This is the text of one of the speeches I gave at the SYRIZA Youth Festival in Greece over the weekend.
I come to you tonight from the belly of the beast, from the heart of capitalism and crisis. In the US, we experience the crisis in some ways differently than you do in Greece, but the consequences for the working class are still devastating.
Just to give you a very brief picture of the last few years, we have had millions of people lose their homes, leaving up to a third of some cities completely depopulated. This includes Detroit, the old industrial powerhouse that was once the heart of working class power. Detroit now exists under the dictatorship of an unelected financial manager. He decides which workers will be paid, who will receive pensions, and which union contracts he will honor.
In Chicago, where I live, our dictator is nominally elected, but despite a mass movement to save public education, he closed fifty of the city’s 300 schools this year, cut the remaining schools’ budgets by more than $200 million, and laid off more than 3,000 teachers.
In states across the country, due to slashed budgets and the ideological warfare of the right, the right of women to abortion does not exist in any meaningful way. It took weeks of protests and demonstrations just to have a group of high school athletes held accountable for gang-raping a classmate and posting the video online.
Programs like Stop and Frisk criminalize Black and Brown youth. More than one million African Americans are in the claws of the New Jim Crow prison system, and last year, the police extra-judicially murdered a Black person every 36 hours. A racist vigilante was acquitted by an all-white jurt after murdering 17-year-old Travyon Martin while a Black woman was sentenced under the same law for 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot at her abusive husband but injuring no one.
Youth in America graduate college with an average $30,000 in debt which most of us will never be able to afford to repay. Unemployment is high–not as high as in Greece, but still devastating. For the general population, it’s about 15%. For youth, it’s closer to 25%. For Black and Brown youth, the numbers are as high as 60%.
For this reason, many people were surprised when we, the fast food and retail workers, went on strike for the first time in April this year. Some media characterized it as the fight of people who have nothing to lose, but in reality, we had everything to lose. Living on minimum wage in the US (which is $7.25/hour before taxes are taken out), is nearly impossible. Living without any income is much harder. States are cutting unemployment benefits and imposing work requirements to receive food aid and other welfare benefits.
So why, with so much to lose, are increasing numbers of low-wage workers–who, according to conventional wisdom, are unorganizable–walking off the job?
First, we must note that while the crisis and the new age of austerity has ushered in a brutal and vicious attack against working people and the youth worldwide, it has also generated a growing resistance. American workers were inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. I was standing in a line for food benefits one day in early 2011 when the man in front of me turned around and said, “We need some of that Egypt shit up in here.” And then, a week later, we got our first taste of mass struggle in the US as hundreds of thousands of workers took to the streets of Madison, Wisconsin and occupied the state capitol to oppose Governor Scott Walkers’s new law that would ban public sector unions. Nurses, students, teachers, municipal workers, and steel workers marched behind banners that said, “Out with Scott Mubarak.”
Two other mass movements erupted that fall. First was a struggle to save Troy Davis from the death penalty. Not only was Davis innocent, but he was a leader of the new abolitionist movement to oppose the racist and barbaric death penalty. Anger over his execution fused with decades of growing anger over class inequality. This turned into the Occupy movement, which also drew inspiration from the movement of the squares in Greece and Spain.
2011 was of momentous importance, because for most American youth, it was their first lesson in how to fight, and how to organize on a mass basis. But every movement I’ve talked about was eventually repressed, often violently. Public sector unions became illegal in Wisconsin. Troy Davis was executed, and the Occupy movement was the target of a massive and coordinated campaign of state repression. And perhaps most importantly, the working class outrage that had been the lifeblood of most of these movements had not found expression in the workplace, the real locus of our class power.
In 2012, that started to change. The Chicago Teachers Union took a stand against the austerity attack on public education that had been closing and defunding schools, laying off teachers, and corporatizing curriculum across the country. They waged a successful seven day strike with massive community support. The strike was built completely among rank-and-file teachers, who held building-by-building organizing meetings, went door knocking in neighborhoods, and organized displays of unity between teachers, students, and parents by packing buses with school contingents to take over hearing meetings.
On the first day of the strike, after holding 300 picket lines around the city, the teachers and their supporters, numbering about 50,000, flooded downtown Chicago, shutting down the city. Massive support for the teachers stemmed from two main things. First, they were drawing a line in the sand against austerity. Second, people understood the teachers weren’t just fighting in their own interest, but they were fighting for everyone in Chicago and for education justice. To give an idea of how the city was transformed: the first four days of the strike in September were the first four days in Chicago where there had not been a shooting all year.
Support for the teachers extended beyond the picket lines and downtown rallies into other workplaces too. For low-wage workers, who at this point were almost completely unorganized, we did little things. We put up “We Support the Teachers Union” signs in our shop windows, wore red (the color of the teachers union) to work, donated our limited money to the strike fund, made tamales to bring to teachers on the picket lines.
But what we did not only supported the teachers’ strike, it also helped ourselves to get organized. It gave concrete lessons in how to build solidarity and the crucial role it plays in a victory. The experience of the teachers’ strike inspired others to walk out: teachers in nearby school districts, symphony musicians, cab drivers, hotel workers, domestic workers, graduate students, and soon enough, fast food workers. Fighting back took concrete form because now we had a playbook to follow. It combined our class’s most powerful weapon, the strike, with new ideas about how to make the strikes more effective and part of social movements.
Over the summer, our union has waged three one day strikes in addition to holding other demonstrations. Each time, the number of workers and stores participating has about doubled, and we have won very concrete gains in our stores. No one has been fired for striking.
There are a few important things to understand. First, in the US, there are very few unions, and almost none in the places where young people work. Many of my co-workers didn’t even really understand what a strike was. Only 6% of US workers have a union. We are in the position of having to start over, to build from scratch.
It is not easy to go on strike. Unions have been hesitant to call them, since the leadership is committed to the false belief that sitting at the table with management can make gains for workers. The bosses try to fire anyone who organizes a union. Sometimes they will even close a shop rather than allow it to go union. In the middle, youth have little to no experience of trade unionism, and so for those of us on the left who understand the central importance of the working class to changing society, and who know that a union is the most basic level of working class organization, we find ourselves in a very difficult position. We must train our co-workers in organizing and fighting the bosses’ attacks while at the same time confronting the old style of bureaucratic unionism that we know is a recipe for failure. It is a tall order, but it is one we must meet if we have any hope of changing the tide of austerity.
And we have other hurdles we must overcome. Perhaps the biggest is racism. In the US, racism has a long, brutal, and powerful legacy that is present everywhere you go. Our cities are segregated, so in Chicago, most African Americans live on the South Side, Latinos on the West Side, and white mostly in the North. Until the 1960s, segregation was enforced through law. Now, it is the marker of continued inequality and discrimination.
To give you a picture of the inequality: more than 90% of the students affected by Chicago school closings are Black. Since taking office, Obama has deported more than one million immigrants. In the place of schools, cities are building prisons, often run by for-profit contractors. The city of Philadelphia closed 23 schools this year, citing a budget deficit, but then announced they would be building a prison that cost more than the size of the deficit. Youth of color are being diverted from schools directly into the prisons, and in the US being convicted of a crime can strip you of voting rights, welfare rights, and legitimate housing discrimination against you. So right now, among the youth there is a very strong feeling that something must be done, because the future we are being presented with is untenable.
Racism has long divided American workers too, so we have to confront it now on a political and organizational basis. For our union, this means going to demonstrations to demand justice for Trayvon Martin. It means having bilingual meetings so English and Spanish speakers organize together and see each other as brother and sister.
And as we have started to struggle together, we have started to lose our fear. There comes a time in all of our lives when we decide that we will not allow our boss to walk over us, mistreat us. A time when we decide that our work deserves dignity and fair pay. The courage that decision generates is contagious.
Let me give you an example. In my workplace, a few of us started wearing pins to support the union. Since we’re only allowed to wear pins issued by the company, we took some of the pins we had, painted over them, and wrote “We support the union” on them. The first day only a few of us wore them and our boss told us we couldn’t wear them. But we said we were following the rules, since they were work-issued buttons, and we wouldn’t take them off. We won the stand-off, and soon almost everyone was wearing the buttons.
That was a small thing we did together, but the implications were large. They gave people the courage to do more. Every time we stood up to our boss and didn’t get fired, people got a little bit bolder. Unity and solidarity are not just ideas or slogans. They are our organizational and political basis. We are fighting for a living wage, paid sick days, and a recognized union. But along the way, we win things that embolden people. Those little things matter a lot. Now we are allowed to drink water and coffee while we work. I was able to have my absence excused so I could come here to Greece, when before, people have been fired for leaving work early after being electrocuted on the job or going into childbirth. But now I said, “I need to go to Greece to a workers’ conference,” and they told me I could go. They told me in writing they wouldn’t fire me or retaliate against me so I can enforce it.
My co-workers and comrades wanted me to come here to speak but also to learn. Because they look at you here in Greece and they see people who know how to fight. They see one of the most organized working classes in the world. They are inspired by you, and they are in solidarity with you.
So I want to finish today by talking about what young people of the left can do to help us organize ourselves in the workplaces.
First, organize to solve small problems but always have in your head that you are building people’s confidence to take on bigger problems. Problems in the workplace, but also political problems.
Second, make your workplace political. Confront racism, sexism, anti-immigrant ideas, homophobia every time they arise. This will teach your co-workers to see the workplace not just as a place where we earn money, but a place where the working class does politics.
Third, democracy is our power, and we need to build democratic unions. We as workers have the power to totally transform society, and the everyday practice of unionism–not only in the delegates’ meetings but on the shop floor–is how we prepare ourselves, how we transform and educate ourselves. In this way, we must see the dual nature of trade unionism. It is a way to fight for the reforms we need now, the ones that will allow us to live and to organize, but it also a way to build the basis for revolutionary struggle, and a different kind of society where workers’ power extends from the workplace to the whole of society.