“Karl Marx’s Legacy in the Reinvigoration of the US Labor Movement:” Presentation by the American Party of Labor at the 22nd International Seminar on the Problems of the Revolution in Latin America.

Quito, Ecuador (July 26, 2018)

This presentation was delivered by Comrade John Palameda at the 22nd International Seminar as a delegate representing the American Party of Labor.

A year has passed since the National Secretary of the American Party of Labor, my
comrade, and friend Alfonso Casal spoke to you about the rise of neo-fascism in the United States. In that year, and particularly in the last few months, the blows against immigrants, women, black Americans, and the working class at large have come quickly. There has been international outcry over the inhumane separation and detainment of immigrant families in concentration camps, where prisoners are forced to recite a pledge of allegiance, suffer in tents in 110 degrees, endure rampant lice infestations, and are denied things like baths and proper nutrition. Hundreds of thousands of people from across the United States, from Chicago and Los Angeles, to small local towns, took to the streets on June 30th in the “Families Belong Together” marches, to protest the indefinite detention of immigrant families and demand the Abolishment of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE, the gestapo of the United States.

But we know that racial and ethnic minorities are only one target of fascists like Trump and Thomas Horman, the head of ICE, who recently defended his actions with the familiar “just following orders.” Organized labor has also come under fire from the most powerful institutions in the American Government, and it is on this topic that I want to talk with you today: the legacy of Karl Marx 200 years after his birth in the reinvigoration of the US labor movement in the face of state repression and growing fascism. For it was Karl Marx who repeatedly wrote of the special
promise in the US labor movement in his writings, and it is the labor movement in 2018 that desperately needs Marx’s insight to grow into a true workers movement.

On Thursday, June 28th, the Supreme Court dealt one of the most significant blows to public sector unions and unionization in general since the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 which required 80 days notice for strikes, forbid federal workers to strike, and required all labor leadership to renounce Communism. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that non-union workers benefiting from a union-negotiated contract no longer have to pay what’s called a “fair share” for the contract. The fascists, true to their nature, has gone from painting working class people with a cellphone as “welfare queens” to demanding a free union-negotiated contract. The decision benefits their fascist project in several ways, though, namely that it empowers corporations, disproportionately effects women, black workers, and immigrants who work in greater numbers in the public sector, and empowers self-interest over collective power.

Betsy DeVos, secretary of education and ardent supporter of the privatization of education, has already sent emails to members of teaching unions encouraging them to leave their union in light of the ruling, claiming the emails are only to “educate teachers on the decision.” In my teacher’s union, we have faced severe financial crisis, and are in danger of losing our accreditation if enough members decide to drop their union dues now that they have the option of receiving the benefits of our contract for free.

Many in the labor movement and in my union have fallen into despair, particularly given the other national circumstance highlighted a minute ago, but this decision, and the fervor with which capitalists are attacking the last bastion of union labor in the United States only denotes the aftershocks of the teacher’s strikes in West Virginia, Arizona, Oklahoma, and elsewhere. In remarkable moments of worker solidarity and class consciousness, red-clad crowds of tens and even hundreds of thousands descended on state capitols and earned in many cases their demands, and in others, as in Oklahoma, a reignited union movement founded on elevated class consciousness and anti-boss sentiments. Graduate students across the country, recently at Harvard and New School in New York, have also begun unionizing at a steady pace, and the Teamster’s Union recently flexed their collective muscles at United Parcel Service management by authorizing a strike.

Organizations of working people have not been this publicly reckoned, endorsed, and discussed since the union-busting and hyper imperialist presidency of Ronald

And these movements revealed something even more hopeful still: there is growing
tension within the labor movement, which has long been firmly anti-communist and supportive of the liberal democrats, between labor leadership who fight only for incremental wage increases and support establishment politics and union members who have grown increasingly frustrated with the fundamental nature of work in the US economy. The opportunistic social democrats in the growing Democratic Socialists of America, Bernie Sanders, and the usual Trotskyists, have latched onto this liberal desire to reduce growing class consciousness in the labor movement to
moderate campaigns for higher wages or better benefits. But these large teacher strikes in Arizona, West Virginia, and Oklahoma, and the growing labor movement, tells us as participators, Communists, and students of Marx, that the proletariat in the United States increasingly reckons how alienated it is from its labor, and how better compensation can not erase the simple fact that students would still have work full time to pay a fraction of the cost of higher education, that often eclipses 120,000 dollars to complete, that working mothers would still have to work multiple jobs to buy school books, medical care, and food for their children, that teachers will still have to work 100 hour weeks in and outside the classroom to survive.

That, fundamentally, our labor is not a reflection of our self, but as Marx wrote in the Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, “the worker’s activity not his spontaneous activity. It belongs to another; it is the loss of his self.”

The experience of the American worker has in many ways confirmed Marx’s analysis of work in capitalist society, and this is why there is a growing number of workers who are frustrated with the opportunists and their solutions. American workers are in 2018 80% more productive than they were in 1979, but median income adjusted for inflation has gone down considerably. Had income kept pace with the economy, the average American worker would be earning over $40,000 more a year than they do.

When I teach Das Kapital and Marx’s writing on Alienation, or lead a discussion on Marx’s legacy 200 years on as we did this year on my campus, for many students it flips a switch—for so long in the United States we have been told to work harder to attain a high standard of living, or that we should be paid a little more for the
hard work that we do—and here, finally, is a theory that confirms our experience as workers, that the more you work, the farther away your concept of self becomes, and the more subservient you become to the capitalist class, as Marx wrote again in 1844: “the wretchedness of the worker is in inverse proportion to the power and magnitude of his production.”

It is for this reason, this growing discontentment with establishment union leadership and a growing understanding of the fundamental injustice of work in capitalist society, that the American Party of Labor and other Marxist-Leninists within the labor movement have made workplace democracy their slogan. It is not enough to settle for the safe and opportunistic slogans of union leaders, social democrats, and Trotskyists, workers in the United States have demonstrated with collective action on the streets and in their locals a desire for something more; for not only higher wages but a greater say in how their work life is structured and carried out.

We do this because we are unwilling to forget Marx 200 years on to be more agreeable to the liberals like the social democrats, and because, fundamentally, workers in the United States are thirsty for an analysis of their struggles in the belly of the capitalist beast that gives an honest prognosis and clear solutions.

So we say, while Trump, DeVos, and their corporate vultures seek to pick the bones of the last major unions in the US, and continue their campaign to develop fascism in the US, that there is something stirring in organized labor that has not been seen since the years of Haymarket and the Pullman strikes. Workers and students increasingly turn to the labor movement to face the austerity, privatization, low wages, and increasing rent that plague them. At this critical juncture in American politics between developing left forces and the open fascist brutality of the American government, Marx emerges as a seminal figure. Not as a foreign figure from a different century as the right wing and the liberal academics tell us, but as a scholar who predicted, analyzed, a proffered a solution for the challenges we face in our lives in the United States. From Brussels in 1848, to Petrograd in 1917, to Berlin in 1945, to Tirana in 1946, to Havana in 1959, to the anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist struggles on-going throughout Latin America, North Africa, the Middle East, and North America, to the resurgent labor movement in the United States, it is clear:

Marx lived, Marx lives, Marx will live.

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