By Jane West
The mobilisations in Wisconsin in response to Republican proposals to strip public sector workers of collective negotiating rights indicate that the US working class may just be beginning to stir from the slumber that has gripped it through three decades of assault on its living standards.
A demonstration held on Saturday 12th March after the Republicans found a way to force their legislation through despite the Democrats’ blocking tactics saw a demonstration up to 100,000. Initial large protests were further galvanised by the decision of the Democrat members of the state legislature to render the body inquorate and absent themselves. In order not to be subject to subpoena they had to go outside the borders of the state.
The 12th March demonstration was larger than any demonstration that has been called by the right wing Tea Party movement. Even more significantly, it was larger than any demonstration that took place in that city against the Vietnam War – the last time really mass demonstrations took place in a generalised way in the USA.
The developments in Wisconsin are clearly a significant development. Although the struggle remains localised, and nationally is not yet anywhere near the levels of the Vietnam War mobilisations, it does indicates some shift of mood within the US working class, which up until now has reacted passively as living standards have been driven down.
US Census data released in September 2010 showed that for the first time on record incomes for the median or typical American family actually fell between 2008 and 2009. African Americans were hit particularly hard, with the median African American household income dropping by 4.4% in 2009.
This came against a backdrop of stagnant real median incomes in the US over recent decades. For example, the median earnings of full time male workers in 2005 – $41,386 – were actually below the $41,763 they earned in 1980 (measured in 2005 dollars).
In August 2006, the New York Times reported that a Federal Reserve study showed that, ‘Wages and salaries now make up the lowest share of the nation’s gross national product since the government began recording data in 1947; while corporate profits have climbed to their highest shares since the 1960.’
At the same time the richest 1% of the population has been appropriating the overwhelming share of growth over the past 30 years. While 90% of the population saw no significant growth in their living standards, the richest 10% absorbed all the growth in the US economy since the 1970s as this graph shows.
From 1980 there was what the economist Paul Krugman has called ‘the New Gilded Age’. The tax policies of the Reagan administration intensified income redistribution towards the rich. Between 1980 and 2004, real wages in manufacturing fell by 1%, while real income of the richest one percent rose by 135%.
With the onset of the current recession the US ruling class has continued to seek to drive down working class living standards.
The poverty rate for working-age people (18-64 years old) hit 12.9% in 2009, the highest rate in nearly 50 years. While no group has been spared, Hispanics and Asians have been particularly hard-hit by increases in poverty, increasing by 3.8 and 2.3 percentage points from 2007-09.
Particularly striking was the 4.7 million drop in the number of people working full-time for a whole year. The job losses and hours reductions of 2009 meant there was a 3.7 million drop in the overall number of workers with any earnings at all in 2009, and a 1.1 million increase in the number of workers working part-time and/or part-year.
The election of Obama in 2008 and the high level of mobilisation around his election campaign indicated an initial positive leftward response to the economic crisis. But the failure of the Obama presidency to take effective measures on the crisis, more precisely its supine capitulation to Wall Street on all issues except a very watered down reform of health care, threw the US population back to the right.
The Obama administration has fundamentally failed to break out of the deadlock in US politics that opposes all state intervention in the economy. It did not therefore even attempt to effectively campaign for support for an investment boost led by the state, and instead fell back on a series of monetary measures of dubious benefit to the US economy and fuelling inflation worldwide.
As the New York Times put it “The nation’s workers may be struggling, but American companies just had their best quarter ever” with profits in the third quarter of 2010 at record levels.
In foreign policy the failure to take decisive steps to pull out of Afghanistan, continuing sabre-rattling against Iran, passivity in the face of Israeli aggression, and even abject failure to deliver on its one core promise to close down Guantanamo, means Obama’s first two years have been in essential continuity with the Bush presidency.
Under those circumstances the right in US politics has become newly invigorated only two years after its policies led to the greatest crisis of the US economy since the 1930s and despite the disasters it created in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The mid-term elections in Autumn 2010 showed major advances for the Republicans in general, but especially for the new populist Republican right represented by Sarah Palin and the ‘Tea Party’ movement. Alongside this electoral advance for the right, the US has seen the rise of unpleasant racist currents of a type more familiar in European politics, with an Islamophobic campaign against a Muslim community centre in downtown New York, and the activities of individuals like Pastor Terry Jones who tried to instigate a ‘burn the Qur’an’ day.
These developments have deepened the problems for Obama, and strengthened the tendencies in US politics directed at assaulting working class living standards, while seeking to make up for the US’s declining economic clout by lashing out on the military front.
It is to be hoped that Wisconsin marks the beginning of a turn in this situation, with the US working class and farming communities (which from a much higher proportion of the population in Wisconsin than in Britain for example) making their presence felt in the overall relationship of forces, and that it does not just remain an isolated upsurge against imperialism’s domestic assault.