Ever since the founding of the U.S. labor movement, labor has been under attack by the corporate class. In some periods there may appear to be a “temporary peace,” but these have proved to be short-lived.
During World War II, union leaders agreed to suspend strikes for the duration. But even during that war, when the corporations were making record profits, workers resorted to work stoppages and wildcat strikes in large numbers, often to protest lousy working conditions. To cite one statistic, during 1944 when the war was still raging, more strikes took place than in any previous year in American history.
In the first full month after the Japanese surrendered, the number of work days lost to strikes doubled. And in succeeding months in 1945–47, coal miners, lumber workers, oil workers, truck drivers, machinists, electrical workers, meatpackers and engineers hit the bricks. Most union leaders opposed these strikes, preferring to work out some kind of labor-management accommodation. But even these leaders were swept into the conflicts—either that or jeopardize their positions as leaders.
All of this provided the background for enactment of the Taft-Hartley Act, characterized by many in labor as the “Slave Labor Law.” This legislation struck hard at labor, and it has never recovered from the Act’s repressive provisions. Organizing and striking were made much more difficult. Together with the Landrum-Griffin Act which followed, labor solidarity actions were virtually illegalized.
Fast forward to the recent past and what we are confronted with today. Unlike Taft-Hartley, which was a frontal attack against the entire labor movement, the current employer attacks are mostly directed against particular sectors of the working class. Here are some examples:
- Wisconsin—Bargaining rights for public employees (other than firefighters or police) were destroyed.
- Indiana and Michigan—Both became right-to-work (for less) states.
- The Obama administration—with Republican concurrence but over the heated opposition of the union—raided federal employees’ pension funds in 2013. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner wrote Congress saying the move would free up some $156 billion in borrowing authority so that the government could obtain more credit to pay its debts.
- Unemployment compensation for long-term jobless workers was lost in 2013 when the bipartisan budget was adopted.
- Food stamps were cut by $8.6 billion under the Farm Bill adopted in 2013 by bipartisan agreement.
- Cuts in pensions in the private sector were allowed for the first time under the $1.1 trillion spending bill approved by the lame duck Congress in December 2014 in a bipartisan vote.
- The House of Representatives adopted a rule that would cut Social Security payments to disabled workers by 19% effective January 1, 2016.
Many other examples could be cited. But the point is this: Specific groups of workers totaling many millions have been victimized in what may seem to be separate and isolated situations but which, in fact, reflect a pattern and strategy of picking off one group of workers after another to weaken and demoralize workers while swelling the coffers of the super-rich.
This situation cannot be sugar coated. It is a crisis of the highest order. This is no time for complacency or an attitude of resignation to additional defeats. The employers’ campaign has been a record of relatively easy victories, and it is high time for changes in labor’s strategy in order to bring the corporate class to heel. We have to say “No to Austerity Measures!” imposed on the working class while the high rollers laugh all the way to the bank.
What Has Our Strategy Been?
When issues arise in the legislative arena vitally affecting working people, the emphasis within the House of Labor has habitually been, “Let’s lobby Congress. Call or write your representative and senator and urge her or him to vote labor’s way.” There is nothing inherently wrong with this strategy but what is wrong is focusing on it to the exclusion of mass actions and mobilizations in the streets. Without these, lobbying is a dead-end strategy, as the historical record makes abundantly clear.
We’ve lobbied and lobbied and lobbied and never slowed down the right wing’s juggernaut. Now that we have a Republican-dominated House and Senate, does anyone in our ranks seriously think that we can make a dent in protecting workers’ rights and advancing an agenda for urgently needed expansion of those rights and pro-worker programs by limiting ourselves to lobbying? Will we be able to safeguard and expand Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid by confining ourselves to lobbying?
Go back to the 1930s and ’40s at a time of great labor victories, or the ‘60s when the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were passed by Congress, or the huge mobilizations of the Vietnam antiwar movement in the ’60s and ’70s, or the recent rapid surge in support of the Gay Rights movement and its fight for marriage equality. It was people marching in the streets, conducting sit-ins in segregated facilities, occupying city councils and state buildings and other acts of civil disobedience that were crucial to winning victories. In fact, the most effective form of “lobbying” has always been mass actions in the streets, where legislators look out of their windows and see nothing but an endless sea of determined protesters.
And when workers do organize and mobilize, especially in coalition with community and faith groups en masse, they can win—as they did in Ohio in a 2011 referendum, overturning SB 5 by a 69% to 31% margin. SB 5 would have abolished collective bargaining rights for the state’s public employees.
Unfortunately, today’s labor leaders, with some exceptions, do not call for mobilizations. Therefore, they preside over a movement that is largely defenseless and an easy prey to further attacks. The social movements have a better record than labor does in this regard, but it is labor with its 14 million members, in conjunction with community forces, that has the muscle to change the situation decisively through solidarity actions.
United, coordinated massive demonstrations should be called by labor, together with our allies, to demand jobs—starting with repairing our crumbling infrastructure—and stamp out poverty; increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour; restore unemployment compensation for the long-term jobless; end deportations; single payer health care; preservation of our environment, including concrete measures to deal with climate change; holding police accountable for killing unarmed African Americans; and opposing inflated military spending to finance the re-invasion of Iraq and war against Syria. Resolutions, policy statements, and speeches by labor officials and labor activists certainly have their place, but action is needed now to turn back the reactionary wave that threatens to engulf our movement and makes it harder for us to go on the offensive and win changes that benefit the working class majority.
Reliance on the Democratic Party a Proven Failure
The great majority of members of Congress are either millionaires or close to it. Their allegiance is to the big donors who bankroll their election and re-election campaigns. This applies to Democrats as well as Republicans. Union representatives are conspicuous by their absence in Congress.
Each election cycle, labor contributes hundreds of millions of dollars to business people, corporate attorneys, professional politicians and the well-to-do who dominate the Democratic Party and whose legislators, on key votes, too often betray us and vote the corporate agenda. We have cited above specific examples of where this has happened.
Labor leaders seek to justify their “lesser evil” electoral strategy by asserting, “The candidates we support are, at least, better than their opponents, who would do us greater harm.” But workers increasingly reject supporting evil—whether greater or lesser. The results of the November 4 elections prove this beyond the peradventure of a doubt. Tens of millions of workers either stayed home on election day or cast votes for the Republicans. It was a repudiation of the Democratic Party of historic proportions.
Given this, common sense mandates a re-evaluation of labor’s reliance on the Democratic Party to protect our interests. The alternative strategy, which we in the Labor Fightback Network have urged since our inception, is for labor and our community allies to run our own candidates for public office, based on a program that reflects the needs of the great majority of the population, with candidates we put forward accountable to their base. So long as we continue to depend on either of the two corporate parties to overcome the crisis that the labor movement is up against, more defeats loom in our future. It’s time for a change!