Jerry Brown Widens The Chasm Between Labor and the Democratic Party

Ann Robertson and Bill Leumer

Ann Robertson and Bill Leumer

With the November elections rapidly approaching, most Americans are unimpressed and uninvolved, having concluded that elections have changed little in their struggling lives, despite all the promises of politicians. But a minority of the population is intensely immersed in partisan politics, doing whatever they can to promote the politicians of their choice. Corporations, Wall Street, the rich in general, and small business owners are deeply immersed in political elections, because they have a keen understanding of who will defend their interests. Usually only workers in unions tend to take more than a casual interest in politics.

Unions typically throw themselves into the electoral competition. They do everything: donate money, organize phone banks, and send their members out to canvass neighborhoods and distribute political literature. And they almost always support candidates from the Democratic Party, given the virulent pro-business ideology of the Republican Party.

But while Democrats have generously paid lip service to the concerns of labor, they, too, are pro-business, accepting huge sums of money from Wall Street and corporate America. In fact, Democrats often receive even larger contributions from big business than the Republicans. Consequently, once elected, they soon forget the enticing slogans (“jobs,” clean energy,” “universal health care,” “peace,” etc.) they used to lure working people to vote for them, and they get down to the serious business of quietly helping big business.

However, the governor’s race in California has proven to be an exception to this dull ritual. Democrat Jerry Brown, who is currently attorney general of the state and was governor decades ago, in a rare candid moment, told working people exactly what he plans to do.

He wants to cut the pensions of public employees. He boasts that when he was governor back in the 70s and 80s, he vetoed pay raises for state employees twice. He insists that he will tell labor leaders that they will have to “put everything on the table,” meaning that he will demand state workers make concessions on possibly everything. In other words, he is fully prepared to “do some things that organized labor doesn’t like.”

And still he has the endorsement of labor unions, including the California Labor Federation. One can only wonder if the labor movement might harbor suicidal tendencies, given that unions are endorsing a candidate who sounds remarkably anti-labor. But the unions insist that their decision is entirely rational, arguing that Meg Whitman, Jerry Brown’s Republican opponent, is even worse.

Meanwhile, the California Democratic Party recently unveiled its tax reform program. Democrats want to raise income taxes on everyone in the state except the wealthiest 1 percent of the population, despite the fact that this small, rich minority has enjoyed a huge spike in their income during recent decades and despite the chronic California budget deficit.

There can be little wonder why workers take such minimal interest in politics, given the choice between the two major parties during election season. Working people have clearly concluded that there is little in it for them. And when union officials support Democratic Party candidates, rather than sparking an interest in politics among their membership, they often end up alienating the rank and file from their own unions.

This alienation between workers and their unions then becomes even further exacerbated. Once a union forges an alliance with the Democratic Party, their internal politics are transformed. They claim to fight for the needs of their members, but only within a very restricted framework that is acceptable to the Democratic Party.

For example, union officials avoid striking, because the Democratic Party opposes strikes for the reason that their corporate contributors are virulently opposed to them. Although the AFL-CIO has argued that wars are one of several key reasons for the burgeoning federal deficit, it has refused to embrace the demand to bring all U.S. troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan now — even though the majority of Americans support this alternative — because they are worried about embarrassing the Democrats, who are currently committed to keeping troops in both countries. Although the AFL-CIO is on record opposing cuts to Social Security benefits, some AFL-CIO officials are refusing to embrace this demand publicly, again for fear of placing the Democrats in a bad light, since Obama has indicated that he is going to support such cuts. And the AFL-CIO will mute their demand for the creation of millions of jobs because Obama has recently made his position crystal clear: “I’ve never believed that government’s role is to create jobs or prosperity,” he said. “I believe it’s the private sector that must be the main engine of our recovery.” The fact that the private sector is not creating enough jobs to keep up with demand, let alone reduce the unemployment rate, evidently does not bother him.

In other words, because of their alliance to the Democratic Party, when union officials wage a struggle on behalf of their members, both hands are tied behind their backs and their feet are shackled.

In this way, working people not only become alienated from mainstream politics but from their own unions. Yet because we are now embroiled in the worst recession since the Great Depression, the needs of working people have sharply intensified, resulting in an even greater disconnect between what they need and what their unions are officially fighting for. Given these tendencies, there can be little surprise that union membership has been on a steady decline since its high in the 1950s.

Consequently, the union movement is rapidly approaching a historic crossroads. It can remain tied to the Democratic Party while trying to obfuscate to its membership the fundamental anti-working class program of the Democratic Party, including the Obama administration’s pro-charter school campaign that is nothing short of union-busting. This option will lead to organized labor’s growing irrelevancy and declining membership.

Or the union movement can break with the Democratic Party, raise demands that respond fully to the needs of its members, and then mobilize the rank and file in huge mass demonstrations in the streets so that working people begin to rely entirely on themselves, not on the Democratic Party, to win their demands. Here they will be adopting the tactics of the 1930s that proved so successful. When the demands are formulated on the basis of what the rank and file truly need and when huge demonstrations are organized, working people will recognize that their unions are putting up a real fight, they will become inspired, and they will want to join in.

Of course, in the final analysis, this alternative points in the direction of creating a labor party — a party that will fight exclusively in the interests of working people rather than first giving Wall Street and the corporations everything they want while letting workers fight among themselves for the leftover crumbs. And as a step in the direction of a labor party, unions could right now start running their own independent candidates in elections rather than supporting Democrats who then kick labor in the face.

Already the seeds of a labor party are being sewn. A class struggle leadership within the union movement is beginning to emerge in relation to the mass demonstration being called by the AFL-CIO and the NAACP in Washington, D.C. on October 2nd. Some union leaders are refusing to whittle down their demands but are responding positively to the Workers Emergency Recovery Campaign (www.wercampaign.org), a nationwide grassroots independent organization of working people, and its call to raise demands on October 2nd that fully reflect the true needs of working people. These demands include a government program to create 15 million jobs at Wall Street’s expense; a moratorium on home foreclosures; taxing the rich to fully fund public education and social services; calling for hands off Social Security; withdrawing all troops from Iraq and Afghanistan now; passing the Employee Free Choice Act; granting immediate legalization to undocumented workers; and creating a government-run health care system for all.

Also, U.S. Labor Against War, a coalition that has nearly two hundred union affiliates, is refusing to dilute its demand that all troops should be withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan now. And the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA), in opposition to Democratic Party policy, has condemned the Guest Worker programs and has called for full rights for all undocumented workers.

October 2nd is consequently unfolding as a battlefield over demands. The choice is stark: Either submit to the desires of corporations and the Democratic Party and dilute the demands or stand firmly on the side of working people and demand all that is needed in order to raise our standard of living and ensure us job security. All out for October 2nd!

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About Ann Robertson and Bill Leumer

View all posts by Ann Robertson and Bill Leumer
Ann Robertson is a Lecturer at San Francisco State University and a member of the California Faculty Association. Bill Leumer is a member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local 853 (ret.). Both are writers for Workers Action and may be reached at sanfrancisco@workerscompass.org.