Fear at work

What is happening in the US? In a word, the economy sucks. I fear that the war in Iraq only affects the families of the soldiers who are stationed there, and who are dying there every day. But the economy affects us all. We are all working (or not working) under a kind of fear. There is no democracy here at work, of course. And it is only fear (of being unemployed, of being homeless) that keeps us all working.

The war is far away, except for the families of the soldiers. We do not discuss it. But I do not feel there is much support for the war. Everyone is aware that it is not going well, and I am sorry to say that Americans in general only react when Americans die. Somehow the racism that our country was founded on, and its extension to imperialism since 1898, has so poisoned us that thousands of dead Afghanis and Iraqis mean nothing, but one or two Americans dying everyday causes us great worry. The administration is worried - the news media is forbidden to photograph the bodies or the thousands of wounded coming home. Even the families of the dead soldiers are not permitted to be present when the body is returned to the US.

But I have felt that the lack of support for this war is also related to the economy. For almost 30 years now, the standard of living of American workers has been declining. The 1980s saw the attacks on the unions. The 1990s, jobs continued to leave. Walmart is now the biggest employer in the US, with over one million workers, and everybody knows these are poverty jobs, nothing you can really live on. Now we have seen the Enron scandals, the Haliburton and Bechtel contracts in Iraq, CEO's getting hundreds of millions of dollars for closing companies and laying off workers. I think American workers are at the least cynical about the motives for this war, if not worried about the consequences. I think there is a direct relation to our perception of what has happened to us as a working class over the last 20 years, and how much we believe in the war.

Yet I do not want to overstate that. There are still a lot of idiots who like George W., and are poisoned by the daily lies on TV. That is where the economy comes in. The TV has just been telling us that the US economy grew at a record level of 8.2 percent the last quarter. They can lie to us about Iraq, but when they lie about the economy and you are unemployed or afraid to lose your job, you know better. This is crazy - the economy as we live it is getting worse not better! I work in trucking, and we have been sent home for lack of work several days in the last two weeks. We have never seen that before Christmas .(The busiest time of the year is always from September to Christmas, and then January and February are dead). We are saying, what will it be like in January? Everywhere you hear companies are closing down or laying off workers, and they are telling us the economy is setting a new record!

And the war on workers continues. Howard's Express, a regional trucking company mostly in New York State and New Jersey, forced the workers to go on strike this spring, and has been running with scabs and security guards ever since. A corrugated cardboard box company down the street from my job, Star Container, that has been in business for 75 years, has told unionized drivers they will all be replaced by a non-union sub-contractor. Even if you work for a huge, transnational trucking company like I do, you cannot be secure. The second largest company just bought them, and we, almost all of whom have already lost jobs 3 or 4 times when the trucking companies we worked at closed, are saying, ìhere we go againî. Will we lose our jobs in a merger? We know one thing - we, the workers who built these companies, who do the work -, will be the last to know. To talk of democracy is a joke. This is a tyranny of the bosses. And the unions have forgotten how to fight. In all this the unions obey the law (at Star Container, the union " is negotiating ". How can you negotiate when a man says, "Tomorrow I kill you. " The only answer is to shut the place down, not "negotiate" the terms of your killing) .The companies break the laws, they donít care. And they win.

Everywhere it is the same - workers are in fear of losing their jobs. I made a delivery this week, and the Caribbean worker in shipping told me the company was closing two days for the holiday, and this was bad for him as he would not be paid those days. This is typicalóthe vast majority of a certain level of proletarian jobs do not pay holidays or vacation or sick days. You get paid only the hours you work. The man also told me he worked long hours but the boss did not pay them time-and-a-half for overtime (over 40 hours) as the law requires. Most of the workers there are Latino, and afraid they will be fired if they speak up, and he told me even his fellow worker in shipping who is a citizen, was afraid to ask the boss to pay according to the law! This also is typical. The workers are not cowards, though one wishes they would unite and demand their rights. Judging by my experience at the workers center, they would be fired only for demanding that their boss obey the law. And the law would do nothing for them. So every worker is in fear, because they can be fired at any time.

The struggles at the workers center reflect this. It is even worse for immigrant workers, and terrible for those without papers. The situation for workers without papers is much worse in the last two years. Under the Patriot Act police anywhere in the country now enforce immigration laws, which was not the case before. New York City is an exception, only because of a strong movement of protests and rallies by community groups, unions, and others to force the mayor to sign an executive order prohibiting the city police from enforcing immigration laws. Some other communities around the country have passed similar laws, and there are groups forming to protect civil liberties from the Patriot Act in various communities across the country. Recently we heard of many truck drivers arrested and held for deportation, as police who enforce truck safety (checking the weight, and the hours of driving) began demanding green cards (work papers) of the drivers, who had valid driverís licenses. This we have never seen before. It is getting very scary for immigrant workers. Even a job like asbestos removal, a job which Latino immigrants have been doing because it is so dangerous, now suddenly requires a drivers license to renew, and you need work papers to get a drivers license, so many asbestos workers are not able to continue working.

A typical case at the workers center is the struggle of 6 workers from a store in the neighborhood, all of whom were fired for one reason or another. They were all forced to work long hours, sometimes as much as 80 hours a week, without overtime pay or even the minimum wage. This is not unusual. What is different is that these workers came to the workers center, learned their rights, overcame their fear, and are suing the boss for the stolen wages, which amount to about 90,000 dollars over 3 years. We have had protests in front of the store, and are asking people not to shop there until the boss pays what he owes. The workers want their money, but they also hope to make an example of this store, and spread the struggle to other stores in the neighborhood.

What makes this harder is the "Hoffman decision" of the US Supreme Court in March, 2002. In this case the court ruled that an undocumented worker who had been unjustly fired for trying to unionize was not entitled to back pay, unlike his fellow workers who had papers. This was the first time the court differentiated between workers based on their legal status. Before this labor law always trumped immigration law, that is, labor law, as poor as it is, was the law of the land, but no more. The bosses all heard of this decision and since then, they fire undocumented workers and their lawyers tell them, don't worry, don't do anything, no court will make you rehire or pay these workers. But it will take more and more organized direct actions and not the courts to change the conditions of workers here.

An optimist might say the conditions that all American workers are facing will force us to see our common interests. It is true the union bureaucracy now supports legalization for all immigrants, where ten years ago it was anti-immigrant, and this out of self-interest. The unions were disappearing, and if they want to keep their jobs, the more intelligent ones saw that Latino workers in low paying jobs were trying to organize. It is true the same union bureaucracy that ten years ago was saying "buy American" and blaming Japanese imports, now sometimes supports cross-border solidarity. It is true that Unions are more often protesting the WTO, suing US corporations on behalf of murdered Colombian trade unionists, and so on. A pessimist might say that racism has always been the tool to divide the working class, and that the $20 an hour American worker is in another world than the $4 an hour immigrant, and definitely than the millions of jailed Black and Latino youth. A pessimist will say the only thing Americans understand is when they are being killed, and when they lose their jobs, that otherwise racism has ever blinded them to what the government does in other countries, and they too share in the stolen riches of other lands, and how can a country so stupefied by TV and shopping malls ever regain a class consciousness.

I believe the only thing to do is to keep pushing at these contradictions, keep organizing, keep questioning authority, try to create alternative media, and try to stay human, and as an American worker, reach out a hand of solidarity to any worker who is trying to raise their head, immigrant or whatever, because I understand that our fate is tied together, and in these times of fear and autocracy at work, only a fool would believe there is a world of difference between a $20 an hour worker, and a $4 an hour worker - we can both be homeless tomorrow, if we don't fight.
John Marco