The following article originally appeared in Proletarian Revolution No. 54 (Spring 1997).
Workers don’t need a crystal ball to see their future. All they have to do is to watch the sleazeball in the White House. Last summer the President signed a “welfare reform” bill. People who work for a living are being told that a bunch of freeloaders “who don’t want to work” are being dumped. Add the code language that reads, “Anyway, those people are Blacks and Latinos – mostly women who drop kids by the bucketload in order to live like queens.”
So goes the ruling-class line. But the real bucketload is coming from Washington.
“Welfare reform” is a vicious attack on an important gain of the working class. How vicious? Not only does it knock adult workers off the welfare rolls; it also cuts off all those “dependent” children, disabled and elderly poor. It weans them off their welfare “dependency” by letting them starve! What’s more, it cancels food stamps for millions of working-class families, including all legal immigrants. And finally, it literally robs hundreds of thousands of legal immigrants of their right to Supplementary Social Security (SSI) benefits.
The anti-welfare campaign has an even broader target: the vast majority of the working class, including the better-off workers, a good number of whom are buying into Clinton’s anti-welfare scam. The attack whips up and plays on reactionary attitudes toward women, racial and ethnic minorities and immigrants. It is calculated to redirect the fears of the more stably employed workers away from their real enemies and toward the more beleaguered members of their class.
Clinton’s bill is not just a big leap in the continuing attack on poor people. Slick Willie has added some ominous new manipulations which spell even greater trouble for the working class. He has managed to appeal to not only the economically endangered sections of the white petty bourgeoisie and labor aristocrats who have lurched to the the right over the years, but to other layers of the working class – including many people of color.
The capitalists and their state, in their never-ending grasp for higher profits, are willing to make the U.S. a den of misery for a majority of working people. In contrast, the working class, if it were united, could not only stop the assault in its tracks, it could turn this country and this planet into a storehouse of plenty for all. The problem is that people accept capitalism and its logic and thereforer see no alternative to the current misleaders who defend that system at all costs.
Under capitalism welfare has always been a working-class issue, but it has been disguised. It is critical to understand that welfare was a gain won through massive workers’ struggles. It was hardly an unadulterated gain, but at least it has meant survival for many poor people.
After the 1929 crash, masses of near-starving unemployed workers radicalized and joined in with the larger working-class struggle that exploded in the early 1930’s. As the inherent crisis of the system became nakedly exposed, more and more workers developed a hatred of capitalism and a desire for revolution. The movement fought not only for emergency relief but for demands like “jobs for all,” which embraced the needs of the entire working class. They raised demands against racism, sexism and other horrors of capitalism. The Communist Party, acting on the strength it had acquired through its Popular Front policy, sold out the workers’ struggles by its support for the Democratic Party, class collaboration and preparation for the coming imperialist war. Nevertheless, the capitalist government was forced to give concessions under the enormous mass pressure. With the adoption of the Social Security Act in 1935, the New Deal grudgingly dispensed relief of various kinds as part of a new welfare state system.
What Americans think of as “welfare” was originally called Aid to Dependent Children, ADC. ADC was a gain in that it legislated federal responsibility for providing a minimum income to impoverished women with children in families that did not include a male breadwinner. Before that there had been several state programs under the heading of “mothers’ ” or “widows’ pensions,” but there was no overall program.
What we now call “social security” was then called Old Age Insurance (OAI), another part of the Social Security Act. From the start, it was conceptualized as a far more substantive benefit than ADC. The terminological separation of “welfare” from “social security” was meant to reflect a divisive two-tier program. OAI and unemployment benefits, intended mainly for white male workers, provided a higher benefit level than what ADC offered to women and children. Further, the ADC recipients would be socially supervised, and their benefits were made dependent on the changing standards of the social work bureaucrats who would judge the recipients’ morals, need and employability. The justification was that Social Security and unemployment benefits were “social insurance” that the man had rightfully earned by working – whereas what women got was handouts.
Benefits from free public schools to ADC have been yielded to the working class by the capitalists in response to social struggles. These are not handouts but gains that are part of the “social wage” won by our class. The direct wage is the actual paycheck workers bring home based on their exchange of labor time for money. But because of exploitation, workers do not get back the equivalent in labor to what they give to the capitalists. The difference (taken from workers at home and abroad) is the source of profit for the system. However, with the introduction of modern capitalism and the need for a sophisticated working class, both the ruling and working classes learned that this direct wage was not enough to sustain the class. Thus came the need for the state to step in and provide a social wage to maintain the workers in a more far-sighted way than an individual boss could do. The state did this in a way to minimize both the economic and political costs of the working class’s dissatisfaction at its miserable conditions.
Welfare benefits, while they did provide a subsistence income for women and children, were an especially distorted gain. Welfare provided peanuts, it was narrowly selective in who would benefit, and it intentionally degraded the recipient. Capitalism doles out gains in response to struggle, but it discriminates even then. Given that both racism and sexism are vital for the survival of capitalist society, it is no surprise that from day one the ADC program incorporated both these forms of attack.
Capitalism fundamentally depends on a reserve army of labor. The reserve army is composed of underemployed and poorly paid workers as well as the jobless, whom the system can use as a threat against higher paid and organized sectors. Women are used chiefly as part of what Marx called the “floating” section of this reserve. Since women’s role is to give priority to home and child-care duties, they often have to accept part-time jobs and lower wages. Competition forces men to compete by accepting lower wages or else risk replacement by the less well-paid women workers. Historically, when organized workers have fought and gone on strike, women often have been among the unemployed and underemployed workers who have been used as scabs to undercut the organized workers. (See PR 34, Women and the Family for more discussion on women’s oppression.)
As we have often pointed out, racism against Blacks in the U.S. has always been the prime method of maintaining exploitation. Blacks have also been used historically as a core of the reserve army of labor. Racism enables the system to pay Blacks less than white workers and to force Blacks into the reserve army.
The Social Security Act and ADC in particular were formed in accordance with the American race-caste system. Initially most Blacks were denied benefits. This was neatly done by denying unemployment insurance, OAI and ADC to low-wage and part-time workers and people with limited time in the workforce – categories which then covered many Black workers. As well, agricultural and domestic work, the major areas of employment for Blacks and Latinos at the time and women of color in particular, were excluded.
ADC recipients were means-tested, and the women also had to pass work tests and morals tests that varied from state to state in order to get the meager benefits. The liberal New Deal deliberately handed implementation to the states to allow racist determinations of eligibility and benefit levels. Congress was controlled by Southern Democrats determined to block Blacks from receiving even the miserable welfare benefit; if they were entitled to welfare they might have been able to reject jobs as agricultural laborers and domestic servants at wretched wages.
As already indicated, ADC was also sexist. It was premised on the “family wage” myth, which claims that the family only requires a male wage earner, with the woman staying home to cook, clean and mind the children. This fairy tale denies the reality that many working-class women always had to work outside the home – and of course do so today. The capitalist system has always falsely defined women as wives and mothers who depend on their husbands for income – whether or not they are working themselves and whether or not they have husbands!
This myth has of course some historical reality, in that layers of aristocratic workers have been able to earn enough to keep their wives at home. But for a far greater number, the reality is that the woman works after marriage as before. As well, increasing numbers of women are single heads of households: either never married, divorced, separated or widowed, these women are the main wage earners for their families. Nevertheless, the family rationale – that women’s income is supplementary and optional – is used to justify keeping wages and jobs limited for all women. Thus the family wage myth is utilized, along with other demeaning notions about women being less capable, intelligent or whatever, to justify keeping women part of the reserve army of labor.
It is important to note that the sparse benefits of the Social Security Act of 1935 hardly ended struggles; the radical actions of employed and unemployed workers continued. Relief allotments and job provisions were never sufficient and were constantly fluctuating. At its peak the work relief program only provided jobs for 25 percent of the jobless, at about one-fourth of union scale. As Art Preis noted in his history of the CIO, Labor’s Giant Step:
Relief jobs were systematically increased before national elections and hundreds of thousands were fired shortly after the votes were counted. In 1935, for instance, mass WPA layoffs were discontinued in the fall before Roosevelt’s second-term election. Immediately afterwards, 400,000 WPA workers were fired en masse, most of them still displaying their Roosevelt campaign buttons. ... Throughout the entire first two terms of the Roosevelt administration, there were continuous unemployed demonstrations, relief works strikes and riots. The highest relief, the most relief jobs and the biggest wages were in direct proportion to the number of unemployed struggles.
A main lesson of the ’30’s was that gains were won through mass action, not electoral combinations. Moreover, even when temporary prosperity returned after World War II, capitalism was unwilling and unable to answer the full needs of the working class and oppressed.
Excluded groups – minorities, the very poor, and out-of-wedlock mothers – won inclusion in ADC through a series of amendments won through struggles from the ’40’s through the ’60’s and early ’70’s. The program changed its name to Aid to Families of Dependent Children (AFDC) in 1962 when single male fathers were included.
Liberals like to argue that Blacks have been stereotyped as welfare recipients by racists, when in fact a good number of whites are on the rolls. This is certainly true but in itself does not explain the full political reality. First, there is no question that the expansion of welfare, as well as Medicaid and Medicare came chiefly as a result of the Black rebellions in the ’60’s. All poor people benefited from the Black struggle, a fact that the racists of course bury deeply.
The limited gains won by Martin Luther King’s pacifist protests had led to the far more radical ghetto rebellions and riots, spearheaded by marginal and unemployed workers who had migrated from the rural South to the industrial North. In response to the ghetto riots, Blacks and Latinos became disproportionately represented on the welfare rolls – and how could it be otherwise, given that the racism of this country keeps the majority of people of color in poverty?
Thus the welfare system went from racist exclusion to social and racist control. The number of families on ADC rose from 803,000 in 1960 to about 1 million in 1965 and then to 1.9 million in 1970 and almost 3 million in 1972. The proportion of Blacks grew to a peak of 49 percent in 1967. From a small program that was hardly a factor in national politics, it became a major political battlefield.
In addition to public welfare, during this time there came an expansion of associated programs including public housing, food programs, clinics and hospitals, legal aid and educational assistance from Head Start to the college level. The Black struggle of the 1960’s had truly shaken the American system to its roots. And everywhere that Blacks rose up and demanded their rights, other oppressed groups were inspired to do the same; Latinos, women, gays, etc., all looked to the Black struggle as a model.
With the rise of Blacks as an urban and industrial force, the greatest danger for the bourgeoisie was that the radicalizing Black workers would recognize their power not simply on the streets but in industry as well – and that white workers would connect with them and together become a powerful challenge to the system. In fact, in a number of industries discontented white workers were following Black-led strike actions for the first time. From capitalism’s point of view, what was lacking was a reliable stratum of Blacks that carried weight with poor ghetto workers and could curb their dangerous eruptions. Thus the state had to make concessions, incorporate and give some clout to community leaders within existing agencies, foster the creation of new “community” organizations, and create a bureaucratic maze of detours, speed bumps and safety valves to prevent further mass actions.
The Black struggle won real gains. But another change that came with the expansion of welfare was greater intervention of the state into Black life – in a way that further promoted both racism and sexism. While welfare now included Black women, it was used as a means of social control, not social mobility. The system still pretended that women were not part of the working class, by redefining women on welfare as part of an “underclass” dependent on society. It ignored the fact that many were actually using welfare to add to their sub-poverty level wages or as aid between jobs. As Miriam Abramovitz points out in Under Under Attack, Fighting Back:
A study by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) found that the average AFDC mother works about 950 hours a year, approximately the same as all mothers in the workforce; that over 40 percent of women on welfare “package” AFDC with wages, either simultaneously or sequentially; and that an additional 30 percent spend substantial time looking for work but cannot find it. The IWPR also reported that the state of the local labor market made a big difference: welfare mothers living in states with unemployment rates of 10 percent had only a 13 percent chance of finding jobs, while those in states where unemployment as 3.5 percent or less had a 29 percent chance. In addition, many working welfare mothers had sporadic full-time jobs rather than steady part-time ones, and the majority are in low-wage women’s occupations. ... These women earned an average of $4.29 an hour (in 1990 dollars) on their primary job, compared to $10.03 for non-farm private sector employees in 1990. The IWPR researchers concluded that ”recipients use AFDC for many reasons, including to supplement their low-wage work effort and to provide a safety net during periods of unemployment, disability and family crises.”
Thus the majority of AFDC “welfare mothers” were either part-time, full-time, sporadically employed workers or unemployed workers seeking work. Of course, some women faced with the burdens of poverty, racism, sexism and more fell into a situation of total despair. Naturally the system blamed the victims – the racist rulers found it useful to claim that welfare women were indolent or apathetic by nature.
As the system successfully defined welfare recipients as outside the working class, the trade unions, the only strong institutions of the working class in this country, were let off the hook, rarely challenged to take up the cause of this layer of workers. Thus the division between low-wage workers and the official labor movement, i.e., the better-off union workers, was deepened.
Sexism was also used to divide poor Blacks from each other. For example, President Johnson’s “War on Poverty” appointed “experts” to identify how to fight poverty among poor urban Blacks. The famous liberal response was the Moynihan report of 1965 (authored by Pat Moynihan, later a Nixon adviser and now Democratic Senator), which said the problem was the “pathology“ of the Black family. He said:
At the heart of the deterioration of the fabric of the Negro society is the deterioration of the Negro family. It is the fundamental cause of weakness in the Negro community. Unless the damage is repaired all the effort to end discrimination, poverty and injustice will come to little.
As usual, the call for family values was a call for the subordination of women. According to Moynihan’s report, Black men – who have experienced disastrous levels of unemployment, are continually discriminated against and pushed into an unlivable urban environment – were “dispirited,” because of the fact that in too many Black families the wife was “dominant.” As Black feminist historian Paula Giddings noted (Where and When I Enter):
Though many took issue with Moynihan’s view of the problem, however, few criticized his suggestion for resolving it — which was even more malevolent. Moynihan concluded ... that Black family stability could be achieved only if Black men could “strut,” even if need be, at the expense of women. This was epitomized in his program for eradicating Black poverty. He believed, as an analysis of the report points out, “that jobs had primacy and the government should not rest until every able-bodied Negro man was working even if this meant that some women's jobs had to be redesigned to enable men to fulfill them.”
Though many took issue with Moynihan’s view of the problem, however, few criticized his suggestion for resolving it – which was even more malevolent. Moynihan concluded ... that Black family stability could be achieved only if Black men could “strut,” even if need be, at the expense of women. This was epitomized in his program for eradicating Black poverty. He believed, as an analysis of the report points out, “that jobs had primacy and the government should not rest until every able-bodied Negro man was working even if this meant that some women’s jobs had to be redesigned to enable men to fulfill them.”
Thus Moynihan called for women to step back to allow Black men to advance. And Black women were not just being put down by white liberal racists but by far too many Black political leaders as well, as if the government would tirelessly work toward the goal of jobs for “every able-bodied Negro man” if Black women were put in their place. Propagation of the sexist notion that women should step back meant that the question of jobs for women – and jobs for the jobless in general – was still largely avoided.
Under the pressure of the ghetto riots, young Black men got factory jobs in auto in Detroit and in other industrial centers, and Blacks were also hired in greater numbers in public service jobs. Both of these gains were set back with the layoffs of the 1970’s. The only government program that ended up having any meat to it was welfare – a program designed to make women and other recipients look and feel helpless and dependent.
Johnnie Tilmon, past president of the national Welfare Rights Organization pointed out:
There are a lot of other lies that male society tells about welfare mothers; that AFDC mothers are immoral, that AFDC mothers are lazy, misuse their welfare checks, spend it all on booze and are stupid and incompetent. If people are willing to believe these lies, it’s partly because they are just special version of the lies that society tells about all women. For instance, the notion that AFDC women don’t work and don’t want to. It’s a way of rationalizing the male policy of keeping women as domestic slaves. The notion that AFDC mothers are immoral is another way of saying that all women are likely to become whores unless they’re under control by men and marriage. (Cited by Abramovitz in Under Attack ... .)
Yet the maligning of women on welfare and the lies told about them were just as much a product of racism as sexism. In fact. the “underclass” epithet was mainly hurled at Black men who were unemployed or underemployed. When welfare was extended to men suffering long term unemployment, mainly through a general or home relief program (varying by locale), it also propagated racism against Black men as a matter of course. The small relief sums could not possibly lift them out of poverty either, and while decent jobs were not available to unskilled and poorly educated Black men, they were continually accused of being loafers, sponging off society and refusing to support their children. The welfare system pretended that it was doing everything to help Blacks; over time it built up the case that if Blacks remained poor there was something wrong with them. That was the heart of the problem.
But what really occurred was that oppressed people whom society had already bombarded with a message of their inferiority were being caught up in a program designed to debase them even further. Some inevitably joined the ranks of the anti-social lumpenproletariat, but the vast majority was simply oppressed and then vilified over and again.
On the other hand, a few did find the welfare program useful: they attained careers because the state needed social workers and other buffers in those programs in large numbers. Some achieved middle class status, allowing themselves to be used as the disciplining and incorporative agency among poor workers that the system previously lacked. Some were hired directly into welfare programs, others into assorted community agencies that sprung up. All in all, they have had a stake in defending and expanding the welfare state’s pacification program.
With the return of the system’s deepening economic crisis by the early ’70’s, welfare became increasingly exposed as a failure in the eyes of the masses. The War on Poverty and other “Great Society” programs would not allow most Black and Latino recipients to rise off welfare. As this became more obvious, the program became more discredited. It was hated by the dependent recipients for its failure to work economically or socially, as well as because of the patronizing social control it represented.
It was hated by better-off white workers too, but for reactionary reasons. Now under the gun financially themselves, many of the labor-aristocratic skilled workers were susceptible pawns for racist scapegoating, particularly of the “welfare queens” vilified by Ronald Reagan. In the racist view of angry labor aristocrats, the reason for their dwindling paychecks and sense of instability was that their tax dollars were being misused by the liberal elite who cared nothing for the white working man and was giving everything to “shiftless Blacks” instead.
Such right-wing populism was essential to the eventual dismantling of the welfare system. But it was not enough. Without support from even broader sectors of the working class as well as the petty bourgeoisie, the job could not have been done.
With the resurgence of crisis, removing welfare became more than a racist bone thrown to blue-collar white aristocrats. It became an important part of the effort to undercut the income of all workers. Capitalism’s need to restore its rate of profit meant that the ruling class has to deepen exploitation and force down the income returned to workers for their labor. Ending welfare means lowering the real minimum wage of the poorest workers. There is still a need for social control of Blacks and Latinos, but an opportunity to deepen the offensive against them beckoned when their struggle receded. As well, it opened the way to undermining Social Security and other more expensive social services that even wider layers of the class depend on.
This attack could not be packaged only by wrapping it in right-wing populism. The Clinton touch was also necessary: downplaying the racist and sexist scapegoating and pushing a mildly populist message appealing to the common-sense preference for jobs over welfare, a sentiment prevalent among workers of all colors and sexes.
The anti-welfare campaign snowballed because the bourgeoisie’s austerity campaign was never countered effectively by either the labor or the Black and Latino leadership. The fundamental problem is that working people accede to capitalism, not out of love for exploitation but because it seems to be the permanent reality: they see no alternative. Therefore they accept leaders who defend the system. And since capitalism can’t provide jobs for all at decent wages without self-destructing, the labor bureaucrats and the other misleaders pursue policies which, rhetoric aside, accept that reality.
Therefore the policies they pursue inexorably lead to accepting capitalism’s war of all against all; each sector of the working class must fight other sectors for the crumbs. This becomes especially intense when the pie grows smaller and the crumbs are fewer. Since the present crisis reflects the system’s underlying decay, that’s what the future holds for humankind under capitalism.
To keep their grip on the masses, the liberal/progressive leaders promise to fight back and make coalitions with all colors of the rainbow; but increasingly many workers perceive these alliances to be hollow and move toward defending the gains of their particular group going it alone – even if that means (as it inevitably does) at the expense of the others. We have already traced the racist reaction of the white blue-collar labor aristocrats who scornfully rejected their liberal labor leaders and claimed the banner of America in opposition to Blacks, Latinos and immigrants. With the growth of racism in mind, we can easily see many reasons for the defensive “circle the wagons” outlook which, mislabeled Black nationalism, has become a prominent sentiment among Black workers and middle-class elements.
How then has Clinton managed to enhance his vote among Blacks? First we note that his success was among the Black middle class and the new Black labor aristocracy. This tended to be true for Latinos as well. The less well-off Black and Latino workers, many of whom were affected by “welfare reform” themselves, saw no reason to vote, and Clinton made no overture to them.
Even so, many people were shocked at the mildness of the negative reaction to welfare reform from the Black political leadership, stretching from Congressional Democrats to Jesse Jackson to Louis Farrakhan. There is a class explanation for this. The truth is that the income gap within the Black communities has grown very wide. While sections of the middle class and the aristocracy have suffered under the economic assault, others have at least maintained their position. It is the less well off and the poorest strata which have been truly devastated. All Blacks suffer from the growing racist attacks. Yet the Black middle strata can see Clinton as something of a barrier against right-wing racism and a more complete demolition of the welfare state, their positions and subsidies.
As well, the tendency has grown among the middle layers of the Black community to blame at least a portion of the racist attack on the victims themselves, especially the impoverished layers in the ghettoes. We have already looked at the anti-welfare stereotyping that goes on. However, the poorer workers and the work-seeking jobless are lumped together with the lumpenproletariat as an underclass – by Black scholars as well as white. The increasing putdown of welfare by Black conservatives takes one grain of truth – the debasement involved in being a “recipient” – and uses that insight to falsely defend capitalism’s “opportunities” – i.e. the false promise of jobs on which Clinton rested his case for decimating the welfare safety net.
The spurious need for Black “atonement” that saturated the Million Man March in Fall 1995 (PR 50) also reflected the mood that blames “Black on Black crime” and socially deviant behavior on Black ghetto dwellers as such – thereby exonerating the murderous capitalist system that foments drug-dealing and other crimes against the masses. As well, the theme of Black men getting their act together at the expense of Black women, who were once again told to stay home, hardly helped the cause of liberation.
The focus on the abysmal role of Black leadership in defending welfare is well deserved. The labor unions also did their bit, spending millions to get Clinton and the moderate conservative bourgeoisie the support of the “Reagan Democrat” labor aristocrats, rather than leading a fight against the welfare attack on the whole working class.
The union bureaucrats, under the leadership of John Sweeney, put out the phony message that they were fighting for the ranks by proclaiming the need to organize. The real message was that it was necessary to re-enter the realm of active electoral politics at any cost. No serious opposition to welfare attacks was posited, and the ranks of labor – white, Black and Latino – got that message.
In mobilizing its attack on working-class incomes over the last two decades, the bourgeoisie has moved hesitantly, knowing it could touch off an explosion of class struggle. Reassured by the restraining ability of its lieutenants among the workers and the oppressed, it took an important leap forward by dumping welfare. Having taken that step without a detonation, it is now moving on Social Security and Medicare. But knowing it is going through a minefield, it still moves by manipulation rather than a flat-out charge.
The present balance of forces, the equilibrium between warring elements that Slick Willie achieved for the Democrats and the Wall Street establishment, can only be momentary. The class struggle cannot be held in check for much longer while the bourgeoisie moves into riskier assaults. The increasing working-class eruptions in Asia and Europe are only a taste of what will come in the U.S. when the pent-up fury of workers finally bursts through.
A working class that does not see its own power today certainly doesn’t see that it can generate a real alternative to capitalism. Marx always stressed that action preceded consciousness, not vice versa. Tomorrow, when the explosions occur, all things including socialism will seem both possible and necessary. There are already currents developing among workers and oppressed people, including those directly hit by the attack on welfare, that point to the future class confrontation.
But along with them come the leftish reformists, many of whom consider themselves socialists but keep this information under wraps for now. When the big fightback occurs, they know it will be necessary to present their radical face, and lo and behold, their “socialism” will emerge. Today, they are reticent because of their desire for labor/liberal allies among the present misleaderships; they often argue condescendingly that they can’t scare those workers who they seek to organize. Their role in the future will be similar to that of the Communist Party in the ’30’s; they too understand politics to be manipulation. In contrast, the Marxist method is simply to tell the truth to our fellow workers: the revolution will not come through condescending saviors but through the actions and the consciousness of the working class itself.
The truth is that the welfare attacks point to the need for revolution: they are dramatic evidence of the LRP’s contention that trying to reform capitalism is no solution for the working class and oppressed. Even in response to the earthshaking Black revolts, at a time when the system could afford concessions, “welfare” never meant raising people out of poverty and providing a better life for them and their families. It is one thing to defend all the crumbs, like welfare benefits, that have been won. It is quite another thing to pose more or better welfare as a real solution.
The answer to unemployment and poverty is not welfare but a new society which will have real solutions for all. A workers’ state, the beginning of a new society based on human needs, not profits, would provide jobs for all by dividing the necessary work among all available workers. By expropriating the major banks and corporations and thereby using all the resources of society for the benefit of all, it would ensure an advancing standard of living for the masses. Such a program can also be fought for under capitalism as long as revolutionaries explain clearly what will be necessary to achieve it: socialist revolution.
We raise the slogan Jobs for All along with A Full Program of Public Works. This is especially critical for working-class women. To enable the participation of women in the workforce on an equal basis, and to actually facilitate the liberation of working-class and oppressed women, we fight for a society that provides extensive child care, as well as kitchen, laundry and other collective facilities to release women from the drudgery of individuated household labor and caretaking.
Our slogans A Sliding Scale of Hours and An Escalating Scale of Wages express the need for sharing the necessary work without loss of wages. This idea was fought for in this country in the ’30’s under the popular slogan “30 for 40” (30 hours work for 40 hours pay). Such demands begin to meet the immediate problems of working women, whose responsibilities in caring for children and other family members leave them without free time for political or personal development. The escalating scale of wages is also a way of ensuring that workers’ pay meets the rising cost of living. Today most workers know they are not doing well and that low wages – whether in the form of workfare, multi-tier contracts, non-union shops, etc. – are key to the attack on them. Therefore we also advance immediate demands for universal wage hikes to roll back this trend.
Such demands provide for the needs of the whole working class – young and old, Black, Latino and white, women and men. Free quality transport, health care, education and housing are other needs that are critical to impoverished women, men and children today but are actually needed by all members of society. The program of public works would provide such needed services and good, useful jobs for society’s members. A guaranteed income to disabled and incapacitated members of society who are unable to work would certainly have to be included.
This program meets the interests of all workers, and when our class begins to really fight back, legions will take up these demands. Many workers will believe that the capitalist state can deliver on them. While fighting side by side with these fellow workers, we will always point out that under capitalism such a program is unrealizable. We believe that the struggle will show more and more workers that we revolutionaries are right and that our class must seize power. Decaying capitalism cannot even sustain a renewed welfare state; its attacks will inevitably increase if we allow the system to continue. Then we will see a depression far deeper than the 1930’s, and moves toward fascism and another imperialist world war.
Racism and sexism, as we have also seen, are not just economic weapons but flexible social tools. These reactionary ideologies have been perpetrated by the system for so long that they have a strong hold even among oppressed workers. They divide and weaken the struggle and sap the working class of its consciousness as to who the real enemy is.
However, it is not just “the system” in the abstract that perpetuates these divisive reactionary ideas. Sexism, racism and other divisions are also growing because the current liberal/progressive leaders are all sectoralist: they purposely propose strategies which teach the working class not to identify with their class as a whole but with only one sector.
In the “welfare rights movement,” Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward have been central figures, well known reform advocates for the poor for almost three decades. From the standpoint of today’s reality, it is notable that these experts came to a new and crucial theoretical conclusion in their book, The New Class War, written in response to Reagan’s attacks in 1981. While President Carter had made some quiet attempts at welfare cuts, Reagan’s attacks were clearly the first major battle cry. Yet in response, Piven and Cloward boldly predicted that, unlike in the past when welfare benefits rose and fell in accordance with mass movements, the modern welfare state could not be dismantled because it had become too entrenched. They wrote:
The great expansion of other social welfare programs which were initiated in either the 1930’s or the 1960’s was not aborted with the ebbing of protests in the 1970’s. Relief recipients benefit enormously from some of these programs, especially those providing subsidies for food, fuel, and medical care, so that their condition has not worsened on the whole. Public relief, once the sole form of state intervention to ameliorate destitution, has thus come to be embedded in a general structure of income support programs for a wide range of constituencies, from the aged to the disabled to the unemployed. The changes in American society that gave rise to this development lead us to the conclusion that the cyclical pattern of providing subsistence resources by the state have been replaced by a variety of permanent income-maintenance entitlements ... . The political economy of the late 20th century is not that of either the 18th or the 19th century. The relationship of state to economy has been drastically altered in ways that provide powerful support for the idea that people have a right to subsistence, and particular legislative or executive actions will not extinguish that idea.
Marxists, in contrast, have long understood that the epochal crisis of capitalism precludes a permanent capitalist recovery; we were able to predict the return of crisis despite the temporary prosperity bubble. The reformists display little sense of the realities of capitalism; many believe that the growth of the welfare state will turn into a mixed or socialistic state as time goes on. Thus, even after the crisis resurfaced, they have managed to ignore its meaning. That this new “theory” was put forward in 1981 was not just a quirk on the part of the authors. The idea that decaying capitalism was going to provide “permanent income maintenance programs,” or at least a guaranteed “right to subsistence,” was inherent in a view that denies the need for revolution.
Faith that capitalism can be reformed is prevalent in the middle-class social-work intelligentsia for good reason. These are the people whose careers are based on the existence and expansion of the welfare state. As a rule, the middle class views itself as the benevolent go-between, needed to barter and compromise between the crudely greedy rulers on the one hand and the uneducated, pitiable, impoverished masses on the other. Unlike the traditional petty-bourgeois shopkeepers, whose narrow interests make them view big state controls with suspicion, the liberal middle layers spawned by the growth of the capitalist state see that state as fulfilling their desires for social peace. They want state benefits aimed at those constituencies they have assigned themselves to manage, like “the poor.”
Still, they do not insist that the poor be given a welfare benefit which would raise them to the middle-class living standards they themselves enjoy. No, when push comes to shove they settle for “the right to subsistence,” or even less. They push illusions in what capitalism can offer while accommodating to capitalist misery – on behalf of the poor. Thus reformism today means acceptance of austerity, cloaked in the illusions of a return to prosperity.
Piven and Cloward, as the left wing of this stratum, often attempt to disguise their middle-class bias by praising “movements” of the poor. The National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) reflected this type of do-good reformist strategy, and was associated with Piven and Cloward. Its strategy pretended to rely on the movement of poor people and claimed it could win significant gains for them. But it really was based on trying to settle for what was realistic. This “realistic” strategy failed.
A discussion among various reformists prior to the launching of the welfare rights campaign by NWRO appeared in the chapter “A Strategy to End Poverty” in Piven and Cloward’s The Politics of Turmoil: Poverty, Race and the Urban Crisis. It gives a good illustration of Piven’s ideas:
A series of welfare drives in large cities would, we believe, impel action on a new federal program to distribute income, eliminating the present public-welfare system and alleviating the abject poverty which it perpetrates. Widespread campaigns to register the eligible poor for welfare aid, and to help existing recipients obtain their full benefits, would produce bureaucratic disruption in welfare agencies and fiscal disruption in local and state governments. These disruptions would generate severe political strains and deepen existing divisions among elements in the big-city Democratic coalition: the remaining white middle class, the white-working class ethnic groups and the growing minority poor. To avoid a further weakening of that historic coalition, a national Democratic administration would be constrained to advance a federal solution to poverty that would override local welfare failures, local class and racial conflicts and local revenue dilemmas. ... The ultimate objective of this strategy – to wipe out poverty by establishing a guaranteed annual income – will be questioned by some.
Not only did the reformist welfare strategy demonstrate no anticipation of the resurfacing economic crisis that would force the government to embark on austerity attacks; there was also no clue as to the role the capitalist Democratic Party would play. The hope that the Democrats would have to play a unifying role based on practical self-interest was pure fantasy. Rather than sustaining itself in the old way by doling out benefits and letting the sectors fight over the pieces, the Democrats now carry out the systemic divide-and-conquer drive by letting the sectors fight over who will give up what.
Piven’s reformist strategy was adopted not only because of such wishful thinking, but also because of the assessment that the demand for decent jobs (the real route out of deep poverty and oppression) was unrealistic. As Piven put it:
The fact of the matter is that most of the people whom we now call very poor are not going to participate in occupational roles, at least not in this generation. And so, therefore, to say that this strategy doesn’t give people jobs, which everybody really wants, is to forfeit the income goal for an aspiration which isn’t going to be realizable for most of the very poor. ... that the sharp differential between classes in our society will be maintained I think [is] true.
One might ask: if capitalism can’t provide jobs for all, and therefore a strategy fighting for jobs should be rejected in advance, how is it that a strategy of excessive demands for welfare could lead to a decent guaranteed income from the same system? The reality was that the real intent of Piven et al was to extend the welfare system, not eliminate it; the guaranteed annual income, the “ultimate” objective, was just a left cover.
In pushing her strategy, Piven also pointed out condescendingly that one of its great advantages was that “one need not ask more of the poor than that they claim lawful benefits. Thus the plan has the extraordinary capability of yielding mass influence without mass participation ... .” In other words, it is really up to the Pivens and Clowards to mobilize the poor as a battering ram manipulated by experts. The poor don’t have to worry about demanding jobs or becoming aware of their power (or of other steps that might actually increase that power); they don’t even need much ability to do any thinking or planning. Piven and Co. will take care of all that.
The NWRO collapsed in the early 70’s, well after the collapse of the actual social movement out of which it was manufactured. Harsh reality was no problem for Piven and Cloward, who in their subsequent book, Poor People’s Movements, still touted their guerrilla strategy of jamming the system. But clearly it was the fear instilled by the riots that gave the demands of the welfare rights movement a ready ear in the system. And once the riots and the entire Black movement was decisively sold out, the “welfare rights” notion petered out with the return of recession.
As well, the sectoralism of their reformist strategy of just demanding more welfare played right into the hands of the anti-welfare campaign the bourgeoisie was revving up. Demands for decent welfare benefits for all those who need them are absolutely necessary. However, had the welfare struggle demanded class-wide demands like jobs for all, free child care, free health care, etc. – which would have better served the welfare recipients own needs – they would have also connected to union and non-union workers who were suffering from increasing job instability, shrinking paychecks and lowering living standards. The class connection could have been made and fought for and the bourgeoisie’s scapegoating lies about welfare recipients – based on the notion that welfare recipients are not part of the working class – would have met substantial resistance.
The left liberals’ opposition to “jobs for all” really reflected the absence of a working-class strategy. It also indicated that they saw the “poor” not in working-class terms but from the vantage point of the middle class: people to be helped and controlled with more and better benevolent capitalist programs, rather than people who could forge their own destiny through working-class power.
The failure to fight for jobs for welfare mothers was sometimes justified by rhetoric about a woman’s right to choose whether to work or to stay home and be paid for family duties like child-rearing. Capitalism is not about to give wages for housework to middle-class women, much yet to welfare mothers. Women on welfare, and poor women with children in general, have always worked; the reality is that the middle-class women’s movement was not as interested in fighting for better jobs and child care for working-class women as in gaining more “choices” and career ladders for themselves.
In this century the drive of society has been overwhelmingly in the direction of women working outside the home, especially in the case of lower working-class women – increasingly so in recent decades. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a “socialist feminist,” grabbed the essence of the question in 1916 and lectured the middle-class do-gooders of her day:
The first steps of working motherhood, usually enforced by extreme poverty, bring the woman and the child in contact with some of our worst conditions; and we, in our dull social conscience, seeing evil fall upon mother and baby, seek only to push them back where they came from – instead of striving to make conditions fit for them. What we must recognize is this: Women: wives and mothers: are becoming a permanent half of the world workers. ... That children should be forced to work for their living is an unnatural outrage. ... That adult women should do it, is in no way harmful, if the hours and conditions ... are suitable; and they never will be made suitable until overwhelming numbers of working women compel them. (Quoted by Linda Gordon in Pitied But Not Entitled.)
This was a partial exposition of the Marxist view of women’s liberation. Lenin heralded the drawing of women into the factories as “progressive,” not only because it posited a fight for better conditions, but because it strengthened tremendously the working-class forces available for revolution and liberation. Rather than campaigning for women to stay home, Marxists stress the strength that women as workers can exert, in the fight both for their own liberation and for the workers’ revolution.
By now it has been decisively demonstrated that the question for the working class in the modern capitalist epoch – “pro-family” rhetoric notwithstanding – has been and will continue to be not whether women are going to work but under what conditions, wages etc. With the political momentum going to the right, over time the notion of welfare as preferable to work gained prominence. The bourgeois ambivalence between the notion of “women’s place is in the home” vs. forcing women to be exploited at work was partially resolved by the fact that the rulers were dealing with a large number of Blacks and Latinos in the welfare system. Racism allows the ruling class to stereotype women of color as fit for menial labor, while white women are enshrined as mothers.
But the policies are still contradictory. In fact, with the return of economic crisis, the bourgeoisie is escalating its family-values rhetoric. It pushes the family line to justify cuts in social services; it claims that care for children, the sick and the elderly is rightfully the job of the family – i.e., the woman in the home – rather than society. Of course, ever hypocritical, the bourgeois preachers have no qualms about pushing women into low wage jobs that make it impossible to maintain the family at the same time.
During the 60’s and 70’s, the NWRO and other forces successfully fought against some of the more invasive features of the AFDC program, such as “midnight raids” (where case workers showed up unannounced to see if there was a man in the house) and forced birth control and sterilization. With Clinton’s welfare “reform,” the invasive approach is returning with a vengeance." For example, according to welfare rights activist Betsy Reid Mandell, this law “requires states to impose harsher sanctions than allowed under current law on families where the parent does not ’cooperate fully’ in establishing paternity and collecting child support.”
Before Clinton the federal government regulated welfare; now any state can just about set its own standards, and Clinton’s bill encourages such action. States can deny aid to children born while the family is on assistance, deny aid to parents who fail to immunize their children or fail to keep them in school. Under New York Governor Pataki’s current proposal, teen parents will be forced to finish high school, regardless of the availability of child care. Any teenagers failing to show up for school will be punished by having their family’s benefits reduced.
This kind of regulation shows that the bourgeoisie is hardly interested in bolstering families in the abstract, but only in propping up minimally those women and families who play by their rules. Families that don’t will be duly punished.
The racist categorization of Black (and Latino) women as fit only for menial labor – as well as the “fact” that these “welfare mothers” had proven themselves unfit mothers despite all the wonderful efforts of the welfare system – helped justify the line that women on welfare should be forced to work through “workfare.” Some welfare-to-work programs have been in effect since the 1980’s in various localities, but they failed basically because training was costly and there weren’t actual jobs to be found. The earlier programs, including those under the supposedly more “mean-spirited” Republican presidents, still assumed funding for training and stipends for child care – and thus didn’t get very far, given the economic and social realities. The idea was to spend a lot of money in the short run for long-term gains.
Clinton actually upped the ante: the only way that welfare could actually be ended was to make workfare compulsory. And jobs would be provided the only way capitalism could do it: without training, without decent wages and without child care. Money would still be spent, but mainly in the form of subsidies to private companies.
Workfare today creates jobs by taking them away from public service unions and giving incentives to private industry, both to run privatized welfare programs for profit and to hire welfare recipients and let the federal government foot part of the tab. But the new workfare workforce is as yet uncontrolled and prone to volatility, a problem the bosses are hardly looking for. And the numbers currently on board are nothing compared to what the system is planning just in the next year. Thus despite all the hoopla and financial incentives Clinton can come up with, private industry is not jumping to hire masses of welfare recipients.
Now that welfare recipients are being drawn into the workforce, the basic question is: will workfare workers be able to use their new power as part of the workforce to defend themselves and also spark a wider struggle, or will reformist leaderships be able to regroup and once again succeed in stifling the class struggle?
Our article in PR 53 on welfare reform examined the New York workfare scene, a test project for the nationwide expansion of union-busting slave labor. (Over 35,000 have already been placed in workfare slots in city agencies, and the number is slated to rise to over 100,000.) We showed that the labor bureaucrats had no intention of fighting for the needs of workfare workers and were in large part responsible for their situation in the first place.
We argued therefore that what was necessary was an independent organization of workfare workers based on a fighting movement. Such an organization would fight for full union rights for all workfare workers. The demand for “equal pay for equal work” could be concretized as “all jobs at union wages,” in order to fight the assignment of workfare workers to the same jobs as unionized workers but at miserable wages. The workfare struggle would also have to raise class-wide demands such as “Jobs for All” in order to link the workfare fight with a revitalization of the entire working-class struggle; it would require open combat against the pro-capitalist labor bureaucracy.
In the past few months, we have distributed leaflets with our revolutionary ideas on this issue at meetings and demonstrations. It is clear from the workfare workers we have met that these women and men want permanent jobs, not a return to welfare.
As we prepare this issue, it has become even clearer that New York is also a test project for how the labor bureaucracy is going to handle the workfare problem. The AFL-CIO’s shift in position following it Los Angeles Executive Council meeting in February officially put union organizing of workfare workers on the agenda. While this should present opportunities, it has hardly plunged the bureaucracy into a radical change in strategy or action. Rather, it is clearly something the bureaucrats feel forced to attempt from the narrow perspective of defending their traditional base. And they intend to do it in the same minimal and losing way they defend the already organized workers.
As evidence of this, Stanley Hill, head of District Council 37, the large umbrella union for New York City employees, had this to say when he “reversed” his position against organizing workfare workers: “The law is that they’re not defined as employees, but we’re going to try to get that changed, possibly down in Washington or at the state level.” (New York Times, February 9.) But as the Times pointed out:
Union officials acknowledge, however, that it will not be easy to persuade the Republican Congress in Washington or the Republican State Senate in Albany to pass legislation that would enable workfare laborers to form unions. Such legislation could be expected to make workfare more expensive at a time when Federal and state governments are eager to reduce welfare spending and budget deficits.
What the Times doesn’t say is that the “new” strategy of trying to change local and federal laws is exactly the do-nothing position that Hill and the entire bureaucracy had before the AFL-CIO decision. At a meeting at Bellevue Hospital in October, an LRP supporter confronted Hill over exactly this legalistic strategy, raising the alterative of mass action. Hill dodged her proposal and denied that the 2000 welfare recipients slated for workfare in the city hospitals had any relation to the layoffs of unionized hospital workers that had just been announced!
There is something relatively new in the organizing scene when it comes to workfare, however. The labor bureaucrats as a rule are totally out of touch with the rank and file. They are even more distant in every sense from the new layer of workfare workers, since the unions in recent decades turned their backs on “the poor” and left leadership of the most beleaguered workers to the liberal welfare rights advocates and community organizers.
So in their approach to this new sector, the unions have formed an overt alliance with these groupings in order to utilize their skills and experience. Now the welfare advocates, community organizers and AFL-CIO are joining hands and are figuring out how to both fight for and control the bargaining rights of the new slave-labor force.
Hill announced that he would meet with ACORN (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), a group that recently moved into the organizing scene in New York. It claims to have 6500 WEP workers’ signatures from their union organizing drive as of March, half of whom pay $5-a-month dues. (WEP, the Work Experience Program, is the New York City euphemism for workfare.) It touts itself as the largest national community organization representing the poor. Like other such groups, it appeals to idealistic middle-class college students who often come aboard as organizers and staff members.
ACORN’s “vanguard constituency” (in the terminology of the group: see the informative book Organizing the Movement, The Roots and Growth of Acorn by former ACORN organizer Gary Delgado) is conceived of as a layer of generally poor working-class people who are to be mobilized in action on the lowest common denominator that ACORN organizers, like bourgeois politicians at large, decide their “constituents” can understand. Since ACORN was originally founded as a NWRO-sponsored experiment, the similarity in approach to the poor should be no surprise.
ACORN formed a “sister organization,” the United Labor Unions, around 1977, which in the early ’80’s affiliated with the SEIU. The ULU had been organizing house cleaners, farm workers and other marginalized low-wage workers before its turn to workfare sites. As the ACORN web page says, “the United Labor Unions, now Locals 100 and 880 of the Service Employees International Union, became labor organizing arms of ACORN which organize people where they work.” Clearly for ACORN union organizing is just one more way of reaching the same strata of poor workers it had already been organizing around welfare, housing, education and other issues.
ACORN’s independence as an organization was supposed to be based on its commitment to the poor as opposed to other constituencies. From this framework, ACORN’s view on labor in the 80’s was expressed by organizer Danny Cantor (also a New Party leader), who observed:
These are not revolutionary times, so neither the unions nor ACORN are revolutionary organizations ... though labor is heavily invested in the mythology of labor/management cooperation, the labor movement is objectively on our side. We cannot do away with their worldview but we can ... create situations that change the way discourse is conducted by opening things up for our own members and theirs in a way that moves both organizations to a more radical plane.
In other words, the pro-imperialist and chauvinist bureaucracy can’t be challenged – but it can be pushed to the left by organizing the poor to push on them.
Despite its claims to represent the poor, as ACORN has escalated its union activity it has also increasingly entered the Democratic Party. This fits with its affiliation to the New Party, whose strategy is to campaign both inside and outside the Democrats. As the web page puts it:
Reaching its heights in the Rainbow Lobby work in 1988, ACORN found ways to work effectively with other progressive groups, such as labor, churches and political movements. The Rainbow Lobby was a strong force in Democratic Party politics in 1988 because of ACORN’s hard work and ability to coordinate efforts with other groups. This experience confirmed the value of building and working within alliances.
Although it only started its workfare organizing drive in late fall, ACORN threatened to quickly out-organize two groups that had started earlier, Workfairness and WEP Workers Together (WWT). A Village Voice article (January 28) described the bureaucratic turf squabbles, typical of AFL-CIO organizing drives, that characterized the contest for workfare workers’ signatures. Despite their competition, the groups’ behaviors are very similar. They all emphasize getting signatures and seeking negotiations, they all do favor actions on occasion, and above all they all agree that the labor bureaucrats should go uncriticized when they conduct business as usual, i.e., do nothing. For this reason, there has not even been one united mass demonstration in New York against slave-labor workfare. And that is criminal negligence, considering all the months of “organizing,” meetings and signature gathering that has been going on.
So far, ACORN does seem to pose a marginally more militant stance than WWT. The latter was formed by an association of community groups which seem politically indistinguishable from ACORN; early on it got the backing of CWA Local 1180 (a city supervisors’ local in New York headed by a leftish bureaucrat, Arthur Cheliotes), and has to date stuck with the specific aim of organizing an association not a union – because of legal restraints on organizing workfare workers into unions in New York. WWT meetings, only open to WEP workers, emphasize legal rights and a legalistic strategy, although WWT has led worksite actions for specific demands.
ACORN states it will organize a union. They mean not that they will lead mass actions to defy the anti-union laws, but that they will amass enough signatures to impress Mayor Giuliani. They also have led small worksite actions for specific demands on local conditions at worksites, using rhetoric similar to WWT’s. Both groups emphasize bargaining around immediate and local conditions right now, ahead of more broadly challenging the enforced slave-wage structure.
The Workfairness group, organized by the Workers World Party, seemed to pose a more militant attitude toward organizing workfare workers when it came onto the scene in early Fall. For example, a militant rally in late November, attended by about 100 workfare workers, featured rank and file workfare workers and a freewheeling political discussion at an open mike, where calls for taking to the streets and even “revolution” were given an enthusiastic hearing. This was a far cry from the ACORN and WWT’s restrained focus on smaller grievances like proper rain gear or toilet facilities. However, Workfairness’s next big move was to call off a planned mass rally for January 15, in favor of a controlled press conference arranged by liberal City Councilman Tom Duane on the steps of City Hall on January 20. Its April 4 rally featured bureaucrats and Democratic politicians who were treated as close family members. It was indistinguishable from any reformist-led rally against workfare.
Workfairness leader Larry Holmes and other WWP representatives are centrists who alternate in their speeches between the themes of building Workfairness as a union-type formation through getting bureaucratic endorsements, favors from politicians, etc. – that is, the same way union bureaucrats operate – and the need for a “movement” of poor against rich.
They do not specifically name capitalism as the problem or call for revolution as the answer. Nor do they ever point out the need for revolutionary leadership, which would at least account for the existence of their own party. Instead, Workers World hailed the recent move toward workfare organizing by John Sweeney’s “new” AFL-CIO, without mentioning the need for a real fighting leadership for the workfare struggles. As Holmes put it:
We knew that the unions would have to do something like this at some point. ... But they’re acting faster than anyone might have predicted. ... It is a tremendous thing that the AFL-CIO is going to act on organizing workfare workers. The old Lane Kirkland leadership that was pushed out – you can’t imagine them doing this. It’s a victory. It’s a big step forward, and opens a new phase in this struggle. (Workers World, March 6.)
While Holmes goes on to criticize the labor tops’ ties to the Democratic Party, he never reaches the obvious conclusion that the AFL-CIO’s support of capitalism means betrayal of the workfare struggle, whether “New Voice” or old guard; therefore the argument for an anti-capitalist leadership is never made. There is no warning that the AFL-CIO will sell out even the immediate defensive struggles of workfare workers, in a period when such sellouts have been staggering (see p. 3 on the Detroit newspaper strike).
Instead, Holmes concludes with “our conception of how to organize workfare workers”:
Organize everybody on public assistance into the union. That means you’ll have several million members right away. At the same time, bring in all of the women’s organizations. Solidarize yourself with the women’s movement, and particularly the poorer women and Latinas and Blacks women, Jamaicans.
And bring in the radicals. It’s got to be a political movement. Get the students in it. The workfare workers need supporters. They need militants, they need rank-and-file trade unionists, they need community leaders, they need women leaders.
Force the issue. Try to make it more militant. We’re not for an adventure, something premature or something gimmicky. But don’t wait. The time to act is now. Organize! Organize!
Thus the speech as a whole argues that a more militant, more representative movement is needed – but it never quite connects this with an understanding of what kind of leadership is needed to encourage such a movement. When it comes to politics, the most it says is “bring in the radicals.” No where does it explain that the workfare attack is a result of the capitalist crisis, and that the solution, jobs for all, requires socialist revolution and revolutionary leadership.
In sum, ACORN, Workers World and others are trying to organize workfare workers in line with the bureaucratic methods of the Sweeney’s AFL-CIO. Whatever their hopes or claims, it is the bureaucracy that holds the reins in these campaigns, not the “community” or “left” organizers who do the legwork. The reformists like ACORN and centrists like the WWP are a necessary aid in reining in these new workers, who are not yet under the grip of the labor bureaucracy.
If these new misleaderships succeed in their mission, it does not bode well for the workfare struggle. But it is far from guaranteed. The struggle against workfare demands a real fight against the labor bureaucracy. That is because labor-aristocratic reformism dominates the entire bureaucracy, including officials like Stanley Hill who reign over unions representing masses of low-paid Black and Latino blue-collar workers. Their business-as-usual attitude toward workfare overlooks the fact that deals with the system cannot meet the needs of workfare workers today, nor will they prevent the growth of the army of the unemployed, homeless and desperate people that capitalism is recruiting. The need is for revolutionary leadership and mass action, not another try at reformist leadership and bureaucratic organizing.
As revolutionaries who are loyal to our class, we support every effort on the part of workfare workers to better their situation. We are open about the fact that we not only want to build and participate in such struggles – we want to use the opportunities to explain the need for socialist revolution and its connection to a winning strategy for our class. An action strategy can start with demonstrations and marches of workfare workers and their allies, which, if unified, would already be an improvement over the current activities.
But we also look for opportunities to place demands on the labor bureaucrats, the biggest obstacles facing our class, for major mobilizations that can show our fellow workers the power the working class has when united. While there is no immediate agitation possible for strikes over workfare and jobs issues in New York, this situation can change quickly, since the underlying tensions are so explosive. Revolutionary minded workers should already be discussing class-wide action, the general strike, along with demands like “Jobs for All” which will be essential to unifying the class and pointing the way to revolutionary answers.
We do not wish to be like Chicken Little saying the sky is falling. Workfare is clearly at an experimental phase, not only in the U.S. but in several European countries as well. The current political situation and balance of forces shows that capitalism has escalated the speed and depth of its attacks, but the bourgeoisie is still cautious. Most decisively, the class struggle in this country hasn’t yet shown its muscle. Like a sleeping tiger, it still must be approached with some caution. What will happen when workfare is implemented widely is mainly up to the class struggle, which can turn policy makers on their heads.
Unless such struggle takes a revolutionary direction, the worst is truly yet to come. This means that we must fight for revolutionary leadership and the revolutionary program now, and do everything possible to build the LRP into a fighting force that can attract revolutionary minded workers in the unions, among workfare workers and the unemployed, and working-class students and youth. The fundamental direction of capitalism in this country is to descend back toward slavery-like situations for people of color, and to 19th-century conditions for working-class families in general. In several imperialized countries, genuine slavery has returned. No return to the prosperity period that sustained the American “welfare state” is possible.