Chris Hedges: America’s New Class War

Organized workers, often defying their timid union leadership, are on the march across the United States.

General Motors tool & dye strike, 1939. (Library of Congress)

By Chris Hedges

There is one last hope for the United States. It does not lie in the ballot box.

It lies in the union organizing and strikes by workers at Amazon, Starbucks, Uber, Lyft, John Deere, Kellogg, the Special Metals plant in Huntington, West Virginia, owned by Berkshire Hathaway, the Northwest Carpenters Union, Kroger, teachers in Chicago, West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona, fast-food workers, hundreds of nurses in Worcester, Massachusetts, and the members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.

Organized workers, often defying their timid union leadership, are on the march across the United States. Over four million workers, about 3 percent of the work force, mostly from accommodation and food services, healthcare and social assistance, transportation, housing, and utilities have walked away from jobs, rejecting poor pay along with punishing and risky working conditions.

Original illustration by Mr. Fish.

There is a growing consensus – 68 percent in a recent Gallup poll with that number climbing to 77 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 34 – that the only way left to alter the balance of power and force concessions from the ruling capitalist class is to mobilize and strike, although only 9 percent of the U.S. work force is unionized. Forget the woke Democrats. This is a class war.

The question, Karl Popper reminded us, is not how we get good people to rule. Most of those attracted to power, figures such as Joe Biden, are at best mediocre and many, such as Dick Cheney, Donald Trump, or Mike Pompeo, are venal. The question is, rather, how do we organize institutions to prevent incompetent or bad leaders from inflicting too much damage. How do we pit power against power?

Partners in Full

The Democratic Party will not push through the kind of radical New Deal reforms that in the 1930s staved off fascism and communism. Its empty political theater, which stretches back to the Clinton administration, was on full display in Atlanta when Biden called for revoking the filibuster to pass the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, knowing that his chances of success are zero. Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, along with several of the state’s voting rights groups, boycotted the event in a very public rebuke. They were acutely aware of Biden’s cynical ploy.

When the Democrats were in the minority, they clung to the filibuster like a life raft. Then Sen. Barack Obama, along with other Democrats, campaigned for it to remain in place. And a few days ago, the Democratic leadership employed the filibuster to block legislation proposed by Sen. Ted Cruz.

The Democrats have been full partners in the dismantling of our democracy, refusing to banish dark and corporate money from the electoral process and governing, as Obama did, through presidential executive actions, agency “guidance,” notices and other regulatory dark matter that bypass Congress. The Democrats, who helped launch and perpetuate our endless wars, were also co-architects of trade deals such as NAFTA, expanded surveillance of citizens, militarized police, the largest prison system in the world and a raft of anti-terrorism laws such as Special Administrative Measures (SAMs) that abolish nearly all rights, including due process and attorney-client privilege, to allow suspects to be convicted and imprisoned with secret evidence they and their lawyers are not permitted to see.

The squandering of staggering resources to the military — $777.7 billion a year — passed in the Senate with an 89-10 vote and in the House of Representatives with a 363-70 vote, coupled with the $80 billion spent annually on the intelligence agencies, has made the military and the intelligence services, many run by private contractors such as Booz Allen Hamilton, nearly omnipotent.

The Democrats long ago walked out on workers and unions. The Democratic governor of Maine, Janet Mills, for example, killed a bill a few days ago that would have allowed farm workers in the state to unionize. On all the major structural issues there is no difference between the Republicans and the Democrats.

The longer the Democratic Party does not deliver real reforms to ameliorate the economic hardship, exacerbated by soaring inflation rates, the more it feeds the frustration of many of its supporters, widespread apathy (there are 80 million eligible voters, a third of the electorate, who do not cast ballots) and the hatred of the “liberal” elites stoked by Donald Trump’s cultish Republican Party. Its signature infrastructure package, Build Back Better, when you read the fine print, is yet another infusion of billions of government money into corporate bank accounts. This should not surprise anyone, given who funds and controls the Democratic Party.

The suffering and instability gripping at least half the country living in financial distress, alienated and disenfranchised, preyed upon by banks, credit card companies, student loan companies, privatized utilities, the gig economy, a for-profit health care system that has resulted in a quarter of all worldwide COVID-19 deaths — although the U.S. is less than 5 percent of the world’s population — and employers who pay slave wages and do not provide benefits is getting worse. Biden has presided over the loss of extended unemployment benefits, rental assistance, forbearance for student loans, emergency checks, the moratorium on evictions and now the ending of the expansion of the child tax credits, all as the pandemic again surges.

The handling of the pandemic, from a health and an economic perspective, is one more sign of the empire’s deep decay. Americans who are uninsured, or who are covered by Medicare, often frontline workers, are not reimbursed for over-the-counter COVID tests they purchase. The Supreme Court – five of the justices were appointed by presidents who lost the popular vote – also blocked the Biden administration from enforcing a vaccine-or-testing mandate for large employers.

And on the horizon, fueled by the economic fallout from the pandemic, are large-scale loan defaults and another financial crisis. The worse things get, the more discredited the Democratic Party and its “liberal” democratic values become, and the more the Christian fascists lurking in the wings thrive.

What Organized Labor Can Achieve

1967 strike. (Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives,Cornell University Library)

As history has repeatedly proven, organized labor, allied with a political party dedicated to its interests, is the best tool to push back against the rich.

Nick French in an article in Jacobin draws on the work of the sociologist Walter Korpi who examined the rise of the Swedish welfare state in his book The Democratic Class Struggle. Korpi detailed how Swedish workers, as French writes, “built a strong and well-organized trade union movement, organized along industrial lines and united by a central trade union federation, the Landsorganisationen (LO), which worked closely with the Social Democratic Workers’ Party of Sweden (SAP).”

The battle to build the welfare state required organizing – 76 percent of workers were unionized – waves of strikes, militant labor activity and SAP political pressure. “Measured in terms of the number of working days per worker,” Korpi writes, “from the turn of the century up to the early 1930s, Sweden had the highest level of strikes and lockouts among the Western nations.”

From 1900–13, as French notes, “there were 1,286 days of idleness due to strikes and lockouts per thousand workers in Sweden. From 1919–38, there were 1,448. (By comparison, in the United States last year, according to National Bureau of Economic Research data, there were fewer than 3.7 days of idleness per thousand workers due to work stoppages.)”

There are a few third parties including The Green PartySocialist Alternative and The People’s Party that provide this opportunity. But the Democrats won’t save us. They have sold out to the billionaire class. We will only save ourselves.

Unions break down political divides, bringing workers of all political persuasions together to fight a common oligarchic and corporate foe. Once workers begin to exert power and extract demands from the ruling class, the struggle educates communities about the real configurations of power and mitigates the feelings of powerlessness that have driven many into the arms of the neo-fascists. For this reason, capitulating to the Democratic Party, which has betrayed working men and women, is a terrible mistake.

The rapacious pillage by the elites, many of whom bankroll the Democratic Party, has accelerated since the financial crash of 2008 and the pandemic.

Wall Street banks recorded record profits for 2021. As the Financial Times noted, they milked the underwriting fees from Fed-based borrowing and profited from mergers and acquisitions. They have pumped their profits, fueled by roughly $5 trillion in Fed spending since the beginning of the pandemic, as Matt Taibbi points out, into massive pay bonuses and stock buybacks.

“The bulk of this new wealth — most — is being converted into compensation for a handful of executives,” Taibbi writes. “Buybacks have also been rampant in defensepharmaceuticals, and oil & gas, all of which also just finished their second straight year of record, skyrocketing profits. We’re now up to about 745 billionaires in the U.S., who’ve collectively seen their net worth grow about $2.1 trillion to $5 trillion since March 2020, with almost all that wealth increase tied to the Fed’s ballooning balance sheet.”

Rampant Greed

Original illustration by Mr. Fish.

Kroger is typical. The corporation, which operates some 2,800 stores under different brands, including Baker’s, City Market, Dillons, Food 4 Less, Foods Co., Fred Meyer, Fry’s, Gerbes, Jay C Food Store, King Soopers, Mariano’s, Metro Market, Pay-Less Super Markets, Pick’n Save, QFC, Ralphs, Ruler and Smith’s Food and Drug, earned $4.1 billion in profits in 2020.

By the end of the third quarter of 2021, it had $2.28 billion in cash, an increase of $399 million in the first quarter of 2020. Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen made over $22 million, nearly doubling the $12 million he made in 2018. This is over 900 times the salary of the average Kroger worker. Kroger in the first three quarters of 2021 also spent an estimated $1.3 billion on stock buybacks.

“Kroger is the only employer for 86 percent of their workers, making it their sole source of earned income,” Economic Roundtable in a survey of Kroger workers found.

“Working full-time to earn a living wage would require Kroger to pay $22 per hour for an annual living wage total of $45,760. The average annual earnings of Kroger workers, however, equal $29,655. This is $16,105 short of the annual income needed to pay for basic necessities required for the living wage. More than two-thirds of Kroger workers struggle for survival due to low wages and part-time work schedules. Nine out of ten Kroger workers report that their wages have not increased as much as basic expenses such as food and housing have increased. Since 1990, wages for the most experienced Kroger food clerks have declined from 11 to 22 percent (adjusted for inflation) across the three regions surveyed. Across the entire grocery industry, 29 percent of the labor force is below or near the federal poverty threshold.”

More than one-third (36 percent) of 10,000 employees at Kroger-owned stores in Southern California, Colorado, and Washington said they were worried about eviction. More than three-quarters (78 percent) are food-insecure. One in seven Kroger workers faced homelessness in the past year. Nearly one in five (18 percent) of Kroger employees said they hadn’t paid the previous month’s mortgage on time.

More than 8,000 unionized Kroger’s King Soopers employees went on strike on Jan. 12 in Colorado, demanding higher wages and better working conditions from the country’s largest grocery store chain and fourth-largest private employer.

This is where one of the emerging front lines in the class struggle are located. It is where we should invest our time and energy.

No Democracy Without a Fight

(Garry Knight/Public Domain/Transfin)

Our capitalist democracy from the start was rigged against us. The Electoral College permits presidential candidates such as George W. Bush and Trump to lose the popular vote and assume office. The awarding of two senators per state, regardless of the state’s population, means that 62 senators represent one quarter of the population while six represent another quarter. The founding fathers disenfranchised women, Native Americans, African Americans, and men without property. Most citizens were intentionally locked out of the democratic process by the ruling white male aristocrats, most of them slaveholders.

All the openings in American democracy were the result of prolonged popular struggle. Hundreds of workers were murdered, thousands were wounded, tens of thousands were blacklisted in labor wars, the bloodiest of any industrialized country. Abolitionists, suffragists, unionists, crusading journalists and those in the anti-war and civil rights movements opened democratic space. These radical movements were repressed and ruthlessly dismantled in the early 20th century in the name of anti-communism.

They were again targeted by the corporate elites following the rise of new mass movements in the 1930s. These popular movements, which rose again in the 1960s, moved America, inch by bloody inch, towards equality and social justice. Most of these gains made in the 1960s have been rolled back under the onslaught of neoliberalism, deregulation, and a corrupt campaign finance system, legalized by court rulings such as Citizens United, which allow the rich and corporations to bankroll elections to select political leaders and impose legislation. The modern incarnation of 19th-century robber barons, including Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, each worth some $200 billion, summon the country to its radical roots.

Class struggle defines most of human history. Marx got this right. It is not a new story. The rich, throughout history, have found ways to subjugate and re-subjugate the masses. And the masses, throughout history, have cyclically awoken to throw off their chains.

Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for 15 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 the Emmy Award-nominated RT America show “On Contact.” 

This column is from Scheerpost, for which Chris Hedges writes a regular columnClick here to sign up for email alerts.

16 comments for “Chris Hedges: America’s New Class War

  1. Pablo Grigera
    January 19, 2022 at 19:10

    Excellent as usual. A Third party ( well, a “Second” party, actually) is badly needed.

  2. Lois Gagnon
    January 19, 2022 at 17:48

    The biggest obstacle to the working class fighting back is the sophistication of corporate media indoctrination. Most people are shockingly unaware how little they are told about public policy both domestic and foreign. What we are told is confined to a very narrow ideological point of view. And we are told less and less of what we need to make decisions about what our government is up to all the time.

    If this media system were to crumble, the ruling class would stand exposed for the fraudsters they are. Thus the brutal treatment of Julian Assange. We must remove the gate keepers.

  3. Adam Gorelick
    January 19, 2022 at 15:06

    Of the third parties, only Socialist Alternative seems like a potentially viable one for representing the nascent worker’s rebellion against corporate tyranny. For now, it’s just heartening to see a relatively large number of the disenfranchised and screwed over fighting back. As loathsome as the Republicans are, I reserve my greatest rancor for the Democrats; because, untill Clinton, they at least offered some representation – however insufficient – for what used to be more meaningfully termed “liberal values”. Today, even if a candidate appears to have integrity and admirable intentions, the party absorbs and neutralizes them.

  4. robert e williamson jr
    January 19, 2022 at 14:35

    Trouble will get here and it is coming. You think law enforcement treat BLM protesters badly. When the law starts shooting labor protesters trouble will be here in spades because then BLM and labor will be on the same side. Rember those Polish grandfather and Lech Walensa.

  5. January 19, 2022 at 14:11

    In the 1970 the Swedish employers union (SAF) invested billions to take back what workers had gain. With slogans like “invest yourself” or “everyone can” they slowly turn the populations into liberal selfish people. Our pensions have been deteriorated for people born in the middle of the 1950. social security requires service in return. unemployment benefit shrinks and gets harder to get qualified for. Our social democrats have slowly become more like liberal democrats and workers are mass fleeing to extreme right wing parties. We are not halfway to what you guys have but surely we´re on our way. The worst are the ignorance of our own history of what our parent fought for and later achieved. We all must stand up and fight against the economic power and their propaganda.

  6. Frank Lambert
    January 19, 2022 at 11:06

    Brilliant article by Chris Hedges, who has exposed the failings of the Democratic Party for quite a few years, and their betrayal of organized labor and the working class in general.

    When the Democrats won the White House, the US Senate and the House of Representatives, with the election of the smooth-talking compulsive liar, union leadership were celebrating this great victory over the notoriously anti-union Republican Party, and were so sure the two important items they were working on would probably succeed. The first one was the Employee Free Choice Act, making it easy for working people to unionize and negotiate labor contracts for their members, and the second item was Single Payer Health Care.

    One of the first things Obama, Pelosi, and the late Harry Reid did was to take those two items “off the table” as they didn’t think they would pass. I remember going to my old union hall, and telling the leadership (regrettably) “I told you so!You people are living in the 1930’s , thinking FDR was still the President of the United States, where most progressive legislation was past for working people.

    After Ted Kennedy passed away, attorney Steve Early wrote an excellent and well-documented article, posted on another website, about Kennedy and President Carter (who I voted for twice) and their “anti-union” (my words) legislation, which of course passed in Congress, which was the Transportation Deregulation Act, in 1980.

    The 1980’s saw so many unionized trucking companies, airlines and a few railroads go out of business or declare bankruptcy. Remember Pan Am, to name a few?

    Thank you Mr. Hedges for hitting the bullseye again! And thank you, Joe Lauria for the fine work you and the CN staff do by publishing important articles like this, which the mainstream, big corporate media outlets fail to do.

  7. January 19, 2022 at 10:42

    We need another rank-and-file uprising in the Labor Movement. Trumka, upon his retirement, was receiving close to $300K in salary, before getting to all the perks. A product of the 70s rank-and-file movement, himself, he wound up doing photo-ops with anti-worker Nancy Pelosi, after the most recent international sell-out trade agreement. But beyond all that, we need, in the words of Daniel Quinn, a ‘different vision,’ or the species won’t survive, making the struggles over wages, benefits, organizing rights, etc. meaningless.

  8. jeff montanye
    January 19, 2022 at 10:34

    i voted for democratic presidents from mcgovern to obama’s first term, the latter of whom i campaigned for strenuously. as you say, no difference. yinon wars, bankster immunity, civil liberty restrictions, whistleblower persecution. voted libertarian in 2012. but donald trump against hillary clinton was too much. i went for a pig in a poke and, although far, far from perfect, he was better than what went before. no new wars, exposed corruption in the fbi and cia, proposed the one state solution for israel/palestine, fought back against the unconscionable censorship of the social networks and the corrupt fake news of the mockingbird media. he lost his way in the covid mess but others in the republican party, desantis and rand paul have offered some opposition.

    you are right that unions need to become stronger and offer a countervailing force to corporations. but the the evil that the u.s. government is committing, especially since 9-11, is currently better opposed by the republican party tha the democratic, ironically since gw bush, cheney, rumsfeld, etc. helped the likud mossad run it.

    • sanford sklanskey
      January 19, 2022 at 16:40

      You forgot his banning of muslims coming into the country, anti immigrants, selling arms go Saudi Arabia, 30 some thousand lies, tried to convince the Secretary of State to find votes so he could win the election, 60 cases thrown out of court. Still complaining that the election was rigged. Was probably involved in some way on Jan 6th. His latest lie was about non whites being favored over whites concerning covid. He might have not started any wars but he didn’t stop any either. Not all the news was fake. He obviously cheated on his taxes. We now have one of the worst supreme courts ever. Where was his health program where was the infrastructure work. Not one of the things you listed was for the good for the people of the country. I do agree with Hedges but even he wouldn’t have voted or Trump. He was on the Bad Faith Podcast a few days ago. You should take a listen. Oh yeah Trump could have pardoned Snowden and Assange but didn’t. Of course Biden isn’t going to do that either.

  9. January 19, 2022 at 10:29

    Lotsa luck with the idea of unionizing, Chris. Years ago, I was one of the organizers of non-exempt clerical workers at a small college in New Jersey. We went with AFSCME (American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees), although this was and is a private college. I guess we succeeded in at least eliminating the worse of the problems (cronyism, etc.) for a time, but I’m not so sure what lasting good it did. Unionizing is a start, but the principles have to be firmly established by law for all citizens, not just unionized ones. I know that’s your belief, also, as you so clearly write here. Thank you for that and–especially–for your pacifist writings.

  10. January 19, 2022 at 10:19

    And Hemingway answered, “Yes, they have more money.”

  11. jack van dijk
    January 19, 2022 at 10:12

    Americans are cowards

    • John Smith
      January 19, 2022 at 21:25

      Speaks the . . . person who writes their own name is all lowercase. Wow.

  12. Dfnslblty
    January 19, 2022 at 09:25

    Bravo, Mr Hedges.
    And the unions need to unionize and not antagonize other unions.
    And *citizen united* needs to be reädjudicated.
    Dinosaurs – McConnell, biden, et al – need to get off the corporate teat and out of govt.

    Keep writing …

  13. John Barth jr.
    January 19, 2022 at 08:37

    “how do we organize institutions to prevent incompetent or bad leaders from inflicting too much damage. How do we pit power against power?”

    That is a technology of democracy design that was never developed after the Constitution was written, despite the warnings of the Founders. It is done in control systems by redundant controllers, using one of two means: Where the controller cannot detect its own errors (as in aircraft autopilots), it is placed in a group of three that vote and disable the dissenter as broken. Where the controller can detect its errors but not fix them (as in mass storage systems), it is placed in a groups of at least two, and upon detecting an error, disables itself and reboots while the other handles the workload.

    The US Constitutional Convention made a guess that the three federal branches could implement checks and balances between each other. That works about as well as relying upon the aircraft landing gear and rudder if the wings fall off. The branches cannot balance each other, only a few scenarios were considered, no checks at all were placed on the judicial branch, and the executive branch has every bit of the actual power, and has rarely been balanced or checked by the others.

    In a human organization subject to corruption and error, both methods are needed. The federal branches must have redundant control groups that implement checks and balances, at each level and the top level of each branch. But they must also have extensive preclusion of external influence, internal monitoring, rotating committee memberships, automatic checks for bias factions, and the ability to swap out bad elements, and reconfigure bad groups.

    The College of Policy Debate (CongressOfDebate dot org) will have such controls to prevent bias, and can serve as a model of government reform. In a few weeks I will place a downloadable book there describing the many controls that are needed to prevent factional takeovers. The College will conduct moderated text debates between all viewpoints on all issues worldwide, by university experts, and produce commented debate summaries for public access with mini-quizzes and discussion groups.

  14. Aaron
    January 19, 2022 at 05:45

    Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald
    I think the new breed of Democrats are overall too rich to truly care and help us, they are different, it’s true. Like the Maserati driving hillbilly coal whore Manchin, he’s different than the constituents from his state, like the ones in the documentary “Oxyana”. This is what passes for the Democratic Party now, pretty useless and deeply corrupt. Money changes people. And it’s true that there’s no use waiting for some hero to come along to save the party and government, because those attracted to power and money usually have no scruples.

    “The wind is blowing cold
    Have we lost our way tonight?
    Have we lost our hope to sorrow?
    Feels like we’re all alone
    Running further from what’s right
    And there are no more heroes to follow
    So what are we becoming?
    Where did we go wrong?
    Yeah, oh yeah
    I want to rise today
    And change this world
    Yeah, oh yeah
    Oh, won’t you rise today
    And change this world?
    The sun is beating down
    Are we ever gonna change
    Can we stop the blood from running?
    Our time is running out
    Hope we find a better way
    Before we find we’re left with nothing” – Rise Today, Alter Bridge

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