Where Is Labor's Voice in the 2010 Elections?

CMPL Statement on the Midterm Elections

(If you agree with the perspective outlined below, we urge you to join the Campaign for a Mass Party of Labor and help us raise these ideas in our unions, workplaces, schools, and neighborhoods.)

The 2010 midterm elections are now less than a week away, and the media is ramping up its coverage of the candidates and the “issues.” There is plenty of coverage about the need to make “hard choices” when it comes to budget cuts and the deficit, the latest declarations of the Tea Party, or the debate over raising or lowering taxes on small businesses in order to create a handful of jobs. But little attention is paid to the real root of the problem facing American workers: an economy unable to generate the millions of jobs needed to replace those lost during the last few years and to keep up with the growing population. Nor do the media pundits state the obvious: the budget shortfalls which now require such drastic sacrifices on our part are the result of billions being spent on foreign wars, and even greater amounts handed out with few or no strings attached to bail out the banks, insurance, and mortgage giants.

And yet it is not these massive Wall Street corporations, responsible as they are for the crisis, that are being made to pay. It is the workers, who bear no responsibility for this mess, who are being made to shoulder the load, directly and indirectly. And yet, with so much at stake for the working majority of the country, in terms of who decides budget priorities at the federal, state, and local level, the voices of labor are few and far between. Where is labor’s voice in the midterm elections?

The limits of third party campaigns

Although there are a handful of candidates across the country standing against the Democrats and Republicans and their well-oiled electoral machinery, the fact is that few if any of these candidates stand any chance at being elected, even to local offices. On top of the millions spent by the major party candidates and their campaigns, there has been a 367% increase in outside spending this electoral cycle, as compared to the 2006 midterms. It is a big money race, and only those with deep pockets or well-heeled friends in high places need apply. Without resources and a mass backing, third party candidates will almost always end up in third place, no matter how good their platform is. In most races, therefore, we are once again left with more of the same: a race between corporate-backed candidate #1 and corporate-backed candidate #2.

In light of this, some have compared the U.S. electoral process to a “work” in professional wrestling. In public, the wrestlers from opposing camps are mortal enemies, say the most outrageous things about each other, and even smash chairs on their opponents’ heads in order to build up a rivalry that will attract interest from the fans. But backstage things are very different. They are all friends and part of the same show business production, partners in the business of filling seats and selling pay-per-views. The parallels with big business politics would almost be funny if it weren’t so tragic for the working class. But it isn’t at all funny when millions are losing their homes, their jobs, and their hope.

Hope for real change is a powerful motivator. Just two years ago, the deep-seated desire for change in this country was heavy in the air. Literally millions of Americans flocked to catch a glimpse of Obama on the campaign trail, many with tears of joy in their eyes. People saw in him what they wanted to see: jobs, health care, education, and an end to the wars. For a few months, they were willing to “wait and see” what he would do to make things better. Then a year passed. Then another. Now millions Americans are starting to realize what seemed unthinkable to them just two years ago: the real Obama is much like every other big business politician.

Obama continues in Bush’s footsteps

The proof is in his policies, many of which echo Bush’s down to the letter. There has been no significant help for families whose homes have been foreclosed; No Employee Free Choice Act (card check); No repeal of Taft-Hartley or other anti-union laws; No universal health care; No universal education; No massive program of useful public works to create millions of jobs and rebuild the country’s crumbling infrastructure.

On the contrary, it has been “business as usual” as corporate CEO pay has skyrocketed to even more absurd levels while the rest of us wonder whether we’ll have a job or even a roof over or heads next month. No wonder the majority of American workers are unimpressed with the options before them in the midterms. No wonder the Democrats have to deal with an “enthusiasm gap.” No wonder it is seen by many as a referendum on Obama. And yet, after two years of near total inaction on issues of importance to labor, Obama is now desperately appealing to the unions to help keep the Democrats in power. And unfortunately, instead of calling him out as a defender of big business and proposing a concrete alternative, most union leaders are bending over backwards to oblige him.

All too often, American workers are compelled to vote “against” this or that, as opposed to “for” something they actually want. Instead of presenting a positive plan to not only save, but expand Social Security and Medicare in the face of Republican plans to privatize the system, raise the retirement age, and cut benefits, the labor leaders try to scare us into voting for the Democrats, who in reality only offer variations on the same policy. Instead of offering an optimistic vision of what is possible in the richest and most productive country on earth, we are told by the labor leaders merely to vote “against” the Tea Party. This is the result of their policy of economic and political partnership with the bosses. But pressure is mounting for them to change tack.

Thousands of union members are saying “enough is enough!” They instinctively understand that it’s high time the American working class had its own political party, a mass party of labor based on the unions.

Changing mood

Already, there are signs of this changing mood. Under pressure from the rank and file, union contributions to Democratic Party candidates are down this electoral cycle. In North Carolina, the NC Families First Party, a state-wide labor party organized by SEIU has laid the groundwork for future campaigns against the Democrats and Republicans. In South Carolina, the Labor Party has been revived and is running a candidate for the SC House of Representatives. In Pittsburgh, the Steelworkers at least flirted with the idea of running one of their own against the incumbent Democrat in the midterms, although in the end they didn’t run a candidate.

In addition, the modestly successful October 2nd mobilization for jobs in Washington, DC was the first significant stirring of the American workers since the crisis began. It was an indication that workers are willing to fight against the cuts and for jobs. Although many speakers tried to turn it into a pep rally for the Democrats, it wasn’t so easy to do, as many of the tens of thousands of workers present weren’t having it. Just two years ago, the union tops had no problem calling openly for a vote for the Democrats. Now they have to call for a vote “against” the Republicans.

Also under pressure from below, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka has made increasingly militant statements in the run up to the elections. For example, he recently said that “Charting a new course for our economy requires that we understand the causes behind wage stagnation and growing inequality over the past 35 years. And prominent among those causes is the free market orthodoxy that has served the interests of our nation’s wealthiest families and most powerful institutions but left the vast majority of working families behind.”

Condemning “free market orthodoxy” for the crisis facing “the vast majority of working families” is a bold statement coming from the leader of millions of organized workers. Unfortunately, Trumka has also done his utmost to mobilize a disillusioned rank and file to get out the vote for the Democrats, who, like the Republicans, are defenders of that same “free market orthodoxy.” In a pre-election conference call with president Obama and thousands of union activists, Trumka outlined the support the unions have given the Democrats, which Obama has called the “backbone” of the electoral campaign: “For every dollar spent by corporate CEOs, you’ve knocked on one door, dialed one number, handed out one leaflet. One voter at a time, you’ve been erasing those millions of dollars to let our opponents know that democracy isn’t for sale. We’re not for sale.”

It’s time for the labor leaders to draw the necessary conclusions from their statements. The solution to the problem facing workers is right there in Trumka’s own words. The labor movement is strong enough to be the “backbone” of a national political campaign. But instead of mobilizing to elect candidates from the pro-corporate Democratic Party, it’s time for our leadership to break with the parties of the corporations and build our own mass political party. It’s time for them realize that there can be no meaningful “partnership” with parties that will never in a thousand years represent anyone but the rich. It’s time to stop throwing good money and resources after bad. It’s time to use the substantial resources of the labor movement to run independent labor candidates in 2012, and lay the foundation for a mass party of labor in the years ahead. Instead of making excuses for the Democrats’ lack of action, it’s time for labor to stand on its own two feet, both at the workplace and at the polls.

Even bigger attacks coming

Whichever corporate party gets control of Congress, the states, and local government, we can be sure of one thing: the working majority of this country will not have a real political voice to fight in our interests. A whole series of austerity measures and cuts are already in the pipeline, and without genuine political representation for the workers, the rank and file will pressure the labor leadership to fight back against these attacks. Trumka and the rest of the leadership should give a bold lead on this front as well, using the unions’ structures and resources to mobile the organized as well as the unorganized in the workplace, in the schools and universities, and on the streets. The recent mass workers’ and students’ strikes and blockades against cuts in Social Security in France, where even fewer workers are unionized than in the U.S., shows that it is more than possible for unions in the U.S. to lead such struggles, provided the leadership does what they were elected to do: lead.

However, even the most successful fight back against this or that cut or closure will have a limited effect in the long term unless it is linked with a broader political struggle. Unless and until such militant actions in the workplace and on the streets are backed up with legislation and enforcement to protect the gains we achieve in these struggles, they will always be in danger of being rolled back. This is just another reason we need a labor party, to fight on the political plane in concert with mobilizations on the streets.

Winners and losers

It would be impossible, and frankly, not very productive to try to predict the exact results of these elections. We’ll know the results soon enough. But we can predict that frustration with the two party system will likely be expressed in high abstentionism. Many people can’t see the point of voting when no matter what, things seem to keep getting worse.

So the Democrats may well squeak out a “victory” for their party by retaining control of Congress. With the memory of Bush and co. fresh in their minds, just enough voters may hold their noses and go to the polls anyway, to try to keep the so-called “lesser evil” out of power. But it is also possible that the millions of demoralized Obama 2008 supporters will simply stay home in disgust, giving Congress over to the so-called “greater evil”.

Either way, the “will of the people” will be determined by just a fraction of the population, and in most cases, the only ones with any real chance at winning will be those with enough personal riches or wealthy backers to spend hundreds of thousands and even millions on their campaigns. So in the end, no matter who “wins,” we can predict the loser: the American workers. Because it’s six of one or half a dozen of the other. Or as the great rock band The Who sang in their classic Won’t Get Fooled Again: “Meet the new boss… Same as the old boss…”

But we don’t need to keep losing elections. We don’t need to keep voting for “boss #1” or “boss #2.” We don’t need to keep getting “fooled again.” We don’t need to limit ourselves to “third” parties and third place. There is another way forward. Since workers are the majority in this country, we should strive to be the “first” party, in first place. It all starts with the unions breaking with the bosses’ parties and building a party of, by and for the working majority.

If you agree with this perspective, we urge you to join the Campaign for a Mass Party of Labor and help us raise these ideas in our unions, workplaces, schools, and neighborhoods.

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