There has been discussion on http://2changetheworld.info around the question of whether or not there is a proletariat in the USA.
Are there really people here that have nothing to lose but their chains? Some claim that there is no real proletariat in the USA, but when I look around me I see differently.
Albany is a small city deep in south Georgia, with a population around 100,000. If you drive down its main street, it seems that there must be nothing here but service jobs, mostly small stores and parking lots. Its surface is like a skin stretched taut that hides the many small industrial plants, most with fewer than 50 workers.
One produces ice cream cones, in another women are crouched over electronics boards soldering parts in place, then there are the sewing factories that turn out uniforms-the list goes on.
There are large factories as well, like Miller Brewery and M&M Mars or Bob’s Candy Company which recently closed, only to reopen later without hiring back most of the older employees that were nearing retirement age. Close to 50 workers out of some 350, who will not see the retirement benefits that they worked so long for, were left trying to find some employment somewhere-most likely at lower wages than they had before.
And it’s not an easy thing to go on strike here-the law has a heavy hand on people and always has. This is a region where religious conservatism has produced laws that linger still today in surrounding areas that forbid shopping on Sundays and can get you busted for drinking a beer on your own front porch. There is the feeling that the cops keep an eye on everyone and everything. Something as simple as washing more than one car in your yard in certain neighborhoods can get you sent up on charges of operating a business without a license, which can lead to losing welfare benefits, and so on. The daily paper makes no mention of cases of police brutality, yet nearly everyone you talk to has either had an experience with it or knows someone who has.
City officials call this "The Good Life City" and talk about how people like Dick Cheney come here to hunt on the "exclusive hunting plantations rich with Southern heritage." Covered over is the history of the intense struggles of the Civil Rights movement and the brave resistance waged by the people here against that "Southern heritage." Those struggles are something that the city officials seem to wish to forget, or to at least paste over.
This pasting over cannot hide the realities that exist for the majority of people here.
Transmission Crafters is one of the small factories here. From the front it seems to be nothing more than a neat little storefront of off-white brick from some bygone time. Behind this extends the red tin shell which is the outside of the operation. Inside, on summer days, the temperatures soar well into the 90s and often hit the 100s. The conditions are harsh, but quite typical. The only ventilation is the large open spaces where the trucks are loaded and unloaded.
Here, used transmissions are brought in on trucks and unloaded. Workers who are mechanics and machinists rework them. This is one of those places where people find the job of last resort, the backbreaking job to get the hours in for the welfare reform programs or work release programs. Some people have spent years here, in the same place. The vast majority of workers in this shop are from among the oppressed.
A few months ago there was a strike at Transmission Crafters, and I went out to see what was up and to offer support to the workers.
I pulled into the small side road that runs along the main road and up toward the factory. It was already close to noon. Several of the workers ran up to the car as I approached to see if I was coming to scab. Others were marching with signs. Broad shoulders testified to the heavy work that is usually carried out inside, but the machines lay silent.
Instead of the usual grinding and hum of voices from the line, one worker shouted out at the owner with the others joining and repeating. These were not passive voices. The passion of the words could be felt deep inside. They meant it. They were serious. They were on strike.
After struggling to get a union and a contract over a year ago, the boss had suddenly pulled the contract. He refused to negotiate. It’s obvious that he has gone as far as he can to break the union. Even with the union, each man on the line was making no more than $9 an hour. The workers are machinists and mechanics whose training takes up to six months to master the jobs that they do. Before getting the contract, many of them had been putting in as much as 14 hours a day, sometimes 7 days a week. The owner was trying to turn back what gains the workers had made.
Many of the workers at Transmission Crafters had started at minimum wage and worked years to break in to $6 an hour. The work that they do requires that they lift 70 to 80 pounds a day up to 1000 times. The harshness of the work added to their certainty that they would win out even though scabs were being hired. "Those scabs they are hiring, they won’t last till 2. They be running out of there like cockroaches as soon as it gets hot. They might think that they are coming in here and get our jobs, but they ain’t gonna last a day in there." The boss claimed that the plant was running, but the workers knew better.
I joined in and marched with them. Most of the workers were Black and some were white. Some have been on welfare, others came here from prison. One man told me, "I can’t just go out and get another job like this one. We fought to get a union here and these wages, someone else will just give me $5.15. I can’t start over. I’ve been in prison."
Under a tent, the workers took breaks from marching in shifts so that the driveways remained manned. Word had been put out that there were jobs available and people were coming up to see if they could get a job. Most were unaware that if they were hired they would be replacing a worker on strike. This is scabbing. It was important to confront these people coming to scab and let them know the situation. Many of them understood and decided that they didn’t want any part of being scabs.
As a car approached, the workers moved in to surround the car and it would slow to a halt. A worker approached the driver and explained, "If you take this job, you ain’t going to have job security. You are going to be just like us. That’s why we are out here, they don’t pay anything and the work is hard and it’s hot in there. You will just be taking our jobs and then they will just do this to you, too. You don’t want this. You don’t want to go in there."
One driver replied, "Hell, if they are doing that shit to you, damn right I don’t want it, I’m better off without that" and pulled away down the road. The workers shouted with a sense of celebration as the car disappeared. The scene was repeated over and over. A few didn’t listen and went in anyway.
The bosses tried to stop this, claiming that the workers were on private property when they were stopping the cars. But the workers had already gotten the documentation from city hall showing where the property lines were. The bosses tried to get the police to stop us from gathering around the cars, saying that we were impeding traffic. At one point there were threats of arrest, but the workers continued to stop the cars anyway.
Some people had been sent over by welfare or by the department of labor. They felt that they had to go in. The state was clearly taking the side of the bosses, just like the cops, acting together against the workers on strike and seeking to undermine their efforts. A discussion about whose side the state is on developed out of this. Back under the tent we got into the RW article "Welfare Train Wreck" a bit. The few copies that I had were shared around.
An older worker told those gathered about how back in the ’60s, this wouldn’t have happened. About how people were fed up and need to get fed up again. How it looked like things were going to change, and he never imagined that they would go back. He told us that that is the way it needs to be-that there needs to be more fighting back and more strikes. That we shouldn’t keep tolerating these conditions and that people really needed to think about doing something about it.
Despite their efforts, the workers at Transmission Crafters went back to work without a contract. The small gains they had made still hang in the balance. And even if they had gotten the contract, could they say that they would not lose it again? They remain at the mercy of this society’s power structure. These workers, and many others, truly have nothing to lose but their chains.