“Without struggle, there is no progress”

April 13, 2012

Mass struggle, not support for politicians, holds the hope of real change.

SOCIALISTS ARE fond of quoting the statement by the abolitionist Frederick Douglass "Without struggle, there is no progress."

"The whole history of the progress of human liberty," Douglass wrote, "shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle."

A good example of Douglass' point can be found in the trade union movement. Until very recently, trade union membership as a percentage of the total U.S. workforce continued to decline. Wages barely increased at all during the 1990s--in fact, after accounting for inflation, they were lower than in 1973--while executive pay skyrocketed to unimaginable heights.

Though a Democrat was president through most of the decade, no major pro-labor legislation was enacted, and the federal government even engaged in its own downsizing program, cutting almost 400,000 government jobs. Bill Clinton cut social spending by billions, and millions more people ended up with no health insurance, despite the fact that health care reform was supposed to be Clinton's "number one priority" when he was elected in 1992.

Yet during this same period, unions gave millions and millions of dollars to the Democratic Party. During Election 2000 alone, labor gave more than $12.7 million to federal Democratic Party committees. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) alone contributed $2.4 million to the Democrats in "soft money."

Meanwhile, union struggles have been at low ebb for most of the 1990s. Compare this to the mid-1930s--a period in which another Democrat, Franklin Roosevelt, was president. On the heels of the worst economic crisis in U.S. history, union membership exploded from 2.6 million in 1934 to 7.3 million in 1937.

WHAT EXPLAINS the difference between the 1930s and the 1990s?

The difference was that millions of workers took matters into their own hands and engaged in mass struggle in the 1930s. As many as 1 million unemployed workers across the country responded to a Communist Party call to march for unemployment relief in 1930.

But that was only a warm-up. In 1934, there were 1,856 strikes, three times more than in 1933. By 1937, there were three times more strikes again---4,470. Many of those strikes were sit-down strikes, where workers--large numbers of whom had never been in a strike before--sat down and occupied the plant in order to gain union recognition.

Under these circumstances, Roosevelt, though not particularly liberal before he was elected in 1932, was forced to implement policies aimed at appeasing working-class anger in order to save a system in crisis. "Those who have property," he once remarked, fail "to realize that I am the best friend the profit system ever had."

The Democratic Party regularly milks millions from the unions, and what do workers get in return? Some union leaders might get a meeting here or there with the president--and maybe even a sleep over in the Lincoln bedroom or a ride on Air Force One.

But there's a price to be paid by the unions for cozying up to the White House. It puts union leaders in a closer relationship with the Washington elite than with their own membership--encouraging labor officials to value rubbing elbows with the rich over struggle.

The relationships between bosses and the Democratic Party and unions and the Democrats are therefore reversed. Corporate money ties the Democratic Party to the interests of big business--whereas union money ties union leaders to the Democrats.

Because of this, Democratic politicians can take labor's support for granted even when they act against workers' interests.

Real change for workers won't come without mass struggles like the ones engaged in during the 1930s. In the meantime, unions should spend their money on organizing the unorganized and building strike funds--and beginning to build a political alternative to the Democrats.

The "mighty roar" of class struggle--not campaign contributions to pro-business political parties--is the key to real progress for the labor movement.

First published in the September 29, 2000, issue of Socialist Worker.

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