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Obama and Labor: the Self-Defeating Alliance

Last week SEIU (Service Employees International Union) echoed the language of the Occupy Wall Street movement to give an early endorsement to Barack Obama in his re-election bid for the presidency in 2012. For both tactical and strategic reasons this endorsement works against the interests of organized labor. And using the language of OWS to endorse the singular symbol of American political dysfunction undermines the efforts of the thousands of OWS protesters who have put themselves at significant risk of physical harm to bring about substantive political and social change.

Since his election Barack Obama has proven himself a political Trojan Horse, a man who because of his personal story and American racial politics appears to personify the hopes and aspirations of the rank and file of organized labor. But while in office he has dutifully represented the interests of the small group of extremely rich plutocrats who have worked for the last forty years to destroy the American working class through the implementation of neo-liberal economic policies. Obama knows what soothing words to say to allay the fears of workers while he implements the same policies that have driven down wages, caused mass unemployment and that have placed all of the economic “gains” of these policies in the hands of a few well-connected mostly white men.

Tactically, this early endorsement is one of the worst moves in the history of organized labor. With Obama having demonstrated no predilection for doing the right thing once in office, the endorsement could have been used as leverage to force concessions that would have been difficult for him to back away from after the election. That leverage was thrown away with the early endorsement.

And should the hope be that SEIU would receive special status as his neo-liberal programs further dismantle the U.S. labor market, the only power that organized labor has ever had is through collective action. Dividing and conquering has been the plutocrats’ strategy against unions for the last century. What part of “united we stand, divided we fall” doesn’t the current union leadership understand?

Since Ronald Reagan’s election Democrats and Republicans have acted as a single party to beat labor to the ground. The Democrats are particularly culpable because through various guises they have pretended to support organized labor while doing everything they can to undermine the labor market conditions that gave labor a platform from which to launch collective actions. Barack Obama is particularly adept at this sleight-of-hand by paying lip service to the right of collective bargaining while pushing so-called free trade agreements designed to undermine labor market conditions. Understand, destroying the power of labor to bargain collectively is the purpose of free trade agreements, not some unforeseen consequence.

The decline in organized labor’s power coincides precisely with the contrived misdirection put forward by both parties in the U.S. that a force of nature called international labor market competition is behind falling wages and rising unemployment rather than specific policies designed to benefit the rich. Organized labor would do well to look at Germany’s model of effectively preventing German companies from sending German jobs to low-wage countries. What the German experience illustrates is that there is nothing “natural” in tossing the same workforce that constitutes a nation’s citizenry into competition in international labor markets to drive down wages for the exclusive benefit of connected plutocrats. Only by making Democrats and Republicans own their actual economic policies can they be held to account for the consequences of these policies.

The most disingenuous dodge in modern politics has come from the Democrats’ conceit that they are always out of power and therefore not responsible for the neo-liberal policies that they are factually effective proponents of. Barack Obama made this claim when the Democrats held both houses of Congress and the White House to excuse his policies that strengthened the hands of the already wealthy bankers, arms dealers and insurance companies at the expense of working people. While restoring bankers’ exorbitant bonuses with taxpayer-funded bailouts of the banks, Obama had the gall to force autoworker wages down by insisting that they accept the tiered wage system as one of the terms of the automaker “bailout.” When Barack Obama had the power and the mandate to do the right thing for labor he did the wrong thing.

Democrats have depended on the calculus by labor and political liberals and progressives that no matter how bad their policies are, the Republicans’ policies are worse. On social issues this has been true. But how valuable are these morsels of humanity when corrupt economic policies place us on a permanent downward spiral into poverty, unemployment and homelessness with looted pensions and gutted social programs? The same plutocrats who now own everything have demonstrated through their financial support of the Tea Party that they are indifferent to social progress as long as they are free to continue to loot and plunder. And when did we collectively begin to aim so low that that we accept either social or economic progress as a gift from political leaders rather than demanding both?

The attempt by union leadership to co-opt the language and effort of the Occupy Wall Street movement to affect the re-election of the singular symbol of how broken the U.S. political system is simply pathetic. I have proudly marched with the SEIU rank and file in three of the last dozen or so marches that I have participated in. And the central refrain heard from the more politically astute union brothers and sisters is that they are tired of being sold out by the union leadership. Endorsing Barack Obama after he has shown that he will actively work against the interests of labor is just one more sellout. History has shown that there is always a way forward. Blindly holding onto the past by supporting those who work against us is not the way forward.

Rob Urie is an artist and political economist in New York.

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Rob Urie is an artist and political economist. His book Zen Economics is published by CounterPunch Books.

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