How Much Democracy Can Exist Under Capitalism?

by x365097

In the western countries, we hear constantly from the ruling class about the virtues of democracy. In the US in particular, political democracy and the right to vote for elected representatives is often portrayed as one of the most important rights a citizen can have. US workers have even fought, killed, and died, at the ruling class’ command, numerous wars “to make the world safe for democracy.”

Alongside powerful moneyed interests, though, how powerful can political democracy be, and how important is the average working class person’s vote, really? Will candidates without money really be able to run campaigns which are as effective as those of their wealthier opponents? And won’t the wealthy and the candidates whom they support just continue to look out for their own interests, which aren’t the same as ours, and even are often opposed to ours? In other words, absent some other change in society outside of the political system, won’t the political process still be dominated in significant ways by the anti-democratic principle of one-dollar-one-vote instead of one-person-one-vote?

What Is Capitalism?

Let’s begin by defining what we mean by “capitalism.” Capitalism is a system of economic activity and social organization in which relatively few wealthy people, no more than 10% or so of the overall population (capitalists), own and control access to the industrial infrastructure (workplaces, factories, shops, etc.) that makes modern production and a safer and more comfortable lifestyle possible (indoor plumbing, heat and AC, abundant food, rapid transportation, etc.). Meanwhile, the vast majority of relatively poor people, the other 90% (workers), own almost nothing of economic relevance but their labor, or their ability to perform work (whether that work is considered “highly skilled” or more menial).

Under capitalism, goods and services are generated when workers’ labor, consisting of blood, sweat, tears, intellect, and time, is sold to capitalists (usually by the hour). The catch about capitalism, though, is that legally, the goods and services created by the workers immediately become the property of the capitalist, who may control and use them — selling them at a profit, for instance — as he or she wishes, and the workers have no binding say at all about how the earnings are distributed, or in what directions production and development are shaped. “Let the market decide,” say the capitalists, which is easy for them because guess who controls it!

Although the capitalist must — according to minimum wage and similar laws, if you are lucky enough to live in a country which has them — return at least some portion of the proceeds to the workers, he or she will typically try to keep as much of the rest as possible for herself or himself. Indeed, capitalists must turn as much profit as possible to stay ahead of other capitalists, who are always trying to expand, to control more and more of the marketplace, and to reduce others to working for them (making them their wage slaves) instead of being their competitors. In this way, a permanent underclass of workers is created, while a ruling class of capitalists becomes empowered to live large and rule society — including its political system.

Political Rights and Economic Rights

Now, let’s reconsider how much democracy is currently in our lives. To start, we could loosely define democracy as the idea that the majority or a supermajority rules — because people can and should collectively rule our own lives and make their own decisions in all aspects of our lives. The capitalist ruling class wants to limit this idea as much as possible, keeping our voting options restricted only to candidates who are fundamentally as similar as possible, primarily in the most important idea that they all support the perpetuation of the capitalist economy, the capitalists’ ownership and control of the industrial infrastructure and the wealth that is generated from it. From fascists to progressives, this is what we find, though what differs is are the shades and types of charity that are mixed in. And while some charity is better than none, whether it is in the form of private, voluntary contributions, or government-mandated, redistributive taxation, it can never be considered a complete or root-level solution to the capitalist-worker tension (which stems from the capitalist ownership and control of the means of production, the equipment of industry).

So maybe the popular concept of democracy needs to be expanded more widely from being just a political idea to an economic one as well. As a citizen, you have some political rights (see above), but as a worker, what are your economic rights? Without a union which can fight for your class interests, starting on the shop floor, you have very few, and the few that you have, granted by the capitalist state itself, only came from peace treaties that the state had to sign to placate very strong labor unions in the past who struggled extremely militantly to win better standards for future generations of workers. As long as capitalism exists, those rights are always in jeopardy, and whether your boss is friendly or horrible, the basic rules still apply: the boss has the last say, always, and he or she can enforce it with a firing.

Democracy Begins at Work — and in Your Union

If radical democracy, a democracy which relieves us of the worker-capitalist tension, must come from outside of the political system, how exactly will it come? Considering that the anchor of anti-democratic interests is the capitalist workplace, this is where workers should start to gain the leverage we need to move from powerless, to a counter-power, to the ruling power — en masse, as a union. But the type of union organization we choose is important, as not all unions have the same methods and interests.

For example, many of the largest unions (unfortunately), such as the AFL, have not only long upheld capitalism explicitly, but they have also long been accused of being exclusive in their member selection practices and member treatment for the purpose of trying to create elite groups of privileged workers who, on the basis of ethnicity, race, gender, religion, and other affiliations, are able to maintain economic advantages over other, supposedly less deserving workers — and even scabbing against, or purposely breaking the strikes of, competing labor unions. Since one of the hallmarks of capitalist oppression is increasing and fomenting divisions among workers along racial, gender, and other lines (Nazi Germany and other fascist states being stark examples of this kind of attempt to replace class struggle with race struggle), we can say that this behavior is more in line with what we would expect from capitalists than what would best serve workers on the whole.

Additionally, the standard organizing model for such unions is a top-down approach in which workers pay sometimes fairly high dues to salaried union staffers who may or may not have an incentive to push for what the workers want, or even really to listen to them. Indeed, there have been numerous instances in modern history in which unionized workers had to strike against their union bosses’ orders to get what they needed, just as they had to strike against the capitalist bosses.

Organizing with the IWW

There are alternatives to the concessions-happy, capitalist business unions. Instead, imagine a member-run union without paid staff*, which makes almost all of its decisions by a direct vote of all the members, which charges dues amounting to less than 1% of its members’ wages, and whose intention it is to organize every worker in every industry everywhere for a common purpose, that purpose being to end war, pollution, economic inequality, capitalism. That union is the IWW, or the Industrial Workers of the World. We seek better conditions and pay in the short term, and the abolition of the wage system, or capitalism, when we have become strong and united enough to put an end to it. IWWs believe that workers don’t need bosses and that we can and deserve to inherit the world’s industrial systems in order to use them to provide for each others’ needs as we determine them to be. As a worker, the choice is yours, but it requires commitment. Are you with us?

*except for the general treasurer, an annually elected official who receives a small stipend for her or his year of service, and who loses her or his vote within the union for that year in exchange for the compensation.

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Industrial Worker – Issue #1762, January/February 2014

Headlines:

  • Bakers Rising: NYC IWW Bakery Workers Fight For Better Jobs
  • Starbucks Workers Take Global Action
  • Police Brutality At IWW Picket In Boston

Features:

  • Special: Miners’ Struggles & British Syndicalism
  • Organizing: Life And Labor In The Day Labor Industry
  • Obituaries: Farewell FWs Justin Vitiello & Mick Renwick

Download a Free PDF of this issue.

2NITE! 7 PM, FIGHT FOR $15/HR AND A UNION! INSOMNIA COOKIES, 708 COMM AVE, BOSTON

In August, Insomnia Cookies unlawfully fired 4 workers who went on strike. All four had joined the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World, a labor union). The strikers’ demands included $15/hr, health-care, and that the company not interfere with union organizing. A fifth IWW member was fired last month, after disclosing his union affiliation to his manager.

Insomnia employees were earning sub-minimum wages, some making deliveries on their own bikes until 3 a.m. or later, under pressure to ride unsafely, but after a four month campaign by the IWW, Insomnia workers now have more opportunities to take breaks. The NLRB (National Labor Relations Board, a government agency) has also issued a formal complaint against Insomnia for the illegal firings of the IWW strikers, and has set a hearing date.

However, the company continues to pay below minimum wage and does not provide Workers’ Comp benefits, blaming bike delivery workers if they get hurt in traffic. Let’s expose Insomnia’s union-busting and support fast food workers under attack!

We’ll meet this evening (Friday 12/6), starting at 7 pm, at Insomnia Cookies’ Boston location, 708 Comm Ave (BU East stop on the Green Line’s B Train) to picket the store, and let the community know the truth about the company. A short video featuring Insomnia workers explaining why they went on strike and joined the union is here:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8o-cMS7gjBA

You can also read more about the campaign for justice at Insomnia Cookies on the Boston IWW’s blog at:
http://iwwboston.org/

Please also consider donating to the Insomnia Cookies Workers’ Strike Fund: https://www.wepay.com/donations/insomnia-cookies-workers-strike-fund

If you use Facebook, please share the event for this picket:
https://www.facebook.com/events/189263131262309/189655667889722/?notif_t=like

The IWW’s Environmental Unionism Caucus: Where Green, Red, and Black Come Together

This new caucus within the IWW serves to promote a greater union between environmentalism and unionism. It is within workers’ power to shut down environmentally destructive industries simply by refusing to work. This could become a key dimension in environmental struggles in the coming years.

http://ecology.iww.org/

Industrial Interdependence and Industrial Unionism

On how many workers does your lifestyle — even your survival — depend?

The food you eat today — how many workers helped to plant it, to tend it, to pick it, to process it, to ship it, and to sell it to you?

The clothing you wear — how many workers helped to grow or to synthesize the fibers, to design the style, to manufacture the garments, to market it in stores, and so on?

The buildings you inhabit — how many workers helped to mine, to fell, and to synthesize the raw materials, to refine them, to bring them to market, to study the engineering physics, to plan the area, and to raise and to furnish the structures?

For that matter, how many workers helped to design and to build the infrastructure that enabled it all to happen — the equipment, the transportation systems, the communications systems, the power systems, water systems, etc.? And how many workers helped to feed, to clothe, and to shelter them?

Even just by examining the supply chains of these most basic of industrial activities, we stumble upon an astonishingly vast network of millions of workers laboring in numerous industries around the world, interdependent on each others’ activities. And yet they are disorganized!

Zoom in for a closer look to see that workers in all of these industries squabble amongst each other over every conceivable point of division: race, ethnicity, religion, gender, and so on. Even rival trade unions vie for work and scab against each other. Meanwhile, an owning class of bosses and their agents claim ownership of the workers’ products and make all of the key decisions about the ways in which industrial civilization will progress. This is no good! Workers’ priorities are misplaced.

Greater efficiency, lower environmental impact, greater responsibility, more dignity, and indeed less work for everyone are possible when this waste is eliminated. The workers of the world are the only ones who can unionize to realize this goal, and the IWW has a program to accomplish it: uniting all workers by industry into the same union and using the resulting leverage (as exercised, for instance, in a general strike) to force the 1% who own and rule the world to do productive work like everyone else. We call this revolutionary industrial unionism.

As a worker, you probably feel like you’re too worn down, exhausted, and you have too many neglected dreams to be able step up and do something about it. But deep down, you know it’s not just important but vital that this shift happen. No more lakes can be polluted, no more houses foreclosed, no more lives wasted. Something has to give.

How long do we have? We have until the next Fukushima disaster, the next water supply destroyed by fracking, the next eviction that culminates in a drug-induced suicide. It doesn’t have to be this way. The wage system must be abolished, and workers must take charge of industry, operating it at cost to meet human need, not for profit. Join the IWW today to take a step toward achieving this.

Starbucks Workers “Come Together” across Supply Chain in Global Action for Justice at Coffee Giant

[news below from the IWW-led Starbucks Workers Union]

Major actions in Seattle and New Zealand (home of Pactiv’s billionaire owner) and 15-20 other locations starting November 25

SEATTLE–Workers at Starbucks and its suppliers and their allies are hitting the streets today and all week to demand that company CEO Howard Schultz practice what he preaches: respect workers at his company and at suppliers. In the wake of a report by 24/7 Wall Street naming Starbucks as one of the top ten American poverty-wage employers, a global day of action on November 25th will unite factory workers who make Starbucks’ trademark cups with baristas across the world who fill the cups with caffeine and sugar concoctions, with actions planned in 15-20 cities. The actions highlight the hypocrisy of CEO Howard Schultz, who has drawn criticism for repeatedly forcing workers to advance his political agenda under the “come together” slogan, while busting unions when his own employees “came together” for a voice on the job, and sourcing from companies that do the same.

“Pactiv in Stockton, CA makes cups and packaging for Starbucks and fast food companies. Starbucks has the power to stop Pactiv from cutting our wages and benefits and threatening our middle class way of life. They need to ensure that all workers at its stores and suppliers are paid a living wage and treated fairly. We are “coming together” to ask Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz for help. And we will keep doing what it takes to defend workers’ rights at Starbucks and its suppliers”, said Casey Freeman, President of the Pactiv Union in Stockton, CA (AWPPW 83).

“Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is part of the problem in America. He gobbled up $28.9 million in pay last year alone while we baristas made less than $9 an hour on average, even though we produced over $1.4 billion in profit for the company. So we’re ‘coming together’ on our own to ask him to spread the wealth- create good jobs at Starbucks and insist on fairness at its suppliers,” said Samantha Cole, a barista and member of the IWW Starbucks Workers Union.

The coalition unites the manufacturing workers at Pactiv who make Starbucks cups in Stockton and are fighting cuts to pay and benefits along with Chilean baristas who recently struck to bring Starbucks into compliance with collective bargaining law, and US baristas who are demanding fair pay, consistent scheduling, and an end to understaffing at the chain. The workers are members of four different independent unions and a workers’ center- the Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers (AWPPW), Sindicato de Starbucks Chile, the IWW Starbucks Workers Union.

“We have a message for the American people. The corporate elites who led us into the economic crisis of the past six years will not be the people who will lead us back out. We need to come together as workers, for workers, to fight for a better life for everyone,” said Greg Jones with the AWPPW. “Our movement is growing. This is just the beginning.”

http://www.StarbucksStinks.org, http://www.starbucksunion.org

National Labor Relations Board Rules Against Insomnia Cookies’ Management

The NLRB has decided that the four IWW members who went on strike at Insomnia Cookies in Harvard Square, Cambridge, MA, were illegally fired. The Board has asked Insomnia to provide back pay to all four strikers and to offer reinstatement to the two who remain in the area. The company has not agreed, so the Board may soon issue a formal complaint against the company. While it’s important not to exaggerate the significance of the NLRB’s potential role in the campaign (workers’ solidarity on the shop floor is always the most critical factor), this is good news for the Insomnia Workers’ Union.

Even more importantly, there are reports from inside stores of improvements to working conditions, and a new attention to providing break time, based on our unrelenting pickets and PR offensive. To all who’ve conducted solidarity actions, sent messages of support and donations, helped w/ phone/email zaps, or come to the picket line here in Boston (including facing down the cops!), our collective efforts are beginning to bear fruit, so thank you and please keep it coming!

To contribute to the Insomnia Workers’ Union strike fund, please click here: https://www.wepay.com/donations/1952435343