To Win Significant, Long-Term Change in America, We Need Class Struggle

Joe Biden’s inadequate stimulus is the best workers can expect if they aren’t organized and fighting. But if we’re to see more policies that benefit and empower the working class, we’ll need more workplace organizing, more strikes, and more class struggle.

Thousands of demonstrators take to the streets, stopping traffic and circling city hall in a show of support for the ongoing teachers' strike on October 23, 2019, in Chicago, Illinois. (Scott Heins / Getty)

Analysis of Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan (ARP) has been all over the map. Some commentators have hailed it as a sea change in American welfare and fiscal policy, or even the end of neoliberal orthodoxy. Others have emphasized the relief package’s shortcomings. The Left seems uncertain, wrestling with how to relate to the Biden administration and the (narrowly) Democratic-controlled Congress.

We are in uncharted territory, at least in light of the Democratic Party’s recent history of embracing austerity with open arms. But the Left should neither overestimate our strength nor the extent to which Democrats are championing a social-democratic agenda. The ARP is a temporary stimulus, the best workers can expect if they aren’t organized and fighting. We shouldn’t expect these limited relief measures to last, since the macroeconomic conditions which have persuaded capitalists to allow them can change like the wind.

If we’re to see more policies that materially benefit and structurally empower working people, the working class needs to be organized and militant.

The Stimulus Bill Reflects the Balance of Class Forces

Recent working-class movements and left electoral struggles — including the teachers’ strike wave, the Black Lives Matter protests, and Bernie Sanders’s two presidential runs — have helped shift public opinion in favor of progressive and social-democratic ideas, a shift that likely impacted the size and shape of the COVID relief package.

Knowing exactly how big of an effect these developments had on the passage of the ARP would require rigorous, empirical analysis. Still, we can make some educated guesses. The New York Times reported in July 2020 that last summer’s anti-racist uprising was the largest protest wave in US history, as judged by the number of participants. Bernie’s two campaigns activated millions of Americans around an ambitious and popular social-democratic agenda. Bernie’s campaigns also directly inspired workplace organizing efforts that helped lead to the 2018 teacher strikes and fights for worker safety at the beginning of the pandemic.

It’s difficult to believe that these developments and others in the past few years (like the rise of AOC and the Squad, DSA, and the Sunrise Movement) didn’t influence Biden and other Democrats to push through a more generous relief package.

But it is also hard to deny that the ruling class’s lowered fears of inflation, due to still historically low levels of working-class organization and militancy, made it easy for Democrats to pass a relatively generous stimulus. That is because Wall Street and significant sections of capital did not only not oppose the bill but actively supported it.

Thousands of demonstrators take to the streets in support for the teachers’ strike, on October 23, 2019, in Chicago, Illinois. (Scott Heins / Getty Images)

As others have recognized, the ARP falls far short of structural reforms that upset the balance of power between labor and capital, let alone the more modest goal of higher taxes on the rich. The bill includes generous (if temporary) welfare measures but excludes a $15 minimum wage and further entrenches our country’s egregious for-profit health care system.

The ARP’s limits can largely be explained by the fact that it was passed with the blessing of much of the ruling class in the absence of mass working-class organization or pressure. Union density is still at a historic low: the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that 10.8 percent of US workers were in unions in 2020, the second-lowest level reported since 1983. (That reflects a slight uptick since 2019, but that’s a product of greater job losses in nonunion jobs rather than more people in unions — the overall number of union members declined by 321,000).

Workers are also striking in historically low numbers. BLS reports that in 2020, there were eight major work stoppages (defined as stoppages involving at least one thousand workers, lasting at least one shift during the workweek) — the third lowest number since 1947, when BLS began collecting the data.

Twenty-seven thousand workers took part in major work stoppages that began in 2020. That’s a huge drop from the upsurge of 2018 and 2019, when about 485,000 and 425,000 workers went on strike, respectively. But even those numbers — driven largely, but not only, by the teachers’ strikes — pale in comparison to what was typical before the 1980s. From 1947 to 1979, there were only seven years where fewer than 1 million workers went on strike, with the number often surpassing 1.5 or 2 million.

 The Left’s real gains over the past few years should not lead us to overlook the fact that the working class is still extremely weak and disorganized. Without a significant upsurge of class struggle, there is little reason to expect deeper, more lasting pro-worker policies from Biden or Congress.

The great progressive legislative achievements of the United States in the 20th century — from the New Deal to civil rights legislation and the Great Society — were made possible by mass struggles. These struggles involved huge waves of workplace militancy, massive street demonstrations, and leftists organizing in and outside the workplace. Threats to profits, corporate control, and social stability compelled sections of the capitalist class and elected officials to enact reforms that institutionalized collective bargaining rights, expanded democracy, and established the rudiments of a welfare state.

Of course, democratic socialists have our sights set higher than a new New Deal or another Great Society. We want to go beyond capitalism entirely, by democratizing ownership, governance of firms, and the economy as a whole.

To achieve socialist transformation, workers need to organize and empower themselves to wrest control of their workplaces from capital, to socialize finance, and to institute public ownership of health care, energy, transportation, and other major economic sectors. In the meantime, we can fight for reforms, like Medicare for All and a jobs guarantee, that make it easier for workers to organize and fight back. But winning even these reforms will require increased pressure from below. 

As policy, there is plenty to like in the ARP. But debate about policy pros and cons threatens to obscure more fundamental questions about the balance of class forces in society and what the bill does — or doesn’t do — to change that balance. In other words, the real problem with the bill is about power: Who has it and who’s using it to demand or give relief?

Right now, it’s the capitalists. And nothing they’re doing is significantly giving workers more power. To change that, we need more class struggle.