Barack Obama

We Won’t Pay for the Bosses’ Crisis

Unemployment LineOnly a year after the elation that followed his victory, the general consensus is that Barack Obama hasn’t actually done very much; other than continue his predecessor’s policies in one form or another. He has certainly not delivered on the “hope and change” he promised. For many, “hope and change” meant, quite simply, “jobs.” We have seen where things stand on that count. In December, unemployment rose in 43 states. In April, an incredible 2.7 million jobless Americans are set to lose their paltry unemployment benefits, doomed to become part of the “new poor,” a permanent under-class of the long-term unemployed. How much longer will workers and young people have to pay for the bosses’ crisis?

The Democrats cynically use the “filibuster” provision in the Senate rules as an excuse not to do anything. When the Democrats had a majority in Congress while Bush was in power, they rarely, if ever, used the filibuster. Instead, they approved his tax cuts and bailout for the rich and billions in war spending. According to the U.S. Constitution, the current Democratic majority in the Senate could get rid of the filibuster with a simple majority vote. But they are more worried about actually making any changes than they are at getting a drubbing at the polls in the midterm elections.

As the saying goes, appetite comes with eating, and the last thing they want to do is give a few crumbs that could set in motion a mass movement that could get out of their control. The bottom line is, Obama is far too wedded to the corporations that put him in power to actually challenge them in any significant way. This reality is slowly dawning on those who supported him, and many have already broken with him. Nonetheless, for lack of an alternative, the illusions remain among many.

Mark Zandi, chief economist and co-founder of Moody’s recently told MSNBC: “This Great Recession is an inflection point for the economy in many respects. I think the unemployment rate will be permanently higher, or at least higher for the foreseeable future.” This “new reality” means that the situation confronting young workers, and in particular black and Latino youth, is worse than ever.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported that among those aged 16-to-24, the unemployment rate is an astonishing 53.4%, the highest rate for workers in that age group since records began in 1948. That’s over 20 million young people languishing on the unemployment lines with few if any prospects of finding work. Never since World War Two has youth unemployment surpassed 50%. In Illinois, only 37% of young African Americans had a job in December 2009. 75% of young black males in Illinois are unemployed. Just 14% of young black teenagers in Illinois had a job at the end of 2009. When it comes to access to health care, the youth are also on the wrong end of the stick. An estimated 13.2 million of uninsured Americans are young adults.

Although the youth are led to believe that a college education is one of the only ways to get ahead in life, access is severely limited to those who can afford it. Grants and scholarships are few and far between. And after taking out massive loans, thus beginning a lifetime trail of debt that keeps young people perpetually chained to the system as soon as they’re out of the gates, there is no work to be found. The situation facing students in California, and their response to the crisis, is a prime example of what will be repeated in one form or another across the country in the coming period.

The working class is being hammered by the crisis. Former industrial powerhouses with tens of thousands of good union jobs have become ghost towns. In Cleveland, for example, the poverty rate is more than 30% and the population has collapsed from 900,000 to less than 450,000 since 1950. Frustration with the lack of a genuine alternative on the political plane will eventually lead to workers expressing themselves through the only traditional mass organizations we have at present in the US – the unions. Although strike activity has been at historically low levels in recent years, important changes can already be seen and big explosions are being prepared just below the surface.

Richard TrumkaIn a January interview with Bill Moyers on PBS, Richard Trumka, President of the AFL-CIO, responded to a question about whether he was advocating a return to class war by saying: “The class war has been on [the last ten years], but my class has been losing.”

We couldn’t agree more! Taken as a whole, it was a much more militant and proactive face for organized labor than we have seen in the US in decades. Nonetheless, he stubbornly advocated the need to continue supporting the Democrats. He seemed more than a bit uncomfortable when Moyers said, “It makes me sometimes wonder why you hang around with Democrats so much, because it was a Democratic President, Bill Clinton, and a Democratic Vice President, Al Gore, who fought hard for NAFTA. And at the time, I– it seemed to me that the Democrats were destroying their working class base by agreeing to ship industrial and manufacturing jobs abroad.” Trumka in effect replied that they still might deliver.

Later in the interview, Moyers asked him: “You are taking to the streets. I mean, you were arrested a few weeks ago in that demonstration for hotel workers out in San Francisco. Are you calling for more militancy? For more mobilization? More action in the street?”

Trumka’s response reflected the pressures he is under; from the rank and file he was elected to defend, who want more militant action, and his role as arbiter between the classes, through the vehicle of keeping Labor tied to the Democrats:

“Absolutely. More mobilization. More education. I don’t know whether you call it militancy or not. But it is more education, so our members know who is really doing it to them. Here’s the model that we see. Instead of going after a politician and elected 60 people to the Senate, we create a groundswell of support for an issue that will get more than 60 votes. And those that don’t vote for it do so at their own peril.”

Trumka and his colleagues in the Change to Win federation headed by SEIU’s Andy Stern will not be able to resist the pressure from below forever. Sooner or later they will be forced to do more than coordinate call-in campaigns to Congress or get arrested at the occasional picket line. In short, they will have to do what they are supposed to do: lead the struggle against the bosses’ attacks.

Leo GerardLeo Gerard, president of the United Steel Workers, is another example of a “left of center” labor leader being pushed further to the left, at least in words, on the basis of the crisis. The USW is the largest manufacturing workers’ union in the US, and also represents workers in Canada. In a recent article he wrote for Black History Month, he clearly has illusions that America can once again be prosperous within the limits of capitalism, that we can somehow go back to the “good old days” of the 1950s and 60s. He does, however, call for the creation of 2.5 million new manufacturing jobs, and several times in the article he calls on “America’s youth to lead another revolution” to fight for these jobs. As he puts it: “Sisters and brothers of the next generation, it’s time for a revolution. It’s time to stand up and be heard. It’s time to mobilize online and in the streets. Together, let’s tweet, Facebook and text. Let’s rally, vote and, where necessary, sit in. Let’s lead the civil rights movement 2.0.”

These kinds of words have not been heard on major labor leaders’ lips in many years. It is also interesting to note that in Canada, the USW and Gerard himself support the New Democratic Party, Canada’s labor party, while in the US he continues to look to the capitalist Democratic Party for some kind of relief. Eventually that contradiction will have to be addressed. It is around figures like Gerard that some kind of support for a mass party of labor in the US Could eventually gain support.

In the aftermath of the Massachusetts elections, Richard Trumka stated that, “It’s time to organize and mobilize as never before to make every elected or aspiring leader prove he or she will create the jobs we need in an economy we need with the health care we need. I know we are the people who can mobilize a massive army to force elected leaders to deliver.”

The South Carolina AFL-CIO, long-time supporters of the more or less defunct Labor Party, have taken Trumka on his word and called for a labor march on Washington to pressure the government for jobs. This is an important step forward and should be replicated and put into effect across the country, starting with the entire AFL-CIO and Change to win federations. However, pressuring the Big Business incumbents is not enough.

A recent Supreme Court ruling now allows corporations to pour even more money, in an open way, into their favored candidates’ campaigns. Apparently, some labor leaders think this will allow them to compete on a more even playing field when it comes to lobbying Congress. This is an absurd idea. The four largest banks in the US would have to devote a mere one-tenth of one percent of their assets to counter a campaign in which the whole of the Labor Movement spent all of its assets. The only way forward is on a class-independent basis, relying only on the Labor Movement’s considerable numbers and resources. This is why we are in favor of a mass party of labor, based n the unions.


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