USA - Using September 11th to impose more concessions on the working class

nov 2001

The article below is reproduced from issue #33 of the quarterly "Class Struggle", published in the USA by "The Spark", an American Trotskyist group which shares our fundamental political orientation. It shows that, on both sides of the Atlantic, the politicians' call to rally behind their "war against terrorism" does not extend to sacrificing capitalist profits - instead it turns into a profit booster at the expense of the working class.

Over and over, we hear the refrain: after September 11, things will never be the same again. And it is true that for the US population, which had never confronted, on this soil, any comparable bloodletting - at least not since the Civil War - the shock of the attack on September 11 marked a kind of turning point. And that could be seen in the reactions of people throughout the country.

But it is obvious that American capitalism intends to use this horror felt by the population against the population itself; first, of course, to line up the whole country in a kind of "holy crusade" supporting whatever wars the US engages; and second, to get the working class to agree to make sacrifices for a war that is supposed to be different from all previous wars. The economy - supposedly shattered by September 11 - must be rebuilt; "America's New War" - which will last perhaps for decades - must be carried out for as long as it takes. Almost from the day of the attack itself, these ideas have been drummed into the population, whether in reports about "terrorist networks" that practically encircle the globe, or in the economic coverage of Wall Street when trading resumed, or in the demands coming one after the other from various corporations that they be rescued from the desperate straits into which September 11 threw them.

Patriotism: last refuge of the scoundrel

The resumption of trading on Wall Street marked the real beginning of the drive for concessions. With losses rolling up, every economic commentator concurred: we have entered a recession. The sharp drop on Wall Street was used to herald the refrains which have continued up until now: not only had the terrorists killed people; they had seriously damaged the economy. And now, it would be up to everyone - patriotically, of course - to make the necessary sacrifices to bring the economy back to health.

But what happened in those first days of trading demonstrates that not everyone was heeding the patriotic calls to act in the interest of defending the economy. On the day the market opened, several big companies began to sell short: that is, to sell more shares of stock in companies than they controlled, on the assumption that they could fulfill their contracts to sell, by later buying up stock at the lower prices their own massive trading helped ensure. Patriotism, it seems, goes only so far: up to the point when the chase for profit begins.

In any case, since the market has opened, the working class has been deluged with one warning after another about the difficulties we will encounter and with open demands that the workers must sacrifice to put the national house back in order. Trading on the fact that it was its planes and crews which had gone down and that the FAA had ordered a shutdown of all flights, the airline industry immediately rushed to Congress, hands out, asking for money. Otherwise, the industry itself might collapse - or so they implied - with everything that would mean for the economy. On September 13, Linda Hall Daschle, the wife of the US Senate majority leader, Tom Daschle, was already on Capitol Hill, representing the airline industry.

Of course, other corporations weren't ready to just stand aside, getting nothing out of all this. Boeing jumped into the fray, attaching itself as a matter of course, to the commercial airlines as though their increased military business would not offset any decrease in their commercial business. "The World Trade Centre has to be rebuilt" - so said the patriots - to the benefit of a construction industry which had already overbuilt the city, especially in the area of the financial district. (It is said that even after the destruction of the World Trade Centre, Manhattan has 23 million square feet of vacant office space.)

Bail-out for companies, chuck-out for us

The airline industry has played the pivotal role in all of this, in much the same way that Chrysler, pleading that it was about to collapse, played the key role in the 1980s. It is interesting to note that the rules issued for the airline bail-out passed by Congress contain some of the same provisions that the Chrysler bail-out contained two decades ago. Among other things, the "emergency" board charged with granting loans to airlines will consider whether or not an airline has a plan under which both creditors and workers agree to make concessions. For the creditors, there is no problem: the concession they must give up, just as in the case of Chrysler, is to defer being paid back, but paid back they will be - and with interest to cover the additional time. For the workers, as auto workers ultimately discovered in the 1980s, there will be no payback. The concessions they are expected to give will amount to wage and benefit cuts, as well as job cuts tied to increased productivity. The details of the concessions may not be spelled out publicly yet - but one thing is clear, they will involve massive job cuts, with the attendant speed-up of work and the contracting out of work to lower paid workers. It is obvious, by the speed with which the airlines moved, that they already had plans in the works for cutbacks. After all, their business before September 11 had already taken a nosedive.

Today, workers in every industry are confronting the argument that they need to sacrifice for the common national good - and they are confronting it all at the same time under the weight of the tragedy. The airlines may be the first ones which will openly demand clear concessions, using the rules issued by the "emergency" government loan board as the pretext, but companies everywhere are talking about the problems which September 11 created for them.

In fact, it was not September 11 which forced the corporations to cut jobs. We should not forget that while they announced several hundred thousand job cuts in the second week after the attack, they had already announced more than a million in the nine months before September 11. What September 11 changed is that it gave a pretext to the corporations to do what they had started to do anyway, that is to cut back jobs and wage costs.

If there is any doubt about this aspect of the question, all we need look at is the Minnesota state workers' strike which started on October 1. Apparently, there were two main issues which pushed the workers to decide to strike: one was the unwillingness of the state to compensate the state workers for the amount they had already lost to inflation over the last eight years; the other was a demand that the workers pay a very big increase in the amount they contribute out of their wages to medical insurance and "co-pays". Estimates indicate that out-of-pocket medical expenses for the average worker would rise by almost $4,000. These demands by the state for concessions were in the works before September 11. What September 11 changed is that it gave the pretext for denouncing this strike as unpatriotic, coming in the midst of a national emergency, etc. etc. etc. The governor of the state, most other politicians in Minnesota, as well as the bourgeois press, not only in Minnesota, but across the country, rushed to grab hold of the pretext.

Our services up for grabs

The demands for concessions which are now being made, under the slogan, "united we stand," are not restricted simply to airline workers or other workplaces covered by union contracts, which, after all, involve only a small part of the working class. We should remember, however, that this part of the working class, which enjoys the most protection, has usually set the direction for what happens ultimately in the rest of the working class.

In fact, everything is up for grabs, as Bush made clear on the day after the attack of September 11, when he announced that the government would now use all the Social Security surplus. In fact, the government has always done this it is this surplus which has reduced the overall federal deficit when there was one. But the announcement was intended as something else: a statement that nothing is sacrosanct, not even Social Security in this drive which is now beginning.

New York's Mayor Giuliani made the same point when he announced that New York will have to severely cut back on what it budgets for city services. This can only mean job cuts and/or wage cuts for city workers and worsening city services and this in the city where the population was particularly harmed by the attack, a city where services have long been grossly inadequate. At the same time, Giuliani continues to talk about rebuilding the financial centre.

At every level, the bourgeoisie is looking to use the excuse of September 11 to make the population pay. As the New York Times commented on October 10 (in an article entitled, "National Education Talks Languish in Shadow of War,"), "Top Priorities? For now, education isn't included." In fact, education hasn't been one of those top priorities for a very long time. Bush himself made a campaign issue out of this fact. As soon as he took office, however, his priorities started getting rearranged with education being put on the very back burner - long before September 11. And public schools across the nation had already discovered - before September 11 - that they were getting less money this school year from state budgets.

Yet another boost for class collaboration

To the extent that the unions have offered any disagreement with what has gone on since September 11, it is only to complain that Bush is trying to take advantage of the situation ... to "fast-track" approval for FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas). Other than that, they have participated in the flag-waving, the "united we stand" exhortations - all of which are aimed at justifying sacrifices from the workers. In a meeting held in Detroit on September 18, for example, the presidents of the AFL-CIO, the UAW, the Steelworkers, Ironworkers and Carpenters unions, met with the CEO's of the Big 3, as well as of major auto suppliers, together with Michigan's governor, a US senator and two congressmen, and the US Secretaries of Commerce and of Labour. This impressive bunch came together to, in the words of a statement later issued by the UAW, "to show that management and labour can stand up to make American strong again." The statement went on to quote from remarks made by the UAW's president: "This meeting isn't just about the auto industry. It is about the tragedy going on in our country. It is about pulling together, as management and labour, on behalf of all Americans. We're here to see what we can do, labour and management, working together."

This kind of demagogy is not surprising; it is simply in line with the policy union leaders have carried out and the language they have used for decades. Over the past ten years, when the economy was supposedly in good shape, when profits were reaching for the sky, when multi-million dollar CEO salaries became common place, the unions, with very few exceptions, have not been ready to propose to the workers that they make any kind of fight to improve their situation. They accepted - in the name of a partnership between company and union - that the situation of the working class should deteriorate, even while the bourgeoisie took an ever larger share of the wealth being produced. Even in situations where the enmity of the bosses has been the most open - the organising drives at Toledo Hospital or at Nissan, for example - the leadership of the unions went out of their way to explain that if the workers won the vote [for union recognition], the union would immediately seek to build a cooperative relationship with the company.

It is a truism, but nonetheless valid to say, that in this partnership between bosses and workers, there can be no equality. More importantly, this "partnership," for which the unions have openly argued, attempts to fasten onto workers ideas of class collaboration: that their boss is not really their enemy; that they don't have to rely on their own organisation and their own struggles (in which they would of necessity be opposed to their boss).

Over the last two decades, the number of strikes has been on a steady decline downward, to the point that the number of strikes today stands at about only five percent of the number in the mid- 1970s. A graph of these numbers could stand as an illustration of the unions' policies during this whole period.

As we know, what happened at Chrysler, starting in 1980, was used to impose concessions effectively on the rest of the working class, whether in actual contract take-aways, in long-term stagnation of wages and benefits at a time when inflation ate up wages, or in severe cuts in wages in industries without union contracts. Of course, the Chrysler concessions by themselves weren't enough to make the rest of the working class agree to sacrifice, just because the UAW helped convince the auto workers they had no other choice if they wanted to keep their jobs. The drive for concessions was reinforced by the weight of a severe recession on the working class and - what counted for a lot after the recession was over - the breaking of the air traffic controllers' strike and of their union, PATCO.

Unity with the warmongers or against them?

Obviously, no one knows at this moment where the economy is going, nor what can happen as the result of the US bombing of Afghanistan. But the question is not just one of objective events. As important is the question of whether the airline workers, and behind them other parts of the working class, will subscribe to these demands for sacrifice in the name of national unity? Or will they, this time, understand that their only hope is to fight to defend their own interests against their own bosses - the same people whose interests are today being served by Bush's "New War."

People who truly take the side of the working class have to fight against all these calls for national unity, expose the patriotism for the jingoist sabre-rattling it is and propose to workers the one thing which offers them some possibilities - their own struggle.

11 October 2001