United States - the political and social situation before the presidential election

Jul/Sep 2012

The following text published by the American Trotskyist organisation The Spark (Class Struggle #74 - April-June 2012) outlines the political situation in the US in the run-up to the November presidential election, in which Barack Obama will be standing for re-election

Recovery? only for the bankers and other capitalists

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, which charts such things, the US economy entered a new "recovery", starting in June 2009.

It's true, there has been a recovery of sorts - for the bankers, other sections of the capitalist class, and all those who live off "unearned income."

The stock markets have taken off again, with the Dow Jones, for example, effectively doubling the valuation of the publicly held companies it lists. From its low point of 6,547 in March 2009, the Dow Jones climbed back up to around 13,000 in March 2012 - making a tidy bundle for the speculators who jumped in and out of the markets, benefiting not so much from the increase, as from the wild fluctuations that accompanied the ride back up.

By 2010, profits of the corporations had hit a new record: £1,150bn in 2010, and then up again in 2011 to £1,216bn, before taxes. Profits now make up more of the US Gross Domestic Product (GDP) than ever.

Despite the usual claims that profits would lay the groundwork for new investment, almost all of that profit went into the avaricious private hands of the capitalist class in the form of dividends and stock buybacks. In 2011, after-tax profit for the whole economy came to £900bn; £520bn of that was paid out in dividends. Another £262bn was paid out just by the top companies in the S&P 500 to buy back their own stock, enriching stockholders whether they kept the stock or sold it. And of course, there are all the other companies not in the S&P 500. The amount of dividends paid out hit a new record, right along with the amount of profit amassed. Even the banks at the very heart of the financial meltdown - JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, US Bancorp - threw money at stockholders.

Investment? After the bourgeoisie drained money from the corporations, there was no money left for investment. And government statistics on investment testify to that fact, with investment in factories, offices and other business buildings still down in 2011 more than 30% from what it had been in the previous upturn, when it was already very weak. And investment in equipment and software, which was down as much as 30% five months after the "recovery" started, was still down by about 2%. No investment - only more wealth to the wealthy.

No wonder corporate and banking executives were rewarded so handsomely. In 2010, the last year for which records are complete, the top 299 companies, on average, paid their chief executive £7.3m in compensation. Of course, some made much more than others: Viacom's CEO, for example, pocketed almost £54m, and Oracle's CEO, £50m. Even companies hard hit by the economic downturn, like the auto companies, continued to hand out big bucks. Alan Mulally of Ford, for example, received £8.7m in total compensation in 2008, £11.4m in 2009, £17m in 2010, and will get £36.2m in stock awards for 2011 - the rest of his pay package hasn't yet been revealed.

The Wall Street firms, whose "creativity" helped precipitate the financial crisis, weren't about to be left behind. Bonuses may have been reduced over the past few years, but overall compensation has gone up, hitting a grand total of £95bn for the executive ranks of the big investment banks and firms in 2010 - a new record. This is almost twice as high as the budget of the state of California, the largest state in the country.

Joblessness spreads

Not only has there been no recovery for the working class and other poor layers of the population, the push of the capitalists to defend and increase their wealth has aggravated the impoverishment of the population. In recovery, just like recession, the working class, continues to suffer increasing exploitation, pushed by unemployment, a brutal drive for productivity and wage cuts, direct and indirect.

In the current recovery - the latest in a string of "jobless" recoveries going back to 1980 - the real level of unemployment is not only as high as it was in the worst of the downturn, it is getting worse.

By February, 33 months into this "recovery," the headline unemployment rate (U-3), which ignores large numbers of the unemployed, had gotten down to only 8.3%. The official full rate (U-6), taking into account short-term discouraged workers and unwilling part-time workers, hit 15.1%. And if the long-term discouraged were counted - as they were before Bureau of Labour Statistics revisions were put into effect several times under Clinton - the total rate would be somewhere around 20% (Daniel Amerman shows 19.9% and Shadow Stats, 22.5%.) Over one-fifth of those trying to work have been reduced to living on unemployment benefits, on their savings, with relatives, on charity, by work in the underground economy and/or by petty crime.

The news media have been hyping the number of new jobs created over the last three months as something "extraordinary," with a total of 732,000 new jobs. Overall 3.4 million jobs have been created since the "recovery" began. But that's nothing when compared to the nearly nine million jobs that were lost since the recession started - with two million cut in manufacturing, two million in construction, and over a million and a half in transportation and utilities.

It's true that the official unemployment rate has been trending down more or less ever since May of 2010, but every bit of this decrease - and more - was produced by manipulation of official statistics. In January, for example, when the unemployment rate came down from 9.5% to 9.3% - which should mean more people are working - in fact, it only reflected that one million people were removed from the officially counted work force! The real mark of the jobs crisis is not the official rate, but the proportion of the adult civilian population in the labour force. And it continues to decrease: from 67.1% in 2000, down to 65.5% in mid-2009, then to 63.6% at the beginning of 2012.

The jobs that are available are increasingly part time or temporary. Over one-quarter of all jobs created in February came from temporary agencies.

Youth: ripping up their future

As bad as the overall figures are, the situation for young adults is worse - catastrophic in many of the big cities. In 2007, just before the recession began, 5.9 million youth aged 15-19 had jobs; today, only 4 million do. Even their official unemployment rate is 24%. The reality is much closer to 40% or even 50%. And among people aged 20-24 there were fewer jobs, dropping from 13.9 million in 2001, down to 12.9 million today. A recent Pew study revealed that 24% of adults age 18 to 34 are today living in their parents' household.

The worst of the unemployment hits those without any higher education. Using the current "official" basic unemployment rate as a standard for making the comparison, those without a high school diploma suffer a 14.8% unemployment rate; those with a high school diploma, 9.5%; with some college, 7.5%; and with a university degree, 4.3%. (Undoubtedly, a large percentage of the ones who do not finish high school never make it into the official labour force.)

Those who recently graduated from the university face a significantly higher unemployment rate than do those who graduated ten years ago, for example. Moreover, the jobs that are available for new graduates today pay significantly less and have less status and prospects than what many had been expecting when they entered college. Even those coming out with an education degree, who in the past would have had no problem finding an opening in the public schools, today can find it difficult to land a position.

This changed expectation is particularly onerous for all those students who come out of college carrying sizeable loans. Like mortgages, college loans are one of the debts that can't be erased in a bankruptcy, and like mortgages, these college loans have provided a real basis for speculation, with banks pushing ever more and ever bigger loans on unsuspecting students, in order to increase the number of securities based on those loans that can be sold to investors.

For the students who take out these loans - which means most of the children of workers and of other ordinary layers of the population - student debt promises to hang over their heads after graduation, limiting what kind of jobs they can take, how much they will have to work, what standard of living they can have. A recent estimate put the average loan balance carried by the 2011 college graduates so high that those graduates will still be paying off their college loans when it is time for their own children to enroll in the university.

Black unemployment - a catastrophe

The black population, as has long been the case, takes on a disproportionate share of the unemployment. "Last hired, first fired" - the bitter irony from the times of Jim Crow - is still an accurate description of employment practices today. In January, black unemployment, officially, was 15.8%, more than double the white rate of 7.5%, and significantly higher than the Hispanic unemployment rate, which was 10.8%. (Part of Hispanic unemployment "disappears," however, because larger numbers of people without papers were expelled or simply returned to their own country this past year.) For young black men without a high school diploma, actual unemployment runs around 70%.

In part, these enormous gaps mirror the still overt racism in the country. But they especially reflect all the ways in which race, immigration status and class are intertwined. The black population, in its large majority, is working class, as are most people who come here without papers, particularly those from Mexico and Central America. While a large part of the white population is working class, nonetheless at least a third of the white population occupies the upper levels of the so-called "new middle class" - the professions, higher business and finance positions, along with top academic and research positions. This is the part of the population much less affected by unemployment. (For the bourgeoisie itself, in its vast majority white, unemployment has no meaning at all.)

The answer to unemployment: prison

The fluctuating but always high level of unemployment over the last 30 years has been accompanied by a vast increase in the numbers imprisoned. The Pew Centre estimates that nearly six million people cycled in and out of some stage of "correctional supervision" in 2010: in jail, in prison, in a half-way house, or under probation, with nearly 2.4 million people actually in prison at any one time. That's 2.4 million people removed from the work force, and not counted among the unemployed.

The US, both in absolute terms and percentages, imprisons more of its population than does any other country, and significantly more than any other industrialized country. (To compare: Britain, with the highest rate of incarceration in Western Europe, imprisons 151 persons per 100,000; the US imprisons 731, five times as many.)

Imprisonment is pervaded by all sorts of abominations. For the kinds of infractions committed by most working class or poor people, sentences are excruciatingly long, much longer than in any other "advanced" country - including for the very young. More than 2500 juveniles, average age 16, are serving life in prison today, without any possibility of parole - discarded before even reaching adulthood. On any given day, 50,000 people are held in solitary confinement, many for years. This torture is aimed at breaking and destroying prisoners: no contact with other prisoners, no visitors, no access to TV or radio, little or nothing to read (maybe a bible - and often, not even that), little or no material with which to write, no activity other than one hour a day outside the tiny cell for "exercise." And then there is capital punishment. The US is one of the few "advanced" countries that still imposes the death penalty. Since 1977, when executions were resumed after a ten-year moratorium, 1285 people have been put to death. Today, 3245 more people are still being held on death row.

The prison system, the dirty underbelly of US society, is inflicted at a seven times harsher rate on the black population, than on the white. More than half of all black men without a high school diploma go to prison at some point in their lives. And very many of them go at a young age.

The growing mass incarceration of the poor black population has been called the new Jim Crow - with a great deal of reason. Prison has functioned as a real means of social control by a society that increasingly has discarded large segments of the population out of the workforce, with no hope for a job or training - particularly of the black population.

Wage cuts, benefit cuts - the road to poverty

With grinding, unending unemployment weighing on the working class, corporations and public officials have used its menace to cut wages.

From 2005 to 2009, the auto industry led the attack on wages and benefits. The result of this campaign was to cut wages in half for new workers by introducing "two-tier", eliminating fully paid benefits for them, while using a range of inducements to push the established workers out of the plants. Those already retired discovered that their pensions had been frozen and medical care reduced, with the threat of much bigger cuts in the future, as all responsibility for retiree medical care, but only 60% of the funding, was turned over to the union apparatus to juggle. And current workers, who might have believed they were immune to the threat posed by two-tier soon discovered otherwise.

When auto workers did not react strongly enough to stop these cuts, other parts of the capitalist class followed suit, and wage cutting spilled across industries, sometimes under the two-tier form, sometimes in direct wage cuts.

For the past two years, public sector workers have been the ones targeted, as cities, counties, school boards and the states have all pushed to reduce the number working and to impose concessions on wages and/or benefits. Today, they find themselves demonised - as auto workers once were - as "privileged."

Since 2000, the real median wage has gone down 7%, dropping 2.3% in 2010 alone. And the wage decrease in the half of the wage scale below the median has been much greater.

The gap between the very wealthy - now popularly known as the 1% - and everyone else has grown enormously. In 2007, the wealthiest 1% raked in almost 24% of the total income produced in this country. The last time those on top owned such a disproportionate share was 1929 - just before the last great crash, the one which led into the Great Depression. The share taken in by the wealthy may have decreased somewhat, given the impact of the financial markets' implosion in 2008, but by all indications the "recovery" is pushing them right back up. The financial wealth of the country is even more disproportionately owned. While the bottom 80% own only 7% of the wealth, the top 5% own 69% of the wealth, with the top 1% hanging on to 42%, all by themselves - a gap that has been rapidly increasing. It couldn't be clearer that wealth in the hands of the few has its counterpart in the impoverishment of the population.

A rapidly worsening situation

The mortgage fiasco still weighs on the US population. The economists say four million people have already lost their homes to foreclosure and another 900,000 will lose homes both in 2012 and in 2013. Even those still hanging on to their homes are at risk, "owning" a house whose value is less than the mortgage they are obligated to pay: 23% of all home-owners, 11.1 million households.

Increasing numbers of people find themselves without medical coverage. In 2000, 64% had some sort of medical insurance through their employer; in 2010 only 55%. Nearly 25% of working age adults had no insurance of any kind - neither from an employer nor from government programs. To the extent that there are social programs that provide any access to medical coverage, most of these are directed at the very poor, at children or at people older than 65, eligible for Medicare, if they worked long enough. But those are the very programs being cut.

Even those who kept hold of medical insurance through their employer discover that less is covered and more co-pays, co-insurance, deductibles and fees make that insurance a dead letter.

Meanwhile the Democrats and Republicans - using the Supreme Court as their stage - debate each other over the medical "reform". The Republicans essentially say the current situation is just fine and dandy, thank you, while the Democrats say that the current situation would be fine if only people without insurance were forced to buy it, and if more people were put on Medicaid - the very same program that Democrats voted to cut this year!

Poverty - even at the level officially recorded - is on the increase. In 2010, forty-six million people, including twenty million children - lived below the government's official poverty line. It is the highest number in more than half a century - since the US began to measure poverty during the Johnson administration.

In percentage terms, 15%, this falls below the official level recorded in the early 1960s. But even the Census Bureau recognises that its arbitrary definition of poverty has little to do with the actual situation today, and it has been experimenting with an alternate measure. The alternate measure records 48% of the population today living in either poverty or in what the Census Bureau calls "near poverty", essentially living from paycheck to paycheck with no reserve at all, so that even a short spurt of unemployment is enough to result in utility shutoffs or even homelessness.

Nine million people, almost half of all the retired who are still living in their own homes or apartments, do not have enough money from pensions, Social Security and savings to cover everyday necessities - this was the conclusion of a recent study done by the Census Bureau. And about one in five households in the larger population did not have enough money to always put food on the table for themselves and their families.

Social "safety net"? where?

While the bosses were busy destroying jobs, driving down wages and tearing up benefits, the government was equally busy reducing or even eliminating those social programs that could have provided some assistance. The federal government reduced per capita funding for programs under its control - particularly Medicaid, welfare, housing assistance, nutrition aid for mothers with infants, community health centres and so on. It's not only Mitt Romney who so despised the poor that he could blithely say, "I'm not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there...." Democrats and Republicans alike, cutting away, pretend that the "safety net" still exists.

Social Security, which so far has avoided a direct hit, nonetheless has been severely reduced year after year in relation to actual inflation. The "adjustments" made to the government's CPI in 1980 and especially in the early 1990s have kept monthly cheques at a level about half of what they should be, according to John Williams of "Shadow Stats". While the two parties may have held off on any direct cuts this year just before the election, they've already made clear that Social Security will be targeted once elections are safely over.

Cannibalising public services

Public services continued to take enormous hits in 2011, affecting the daily life of the population and adding to the unemployment. The federal government severely cut back the amount of money allocated to agencies that monitor health, safety, workplace safety, pollution of the environment, etc., as well as to the Park Service. State and local governments have literally dismantled public services that the population depends on - in part as the result of cuts in the various "revenue sharing" funds that come from the federal government in support of public services like highways, bridges, dams, levees, public transport.

Detroit and Las Vegas are catastrophic examples of what is happening to the cities, the advance guard of what the capitalist future holds for the working class everywhere. Dominated by industries particularly hard hit in the recession - gambling and autos - both cities had exceedingly high levels of unemployment. And both cities were among the hardest hit by the mortgage crisis. In Las Vegas, tracts of new homes, built on the premise that gambling would continue to grow, today stand vacant, with city services never completed, decimating the construction industry and the workers who depend on it.

In Detroit, the sub-prime scam, very consciously directed at older people, has transformed whole neighbourhoods - previously vibrant, with houses well taken care of - into ghost neighbourhoods. The response of city authorities is the mayor's plan to "shrink Detroit" - as he put it. Concretely, he imposed several rounds of layoffs, saying the city no longer has the financial means to furnish services to all its neighbourhoods. Thus, you might get street lights, you might not. You might get sewer line hook-ups and water, or you might not. Empty buildings might be torn down in your area, or they might not. You might have a fire station within a few miles of your neighbourhood or you might not. It all depends on whether the city decides that your neighbourhood is "worth saving" or not. If not, according to the mayor, you better move. The city can't afford you.

The discussion has now reached the point that, under the pretext of a threatened "consent agreement" with the governor, the mayor is proposing to sell off or close all parks, close all recreation centres, or transfer them to churches, close down or sell off almost all city services. The actual consent agreement, just now coming out into the open, aims at abrogating all union contracts, eliminating seniority and work rules, reducing wages, pensions and sick pay - as well as selling off almost all city services to private profit-makers.

Other cities may be behind, but almost all are following the same trajectory. Chicago, for example, under the current Democratic administration, has closed 6 of 12 mental health clinics, privatised seven public health clinics, imposed nearly £320m in cuts on the public schools, cut library services, and opened bidding between city workers and private contractors to see who would keep, or get, the work in recycling centres. It had previously sold off, or leased public services (among other things, parking meters, parking lots and a tollway coming into the city) to private "investors" to run and take profit from - at the expense of the population. In Maryland, the Democratic governor is proposing to do the same, with large chunks of state-provided public services being handed over to private companies. In Los Angeles, after cutting 5,000 jobs and imposing £545m in concessions on municipal workers, "liberal" Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (known as a former union organiser) announced he wanted much bigger cuts in jobs and pensions and that he intends to privatise many city services.

With the crisis, not only is there no question of reducing all the gifts given to the capitalists by different levels of government, but those gifts have vastly increased, leading to round after round of cuts in public services and social services - cuts that are far from over.

Gutting education

The dismantling of public education is certainly one of the most scandalous cuts in public services because it is being carried out at the expense of children, especially the children of the labouring classes. Arne Duncan, Obama's Secretary of Education, has been pushing plans that require states to close many public schools under the pretext that they are not meeting the criteria set by the Bush and Obama administrations. Some schools have been transformed into privately-run charter schools. Other schools are "reconstituted," which is nothing but a pretext to dump a certain number of teachers and to increase class size. Still others are simply closed, at the same time that a new charter pops up in their neighbourhood. The application of this policy by local school districts is even a condition to receive certain amounts of federal aid. An important part of the push by the Obama administration is to reduce teachers' pay by tying it to the results students achieve on tests. Tens of thousands of licensed teachers lose their jobs, while untrained college graduates, recruited by "Teach for America", are brought into the schools, inflicted on the children for a year or two, paid lower wages - and part of those wages are even subsidised by the various foundations that lurk behind this "Teach for America" organisation.

New Orleans, Washington DC, and Chicago were the laboratories where these plans were "perfected" - with predictably disastrous results. After Hurricane Katrina shut the schools and forced the evacuation of large areas of New Orleans in 2005, it was the perfect time to hand the whole system over to private enterprise. Today over three quarters of the New Orleans school system is run by charter operators. At the same time, other schools were kept shut - as a way to drive the poor out of areas the city wanted to "reclaim" for gentrification. In Chicago, the closing of schools, under the pretext of student test scores, etc., was directly used as a weapon of "gentrification" - not urban renewal, but black and Hispanic and poor removal, as the old saying went.

The latest version of this whole attack, the "state system" in Michigan, into which were dumped a number of Detroit public schools, clearly shows the point of this whole approach. The union contract covering wages, benefits and seniority is invalidated. The school year is to be longer, with no increase in pay. (The Chicago public schools are already trying something similar by increasing the length of the school day, with no increase in pay.) At the same time, children are to be dumped together into classrooms, irrespective of age, with teachers expected to juggle various types of work all at once - in obviously much larger classes. Salaries are to be capped near £32,000, a huge cut for those teachers with the most training, qualifications and experience. "Teach for America" is to replace the most seasoned, experienced and dedicated teachers. It's nothing but a plan to get rid of teachers - and thus to dump the children in these schools onto the garbage heap.

Two bourgeois parties: one policy

On the political level, the first part of the year was dominated by debates between the two parties over the budget, the deficit and the national debt.

It's true: the national debt is enormous, now reaching more than £9,600bn overall, about 100% of the 2011 GDP. And this debt has increased dramatically since 2008, creating about £3,200bn of the £9,600bn total in the last 3 years.

But the very items that created the debt and its enormous increase were not on the table for debate: that is, the many thousands of billions consecrated to pump up the profits of the banks and the big companies; the thousands of billions spent on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; the thousands of billions in the bloated military budget with its special contract deals for almost every big company in the country; and all the tax cuts for the wealthiest people and the big corporations.

No, it was a fake debate about the debt - a justification for the drastic cuts in the domestic budget the two parties conspired to push through. This fake debate also let the two parties prepare the ground for future cuts in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid - cuts that will be imposed after the elections.

Oh, yes, Obama and other Democrats occasionally did pipe up to say they would like to balance cuts in domestic programs with some new taxes on the wealthy. What cynicism - coming from the party that was still in control of the Senate, the House of Representatives and the White House when the last big tax cut for the wealthy was passed in December 2010.

In any case, the wealthy kept all their tax breaks, compromise after compromise, even while unemployment benefits were reduced, Medicaid was cut, and all non-entitlement domestic programs were slashed.

2012 election: republican gift to Obama?

Certainly, since the elections of 2010, the Republicans have been the most virulent in announcing big attacks. They took advantage of their win in the 2010 elections to push through anti-union laws in a number of states - with the aim of weakening the financial clout of the unions, which ordinarily provide the money and the foot soldiers for Democratic party campaigns.

What started in Wisconsin, with the attack on public sector workers' right to organise, has spilled over into other states, as legislatures controlled by Republicans move to cut off the unions' financial clout. In Michigan, for example, some 20 bills have been passed and 70 more introduced that in one fashion or another touch on union rights and public sector workers' wages and benefits. Showing where they want to go, Republican legislators in Indiana passed a so-called right to work law - the first industrial state with strong unions to do so.

With the Republican primary campaign now underway, all the Republican candidates have been competing with each other to appeal to the far right wing of the Republican party - that section which has been most faithful in recent elections and which has turned out to vote at a higher rate than other parts of the electorate. And this appeal has taken a particularly virulent tone when it comes to women's reproductive rights. Rick Santorum's misogynist statements are backed up by laws pushed through by Republicans in one state after another, the aim of which is to deny women access to abortion and/or contraception.

No Republican has been able, so far, to totally dominate the field. Thus, as the primaries dragged on, it produced an increasing amount of vile, reactionary garbage coming out of Republican mouths, which may well influence the November elections in ways the Republican Party doesn't want.

Republican rhetoric has almost certainly made Obama appear as a more reasonable candidate, and perhaps will give him the victory, despite the fact that he has presided over such a bad economy, despite the increasing level of unemployment, and despite the fact that his policies have essentially been a continuation of Bush's policies: on the wars, on the bailout to the banks, on the demands for concessions from auto workers and government workers, on tax cuts for the wealthy, on the dismantling of public school education, on cuts to social programs and public services, and also on the indirect attacks on women's reproductive rights.

Union officials "organise" against republican attack

On the social level, the year was marked by greater activity by the union apparatuses, particularly in the form of demonstrations, and by the appearance of the Occupy protests.

Last winter, the unions set up an occupation of the Wisconsin state capitol building, bringing in the ranks for really massive demonstrations of a hundred thousand or more, several Saturdays in a row, and occupying government buildings, with the slogan, "this is our house," for a number of weeks. The issue, as the union officials posed it, was not the attack on the wages of public workers. Union leaders indicated they were ready to accept cuts in wages and benefits if the new Republican governor would agree to negotiate those cuts with union leaders. But not only did Scott Walker, the Republican governor, rebuff their offer, he also proposed legislation that would have seriously reduced their dues money.

Whatever the motives of union leaders in organising the demonstrations, hundreds of thousands of workers responded to the call, including from other states. And those who couldn't go paid attention, many from other states saying, we need to do something like that here.

But very quickly, union leaders moved to turn this outpouring of anger into the electoral field - at the beginning, with the attempt to undo some of the worst attacks on the population. In Ohio, over the 2011 summer, the unions organised a petition drive to get a referendum on the ballot to overturn an anti-union law, and then organised to get people to turn out for the referendum election, which overturned the law by a wide margin. Compared to most questions involving elections, it really did engage people.

But this kind of work was then turned toward Republican politicians. A teachers' union in Michigan organised a successful recall election removing the main Republican sponsor of legislation that would have eliminated seniority rights and tenure for teachers. In Arizona, there was a similar successful recall election for the main Republican sponsor of anti-immigrant legislation. And today, Scott Walker himself is targeted for recall in Wisconsin.

You would think, given the targets chosen by the unions, that only Republicans have been carrying out anti-worker policies in the states and cities.

Not true. The California and New York governors, Democrats both, have been spearheading attacks on public workers and on teachers. So has Rahm Emanuel, Obama's former top aide, now mayor of Chicago.

In Michigan, although it was a Republican governor who pushed through the latest "emergency financial manager" law, it was the Democratic mayor of Detroit who threatened to bring in an emergency manager if city workers didn't accept another 10% cut in their wages (after having taken a 10% cut a year ago) and to pay for nearly half their medical premiums, among other concessions.

Then came the competing versions of a "consent agreement" between the state and the city, one put forward by the Republican governor, one by the Democratic mayor. Both aim at setting up a dictator to run the city - the disagreement is over who that dictator should be. But both have as their primary goal the stripping of union wages, benefits, and conditions from city workers who up until nearly the end of March refused a suicide vote to give up still more concessions.

Union officials prepare election campaign

In the face of these attacks, the essential answer the unions give, even if they have become more active, is to prepare for the 2012 elections.

Their stance toward Occupy Wall Street and similar protests around the country is aimed exactly in the same direction.

Occupy Wall Street, first showing up last September, seemed to pop up out of nowhere, attracting a certain number of young people and others new to politics.

These protests did not just spring up spontaneously, however. In different cities, different groupings played important roles in them: academic anarchists, anti-globalisation anarchists, students with little political background, but experience in student actions, leftists, unionists.

The union officials were prudent in what they did. They appeared only to "support" this movement that they pretended grew up outside their influence. But it's clear that the union apparatuses, at the very least, helped fund the camps. And, we later saw, many of the camps had benefited from union money and supplies - including tents, mobile kitchens, or portable latrines, etc. And they provided people to help staff the camps - student interns from universities, who were paid by the unions. Most important, the union apparatuses were always there for the big demonstrations that happened roughly once a month, providing the numbers, with their staff and activists, that allowed the demonstrations to appear respectable, if not massive.

Eventually, the camps were vacated, and Occupy seemed to die down. Nonetheless, there are promises for more activities this spring. And we can expect to see such activities as well as other protests where the union apparatuses will be, once again, important.

It seems obvious that the union apparatuses hope to use their influence with the young people attracted to Occupy in order to have troops to carry out this fall's election campaign for the Democrats, and particularly for Obama. The Republicans' stance in this primary season may have made the union officials' task a lot easier.

This is not just speculation. The union leaders have said openly that they think Occupy and the re-election of Obama are complementary parts of the same struggle. And when they took part in demonstrations, they not only raised slogans and signs about the 1%, they also raised slogans in support of Obama's policies.

No attempt to organise against attacks

The one thing the leaders of the national unions have not done is to call on the workers to oppose the incessant demands for more concessions in wages and benefits. Worse, they continue to argue that these sacrifices are necessary in order to prop up the companies and thus protect jobs.

In auto, a whole series of gains made over decades, which were provisionally suspended during the previous six years, were definitively suppressed in the contracts of 2011. There was a great deal of discontent when the contract proposals became public. And opposition that had been organised before at Ford, carried over with an echo among Ford workers, who at the beginning, seemed ready to refuse this latest set of permanent takeaways.

Facing this bigger current of opposition at Ford, the company and union leaders presented a contract with significantly bigger bonuses than those attached to GM and Chrysler contracts. Even so, workers' opposition continued.

Local leaders were given blandishments or faced threats to get them to line up, which most of them did. But it was not until national UAW leaders announced that if the contract was rejected, there would be an immediate strike, that the mood changed. Workers felt this as a threat against them - and it was meant to be - rather than a threat against the company! Opposition evaporated.

But it reappeared at Chrysler, where the attack on skilled workers had gone much further and where the company had not thought it necessary to give much of a bonus at all.

Nonetheless, through a series of manoeuvres, the rotten deal passed there also, without any immediate consequences.

This is certainly not the end of the story - as can be seen by the fact that city workers in Detroit have until now been able to stand up to all the bullying, and by the fact that workers at EMD (ElectroMotorDiesel, the large engineering plant in Illinois), also under a former auto contract, twice voted down a UAW contract, despite similar manoeuvres.

However, in its vast majority, the working class remains silent and inactive, unable to counteract the capitalists' offensive - much less to regain anything that's been lost.

The working class facing a catastrophe

The working class finds itself today in much the same economic situation it did in Trotsky's day in the 1930s - sunk in a long-term crisis. But on the social and political level there is a much deeper demoralisation today - in part because there were militants embedded in the working class in the 1930s who were convinced that workers would fight and who gave the impetus to the struggles that broke out.

Today's crisis, now entering its fourth decade, is far from over; the lowering of the standard of living continues, not only unabated, but is picking up steam. This is what every single statistic that we cite proves. The capitalist class protects itself by driving down living conditions for the working class. Everything that has happened - the ongoing unemployment, the attacks on wages, elimination of benefits, destruction of social services and public services - testifies to that fact. It's not a question of politicians, it's the crisis. This is why the Republicans and the Democrats are much closer to each other today in the actual policies they carry out, even if their rhetoric seems to diverge more widely than ever before.

It's important to recognise the enormous amount that has been lost over the past 30 years. And first of all, at the level of morale. Most workers today have never been in a fight of any consequence. For more than 30 years, that is, their whole adult lives, most workers have never even seen one.

Undoubtedly, the loss suffered by the working class in the 1930s appeared more brutal, because it hit so suddenly. But the loss workers have gone through during the last 30 years is a testimony to the adage that death by a thousand cuts puts you just as deeply in the grave as the one quick blow.

Needed: a revolutionary communist organisation

We have long said that only a revolutionary communist organisation is able to offer a way to break the cycle of defeat - even at the level of small defensive struggles that might well break out at any moment. Revolutionary communists are the ones who insist that whatever struggles break out, it's important for workers to try to spread them to their limits, to try to build their own organs to lead those struggles, and not stay imprisoned within structures that set premature limits. It's important for workers to see other workers not simply as supporters for their struggles, but as allies in the same struggle.

But we can't stop here. The working class has need of militants who raise the banner of a revolutionary communist program, right now, when the working class not only hasn't even considered the possibility of building another society, but is sunk deeply in the morass of demoralisation stemming from its inability to defend even the most meagre gains.

It's exactly in this situation that communists have something to propose, objectives that correspond to the very deep problems pervading this society, especially unemployment and the sinking standard of living.

It's not enough to bemoan the unemployment or to act scandalised by the growing gap between rich and poor.

That gap, the enormous socially produced wealth accumulated at the top in private hands, even as the unemployment continues, is the proof that every worker who wants a job could have one, that the work could be apportioned out so that everyone has a wage - a living wage, as the unions put it - and that those wages could be indexed so they immediately and regularly keep up with the actual increase in prices.

Such ideas correspond directly to the most important problems facing the labouring population - the need for a job, the need for a wage that allows one to have an adequate and comfortable existence - at the very moment those necessities are being undermined.

The nearly £3,200bn increase in the national debt over three years is the absolute proof that, when the capitalist class wants money, the state finds it. Well, the population wants money to be spent on its needs. First of all, an enormous amount of money must be spent to repair and bring back the public services, putting many people back to work, by the way. There is money available that could be spent for doubling the number of teachers, and providing every child with the resources that make learning possible - this, too, would create jobs and address the abysmal education inflicted on poor and working class students.

It's not enough to complain that government is doing things in secret or that the bosses don't let us know what they are doing. Of course they don't, because what they are doing is harmful to us, which is exactly why it can make sense to workers that industrial secrets must be abolished, that workers must be able to inspect and control what is happening.

It's not enough to bemoan the greed of the banks. Of course, they are greedy, but they sit in the centre of the economy - and that is exactly why workers, long before they begin to struggle, need to think about taking over the banks as one of their important objectives.

Will workers struggle again? We have every reason to believe so. The working class has found ways in much more repressive, much more demoralising situations to suddenly break free. That's why it's important for revolutionary communists to use all the political means at their disposal today to put objectives in front of the workers, objectives that fully correspond to the difficulties the workers face, and at the same time, can lead them to take control of the society in the process of making their fights.

We have to live up to our responsibilities.