Chris Hedges Opinion Original

Chris Hedges: Strike, Strike, Strike

The mounting social inequality is fueling protests around the globe. The global ruling class is determined to prevent these protests from employing the weapon that can bring them down — strikes.
 Strike, Strike, Strike – by Mr. Fish

By Chris Hedges / Original to ScheerPost

The ruling oligarchs are terrified that, for tens of millions of people, the economic dislocation caused by inflation, stagnant wages, austerity, the pandemic and the energy crisis is becoming unendurable.  They warn, as Kristalina Georgieva, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, have done, about the potential for social unrest, especially as we head towards winter.

Social unrest is a code word for strikes — the one weapon workers possess that can cripple and destroy the billionaire class’s economic and political power. Strikes are what the global oligarchs fear most. Through the courts and police intervention, they will seek to prevent workers from shutting down the economy. This looming battle is crucial. If we begin to chip away at corporate power through strikes, most of which will probably be wildcat strikes that defy union leadership and anti-union laws, we can begin to regain agency over our lives.

The oligarchs have spent decades abolishing or domesticating unions, turning the few unions that remain — only 10.7 percent of the workforce is unionized — into obsequious junior partners in the capitalist system. As of January 2022, private-sector unionization stood at its lowest point since the passage of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. And yet, 48 percent of U.S. workers say they would like to belong to a union.

As a result of crushing conditions workers have been subjected to for years, the nation is facing its first major rail strike since the 1990s. The transportation industry, of which most rail workers are a part, has a higher than average union density compared to other parts of the private sector. A rail strike could mean a loss in economic output of $2 billion a day, according to a trade group representing railroad companies. 

It was announced by the Biden White House, which hopes to avoid the optics of forcing striking workers back to the job, that the leaders of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers Transportation Division (SMART-TD) and Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen (BRS), among others, reached a tentative agreement with major freight companies, including Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway (BNSF) and Union Pacific. The tentative agreement was made amid intense pressure from the Biden administration.

Union officials stressed that the wording of the agreement is yet to be finalized and workers may not see the details of the agreement for three to four weeks, after which point union rank-and-file members will still have to vote on the proposed settlement.

The World Socialist Web Site (WSWS) and The Real News have done detailed reporting on the contract negotiations.                                  

BNSF announced a net income of nearly $6 billion in 2021, up 16 percent from the previous year. Union Pacific reported a net income of $6.5 billion, also up 16 percent from 2020. CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern Railway have also posted large gains. 

The economic deregulation of Class 1 rail freight carriers in the 1980s saw the number of freight carriers drop from 40 to seven, a number expected to soon fall to six. The workforce has shrunk from nearly 540,000 in 1980 to some 130,000. Service on the nation’s rail lines, along with working conditions and wages, have declined as Wall Street squeezes the big railroad conglomerates for profits.

It appears that the proposed contract will meet few of the railroad workers’ core demands including redressing years of declining wages, the need for cost-of-living adjustments to deal with inflation, an end to onerous attendance policies, guaranteed time off and sick days, massive lay-offs that have put tremendous pressure on remaining rail workers and an end to the practice of one-man crews. 

Rail moves roughly two-fifths of long-distance American freight and one-third of exports. It lies at the heart of a complex global supply chain that includes cargo ships, trains and trucks. It is almost certain that the Biden White House would intervene to prevent a nationwide rail strike, which would be a body blow to the nation’s tottering supply chain and shaky economy.

The oligarchs targeted unions after World War II. Through a series of strikes in the 1930s, unions pressured Franklin Delano Roosevelt into passing New Deal legislation. Unions gave workers weekends off, the right to organize and strike, the eight-hour workday, health and pension benefits, safe working conditions, overtime and Social Security. 

The red baiting of the 1930s and 1950s was directed primarily at labor organizers and radical unions such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), known as Wobblies, or the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). In the crusade against “reds,” the most militant unions and union leaders, some of whom were Communists, were turned into pariahs. A series of anti-labor laws, including the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act and Right-to-Work laws, which outlaw union shops, were put into place.

When the Taft-Hartley Act was passed about a third of the workforce was unionized, peaking in 1954 at 34.8 percent. The Act was a frontal assault on unions. It prohibits jurisdictional strikes, wildcat strikes, solidarity or political strikes, and secondary boycotts, whereby unions strike against employers who continue to do business with a firm that is undergoing a strike. It forbids secondary or common situs picketing, closed shops and monetary donations by unions to federal political campaigns. Union officials are forced by the Act to sign non-Communist affidavits or lose their positions. Companies are permitted under the Act to require employees to attend anti-union propaganda meetings. The Federal government is empowered to obtain legal strikebreaking injunctions if an impending or current strike imperils “national health or safety.” 

The Act disempowers labor. It legalizes the suspension of civil liberties, including freedom of speech and the right to assembly. U.S. courts, including the Supreme Court, with judges drawn from corporate law firms, have since issued a raft of new anti-union rulings to keep workers in bondage. The right to strike in the U.S. barely exists.

Widespread strikes, a necessity if we are to prevail, will be declared illegal, no matter which party is in the White House. Those who lead strikes will be targeted for arrest, and corporations will attempt to replace workers with scabs. It will be a very, very ugly fight. But it is our only hope.

An interview with Seattle Socialist City Councilmember Kshama Sawant about organizing tactics and the importance of union militancy can be viewed here.

The earlier generation of labor organizers understood that union organizing was about class war. “Big” Bill Haywood told delegates at the founding convention of the IWW in 1905:

Fellow Workers, this is the Continental Congress of the working-class. We are here to confederate the workers of this country into a working-class movement that shall have for its purpose the emancipation of the working-class from the slave bondage of capitalism. The aims and objects of this organization shall be to put the working-class in possession of the economic power, the means of life, in control of the machinery of production and distribution, without regard to capitalist masters.

“Big” Bill Haywood

Let his words be our credo.

After the end of World War II, two generations of workers in the United States were blessed with a period of unprecedented prosperity. Wages for the working class were high. Jobs were stable and came with benefits and health insurance. Unions protected workers from abuse by employers. Taxes on the wealthiest individuals and corporations were as high as 91 percent. The public school system provided a quality education to the poor and the rich. The nation’s infrastructure and technology were cutting edge. Steel workers, auto workers, mill workers, construction workers and truck drivers were part of the middle class.

In 1928, the top 10 percent held 23.9 percent of the nation’s wealth, a percentage that steadily declined until 1973. By the early 1970s the oligarch’s assault against workers expanded. Wages stagnated. Income inequality grew to monstrous proportions. Tax rates for corporations and the rich were slashed. 

Today, the top 10 percent of the richest people in the United States own almost 70 percent of the country’s total wealth. The top 1 percent control 31 percent of the wealth. The bottom 50 percent of the U.S. population hold 2 percent of all U.S. wealth. Infrastructure is outdated and in disrepair. Public institutions, including schools, public broadcasting, the courts and the postal service, are underfunded and degraded. 

You can see an interview I did with Louis Hyman, professor of economic history at Cornell University and author of Temp: The Real Story of What Happened to Your Salary, Benefits and Job Security, about the decades-long assault on workers here.

The oligarchs, as they did in the 19th century, exploit workers, including child labor, in Dickensian sweatshops in countries such as China, Vietnam and Bangladesh. 

You can see my interview with Jenny Chan who with Mark Selden and Pun Ngai wrote Dying for an iPhone: Apple, Foxconn and the Lives of China’s Workers here.

Workers, bereft of union protection and lacking industrial jobs, have been forced into the gig economy, where they have few rights, no job protection and often earn below the minimum wage. 

The rise in global food and energy prices, coupled with the weakening of democratic institutions and impoverishment of workers, have become a potent recipe for revolt. 

Weekly earnings, adjusted for inflation, decreased by 3.4 percent from August 2021 to August 2022, and real hourly earnings fell by 2.8 percent in the same period. Hourly earnings, adjusted for inflation, have fallen for the past 17 months. The lopsided priorities — billions of dollars in “security assistance” being sent to Ukraine by the Biden administration and other NATO members — predictably saw Russia slash gas supplies to Europe. Russia will not resume the flow until sanctions imposed on the country are lifted. Russia provides 9 percent of European Union (EU)  gas imports, down from 40 percent before the invasion. Big oil, meanwhile, is posting obscene profits as it gouges the public. 

The most vulnerable countries — Haiti, Myanmar and Sudan — have descended into chaos under the economic onslaught. Social spending in such countries as Egypt, the Philippines and Zimbabwe have been slashed. Nor are the industrialized nations immune. About 70,000 people in Prague took to the streets on September 4 to protest rising energy prices and call for a withdrawal from the EU and NATO. Industries in Germany, one of the world’s top three exporters, are crippled, paying as much for electricity and natural gas in a single month, post-Russian-invasion, as they did for all last year. Protesters from across the political spectrum in Germany have called for regular Monday demonstrations against the rising cost of living. In the U.K, already beset with 10 percent inflation, energy companies are expected to increase their rates by 80 percent in October.  Electricity bills in the U.S. have increased 15.8 percent over the past year. Natural gas bills have risen by 33 percent in the U.S. over the past year. Total energy costs in the U.S. have risen by 24 percent in the last 12 months. Consumer staples, the food and items needed for daily survival, have increased by an average of 13.5 percent. This is only the start.

Sign posted by Associated Supermarkets of Alphabet City on Avenue C and the corner of 8th Street in Manhattan.

At what point does a beleaguered population living near or below the poverty line rise in protest? This, if history is any guide, is unknown. But that the tinder is there is now undeniable, even to the ruling class.

The United States had the bloodiest labor wars of any industrialized nation. Hundreds of workers were killed. Thousands were wounded. Tens of thousands were blacklisted. Radical union organizers such as Joe Hill were executed on trumped up murder charges, imprisoned like Eugene V. Debs, or driven, like Haywood, into exile. Militant unions were outlawed. During the Palmer Raids on November 17, 1919, carried out on the second anniversary of the Russian Revolution, more than ten thousand alleged Communists, Socialists and anarchists were arrested. Many were held for long periods without trial. Thousands of foreign-born emigrés, such as Emma GoldmanAlexander Berkman and Mollie Steimer, were arrested, imprisoned and ultimately deported. Socialist publications, such as Appeal to Reason and The Masses, were shut down. 

The Great Railway Strike of 1922 saw company gun thugs open fire, killing strikers. Pennsylvania Railroad President Samuel Rea alone hired over 16,000 gunmen to break the strike of nearly 20,000 employees at the company’s shops in Altoona, Pennsylvania, the largest in the world. The railroads mounted a massive press campaign to demonize the strikers. They hired thousands of scabs, many of whom were Black workers who were barred by union management from membership. The Supreme Court upheld “yellow dog” contracts that forbade workers from unionizing. The establishment press, along with the Democratic Party, were, as always, full partners in the demonization and defanging of labor. The same year also saw unprecedented railway strikes in Germany and India.

Striking shopmen show their strength as the rail strikers parade through the Burnside district on Aug. 20, 1922, in the afternoon. At the head of the parade are former servicemen who carried a banner with the words: “We fought the world war so this country might live; let us live.” (Chicago Tribune historical photo)

To prevent railroad strikes, which disrupted nationwide commerce in 1877, 1894 and 1922 the federal government passed The Railway Labor Act in 1926 – union members call  it “The Railway Anti-Labor Act” – setting out numerous requirements, including the appointment of The Presidential Emergency Board, which Biden set up, before a strike can be called.

Our oligarchs are as vicious and tight-fisted as those of the past. They will fight with everything at their disposal to crush the aspirations of workers.

Alexander Herzen, speaking  to a group of anarchists about how to overthrow the czar, reminded his listeners that it was not their job to save a dying system but to replace it: “We are not the doctors. We are the disease.”

All resistance must recognize that the corporate coup d’état is complete. It is a waste of energy to attempt to reform or appeal to systems of power. We must organize and strike. The oligarchs have no intention of willingly sharing power or wealth. They will revert to the ruthless and murderous tactics of their capitalist forebearers. We must revert to the militancy of our own.


NOTE TO SCHEERPOST READERS FROM CHRIS HEDGES: There is now no way left for me to continue to write a weekly column for ScheerPost and produce my weekly television show without your help. The walls are closing in, with startling rapidity, on independent journalism, with the elites, including the Democratic Party elites, clamoring for more and more censorship. Bob Scheer, who runs ScheerPost on a shoestring budget, and I will not waver in our commitment to independent and honest journalism, and we will never put ScheerPost behind a paywall, charge a subscription for it, sell your data or accept advertising. Please, if you can, sign up at chrishedges.substack.com so I can continue to post my now weekly Monday column on ScheerPost and produce my weekly television show, The Chris Hedges Report.

Chris Hedges
Chris Hedges

Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for fifteen years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East Bureau Chief and Balkan Bureau Chief for the paper. He previously worked overseas for The Dallas Morning NewsThe Christian Science Monitor, and NPR. He is the host of show The Chris Hedges Report.

26 comments

  1. “He never recommends any solution, they say, just whines about the problems.” This editorial , though general in tone, completely contradicts that claim.

    We are a nation of consumers more than workers. A pay strike, similar to “Don’t Pay, UK” could probably speed a settlement with unions, and advance union representation.

    1. Are you looking for a hero? Are you waiting for a truth serum or a populist leader? Why not take control of your local community through neighbours, police and military personnel, who live where you do? Every jurisdiction will have different “solutions” to our current dilemmas. Hedges has in the past listed solutions. To be certain, no one can wrest control from this billionaire class without an analysis. There is not one solution that fits all.

      1. POLITICAL SYMBIOSIS

        @JGO:
        I really enjoyed your take! I have almost all of Hedges’ books and, contrary to what some have claimed here, he does propose solutions.

        But what’s most important is as you say”no one solution fits all.” I suspect that’s why Hedges emphasized the Wobblies–their goal of decentralized ownership by workers of the workplace. Yet also explicitly global. That “I.” in I.W.W. stands for International.

        Hedges is actively allied with the least among us and respects the abilities of the rank and file to organize and lead themselves. Unlike some of the dogmatic left who distrust us and see themselves as a superior top down vanguard. That why my grandfather was a Wobbly, and I am, too.

        Yes to your call for control of local communities. The right wing sure gets that. Unlike the right, we encourage participation instead of doing everything to prevent it. Just as ecological preservation requires understanding the local ecosystem, political solutions do as well. BTW, the predominant mode in ecosystems is symbiosis, cooperation, not competition.

  2. “They will revert to the ruthless and murderous tactics of their capitalist forebearers. We must revert to the militancy of our own.”

    I nearly spit out my coffee….

    I have been declaring this for twenty years, alienating myself from everybody by doing so and being looked at as some kind of crazy fanatic and finally….finally….finally I see Chris Hedges say it too.

    Good job Chris, it’s about time. Not that it will do any good. Only when all the illusions and delusions are absolutely crushed under the heal of hunger and poverty will the people rise up and by then it will be far too late. Hell, it already is…..

    1. MAVERICK: You are absolutely.correct.in your analysis of the Political solution or the lack.of it.We are really screwed and doomed without a large chance.of lasting 10 or 20 Climate Change happening to quickly.plus the existence of Nuke and the insanity.of using them.to.continue the rule of.Capitalism.

  3. The US is among the few countries that does not honor May Day the International Workers Day and instead has its own Labor Day which is otherwise known as “shop till you drop day”. May Day actually celebrates an incident of worker oppression in the US on May 4 1886’s where workers who protested 12 – hour workdays were beaten, jailed and shot.

  4. Any documentation the “ruling oligarchs are terrified?” Aren’t they more likely calmly going about their business of winning the class war?

    1. There is no evidence that the rulers are filled with fear Nor should they be.The MIC can certainly called out to quell.any public actions that threaten. Law and Order and the daily.flow.of.business.watch and see what happens if the Railroad unions go on strike.The idea of collective action.is wishfull.thinking on Chris Hedges mind

      1. Workers of the world, awaken!
        Break your chains. demand your rights.
        AII the wealth you make is taken
        By exploiting parasites.
        Shall you kneel in deep submission
        From your cradles to your graves?
        ls the height of your ambition
        To be good and willing slaves?

        CHORUS:
        Arise, ye prisoners of starvation!
        Fight for your own emancipation;
        Arise, ye slaves of every nation.
        In One Union grand.
        Our little ones for bread are crying,
        And millions are from hunger dying;
        The end the means is justifying,
        ‘Tis the final stand.

        If the workers take a notion,
        They can stop all speeding trains;
        Every ship upon the ocean
        They can tie with mighty chains.
        Every wheel in the creation,
        Every mine and every mill,
        Fleets and armies of the nation,
        Will at their command stand still.

        Join the union, fellow workers,
        Men and women, side by side;
        We will crush the greedy shirkers
        Like a sweeping, surging tide;
        For united we are standing,
        But divided we will fall;
        Let this be our understanding —
        “All for one and one for all.”

        Workers of the world, awaken!
        Rise in all your splendid might;
        Take the wealth that you are making,
        It belongs to you by right.
        No one will for bread be crying,
        We’ll have freedom, love and health.
        When the grand red flag is flying
        In the Workers’ Commonwealth.

  5. Read that list from the grocery store window, then consider Joe Biden’s ‘official’ inflation of 8% a year.

    If that was true, then all of those numbers in that picture would be near 8%. When I average the rises on the photo, that comes to 47%. I could expect a little difference, not all prices rise at the same rate. But, to have such price increases on staples, and to have a government that officially claims 8%, c’mon man? Good thing energy costs are only a fraction of what they were, right?

    Any worker who is not fighting for a 50% rise in pay is losing out every time they go to the grocery store. And that’s on top of the many ‘concessions’ workers have given during Joe Biden’s career.

    Peace! Bread! Heat!

    1. The math changes depending on where you sit in the hierarchy.
      But Dave’s figgers are correct for 70% of Americans.
      Joe’s war buddies feel no inflation at all, because they can send a truckload of surplus to Ukraine and change a billion. They could send air in a jug and get a million.

  6. It’s so interesting that transportation is the choke point of the system over and over again. If trains and trucks refused to haul, it could spark mass protests against the inverted totalitarian corporate state.

    1. SKILLED LABOR

      We learned during the COVID shut downs who the real vital workers are. Similarly, the entire transportation industry. Where upper management, people who can’t even do the jobs, get all of the glory while skilled labor does all the work and has all of the responsibility.

    2. If trains and truck refuse to haul, we will all starve and die from lack of medication and other medical treatments. It will happen fast, too.

  7. It will.take a great deal.of pain and death before Capitalism falls.I think.the world and Planet will die before the people realize how badly they.have been screwed.Most white people are content as long as they.have MORE and someone to look down upon ,hence no Socialism for the downtrodden wage slaves in the US all 150 million of.them.

  8. SPACESHIP MARS

    The Dem oligarchical “meritocracy” and the R plutocracy think their superiority entitles them to the benefits of our labor. And to the best neighborhoods, best schools, best food, best transportation, whatever. All made by others and delivered to them.

    An attitude made glaringly obvious by the fantasy that they can escape the destruction they caused by going to Mars via private rocket. As if the new environment will maintain itself.

    Yet none of them know how to fix buildings, how to keep the electrical generators going, how to prepare soil for crops. All of which require skilled labor and cooperation. Those egotistical prima donnas wouldn’t last a month.

    Buckminster Fuller called our planet “Spaceship Earth,” a reminder that like any ship, it depends on a cooperative crew and only has limited supplies. What the elites fail to see is that they already live on Mars. Without our labor and sound ecosystems, they die, too.

  9. (IMO) one thing that is never addressed is the world of finance.
    It is far easier to make millions in the financial sector than it is to run a company.
    Parasitic global finance enslaves every real, productive industry in the world as much as those industries enslave their workers.
    In turn those parasites write and “enforce” the very laws that regulate them.
    They play the inflation game to devalue everyone’s assets, they are truly worst part of the economy.
    Industry has to decouple themselves from those parasites.
    It must be done & together with workers, could happen.

  10. sociologists have long perceived that amerikans cannot resolve conflicts—merleau-ponty, Laing Sennet etc “ontological insecurity”….USA the most individualistic society on earth–same as other anglo nations, followed by Sweden, Italy….
    “individualism is evil” Vladimir Solviyov
    Tocqueville perceived that individualism produces a self doubting, conformist (americans have free speech but they all say the same”), antagonistic and anxious fearful people.
    The Parsonian sociologist Philip Slater wrote, “americans love big because they feel so small. americans poorly under stand that individualism produces uniformity”
    Twenty years ago Vladimir Golstein wrote, “what unites the Slavophiles (Doestoevsky, Kolmaykov, Leontiev, etc) Alexandr Herzen, Pytor Kropotkin and the marxists is the belief that western individualism is an enemy of individuality”
    Horkheimer/Adorno wrote, “individuality has disappeared in USA”. they described all american conversations: “shallow bombastic fatuous”
    David Riesman a liberal, Richard Sennet, Istvan Meszaros, Marxians describe americans, “over-conformist semi-automatons”
    Arthur Koestler fluent in German French Russian English compared americans to 5th century Romans, “a similarly contactless society populated by automatons…a similarly soulless politically corrupt everybody for themselves society”
    George Simmel admired by at least 20 philosophers I have read including numerous Marxists—Sennet, Coser, Zygmunt Bauman, Emil Ciorian, Jurgen Habermas, George Hans Gadamer, Martin Heidegger, max Scheler, Edmund Husserl, George Lukacs, Ernst Bloch, Erving Goffman Robert E Park (‘due to the American allergy to philosophy simmel is only taught in US sociology depts”)…after examining more that 1000 societies that only in primitive individualist tribes devoid of individuality were genders homogenized (like USA) and fashion brought close to the body…he was not aware that colored hair existed–he referred to tattoos—“animalism”. Goethe, “barbarism” Kant…when Riesman described americans as over conformist semi automatons only the lowest ranks of the US Navy, biker gangs and criminals had tattoos—they have a great deal of individuality—in collectivist societies where individuality exits this is largely confined to criminals

  11. I want Chris to explain why he doesn’t support the Socialist Equality Party (of which the World Socialist Web Site is the organ). What a waste of time that he doesn’t join up and get his followers to do the same. Just kills me. What, exactly, does he disagree with? He never explains except to say “I’m not a Marxist.” If you don’t want the working class at the helm, then who *DO* you want??? Maddening.

  12. Sure, the Owners, Bosses, and The Man aren’t afraid of the Workers. But, what power do the Workers have but to strike and boycott? Seriously! That’s all we have, so let’s use it. It’s not Hedges responsibility on his own to remind us of what we already know to be true.

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