Thursday, March 24, 2011

GOP Union-Busting and the Democrats

A disarming headline: "Buried Provision In House GOP Bill Would Cut Off Food Stamps To Entire Families If One Member Strikes." Read about it here.

By comparison, attacks like this make the Democrats look good. But let's not get carried away here. The Democrats, to be sure, are not the rabid union-busters that the Republicans are. But they are hardly a friend of labor either. They receive enough money and electioneering/get-out-the-vote support from labor that the Democrats are in no position to want to completely destroy organized labor. But there are a lot of possible positions between the poles of genuine working-class political organization, on the one hand, and union-busting corporate thuggery on the other. It's not clear that it is either prudent or plausible to identify the democrats with the former simply because they aren't full-fledged proponents of the latter.

We should be clear that the Democrats are not going to revoke collective bargaining rights as such. But they will (and, in fact, already are trying to) push through punishing wage cuts, salary freezes, layoffs, pension "reforms" (read: cuts), etc. for workers. They will (and have for generations) allow the labor movement to wither on the vine and ultimately decline into oblivion. They will (and already have) push through big tax breaks and subsidize huge gains for the ruling class at the same time that they're telling the rest of us that we need to "live within our means" and "tighten our belts". They will (and always have tended to) "play both sides of the fence" and try to make it publicly appear that they are not "biased" toward either labor or capital, but are merely neutral arbiters advocating cooperation between them (their rhetorical ploy for making this argument is to fawn over the mystical "middle class"). But close analysis of what the Democrats actually do (as opposed to what they merely say around election time) shows us that even this tepid "cooperative" maneuver is disingenuous- the party clearly favors the interests of capital over the interests of the working majority.

It should be no surprise that the Democrats are using the GOP union-busting crusade as leverage to re-establish credibility with labor. This is exactly what we should expect them to do. There is virtually no cost to doing so, since the GOP is taking such an extreme position (attacking bargaining rights as such, rather than simply forcing workers to accept austerity in bargaining situations). The Dems can join in the wide public condemnation of the attack on bargaining rights as such, while keeping in line with their national perspective regarding the need for austerity for working people. They don't have to do much in the way of passing any new legislation, they needn't even commit funds to assuaging the corrosive effects of the economic crisis on workers' living standards. All that's required of them is that they stand up and say a few fine words in defense of labor- and in return they are able to generate cheap political capital with labor and pump up a legion of willing foot-soldiers for the next election cycle. It's a great deal for the opportunistic Democrats, but its a short-sighted and ultimately futile one for labor.

Though we are under great pressure to forge the recent past in a business society whose media is dominated by the ephemeral swells of spectacle, we would do well to recall what the post-2008 election terrain looked like. Obama, a young, extremely popular, enthusiastically-supported, and allegedly progressive president had just taken office. The fact that he isn't white made his election all the more significant. The Democrats had won the largest majorities in the Senate (filibuster-proof, super-majorities) and House that we have seen in generations. They had massive public support, huge congressional majorities, and a clear mandate to put forward bold, progressive reforms of the sort exemplified in the more left-wing elements of the New Deal and Great Society. Obama, in particular, had talked tough in the campaign about the need to pass the much-needed Employee Free Choice Act. He had even said to roaring crowds of workers that he would fight, tooth-and-nail to ensure that it passed. Yet what happened?

The Democrats didn't even try to bring the bill to the floor. Obama was silent. They let it die in the early months of their rule, despite having the muscle to push it through relatively easily. Don't forget: they had the trifecta: big majorities in the House, super-majority in the Senate, and a popular young President. If you can't pass a bill designed to undo the most anti-labor laws (see Taft-Hartley) with majorities like that, when can you be expected to do it? Are we supposed to wait until the Democrats get even bigger majorities? What are we fighting for when we, as supporters of the working class, try to get Democrats elected?

This question is rarely asked. The true answer from those in the labor mieleu who soldier for the Democrats is thin gruel: we must fight for Democrats to get elected because the alternative is worse. We must invest millions of dollars (that could be spent elsewhere, say, invigorating the rank and file or on new organizing campaigns) getting tepid Democrats elected because they are not Scott Walker. These folks would have us believe that this is the best we can do- the political agency of labor is exhausted by what can be done to get Democrats elected to office. What do we do, then, when Democrats attack labor? What should labor do when the "progressive" President imposes wage freezes, attacks teachers, cuts budgets, and gives away large pieces of the social product to the rich? The rejoinder is even more cynical than the original argument: we just accept that this is basically the best we can do outside of trying to back more "progressive" candidates in the primaries.

Railroading the political visions of the working class in this way is a sure-fire way to demobilize, de-energize, and ultimately destroy the labor movement. Rather than accept this tactical/organizational straight-jacket, the labor movement needs to take a sober look at its own history: how was it built? how was the 8-hr workday won? how were collective-bargaining rights obtained? how was child-labor defeated? how did the UAW win recognition?

The answer to all of these questions is: militant direct-action by workers themselves, organized independently of the two-party duopoly. None of these gains were won by way of narrow-electioneering drives to get Dems elected. In fact, the Dems only came to sell themselves as the "party of working people" in the 1930s after a massive wave of radical militancy (general strikes in 1934 in San Francisco, Toledo, Minneapolis... factory occupations and sit-down strikes in large-scale industry, etc. ). It was only after labor established itself as a powerful force in its own right that the opportunistic politicians in the Democratic party took note and decided they could forge a formidable alliance out of it. By taming the movement, defanging it, co-opting it, and giving a few concessions to the rank-and-file FDR and the Democrats purchased a legion of enthusiastic political foot-soldiers for a generation. But this was only after the upsurge in militant working-class self-organization in the 30s. It's worth noting that the co-opting maneuver wasn't accepted blindly by the rank-and-file- in fact, the UAW had voted against alliance with the Democrats at first (favoring instead an independent farmer-labor party), but were ultimately pushed by the union leadership to join ranks with the Democrats.

This is all a way of saying that we shouldn't be hoodwinked into embracing the Democrats simply because the Neanderthals in the GOP are so intent on smashing labor to smithereens. We should instead ask: where is it that the labor movement is heading, what are its goals? And then we ask: is merely electing Democrats to office going to get us there? I think the answer is quite obviously no. If you want to vote Democrat, vote Democrat. But when it comes to big, collective questions about what kind of organizations and unions we need... I think there needs to be far more resources devoted to rank-and-file militancy and organization. Rather than funneling billions to the Democrats, labor would be much better off using that money to grow its own ranks and energize, educate and mobilize it's own membership. Moreover, the Left needs to reflect on how struggles in the past were won and what we can do to learn from those moving forward. What it is obvious is that we need powerful, well-organized and politically sharp social movements that can put us in a position to change the entire framework of debate, pressure elected officials into action, and bring new people around to the ideas and arguments germane to the Left. That is not a goal compatible with the narrow electioneering approach advocated by the likes of, PDA, DSA, HRC, etc. etc. It is antithetical to it- it brushes against the grain of the idea that there is something irrational, illicit, or brash about independence from the Democrats.

It's not for nothing that many on the Left call the Democratic Party the "graveyard of social movements". After being co-opted by opportunistic, top-down Democrats its not for nothing that social movements go into decline. The most recent example is Wisconsin. The struggle there continues, sure, but nobody would say that it is as vibrant, energized, or forward-looking as it was only 3 weeks ago. Why is that? The energy was extinguished, the struggles wound-down, the movement dispersed by the Democrats who co-opted it and transformed it into a re-election campaign. From the podium they told crowds numbering in the hundreds of thousands to lay down their placards and pick up petitions for recall. They poo-pooed the idea of further mobilization or strike action. They took something organic, progressive, and bottom-up and defused it. Far less attention is being paid to Madison now because far less is going on. Much of the euphoria and enthusiasm and organizational energy has subsided, precisely because of the cooptation (favored by union leadership) by the opportunistic Democrats. People bought into the Democrat mantra because they believe that this is the best they can hope for. But that is false. A quick glance at history (not even- just look at Egpyt and Tunisia!) shows that we have the power to ask for a lot more when we're organized together. The defeatist, cynical soldiering for the Democrats has to stop. It is nothing but a recipe for the long-term decline if not eclipse of the Left.

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