Woe Unto Us

Budget woes

The Republicans in the General Assembly responded to Gov. Tom Wolf’s budget proposal with their own bill that they passed last month without a single Democratic vote.  Nevertheless, with just a few party dissenters, the GOP majority was able to pass the legislation by thirty votes and send it on to the Senate where the Republicans have the votes to pass the bill and override a Wolf veto.

This bill is heartless to the extreme, prompting Allegheny County Democrat Joe Markosek to say that the GOP budget “cuts to the bone that which many of us agree was already bare.”  The Republicans were savvy enough to finally realize that cutting Wolf’s increases to education would be unpopular.  So this time, they want to take the axe to human services instead.

If the GOP has its way, Wolf’s proposal for child care assistance for low-income families would be cut by $62.9 million, leaving thousands of working families with few or no options for quality care; the waiting list statewide would expand to 19,000 children.  Six million dollars in cuts to home and community-based services for the aged would end supportive services for hundreds of senior citizens, effectively forcing them into nursing homes.

Pennsylvania faces a crisis of opioid addiction but the Republicans would cut $9 million from Wolf’s mental health and substance abuse budget.  Another $4.8 million reduction in aid to counties would also affect those suffering from mental illness and addiction, as well as the aged and those suffering from intellectual disabilities. This cut also hits hard at traditional GOP villains like the homeless.

Oh, the joys of a GOP budget!  Balancing the ledgers comes before satisfying the imperative to serve the needy that is at the core of their professed Christian religion! I could go on and on: the House Republicans might as well say, “Let them eat cake” – if the price of cake weren’t out of reach for so many people.

Politically, they are keeping us, the people of Pennsylvania, on the defensive; we’re constantly fending off cuts to essential services and eagerly embracing whatever small consideration to human need that politicians show.

We’ve got to change the tone and terms of the dialogue.  Human needs should trump all other considerations — no pun intended.

Officer Friendly in Woodland Hills

Woe unto the long-suffering parents of African-American students in the Woodland Hills school district.  White opposition has been a Woodland Hills hallmark since the creation of the multi-racial district in the early 1980s.  Black students have been valued for excellence in athletics — all of Wikipedia’s “notable graduates” are football players, most of them black — but are wanted for little else.

The latest chapter in the school district’s inability to come to grips with integration has made national headlines.  But despite being caught on video roughing up students as if he were in a Law and Order holding tank, Woodland Hills “resource officer” Steve Shaulis has yet to face the assault charges he so richly deserves.  Nor has his able accomplice, high school principal Kevin “Biff” Murray, been punished for being recorded helping Shaulis Tase a student.  In fact, he was rewarded: Murray was given the prestigious job of head high school football coach.  The school board’s support for Murray, who was caught last year threatening a student in an audio recording, sends a clear message to black students and their parents: fuck you!

The student victims of these assaults face various charges ranging from resisting arrest to aggravated assault.  It’s a literal school-to-prison pipeline.  And it’s been going on for years; the recorded incidents go back to 2015.  Woodland Hills parents and former students say it’s been going for a lot longer than that.

The mushmouthed pronouncements of the district (the recorded incidents do not “represent” the district’s “culture”), its actions (promoting Murray to head football coach), its inaction (how could this principal not be fired?), and the refusal of the appropriate authorities — say the county district attorney’s office — to do anything have fueled parent anger and necessitated the involvement of attorney Todd Hollis, who made the surveillance videos public, and the Alliance for Police Accountability.

We should support the parents and students of Woodland Hills in their efforts to rid their school of thugs posing as principals, coaches and “resource” officers.  And we cannot let the school board and superintendent get away with the underlying message behind these incidents: that blackness is something to be feared and contained by any means necessary.

— James Collins

100 Years of Class Struggle: On the Road to Emancipation

“The emancipation of man is the emancipation of labor . . .”

—  Du Bois, Black Reconstruction

W.E.B. Du Bois is probably best remembered for writing in 1903 in The Souls of Black Folk that the “problem of the twentieth century” would be “the problem of the color line.”  But he came to recognize that the race problem was closely related to a larger tragedy: racism was the white working class’s fatal weakness, causing its leading organizations to adopt reactionary positions counter to the interests of their American members as well as their brothers and sisters in the colonized countries.

Du Bois used the word “labor” broadly to indicate a person’s class position in society and not whether they are lucky enough to belong to a union.  But he of course understood the power of organization and, as a partisan of the struggling masses, saw a unified, inclusive labor movement as a necessity.

His Marxist/revisionist interpretation of the Civil War and Reconstruction was published in 1935.  It devastated the standard lies taught in Ivy League universities and public schools alike.  It told the inspiring story of an oppressed people’s patient, resolute and astonishing transition from property to “freedmen” in the face of overwhelming, murderous hostility. And it laid bare the working-class tragedy described above.  When Du Bois wrote of “the emancipation of labor,” he was writing not only about the past, but the situation in 1935, and the future as well.  He was thinking of, and writing on behalf of, black and white working people in the US; he was considering the plight of the world’s “basic majority of workers who are yellow, brown and black.”

The dictum, that the liberation of humanity begins with the liberation of the working masses, is as true today as ever. The analysis of how things were in 1935 – or 1865 – is instructive for present-day activists.

Du Bois, a great scholar – he was the first African-American to earn a Ph. D. from Harvard – and activist – he was a founder of the NAACP, a pan-Africanist and future peace activist and Communist – well understood how American capitalism’s relations to its working classes evolved up to his day:

After the Civil War, poor Southern whites betrayed their class interests by uniting with land-owning, ex-slaveholders to keep African-Americans in peonage; organized white labor, North and South, betrayed its class interests in favor of its “racial interests” by excluding black workers, leaving the latter little choice except to work wherever and whenever they could – including as strikebreakers.

Furthermore, organized labor, under the spell of the ruling-class rhetoric of free land and individualism, made little effort to organize the great mass of unskilled white workers – many of whom were immigrants – believing that the highest achievement was to one day become a wealthy exploiter of one’s own class. Finally, organized labor, now almost totally ignorant of the class-based reasons for its very existence, supported capital’s exploitation and the government’s military oppression of working people in the Caribbean, Latin America, Asia and Africa.

And today?  Well, for starters, we can at least say that organized labor no longer excludes people of color – at least, not most of organized labor.  In fact, some of the most dynamic and respected leaders nationally, and always some of the most stalwart members at the local level, are women and people of color. This inclusion is a strength whose potential has yet to be fully realized. The future of organized labor will depend in large part on the continued inclusion of working people of all races and the development of leaders like Karen Lewis of the Chicago Teachers.

But also consider this: today barely 10 percent of US workers belong to unions.  By contrast, when Black Reconstruction was published in 1935, there had been such an explosion of worker militancy and organizing that no one could really say how many union members there were.  By 1955, when the AFL and CIO merged to form one labor federation, there were more union members than there are today, and organized labor accounted for close to 40 percent of the workforce.

US labor is too weak at home to presume leadership of the international labor movement.  And to the extent that US labor is so inclined, it slavishly follows the ruling-class party line of “human rights” imperialism.

The dead past and the living present

One hundred years ago, the United States entered the bloody European conflict that became known as the First World War.  Patriotic pundits are wrapping themselves in the flag, using this anniversary to stir up support for the many wars we are currently involved in, covert and overt.  But I want to use this occasion to illustrate a very different moral.  Like Du Bois, I believe that the emancipation of the working classes of all races and nationalities is the paramount necessity.  And like Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave and abolitionist who lived well into Du Bois’s day, “I do not ask you about the dead past.  I bring you to the living present.”

Douglass famously said: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.”  The most thoughtful leaders of the labor movement agreed, even back in Douglass’s time.  Not long after the end of the Civil War, William Sylvis, leader of the first national labor federation, said, “We are now all one family of slaves together, and the labor reform movement is the second Emancipation Proclamation.”

Sylvis was right: Northern capitalists had become fabulously wealthy and influential during the war.  The end of black Reconstruction in the South placed the entire nation under “the guidance and dictatorship of capital,” even to the extent that the Supreme Court transformed the Fourteenth Amendment – designed to protect the citizenship rights of African-Americans – into the “chief refuge and bulwark of corporations.” Meanwhile labor failed to live up to the promise of Sylvis’s words; it was ill-prepared for the Great Railroad Strike of 1877.

Pittsburghers played a pivotal and heroic role in the first nationwide strike in the US.  Spontaneous strikes first broke out on railroad lines in Baltimore and West Virginia and spread across the country like wildfire.  In Pittsburgh, miners, steelworkers, the unemployed and their families joined the strikers; the local militia fraternized with the crowds so the militia from Philadelphia was called in.  They arrived by train, promptly proceeded to shoot down strikers and supporters, leading to the Battle of the Roundhouse where the militia was besieged with flaming railroad cars. The strike was crushed nationally within two weeks.  As one striker put it, “We were shot back to work.”

Power concedes nothing without a demand.  At the turn of the century, the greed of the capitalist class forced workers to continue perfecting their organizations and to keep fighting back – for a living wage, for an eight-hour day, for decent working conditions, for death and dismemberment benefits.  In Coeur D’Alene and Homestead, shooting wars broke out between striking workers and the state militias, police and private gunmen arrayed against them.  The workers lost, but they also always regrouped, continued organizing and eventually struck again.

An 1894 strike against the Pullman Company, which manufactured sleeping train cars outside of Chicago, put an exclamation point on nineteenth century labor relations.  George Pullman ran a company town, requiring employees to live there and thus rent from him, buy groceries, supplies and utilities from him, and be underpaid to boot.  The American Railroad Union of Eugene Debs voted to support the Pullman strikers by refusing to move or handle Pullman cars, and soon there was a nationwide strike of some 120,000 railroad workers.

President Grover Cleveland’s attorney general and the special attorney assigned to the strike were both former lawyers for railroad companies.  (I don’t speak of the dead past.  Look at the corporate connections of Trump administration appointees, or of Obama administration appointees before that.) The power of the executive branch, including Army troops, the press, the railroad companies and the police were brought to bear on the strike.  Scores of working men and women were killed; scores more seriously wounded.  Debs and other strike leaders were arrested and thrown in jail – lo and behold, the Supreme Court found that the Sherman Anti-Trust Act applied not to corporations but to unions!  In essence, the entire machinery of the federal government supported Pullman’s “right” to treat people like vassals.

The quick and the dead

American capital entered the twentieth century powerful and confident.  In1901 Bankers’ Magazine wrote: “As the business of the country has learned the secret of combination, it is gradually subverting the power of the politician and rendering him subservient to its purposes . . .”

Although the period from 1901 to 1917 is called the Progressive Era, “few reforms were enacted without the tacit approval, if not the guidance, of the large corporate interests.” Workers had to organize and fight for their very lives during these years, just as in any others.  The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) were formed in 1905 and led militant struggles, including a massive textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1912, and a shooting-war strike of 6,000 steelworkers in McKees Rocks in 1909.  In Colorado in 1912 and 1913, a strike erupted into a shooting war between miners and the bosses, culminating in the horrific Ludlow Massacre.  In Lyndora, also in 1909, steelworkers engaged in a bitter strike with the Standard Car company with the aid of the IWW.

Every major US war has resulted in increased power and profit for capital.  The US involvement in WWI would be no exception; indeed, it would act as a springboard for the powerful international ambitions of our ruling class. One hundred years ago, organized labor, as well as the fate and aspirations of the people it could and should represent, appeared dead in the water.  But as I’ll demonstrate in the second part of this article, working people – labor – had not finished fighting yet.

To be continued . . .

— James Collins

A note on sources

I, of course, relied heavily on Du Bois for the first part of this article and all quotes (except for those of Frederick Douglass) are his up to the Great Railroad Strike, where Howard Zinn and Boyer and Morais take over.

Boyer, R.O. and Morais, H.M.  Labor’s Untold Story.

Du Bois, W.E.B.  Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880.

Grystar, E.  “A Brief Essay on the 1909 and 1919 Steel Strikes in Lyndora,” Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine, Vol. 71, no. 3/4.

Zinn, H.  The Twentieth Century.

Single-Payer Health Care Now!

Wake up, America, and wipe the sleep from your eyes.  You’re not dreaming but a nightmare is in the making.

It’s 17 years into the twenty-first century and our ruling – er, governing— Republican Party thinks there are currently just too many people with health insurance in this country.  While people living in all the other advanced nations of the world have the security of universal coverage and access to health care, the Republicans are divided only on just how many people should go without.

As one commentator put it, “Under the GOP’s bill, the more help you need, the less you get.”  They weren’t quite able to figure it out this time but rest assured that they’ll continue working until they get it “right.”  No matter the final outcome of the GOP plan, the bottom line is that more people will lose coverage – 10 million, 24 million, who knows? – and the cost of health care will continue to rise.

And the newly uninsured will be added to the current staggering figure of 25 million Americans who are without health care, even under the so-called Affordable Care Act.  Somehow, both Republicans and Democrats are able to sleep while knowing all this.

It’s time to end this madness.  It’s time to demand universal single-payer health care now!

Class war by other means

Obamacare and other recent attempts to reform the health care system have all fallen victim to the same forces: the powerful health insurance and pharmaceutical company lobbies and the ideological opposition of Republicans, yes, but of most Democrats too.  It’s almost a religious duty for mainstream politicians, liberal or conservative, to oppose the socialization of health care.  Health care is big business and, as such, it is run as part and parcel of the class war on working people, a war that transfers wealth and reserves the benefits of society for the well-to-do.

Health insurance companies are nothing more than huge bureaucratic middle men who collect fees and allocate a crucial service according to metrics that have nothing to do with true human need.  They keep the price of health care artificially high while “earning” huge profits for executives and shareholders.  And while pharmaceutical companies provide useful benefits, the experience of Canada and other advanced countries shows that they can provide those benefits at lower prices.

While the Republicans are licking their wounds and regrouping, we should not let the Democrats breathe a sigh of relief or celebrate.  If they really want to live up to the promise of Obamacare, let them support single-payer health care.  Rep. John Conyers (Mich.) has been introducing into Congress the National Health Care Act, or the Expanded and Improved Medicare for All Act, (H.R. 676) since 2003.  Bernie Sanders has just promised to introduce similar legislation in the Senate.

It’s time to demand that elected officials put up or shut up about health care.  We know that politics is war by other means; the health care aspect of the class war is literally killing people and that’s got to stop.

— James Collins

Class War in the Keystone State

Pennsylvanians are in the middle of a class war.

It has been a less-than-dramatic event.  Instead, it’s been a protracted affair, a slow but steady, one-sided war that’s been waged for decades now, and things have gone very nicely for the ruling, upper classes, thank you very much.

This war has been waged in the open right before the eyes of the public, and the public suffers the consequences of a losing combatant.  Even though this is a class war, nobody calls it that.  Is it because there are no cops and scabs smashing through picket lines, no strikers’ heads being busted, and no jailed workers or union leaders to rally around?

Certainly that’s part of it: workers rarely strike any more.  There were only three major work stoppages (those involving 1,000 workers or more) in the entire state last year, including the multi-state Verizon strike.  No, the arena of this class war isn’t the workplace or the streets. This life-and-death struggle is something of a stealth war, fought and won during semi-annual elections and in halls of the state capitol over the crucial issues of revenue raising and spending.  The battleground is the state’s budget.

It’s the budget, stupid

As Gov. Tom Wolf enters his third year in office, he faces the same obstacle that has plagued him the previous two – a huge Republican majority of “fiscally-responsible” yokels in both houses of the General Assembly who are pledged to oppose the level of spending required to run a modern state.  As a result, Pennsylvania faces a budget deficit for the current fiscal year, as well as for 2016-17 which is against the state constitution.

Wolf’s current budget proposal attempts, to his credit, to return spending for public education to pre-Corbett levels (but without accounting for inflation).  He has chosen to limit expenditures on everything else while raising revenue through regressive taxation: personal income and general sales taxes account for 69 percent of increased revenue in this year’s budget and 62 percent in next year’s.  Another huge portion will come from still higher taxes on tobacco products.

The sales tax and the flat income tax now regularly account for 70 percent of the general revenue raised by the state.  (Visit the Pennsylvania Budget Policy Center for a detailed analysis.)  Politicians and pundits say that Pennsylvania faces an intractable “structural” debt problem, but the reasons for this situation aren’t hard to fathom and the problem is far from unsolvable.  It is now unheard-of for our state “leaders” to suggest levying taxes on those who can afford to pay.  Wealthy Pennsylvanians and corporations that make huge profits here are considered sacrosanct.  So the money has to be raised from those of us of more modest means.

Royal Dutch Shell will receive some $1.65 billion in taxpayer incentives for locating its ethane cracker plan in Beaver County.  Shell says building the complex will create thousands of jobs, and that once it is up and running it will employ 600 workers.  This is all well and good but, besides the fact that many of those jobs will be taken by people living in neighboring Ohio and West Virginia, why should Pennsylvania taxpayers subsidize a profitable corporation like Shell?

The conventional answer is that if we don’t offer incentives to the company, another state will.  Large corporations and their executives are engaged in dividing and blackmailing the country, state by state, municipality by municipality.  And yet, they’re lionized in the general and financial media as fine, upstanding citizens whose goodness and motives are not to be questioned.

The biggest beneficiaries of state and local subsidies in Pennsylvania include Alcoa ($5.7 billion from 1995 to 2016), U.S. Steel ($100 million from 1995 to 2016), BNY Mellon ($76 million from 1997 to 2016), and PPG Industries ($54.6 million since 1992).  You can track government subsidies to corporations at Good Jobs First.

Wolf is to be commended for substantially raising K-12 spending, and he proposes small increases in vital programs that had either disappeared altogether (for example, the Conservation Corps) or were receiving next to nothing to begin with (shelter for the homeless, domestic violence and rape centers, mental and behavioral health services, long-term care, help for those with intellectual disabilities, and many other county-based services).  Funding for other crucial services hasn’t fare as well.  In just one example, the failure to restore cuts to the higher education budget leaves Pennsylvania’s spending 49th in the nation!

As mentioned earlier, corporations no longer shoulder a fair share of the state’s tax burden, nor do wealthy individuals, who pay taxes at the same rate as a fast-food worker.  Corporate and business taxes now generate about 15 percent of the state’s General Fund revenue, down from 28 percent in the 1970s.  According to the Budget Policy Center, “From 1988-1989 to 2002-2003, when business tax cuts first began, taxes on corporations were, on average, 22.25% of all General Fund revenues.”

To those of us who were around in the 1960s and 1970s, Pennsylvania may not have seemed like a Utopia but at least an adequately funded safety net existed and helped people.  There was money coming in from federal programs and the state raised enough money to fulfill its obligations while balancing the budget because corporations paid higher taxes – at federal and state levels.

Taxes on corporations and wealthy people have been low for more than three decades now.  They accumulate, hoard and waste great amounts of wealth, in turn increasing their lock on political power.  Life will get better for everybody when we start taxing these people at a socially just rate.  Taxes have been low for decades at the federal level, as well as the state level, so there is no legitimate “crying poor” on the part of the wealthy and corporations.

We must demand that the corporations contribute to the general fund at rates like those in the 1970s and 1980s.  We must demand a progressive state income tax and an end to endless sales and sin tax increases.  The future of the quality of life in this state hinges on these changes.

— James Collins

State of Emergency: GOP at Large

So now Donald Trump — acting at times as tyrant-in-training, others as distractor-in-chief – has qualitatively changed the idea of the presidency as a “bully pit.”  Much of the nation sits on edge awaiting Trump’s next tweet, feeding his insatiable ego while he rants on and on, careening from one topic to the next.  Meanwhile, the congressional majority of Republican crazies is taking advantage of their numbers, moving to abolish Obamacare and such governmental frills as the departments of education and environmental protection – as well as such annoyances as financial and business regulations that (feebly) protect the interests of the increasingly hapless citizen-consumer.

Collective bargaining is in their sites as well, not to mention a nation’s right to choose: Trump and his GOP Congress want to cut off funding to any international women’s health or family planning entity that disseminates any information whatsoever about contraception or abortion.  And the list just goes on and on.  These are reactionary times.

Here in the Pennsylvania, the party of Know Nothings is also making hay while the sun shines on them.  Their response to the massive Women’s March is to use their majority in both houses of the General Assembly to ram through the senate – without any public hearings — a bill rolling back abortion rights in the never-ending effort to put women back in their places. A version of this bill passed in the house last year and the Republicans have the necessary votes to override Governor Wolf’s promised veto this year. Every senator from southwestern Pennsylvania voted for this reactionary legislation.

“Illegal” immigrants should, of course, stay in their place as well – which isn’t in our state.  The legislative GOP has promised to withhold whatever funding they can from cities and municipalities that advertise their willingness to offer sanctuary to “illegal” people.

And union rights are also on their early radar, the senate having passed a bill – under the guise of “paycheck protection” – forbidding public sector unions from automatically deducting PAC contributions from members.

As for Governor Wolf’s most recent, modestly liberal budget proposal?  Dead on arrival, say majority leaders in both houses of the Assembly.

On the warpath

Have I missed anything?  You bet!  it’s quite a challenge to list all of the attacks regular people face from these reactionaries.  If you’re for it, they’re probably against it.  Put succinctly, the US ruling class – filthy rich capitalists swimming in record wealth and luxury – is on the attack, with the President of the United States and the Republican Party leading the charge.

Our only choice is to fight back.  It’s nice to see all the people who weren’t upset at President Obama for his record number of deportations or timidity in the face of racist cop killings, catch the spirit of outrage.  I put even more stock in the fresh innocence of youth: the Pittsburgh Public School students who staged a strike over the appointment of an education secretary who’s never set foot inside a public school; or the Lower Merion High School basketball team that has been taking a very public stand in support of Muslims, immigrants and refugees.

Let the protests continue: at airports, town hall meetings, federal buildings, city halls, sporting events, awards show, wherever.

We have no choice except to fight back but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t fight to win.  The potentially powerful voice of organized labor remains largely silent and on the sidelines. Labor needs to begin organizing workplaces like it’s 1929 – because it could damn well be that bad before long.

Politically, labor should have no trouble joining with other progressive forces in calling for a fair tax structure.  Here in Pennsylvania, the governor is continually hamstrung in his efforts to pass a budget that adequately funds schools and addresses social concerns.  There just isn’t enough money coming into the General Fund and the only “acceptable” source of new revenue is the working-class, low- and middle-income taxpayer: Democratic governors continually raise the flat income tax rate, stick it to the unfortunate tobacco addict, and come up with new ways to cash in on monopolized gambling, largely taking advantage of the poor working stiff who’s looking for a quick windfall.

More than 70 percent of revenue in the current state budget comes from two regressive taxes – income and sales.  Corporate income taxes account for just eight percent of revenue, with other business taxes accounting for another seven percent.  In the 1970s, corporate taxes accounted for 28 percent of the General Fund, and the corporate rate averaged 22.25 percent from 1988 to 2003 before corporate contributions to the public good really started to fall (Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center).

We should demand a dramatic reversal of this trend from every state legislator (and the governor) – no ifs, ands or buts.  Corporations should pay their fair share of taxes, as should wealthy individuals; therefore, the state income tax should be progressive and not flat.

These are the things for which we should be willing to go on the warpath.

— James Collins

The Beautiful Struggle

Just one day after the inauguration of a man who was amazed that it would rain on such an auspicious occasion, Americans turned out against him in the largest one-day demonstration the nation has ever seen.  In fact, people were protesting on Inauguration Day, they were protesting long before, and they’ve been protesting ever since – bigly.

(Even as I write this on a Saturday night, spontaneous demonstrations are breaking out at US airports in support of foreign detainees affected by the Trump executive order on immigration.)

The millions of people who turned out for the Washington, D.C. Women’s March and its sister demonstrations were protesting about more than women’s issues, front and center though they may have been.  This unpopular President has made enemies of every interest group and demographic that has experienced some social progress over the years – minorities, women, LGBTQ people, immigrants –and he relished the notoriety.

As unpopular, unpredictable and reactionary as Trump is, let’s not forget that he is supported by an economically and socially conservative, rabidly right-wing Republican majority in both houses of Congress.  And our own once “Blue” state is solidly in the grip of a backward GOP that controls both chambers of the legislature, effectively rendering Gov. Tom Wolf impotent.  Donald Trump is merely the culmination, the inevitable consequence, of a national politics that has been tilting to the right for decades and given us the current GOP dominance at the state and federal levels.

An effective resistance must recognize this and oppose not just Trump – an easy target, after all – and deal with all of the right-wing crazies and their political vehicle, the Republican Party.  The demonstrators who showed up in Philadelphia for the strategy session between Trump and Republicans in Congress are a hopeful sign of this understanding.

rally15

Opportunity in crisis

The key to social and political progress is whether the American people can build unity between those on the left of the political spectrum – so-called progressives – and those in the middle, the people who consider themselves to be liberal, “reasonable” and nonconfrontational.  We are lucky to have Trump as a lightning rod, a figure so vulgar and open in his enthusiasm for mean, nasty policies that even middle-of-the-roaders are appalled.  He is the biggest recruiter for center-left unity.

Trump’s lack of experience, extreme narcissism and strong-man pretentions do not endear him to members of his party.  When the going gets tough for Trump and his popularity plummets further, there is reason to expect that huge segments of the GOP will desert him.  The movement that we are building should encourage and exploit these splits, and our movement should be aggressive and not defensive.  For example, rather than merely oppose the dismantling of the Affordable Care Act or demand its restoration, we should call for the creation of a modern, long overdue single-payer health care system.

Such a call will only be pie in the sky if we can’t do two things in the coming years. First, we must expose and discredit the forces behind the GOP – the social nuts like the Tea Party and the evangelicals, and especially the businessmen and women who are bloated with power and money – and relegate it to the trash can of history once and for all.  Then, we must wean ourselves from our dependence on a Democratic Party that is, when it comes to economic policy, the mere flip side of the GOP.  We need to build our own independent political vehicles that do not rely on the money of rich people, who will never support the kind of policies that we need – policies that put the well-being of all the people before the profits and well-being of the wealthy few.

It will not be easy to build the unity and political clarity necessary to achieve these goals.  But it is not impossible.  Trump has barely been in office a week and millions of people are nervous, restless, ready to act.  Powerful forces – or potentially powerful forces – have yet to leap into the fray, especially organized labor.

As we continue our beautiful struggle, we will learn: we will learn who our real enemies are; we will learn that progress does not come easy; we will learn something of our own mettle; we will recognize those who share our common interests; we will learn to trust each other.

We will learn the meaning of the word solidarity!

— James Collins

 

 

 

Which Way Forward? It’s Time for Organized Labor to Move Left

Now union leaders face a huge, embarrassing question: Why, after unions spent more than $100 million to defeat Donald J. Trump, did Mrs. Clinton win only narrowly among voters from union households, by 51 percent to 43 percent according to exit polls? Clinton even lost to Trump among union households in Ohio, 49 percent to 44 percent.

“We underestimated the amount of anger and frustration among working people and especially white workers, both male and female, about their economic status,” said Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and chairman of the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s political committee. (New York Times, Nov. 26, 2016)

How can labor’s top leadership be so insulated from the reality of falling wages, rising health care costs, mounting debts, and endless wars that they were clueless to see the frustration of workers exploding right before their eyes? Are these same top leaders capable of organizing and leading the type of popular campaign to protect workers in the upcoming period.

In his recent posting “Red Dawn in Pennsylvania,” Coleman Saint James writes a critical analysis of the recent Trump victory and asks “What went wrong?” Not that a vote for Clinton was the answer, but what drove many in the working class to support Trump? Why was voter turnout lower? Why did working-class towns like Erie, Pa., that had previously voted for Obama now vote for Trump?

Was the Clinton message to workers so dull and muted that people did not bother to listen? Was it all about anti-immigrant racism and sexism?

The recent slew of billionaire right-wing appointments to cabinet positions by Trump signals that a sharp move further to the right is in the works. Trump’s appointees and congressional Republican leaders seem to have nearly every social program on the cutting board next year, a signal that Trump is prepared to betray some of his key campaign promises not to cut Social Security and Medicare.

Given the immense dangers that lie ahead, Saint James questions the strategies and tactics union members and working people might utilize to defend themselves and the public interest. Is the reliance on an all-consuming and one-dimensional strategy of electoral politics advocated by the Democrats and liberal establishment really up to the challenge after decades of decline?

For a relevant history lesson, Saint James offers the 1988 Jesse Jackson for President campaign as an example that might offer a few clues as to how to revive and deepen today’s struggles. The 1988 Jackson campaign, like the 2016 Sanders campaign, had as its foundation the now forgotten working-class message of jobs, peace and justice that resonated with a substantial numbers of workers in western Pennsylvania.

For example, Jackson received 22.5% of the Democrat primary votes in Allegheny County, 16.4% in Beaver, 16.3% in Butler and 49% in Lawrence County. And as a comparison, Sanders received 44% in Allegheny, 42% Beaver, 39% in Lawrence County.

A crucial forerunner of his electoral campaign was the Rainbow Coalition, a Jackson-led independent, grassroots organization that sought to unite broad masses under the banner of left and progressive policies. The Coalition’s record helped to give credibility to the local campaign organizers and opened the door to a wider understanding of the need for the unity of workers regardless of color.

This simple but powerful class-based message, coupled with an independent organizational strategy, is the antidote to the demagoguery of Trump and the phony corporate identity politics of Democrats today. Although most of labor’s officialdom supported Michael Dukakis, the eventual Democratic nominee in 1988, Jackson generated a critical mass of support amongst labor’s lower levels of leadership and the rank-and- file. A thorn in the side of corporate america, Democratic Party officials, and top labor leaders, Jackson’s campaign message was able to grab the hearts and minds of a sizable portion of the population, even without the financial and organizational support that was withheld by corporate, Democratic and labor leaders.

And contrary to today’s liberal rhetoric of an irrevocable divide between the white working-class and black America, these two groups were equal partners in Jackson’s coalition. Comments by Ted Rechel, a United Paperworkers union member during the 1988 strike against International Paper in rural Clinton County, Pa., typifies the strength of Jackson’s class-based message:

He’s the only guy in the whole lot who did anything for the people who work for a living and have been shoved out of the door by scabs and Ronald Reagan politics… He’s the only guy in the whole world who did anything for people who work for a living and is going to get a lot of votes from this rural, redneck community.” (Morning Call, Apr. 21, 1988)

However, the strong public support for a bold program of jobs, peace and justice promulgated by Jackson in 1988 did not result in the formation of an organization that could be a building block to give political expression to this untapped sentiment. Jackson disbanded his Rainbow Coalition and folded his grassroots election campaign into the waiting arms of the Democrats, where it and the key issues that propelled his success ultimately died. It became another failed electoral campaign that spent millions of dollars and left supporters demobilized with no clear path to continue building a grassroots movement.

Jackson went away from the political stage but the same issues resurfaced again in a smaller version with the Dennis Kucinich 2004 presidential run — a strong grassroots network with a left/progressive message that ultimately channeled these resources and enthusiasm to the mainstream Democrats.

Again, in 2016, the Sanders campaign, like Jackson in 1988 and Kucinich in 2004 (but with significantly more traction), has proven that there is a solid, consistent mass base in the working class for a program that focuses on the evils of corporate rule in America. Similar in many ways to the Jackson campaign, Sanders’ grassroots supporters were ostracized, belittled and ignored by organized labor and the officialdom of the Democratic Party. Like Jackson, Sanders is keeping his movement in the Democratic party and attempting to carve out a concrete left wing within.

Standing in opposition to the energy of Sanders’ insurgency was the floundering Clinton campaign which, because of its ties to Big Money and allegations of wholesale corruption, was unable to offer a strong anti-corporate message. Just how out-of-touch Clinton’s politics were with the conditions of working people in America are made evident in two recent studies.

The surging income inequalities of American society and the crisis faced by everyday workers are highlighted by a recent report from three economists, Thomas Piketty, Emanuel Saez, and Gabriel Zucman. They state:

Our data show that the bottom half of the income distribution in the United States has been completely shut off from economic growth since the 1970s. From 1980 to 2014, average national income per adult grew by 61 percent in the United States, yet the average pre-tax income of the bottom 50 percent of individual income earners stagnated at about $16,000 per adult after adjusting for inflation. In contrast, income skyrocketed at the top of the income distribution, rising 121 percent for the top 10 percent, 205 percent for the top 1 percent, and 636 percent for the top 0.001 percent.

It’s a tale of two countries. For the 117 million U.S. adults in the bottom half of the income distribution, growth has been non-existent for a generation while at the top of the ladder it has been extraordinarily strong.

An economy that fails to deliver growth for half of its people for an entire generation is bound to generate discontent with the status quo and a rejection of  establishment politics.
[http://equitablegrowth.org/research-analysis/economic-growth-in-the-united-states-a-tale-of-two-countries/]

Similarly, the sinking fortunes of the vast majority of American retirees is highlighted by a recent study conducted by the Institute for Policy Studies, “A Tale of Two Retirements,” which highlights the enormous gap between the pensions of the top CEO’s and those of working class americans.

Just 100 CEOs have company retirement funds worth $4.7 billion — a sum equal to the entire retirement savings of the 41 percent of U.S. families with the smallest nest eggs.  This $4.7 billion total is also equal to the entire retirement savings of the bottom:

  • 59 percent of African-American families
  • 75 percent of Latino families
  • 55 percent of female-headed households
  • 44 percent of white working class households.
  • Of workers 56-61 years old, 39 percent have no employer-sponsored retirement plan whatsoever and will likely depend entirely on Social Security, which pays an average benefit of $1,239 per month.

[http://www.ips-dc.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/IPS-Two-Retirements-Report-final-for-dec-15.pdf]

Rather than offer popular solutions that would address these and other issues related to the economic crisis affecting the vast majority, Clinton and the Democrats pursued a losing strategy of attempting to win over the more “moderate Republicans.”  They arrogantly assumed that workers had nowhere to go but vote Democratic. The remarks of  Chuck Schumer, chair of the Democratic Senatorial Committee in July 2016, show it best:

“For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.”

The essence of the Clinton campaign was to try to cement the neoliberal dream of a future America — that her coalition of the urban elite and sheep dogged identity groups in America, wooed by both an honest but only surface-level support of multiculturalism and a phony ideology of ‘pragmatism,’ can continue to elect Democrats while holding absolutely no one accountable. But set against the backdrop of world capitalism in crisis, this ideology (or lack thereof) — “America is already great” — excited few.

Enter the Donald, the other half of the two most disliked presidential candidates in US history. His right-wing “populist” campaign message of simultaneously blaming immigrants, Muslims, Washington insiders, and corporate-friendly “trade deals” for job losses whipped a nationalistic fervor that gradually gained traction and tapped into the economic angst of many.

Unfortunately, the groundwork of the anti-foreigner sentiment promoted by Trump had actually already been laid by the decades-long campaigns of unions that constantly railed against “foreign imports” while simultaneously preaching “labor management harmony” to protect their “partners,” soulless multinational corporations.

Confusion, disorientation, and apathy engulfed the rank-and-file as workers were told by union leaders and Democrats that the corporations are their “allies” and need “concessions” to remain “competitive,” even as jobs, benefits, pensions and whole communities were being gutted and poisoned over the decades by these same multinational capitalists.

In 2012, the AFL-CIO in Ohio even promoted the movie, Death by China, made by Peter Navarro, Trump’s appointee to a new White House position on trade and industrial policy. Recently, the AFL-CIO appeared optimistic about Navarro’s appointment and reported that he “has raised some important critiques of American trade policy and we look forward to working with him to translate that into real policies that benefit America’s workers.”  These are signs that Trump’s opposition to the TPP forebodes an even more aggressive trade position against China, escalating the possibilities of a retaliatory trade war and military conflict.


The road ahead

However, like during the Jackson campaign, there was a small but significant section of organized labor that both endorsed the Sanders campaign and is open to solutions that challenge the unfettered rule of corporations and the “free” market.  And as the primary vote totals show, this critical support from labor unions is accompanied by even greater support in the general public. As liberals are engulfed in a sea of finger-pointing to explain this loss, labor must recognize that there is already a critical mass of unionized workers and a large segment of the general population that can be a springboard for an alternative independent political movement.

How can we broaden and deepen this budding class consciousness inside of labor to regain the necessary power to defend workers on the job?

Is it possible to build an independent movement that educates and mobilizes those inside labor and the general public for policies that challenge the current right-wing corporate agenda?

A key to the revitalization of labor is to begin an honest dialogue about the class struggle against all workers being led by corporate America. It spans decades and continues under successive Democratic and Republican administrations. Organized labor’s response to these ongoing attacks has been totally ineffective, resulting in a sharp decline in the number of union members along with its ability to effect changes in the economic and political arenas.


What kind of trade union do workers need today?

And what are the changes in strategy and tactics necessary for labor to best defend worker interests on the job, in the community and in the political arena? The working class is searching for answers and is open to more militant and class-based responses but has no organizational forum to help move this debate forward.

Activists with a class struggle vision need to lead this bottom-up organizing with the understanding and confidence that real power comes through education and mobilization of the rank-and-file. This foundation that begins at the grassroots level will be a slow and arduous process of articulating a bolder and more militant approach to bargaining, organizing and politics. Victory is not always certain but never educating and mobilizing workers to challenge the rule of corporations is a guarantee for defeat.

The confusion, anger, and desire for change must be addressed at all levels within labor. It won’t be easy, nor are there any “hero leaders” that can change the internal lifelessness that typifies most labor organizations. Both labor-management cooperation, which pacifies and confuses the rank-and-file, and the poodle-like following of the Democratic Party must be critically examined and replaced with class- struggle unionism and independent political action — a strategy that consciously works to connect the dots and show that workers have more in common with each other than with their boss.

Building real power on the job also has its parallel in politics — independent political action. Issues like Medicare for All, Fight for Fifteen, taxing the wealthy to provide a public works jobs program to rebuild America, and support for public education, are just a few causes that resonate strongly and can be the catalyst for a powerful unifying message. This will be a message that counters the confusion, apathy, and hopelessness now afflicting many who are increasingly turned off by what is pushed as “practical politics” by the two mainstream parties.

The Rainbow Coalition can be an outline for the type of year-round independent political vehicle that restores the voice of the working class as the proper foil to Trump’s populist demagogy. Both the necessity of this sort of vehicle and the fading irrelevance of labor’s current strategies were again made evident by the 2016 election. The building of a working- class based, grassroots movement inside of labor and in the public can’t wait until the next election cycle.

Organized labor’s rich history through great upheavals like those of the CIO show that with principled leadership and a vision, labor, fueled by the energy of the workers within it, can lead this political movement.

Ed Grystar

(Ed Grystar was president of the Butler County United Labor Council, AFL-CIO, from 1987 to 2003, Pennsylvania state coordinator for the 2004 Dennis Kucinich campaign, and Western Pennsylvania coordinator of Labor for Jackson in 1988.)