The importance of the union movement to the rights of U.S. working people, both on the job and more broadly, cannot be overstated. Epic fights waged by organized labor are responsible for everything from the eight-hour day to making the right to free speech real. Radicals in the unions — socialists, anarchists, Wobblies — have been crucial to these battles.
Now the unions are in deep trouble, along with many of the rights and improvements they have won. A long history of unconditional loyalty to the Democratic Party is a big part of the reason. But labor officials continue to put hundreds of millions of dollars of their members’ dues into this dead-end relationship.
It’s an overworked phrase, but in this case it can’t be helped: labor is truly at a crossroads. Will the ranks of labor continue to go along with this unrequited love affair? Or will they finally free themselves from the second party of Wall Street and demand a party, and a program, of their own?
Reality check, please. In March, the AFL-CIO, the largest U.S. labor federation, endorsed President Barack Obama for re-election. Let’s consider what he has done to deserve such a prize.
With Democratic majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives during his first two years, Obama still failed to deliver on one of his biggest promises to labor: a “card check” law that would curb management’s ability to sabotage union organizing.
And, while Obama plays to the crowd with forceful statements about the need to reduce unemployment, his policies have helped to eliminate 590,000 public sector jobs since he took office. Additional jobs are on the line with his administration’s dubious plan to “save” the U.S. Postal Service by, in part, getting rid of Saturday delivery.
Obama has surpassed George W. Bush in deporting undocumented workers, extended the Bush tax cuts even while the Democrats controlled Congress, and signed a JOBS Act designed mainly to benefit financial speculators rather than the unemployed. He also notoriously ignored appeals to stop the Coast Guard, now a militarized part of the Department of Homeland Security, from intervening on the side of grain giant EGT against the longshore workers’ union in Longview, Wash.
Obama is continuing to pursue the neoliberal economic policies that devastate workers at home and abroad, recently by signing a free trade agreement with Colombia, where union activists commonly face repression and murder. In the Middle East, he has turned Bush’s wars into permanent occupations.
In announcing their endorsement, the AFL-CIO argued that the Obama administration has “moved aggressively” to protect workers’ rights. This is what the heads of the labor movement claim for every Democratic presidential candidate, but it’s a claim that completely defies reality.
Aiding the enemy. Far from helping the cause, for unionists and union supporters to continue to vote for Democrats contributes directly to labor’s decline. The Democrats have learned that what they must deliver to the workers’ movement in return for its official support is less than zero.
How far must union membership shrink before this truth generates a rebellion? To 10 percent? Five percent? Two percent? How many union jobs must be eliminated, outsourced, or privatized?
The special bonus for Wall Street is that when Democrats rule the roost, the worst crimes can be committed against the working class with the least fight-back, as top union leaders scramble to provide excuses and pacify the ranks. If either of the Bushes had been the one to scrap welfare or pass NAFTA, instead of Bill Clinton, how would union leaders have reacted?
Tailoring labor’s agenda to what Democratic politicians are willing to go along with means selling workers out. And the first to be sold out are always the lowest-paid, most exploited workers: women, people of color, immigrants. The principle of “An injury to one is an injury to all” gives way to the need not to put labor’s “friends” on the hot seat.
A party of one’s own. But, fueled by rank-and-file anger, protests continue to break out despite the excessive caution of many union leaders.
Sometimes the resistance emerges mainly from outside the union movement, as with the immigrant rights upsurge of 2006-2007. Often it is a local explosion that gains national support, as with last year’s mobilization for union rights in Wisconsin.
Imagine how much stronger these fights would be if they had the power of a mass, genuine workers’ party behind them — an anti-capitalist labor party that would be the champion of workers in unions and outside them; would name the enemy and come out swinging; and would stand for the interests of workers internationally as well as in the U.S. With such a party, labor would be able to mount a serious offensive against the austerity program of big business and its two parties.
And imagine the impact if a labor party like this were mounting a challenge to Obama this election!
Vote and fight for change. That is the mass party workers need. But it will only come about if radicals inside and outside the unions, including social-ist parties, promote it and make it happen.
This push is a key part of the Freedom Socialist Party (FSP) campaign of presidential candidate Stephen Durham, a former shop steward and rank-and-file strike leader, and vice-presidential candidate Christina López, a feminist organizer for immigrant rights who has been a member of several unions. Their campaign gives unionists and labor advocates a way to come together, strategize, and forge new alliances toward this aim.
The FSP write-in campaign also provides the opportunity to vote for candidates who stand for what working people really need right now, from a practical plan for full employment to concrete steps to take for a healthier environment. It offers people the chance to protest the decades of Democratic treachery and vote positively. And it gives people a chance to share their ideas about what socialism means and how to end class exploitation once and for all.
Get involved with the Durham-López campaign if you can, and vote for your real class interest in November.
Durham-López 2012 on Workers & Unions
Repeal union-busting laws and guarantee the right to organize and strike for all workers. Raise the minimum wage to $20 an hour. Disarm the U.S. war machine and publicly fund a massive training and jobs program at union wages, with childcare available. Restore affirmative action, including quotas.
Also see: Freedom Socialist Party platform