austerity / marxism / US Politics

Is $15/hr enough? What do we say to working people?


“The Communists fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class; but in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement.” Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto

“Let us not have any illusions. This is class struggle. Business will fight back. They have tens of millions of dollars that they can pour into a counterattack overnight and they can kill this entire thing if we let them…” Seattle City Council member, Kshama Sawant speaking about the fight for $15. 

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Is $15/hr enough?  What do we say to working people? (J Leslie)

I posted the following on fakebook:

“”If you work 40 hours a week, you should not live in poverty here in Connecticut or other states,” Obama said. (Speaking at Central Connecticut State University)

Finally, Obama said something true. Too bad he doesn’t mean it. He thinks the ticket up and out of poverty is a $10.10 minimum.

Let’s do the math.  A fulltime (40/hr per week) job is 2,000 hours annually. Multiply 2,000 times $10.10 and that gives you an annual income of $20,000.  Who can live on that, really?

The US Government sets the poverty line at just under $12,000 for a single person ($11, 670) and just under 20,000 for a family of 3 ($19,790)”

A couple of friends pointed out that the $15 per hour minimum is itself inadequate and another made the point that the demand should be linked to the demand for jobs.

I’ve also seen statements by some on the left to the effect that we should be struggling for socialism and that the demand for a minimum wage is reformist and, therefore, we should not support it.

Try telling that to someone making $7.85 an hour.

Of course, few in the movement to raise the minimum wage to $15 believe that raising the minimum is itself the end goal.

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Do revolutionaries fight for reforms? 

It seems to me the best fighters for reforms are the revolutionaries themselves. Liberals and social democrats will always stop halfway or moderate their demands in order to be “respectable.”  Socialists don’t concern themselves so much with gaining the respect of bourgeois politicians or the capitalists. (After all, these are people who would sell out their mother for a buck.)

Perhaps US socialist, George Breitman, said it best:

 “Revolutionary Marxists, starting with Marx, have never been opposed to the struggle for reforms; on the contrary, for revolutionaries to oppose such struggles or refuse to join and try to lead them would be to doom themselves to permanent isolation and futility. Except in revolutionary situations (and not always then) most of the exploited and oppressed masses do not see the necessity or possibility of winning anything but reforms (no matter how radical or numerous the reforms they want may be).

The essence of Marxist strategy, of any revolutionary strategy in our time, is to combine the struggle for reforms with the struggle for revolution. This is the only way in which to build a revolutionary party capable of providing reliable leadership to the masses and of enabling them in revolutionary situations to make the transition, in consciousness and in action, from the struggle for reforms to the struggle for power and revolution.” George Breitman, Is it wrong for revolutionaries to fight for reforms?

I think it’s crucial for revolutionaries to avoid abstentionism and sectarianism when they try to assess a social movement.   Socialists should be doing everything they can, here and now, to advance the struggles of workers and oppressed peoples.

Should the demand for $15 be linked to other demands?

The unemployment situation is dire. The unemployment rate itself has changed very little. According to the BLS January jobs numbers, the unemployment rate stands at 6.6%. The unemployment rate for Black workers is much higher at 12.1% and Latino workers at 8.4%. There are 10.2 million official unemployed (we all know the real numbers are higher) of which 35.8 percent (3.6 million) are considered long-term unemployed.

Another 7.3 million work at part-time jobs because they can’t get a fulltime job. An additional 2.6 million are considered “marginally attached” to the labor force. Taken together this is a staggering number- some 20 million workers are either underemployed or unemployed in the US.  This, of course, does not count the many people whose unemployment has run out or who have just given up looking for work.

The Center for Economic Policy and Research (CEPR)  estimates that 24% of US workers are in a “bad” job — defined as paying less than $37,000 annually and without health insurance and an employer-provided retirement plan. Some 55% of workers have no retirement plan.

“For younger workers, the picture is even worse…(looking at) the trends in the real jobless rates for men and for women ages eighteen to twenty-four since 1990. These rates rose to 44 percent for men in 2013 and 46 percent for women. Increasingly young people are being driven out of the job market altogether. They are finding themselves in a particularly untenable situation with it being so difficult even to enter the ranks of the employed. About 15 percent of people aged sixteen to twenty-four—some 6 million of them—are neither working nor in school.  And their future prospects are questionable given the findings of studies showing that once workers get behind their cohort in the job market they rarely catch up.” The Plight of the U.S. Working Class, Magdoff and Foster, Monthly Review

Another factor to consider is the debt many young workers are saddled with.  After being told that a college education is the ticket into the middle class, young graduates often find themselves unable to find employment in their chosen field and faced with the task of paying back an enormous student debt.

Black workers suffer high unemployment rates as well as the threat of victimization by the criminal injustice system. (Incarceration rates are disproportionately high for people of color.)   Millions of working people (Black, Latino and white)  languish in prisons and jails, often for nonviolent offenses. They are often forced to work in sweatshops connected to the prisons- a modern form of Jim Crow era convict leasing.  Capitalists thrive on the exploitation of prison labor.  When prisoners are released, they become second class citizens- locked out of jobs and, in many jurisdictions, denied the right to vote.

“Minorities have the highest rates of working people living in poverty. One BLS report said, “Blacks and Hispanics were more likely than Whites and Asians to be among the working poor. In 2011, 13.3 percent of Blacks and 12.9 percent of Hispanics were among the working poor, compared with 6.1 percent of Whites and 5.4 percent of Asians.””  The Plight of the U.S. Working Class, Magdoff and Foster, Monthly Review

Linking issues can be a way of advancing the struggle- of building a bridge in consciousness from where people are now to a revolutionary class consciousness.

What do we say to working people?

  • For a public works jobs program to create fulltime, living wage, jobs now.  $15/hr Now- immediately raise the minimum wage for all low wage workers.
  • For a national healthcare system.
  • Protect, preserve and increase social security! No to two-tier pension plans! Lower the retirement age!
  • End mass incarceration and end the “felony box” on job applications.  Restore full citizenship rights to former prisoners.
  • Cancel student debt! Education is a right!

Is this a complete program? No, of course not.  Let’s not fetishize the question of program to the point where we sink into abstentionism.  The transitional program isn’t something we can recite like a spell in Harry Potter. Program is nothing if it is not based on a living method and on actual movements.

Socialist can ill afford to ignore Marx’s injunction to advocate for “the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class.”  Workers in the US, and internationally, have been the targets of a one-sided class war waged by the capitalist class.  Millionaire capitalist, Warren Buffet, said this:  “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

It is our obligation as revolutionaries to take part in every movement, no matter the limitations or deficiencies, which challenges this class warfare. We have to get beyond mere participation and become the natural leaders of our class. The time is past for sterile interventions. Get off the sidelines and build the movement for a $15 minimum wage.

“How many times have we met a smug centrist who reckons himself a “realist” merely because he sets out to swim without any ideological baggage whatever, and is tossed by every vagrant current. He is unable to understand that principles are not dead ballast but a lifeline for a revolutionary swimmer. The sectarian, on the other hand, generally does not want to go swimming at all, in order not to wet his principles. He sits on the shore and reads lectures on morality to the flood of the class struggle.” Trotsky, Sectarianism, Centrism, and the Fourth International

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