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Commentary :: Labor : Politics
The U.S. Presidential Election: What’s at Stake for American Labor?
01 Nov 2004
election analysis just published in the Swedish magazine, Oreda. . .

Labor unions have been the main expression of working class aspirations in the United States since the 1800s when the American Federation of Labor (AFL) made the fateful decision to construct unions almost purely as organizations of economic power for its members—consciously ceding political power to the capitalist-dominated major political parties, and refusing to form a working-class party or to pursue alternative libertarian political forms. In fact, American unions have often avoided acting in the interests of all working people in favor of literally focusing on gains for its members alone. And for much of American unions’ history, its members have been predominantly white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant males.
The U.S. Presidential Election: What’s at Stake for American Labor?
by Jason Pramas

Labor unions have been the main expression of working class aspirations in the United States since the 1800s when the American Federation of Labor (AFL) made the fateful decision to construct unions almost purely as organizations of economic power for its members—consciously ceding political power to the capitalist-dominated major political parties, and refusing to form a working-class party or to pursue alternative libertarian political forms. In fact, American unions have often avoided acting in the interests of all working people in favor of literally focusing on gains for its members alone. And for much of American unions’ history, its members have been predominantly white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant males.

As such, the mainstream of the American labor movement’s political strategy has been extremely limited compared to its counterparts around the world, and at some points has also been as racist, sexist and xenophobic as any right-wing nationalist party.

American labor, however, is also a many-headed beast and at times left-populist, socialist, anarcho-syndicalist, and communist tendencies have organized significant movements that have shaken the U.S. political and economic establishments to their core, forced significant progressive change in government, extracted significant concessions from American corporations, and nearly taken control of labor’s highest institutions in the bargain.

Yet these threats from the left have always been beaten back by the AFL and its successor organization the AFL-CIO (following a 1955 merger with the more militant Congress of Industrial Organizations). For the past 30 years since the unauthorized “wildcat” strikes and grassroots democratic labor upheavals of the late 1960s and early 1970s (plus concerted efforts by a briefly resurgent Marxist-Leninist movement culminating in the mid-1970s), and despite episodic movements for internal union democracy and a more left-wing political policies, the AFL-CIO has been run by a coterie of what would probably be called right-wing social democrats in Europe.

In terms of the current American Presidential election this translates to “business as usual” for American labor. That is to say that current AFL-CIO leadership—an unelected corporatist leadership in the words of Harry Kelber, a noted New York City based advocate of union democracy—has to hold together a loose coalition of nearly 70 major unions all while ensuring a seat at the American political table after over 40 years of steady decrease in the percentage of unionized workers in the U.S. The easiest way for the AFL-CIO to maintain any kind of political power at all is to continue to tie their fortunes to the Democratic Party.

This state of affairs between American labor and the Democrats has continued unabated since the “New Deal” Democratic administration of Franklin Roosevelt first entered the White House in 1932. During a period of militant left-wing led strikes and political agitation in the early 1930s, the Roosevelt administration passed a number of social democratic reforms that benefited millions of American workers and preserved capitalist control over the U.S. The Democratic dominated government of the period also began to actively pursue a “tripartite” style of labor management where leaders from the “iron triangle” of business, government and the unions would all participate in forming industrial and economic policy in the U.S. Most union leaders, including Communist union leaders during the World War II détente with the Soviet Union, happily went along with this arrangement—even after the right-wing resurgence famously known as the McCarthy Era began to weaken labor’s position within this triangle as early as 1946.

From the Roosevelt administration through to the Johnson administration in the 1960s, AFL, CIO, and AFL-CIO leadership won a variety of modest political gains for workers through their partnership with the Democrats—culminating in the passage of the Medicare program in 1965, a watered-down version of European-style national health systems that mainly helped the old and the infirm.

In exchange, American labor used its not inconsiderable financial and organizational resources to help Democrats win political office at every level from city councils to the presidency itself. However, by the Republican Nixon administration of the late 1960s, a combination of technological developments, capitalist economic crises, new management techniques, and conservative bureaucratic inertia by American labor leaders weakened American unions and their position in the U.S. political system. From their 1952 height of 32 percent union membership “density” in American labor markets, by 1970 the percentage of union members in the U.S. was falling below 25 percent.

Over the next 25 years, old-guard conservative leadership in the AFL-CIO saw union density decline from 25 percent to under 15 percent. To maintain political power, the AFL-CIO—according to political scientist Taylor Dark—was able to raise union dues to actually increase the amount of money that it had available to give the Democrats. Under the new more “progressive” leadership of John Sweeney starting in 1995, the AFL-CIO also began to build an extremely strong system of political organizers that were able to mobilize tens of thousands of union activists to help Democratic political campaigns—literally the only real street-level political apparatus available to the Democrats in an age when most of its once-strong city-based political machine had disappeared.

But as time went on, American labor got less and less from the Democrats—finding itself betrayed over and over again by the party it maintained in power by donations of hundreds of millions of dollars, and by grassroots organizing drives led by its own members. In 1993, President Clinton’s promised national health system went down to ignominious defeat when the Democrats simultaneously controlled the presidency and the Congress thanks to the power of the health corporation lobby, and the Democrats’ growing neoliberalism. More importantly, the global corporate drive for political and economic hegemony in the shape of so-called “trade” treaties came to be spearheaded at least as much by Democratic leaders as Republican ones. So NAFTA was rammed through by the Clinton administration over the protests of the AFL-CIO. And with the exception of labor’s defeat of Clinton in leading the successful drive to deny him “fast-track” power to sign corporate globalization treaties without Congressional approval in 1997, the neoliberal “Democratic Leadership Council” that dominated the Democrats (and was co-founded by Clinton himself), and the multinationals they allied with, got everything they wanted.

In fact, the Republican Bush administration that stole the American presidency in 2000 actually helped slow down the process of corporate globalization in many important respects by championing nationalist “paleo-conservative” positions on economic and political policy that derailed the international political partnership moving the neoliberal project forward to total victory. Following 9/11 and the Iraq war, the Bush administration moved towards a policy of binational trade agreements with powerless countries that it could easily bully, and away from multilateral agreements where it could not guarantee total American control.

Now in Fall 2004 it’s election time in the U.S. again. Two choices are before the American labor movement and the American people. A Democrat, John Kerry. And a Republican, George Bush. Having just concluded a very short summation of the relationship between American labor and the Democrats, it should be easy for readers to deduce that the AFL-CIO and virtually all of the unions in its federation have backed John Kerry for the presidency. Just like they always do. This year they are spending a record high of over $300 million to get a Democrat elected, and ideally to gain back control of both houses of the Congress, too.

A majority of voting Americans agree with this choice according to current polls, and over 2/3 of union members will actually vote Democrat as well—this in a pathetic barely-democratic two-party system where only about 50 percent of eligible voters actually see any point in voting at all.

But will John Kerry actually be better than George Bush in terms of how his administration treats the American labor movement, and by default, the American working class? And will things really be worse if he loses?

The answer to these questions are “yes” and “yes.” Yes, Kerry’s administration will be better than Bush’s, but not because he will allow labor to make any significant advances in rights or political power. If the Democrats get back in power it means that there will be temporary halt to the destruction of the remaining social democratic reforms—including the pending Republican challenge to very legal existence of labor unions. But there will be no significant gains either. For labor and for the left-wing in general, Democratic administrations usually preside over more favorable periods for organizing than Republican administrations. But again, we can expect no rollback of the civil liberties destroying Patriot Act (which most Democrats voted for in the wake of 9/11, and which Kerry actually wrote language for), or a swift end to the occupation of Iraq. Not without a significant struggle.

And yes, despite all this, things will really be worse if Bush loses. Even though Kerry is probably worse in terms of his eagerness to advance the neoliberal project, to suborn American democracy to rule by multinational corporations, and to accelerate the destruction of the planet in the process, Bush is a right-wing religious nationalist in control of the largest arsenal in world history. Bush is also a creature of corporations, but of a very specific wing of the corporate hegemons—the energy cartel. And even more specifically, the American energy cartel. The very same cartel that has aroused the fury of the global community by prosecuting a war for control over Iraq’s oil after putting its own puppet (Bush) and much of its leadership (Cheney, Rice et al) into the presidency and numerous ministerial positions for that very purpose. The Bush administration—with all the money, weapons and political strength of the presidency of the world’s only current superpower—rightfully scares the world and majority of Americans far more than a Kerry administration would. And labor knows that a Bush second term will spell a much faster and more brutal death sentence than the slow death by attrition that it will face under Kerry or any other Democratic administration.

Both choices facing American labor are bad. So, under the circumstances, the AFL-CIO made the best available choice backing Kerry.

And yet it has not. Many of us in and around the American labor movement, feel there are a number of other good options. For some, it would make a great deal of sense to throw their weight behind Ralph Nader (running as an indpendent candidate for President), or David Cobb (running as a Green Party candidate)—if for no other reason than to teach the Democrats a lesson. And in truth, many left labor people bemoan the lack of a working class party in this country, and would actually prefer to see the dozen or so American unions behind the now-moribund Labor Party they helped found in 1996 convince the AFL-CIO to back that effort in a real way instead of backing the Greens or any other smaller left party.

There are also some who believe that, while not overtly backing Bush, labor could really benefit by his victory. There are two schools of thought within this camp. One feels that the neoliberal Democratic Leadership Council that has dominated the Democratic Party for two decades will never survive another Republican victory and that more progressive (left social democratic) leadership would take over the Democrats and usher in another “golden age” for labor like the New Deal of the 1930s. The other, like Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), believes that a Bush victory would give his New Unity Partnership (NUP) of the SEIU and 4 other large industrial unions the ability to either force the AFL-CIO to accept a European-style bureaucratization and rationalization of the labor movement along industrial lines under new NUP leadership, or allow NUP unions to leave the AFL-CIO and forming a new union federation. Taking 10 million of the AFL-CIO’s 13 million members along with it.

Finally, there are many of us on the libertarian left within labor, who feel that we need to create broad social movements that can mobilize sufficient numbers of working people to fundamentally change the political system, sweeping all the old political parties and systems out of the way, and building a new politics based on direct democracy in every area of life in the process. In the 21st century, to badly paraphrase the 1970s American TV show the Six Million Dollar Man, “we have the technology” to make this kind of fundamental leap in human development. And as our new movements build on the ashes of the old, we could at least make the existing political parties “dance” in a way that benefits millions of people in the U.S. and around the world. If the American labor movement, in concert with other social movements, would simply say to the Democrats, “You want our help this election? Then get out of Iraq. Give us national health. Allow people the freedom to organize collectively on the job in whatever way they wish. Dismantle the IMF and World Bank,” then we’d be getting somewhere.

Then at least we’d be moving forward for a change. And winning such victories would whet people’s appetite for more. It would not be an easy path to tread, and there is always the possibility that new militant social movements, including a new labor movement, would settle for a few reforms and leave the revolution until it was too late for humanity and the planet. But it would still be a better road for American labor than the one it travels now.

****************
Jason Pramas is Networking Director of Massachusetts Global Action in Boston, MA, USA—a new organizing and resource center for communities facing the negative effects of corporate globalization. He is a union member with SEIU Local 888, a longtime labor activist, and was coordinator of the recent Boston Social Forum. He plans to vote for the dead Swedish-American comrade, Joe Hill (Joel Hägglund), for President in the upcoming election.
See also:
http://www.massglobalaction.org
http://www.oreda.org

This work licensed under a
Creative Commons license.
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Comments

Re: The U.S. Presidential Election: What’s at Stake for American Labor?
01 Nov 2004
Question:
What do you call someone who stands for nothing?

Answer:
John Forbes KERRY
Kerry's in for a hell of a ride
01 Nov 2004
Yes, because the global social movement that was ignited in this country in the early 90s, will go on with our without Kerry. But PLEASE let's not waste our time making Kerry a scapegoat. We need to focus on the issues and make an intelligent stand. Kerry does stand for some things (like the environment) and he also represents the privileged class. Third parties are not built from the top-bottom, they are built from local elections and grassroot movements up.

ps: awesome article, by the way
Re: The U.S. Presidential Election: What’s at Stake for American Labor?
02 Nov 2004
Brilliant article; too bad the conclusion is dead on...Kerry's the only choice for labor...but sofiushka has it right too...social movements should hold his feet to the fire if he's elected
Re: The U.S. Presidential Election: What’s at Stake for American Labor?
03 Nov 2004
...suppose it may be helpful some times to belabor the obvious to try and get newcomers "up to speed" but honestly, there's nothing new in any of this, just another brief summation of how we got where we are, crying in our beer and wistfully dreaming to "create new social movements" and "sweeping all the old... out of the way" like the Six Million $ Man. Great! But the 6 million $ question is and always has been: how do we get there from here? We may "have the technology" but we hardly have a concrete political roadmap ...we eagerly your sequel on what comes next. (And you'd better be a little careful about how you define any "revolution" as they often turn out to be authoritarian left rather than libertarian left... as you surely must know.)
Re: The U.S. Presidential Election: What’s at Stake for American Labor?
05 Nov 2004
Puleeze, ahem. A good bit of the ground I covered in my piece is far from obvious to folks not involved heavily in (or at least researching) the U.S. labor movement.

In any case, the piece was written specifically at the request of a Swedish magazine, and therefore naturally contains much more historical and political background than I would have written for an American audience. Still, I thought that I should share it with Indymedia readers since I put alot of work into it, and figured some people might find it instructive.

And I must say it's silly to take me to task for ending the piece on a bit of an up note. My mere inferrance that, essentially, another world is possible, does not require me to produce a "roadmap" to that better future on the spot.

However, if you have such a roadmap, I'm sure IMC readers would love to see it.