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Labor’s Choice in 2012


2011 has been an historic year in the U.S. From last winter's explosion of mass protests in response to the attacks against public workers' unions, especially in Madison, Wisconsin, to the even more widespread Occupy Wall Street Movement (OWSM), there have been few years in the past decades that demonstrate so clearly the fighting spirit of workers in America when they are forced to defend themselves from corporate attacks. For those who have been working for a change in this country's political direction, 2011 has rewarded our efforts with hope. For those who have been enduring the conditions of the Great Recession in isolation, 2011 has awoken them to realize that they are not alone, and that there is strength and power in unity.

 

These mass movements have changed the popular political dialogue. While Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker may have thought he found an unpopular target to pick on in public workers, in a New York Times/CBS News poll in February of 2011, during the state capital occupation in Madison, 60 percent opposed weakening the collective bargaining rights of public worker unions and 56 percent opposed reducing the deficit by cutting pay and/or benefits to state workers. The protests were changing public opinion.

 

Likewise, the OWSM is playing a big role in transforming the political climate. While it was nationally mobilizing tens of thousands with union support, the OWSM began to shift public discussion. Previously, all focus was on corporate solutions to the deficit in the form of cutting public workers’ salaries and benefits and cutting social programs. With OWSM that lopsided notion faded into the background as the problems of the nation's enormous inequalities in wealth, the concentration of wealth at the very top, the domination of the 1% over the political system, and the devastating effect the economic crisis is having on working peoples' living standards and rights has moved to front stage. Given the corporate media's manipulation and the nationally coordinated violent police repression against the OWSM, the fact that this movement has survived with massive public support is impressive in itself. While there is much work to do in terms of educating, organizing, and mobilizing the "99%" to put up a more effective fightback, OWSM is off to an inspiring start.

 

The Question

Given this changing dynamic of the social and political situation where those in power are viewed as part of the problem, the election year of 2012 will present a challenge to the unions. Will they line up their efforts behind re-electing President Obama? Or will they focus on strengthening the wave of activism that has helped put the issues that are of most concern to working people like jobs for all, defense of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and taxing the rich to pay for it all, etc., in the spotlight.

 

The Service Employees International Union has already endorsed Obama. Richard Trumka, President of the AFL-CIO, has made critical comments on Obama’s pro-corporate deficit reduction plans that come at the expense of working people, distancing himself for the time being, from Obama's re-election campaign. This suggests that there are legitimate questions within the largest union federation about endorsing Obama.

 

The decision whether the AFL-CIO will endorse Obama is not an academic question. Millions of dollars of members’ dues money and other forms of political contributions, as well as months of staff and volunteer time go into a presidential election that could be spent elsewhere. Even more importantly, when unions support a presidential candidate, they are compelled to limit their demands to what is acceptable to that candidate's party, and they limit their actions to a get out the vote campaign.

 

The Democrat's agenda is closer to the Republican’s than it is to addressing the needs of rank and file unionists. The Democrats have nothing to inspire people with and much that must be fought against, because the policies they pursue are ones that favor Wall Street. The union leadership is facing the alternative of either contributing to a mass movement in the streets based on the needs of workers, or a trickle into the polls to elect Obama who, as many know, gets vastly more campaign contributions from Wall Street than from unions.

The unions belong to the membership and it should be the members who determine union policy and direction. The issue of how Labor is going to rise to the challenges of 2012 is too important to be left to the union leadership alone. Union members who want to forge a new and independent path for Labor in these changing times, rather than continue the unions' decades long political subordination to the Democratic Party, need to speak out and organize within their ranks. Even if their union's endorsement of Obama appears to be a forgone conclusion, it is important that all relevant information and arguments against endorsing Obama be heard by the members. In this way an alternative path corresponding to their needs and in relation to recent unfolding developments can be openly and rationally discussed so that an informed decision can then be made.

 

Having a political voice

One argument that can be expected is that workers need a voice in this nation’s politics, and that supporting Obama is our only avenue to having this voice — if the unions endorse him.

 

It is true that workers need a national political voice. This is verified from their own experience. Workers initially get active in their union in an effort to win better conditions and treatment for themselves, those they work with, and others organized in the union. For example, they realize that it is only through taking collective unified action that they can challenge company attempts to reduce their standard of living.

 

No sooner do they take this step, however, than they realize that this focus is not enough. The corporate bosses work together to undermine the ability of workers to organize and struggle for their own interests. On a national scale, they have an entire system of laws, coercion, and strategies developed over the centuries to assure their ability to enrich themselves at workers' expense. Union members realize that it is not enough to take on one company or even one industry in isolation because the welfare of one group of workers depends on what benefits all. They come to understand that workers need a national political voice they can unite behind.

 

This evolving social perspective does not automatically jump to the need to develop a political voice independent of corporate interests. More frequently there is an attempt to work with those in the established political order as "good statesmen" in the hopes of winning progressive reforms. The national union leadership is especially vulnerable to this outlook since getting a seat at the table with established political players creates a sense of prestige beyond their role as workers' leaders. It also can create a confused sense of divided loyalties.

 

This arrangement works much better for Wall Street and its politicians than it does for workers. It leads to a systematic way for the corporate elite to contain the struggle between the class of workers and themselves by politically co-opting the union leadership. The Democratic Party's long record of dropping pro-worker reforms advocated by union leaders once in office clearly demonstrates this. However, in the long run, this arrangement is unsustainable. The relationship between big business politicians and the unions is not one of allies working together for the common good — it is more like predator to its prey. As corporate greed grows unchecked at the expense of workers such as what we see today (corporations have accumulated historic profits), this conclusion becomes all the more clear. Workers do need a national political voice, but it is not to found in the corporate-dominated Democratic Party.

 

The powers behind Obama

There are still many in the union movement who believe that Obama can be pressured into pushing progressive reforms by giving him support. However, the policies that Obama will continue to pursue are determined by the tiny but powerful forces behind him. Obama looks to the powerful 1% for guidance. In U.S. presidential campaigns power is measured in dollars. According to the Center for Responsive Candidates, by September 30, Obama has already raised $89,473,611 for his 2012 campaign. He has taken in more Wall Street money through the Democratic National Committee and his own campaign account than all the Republican candidates combined, consisting of contributions from bankers, hedge fund managers, and financial services. In 2008 Obama's candidacy broke previous records for the amount of money raised. The 2012 campaign is well on the way to repeating this.

 

With the overwhelming concentration of wealth at the top, the unions' ability to counter corporate funding power is nil. Therefore, Labor's ability to pressure Obama to promote pro-worker reforms by endorsing Obama and playing by the rigged game of presidential campaigns is miniscule at best.

 

This was born out after Obama was elected. Even though the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress he did nothing to push the Employee Free Choice Act (which would have made it easier for workers to form unions), renegotiate NAFTA, or do much for the environment, though he had promised all this while campaigning.

 

The rigged nature of the game was confirmed by President Obama's cabinet appointments after his 2008 campaign. The list reads like a who's who of Wall Street insiders who have benefited from policies that strengthen the power and greed of the top 1% at the expense of everyone else. Clearly, President Obama intends to reward his real friends while taking Labor's support for granted.

 

Some will argue that President Obama has supported a few progressive reforms.

 

Health care

For instance, many unions have supported President Obama's health care reform. However, this plan will leave 23 million Americans uninsured, it will force millions of middle income workers to pay up to 9.5 percent of their pay on plans that cover only 70 percent of their medical expenses, and it will hand over $447 billion in tax payer dollars to the insurance companies to provide shoddy health care plans.

 

Physicians for a National Health Program had the following to say about Obama’s plan:

"…the Congress and the Obama administration have saddled Americans with an expensive package of onerous individual mandates, new taxes on workers' health plans, countless sweetheart deals with the insurers and Big Pharma, and a perpetuation of the fragmented, dysfunctional, and unsustainable system that is taking such a heavy toll on our health and economy today.

 

"This bill's passage reflects political considerations, not sound health policy. As physicians, we cannot accept this inversion of priorities. We seek evidence-based remedies that will truly help our patients, not placebos."

 

Instead of advocating placebos, had Obama been subject to pressure from Labor, he would not have locked out any discussion of some form of a Single Payer Health Plan while his reform was in the discussion stage. This is what Labor, many community organizations, and the majority of American people have supported in recent polls. President Obama ruled out genuine universal healthcare not because there isn't popular support for it that can be mobilized, but because there isn't support for it among the corporate elite and, of course, the private insurance companies.

 

Bank regulation

What of Obama's bank regulation reform? The Dodd-Frank financial reform law has done little if anything to prevent the big money gambling that led to the last economic meltdown in 2008. As former Labor Secretary and Economist Robert Reich recently observed:

"Dodd-Frank is rife with so many loopholes and exemptions that the largest Wall Street banks — larger by far than they were before the bailout — are back to many of their old tricks."

 

Tax the rich?

What of President Obama's support for increasing taxes on the rich? Obama has spoken in support of ending Bush's tax cuts to the rich. These cuts have cost the U.S. budget $2.9 trillion over the last decade and are projected to cost $2.2 trillion to $2.7 trillion in the following ten years. However, Obama was quick to allow the Bush cuts to continue in 2010 after the Republicans said they would not approve of unemployment extensions without this. There is no reason to not expect a repeat performance in 2012.

 

President Obama has also proposed to repeal some tax exceptions to oil companies and raise the caps on itemized deductions for individuals making $200,000 a year and families making over $250,000. All told, this plan is estimated to raise an increase of revenue of $400 billion over the next 10 years.

 

However, this plan is being proposed in combination with cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security that will total $1.2 trillion over the next decade. These cuts against programs the Labor Movement fought for will have a massive negative impact on working people’s living standards and further increase the inequalities in wealth. Rather than shifting the burden of paying for the economic crisis onto the 1%, Obama is attempting to distract the 99% with a tax the rich proposal that does not even come close to countering his policies that will rob working people.

 

In addition, his tax the rich plan does not even begin to address the inequality of wealth in the U.S. where the top 1% now own more than the bottom 90%. It is a tax the rich plan that lets the economic elite off the hook from paying their fair share by offering a pittance of an increase when the rich still hold onto nearly the entire amount of wealth labor has created.

 

Jobs program?

Those arguing against their union's endorsing Obama's re-election will also hear, "Obama's job's program is at least a start to addressing the issue that is most important to workers." This simply does not stand up to scrutiny. Twenty-five million Americans are in need of full-time work. Obama's plan would create, at best, only 2 million. Aside from providing this small amount, his plan is, again, linked to massive cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, creating more pain for working people than relief.

 

What is more revealing about the intentions behind this plan, however, is its timing. President Obama waited to introduce it until after the Republicans gained the majority in the House. Because it has no chance of passing now, he is free to use it has a campaign issue without a fear of alienating his wealthy supporters, because they know it is a scam.

 

President Obama, along with the Republicans, still supports the belief that it is solely up to the private sector to create jobs. This is despite the fact that corporations made nearly $2 trillion in profits last year that they are hoarding rather than investing in job creation. Corporations are not going to put people to work making products that they think no one will buy.

 

From all of this, it should be clear that the "progressive reforms" that some trade unionists will use to argue for endorsing Obama cannot be taken at face value. The Democrats consistently appear to offer a concession to the Labor Movement with one hand while taking more away with the other. This type of tactic is familiar to anyone who has sat at a bargaining table with management. The company representatives will frequently start negotiations by offering minor concessions they don't really care about, but attach them to major concessions they want the union to make and which they then refuse to take off the bargaining table.

 

Clearly Obama's "reforms" should not be reason to justify Labor endorsing him. What of his attacks against working people that benefited Wall Street?

 

TARP

We have already dealt with the cuts to the social safety net Obama is supporting. What has he given away to Wall Street? It has recently been revealed by Bloomberg Press that the 2008 $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program to rescue the banks was just the tip of the iceberg:

"The amount of money the central bank parceled out was surprising even to Gary H. Stern, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis from 1985 to 2009, who says he ‘wasn’t aware of the magnitude.’ It dwarfed the Treasury Department’s better-known $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP. Add up guarantees and lending limits, and the Fed had committed $7.77 trillion as of March 2009 to rescuing the financial system, more than half the value of everything produced in the U.S. that year."

 

This gift to the greedy that Obama supported and did nothing to check its inflating price tag comes at a painful cost for American workers that could last generations. Taxpayer money that could have gone into creating jobs, education, health care and the rebuilding our infrastructure on an environmentally sound basis, has instead been squandered on those who are responsible for the economic crisis in the first place. Now President Obama is promoting the myth that America is broke to justify cuts to vital social programs. But for all we know, the Federal Reserve is continuing to funnel money to the banks. After all, it refused to make public its unprecedented bank bailout until Bloomberg News launched a court battle and forced it to divulge what it had done.

 

Immigrants under attack

In 2008 many immigrant communities turned out in mass to vote for Obama with the belief that he would promote humane immigration reform. These expectations could not have been more betrayed.

 

His predecessor, George Bush, started the Secure Communities Program, which required police to send finger prints of every person arrested to the F.B.I. and Homeland Security to check against data bases that track immigration violations. Despite how unreliable these data bases have proven to be and how this program has encouraged racial profiling, President Obama greatly expanded the program with the aim of implementing it nationwide by 2013.

 

Because of Obama’s policies, his administration will get the dubious credit for deporting a record number of undocumented workers, cruelly tearing apart families. Over an eight-year period, the Bush administration deported 1.57 million immigrants. By September 2011, the Obama administration deported 1.06 million in three years, thereby more than doubling the rate. Now if Labor tries to get out the vote for Obama within the Latino and immigrant communities in general, the unions will do more to discredit themselves politically than get people to the polls.

 

Free Trade

Labor was opposed from the beginning to NAFTA. Its concerns over the downward pressure NAFTA would place on workers' wages and the jobs it would cost proved true. Regardless, President Obama has championed three new free trade deals (FTAs); the Korean, Colombian, and Panamanian FTAs. The KFTA is the largest since NAFTA. According to the research of the Economic Policy Institute, the KFTA alone will displace 159,000 American jobs. While the corporations expect to reap huge profits from these FTAs, it will be at the expense of U.S. workers.

 

Lesser evil?

Though there are relatively few that are enthusiastic supporters of Obama's re-election bid, there are many who will insist that the unions need to back him so as not to get an even more right-wing Republican in office. It is true that the Republican Party is more openly anti-union and anti-working class. This does not mean the Democrats are a lesser evil, however. Both parties serve the 1 percent. The Republicans and Democrats are two arms of the same political animal, each adept at complimentary skills, serving the same purpose of gathering more profits for Wall Street and corporate America that, especially in these economic times, can only be increased at the expense of workers living standards.

 

Obama's term has exposed millions to this bitter truth. When he came into office with an impressive mandate for progressive change from most voters, as well as a majority of Democrats in both the House and Senate, he had everything going for him to act decisively. Instead, under the guise of "reaching across the aisle," he ignored his popular base's wishes and shifted the boundaries of the political debate far to the right of what he had campaigned on. He did not choose this course because he is a bad tactician. He chose it to reward the corporate and Wall Street crowd who had funded his campaign. Former Wall Street executives were rewarded with key positions in Obama's cabinet.

 

An alternative

Obama knows what he is doing and whose class interests he serves. Rather than Labor muddling up appeals to its members and supporters with corporate party line talk, Labor needs to focus on defending the interests of the working class. That is to say, Labor needs to focus on the issues that are of the most importance to workers and mobilize them where we have the most strength –- in the streets and workplaces all across the nation. Dissolving this focus with transparently false rationales for supporting Obama and expensive useless lobby campaigns will inspire no one and change nothing.

 

The mass actions in Madison and of Occupy Wall Street have demonstrated that the unions get more of a positive response in terms of changing the political climate when they unify and mobilize independently of the two-party system. If Labor devotes the resources it would normally spend on a presidential election to supporting and helping to initiate such movements that come from the grass roots in 2012, all workers could develop a stronger political voice.

 

Not only would workers’ needs be moved to the political front stage, so would their capacity to develop greater organizational strength. Working people would see that a real fight is being attempted to defend their interests. More unorganized workers would then become active in unionizing their workforce. It would become more possible to organize these workers on an industry-wide basis rather than on an individual worksite basis. With massive popular support, it would become an easier matter to conduct winning strikes that shut down production by building picket lines that can't be crossed. Furthermore, with this active mass support, it would become possible to defy labor laws that cripple the union's ability to fight such as those laws that make it a criminal offence to conduct a strike in solidarity with another union's struggle.

 

All these possibilities, however, start with open, informative discussions where all points of view can be heard. That is why, for each worker that wants to see Labor move down a different path than the one that merely tells members who their union is endorsing, we must educate, organize and speak out so that the members are in the saddle determining what political direction the union goes in. In the final analysis working people need to discuss the possibility of forming their own independent party, a labor party.

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Mark Vorpahl is an union steward, social justice activist, and writer for Workers' Action - www.workerscompass.org. He can be reached at[email protected].

  

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