The Problem With the Fight for 15
If you want a living wage, be prepared to go on strike for it. Oakland-based activist and performer Boots Riley discusses the need for workers to look beyond city councils and form a radical new labor movement.
By Boots Riley / creativetimereports.org
Jul 23, 2015

Workers' strike in Milwaukee. Photo by flickr user Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association. January 1, 2014.

Workers’ strike in Milwaukee. Photo by flickr user Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association. Jan 1, 2014.

Is the best way to achieve higher wages really legislation? Many think so. Across the country, working people are eagerly waiting to feel the effects of new laws that raise the minimum wage. Seattle will see an increase to $15 by 2021, and Los Angeles will see the same increase by 2020. But this strategy detracts from the only power dynamic that can actually overturn economic inequality: class struggle.

Legislative wage hikes fade fast into inflated prices. Worse, they teach folks that ultimately we need not organize – except to ask the state to change things for us. That’s a losing battle on all fronts and one that obscures class analysis. This analysis says that there are two classes under capitalism, whose economically ordained conflict propels the system: the working class, who creates the surplus value in commodities, and the ruling class, who receives most of the wealth of commodities.

Instead of ceding our collective power to city councils and corporate offices, we need to broaden and radicalize the movement for a living wage, embracing more powerful tactics that today’s union leaders have dismissed. It’s not simply about the outcomes of reform; it’s about how we win it. That’s what teaches us how to fight. That’s what builds a movement. Without a movement, we have no hope for real, sustainable change. We have no hope of getting rid of capitalism.

If wage struggles are undertaken through strikes, work stoppages and occupations that physically keep out scabs—”replacement workers” who would take the places of strikers—struggles for higher wages can expose exploitation as the primary contradiction of capitalism. They can show that workers have the power to change the relationship between labor and capital and can teach class analysis on a scale that no college class can.

Armed strikers in Colorado, before the Ludlow Massacre. Photo by flickr user AK Rockefeller AK Rockefeller. 1914.

Armed strikers in Colorado, before the Ludlow Massacre. Photo by flickr user AK Rockefeller. 1914.

These tactics were used in the past: in 1945 and 1946 more than 4 million workers participated in the largest wave of strikes in American history. These strikes were so effective that in 1947 Congress, fearing union power, passed the Taft-Hartley Act to drastically restrict the tactics that organized labor could legally use, outlawing closed shops and strikes that affect whole industries, among other practices.

The left’s move away from class struggle is one of the legacies of the New Left movements of the 1960s. Throughout the 1910s and 1920s there were militant mining strikes in places like Alabama, Colorado and Montana – some involving armed strikers fighting company guns — and the 1930s brought occupations of factories in the Mid west. During this time the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) was influential in US politics through its members, “fellow travelers” or sympathizers, and ties to union organizers. The New Deal, the holy grail of liberal legislation, was put into place because the ruling class was afraid of the viable revolutionary movement in the United States.

In the 1940s, the Communist Party USA participated in the united front against fascism in order to defeat Hitler – simultaneously putting on hold challenges to the US government during the war. Revolutionaries no longer made public that they were revolutionaries, so as to maintain broad war-time unity. This, in turn, made the communist witch hunts of the 1950s very easy for the ruling class, as communist activity then seemed clandestine, rather than being out in the open as it had been in the past.

The McCarthy-era climate, revelations of atrocities committed by Stalin and the CPUSA’s weak response to both caused many splits within the party, and from these splits in the late 1950s and early 1960s came the beginning of the New Left. The New Left did things differently: no more showing people that they could stop the machinery of industry, forcing the bosses to meet demands or lose profit. Instead, their goal was to cause enough of a scene on the street that the media would cover it and embarrass administrators or politicians into meeting demands. This approach may have had some success at the time, but it’s not the model that today’s workers should use.

Our power lies not in the streets but at the pivot point of capitalism: the workplace.

I am hopeful about the new fast-food workers movement and the organizing at places like Walmart, but these struggles won’t succeed unless they eventually engage in non-symbolic, substantive solidarity strikes that target whole markets—in the case of retail outlets, these would be geographic regions, cities, counties, or sections of a state.

This would be illegal, yet necessary. Whole-industry solidarity strikes were made illegal precisely because they were extremely effective. Current unions stick to the letter of the law. This has made them very weak. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 89% of US workers are not in unions. I believe this is because they don’t think the unions can win. And they’re right for the most part, but that’s where radicals come in.

I suggest that radicals create new, militant unions that are upfront about their revolutionary ideals, clearly articulating that winning fights around wage hikes through militant strikes is but one step in a revolutionary strategy. Declaring that we’ll physically keep scabs out will increase workers’ faith in their ability to win.

These new unions will break the laws that make current unions so powerless, and union organizers may go to jail. Jail isn’t new to radicals. An actual militant labor movement could organize a strike that is so effective that we negotiate wage increases and demand that the prices of goods be tied to corresponding wage increases, ensuring that wage hikes have real effects.

This sort of movement has the potential to be popular. It could lead to widespread general strikes to affect policy and develop from there into a situation in which the workers take over the facilities en masse. This would be the start of a revolutionary situation – one in which a living wage is a right, not a polite request.

The Coup perform in Chicago with the Overpass Light Brigade. Photo by Flickr user Light Brigading

The Coup perform in Chicago with the Overpass Light Brigade.

Photo by Flickr user Light Brigading. February 8, 2014.


Boots Riley is a poet, rapper, songwriter, producer, screenwriter, humorist, political organizer, community activist, lecturer and public speaker.

0.0 ·
0
Trending Today
Looking Forward to the Day That Nationalism Is as Reviled as Racism
Tim Hjersted · 8,389 views today · Nationalism is a form of geographical racism that makes some lives matter more than others, and explicitly justifies that logic without apology. While today, not even lying...
Why It's Crucial for Women to Heal the Mother Wound
Bethany Webster · 4,796 views today · The issue at the core of women’s empowerment is the mother wound
Supporters 'Ecstatic' After Obama Commutes Chelsea Manning's Sentence
Nika Knight · 4,666 views today · Whistleblower to be released from military prison in May
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 3,104 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
How Mindfulness Empowers Us
2 min · 3,052 views today · Many traditions speak of the opposing forces within us, vying for our attention. Native American stories speak of two wolves, the angry wolf and the loving wolf, who both live...
Escape! From the Cult of Materialism (2016)
50 min · 1,307 views today · Does the philosophy of materialism work to destroy our identities, experience, and environment? Join narrator Daphne Ellis on a radical romp through the evidence and decide for...
What Is My Activism Really About? to Love, Serve and Remember
Tim Hjersted · 983 views today · I have made a promise to this world that I will carry with me to my last days. It is my vow to lessen the suffering of the world while I am here - it is to ensure that every...
Dinosaur explains Trump policies better than Trump!
8 min · 891 views today · Donald Trump is actually the corporate triceratops, Mr. Richfield, from the 90's TV show sitcom, "Dinosaurs". 
Before He Was Assassinated, MLK Jr. Was Advocating For An End To Income Inequality
10 min · 671 views today · We can honor MLK Jr. by pursuing the causes he was advocating for before he was killed.  ​​ Part 2: The Basic Income, A New Human Right (3 minutes) MLK's idea of a basic...
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 656 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
The Invention of Capitalism: How a Self-Sufficient Peasantry was Whipped Into Industrial Wage Slaves
Yasha Levine · 598 views today · “…everyone but an idiot knows that the lower classes must be kept poor, or they will never be industrious.” —Arthur Young; 1771 Our popular economic wisdom says that...
Coping With Narcissistic Personality Disorder in the White House
N Ziehl · 567 views today · I want to talk a little about narcissistic personality disorder. I’ve unfortunately had a great deal of experience with it, and I’m feeling badly for those of you who are...
One "Piece of the Oppressor" That I Have Discovered Within Myself
Tim Hjersted · 547 views today · One "piece of the oppressor" that I have found in myself during my inner activist journeys is my use of shame as a method of engaging with the world's problems. Having learned...
The Top 100 Documentaries We Can Use to Change the World
Films For Action · 406 views today · A more beautiful, just and sustainable world is possible. Take this library and use it to inspire global change!
The Greening of the Self: The Most Important Development of Modern Times
Joanna Macy · 370 views today · Something important is happening in our world that you are not going to read about in the newspapers. I consider it the most fascinating and hopeful development of our time...
Stunning Photos By Alexander Semenov Showcase The Alien Beauty Of Jellyfish
Earth Porm · 335 views today · Jellyfish appear like beautiful aliens in Alexander Semenov’s photography, calling a new attraction to a magical species of marine life. Alexander Semenov is a marine...
This Woman Gets No Applause...Why? They Are Too Creeped Out...
7 min · 326 views today · Think you aren't being fooled by advertising tricks? Take a look at this so-called expert revealing food marketing's secret weapon. No amount of marketing makes factory farming...
90 Inspiring and Visionary Films That Will Change How You See the World in Profound Ways
Tim Hjersted · 284 views today · The world today is in crisis. Everybody knows that. But what is driving this crisis? It's a story, a story that is destroying the world. It's a story about our relationship to...
What Martin Luther King Jr. Can Teach Us about Nonviolence
John Dear · 265 views today · I've been reflecting on the principles of nonviolence that Martin Luther King Jr. learned during the historic yearlong bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala. After Rosa Parks refused...
The Corporation (2003)
145 min · 254 views today · The Corporation is today's dominant institution, creating great wealth but also great harm. This 26 award-winning documentary examines the nature, evolution, impacts and future...
Load More
What's Next
Like us on Facebook?
The Problem With the Fight for 15