With the four 2012 presidential and vice presidential debates now history, what is particularly striking is that no questions were asked or answers given with regard to labor’s rights. The irony is that the Democratic Party is heavily dependent on trade unionists to do the heavy lifting in order to win the election: organizing millions of home calls, staffing the phone lines, contributing a fortune, etc.
What has labor received in return?
We got no support for the Employee Free Choice Act (card check), nothing in relation to labor reform legislation, imposition of the “Free Trade” agreements over labor’s vehement opposition, cuts in federal workers’ pensions to pay for the payroll tax holiday, and the list goes on.
It is indisputable that labor’s relationship to the Democratic Party is a one-way street: we give and they take. After elections are over, things go back to normal: our needs are ignored or — after a superficial effort to get some legislative remedy — abandoned.
[Note: In the presidential debates, the word “union” was never uttered, except in the last debate when Mitt Romney denounced the Teachers Union. President Barack Obama sat silent, declining to come to the union’s defense.]
But what about the big battles that labor has waged over the past couple of years? In Wisconsin, Tom Barrett, characterized by Wisconsin trade unionists as anti-labor, won the Democratic primary and immediately promised that if elected, he would retain the austerity takeaways that Walker had imposed on public employees. Meanwhile, Obama took no position in support of the workers.
In Ohio, labor was fighting for its life after the state’s General Assembly passed legislation gutting public employees’ bargaining rights. The whole country was transfixed on the referendum to repeal the legislation, which passed handily. But Obama was a neutral.
Then there was the action taken in Indiana when that state’s legislature enacted the misnamed “right to work” law. Again the president declined to come to the support of the state’s trade union movement in its struggle to prevent adoption of the law.
Then there was the Chicago teachers’ strike. The president’s former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, led the fight to cut teachers’ pay and benefits, while attempting to undermine the union’s power and privatize public education. The president refused to take a stand in support of the teachers.
Finally there was the Machinists’ strike against Caterpillar in Joliet, Illinois. Although the company was making record profits of several billion dollars a year, it demanded substantial cuts in workers’ benefits. After a three-and-a-half-month strike, the company prevailed. Again the president was only a silent spectator.
The question may be asked: Why should the president take a stand on these “local issues”? There are three reasons why he should have done so. The first is that when he ran for president, he promised to walk picket lines with striking workers, a promise not kept.
The second is that each of these battles had significant repercussions going beyond city or state boundaries. Repressive legislation passed on a state or city level opens the door wider for similar legislation being adopted by other governmental entities. Cuts in pay and benefits by both public and private employers also are likely to get replicated elsewhere.
The third is that the escalating attacks against labor in this age of austerity are part and parcel of the strategy to put the burden on the working class and the poor to pay for the debt and deficits, while the rich and powerful laugh all the way to the bank. Meanwhile purchasing power plunges, impoverishing more and more people, while making a bad economy worse.
This is not just a presidential problem. It cuts across party lines, as witness the fact that Democratic Governor Jerry Brown of California and Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York, like other Democratic and Republican governors across the country, are leading the charge to cut workers’ pay, benefits, and working conditions, while attempting to weaken the power of unions to fight back.
The Democratic Party’s National Convention
On Labor Day, the Democratic Party convened its national convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, one of the 22 states where the Taft-Hartley Act (“right to work” for less) was enacted to undermine and prevent the national growth and consolidation of the trade union movement. While North Carolina is one of the 11 southern states originally hamstrung by Taft-Hartley, it is also notorious for its legislative ban on collective bargaining rights for public-sector workers. Even so, the Democratic Party Convention steamed ahead, despite the fact that Charlotte city workers had waged a month-long campaign leading up to Labor Day of picketing, rallies, and protests outside of City Hall citing problems faced by city workers and calling for the right to collective bargaining, to meet and confer with city managers on the job, for dues check-off, and for a “Municipal Worker’s Bill of Rights.” An “Open Letter” was sent to President Obama and Democratic National Committee leaders at the local, state, and national levels calling for the president to take action in support of solving these problems. There was no response.
The millions of Black and Latino workers, both male and female across the U.S., suffer the sharpest edge of the attacks on labor and trade union rights and the brunt of the economic crisis. But even though Obama cannot win — in what is shaping up to be an extremely close election — without organized labor, women, Black and Latino support, he has not reached out to these constituencies with a program that meets their needs. So it is clear that without an independent labor movement, anchored in these most oppressed sectors of the U.S. working class, labor will not be in the strongest position to effectively pressure Obama for crucial progressive reforms if he should win re-election, or to fight the devastating plans of the right wing Republican agenda directed against us if Romney/Ryan take the election.
Rebuilding a labor movement, independent of the Democratic and Republican parties, anchored in the most oppressed sectors of the U.S. working class, and vigorously fighting not only to protect trade union rights, but also to organize southern labor, and to directly challenge the racism, sexism, and attacks against immigrants’ rights suffered by these communities, is the only way forward!
Back in the 1930s, coal miners immortalized a song titled “Which Side Are You On?” with one of the lines being, “There are no neutrals there” (referring to Harlan County in Kentucky).
We in the Emergency Labor Network believe that same spirit should drive labor’s policies in the period ahead. We cannot continue to be subservient to a political party that fails to represent our interests — a party that takes from us but does not give. There can be no neutrals when sharp fights break out between labor and capital. And as the old saying goes, “You always find out who your true friends are at a time of crisis.” This is a time of crisis.
Here is how AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka put it: “When it comes to politics, we’re looking for real champions of working women and men. And I have a message for some of our ‘friends.’ It doesn’t matter if candidates and parties are controlling the wrecking ball or simply standing aside — the outcome is the same either way. If leaders aren’t blocking the wrecking ball and advancing working families’ interests, working people will not support them. This is where our focus will be — now, in 2012 and beyond.”
We in the ELN are keenly aware that the Republican Party leadership is a sworn enemy of the labor movement. We also recognize that the Democrats have better positions than the Republicans on some issues, such as preserving Roe v. Wade. What is needed in the absence of a mass-based independent labor party is building a broad coalition of labor and its communality partners to protect and preserve Roe v. Wade, and the same is true with regard to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other urgently needed social programs. But that does not negate the need for labor to build its own independent party. For decades we relied on the Democrats to advance our program, and that has not worked. We need to rely now on our own power and our own organized strength.
We also agree with Trumka’s May 20, 2012, statement when he said, “Moving forward, we are looking hard at how we work in the nation’s political arena. We have listened hard, and what workers want is an independent labor movement that builds the power of working people — in the workplace and in political life.”
The challenge now is to give life to those words and build that independent labor movement without delay. For starters, it would be big step forward for labor to run independent candidates for office at the local or even the congressional level. Labor can also utilize the referendum in some states to rescind repressive legislation, as was done so successfully in Ohio in 2011. And for states whose laws or constitutions do not permit initiatives or referenda, how about campaigns to make the needed changes so that the people can use these instruments of democracy and make the ultimate decisions regarding which laws govern their lives?