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Look for Working-Class Warriors at Picket Lines, Not Podiums

Should the “class warrior” title be worn as a badge of honor?

Wall Street and the super-rich certainly seem to think so – judging by their behavior over the past three decades.

Since the late 1970s, Corporate America has been on the warpath against working families and the poor, overseeing an explosion of wealth for the rich while real wages for workers have remained stagnant and traditional employer-provided benefits have been eroded. During that time, unionization rates plunged as employers launched ruthless campaigns against organized labor, hitting private sector workforces especially hard. The corporate offensive reached new heights in 2008 with the onset of the Wall Street-generated financial crisis that was followed by an unprecedented transfer of wealth from workers to the rich by way of massive bank bailouts which nationalized private sector debt and set the stage for sweeping cuts to social spending.

None of this could honestly be characterized as anything but naked class warfare. As billionaire investor Warren Buffett once conceded, “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” Buffett reiterated this blunt observation again last week during an interview with CNN.

Since announcing his jobs bill to a joint session of Congress last month, President Obama has been accused of engaging in class warfare, but not on the side of the rich. After all, for the wealthy and their ideological water carriers on the right, there is no such thing as class warfare against the poor – that’s just business as usual. Instead, the right has pilloried the president as a “class warrior” against the rich. It is a curious charge considering Obama’s record of facilitating the ongoing class war against workers and the poor.

Still, while he stumps for the “American Jobs Act,” calling for modest tax increases on the rich along with tax breaks for businesses that dwarf proposed investments in infrastructure, Obama is proudly wearing his “class warrior” colors, which tend to be more fashionable during election season.

“If asking a millionaire to pay the same tax rate as a plumber makes me a class warrior – a warrior for the working class – I will accept that,” Obama said to a crowd in Denver last month. “I will wear that charge as a badge of honor.”

But this is the same Obama who abandoned labor law reforms favored by unions. It’s the same Obama who extended the Bush-era tax cuts for the rich and who put cuts to Medicare and Social Security on the table. It’s the same Obama who froze wages for federal employees, putting his stamp of approval on the wider assault against public sector workers. It’s the same Obama who agreed to over $2.1 trillion in spending cuts as part of the debt-ceiling deal. And it’s also the same Obama who has pushed corporate school reforms that have fueled a national war on teachers and their unions.

So, if the president’s sudden passion for fighting on the side of workers and the poor seems like election-time posturing, that’s because it is. And ordinary people across the country are increasingly coming to understand this fact. After so many years of corporate-led assaults on wages and living standards, the victims of Wall Street’s class warfare are fighting back on their own terms.

The organized furor among thousands of workers, students and others who protested against the union-busting offensive in Wisconsin earlier this year was not an isolated incident. Over the past two months alone, a resurgent working-class struggle has been gaining steam, with tremors rippling across the country.

While unions have continued mobilizing get-out-the-vote drives to defeat anti-union legislation in states like Wisconsin and Ohio, an uptick of workplace actions and other protests has been shaking up class politics in a way Obama’s stump speeches never could.

A few short and mostly successful strikes hit the healthcare industry in the spring while hundreds of activists with US Uncut were staging flash-mob actions at banks and gas stations, protesting corporate tax-dodging and the social spending cuts that they enable. Over 60,000 grocery workers protested and prepared for a strike over the summer before reaching an agreement with three large California grocery chains last month. Then in August the largest labor strike in several years gripped the east coast and captured headlines when 45,000 Verizon landline workers walked off the job and exposed the corporate greed of the nation’s largest wireless carrier.

And Hyatt hotel workers in four cities went on a weeklong strike last month against increased workloads and outsourcing by the highly profitable hotel chain. Meanwhile, hospital workers at Kaiser Permanent in southern California went on strike for two days against concessions, including cuts to healthcare and other benefits. The roughly 4,000 members of the National Union of Healthcare Workers were joined by 23,000 members of the California Nurses Association and 2,000 members of the Operating Engineers who struck in solidarity.

On the other side of the country, 80 employees of a notoriously anti-union restaurant in New York City went on strike and, while their struggle is ongoing, they have already forced the restaurant to rehire 38 workers who were fired for union organizing. A few miles further east, unionized faculty members at Long Island University went on strike over concessions demanded by the university in the form of wage and benefit cuts.

But perhaps the most striking of strikes in September was one that occurred among 1,900 teachers in Tacoma, Washington who walked the picket line for ten days in defiance of a court-ordered injunction. The teachers voted overwhelmingly to disobey a judge’s order for them to return to work and, on September 22, they declared victory after reaching a tentative agreement with the school district that put a halt to proposed pay cuts and attacks on seniority rights.

In the same state, there’s the ongoing struggle of members of International Longshore Workers Union (ILWU) Local 21 in Longview. There, militant tactics are being used by workers as they battle against EGT Development, a multinational terminal operator that is using scab labor at a new grain export terminal in violation of its contract with ILWU. Rank-and-file longshore workers and union leaders escalated pressure on the company this summer, using direct action to block trains delivering grain.

After successfully blockading several trains, riot police armed with tear gas and rubber bullets were deployed against the workers to clear the tracks. ILWU members responded by cutting break cables on trains and dumping grain from cars. Early last month, the union shut down ports in Vancouver, Longview and Tacoma. Workers have continued their struggle despite court injunctions and the National Labor Relations Board calling for an end to what it has described as “violent and aggressive” picketing.

A day before Tacoma teachers won their strike, Local 21 officials and others where arrested for engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience in an attempt to block another train. Reports of police pepper spraying protestors in the eyes at pointblank range as they held them down have led to a civil rights suit filed against police. The longshore workers’ campaign has so far involved roughly 135 arrests in a struggle that calls to mind the labor battles of the 1930s.

Finally, there’s the growing occupation movement that began on Wall Street and has since spread to various cities around the country. Hundreds have been arrested in New York City as activists have attempted to occupy Wall Street, protesting against the top “1 percent” and the unbridled greed that they represent. The Occupy Wall Street encampment at the renamed Liberty Plaza has faced brutal police violence, including the pepper spraying of peaceful protesters on September 24 and, this weekend, the arrests of 700 demonstrators who marched on the Brooklyn Bridge before they were suddenly encircled and trapped by police for hours in the cold rain.

The Occupy Wall Street movement – under the umbrella of “Occupy Together” – has spread far beyond Manhattan and gained national and international attention. Now the labor movement is putting its weight behind this new wave of protest. A significant endorsement of the Wall Street occupation from Transport Workers Union Local 100 was followed by endorsements from the United Steelworkers of America, National Nurses United and the 360,000-strong SEIU 119. On Wednesday a massive labor rally and march from City Hall to the Wall Street encampment promises to add more firepower to this inspiring new movement.

Taking on a life of its own, the struggle is drawing new class warriors into the movement as it taps into widespread anger toward the rich that has been simmering below the surface for years. It remains to be seen how large and widespread the Occupy Wall Street struggle becomes, but in the context of a rise in labor struggle, it is unlikely that the growing tide of protest can be easily turned back.

Last week postal workers nationwide rallied against what could be the largest attack on the public sector yet, with the threat of 120,000 layoffs and the closing of 3,500 post offices justified by a crisis that was manufactured by Congress.

In the meantime, the prospect of another major teacher strike is looming in Chicago where the Chicago Teachers Union is trying to fend off attacks by Mayor Rahm Emmanuel. Formerly Obama’s chief of staff, Emmanuel’s replacement at the White House was JPMorgan Chase executive William Daley, who Obama appointed in January. Incidentally, JPMorgan recently announced it was donating an unprecedented $4.6 million to the New York City Police Foundation, perhaps to bolster the crackdown on working-class rage which has kept cops busy in that city over the last two weeks. While he tries to brandish his working-class warrior credentials, Obama’s ties to the forces that have led the charge on the other side of the class war are undeniable.

All around the country, workers, students, the unemployed, and the poor are standing up and fighting back with protests, pickets and strikes.

The working-class warrior badge of honor belongs to them, not the president.

Brian Tierney

Brian Tierney is a freelance labor journalist in Washington, DC. Read more of his work at Subterranean Dispatches, where this article first appeared.

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