December 4, 2023

On US Labor Day, a representative of the Communist Workers’ Platform USA spoke at Berea College in Kentucky. Her presentation, “The Role of the Youth in the Neo-Labor Movement,” discussed US trade unionism, youth organizing, and the need for revolutionary socialism. The speaker, introducing herself as a CWPUSA member and a trade union organizer, encouraged attendees to visit the New Worker website to learn more about the CWPUSA.

The speaker opened with a brief overview of the downfall of the “old labor movement,” which resulted from union leadership abandoning class struggle in favor of class-collaborationism. Their betrayal, coupled with a general crackdown by the ruling class, effectively undid decades of work carried out by the Communist Party USA. Next was a discussion on the basics of trade unionism, the foundation of which she summarized as “workers organizing.” The speaker discussed the class character of the unions, describing their current role under capitalism as simply a means to negotiate the terms of exploitation. What is needed are class-oriented trade unions dedicated to the interests of the working class. To that end, even contemporary currents claiming to represent “class-struggle” trade unionism, such as that of Joe Burns, are insufficient, as they treat workers and capitalists as having common interests, for which the contract served as evidence. Refuting this notion, the speaker stated, “You have nothing in common with a capitalist… you have nothing in common with your oppressors.” She also notes the rise of a similar notion that the contract represents a “temporary truce between two otherwise irreconcilable factions.” The speaker asserts that union contracts are neither a truce nor a reconciliation but “the rules of engagement between two irreconcilable forces engaged in class struggle.”

The history portion of the trade union section concluded with a discussion on the need to reconstitute the labor movement in the US. “We have an opportunity to rebuild this emerging new trade union movement into one based on class struggle,” the speaker said, with our primary task being “the organization of the working class.” The emergence of this movement is the result of the inherent contradictions of capitalism, which crush the working class under “record high profits for the capitalists and record lows for the workers, despite advancements in production.” It is also no coincidence that it is arriving on the heels of a global pandemic that facilitated a massive wealth transfer from the oppressed masses to the ruling class.

The next topic covered the need to combat the forces of “government-employer trade unionism,” of collaboration with the capitalist class and bourgeois state, in favor of a revolutionary trade union movement run by and for the workers. In this context, the speaker acknowledged the utility of the recent decision by the National Labor Relations Board regarding Cemex and union recognition but clarified that “we do not need to thank our oppressors for concessions.” She also shared criticisms of the Biden administration, mocking headlines that refer to him as the most “pro-labor” president in recent history while ignoring his role in crushing an attempted strike by railroad workers last year. The speaker ended this section by asking, “What would have happened if we had real unions that, instead of relying on the capitalist state, were willing to put themselves in direct opposition and do anything necessary to achieve their goals?”

The last topic in the section on trade unionism was the necessity of “unifying existing forces based on working-class trade unionism.” The speaker said, “You hear about ‘unity, unity, unity,’ but we must reject unity for unity’s sake.” She cautioned that the old labor movement should not abandoned, given how many union workers still operate within that sphere, but urged that we must instead help organize them into a class-oriented labor movement while agitating against the opportunism of the leadership. She gave the recent UPS contract struggle as an example, ridiculing the Teamsters Union leadership for leaving the workers with a highly concessionary contract, citing the poor terms regarding air-conditioning. “We have already had more workers die since they ratified the contract… Workers were left behind.” The speaker concluded, “Remember, 86% voted in favor of the contract, 97% voted to strike. Imagine what they could have won had they leveraged their power as workers.”

Having sufficiently laid the groundwork for a Marxist understanding of the labor movement, the speaker moved on to discussing the role of the youth. “The youth are not a class, but exist within classes,” said the speaker, “with the majority of the youth belonging to the working class.” The speaker stressed the importance of recognizing that a youth movement separate from the labor movement is insufficient. “Capitalist academia separates the student youth from the working youth.” Under capitalism, education is provided to the student youth from a bourgeois perspective while being withheld entirely from young workers unable to afford it or unwilling to take on massive debt. In this way, the bourgeois ruling class isolates the “non-working” students from the non-student workers. We need to reject this isolation in favor of a movement that aligns students and young workers with the interests and activities of the organized working-class movement. We must combat bourgeois-academic influence with a working-class perspective based on a scientific perspective that keeps the youth movement strong and on the offensive. “The youth must not be satisfied with their oppression!”

At this point, attention shifted to the specific conditions at Berea College. The speaker noted that this institution poses itself as a “work college,” actively attracting students with an affordable education in exchange for providing labor to the school and the surrounding town. She also revealed that roughly 90% of Berea students are Pell Grant recipients. Thus, the speaker showed that the school and town are exploiting rather than helping a particularly vulnerable stratum of the working class, prompting her to ask, “What would happen if the entire student body organized a class-oriented movement in response to this relationship?”

The presentation wound down with a list of the tasks confronting the students. The first task is to organize the youth. “While it may seem obvious, so many potential organizers do not know where to begin, when the place to begin is with your neighbor, who experiences the same struggles you do.” The second is to educate themselves, studying “not only bourgeois academics but learning from a working-class, scientific, Marxist perspective.” The third is to practice what they learn, to “use this scientific perspective and put it into action.” The fourth is to build a “political vehicle.” Here, the speaker elaborated that everything presented up to that point demonstrates that, for the working class to organize and leverage its political power, it cannot rely on the capitalist parties that oppress it. The working class must build a new political vehicle, a new party. Finally, the fifth task—setting the tone for the remainder of the presentation—is revolution. The speaker concluded that it is impossible to reconcile the differences between classes with a relationship built on exploitation. A new society with a new class structure is necessary, and only an internationalist, socialist revolution can accomplish this. “From Niger to Nicaragua, the working class of every country shares the same interests, and that is to end the exploitation of man by man.”

The floor then opened for Q&A. Subjects discussed here included the Leninist party formation as the requisite political vehicle for combating imperialism, the need to meet working-class mistrust of bourgeois academia not with disdain but with a Marxist analysis, and rejecting the fear of honesty when discussing socialism-communism to non-communists. With time having run out due to the complex discussion, the presentation concluded with thunderous applause.