Billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg rang the opening bell of the New York Stock Exchange on October 31, signaling the priority for the Wall Street financiers in the wake of Hurricane Sandy: getting the capitalists’ profit machine back up and running. Meanwhile, working people were still only beginning to pull out the bodies of family members and neighbors from the wreckage of flooded homes on Staten Island and elsewhere. The sharp juxtaposition of the high life for the masters of finance capital vs. darkness, cold, hunger, misery and death for working people, the poor and minorities led some journalists to write that New York was “a tale of two cities.”
The capitalist class has let this country’s infrastructure go to hell while waging a one-sided class war against organized labor, with the union bureaucrats working to keep labor in line. The heroes of this disaster are precisely the vilified union workers who, along with others, have toiled for days on end to save lives and get people the services they need—electricity, transportation, heat, sanitation, food, water, schools, hospitals, communications.
These are the very workers that politicians from both capitalist parties—Democrats and Republicans—have portrayed as public enemies: the heavily black and immigrant transit workers who were called “thugs” by Bloomberg when they dared to strike in 2005; the “greedy” utility workers locked out by Consolidated Edison in July for trying to hold on to promised pensions; the “lazy” schoolteachers now staffing shelters who are fighting the destruction of public education and union seniority rights; the “privileged” Verizon communications workers who went over a year without a contract after striking last year to defend health coverage; the “selfish” state employees struggling against New Jersey Republican governor Chris Christie and New York Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo to maintain the right to collective bargaining. With tens of thousands now added to the legions of homeless in NYC alone, these workers’ skills, organization and self-sacrificing labor are what stands between life and death for untold numbers of people.
City workers were told they had to report to work but they had no way to get there—no subways or commuter rail, no gas for their cars and no traffic lights. Mainly immigrant taxi drivers got many of them to work, until they ran out of gas. Some who couldn’t get to their jobs were told the time would be taken out of their sick leave or vacation time! Then there is the growing army of part-time workers who don’t even have benefits for the bosses to gouge. For them it was no work, no pay, including if their workplace was closed because there was no power. The desperation to get to work without public transport or gasoline illuminated in a flash why Karl Marx called wage labor wage slavery.
Some transit workers were confined to company property for days on end, often without cots or other necessities. But workers were threatened with docked pay if they left company property to sleep in their cars. Con Ed workers have been working 16-hour shifts, struggling to bring back electricity and heat as the thermometer plunges and hypothermia emerges as another danger, particularly with a northeaster storm headed into the area. Hospital workers labored around the clock to evacuate patients when emergency backup generators failed at two of Manhattan’s largest hospitals, forcing them to close.
Government officials made damn sure that “security” would be at the head of the line for scarce resources. So while drivers’ tempers flared at those filling stations that could pump gas, where lines have reached a mile in length, cop cars had plenty of fuel. A 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. curfew in Jersey City gave the cops license to further besiege minority neighborhoods. A black NYC transit worker told WV that he risked arrest by leaving his home at 4 a.m. to report to Manhattan for work. In the face of police intimidation, on November 2 some 50 black residents of one of Jersey City’s poorest neighborhoods rallied outside its City Hall chanting, “What do we want? Electricity! When do we want it? Now!”
The teeming prison population on Rikers Island, in a treacherous stretch of the East River, was threatened with the kind of homicidal racist treatment meted out during Hurricane Katrina. Asked before Sandy hit about the safety of the 12,000 inmates, Bloomberg replied that “jails are secured. Don’t worry about anybody getting out.”
After ringing in the stock exchange, Bloomberg’s priority was to hear the starting gun for the New York City Marathon, which brings in millions for business owners. With electric power desperately needed everywhere, some 41 generators were held in reserve for the race. Tens of thousands of bottles of drinking water, massive stores of food, thousands of blankets, and the labor of emergency medical services, sanitation, parks department and volunteers were secured for the exclusive use of a run starting on the Verrazano Bridge, barely a mile from where most of the drowning victims have been found. A mounting uproar from the public—and from sanitation workers who appealed to union officials that they should be mobilized to help suffering Staten Island and Queens residents instead—finally pushed Bloomberg back from his plan to prance on the dead and the forsaken.
Chris Christie’s embrace of Barack Obama as they toured the devastated Jersey Shore was a bipartisan photo-op. Christie was angling for a big chunk of federal money while Obama and his media entourage put out the message that “we’re all in this together”—patriotic eyewash intended to blind people from seeing the irrationality, inequalities and advanced decay of this class-divided society on the eve of a presidential election.
Hurricane Sandy was a natural disaster enormously compounded by the anarchy of the capitalist system of production for profit. As the five-year-long financial crisis grinds on, not a few of those trying to pick their lives back up are unemployed or, if they have found work, are stuck in part-time jobs at miserable pay—one of the few areas of job growth in the so-called “recovery.”
Every natural disaster has social implications. Hurricane Katrina slammed smack into the racial oppression that is the bedrock of the American capitalist system. The predominantly black population of New Orleans’ Ninth Ward was trapped by systematic racial segregation as Katrina hit. They were left to drown as the cops impeded evacuation attempts and relief efforts. As Hurricane Sandy developed, people in Haiti suffered disproportionately, as is always the case in that wretchedly impoverished country under U.S. imperialism’s heel. Even though Haiti was hit only by the storm’s tail, the death toll reached 54. The hurricane left in its wake a renewed threat of cholera, at a time when more than 300,000 people in the capital of Port-au-Prince are still living in camps for those displaced by the January 2010 earthquake.
When Sandy hit the U.S., it threw its biggest punches mainly at waterfront properties along the Jersey Shore, Staten Island, Coney Island, the Rockaways and further east on Long Island, affecting people of all races. The better-off residents of those areas are used to having the social services and standard of living that all people should have. The deprivation, danger and neglect they suffer today offer a bitter taste of what life is like for minorities and the poor in the U.S. on a daily basis.
Also hard-hit were those living in public housing projects that were constructed along NYC waterfront areas back when those plots were cheap to build on, in a no man’s land of slaughterhouses, factories and warehouses. The projects’ mainly black and Latino residents, including many elderly and infirm, have now been entombed for almost a week in high-rises without elevators, heat or water. Some projects have been ringed with a heavy police presence in a show of intimidation and repression. Residents are surviving on the strength of their ingenuity and solidarity, making communal kitchens with dwindling food supplies, relying on the healthy to trudge up the many flights of stairs with water, guiding those trapped alone to the comfort of company through pitch-black stairwells and corridors.
Volunteer efforts have been crippled by the absence of both gas and any well-coordinated plan to get the right services and supplies where they are needed. The Bloomberg administration, for one, decided to keep Red Cross disaster trucks safe from harm by parking them far from the city! Volunteer aid cannot begin to substitute for the resources at the disposal of federal, state and municipal governments. From the Jersey Shore to Long Island, people have been screaming: Where’s the help we need from this government? This government is the executive body of the capitalist ruling class, and its priority is the pursuit of private profit, not human need. The authorities are patting themselves on the back for providing unusually accurate forecasts about the hurricane and issuing mandatory evacuation orders. So those with means escaped to the comfort of their second homes or to hotel rooms. But what do you do if you’re poor and have to rely on nonexistent public transport? At best, it meant risking your well-being in a city shelter overflowing with people and with barely any provisions.
The gas shortages that had drivers fuming recalled the last time there was fuel rationing: the gas crisis of the mid 1970s. Then, as now, market calculations intensified and magnified people’s misery. As we wrote in “Expropriate the Energy Trusts!” (WV No. 145, 18 February 1977): “In order to maximize the rate of profit, all capitalists therefore seek to minimize unused capacity and inventories. That is why any significant change in natural conditions—drought or flood, arctic freeze or heat wave—produces under the capitalist mode of production ‘emergencies’ for which adequate preparations and material reserves do not exist.”
Profiteering is already at work in the wake of the storm. Lumber futures hit a 19-month high, and stock prices for Home Depot and Lowe’s are also up. Devastated homeowners will likely have to pay more for building supplies due to the “magic of the marketplace.” There is nothing new here. Referring to the Great Fire of 1835, which destroyed New York City’s financial district, Friedrich Engels wrote in “Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy” (1844): “The speculator always counts on disasters, particularly on bad harvests. He utilizes everything—for instance, the New York fire in its time—and immorality’s culminating point is the speculation on the Stock Exchange, where history, and with it mankind, is demoted to a means of gratifying the avarice of the calculating and gambling speculator.”
Recently, the scoundrels who run profit-bloated Con Ed and charge exorbitant rates for electricity announced plans for yet another steep rate increase. These same bosses, backed by Governor Cuomo, strong-armed the utility workers union into making major concessions to end the lockout this summer, giving the lie to the union tops’ tired refrain that Con Ed bosses and workers are a “family.” Electricity is not a luxury; it is a necessity of life. Private ownership of electrical power is an anachronism. Con Ed and all other private utilities should be expropriated without compensation—a task for a workers government.
From New Jersey and Pennsylvania to New England, the massive rebuilding effort cries out for labor to organize the unorganized at union wages and full benefits. Worker safety and public safety depend on organized labor flexing its muscle to shut down unsafe work on the spot. The harrowing record of toppling cranes and collapsed scaffolding in New York City the past several years are deadly evidence of the low-bidder system, cronyism and the demise of union power. A renewed labor movement should fight for jobs for all, with wages fully indexed to inflation. This country urgently needs a massive program of public works to rebuild bridges, roads, housing, mass transit and other infrastructure. Against all manner of reformist “socialists” who argue that capitalism’s priorities should be reordered for butter, not guns, we speak the truth—it will take a socialist revolution to get this done, and to aid in rebuilding Iraq and other countries around the world that have been ravaged by U.S. imperialism.
Build a Workers Party!
The workers who are toiling mightily to get this region running again know they don’t need their bosses, much less FEMA or any other branch of the bosses’ government, to tell them how to do their jobs. In this fact is the germ of the understanding that the working class has the capacity, through its collective labor and organization, to run society for the benefit of all.
So how does the capitalist profit system, with its glaring inequality separating a tiny handful of exploiters from the vast majority, keep running? Why is there abundant and growing misery, yet an absence of class struggle? Fear, hopelessness, racial and ethnic divisions in the working class, the use of state repression against any challenge to the status quo: these are part of the answer. Another fundamental reason is false consciousness—a deep and misplaced belief among working people in the lie of capitalist “democracy,” reinforced by the rulers’ “death of communism” ideology.
As we go to press, those among the workers and poor who exercise their “freedom” to vote will help choose who will exploit and repress them for the next four years. At the same time, there is justified fear among black people that their hard-won right to vote is threatened.
The ideological chains that bind workers to their exploiters are reinforced by their misleaders in the union movement, the labor bureaucrats whose own relative positions of privilege are earned as loyal servants to the capitalist system. Every union has a political action committee that takes members’ dues to promote Democratic Party politicians (with a nod to the occasional Republican as well). Those dues are needed for strike funds and organizing drives. But that means fighting for a new, class-struggle leadership of the union movement, one that doesn’t scrape and bow to the Democratic Party.
Every worker knows the importance of having the right tool for the job at hand. If we are to have a society where working people can enjoy the fruits of their labor and stop paying the price for the capitalists who have looted this country’s wealth, if we are to have a rationally planned centralized economy that will lay the basis for eradicating poverty, racial oppression and other ills, then what we need is a workers government. The tool to achieve that is a workers party—a U.S. section of a revolutionary international—that fights for all the exploited and oppressed. Building this party is the task to which the Spartacist League is dedicated.