On the Eve of the 2012 Elections, What Way Forward for the Working Class and All Oppressed Peoples?
What a difference four years can make.
Four years ago, millions of working people — filled with hope that real change and tangible improvements in their daily lives would come about — mobilized in huge campaign rallies and at the polling booths to support the first Black president of the United States. Finally, they hoped, the burden of the crisis would be placed on the backs of the ruling rich, not on their backs.
Four years later, the president in whom they had placed their deepest aspirations, addressed the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., to tell them that the crisis was far from over and that they, working people and the poor, had to continue shouldering the burden of this crisis in the name of “shared responsibility.”
But what has been the record of four years of “shared responsibility”?
While Wall Street, the banks and major corporations (such as the auto industry) got bailed out by Obama and the federal government to the tune of more than US$8 trillion, the reality on the ground facing working people and all the oppressed communities only worsened by the day. Here are some of the more salient features of this situation:
- Unemployment continues to soar, with more than 27 million people without a job or working less than 10 hours per week, while unemployment benefits are being cut in more and more states and President Obama’s much-touted JOBS Act, if passed, is slated to create 2 million jobs, at best;
- The destruction of public services — from public education to the full range of health and social services for the most needy — continues unabated;
- Pensions, Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid are being gutted piecemeal, with huge attacks looming on the horizon;
- Millions of people are continuing to lose their homes to foreclosures, with no relief in sight;
- The health care situation of millions upon millions of Americans continues to deteriorate, despite Obama’s healthcare law — the Patient Protection Affordable Care Act, or PPACA – which will still leave 28 million people uninsured, while forcing millions of others, under the threat of high financial penalties, to buy sub-par insurance policies from private insurance companies and taxing the healthcare benefits of a high percentage of union members;
- Factories continue to close, with jobs often moving to sweatshops south of the border or overseas;
- Immigrant workers continue to be scapegoated for a crisis that is not of their making, with more deportations per year (400,000) under Obama than under George W. Bush and mounting racial profiling and police repression across the country, while Obama’s “Deferred Action” plan for young undocumented immigrants is cynically predicated upon registering with Homeland Security, showing that it’s mainly a ploy to re-elect Obama, not a road to the DREAM Act without military strings attached demanded by immigrant youth;
- Union rights — particularly the right to collective bargaining for public-sector workers — are on the chopping block in state after state, with no redress in sight; in fact, no sooner was Obama elected than he dropped all efforts to enact the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), his No. 1 promise to the labor movement;
- Democratic rights are more and more trampled upon in the name of “national security” — either through the Patriot Act or, more recently, through the National Defense Authorization Act (signed by President Obama on December 31, 2011, codifying into law for the first time in U.S. history indefinite military detention without charge or trial).
- Voting rights, particularly of Blacks and Latinos, are under growing attack, while more and more Black people are victimized by police repression and warehoused in the prison-industrial complex, deprived of all democratic rights (including the right to vote) and forced to work for pennies as outsourced labor for major corporations in a burgeoning new Jim Crow system;
- A war on women, particularly lower-income women of oppressed communities, has been unleashed with a fury unparalleled in recent times, with the undermining of women’s legal rights, health, and economic and social status; the right to choose and family planning, in particular, are under assault;
- The environmental degradation, particularly in working-class communities, continues unchecked, despite all pledges to the contrary — with more disasters such as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and greater devastation in sight with the Keystone XL Pipeline.
And the list goes on and on.
Again, while all this was happening, trillions of dollars continued to be allocated by the government to bail out Wall Street and the banksters, and to fuel military interventions and wars of occupation abroad.
Who Is Responsible?
An article in the August 17, 2012 issue of the New York Times by Mark Bittman accurately describes the plight of the working-class majority in the United States and begins to respond to the question: Who is responsible for this situation?
“Most people — call them working class, middle class or the 99 percent — have less money than they did a generation ago; the super-rich have scads more. A vast majority of Americans are on the losing end of the class war, as evidenced by lower pay scales, eviscerated unions, fewer benefits, later retirement, shortened or eliminated vacations, starved municipalities and of course the quality of our food and the impact it has on us and the environment.”
And Bittman continues,
“In the last 40 years we’ve witnessed a long, steady move to the right, which Democrats occasionally whine about, protest and even fight, but in which they’ve been mostly complicit.”
How true! But not only are the Democrats “mostly complicit”, more often than not they are the ones leading the attacks against workers and the poor. The four-year record of the Obama administration illustrates this beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Urgent Need for an Independent Labor Movement
A growing number of unionists and political activists are looking for answers about how best to preserve the independence of the workers’ movement to beat back these growing attacks.
While the media are all focusing on the top labor officialdom’s backing of Obama, the grumblings and growing discontent within the house of labor, from top to bottom, have gone largely unnoticed. Yet there are many examples of this; let’s take a look at a few:
a) NNU Executive Director RoseAnn DeMoro calls for building an independent labor movement
National Nurses United, the main nurses’ union in the United States and an affiliate of the AFL-CIO, has refused to endorse Obama, preferring instead to allocate its precious funds to recruiting new members into the union and mobilizing its members and community allies for their contract fights with the employers. NNU Executive Director RoseAnn DeMoro — who is also a member of the National Executive Committee of the AFL-CIO — explained her union’s stance in a May 11, 2012, interview with PBS TV anchor Bill Moyers. She said, in part:
“Given the current way we practice politics, we are headed for devastation. … I’m very tired of all of us being disappointed in Democrats. I mean, how many more Democrats can we be disappointed in? … We should never give our power away. And we should never buy into the lies that have been told to us for so long.
“I don’t even recognize liberals anymore. … [T]hey will invariably be apologetic for anything that comes down. In healthcare reform. Liberals said we absolutely want single payer. And then suddenly single payer was off the table.
“Then everyone said, ‘Okay, well, we’re now drawing the line on the public option. We will never ever compromise off the public option.’ All of a sudden public option’s gone. And then it came to an individual mandate. ‘We will never agree to tax workers’ healthcare benefits.’ And now all of a sudden liberals are rallying around taxing healthcare benefits. It’s, like, how low can you go?
“So I’m looking now at a stage for absolutes. We’ve made compromises and look where these compromises have got us. Do I think that there’s an absolute right for people to have healthcare in this country? Absolutely. Do I think people are entitled to work and provide for themselves and their families? Absolutely. That’s an absolute.
“Do I think that people should have a home to live in and to be able to care for the most vulnerable? Absolutely. Yes, I’m looking for absolutes. I’m not interested in the neo-liberal agenda. I’m not interested in bipartisanship. I’m interested in social change that actually puts society back with the people. I’m talking about building an absolute mass movement. …
“Labor has bought into the paradigm of saying ‘middle class’ and ‘working families’ — instead of working class. This fosters disdain for the working class. They [the top union officials] bought into the paradigm, to where they became vulnerable to middle class consultants who redefined what they were supposed to be.
“We are now being taught to be non-confrontational and use non-confrontational language. Well, why in the hell would I want to be non-confrontational? There are people out there who are trying to harm my members — working people, poor people — and I don’t want to confront them? Of course I want to confront them.
“We’ve been told that fighting back can actually be defined as something that’s pathological. And the labor movement bought in.
“I am really sick of the people who are apologists for finance. From my perspective, and it may sound simplistic, but working people built this country. And you know what, if we have to, we can build it again.”
b) Deep Anger at Obama’s Policies Expressed at ILWU Convention
The June 2012 issue of The Dispatcher, the ILWU’s monthly newspaper, provided a full report on the union’s recent convention that includes a section on the floor discussion regarding endorsing Obama for a second term. Convention delegates took the floor to rake Obama over the coals for his failed promises. While the convention ultimately voted to endorse Obama to stop Romney, it was hardly a vote of confidence in Obama. Quite the contrary, as the Dispatcher account reveals:
” A resolution endorsing Obama for a second term was also controversial, sparking a debate that attracted many speakers to the microphone from across the political spectrum. Many were critical of Obama’s willingness to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits — instead of raising taxes on the rich to save those programs. Others criticized his cowardice toward Wall Street and appointment of investment bankers who arranged a taxpayer bailout for the big firms, while doing little to help millions of home-owners who lost their homes or are deeply underwater.
“Some attacked his escalation of the war in Afghanistan and ‘war on terror’ at home that sparked the wasteful and ineffective Transit Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) program. Several rose to criticize Obama’s timid support for labor reform that would have made it easier for workers to join unions.
“And the President’s healthcare plan attracted the scorn of nearly everyone because he dropped the ‘public option,’ agreed to subsidize private insurance companies, and cut employer tax credits for many union health plans.
“But when the debate wound down, the specter of Mitt Romney’s avowed anti-union administration in the White House was something delegates just couldn’t stomach. So the vast majority voted in favor of a resolution endorsing President Obama for a second term.”
In a situation where the labor leadership continues to support the Democrats, refusing to chart an independent political course for the working class, it is not surprising that the huge anger at the Obama’s policies was channeled into “lesser-evilism” — a scourge that for more than a century has prevented the labor movement from creating its own political party and having its own political voice.
Having said that, it is also worthwhile noting that the anger at Obama and the Democrats was also expressed in a resolution that calls for not endorsing Democrats who collude with Republicans in eliminating or privatizing Medicare or Medicaid. But this poses an obvious question: Aren’t all Democrats who support the Bowles-Simpson “Grand Bargain” in fact colluding with the Republicans in their effort to defund and dismantle Medicare and Medicaid, as well as Social Security? And doesn’t this include Obama and Nancy Pelosi?
c) Chicago Teacher Union Delegates Refuse to Wear Obama-Biden T-Shirts at AFT National Convention
In the same way that up to one-third of the delegates turned their backs on Bill Gates and walked out of the AFT national convention during his speech in Seattle in June 2010, delegates from the Chicago Teachers Union refused to implement a directive by AFT President Randi Weingarten for everyone to wear Obama-Biden T-shirts when Vice President Joe Biden addressed the union’s July 2012 convention in Detroit.
This should come as no surprise. The Chicago teachers have had to take on three prominent Democratic Party leaders from Chicago — Obama, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and current Mayor Rahm Emanuel in their fight for a decent contract. This small act of defiance may appear to be insignificant in the greater scope of things. But it isn’t. It’s a sign of the deep anger simmering just below the surface in the labor movement — an anger that is looking for any avenue, any fissure in the edifice of the house of labor, to break out and be channeled into a real fightback movement cemented in a truly independent labor movement.
And today, the Chicago teachers are on strike, and they are standing strong against the combined pressures of Obama, Duncan, and Emanuel. It is the task of all union activists and defenders of public education across the United States and internationally to answer the call of CTU President Karen Lewis for visible and concrete solidarity — including funds — for the Chicago teachers. [See accompanying articles on the Chicago teachers’ strike.]
d) Charlotte, N.C., Workers Organize Protests at Democratic National Convention to Demand Union Rights
On September 3-6, Democrats gathered at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, a “right-to-work” state where city workers, including sanitation workers so essential to the convention, have no union rights.
On August 24, leaders of the North Carolina affiliate of the United Electrical Workers of America (UE), a union not affiliated with the AFL-CIO and that voted not to endorse Obama for president, released a letter appealing to President Obama and the Democratic National Committee for support in their effort to win union rights.
“Despite the added work and dangers for Charlotte City workers in preparation for and in the aftermath of the DNC, and the fact that $50 million in federal funding has been allotted to the City of Charlotte to host the Democratic National Convention,” the leaders of UE Local 150 wrote, “the City of Charlotte refuses to address the needs and rights of the City workers.”
The restrictions on public workers’ union rights in Charlotte are even greater than those signed into law by Republican Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin. North Carolina is only one of two states in the country to ban all levels of government from negotiating any contracts with public employees’ unions, regardless of how many workers support the union.
Union activists and many top union officials in the AFL-CIO were outraged that the Democratic National Committee chose a right-to-work state for their convention and that the top AFL-CIO leadership was not more outspoken in support of collective-bargaining rights for public employees.
UE organizer Ashaki Binta said that Obama and the DNC have a responsibility to back the workers’ campaign: “If you’re going to meet here in Charlotte, then you should be respecting the rights of the workers who are on the front line of providing for the Democratic National Convention.”
Accordingly, in their August 24 letter UE leaders called on the Obama administration to support a Bill of Rights for Charlotte workers, as well as the overturning of the state ban on collective bargaining.
In response to those union officials who justified holding the DNC in a right-to work-state on the grounds it would create much-needed jobs, Locklear put it this way: “I know it’s going to benefit the city, all this money they’re going to be getting. But us workers, what are we going to get? Nothing but work, work, work with no rights.”
This is why UE held marches and pickets throughout the DNC to attract public attention to their struggle for union rights. Also, as a sign of protest, many unions did not send delegates or provide funding to the Democratic Party convention. The Wall Street Journal(July 15) took note of this fact, reporting on statements by top Democratic Party officials who criticized the labor movement’s failure to live up to its commitment to help fund the DNC.
This situation in North Carolina again brings to light the growing fissures within the labor movement resulting from the trade union’s continued subordination to the Democratic Party.
What Way Forward on the Road to Building an Independent Labor Movement?
The leadership of the AFL-CIO tells us that whatever problems we may have with the Obama administration, it is vital that we put our criticisms on hold so that we can stop the Romney-Ryan ticket in its tracks. They explain that the Republicans this time around are among the most reactionary politicians to surface on a presidential ticket in a very long while.
It is true that no worker, no trade unionist, no youth activist can be indifferent to this ultra-reactionary wing of the U.S. ruling class — a wing that seeks to go the furthest in the destruction of the trade unions and of democratic rights. But the question remains posed: What is the best way to fight this reactionary wave?
Is it by supporting, or worse still, participating in the weakening of the trade unions and workers’ rights and in the undermining of all the gains won by the working class through bitter struggles — as the trade union officialdom has been doing year after year — or, rather, is it by organizing the most massive and united mobilizations in defense of past gains (public education, social services and more) and in support of the immediate and pressing demands of the workers and their community allies?
Is it by supporting a presidential candidate, Obama, who on August 24 told the Associated Press that if re-elected he “will make a whole range of compromises to the Republicans” — compromises which he acknowledges will rankle huge numbers of people in the Democratic Party? (Obama insisted that “the days of viewing compromise as a dirty word need to be over.”)
Is it by continuing to support Democratic Party politicians whose attacks on labor and on all the oppressed communities are only deepening by the day?
Or is it by building a truly independent labor movement in deeds — not just in words, as Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO has been trumpeting over the past two years, only to do the exact opposite of what he preaches. And will it not be necessary to project that independent labor movement into the political arena, sooner rather than later, through an independent Labor Party based on the trade unions and all the organizations of the oppressed?
Is it not time for the labor movement to break with the Democratic Party and build its own political party, its own political voice, to advance its own interests against the bosses and their twin parties?
This question is posed for all the working class, but especially for its most oppressed sectors in the Black and Latino communities, where the hopes and aspirations in the country’s first Black president were possibly the highest.
The growing attacks on Black people, the unbridled growth of the New Jim Crow prison-industrial complex, in particular, raises the question of an independent Black political organization, the building of which would represent a huge leverage point in the struggle to build an authentic Labor Party in the United States.
At the same time, the struggle of Chicano/as — i.e. Mexican-Americans — and of immigrants from other countries of Latin America is a major component of the class struggle today. The struggle for legalization, against racial profiling and deportations (SB1070, etc.), in defense of Ethnic Studies and bilingual education, and other demands for equality and cultural rights are hugely important, particularly given the massive scapegoating of immigrants across the country.
In this sense, the call for the self-organization of Chicanos and Latinos is part and parcel of the struggle to forge the most solid unity between Chicanos/Latinos, the organized workers’ movement, and the Black liberation movement in the fight to build a Labor Party.
Join Us in the Struggle!
The Organizer newspaper has been part and parcel of the struggles to mobilize against the budget cuts and giveaways, raising high the independent banner of, “No Cuts, No Concessions!”
There are no cuts and concessions that are justified. We believe that it is not only necessary but possible to mobilize huge numbers of people in the streets around these demands: Tax the rich, Confiscate the $1.65 trillion of Washington bailout funds that are still sitting idle collecting interest in the coffers of the Wall Street banksters! Slash the military budget and fund a desperately needed public works’ jobs program and public services!
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