Emerging Labor Responses to the Economic Crisis

On August 2, the Teapublicans achieved their number one short-term objective, forcing Obama and the Democrats to agree to a nearly $1 trillion immediate cut in the federal deficit and debt in exchange for allowing the debt ceiling to be raised. The Teapublicans also achieved their second most desired short term objective: no tax revenue increases as part of the deal. It was all spending cuts. They also got their third priority demand: no defense cuts. What did the Democrats get? Obama and the Democrats got what they obviously thought was their number one demand: an agreement not to use the debt ceiling issue as a hammer for more spending cuts until after the November 2012 election. For that they were willing to cut a deal, raise the debt ceiling so bondholders could continue to get paid on time, and agree to forego cutting defense spending or including tax hikes on the rich and corporations as part of the deal.


Of course, Democrats will soon be disappointed, despite what they think is an “agreement.” By August 5, the Teapublicans were already declaring they intended to do it over again. After all, it worked last spring. It worked again this summer. Why not keep at it? The next blackmail event will likely be the October 1, 2011, the deadline date for next year’s general budget. After that, there’s the December 23, 2011 deadline for deciding on the recommendations due by from a bi-partisan committee of Congress.


The bi-partisan committee will be appointed by leaders of both parties of Congress by the time this article appears in print and it will no doubt be composed of conservative Democrats plus ultra conservative Teapublicans. To ensure the bi-partisan committee’s almost certain conservative recommendations will be adopted, the August 2 debt deal requires that the committee’s recommendations be voted “up or down” by the rest of Congress—with no amendments and no changes.


This bi-partisan committee’s forthcoming proposals will represent a “reopener,” as they say in union negotiating circles. Before the end of the year another $1.2 to $1.5 trillion will have to be cut. That’s part of the August debt ceiling deal as well. That’s a total of between $2.2 and $2.5 trillion. The committee will recommend a minimum of $1.5 trillion in spending cuts and tax hikes as well. If Congress can’t agree (and there’s little evidence it will), then the $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction will automatically go into effect before year end. The August deal specifies that the $1.2 trillion cuts be distributed proportionally between defense and non-defense spending. It makes no reference to tax hikes.


Fictitious Debt Crisis vs. Real Jobs Crisis


Meanwhile,” Rome is burning,” as they say. The U.S. economy had been declining well before the debt debate charade began last spring. We now know Gross Domestic Product (GDP) fell to 0.4 percent in the first quarter of 2011 and less than 1.0 percent for the first half of this year. It will be worse for the second half. Housing continues at depression levels with no recovery in sight. Manufacturing has flattened out. Services are slowing. Jobs are now experiencing a “triple dip.”


According to the U.S. government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, since March 2011, non-agricultural jobs in the economy have declined every month, for a total of 911,000 jobs lost since March 2011, including a decline of 198,000 last July. That number virtually wipes out the number of jobs created in the preceding year. More disturbing, jobs for full-time workers fell by 926,000 over the last 4 months. So why didn’t the unemployment rate shoot up? Because, in the last three months, 595,000 workers gave up looking for jobs and left the labor force altogether. And part-time employees increased by nearly 500,000 in that same period. What’s going on is a massive “churning” of lost full-time jobs into part-time employment (that’s before announcements of mass layoffs in late July).


It became clear following the August 2 deal that much of what went on was “managed theater.” Not only did the Teapublicans create a crisis in order to extract trillion dollar spending cuts, but the Obama team played the “sky will fall” card as well.


When the debt ceiling deal passed, business confidence would be restored and the stock market would once again boom. But within 24 hours there was no stock boom. In fact, the market sagged seriously. The reason? Reports showed global and U.S. manufacturing had plummeted the previous month. The stock market fell precipitously, not only in the U.S. but globally. The next day, consumer spending went back to mid-2009 recession lows. The terrible DD word—Double Dip recession—was beginning to appear. Smothered by the phony debt debates was the real problem of jobs, housing, and consumer income stagnation. With no job creation, continuing falling home prices, rising foreclosures, and wages (and payroll tax cuts) eaten up by escalating oil, gas, food, health-care premiums, and other expenses, there was insufficient income to buy things.


The Emergency Labor Network


Anticipating these events as far back as January 2011, a number of local union activists began exploring how to take action. About 100 local union activists met in Cleveland in early March to discuss possible public responses to the growing crisis. A coordinating committee was established and an invitation sent out to other union and worker circles in the U.S. to have a broader conference to carry on the work. The conference was held this past June in Kent, Ohio.


Representatives came from all over the country, including longshore union officers from both coasts, large contingents of public workers from Wisconsin and Ohio, building trades workers from the midwest and south, immigrant rights group representatives, delegates from labor councils, organizers from several unions and community groups, and even some State federation level union officials attended. These were solid, grass roots, local union people concerned about doing something.


Not wanting to substitute themselves for the trade union movement or speak in its name, they agreed that the purpose of the conference was to promote mass actions around progressive demands to take back to central labor councils, their unions, their immigrant organizations, their communities and try to build a national network of labor-community fightback committees, which would organize public actions and demonstrations in their respective communities and unions.


Some of the Emergency Labor Network (ELN) demands included plans to:


1. Launch a national campaign for “No Concessions, No Cuts” and to Defend and Expand Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid; to Tax the Rich and Corporations; Single Payer healthcare via Medicare for all; a Federal Public Works Jobs program; End the Wars and Bring Home War Dollars for human needs; Protect and Expand Immigrant Workers’ rights; and Defend and Expand Collective Bargaining rights.


2. Promote and support strike actions around the above demands, such as defending the strike by Longshore Workers’ Local 10 against the Pacific Maritime Association in solidarity with Wisconsin workers and their unions. Support mass actions such as SEIU’s “Fight for a Fair Economy” and the National Nurses United’s “Main Street Contract for America” campaign, as well as other unions and community organizations calling mass actions opposing concessions or attacks on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.


3. Refuse to support and actively oppose candidates for office at all levels who vote for cuts and concessions in public services, jobs, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.


4. Organize the unemployed, repeal repressive labor laws like Taft-Hartley, and help promote and build a Southern Alliance for Collective Bargaining and Organizing.


5. Oppose the criminalization of immigrant workers, reform immigration laws, legalize undocumented workers, demand their right to organize, repeal employer sanctions, oppose guest-worker programs, and strengthen family reunification.


6. Support and help build October demonstrations against the wars in cities across the country, bring home the troops now, close foreign bases, and use the money for jobs and education.


7. Demand that unions withdraw financial support for politicians that demand concessions and use the money to build mass mobilization in the streets and workplaces around the above ELN demands, which will include running labor’s own independent candidates for office.


The conference concluded by issuing letters of support to Fedex workers’ organizing efforts, Greek and Haiti workers under attack, and an Open Letter to the U.S. Labor Movement, with model resolutions to submit to union bodies nationwide calling for a National Day of Action in the fall to jumpstart a national organizing campaign around ELN demands.


Other Organizing Efforts


Following the conference, San Francisco’s central labor council and the New Jersey Industrial Union council adopted the ELN demand for defending Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid—as did the Communications Workers of America’s 56,000 member national retirees’ organization at its national convention. Public rallies to defend Social Security and Medicare were held in New Jersey by ELN conference participants along with members from CWA, Teamsters, AFT, SEIU, and various community groups. Demonstrations have also been organized at unemployment offices. Other ELN conference participants have scheduled public demonstrations for October 8 in Washington, DC around “Saving Our Social Insurances. Others are planning public actions with faith and community groups. Still other union retiree groups in the San Francisco area are organizing union pensioner groups and supporting public demonstrations on October 1 in support of jobs and on October 8 in solidarity with Washington, DC.


A national communications website has been set up by the ELN and may be accessed at www.laborfightback.org, where contact information, endorsers, the ELN action program, its open letter to the labor movement, sample resolutions, reports on actions, and articles of interest are available.


National Nurses Union Steps Out (www.National NursesUnited.org): at a more national level, opposition to the debt and deficit cuts and the forthcoming major attack on Medicare-Medicaid is being organized by the 170,000 member National Nurses United union of nurses. The NNU called for a coast to coast national day of action on September 1. Many of its regional unions have already begun actions in July and August in a build up to the national event. The Nurses Union event on September 1 will also demand national legislation to tax Wall St. financial transactions—stocks, bonds, derivatives, and futures contracts. It has proposed a “Main Street Contract for the American People” and has asked supporters to take the “Main Street Pledge.”


The Teamsters Convention: at the Teamsters national convention a number of resolutions were introduced and passed supporting Wisconsin workers in their recent struggle with right-wing politicians funded by the multi-billionaire Koch brothers’ corporate empire. One such resolution called for “National Days of Action” in 2012 and that the Action “signal labor’s independence in mobilizing the US working class around a program and actions that shape a new direction of democracy and wealth distribution.”


Trumka and the AFL-CIO: the largest labor federation in the U.S., the AFL-CIO, contributed more than $400 million to Democratic Party elections in 2008 and hundreds of millions of dollars in-kind in terms of unpaid services. It has obtained virtually nothing for that investment. The unions’ number one demand—card check for organizing to turn around decades of union-busting and union-destruction by money interests—never even got out of Congressional committee. AFL-CIO positions and demands on just about every subject since Obama came into office have been either rejected or ignored by the Democratic party. In places like Massachusetts and Connecticut, and elsewhere, it is Democrats leading the charge to cut pensions, healthcare benefits, and jobs for public workers in unions. Democrats now champion free trade agreements with Panama, Columbia, and South Korea. Obama has spent trillions on tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations and proposed nothing that remotely resembles a job creation program for labor. Expressing his frustration with this treatment by Obama and the Democrats, speaking to a conference of the Nurses Union, AFL-CIO President, Richard Trumka, declared, “We want an independent labor movement” and added “We can’t simply build the power of any political party or any candidate. For too long we’ve been left after the election holding a canceled check, waiving it about…. Well, I don’t know about you, but I’ve had a snootful of that shit.”


Since June the AFL-CIO has slowly and cautiously continued to distance itself—in words—from Obama and the Democrats. The recent eruption of the debt ceiling debacle has moved this shift slightly further as, on August 3, the AFL-CIO Executive Council issued a statement charging politicians of both parties with failing to address the profound economic crisis and exacerbating that crisis by producing “an unending series of fake political crises” and adding that, “Unfortunately, far too many Democrats have been either silent or complicit in the Republicans’ scheme…. There is no way to fund what we must do as a nation without bringing our troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan. The militarization of our foreign policy has proven to be a costly mistake. It is time to invest at home.”


Although not as yet announced publicly, the AFL-CIO has also called for a national day of action some time in early October to protest the deficit cutting mania embraced by both parties, demand a real jobs creation program, and demand that Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid not be sacrificed. It remains to be seen, however, whether these public demonstrations and protests will become more than just another perennial verbal warning shot across the bow to Democrat politicians or whether the beginning of charting a new, more independent political course for the AFL-CIO.


Will Labor Rise to the Challenge?


As of August 2011 it appears increasingly to many observers that the Democratic Party is intent on destroying its one remaining differentiation from the Teapublicans: its long term stance in defense of Social Security and Medicare. Obama’s first two years in office were characterized by an economic stimulus and recovery program that bailed out the banks, big business, and the wealthiest 10 percent households, but have done virtually nothing for workers, small businesses, and the bottom 90 percent households. That policy failure resulted in the president’s loss of political control of the economy and his own political future. Since November 2010, U.S. economic policy has crossed the chasm into the desert of austerity politics. Should Obama and the Democrats abandon the defense of Social Security and Medicare, which this writer predicts they will, then there remains no substantive difference between them and the Republicans. Of course, Obama’s advisers are no doubt telling him to not worry, labor and working class voters will have nowhere else to go in November 2012. They’ll be confronted with a “wild right wing Tea Party” choice and will turn back to him and the Democrats. But they will have a choice. Neither Teaparty nor Obama. They will vote…with their feet and stay home.


In the coming months the senior leadership of the trade union movement will wag their finger at their Democrat friends, threaten, cajole, and plead. But the only way they will move toward independent political action is if their grass-roots membership takes the lead and drags them into the future. Much will depend in the coming months on actions by unions like the nurses and such emerging labor organizations like the ELN. Whether they can reach a threshold before the Teapublicans’ deficit-cutting political steamroller remains to be seen.


Jack Rasmus is the author of Epic Recession: Prelude to Global Depression, (Pluto Press and Palgrave- Macmillan, 2010) and the forthcoming Obama’s Economy: Recovery for the Few.  His blog is jackrasmus.com and his website is www.kyklos productions. com.