Biden’s “unity” versus the unity the working class needs

Woman protests for $15 an hour minimum wage outside McDonald’s in Memphis, Tennessee, Jan. 15, 2021. PHOTO: Ariel Cobbert / The Commercial Appeal
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In many quarters, Joe Biden is lauded as a hero for his $1.9 trillion “American Rescue Plan” (ARP), signed into law on March 11. But does his Covid-19 stimulus package meet the needs of workers and oppressed people in this ongoing emergency? And, if not, how can workers win the changes they require?

Stimulus to save a system. The ARP will bring temporary relief for many people in desperate economic straits. But this noble result serves to disguise its chief aim, which is to prop up the system that benefits the ruling class. In this way, it is similar to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s bolder, more expansive New Deal of the 1930s — although only a world war really got capitalism rocking again.

Wise one percenters recognize that getting money into ordinary people’s pockets is essential, because it’s mass buying by consumers that keeps the whole economy afloat. But more than one-time checks and stopgap measures, what working people need are decent, secure jobs and good wages to go with them. Where were those in the ARP? Absent from the start, compromised away, or surrendered without a fight, like the $15 an hour federal minimum wage.

Where’s the democracy? Biden’s defenders claim that his hands were tied when it came to getting congressional approval for more durable actions like raising the minimum wage.

Granted, Biden faced a real challenge, based largely on the fundamentally undemocratic nature of Congress. This is particularly true of the Senate. Its very premise, in which each state gets two representatives no matter the population, flouts the principle of “one person, one vote,” the basis for majority rule.

The filibuster is a prime example of the flouting of majority rule getting worse over time. A filibuster is a Senate parliamentary procedure that lets representatives block a vote on a bill by speaking for as long as they want, unless three-fifths of the senators vote to end debate. This gives a minority power over the majority.

Use of the filibuster didn’t become common until the 1950s, when pro-segregation senators deployed it as a weapon against proposed civil rights laws. The “budget reconciliation” process was set up in 1974 to make it possible to bypass the super-majority threshold needed to break a filibuster — but only for legislation related to spending, taxes, and debt.

In the case of Biden’s ARP, the unelected Senate parliamentarian ruled the minimum wage raise out of bounds. But this is one example of the falseness of the “tied hands” narrative.

Biden’s team could have used his first 50 days in office to mobilize a groundswell of public support for the raise. Vice President Kamala Harris, the Senate’s presiding officer, could have ignored the parliamentarian’s decision or even fired her. Instead, Biden made it clear publicly before the ruling that he was ready to accept rejection of the wage clause.

Biden’s supporters praise the flurry of executive orders he has issued, especially the ones undoing some of the more heinous acts of his predecessor. In fact, though, executive orders are unilateral exercises in evading the checks and balances that are supposed to come with the country’s three branches of government.

Far from being powerless, Biden benefits from the enormous growth in executive branch authority that has been taking place over decades and has increasingly given presidents the ability to rule imperial-style.

Economic and political crises intimately linked. The wealthy have experienced roaring success over the past few decades, but the same can’t be said for everybody else. To take the national minimum wage again as an example: The current rate of $7.25 hour has not changed in almost 12 years. Factoring in inflation, that $7.25 is worth 17% less now than it was when it debuted, while the cost of living has gone up by nearly 20%.

This is not because Evil Capitalist Villains want workers to suffer (although some undoubtedly do). It’s because their whole system has been on increasingly shaky ground since the decades of the post-World War II boom, and they can only keep profits high by exploiting the workforce more intensely.

Anger and desperation result. And, because the Democratic Party is not the champion of workers and oppressed people it claims to be, the field is left open for right-wing demagogues and outright fascists to peddle their racism, sexism, xenophobia, and wide-ranging bigotry.

More and more, these ultra-rightists are making a home for themselves in the Republican Party, while Biden continues to appeal to bipartisanship and “national unity.” Given the stark polarization of the country, this seems absurd.

But the politicians of the two capitalist parties value fraudulent notions like “we’re all in this together,” because they erase the basic class conflict between the haves and have-nots. They want workers to feel unity, as “Americans,” with their ruling class, not with each other. This is how they hope to retain the support of working people for insupportable actions of supposed “national self-defense” like Biden’s bombing of Syria — on the same day he rolled over for the ruling against the minimum wage increase.

Utilize the power of the united front. The end of the pandemic is not going to be the end of economic turmoil and trouble. The country is still down 9.5 million jobs compared to February 2020, and many of those jobs are never coming back. What’s required are things including, but not limited to, full employment and secure housing for all; free, universal healthcare and childcare; an end to police violence; and an open door for refugees and immigrants.

From Amazon employees in Alabama to fast food workers in cities across the country, survival struggles are breaking out all over. Fightbacks like these need to be broadened and deepened, with labor and community activists staying in the streets, striking, and organizing against budget cuts, layoffs, the far right, and all the things that keep working people from enjoying the fruits of their labor.

What’s needed is working-class unity. Democratic united fronts bringing together organizations of different political persuasions for a common working-class cause have achieved great things in the past, like thwarting neo-Nazi plans for an Aryan homeland in the Pacific Northwest in the 1990s. They can again. United fronts can be the road forward to repel both fascists and ruling-class economic blows.

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