The following is the talk by Mary-Alice Waters to a conference organized by the Cuban Institute of History and the Central Organization of Cuban Workers (CTC) in Havana, Cuba. Waters is a member of the National Committee of the Socialist Workers Party and president of Pathfinder Press. The talk, given April 26, opened a two-part program on the class struggle in the United States that was a major feature of the three-day 12th International May Day Scientific Conference.
Waters’ presentation was followed by a panel of four workers and a farmer from the US who described their own work experiences in different industries, as well as the union and social battles they’ve been part of (see biographies on next page). An article reporting on the conference appeared in the May 21 issue of the Militant. Copyright © 2018 by Pathfinder Press, reprinted by permission.
Waters was introduced by René González Barrios, president of the Cuban Institute of History.
Thank you René for your generous introduction.
On behalf of all of us presenting this morning’s program on the class struggle in the United States, I want to thank the compañeros of the Cuban Institute of History, the Central Organization of Cuban Workers, and our hosts here at the Cigar Workers Palace for the privilege — and responsibility — you have extended us.
Six months ago, when René first asked us to prepare this session of the 12th International May Day Scientific Conference, I was skeptical. “We’re neither professional historians nor academic researchers,” I told him. “We’re workers, trade unionists, farmers, communists, members and supporters of the Socialist Workers Party and Young Socialists. Will our presentation be appropriate?”
Each of you has a copy of the brief biographies we prepared on the members of our panel. I won’t repeat what’s in those notes, except to say that those you will hear from today have lived and worked in every part of the United States — on the land and in jobs from coal mines, oil refineries and railroads, to garment shops, construction sites, slaughterhouses, auto assembly lines, warehouses, and retail giants like Walmart — the largest private employer in the US today with 1.5 million workers on the payroll (and another 800,000 worldwide).
As class-conscious workers, of course, we are participants in every social, political, and cultural battle at the center of the class struggle in the US, starting with opposition to every act of aggression, every war waged openly or covertly by US imperialism.
René listened patiently to all our hesitations. Then he just smiled and said: “Well, that’s what we need to hear about. Here at the history institute we talk to many who study the working class. We need to hear from those who are workers.”
So here we are, and we look forward to your questions, to your doubts and comments, and to a fruitful discussion especially.
I can assure you in advance that what you hear from us today will not be what you regularly hear, see, or read in either the “mass media,” or on what is now known as “social media” — although I prefer “bourgeois media” as the more accurate label for both.
Focus on two questions
I will focus my remarks on two questions.
First. Did the 2016 electoral victory of Donald Trump register a rise in racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and every other form of ideological reaction among working people in the US? Is that why tens of millions of workers of all races voted for him?
Second. Is a socialist revolution in the US really possible? Or are those like ourselves, who answer with an unhesitating “Yes,” a new variety of utopian socialist fools, however well meaning?
The clearest and most demonstrative answer to the first question is being given right now from West Virginia to Oklahoma, from Kentucky to Arizona and beyond by tens of thousands of teachers and other public workers in states Trump carried by a large margin in 2016.
Less than two months ago in the state of West Virginia, one of the most significant labor battles in several decades exploded onto the national scene. Some 35,000 teachers, janitors, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and other public school employees walked off the job together, defying past court rulings denying public employees the right to strike. With overwhelming support from their communities, they closed down the schools in every single county in the state. Yes, every single one. Fifty-five counties in all. It was a surprise even for the fighting teachers.
The action came after years of ruling-class budget cuts that slashed funding for students’ meals, textbooks, school supplies, building maintenance, salaries of teachers and other employees, and so-called extracurricular activities such as sports, art, music, and other programs indispensable for a child’s growth and learning.
West Virginia is the historic heart of coal country in the United States, the site of some of the hardest fought union battles in US history. It has long been one of the most economically ravaged areas of the country, and even more so today.
Over the last three decades, the coal bosses and their government, determined to drive down their labor costs and break the back of the United Mine Workers union (UMWA), have waged a concerted assault on the lives and living standards of all working people.
Coal companies have closed hundreds of mines throughout the Appalachian region, as they’ve shifted capital to oil, natural gas, and other fossil-fuel energy sources, including their vast open-pit and nonunion surface coal mines in western regions of the United States. Their only concern is to increase their rate of profit as they employ fewer miners.
Some fifty years ago the UMWA, long the most powerful union in the country, represented 70 percent of coal miners. That figure today stands at 21 percent.
We don’t have time to tell the story of how the owners have closed health clinics won by the union in prior battles. Or why black lung disease, the deadly scourge of miners, driven back in the 1970s and 1980s, has once again exploded across the region, now hitting younger miners in an even more virulent form thanks to “new mining technology.”
Nor can we describe how the mining companies have used bankruptcy proceedings, court rulings, and corporate “restructurings” to cease recognizing union contracts, dump pension obligations, and eliminate UMWA-controlled mine safety committees that were fought for and conquered in previous battles. Through those union committees, miners themselves asserted their power to shut down work on any shift in face of any unsafe conditions.
You will hear more about these questions later in the program from one of our panelists, Alyson Kennedy, who worked fourteen years as an underground coal miner.
The consequences of this decades-long assault are registered in the statistics.
West Virginia today has the lowest median household income of all fifty states in the union save one, Mississippi. In only three states — Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Mississippi — do teachers earn less than in West Virginia.
Measured by official US government figures that include so-called “discouraged workers” — those who haven’t been able to find a job for so long that they’ve temporarily given up — unemployment in West Virginia is one of the highest in the country: more than 10 percent in 2017.
The state is a center of the drug addiction crisis in the US — it has the highest opioid overdose rate in the country. And the drug crisis is still accelerating, registered most forcefully in one fact: life expectancy in the United States actually dropped for two consecutive years in 2015-16.
To this picture you have to add the not-so-hidden toll of Washington’s endless wars, the burden of which, as always, falls most heavily on working-class and farm families in the most depressed regions of the country. Among veterans of the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere, the suicide rate is twenty a day. Yes, you heard that right. Twenty a day.
We could add more to this picture, but it’s not necessary.
The point is that without understanding the devastation of the lives of working-class families in regions like West Virginia (and there are many more) — without understanding the vast increase since the 2008 financial crisis in class inequality, including the accelerating inequality within classes — you won’t be able to understand what’s happening in the United States.
You have to compare this panorama of carnage with the lives of the upper layers of the meritocracy to be found in places like Silicon Valley, and the more exclusive (far from the most exclusive) neighborhoods of population centers like Manhattan, Washington, and San Francisco.
This devastation facing working people is not only the consequence of the worldwide capitalist crisis of production and trade, which began in the mid-1970s and is still deepening. It is the consequence of the policies initiated by the Democratic Party administration of the two Clintons in the 1990s and pursued with equal vigor by the Republican administration of George W. Bush and the Democratic administration of Barack Obama.
Policies such as the elimination of federal aid to children of single mothers and drastic cuts in other social welfare programs on all levels.
Legislation and policies disguised under names like the “war on drugs” and “criminal justice” that have made the United States the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world — some 25 percent of all prisoners on earth. It was among those prisoners, we should add, that our five Cuban brothers lived and carried out their political work for some sixteen years.
All these questions are explained and documented in several of the most widely read books published by Pathfinder Press that are available on the table that many of you have already visited: The Clintons’ Anti-Working-Class Record and Are They Rich Because They’re Smart? both by Jack Barnes, the national secretary of the Socialist Workers Party, and “It’s the Poor Who Face the Savagery of the US ‘Justice’ System” in which the five Cuban heroes talk about their experiences as part of the working class behind bars in the United States.
Workers resist … search for answers
Often when we explain these social realities to compañeros and friends here in Cuba (and elsewhere), they ask, “Why do people accept this? Why hasn’t there been any resistance?”
Our answer is always the same: “There is resistance. Workers never stop looking for ways to fight back — and act when they find ways.” But if you are not part of the working class, you’re not aware of what is happening until it explodes.
No worker goes on strike until they’ve exhausted other remedies. Until they feel they have no other choice.
The West Virginia teachers strike was just that kind of explosion. It seemed to come out of nowhere, but it had been building for years. Its roots are deep.
And when the teachers and other school employees walked out, when they saw the strength of their numbers, their confidence and determination exploded too. With support from their pupils, families, unions, and churches — and a long memory of the many bitter battles fought by the miners — they organized emergency food services for the students and strikers. Daytime activities for the children were put in place. Clothing and funds were collected, and more.
In the best traditions of trade unionism — and a precursor of the fighting labor movement that will again be built — the strike became a genuine social movement, battling for the needs of the entire working class and its allies.
“What we’re seeing is a class of people rising up,” one striking worker proudly told a reporter.
And he was right. They were the men and women whom Hillary Clinton so contemptuously labeled “a basket of deplorables” during her presidential campaign. People from the “backward” (that was her word!) expanses of the country between New York and California. People she described as “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic,” and especially women, “married white women,” too weak to stand up to “pressure to vote the way your husband, your boss, your son” tells you to.
Is it any wonder Trump won West Virginia by a vote of 69 percent to 27 percent for Clinton?
The better class of people who engaged in this struggle not only kept every school closed for nine days. They sent thousands of demonstrators to occupy the state capitol day after day. Midway through the walkout, teachers rejected their union officialdom’s call to accept the governor’s promise of a deal. They’d heard promises before. They stayed out until they forced the legislature to pass, and the governor to sign into law, a five percent pay raise. And not only for school personnel, but for every single state employee.
A confident mass of red-shirted victors marched out of the state capitol building shouting, “Who made history? We made history!”
And as word spread, teachers in Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona prepared for the next strike actions. “Don’t make us go West Virginia on you!” became their battle cry.
Of all that, you’ll hear more from the panel later this morning.
What has happened in West Virginia is a living refutation of the portrait of working-class bigotry and “backwardness” painted, almost without exception, by a broad spectrum of middle class liberals and much of the radical left in the US, and around the world as well. It is not only Donald Trump they obsessively hope to impeach. Their target — and the object of their fear — is that class of people who are rising up, many of whom voted for Trump.
What’s behind the actions of tens of thousands of working people like these is not hatred of Mexicans, Muslims, African Americans, or a desire to keep women at home, barefoot, and pregnant. Just look at the pictures on the display board at the back of the room. Look at the faces of the women in West Virginia, Kentucky, Arizona and elsewhere who are at the forefront of the teachers’ battles!
Workers engaged in these fights are not clamoring for a border wall, groping women, or marching with KKK hoods and burning crosses. They are demanding dignity and respect for themselves and their families, and for all working people like them.
And they have nothing but distrust and growing hatred for those they call “the political class” in Washington and in every state capital in the country, both Republican and Democratic. That’s why chants of “Drain the swamp!” resonated far beyond those who voted for Trump. It’s not reactionary attitudes that are driving most of these working people. Their strike action registered something different: a step in the direction of independent political consciousness, which can only develop over time through large-scale working-class actions on picket lines and in the streets.
With the West Virginia strike and its spreading example, working-class resistance and class solidarity in the US have entered a new stage.
If you remember even one thing from our program here this morning, I hope it will be this:
Among working people in the United States, there is greater openness today than at any time in our political lives to think about and discuss what a socialist revolution could mean and why it just might be necessary. Why our class should shoulder the responsibility of taking state power. How we can ourselves become different human beings in the process.
What’s more, that political openness is as great among those who voted for Trump as among those who voted for Clinton, or the record number who couldn’t bring themselves to vote for either presidential candidate.
We know this not from polls or news reports filed by others. We know it from our own experiences, and from those of our kin scattered across the United States. We know it firsthand from our regular communist propaganda activity, as we go door to door in working-class neighborhoods of every racial and ethnic composition, urban and rural, from one end of the United States to the other, talking about these questions with thousands of working people. With whoever comes to the door.
A socialist revolution in the US?
That brings us to the second question. Is a socialist revolution in the US really possible?
Two months ago, we were asked that by a student here in Havana at the foreign ministry’s Higher Institute for Foreign Relations (ISRI). He didn’t believe it, he said. The economic and military strength of Washington is far too great — and the working class far too backward. US imperialism, he insisted, will have to be defeated “from the outside.”
We in the Socialist Workers Party are certainly among a small minority, even among those who call themselves socialists, who say without hesitation, “Yes, socialist revolution is possible in the United States.” And no liberating movement of millions can ever be imposed “from the outside” on any country.
We say not only is socialist revolution in the US possible. Even more important, revolutionary struggles by the toilers are inevitable. They will be forced upon us by the crisis-driven assaults of the propertied classes — as we’ve just seen in West Virginia. And they will be intertwined, as always, with the example of the resistance and struggles of other oppressed and exploited producers around the globe.
What is not inevitable is the outcome. That is where political clarity, organization, prior experience, discipline, and, above all, the caliber and experience of proletarian leadership are decisive.
Our confidence comes from the class-struggle battles we ourselves have been part of, as well as what we learned firsthand from the battle-tested workers who recruited us to the communist movement. I will give you just three examples.
Those who recruited my generation were among the founders of the first Communist Party in the United States in 1919. They were delegates to the founding congresses of the Communist International. They were leaders of the great labor battles of the 1930s, battles that in a few short years swept past the craft-divided business unions of the American Federation of Labor to build a powerful social movement that organized industrial unions in virtually every basic industry.
By the high point in the late 1940s some 35 percent of the privately employed working class was unionized, up from 7 percent in 1930 (and that number is close to the 6.5 percent who are union members today). The lessons we learned from the speed and power of that transformation, the pitched battles not only with employers’ goons and police, but fascist gangs and National Guard troops sent in to break strikes, are all part of our basic education.
The rise of the CIO, the Congress of Industrial Organizations, is told in rich detail in one of the books you’ll find on the Pathfinder table at the back, Labor’s Giant Step by Art Preis, one of the Militant’s principal labor reporters for many years.
What I want to call special attention to here today, however, is the most far-reaching and politically significant of the labor battles of the 1930s — the union-organizing drive of the Teamsters, the truck drivers union. It was an organizing campaign that began in the North Central city of Minneapolis in 1934 and, by its high point in 1938-39, had been spread across an area nearly the size of the Indian subcontinent. Yes, the Indian subcontinent!
The rich history and lessons of this campaign are recorded in four remarkable books — Teamster Rebellion, Teamster Power, Teamster Politics, and Teamster Bureaucracy. And it is with great pleasure that today, here at this conference all four volumes are available for the first time ever in Spanish.
Farrell Dobbs, the author of the Teamster series, was in his twenties shoveling coal in a Minneapolis depot when he emerged as a leader of the 1934 strikes that turned that city into a union town. He was the central organizer of the campaign that brought tens of thousands of over-the-road truckers into the union — from Tennessee to North Dakota, from Texas to Michigan. He resigned as general organizer of the Teamsters union national staff in 1940 to become labor secretary of the Socialist Workers Party, and he was sent to prison during World War II along with seventeen other leaders of Teamsters Local 544-CIO and the Socialist Workers Party for organizing labor opposition to the imperialist war aims of the US government. He later served as national secretary of the SWP for twenty years.
More than any other labor experience, it is the Teamsters organizing drive that taught us what the US working class is capable of as it awakens in struggle. It taught us how quickly the working class can learn the meaning of class political independence, proletarian internationalism, and begin to transform the union movement into an instrument of revolutionary struggle for the entire class and its allies.
Those experiences involved organizing the unemployed, farmers, and independent truckers as allies. They included launching and training a disciplined Union Defense Guard that stopped in its tracks a fascist recruitment effort promoted by the bosses. These experiences included broadening international horizons, as union militants followed events in Germany, China, and Spain and took on gangs of anti-Jewish thugs. There was growing awareness of the need for workers to enter the political arena as an independent class force, with their own party.
That rapid advance came to an end in 1939-40 as Washington’s intensifying imperialist war drive came down on the labor movement. But as Dobbs writes in his “Afterword” to Teamster Bureaucracy, “The principal lesson for labor militants to derive from the Minneapolis experience is not that, under an adverse relationship of forces, the workers can be overcome, but that, with proper leadership, they can overcome.”
That is one of the same lessons taught us by the political cadres who under Fidel led the Cuban Revolution to victory.
Battle to bring down Jim Crow
None of us on this panel today lived through the great labor battles of the ’30s. But several of us were part of the generations transformed by our experiences as part of another profoundly revolutionary, working-class struggle — the mass movement of the 1950s and ’60s that brought down the Jim Crow system of institutionalized race segregation in the US South. That successful battle forever changed social relations, both North and South, including within the working class and unions.
And that is my second example.
The roots of that struggle are to be found in the century of resistance to the counterrevolutionary violence and terror against African Americans that reigned throughout the South following the abolition of slavery in the US Civil War — the Second American Revolution. The betrayal of post-Civil War Radical Reconstruction by the rising forces of finance capital and the bloody overthrow of often Black-led popular governments in the states of the former slavocracy were the greatest defeat ever suffered by the US working class.
The objective conditions for the explosion of another wave of that struggle in the 1950s, however, were the product above all of:
The mass workers struggles of the 1930s, which fought to integrate the workforce in auto, steel, trucking, and many other industries.
The social convulsions of World War II, which included the exodus from the land and the accelerated incorporation of millions of African American workers, both male and female, into industry and other urban employment, North and South. That was part of what is known as the Great Migration that had begun during the first imperialist world war, and included the recruitment of hundreds of thousands of soldiers who were Black to serve in segregated, dangerous, so-called noncombat units of the US armed forces during World War II.
The first steps toward desegregation of the US armed forces in the years of “peace” between the atomic bombing of Japan and the Washington-organized invasion, partition, and occupation of Korea. These were followed in late 1951 by the desegregation of the army’s combat units as well, as the US rulers’ invasion force faced determined resistance from Korean and supporting Chinese troops.
The victorious national liberation struggles that swept the colonial world during and after World War II, from China, Korea, Vietnam, and Indonesia to India, Africa, and the Caribbean. This includes the Cuban Revolution, which marked the point of furthest advance of those battles.
The naked hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy of the US rulers who claimed to have instigated and pursued that second worldwide slaughter for “freedom” and “equality.”
For my generation, and several others of us here this morning, the years of mass struggle that overturned the American prototype of apartheid were a school of popular revolutionary action, our school.
That’s when we learned discipline. When we learned the power we had, not as individuals, but in our numbers and, above all, our organization. When we learned how to engage within the movement in heated, yet civil debate. When we learned to be political, not naïve, as we joined in political battles raging within the movement for Black rights.
One of the myths of the battle to bring down Jim Crow is that it was a pacifist movement. That all those involved were opposed, in principle, to taking up arms in self-defense against the violence of the Ku Klux Klan, White Citizens Council, and other vigilante outfits deeply intertwined with the Democratic Party and police departments across the South and parts of the border states.
The record shows otherwise. It was workers with military training and combat experience in Korea who organized themselves as the Deacons for Defense and Justice in Louisiana, and a chapter of the NAACP in Monroe, North Carolina, to protect their communities and their kids who were marching. Martin Luther King was protected by well-organized security.
Above all, we identified with and learned from Malcolm X, as he more and more consciously charted a revolutionary, an internationalist, and then, yes, a working-class course. As he charted a course to join forces with those the world over, whatever their skin color, who understood that we are fighting a worldwide battle “between those who want freedom, justice and equality for everyone and those who want to continue the systems of exploitation.”
For many of us, it was that mass, Black, proletarian movement in the United States, combined at the same time with the example of the workers and farmers of Cuba and their advancing revolution, that gave our generation unshakable confidence in the revolutionary capacities of working people.
That story is told in one of the most important books we have brought with us, Cuba and the Coming American Revolution by Jack Barnes.
“The greatest obstacle to the line of march of the toilers,” Jack says in those pages, “is the tendency, promoted and perpetuated by the exploiting classes, for working people to underestimate ourselves, to underestimate what we can accomplish, to doubt our own worth.”
What the workers and farmers of Cuba showed us is that with class solidarity, political consciousness, courage, focused and persistent efforts at education, and a revolutionary leadership of a caliber like that in Cuba — a leadership tested and forged in battle, in sacrifice, over years — it is possible to stand up to enormous might and numbers that initially seem to pose insurmountable odds — and win. And then to accelerate the building of a truly new society, led by the only class capable of doing so.
That was the foundation of the political education of our generation.
Vietnam and the antiwar struggle
As the mass proletarian struggle against Jim Crow triumphed, our confidence in the revolutionary capacities of the US working class deepened with the third example I’ll point to. That was the battle to put an end to the US rulers’ war against the people of Vietnam. We never doubted that the Vietnamese people — and those of us determined to defend their fight for national sovereignty and unification — would win.
In the course of that battle, as the mobilizations against the war grew to involve millions, the widening fissures in the fabric of US society struck fear in the hearts of the US rulers.
Massive revolts exploded in the Black ghettos of major cities in the North, culminating in those that spread to virtually every US city in 1968 following the assassination of Martin Luther King in Memphis, Tennessee — a cold-blooded political assassination in the midst of a strike by sanitation workers there for whom King had gone to rally support.
In an effort to intimidate and quell protests, the US rulers increasingly resorted to the mobilization of National Guard troops, culminating in May 1970 in the fatal shooting of two students at Jackson State in Mississippi and four students at Kent State University in Ohio. These killings took place as demonstrations of unprecedented size rocked the US in opposition to Washington’s invasion of Cambodia, along Vietnam’s border.
And we saw how the US rulers and their servants were shaken by the spread of mass antiwar opposition not just among students and growing millions of workers but increasingly the ranks of the US draftee army, especially those being sent to fight in Vietnam.
This was what the bourgeois political crisis known as Watergate and ouster of President Richard Nixon was really all about — the tremors of fear among the US rulers.
It is experiences such as these that have taught us something about the political dynamics that will inevitably be part of a victorious American socialist revolution.
* * *
One final point, to close.
The world we are living in today is not headed toward a future of capitalist peace and prosperity. To think otherwise you’d have to believe that the ruling families of the imperialist world and their financial wizards have found a way to “manage” capitalism in crisis. That they’ve discovered the means to preclude shattering financial collapses and breakdowns of production, trade, and employment.
You’d have to believe that the credit crisis that exploded as recently as 2007-08 was an aberration and won’t happen again, with even more devastating consequences for working people.
The opposite is the truth.
The crisis of finance capital is not a short-term cyclical adjustment. World capitalism’s profit rates have been on a long downward curve for more than four decades, since the mid-1970s. Do any of us believe, under the domination of breakdown-ridden financial and banking capital, that world capitalism is entering a sustained period of increased investment in the expansion of industrial capacity and massive hiring of workers?
All evidence points in the other direction.
We have entered what will be decades of economic, financial, and social convulsions and class battles. Decades of bloody wars like those in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and more.
The coming years will end in World War III — inevitably — if the only class capable of doing so, the working class, fails to take state power. If we fail to take the power to wage war out of the hands of the imperialist rulers.
But for us, a sober and realistic assessment of what lies ahead is reason neither for panic nor demoralization and despair. To the contrary. The years that are coming will also bring increasingly organized resistance — worldwide — by growing vanguards of working people pushed to the wall by the capitalists’ compulsion to intensify the exploitation of working people in order to reverse their declining rate of profit.
It is through those battles that class consciousness, as well as confidence and leadership capacity, will develop among working people — unevenly but apace.
And time is on our side — not theirs.
On March 13, 1961, barely a month before the victorious battle of Playa Girón, or the Bay of Pigs debacle as it is known in the US, Fidel Castro spoke to tens of thousands of Cuban workers, farmers, and youth preparing to meet the invasion we all knew was coming. Answering Washington’s illusions that the coming battle would install in Cuba a government subservient to the US rulers, Fidel told the cheering crowd: “There will be a victorious revolution in the United States before a victorious counterrevolution in Cuba.”
His words were not empty bravado. Fidel never ever stooped to demagogy. Nor was he gazing in a crystal ball, pretending to divine the future. We, and the revolutionary people of Cuba, understood him well. He was speaking as a leader offering — advancing — a line of struggle, a line of march, for our lifetimes. He was, as always, addressing Lenin’s question, “What is to be done?”
In North America — and Cuba as well — each succeeding generation of revolutionaries has carried those words on our banner.
The political capacities and revolutionary potential of workers and farmers in the US are today as utterly discounted by the ruling families and their servants as were those of the Cuban toilers at Playa Girón.
And just as wrongly.