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.)

Red Dawn in Pennsylvania

It’s been three weeks since the election and I still encounter so many people who can’t believe that Pennsylvania, like most of the rest of the country, is a “red” state. In 2016 Pennsylvania finally voted for a Republican presidential candidate, even if by the slimmest of margins.  Just as maddening for Democrats, Katie McGinty lost the senatorial race to rightwing nut Pat Toomey by a similar margin.

But it doesn’t end there: our congressional delegation has 13 Republicans to five Dems, and the GOP increased its already considerable margin in the General Assembly; they now have a 122 to 81 advantage in the house and a veto-sustaining 34 to 16 margin in the state senate. We’re going to be seeing red a lot for the next two years.

Liberal commentators – insulated elitists that many of them are – have been blaming the white working class, or non college-educated whites, for the nationwide debacle.  I’m tired of hearing all the snide “Pennsyltucky” comments: they’re not funny and, as the polling data is showing, not very accurate.  A lot of college-educated people pulled the lever for Trump and other down-ballot Republicans, including the highly educated union members in the two teachers unions.

No, lack of education wasn’t the problem.  Stevie Wonder captured the mood of voters of all races and genders decades ago when he sang:“We are sick and tired of hearing your song/Telling how you are changing right from wrong/’Cause if you really want to hear our view/you haven’t done nothin.’”

Anyone trying to come up with an electoral strategy to reverse national and local GOP dominance should study the 1988 Jesse Jackson campaign for president.

A working-class problem?

Perhaps the “problem” with those workers – especially the white ones – is a problem of leadership: no leadership and misleadership. With only 11 percent of all eligible employees belonging to unions – 6.7 percent in the private sector – it’s safe to say that most workers have no organic political leaders.  They have to find them where they can, among politicians, religious leaders and celebrities.  There’s not a lot of political clarity or wisdom to be found from Kanye West, Angelina Jolie or someone from the cast of Duck Dynasty.

But looking to one’s obvious leaders — trade union officials — doesn’t offer much better. Take, for example, the inane remarks of American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten.  After attributing Hillary Clinton’s defeat, at least in part, to sexism, she reaches this conclusion: “So I think we’re never really ever going to understand it.”

Okay then, she’s not familiar with feminist theory. Even worse, Weingarten goes on to say that Bernie Sanders, who has been in Congress since 1992 and whose record is an open book, “was never tested or vetted by anyone, and frankly we have no idea whether he would have actually been able to get through this crucible.”

By “anyone,” Weingarten means anyone in the Democratic Party power structure – the very same people who find unions and union leaders like Weingarten contemptible. Our nation’s labor leaders have no independent political vision.  It’s embarrassing to see how slavish they are in serving Democrats who reciprocate by giving very little in return. Labor would be better off eschewing electoral politics altogether and concentrating on organizing and representing workers.

It would be great to see this kind of leadership replaced by one that has vision and true dedication to their membership and the working class in general, and that is a matter that must ultimately be settled by working men and women. But in the meantime, we need aspiring political leaders who understand the value of creating or being a part of broad movements for change.  And that type of leader can come from anywhere, not necessarily labor. Back in the 1980’s, the Rev. Jesse Jackson was such a leader.

Hope through struggle

Unlike Barack Obama’s Hope/Change thing, Jackson’s “Keep Hope Alive” slogan was tied to a history of participation in grassroots movements and a vision of creating a new movement — a Rainbow Coalition — to achieve goals that mainstream politicians and commentators saw as either unreasonable or unachievable.  His platform called for affirmative action, passing the ERA, cutting defense spending, a foreign policy based on respect for self-determination, immigrant rights, civil rights, single-payer health care, reversing the Reagan tax cuts for the rich, ending the so-called war on drugs, free community college for all, support for family farmers, reparations for the descendants of slaves, and more.

To achieve these objectives, Jackson believed in coalition building — fusing existing movements into a Rainbow Coalition of common interests. He visibly fought for his platform before his first presidential run in 1984, between the 1984 and 1988 campaigns, as well as during the latter campaign.

Jackson won 11 primaries or caucuses – in places like Alabama, Louisiana, Michigan, Georgia, Mississippi and Vermont, where he had the endorsement of then Burlington mayor Bernie Sanders. He had strong finishes in several others and his campaign registered 2 million new voters.  Needless to say, many of his supporters were white working class folks; he even won some endorsements from majority-white union locals.

Jackson’s big weakness was his considerable ego and willingness to compromise with Democratic Party power brokers at the expense of his Rainbow Coalition, which never developed the capacity to function effectively without him.  He ended up getting it backwards, and we’re all the worse off for it.

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bath water.  The potential power of coalitions based on common interest was demonstrated.  Nor should we place all of the blame on Jackson: he was indeed a charismatic figure, but it’s not his fault that our nation’s culture, political and otherwise, is so enamored with charisma.

We still need to build and sustain powerful mass movements; if we are to succeed in electing politicians who will serve our people’s needs, they need to be tied to and pushed by masses of people.

Crying over the defeat of Hillary Clinton — a (possibly) good person who is certainly not beholden to people like us, but instead to ultra-rich ruling-class powers — is a waste of time.  Scapegoating white workers misleads people who are already confused.  We need to build strong movements — in labor, among oppressed people of all races, genders and colors — from which strong leaders — not just a leader — can emerge to serve our interests.

As bad as things seem to be, the future is unwritten.  But it’s past time to write off people like the Clintons, who haven’t done nothin.’

— Coleman Saint James