Labor Advocate Online

Midterm Mandate?
Labor's Timid ‘Friends’ Losers Again

by Bill Onasch

When I announced on the KC Labor mailing list that I was working on this article several subscribers forwarded election stories from a wide variety of sources. I appreciate this and have learned much interesting information. With so much analysis out there the question could be raised: why do we need another?  Inevitably I will rehash some of the same points widely discussed by others. I'm not breaking any new fertile ground, not advancing any instant solutions to the problems flowing from the recent election. What I will attempt is to briefly look at this juncture in American politics from a working class point of view. How does the Bush Mandate affect the class struggle in the United States, indeed throughout the world? How should workers and our organizations respond? These and similar related questions are what we need to move front and left [we've had no luck with the center] today.

Pardon My Lack Of Emotion
I'm sorry. I just can't get as excited about elections as many of my friends do. I guess that's because I don't really believe that elections determine the political line of  march in any fundamental sense.

The real decisions affecting our lives are ultimately made in board rooms and club lounges. They are not televised on C-SPAN. They are not responses to focus groups. They are not based on polls. They are not accountable to voters. They are chosen to advance the best interests of the bankers and bosses.

That doesn't mean that cigar-smoking capitalists wearing stove pipe hats are calling all the shots. This class rules America through their domination of a vast and diverse structure that includes think-tanks, mass media, schools, churches, political parties—and government. They dictate the limited terms of political debate. They groom the most effective personalities to lead society under the illusion that voters have spoken.

Allowances for nuance of difference within this political setup are made. Two parties are deemed more than enough to settle any tactical disagreements that arise among ruling circles from time to time. But the electoral process has never been successful in initiating challenges to fundamental objectives of the ruling class.

Legend tells us that labor owes much to FDR and the New Deal. The Wagner Act allowed us to organize. The Democrats were a real people's party then and gave us things like Social Security and the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Like most legends this one is seriously flawed. American workers were given nothing. We have always had to fight for whatever gains we have made. The Wagner Act was an emergency response to a big uprise in workers' struggles. In 1934 there were three particularly significant events—the Toledo AutoLite strike, the Minneapolis truck drivers strike, and the San Francisco general strike. In all three of these actions active support was won from the entire local working class community. All stood up to the police and national guard that were used by the bosses to try to break the strikes. All won.

The 1934 strike wave, which later inspired the organizing of mass industry by the CIO, including the use of sit-down strikes, alarmed the ruling class. The Wagner Act was passed not to encourage union organizing but to regulate it, to get the fights out of the streets and shop floors and into orderly representation elections and solemn labor board hearings. 

The New Deal, which eventually included some significant reforms, such as Social Security and the Fair Labor Standards Act, was not even discussed until FDR's second term approached. Roosevelt had run against Hoover on a platform of fiscal responsibility. The New Deal was not a product of the political views of the Democrats; it was a grudging concession made to fighting mad workers disrespecting both property rights and “law and order.”

At best elections may ratify changes already in progress in society; they almost never spearhead them. Usually elections are personality contests as to who can best preserve the status quo.

The Bush Mandate
In 2000 the electorate had a tough time deciding even on personalities. The Supreme Court had to make the final decision on President and they selected the number two finisher. The 9/11 terrorist attacks later gave Bush the authority and popularity he had been lacking.

The Democrats then urgently sought their focus groups. Bush is popular because of his war threats; we will join in war threats and share his popularity. Bush wants to make the tax cuts for the rich we once opposed permanent; we want tax cuts too. Bush already ordered corporate law breakers to be led to jail in handcuffs; no mileage in this issue for us.

Many have commented on this lack of contrast between the two parties in this election. On the eve of the vote the pollsters were saying it was too close to call. On the issues of most concern: the threat of war, the tanking economy, pension collapse, runaway health care costs, deteriorating schools—they could detect little meaningful difference.

Despite staggering amounts of money spent on TV advertising, and monumental efforts by unions to mobilize their membership, only 39 percent of eligible voters bothered to show up. The national numbers in the congressional races gave the GOP about a one percent better performance than the Dems. In other words the basis for a claim of mandate is support of twenty percent of the eligible electorate.

Unfair Criticism of Democrats
A lot of people that I respect, such as Ralph Nader and Bill Moyer, have lambasted the Democrats for failing to differentiate themselves from the Republicans on the key issues of concern. Their arguments have merit but miss an essential point. The Democrats are not a people's opposition party. They are a bosses party presently out of office. Certainly they would like to get back into office but, as they have amply demonstrated whenever they were in power, they have no principled beef with the GOP. While the Daschle/Gephardt leadership may have been inept the main reason why people couldn't tell the difference between the two parties is that major differences don't exist—and never have. This lack of contrast is not a sign of mandate; it is evidence of a political con game.

Other factors mitigate against conceding a mandate to Bush. A massive movement in opposition to the bipartisan war drive has developed and is growing. Hundreds of thousands have demonstrated in the streets. Congress has been deluged with antiwar letters and phone calls. And a number of important union bodies have broken the vow of silence taken by the top leadership by adopting resolutions against the war.

And, now that they are free from the distraction of hustling votes for Democrats, the environmental movement will demonstrate that there is certainly no mandate for turning the oil companies loose on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Organized Labor's Role
The AFL-CIO mobilized on an unprecedented scale for a midterm election. 750 staff members worked full time on the campaign. 225,000 rank-and-file members went door-to-door or made phone calls to voters. They distributed 17 million leaflets by hand, made five million phone calls in addition to 15 million pieces of mail. In many areas union bodies spent big bucks on television “issue ads.”

This was certainly an impressive effort. We can congratulate our leaders on an effective job of mobilization. The only problem is—we lost big time any way you look at it.

Even if one can't shake the illusion that the Democrats are somehow friends of labor it should be clear to all that the Democrats are losers.  As growing numbers—especially among that sixty percent who didn't vote—question the status quo they will be looking for new alternatives, not tweedledum and tweedledummer. This offers both opportunities and dangers. There are Pat Buchanans—and worse—who will be ready to try to exploit prejudice to build a base on dissatisfaction. We need a genuine working class alternative in the political arena.

Clearly our unions are a logical base for a working class party. Even though unions represent a relatively small percentage of the working class it has always been our task to fight for the class as a whole and no one else does this on a consistent basis. Our unions also have potential allies among family farmers, students, environmentalists—and the peace movement. The resources squandered on the Democrat losers could go a long way to creating a credible alternative to the bosses parties.*

Build the Labor Party
There has in fact been a significant movement along these lines for several years. The Labor Party was launched in 1996. It has the endorsement of several international and hundreds of local unions. While seeing the unions as the solid foundation the Labor Party is open to all, union and unorganized alike, who agree with the party's perspectives.

For now the Labor Party isn't running candidates for office. The focus is on mobilizing around issues, to inject the needs of our class into the national debate. As the party grows in union support and membership numbers elections will be contested as well.

As we walk the picket lines, march in demonstrations, organize our rallies and forums, we will answer the bosses and their politicians—mandate this!

*To be effective a labor effort must be truly independent. The Working Families Party in New York, sponsored by some unions, endorses only Democrats. In this election they attacked a long time labor and community activist, Stanley Aronowitz, for running for Governor on the Green Party ticket—taking votes away from their Democrat. In this same contest the Liberal Party—originally founded by AF of L unions—supported the Republican but failed to get enough votes to maintain ballot status. The bizarre horse-trading arrangements in New York state are not very inspiring for those looking for a real working class alternative.