The questions that Eric Lee raises in his opinion piece, “Why American unions support Obama and why they're right to do so” have been long settled for revolutionary Marxists in the U.S.
Debate over the viability of a “realignment” strategy like that carried out by Max Shactman’s followers was largely settled by the Vietnam war and the abandonment by Shachtman’s formerly third camp socialists of an independent working class perspective. Since the mid-1970s, as U.S. capital shifted away from accepting the regulated capitalism of the New Deal to driving an aggressive neoliberalism, lingering hopes on the part of social democrats about prospects for taking over or realigning the Democratic Party have evaporated as corporate control and financing have become increasingly obvious as the party has moved steadily to the right.
Given the experience of the Obama administration, illusions about being the “party of the people,” “hope and change,” or Obama being a transformative president, have largely collapsed. This is why the social movements and radicalizing youth, as expressed by the Occupy movement, are mostly bypassing electoral activity.
However, the labor movement, which has become reliant on relationships with politicians, rather than on an educated, mobilized and militant rank and file, is justifiably in a panic. With the collapse of private sector unionism, labor is extremely vulnerable. The public sector unions are largely paper tigers. Privately, labor leaders think that a Romney victory would be like a shot in the head, while Obama would continue to be a slow bleed. As labor journalist Mike Elk wrote, labor officials are trying, “to pull off a difficult balancing act: firing up a weary, embattled labor movement while presenting an endorsement of Barack Obama as the lesser of two evils.”
For a sense of who owns the two corporate parties, consider that labor is outspent 30 to 1 by the big corporate donors. In 2008, Obama’s campaign received direct contributions of only $585,000 from labor unions, compared to $42 million from Wall Street. However, organized labor provided millions of hours of “in-kind” donations through door-knocking, phone-banking, and get-out-the-vote activities. Altogether, labor spent at least $300 million to elect President Obama, and their ground-level mobilization of members played a decisive role. If we only had the courage and vision to focus those resources on internal organizing and education, new organizing, and running labor candidates!
At a recent labor rally (initially projected as a sort of “shadow convention” in protest of the Democratic National Convention being held in anti-union North Carolina’s Wall Street South), the AFL-CIO attempted to make some small steps towards political independence by announcing a new political program called the Second Bill of Rights which advocates the right to a job at a living wage, the right to full participation in the electoral system, the right to collectively bargain, the right to a quality education, and the rights to health care, retirement security and unemployment insurance. The AFL-CIO is asking the two corporate-financed parties to adopt this Second Bill of Rights. As far as this writer knows, the only politician who’s announced their support is Green Party candidate for President, Jill Stein! As some have quipped, we have a Democratic platform whose nostrums about an "Economy Built To Last" are suitable only for an "Audience Eager to be Deceived."
It is getting increasingly difficult for labor leaders to get members to the polls. After calling the Colombia free trade agreement “deeply disappointing and troubling,” AFL-CIO President Trumka complained, “The more these things happen, where workers’ interests are subjugated to other interests, it has a cumulative effect, making it harder for us to energize our members and get them out in the numbers necessary in the fall.”
Chicago teachers’ Strike
Symptomatic of the real relation of the Democratic Party to the working class is former Obama chief of staff and now Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s speaking about education reform at the Democratic convention. According to the Chicago Teachers’ Union "Democratic mayors, like Emanuel, have led an unprecedented attack on organized labor and with a prolific focus on teacher unions. As he extols the virtues of democracy in Charlotte, his education policies have led to rampant job loss and the destabilization and destruction of neighborhood schools in Chicago…he has created a false narrative that seeks to undermine public education and vilify parents, teachers and students.” The Obama Administration too is clear on an “education reform” that would go a long way to destroying teachers’ unions.
In a decisive test for U.S. labor, the 26,000-member Chicago Teachers Union is striking against Rahm Emanuel and his appointed school board in a faceoff between two conflicting visions of public education. The conflict has its roots in a national corporate reform agenda pushing to privatize schools, and destroy job security for teachers. This was first carried out by Arne Duncan, former Chicago schools chief, and now President Obama’s Secretary of Education.
Teacher union-bashing at the Democratic convention included a screening by the Democratic National Committee of the anti-union drama “Won’t Back Down,” sponsored by Democrats for Education Reform, a PAC made up of hedge fund managers seeking investment opportunities in education. According to Labor Notes, “The group supports privatization, vouchers, merit pay, teacher evaluations based on student test scores, and doing away with teacher tenure.” The film also played to a standing ovation at the Republican National Convention.
The left we need would be rooted in the organized, and organizing, working class with clear ideas about the need for independent politics and working class self-activity that can promote that consciousness and organization – much as the Labor Notes trend is doing. Leftists need to be organizing rank and file movements (like that in the Chicago teachers union) to push our unions to focus our resources on internal organizing and member education, organizing the unorganized, building strike funds, and beginning to build political alternatives to the Democrats.
While in a few places, like in Vermont, unions are supporting labor candidates running as independents or in progressive third parties, unlike in the late 1990s, there is currently no credible motion towards a labor party. Social explosions like the Wisconsin uprising, Occupy, and the mass support for the Chicago teacher’s strike are the most likely way forward. Mass struggle, not support for the bosses’ politicians, holds the hope of real change.
Traven is a supporter of the US socialist group Solidarity and Secretary-Treasurer of the Vermont AFL-CIO