Strikes over jobs, wages, safety as workers resist bosses’ attacks

By Roy Landersen
August 31, 2020
Group of striking New Orleans sanitation workers, called “hoppers,” with SWP 2020 presidential candidate Alyson Kennedy, Aug. 13. After pay cut they’re demanding living wage, safe working conditions.
Militant/Hilda CuzcoGroup of striking New Orleans sanitation workers, called “hoppers,” with SWP 2020 presidential candidate Alyson Kennedy, Aug. 13. After pay cut they’re demanding living wage, safe working conditions.

“I came to support them because the strike is like the one we won last November,” Canadian National trainman Juan Federico Garcia told the Militant  when he joined striking longshore workers in Montreal Aug. 10. He was referring to how both the dockworkers strike and rail workers eight-day strike last year centered on safety, work schedules and dangerous conditions. “Our strike shows if you stand up, you can get something.”

These actions show the way that strike struggles begin to reinforce each other and the importance of labor solidarity as battles start to spread. More workers are beginning to push back against the employers’ efforts to boost production and profits after months of shuttered production and trade that capitalist governments worldwide imposed in their ham-handed effort to curtail the spread of coronavirus. Out of these daily skirmishes, a fighting union movement can begin to be built in every workplace. 

Maine shipyard workers, members of the Machinists union, know the value of unity and solidarity. More than 4,300 were forced out on strike June 22 when Bath Iron Works bosses tried to shove a “last, best and final” concession contract down their throats. Thwarting the bosses’ hopes to divide them, newer and more veteran generations of shipbuilding workers joined in common action to defend their jobs and seniority protection.

They’ve won a tentative contract, and their picket lines have been transformed into a week of questions, discussion and debate at the union hall leading up to the vote Aug. 21-23. They’re planning a big Solidarity celebration of their strike Saturday night Aug. 22. 

Fourteen “hoppers” in New Orleans, sanitation workers who are members of the City Waste Union, are continuing their more than three-month-long fight for safe conditions and better pay, a fight for all. 

Teamsters union Local 89 in Louisville, Kentucky, has been on strike since Aug. 6 after contract negotiations broke down and the bosses at DSI Tunneling began hiring strikebreakers. 

Around the world too, workers are resisting the bosses’ attacks on jobs, wages and conditions. A wave of strikes and protests has spread across Iran, despite the regime’s attempts to suppress them. It began Aug. 1 with thousands of contract workers in the southern oil and gas fields demanding unpaid wages and an end to dangerous work conditions. This rapidly expanded to numerous other industrial sites, mines and offices. Thousands of sugar workers at the Haft Tappeh complex in Shush have been on strike for over two months demanding months of unpaid wages. 

As the construction and packinghouse industries revive after lockdowns, the bosses, in their chase for profits, show a complete disregard for safety. One in five workplace deaths in the U.S. are in construction work, especially among the growing number of nonunionized workers, largely immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries. In the packinghouses bosses are cramming workers shoulder to shoulder and cranking up line speeds as coronavirus has swept through a number of plants.

Only a fight to rebuild the unions and for workers control of production and safety on the job can ensure no worker has to die on the job. 

Workers fight jobs crisis

In the past quarter, the gross domestic product in the U.S. shrank nearly 10%, with the economies of most major European countries contracted even more. The capitalist economy in the U.K. dropped by 20%, and Japan’s fell by almost 8%. 

These numbers reflect tens of millions of workers thrown out on to the street.

Now there are signs of a slow economic upturn as U.S. bosses’ industrial production and retail sales rose for the third straight month. 

For the first time since stay-at-home orders were imposed in mid-March, the number of workers filing for unemployment in the U.S. dropped below a million in the first week of this month. But still 960,000 filed after losing their jobs, and another 488,000 new claims were filed by gig and self-employed workers for special Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. Some 28 million people were still relying on some form of unemployment benefits the week ending July 25. The special “stimulus” unemployment payout ended then for both programs.

According to a U.S. Census survey, the number of working people who say they can’t afford to give their children enough food at home has grown to almost 20%. And with schools shuttered for the beginning of the term across much of the country, many will miss free meals provided by the government. 

The bosses’ parties, the Democrats and Republicans, remain deadlocked over how much or how long to extend these temporary “stimulus” programs. Given the impasse, President Donald Trump used his executive powers to extend them, but cut them in half. It looks like it might be delayed by election-year squabbling, if it happens at all. 

Bankruptcies of family-owned and smaller stores, restaurants, farms and more are soaring. For the big-business bosses, however, the largest amounts in the history of government and central bank “stimulus” money are being poured into their coffers around the world. 

30 hours work for 40 hours pay

Workers need jobs, to be at work with co-workers, to be part of a working class that works and fights  together. And to cut down the competition between employed and unemployed that the bosses depend on to drive down wages for all workers.

Part of this is to fight for a government-funded public works program to provide jobs at union pay to put unemployed workers back to work building hospitals, schools, day care centers and other things workers need.

Another important part is the fight against layoffs. Officials at Germany’s largest union, IG Metall, have raised the need for a four-day workweek to spread jobs around as capitalist contraction, technological changes and unemployment hit workers hard. 

The union, which represents 2.3 million workers in the metalworking and electrical industries, says 300,000 jobs are at risk. 

Joerg Hofman, the union’s top official, told the Suddeutsche Zeitung  that workers can’t be expected to take a proportionate pay cut. 

But that’s far from enough! 

Unions need to lead a fight to keep the full 40 hours pay for 30 hours work. That is the only way to defend both workers’ jobs and  our living standards from a capitalist crisis not of our making.