Without a Left, US Labor Continues its Downward Spiral

The crisis in the U.S. labor movement continues unabated. Conditions for the vast majority of working people continue to deteriorate as capital moves to destroy the trade union movement.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue with a huge drain on the budget which results in the further cutting of social programs, a healthcare crisis that increasingly cannot sustain coverage for the mass of Americans, the use of bankruptcy to cancel union contracts, attacks on pensions, social security, and the privatization of Medicare, Medicaid along with government services are just some of the daily doses of “medicine” dished out by monopoly capital to working people in the USA.

It is true that these assaults have been going on for the past 25-30 years as the alleged “social contract” between capital and labor disintegrated into a one sided class war. However, in the present situation, the attacks have intensified and capital now senses an opportunity to set labor back to the “good old days” of the open shop and the destruction of all vestiges of the “New Deal.”

The response of the top leadership of the labor movement to this unprecedented crisis has been muted. Mass email campaigns, angry press releases and appeals to elect more Democrats typify this weakness. The current labor leadership is either unwilling or unable to mount a serious challenge to this assault.

While many observers point to the founding of the Change to Win coalition as a potential example of labor’s resurgence, the facts prove otherwise. A critical look at the platform of the new coalition shows no principled differences with the AFL-CIO agenda. During the current “debate,” (top leadership only, and apparently it’s over) there was lots of discussion about the structure and forms of the labor movement but precious little questioning of the mission or debating the purpose of the Change to Win or the AFL-CIO.

What does labor stand for? Will it lead a mass movement to challenge the prerogatives of business? Will it engage its membership through democratic forms and forums? Will it question failed policies of the past and allow honest discussion of alternatives? Will it stand up for independent political action? Will it lead a fight for national health care and speak out for a living wage? Will labor champion a peace economy, question the war(s), and the parallel destruction of civil liberties in the USA? None of these issues or others that really matter was discussed during the time period before the breakup or at the respective conventions of the AFL-CIO and Change to Win.

The “debate” was shallow, undemocratic, and obsessed with labor’s organizational form(s) with little or no substantive discussion of the overall mission and program of organized labor. Rearranging the decks of chairs on a boat that is sinking is not enough to meet the tremendous challenges facing labor today.

What the current situation does provide however, is space and opportunity for communists and the left to offer proposals that will move the labor movement toward “class struggle” unionism and begin to reclaim labors respect. This will not be easy as the top echelon of the labor leadership is firmly committed to its present path of “business unionism.” Class struggle unionism is not an alternative for the current top” leadership” of organized labor. In fact, Andy Stern, SEIU president and leader of the Change to Win coalition who is labeled as a “progressive” by the big business media has openly criticized the need for “class struggle unionism” and says today’s workers don’t want to cause “trouble” for their bosses. Apparently the bosses who Stern wants to “partner” with aren’t buying his line as workers are routinely fired and intimidated when exercising their “right” to a union in the USA.

Our proposals first must recognize the necessity of reconstituting a organized left presence in labor. We still feel the effects of McCarthyism and the current lack of a progressive ideology that challenges capital within the labor movement has given us no capability to mount a fight back.

We must not be Pollyanna’s and see things through rose colored glasses.

Because the current top labor leadership lacks any principles, standards, or ideology, they will attack and ridicule advocates of any class struggle approach as “disruptive ”or “impractical,” and resort to red baiting when all else fails. However, proposing and struggling for advanced economic and political proposals that go against the current big business agenda will find solid support among lower level labor leaders, rank and file trade unionists, and the general public. This we must be convinced of and this support represents the foundation of any real change. Our challenge is to give this latent anger and sentiment that working people are getting a raw deal a conscious expression in the ranks of labor and the general public.

Workers have been and are ready to struggle but have little or no organized leadership or expression in the current set-up. For example, the need for a single payer national healthcare plan is evident. Over 45 million are uninsured, premiums continue to rise eating away any real wage increases, and coverage is increasingly restricted.  All polls show solid support among the U.S. population for a government provided healthcare system. Yet, even with this crisis situation, the AFL-CIO, Change to Win, and the SEIU, (which claims to be “the” healthcare union) have not endorsed H.R. 676, United States National Health Insurance Act, the current bill in Congress for national single payer heath care!

 Instead, some top national labor leaders, including John Sweeney of the AFL-CIO and Andy Stern of the SEIU, are meeting with business leaders and insurance company executives to talk about “joint” efforts to “reduce” the numbers of uninsured. Efforts like these produce nothing other than provide a few extra people access to commercial healthcare insurance.

Incremental change, or the “go slow,” be “practical” approach to solving the healthcare problem has actually made the whole situation much worse over the past few years as the number of uninsured has risen by millions, premiums have continued to rise, and coverage reduced!

Of course, the drug manufacturers, insurance company executives, and big business love this kind of “cooperation” with labor as they still retain all control over the system and the profits continue to climb. Unfortunately, labor and the public get nothing out of these “programs”, simply because they are a band aid and do nothing to solve the root of the health care crisis, which are the insurance industry and the whole profit motive itself.

To add insult to injury, the Democrat party removed the demand for a national health program from its 2004 national convention plank.

Another example is the Iraq war. With the numbers of U.S. citizens opposed to the war approaching, if not already a majority of the population, there is no visible expression of this substantial public sentiment in the political sphere among Democratic politicians (labors political “voice”) or in any public statements by the leadership of organized labor. The death, destruction, and waste of needed money and resources continue while labor and the Democrats, with a few exceptions, remain virtually silent, as if the issue of the war didn’t matter to working people.

Similar examples exist in other industries and public entities where the needs of the general public run counter to the current policy of the capitalist industry or political party in control.

Labor cannot win the “hearts and minds” of the general public (even its own members) when it has no ongoing program with a popular appeal that encourages rank and file union members and the general public to get involved and challenge the power and control of big business that exists in all facets of daily life. Millions of dollars of labor money are spent on donations to politicians each election cycle (and every election is “more important” than the last …) but there is no budget or time to build a real alternative movement. And the atjosphere for organizing new workers can only improve if the public sees labor fighting for the needs of all workers in a visible and aggressive way.

How many more whole industries will have to lose their jobs, pensions, and healthcare to the “free market” before labor “leaders” wake up?  Unfortunately, the type of fight back necessary at his time simply cannot be organized under the parameters that guide the present top leadership of labor.

A broad fight back that unites workers along class lines is crucial to achieving any real power to stem the attacks.  Labor still has ample resources and a latent capacity to energize its membership and the public. Communists and the left can help move the process forward by reorganizing a strong conscious left presence at all levels.

Without it, labor will continue to go nowhere but down.

A few items for discussion and debate to move labor forward may include:

• Organizing a conscious left presence/formation at all levels of the labor movement is essential to any progress and is not disruptive or counterproductive at this point.

• Unity must be achieved through a practical program of struggle to change the balance of power.

• The current leadership may not see struggle as an option and the left must always assess its relative strength at all levels when moving a new agenda.

• Membership must always be engaged and mobilized through constant political discussion. Without this support, our initiatives go nowhere.

• Our political agenda must always “push the envelope” of the bosses or capital’s power but remain attainable and a practical solution to the issue(s) in the eyes of the membership or public.

• Our job as leaders is to concretely frame all issues in a class context to the membership and public in terms of its impact on the workers and public interest both short and long term.

• Have confidence that our proposals are supported by the majority, the know how to popularize them to anyone and the principles to fight for them.

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E. J. Dewey is a labor and political activist with over 30 years of experience, including 15 years as a central labor council president.

 

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