Not only is this a time to make fundamental changes—such changes are long overdue!
We’re talking about labor and its allies having a meaningful voice in the political arena. And we’re talking about labor mobilizing in the streets on a scale we haven’t seen in decades.
We believe that the AFL-CIO took positive action at its Los Angeles convention in calling for greater cohesion with our community partners. That is certainly needed. However, any proposed change in strategy that does not call for labor and its supporters to have real political clout misses the mark. And the same is true if there is not a call for periodic massive demonstrations, especially in the nation’s capital.
Consider our most pressing issues and how poorly labor has fared as a very junior part of the Democratic Party, a part relegated to the background:
- Jobs—27 million unemployed or underemployed. Labor calls for a full employment society. But Obama’s American Jobs Act would create only 1-2 million jobs at most. And the Republicans have nothing to offer.
- Health care—Labor has called for a Medicare for All, single-payer health care system. A congressional majority voted instead for the Affordable Care Act, urged by the president, who said that both single-payer and the public option were off the table. So the Affordable Care Act was structured to give control of the plan to the insurance and pharmaceutical companies who wrote it, with the Heritage Foundation playing the leading role.
- Labor’s rights—A majority of Democrats in Congress voted in favor of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, the most repressive piece of anti-labor legislation in our history. Now Michigan and Indiana have joined some 22 other states to pass right-to-work (for less) laws, made possible by Taft-Hartley, and several other states are considering doing the same. Meanwhile, Congress failed to pass labor law reform, which would have helped restore the right to strike, and the Employee Free Choice Act (card check), which was quickly forgotten after the 2008 election, despite the fact that a Democrat was elected to the White House and Democrats had majorities in both Houses of Congress.
- Trade—Labor has called for protection of workers’ rights in trade pacts and has opposed the offshoring of good paying U.S. jobs to countries that pay workers starvation wages and deny them basic rights. Yet Obama and a bipartisan majority rammed through trade agreements that are bonanzas for the big corporations but destructive to the working class.
- Safety net—In 1983, when Reagan was president, a significant majority of Democrats in Congress voted in favor of major cuts in Social Security. The Democrats voted by a margin of 163 to 54 in the House and 26 to 6 in the Senate for the cuts, which Congress passed overwhelmingly. Now Obama is trying to pick up where Reagan and Congress left off in 1983 and is pushing hard for more cuts, especially in Social Security and Medicare. Meanwhile a bipartisan majority gave us the sequester, which cut heavily into vital social programs.
- Civil rights— Disproportionate numbers of African Americans and Latinos are among the jobless, while urban centers continue to decay and racist police violence escalates. Poverty and malnutrition are on the upswing, while food stamps get significantly reduced. These strike hardest at communities of color. Income inequality has widened to intolerable levels in this so-called “jobless recovery.”
- Immigrant rights—A seriously flawed immigration bill passed the Senate which, among other major defects, does not provide a rapid path to citizenship. It is, more than anything, a border security bill. But it had bipartisan support and the president’s backing. It has almost nothing in common with labor’s strong stand on immigrant rights, adopted in 1999.
- Education—The drive to close community schools and privatize education goes forward with a vengeance, with the Obama administration providing the leadership. The Chicago Teachers Union is playing a vanguard role in opposing these trends and setting an example for the entire labor movement.
- Wars and interventions—The U.S. government’s long standing drive to expand U.S. influence abroad continues to go forward whether under a Democratic or Republican president, and with bipartisan collusion. Oceans of blood have been spilled by both the victims of aggression and by U.S. troops, while trillions of taxpayer dollars are spent for wars and occupations. Just consider Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan as examples. Meanwhile Congress continues to vote $600 billion dollars annually for the Pentagon, with only a small minority dissenting.
The above list is far from exhaustive but it raises these questions: Is the Democratic Party really a party for labor and the working class? Has labor profited from its subordination to that party? Since the Democratic Party gets 70% of its funding from the big corporations, would it not be more accurate to describe it as a corporate party? And isn’t it high time to put an end to a policy of supporting candidates who betray their promises to labor after an election has been held, either by agreeing to watered down and unacceptable compromises or by abandoning our issues altogether, which is what has happened to the Employee Free Choice Act?
We in the Labor Fightback Network believe that the present strategy of supporting lesser evil corporate politicians is only deepening labor’s crisis and jeopardizing labor’s ability to survive as a viable and powerful social movement, one that gives leadership to the entire working class and our community allies.
Accordingly, we urge the convening of a national conference of the U.S. labor movement— with community forces included—with an agenda focused on ways and means of changing the dynamic of U.S. politics so that the working class majority has a real voice in determining the nation’s policies.
We also urge the formation on a local level of labor-community coalitions that take up the critical issues of concern to the 99% and, where feasible, run independent candidates for public office on a platform advancing the interests and welfare of the working class and its allies.
The Next Three Months
Speaking of “critical issues of concern,” the months ahead are especially crucial in the fight to preserve and expand vitally needed safety net programs, especially Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Medicare is the number one target of the budget cutters.
By December 13, the Budget Conference Committee, co-chaired by Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), is scheduled to issue its recommendations to Congress. By January 15, 2014, Congress must approve an appropriation to fund the continuation of the government, otherwise opening the door to another government shutdown. By February 7, Congress must vote to increase the debt limit, otherwise the U.S. will no longer be able to pay its debts.
Congressional budget cutters, focusing on these three dates, will no doubt pull out all the stops in their quest to cut safety net programs and reduce public services. But defenders of these programs and advocates of expanding and improving them represent the overwhelming majority of the population.
So it all comes down to drawing a line in the sand, organizing that majority, and mobilizing millions in the streets, where it counts the most, to prevent what happened in 1983 to Social Security from recurring now. A united labor movement, with all the resources it has at its command, is in the best position to provide leadership in this historic effort and, together with its allies and partners, to do the necessary organizing and mobilizing. If it does so, labor will not only be playing an indispensable role on behalf of the working class as a whole and other strata of our society, it will at the same time win the esteem and support it needs to press forward effectively in getting other parts of its program enacted.