the United States. In 2014, there were unusually successful election campaigns by the Left in the US; in Seattle, Kshama Sawant from Socialist Alternative (CWI) won a seat on the City Council and, in Ohio, 10 independent labour union candidates won seats against the predominant Democrats. This also indicates a degree of radicalisation of the working class.

Today, that radicalisation is continuing with the campaign for a minimum $15 per hour. The “Fight for 15” campaign signals that the class struggle in the US is still alive. Fast food workers, among them many employees from multinational McDonald’s, have organised strikes and protests. May 15 was an international day of protest against the working conditions at McDonald’s, and in the US it was also the main mobilisation for the “Fight for 15” campaign, with rallies in 150 cities and 30 states, according to activists.

Chicago was the centre of these actions with thousands of employees taking to the streets, and a week later they marched to McDonald’s headquarters in Oak Brook, a suburb of Chicago.

McDonald's pays an hourly rate of $8.99. Not even full time employees can make a living under such circumstances, they either have to look for additional jobs or apply for welfare. Because of the current situation on the job market, these jobs are not mere temporary stations on the way toward the “American Dream” but more and more the only way to get any full-time employment, or entitlement to shrinking benefits, at all.

The protesters tried to get to the headquarters to make themselves heard, but McDonald’s and the state both revealed their true natures when it came to employees calling for higher wages. At the behest of the company management, police closed off the area surrounding the headquarters and 138 employees were arrested under laws against “criminal trespass”. The management then felt the need to talk up the supposedly good working conditions and great career opportunities at the company at a press conference. Their contemptuous attitude was summed by the observation that nobody is forced to work at McDonald’s, if somebody wants to make more money, they could always look for other jobs.

Such statements are a slap in the face of employees and will drive them to continue their struggle. It is not true that the workers in the service industry can choose to look for better-paying jobs, those jobs simply do not exist. After the arrests, the protests gained public attention and the activists were able to describe and talk about the working conditions in TV interviews, thereby proving that their protest is justified. Women workers and exploited workers with migrant backgrounds are particularly active in the “Fight for 15” and they have the potential to be the new spearhead of the class struggle.

The “Socialist Alternative” plays a leading role in this campaign and was able to pass a bill in the first hearing for a minimum wage of $15 in the Seattle City Council. It is now essential to broaden this campaign and to carry it into the AFL-CIO and Change to Win unions. The campaign needs to go beyond the successful mobilisation of only a single group and reach out to include broad layers of the working class. We also need to start discussing the fact that $15, while indeed an increase, is certainly not enough to live a comfortable life. And what about the unemployed? Their only option and hope is to get on food stamps, which are not even accepted in every grocery store.

Our comrades from Workers Power US discussed these and many other issues at their latest annual conference. They will take part in this campaign whenever possible and argue for a broadening of the struggle as well as further demands. For example, a minimum hourly rate of $25 and an equivalent rise in unemployment benefits. There are millions of workers in the US who have been taken off the unemployment register and forced into private and public “work programmes” that pay even less than McDonald’s, just to get some cash in their hands.

A Workers’ Party
However, what is ultimately crucial for the development of the class struggle in the United States is the founding of a workers’ party. The comrades from Workers Power US distributed a resolution at this year’s Labor Notes Conference (with about 2,000 union members and political activists attending) which raised the demand for a political alternative for the US working class. Of course, being a small political current they cannot enact this alternative simply by proclamation. However, they want to find supporters for this alternative and fight for political consciousness in this respect.

The foundation of an independent party for the workers is the critical aspect in the current period of crisis in the US. A couple of dozen union members endorsed the resolution and expressed interest to stay in contact with our comrades to discuss this issue further. Other organisations on the radical Left also want to discuss this issue and have responded to the resolution.

For Workers Power US, campaigns such as “Fight for 15” can be a starting point to win new militant layers of the working class. But the decisive question is: what kind of political leadership and organisation does the US working class need? There has to be an alternative project of the radical Left against the close collaboration and integration of labor union bureaucrats with the Democrats, and that alternative should be a Workers’ Party in the United States.