Apropos of Labor Day, from Billy Bragg.
In this second article in our series explaining socialism to kids, we take a look at a key concept for many socialists, particularly Marxists. What is “the working class?”
You’ve probably heard the words “working class” being used on the news lately. Especially during an election year, people will talk a lot about “working class voters.” Or sometimes you’ll hear them say something about a “working class neighborhood.”
Here in the United States, people think of the working class as folks who do factory work. Or sometimes they mean someone who works in a job that doesn’t pay very much, or one that doesn’t require a lot of education, or maybe one that involves a lot of hard physical work.
There’s another meaning of “working class” though, that’s really important to socialists. Socialists believe that this special classification of people are the ones who can transform society and lead the world to freedom and equality.
Who is the working class?
In order to make the things that we need for our lives, two things are required. They are labor power and the “means of production.” Labor power is the ability of a worker to do something. It could be making a sandwich or driving a school bus or writing computer code, or anything else that workers do. The “means of production” is everything the worker needs in order to do the job. In a sandwich shop, means of production would be things like the building, the ingredients, the cash register, tables and chairs – everything needed in order to prepare and sell and serve the meal so the customer can eat it.
Under our capitalist economic system, a pretty small percentage of people own these means of production. They are called owners, or bosses or “the ruling class.” All of the rest of us, who don’t own the means of production and must sell our labor power to the bosses so we can earn money to live, are in the working class.
It doesn’t matter what type of work a person does, or how much money she makes. If she doesn’t control the means of production, she is part of the working class.
Why is the working class important to socialists?
Working class people can have it pretty rough. We have to show up when the owners want us to show up. We have to do what we’re told. If we don’t, we might be fired from the job and not have money to buy the things we need in order to live. For a lot of workers, it’s a struggle every day to keep our jobs and earn enough to survive. It’s especially hard for people with limited education and skills, for single parents, or for anyone with extra challenges in their lives. Lots of times people have to choose between taking care of important things at home, and doing what they have to do to keep their jobs.
It seems like the bosses sort of have us in a bad situation. Since they own the means of production, they can order us around and we pretty much have to do what they say. Some owners (or the managers they hire) are nice people, and try to treat their workers with kindness and respect. Still, the worker always knows that he has to do what the boss says or he might lose the job.
So, how can a group of people like the working class, who seem so powerless, be the ones to transform society? If we have to do what the bosses say, how can we possibly lead anyone to a better world? It’s because the working class has a secret super power. The power is called solidarity.
Although an individual worker may be powerless to defy the owners, when workers stand together in solidarity, they can change the world. The ruling (owning) class is so small, that they can’t possibly do the work themselves. Without the workers, no work gets done.
When workers decide together to stay off the job until their demands are met, it’s called “going on strike.”
Think of your favorite sandwich shop. If all of the workers decided not to show up to work, there would be nobody there to make the meals, to clean the tables, or to take the orders.
Or think about an owner of a bus company. She would be sitting alone in a parking lot full of empty busses if the drivers decided not to come to work. Without the working class, everything in society stops.
So when workers stand together in solidarity, they can show the bosses that it’s really the workers who have all the power – in the workplace and in society. But it’s only when they stand together as one that this becomes the truth.
What can solidarity do?
When workers join unions, and stand in solidarity together to make demands, they can get the bosses to pay attention and give in. In fact, before the struggles of unions in the early 1900s, people sometimes had to work fourteen hours a day or more, six or seven days a week. Workers formed unions and went on strike to demand an eight-hour work day. Later, they demanded higher wages, and benefits, such as vacations and health insurance and days off when they’re sick. These things that so many of us enjoy and take for granted today were not given by the owners simply because they wanted to be nice. They were won by the workers who stuck together and demanded them.
Workers can demand and win things like better hours, better working conditions and higher wages for their own jobs. But they can also work in solidarity to make a better society for everyone. Unions have fought for things like an end to child labor, laws regulating workplace safety, a minimum wage for all workers (even ones not in unions), Social Security benefits for retired workers, and so much more.
Working Class Solidarity for a Better World
For socialists, the goal is a society where we do away with the ruling class owners altogether. In a socialist society, the workers would control the means of production, and would share in all the decisions about what to produce and how the work should be done. There wouldn’t be an owner to boss people around. We would rule ourselves in fairness and equality. We would do this because we’re all in the same boat. In the words of the Wobblies (a union that started more than a hundred years ago) “an injury to one is an injury to all.” We would all stand up together in solidarity for a just and equal share of society’s bounty and an equal say in society’s decisions.
So yes, my dear. We are a working class family, and proud of it. It’s up to us to always show our solidarity with other workers, and to fight together with them for a better life for all of us.
In the words of the famous socialist and philosopher Karl Marx “Workers of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains!”
Late last week, President Obama issued a proclamation naming May 1st, 2016 as “Loyalty Day” in the United States. The proclamation reads, in part, “On this day, let us reaffirm our allegiance to the United States of America and pay tribute to the heritage of American freedom.”
Loyalty Day was first celebrated in 1921, during the First Red Scare. It was originally called “Americanization Day” and was created purposefully to replace International Workers’ Day, the worldwide celebration of worker solidarity. It was enshrined into law in 1955 by the U.S. Congress during the Second Red Scare, and has been proclaimed each year by every President since Eisenhower.
Throughout history, control of the calendar has been used to set the ideological agenda. One need not look very far into the history of Catholic liturgical calendar to see this. Samhain was transformed into the Feast of All Saints. The Vernal Equinox became the Annunciation. The Summer Solstice became the Nativity of John the Baptist. The list goes on and on.
This practice has not been lost on our own ruling class.
Utah Phillips said “Yes, the long memory is the most radical idea in this country. It is the loss of that long memory which deprives our people of that connective flow of thoughts and events that clarifies our vision, not of where we’re going, but where we want to go.”
In the years of struggle to come, it is more important than ever that we cultivate the long memory. Celebration of International Workers’ Day is the foundation upon which an understanding of what it means to be a true American rests. Our heritage as fighting working class radicals must not be undermined by the false consciousness imposed on us by the One Percent.
Below are a few links, highly recommended for the occasion. For a longer read, I would also recommend Sharon Smith’s excellent history of the labor movement in America, Subterranean Fire.
Today Is Our Day – by Jonah Walters at Jacobin – This May Day, we should celebrate the historic triumphs of the labor movement and the struggles to come.
The legacy of Haymarket – by Sharon Smith at Socialist Worker – Sharon Smith chronicles the hidden history of the Haymarket Martyrs, the movement for the eight-hour day and the origins of May Day.
In celebration of May Day – by Andrea Bauer at Freedom Socialist – A reflection on Karl Marx and the struggle for a shorter workday.
Our sisters and brothers who are hospital workers, home care workers, airport workers, fast food workers, nursing home workers and retail workers deserve a living wage and union rights. Support the Fight for $15 on strike today.
Chicago’s streets were a sea of union red last Friday for a day of action to protest the austerity policies of Rahm Emanuel and Bruce Rauner.
I’m proud to have joined twenty thousand souls at the Thompson Center that day. What struck me, once again, was the broad support and solidarity in this movement. It wasn’t just teachers, or students, or parents, or union folks. We were joined by activists from Fight for 15, Black Lives Matter, the LGBTQ community, immigrant rights groups, neighborhood and community organizations and so many more. It’s always an inspiration to see.
Here are some great photos of the day from Bob Simpson.
You can also read this report from Gala M. Pierce: Striking for the city we deserve | SocialistWorker.org
What’s At Stake In Chicago
Lee Sustar looks at the dynamics of the one-day Chicago teachers strike on April 1 while Chicago teachers, unionists and community members explain why they’re taking part in the day of action.
Read the article: What we’re fighting for on April 1 | Socialist Worker
The Detroit News reports on a public hearing held yesterday to allow comment on proposed benefit cuts to the Central States Pension Fund, one of the largest Teamster retirement funds.
One retiree spoke bluntly to reporters about prospects for himself, and for people being vested in the plan in the future.
“If they get this plan passed, who would want to join Teamsters when they just screwed 100,000 retirees?” said Fred Bora. “It’s going to have a bigger fallout. It’s really going to go down hill. We’re still going to get the short end of the stick.”
The fund is being reorganized under the Multi-employer Pension Reform Act of 2014, which was signed into law by President Obama. Obama’s appointee to oversee the cuts, Kenneth Feinberg, noted after the hearing that he had authority to impose the reorganization plan over any and all objections.
The trustees of many multi-employer funds used money from those funds to lobby for the Act, against the better interests of the rank and file union members and retirees they purport to serve.
Under the plan being considered, retirees could lose up to 70% of their monthly benefits, at a time when their employers (such as UPS) are reporting record profits. A typical pensioner would go from $3000 a month to $1200 a month in benefits.
Read more on the public hearing: Hundreds speak out on proposed Teamster benefit cuts
Read more at Teamsters for a Democratic Union: Treasury to Hold Town Hall Meetings
As the assault on union standards continues — wherever we still have them — glimmers of hope in 2015 came from grassroots resistance. Al Bradbury looks back on the year for Labor Notes.