As the standard of living of working people continues its four-decades-long steady decline, the number of people who classify themselves as “middle class” has correspondingly dropped, including by almost 10 percent in the past six years alone. Under the circumstances one might assume that leaders of organized labor are furiously rethinking their single-minded, long-held strategy of “defending” working people by simply electing Democrats to office. Surely, the disastrous track record of this strategy has given rise to a pause. Unfortunately, there are few encouraging signs on the horizon that top union officials are engaged in any serious contemplation of a dramatic new strategic departure.
Instead, labor leaders have chosen to refine this dead-end approach by narrowing its focus: elect “labor Democrats,” not “business Democrats.” At the recent California state Democratic Party convention, San Francisco Labor Council Executive Director Tim Paulson drew cheers when he declared: “We want Labor Democrats, not business Democrats. We’re talking about the fact that there’s more wealth in this nation and state than there’s ever been…. I don’t care if (Democrats) have a supermajority, if people aren’t voting for the values of the American dream.”
Aside from the problem that labor Democrats will be a minority in relation to business Democrats who side with Republicans, this declaration naturally raises the question: Are there really any politicians who could qualify as “labor Democrats” or should this category be consigned to the status of fiction? To answer this question one must carefully disentangle appearances from the underlying reality because mainstream politics breeds on deception.
Of course, everyone knows that politicians need votes to win elections and that consequently they have a perverse incentive when running for office to make promises to working people – the vast majority of the population – they have no intention of keeping. Lyndon Johnson ran on a peace platform and then rapidly escalated the war in Viet Nam. Jimmy Carter promised a $50 tax rebate to each taxpayer but when elected decided the proposal was not practical. Bill Clinton promised to lower taxes on the middle class. When elected he slapped the middle class with a massive tax increase.
Obama, too, promised tax cuts for the middle class: “I will cut taxes – cut taxes – for 95% of all workers and their families,” and added, “If you make under $250,000 a year, you will not see your taxes go up one dime.” But the Huffington Post reported that his 2013 budget proposal “would steadily boost taxes for middle-class households over the next 10 years, according to an analysis from the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center.”
And in fact he did allow the 2011 tax cut for working people to expire in 2013, meaning that workers had to pay an additional 2 percent in taxes thereafter.
There is an obvious reason why politicians do not keep campaign promises: although working people represent the vast majority of the electorate, small campaign contributions represent only 13 percent of all donations; large donors contribute 48 percent.
And while unions donate heavily and usually to Democrats, their donations are dwarfed when compared with the combination of corporate and wealthy individual donations. Contrary to popular opinion, the wealthy do not give primarily to the Republican Party: the top 20 big donors recently gave 62 percent of their money to Democrats.
Given this context, it was hardly surprising that The New York Times reported on “a dirty secret” of both parties when they were trying to negotiate a “grand bargain” to lower the deficit:
“Republicans oppose further tax increases on the rich, as Democrats demand, so Democrats will not support major changes to Medicare and Social Security, as Republicans insist.
“But the dirty secret – a phrase used independently, and privately, by people in both parties – is that neither side wants to take the actions it demands of the other to achieve a breakthrough.
“That is, many Republicans are no more interested in voting to reduce Medicare and Social Security benefits than Democrats are, lest they [Republicans] threaten their party’s big advantage among the older voters who dominate the electorate in midterm contests like those in 2014.
“And Democrats are no more eager than Republicans, with control of both houses of Congress up for grabs, to vote for the large revenue increases that a grand bargain would entail. They do not want to limit popular but costly deductions, as Mr. Obama and past bipartisan panels … have proposed. That is especially true for Democrats from states, like California and New York, where affluent voters value deductions for mortgages on first and second homes, charitable giving, and state and local taxes.”
In other words, Democrats do not want to alienate their wealthy benefactors.
Not surprisingly, while working people are struggling to get by, the very wealthy are enjoying a strong winning streak, thanks to the power of money.
Leaders of organized labor, while conceding that the Democratic Party is strongly subsidized by the very wealthy, point to individual Democratic Party politicians who seem to have progressive records on issues impacting working people. Yet here again appearances and reality can diverge. Democrats will often parade as pro-labor politicians as long as their vote doesn’t matter. However, when forced to actually vote when it does matter, their allegiance suddenly evaporates.
For example, organized labor was intensely lobbying for the Employee Free Choice Act because it would have greatly facilitated their organizing drives. Business was lobbying just as intensely against the bill. Nevertheless, two Democratic members of Congress introduced the bill, saying it would help rebuild the middle class. But according to The New York Times, “Republican and business strategists said some former co-sponsors [i.e., Democrats] felt they had a free pass to back the bill when President Bush appeared likely to veto it. But now that the bill appears to have a real chance of passage [because Obama was president], they said, some moderate senators, heavily lobbied by business, are backing off the bill, worried that it might hurt or anger their business constituents.”
In other words, Democrats will voice support for pro-labor legislation as long as they don’t actually have to vote for it when their vote might be a deciding factor.
The New York Times reported on a similar dynamic in San Francisco, one of the most progressive cities in the country, where a left-leaning member of the Board of Supervisors agreed to introduce a bill that would eliminate a tax on corporate stock options. Three days after the bill was passed a lobbyist representing Zynga, one of the companies that benefited from the bill, threw a fundraiser for the supervisor.
Later, both Twitter and Zynga fought for another tax break. The Times quoted a city official as saying: “I don’t think a moderate would’ve touched this with a 10-foot pole. Not only were they able to get a progressive to take it, they were able to build a coalition of progressives to either support it or stay on the sidelines because when the time came they were able to call in the chips.”
In this case sitting on the sidelines and not voting can be just as helpful to corporate interests as actually voting for a bill. So even the progressives in one of the most progressive cities in the nation are prepared to do corporate bidding and lower their taxes, either directly or by “stay[ing] on the sidelines,” although San Francisco public schools are still suffering because of deep cuts exacted during the recession.
Of course, none of this is to say that Democrats never do anything for working people. They must toss some crumbs from time to time; otherwise their game would be too transparent. However, they do far less than they say they will do, and pretend to do more than they actually do. If these Democrats were consistently defenders of the working class, corporations would organize to ensure their defeat in the next elections by heavily funding their opponents.
Truly pro-labor individuals would divorce themselves from the Democratic Party and explain to their constituents that this party is above all controlled by one sector of the 1%, and they would help lead in the creation of a massive grassroots movement that would base its power on its numbers. Truly huge demonstrations can not only change the political discourse, as the Occupy movement did, but they can change social policy, as demonstrations of millions of people in Brazil succeeded in doing last summer. And these grassroots movements can serve as the basis for creating a new political party that would exclusively represent the interests of working people.
Far from taking the initiative in creating such a movement, “pro-labor” Democrats will put in an appearance at an Occupy demonstration, for example, again to give the impression they are “with” the masses. But they only stay long enough to be seen and then quietly slip away to go vote for another tax break for corporations. They are counting on most people not reading the papers carefully so that these votes will go unnoticed.
For those who argue that turning away from the Democratic Party represents “pie in the sky” politics and that voting for a Democrat rather than a Republican surely makes sense as the lesser evil, it is necessary to look at where we are going as a society. Inequalities continue to grow at an accelerating speed. This could not be taking place without the complicity of the Democratic Party. The distance between the 1% and the working class is being stretched to the breaking point. As wealth continues to be concentrated more and more in the hands of the few while ever-more people struggle just to get by, this dynamic will eventually lead to a societal breakdown, followed by explosive upheavals. Voting for a Democrat rather than a Republican will at best mean flying over the cliff at 20 mph rather than 40 mph. But in either case, we are in for a hard landing if this is the course we pursue.
With this is mind, it is important to note that there are a few promising glimmers of hope on the horizon. SEIU locals have been organizing demonstrations for a $15 minimum wage across the country. They are relying on working people themselves for political power, not on the Democrats. The head of the Central Labor Council of Seattle announced that the highest priority of his Council was the adoption of a $15 minimum wage for the city. In San Francisco an SEIU local is in the process of putting a proposal for a $15 minimum wage on the ballot, and the San Francisco Labor Council unanimously passed a resolution calling for $15. In Lorain, Ohio, confronting a Democratic stronghold, The AFL-CIO Labor Council with its community allies ran their own candidates against the Democrats and won.
As these movements increase and working people rely on themselves, a new political reality will open up where working people can begin to successfully fight for their interests and make real gains. This new reality will provide a basis upon which working people can build a party that exclusively represents their interests so they will no longer feel compelled to vote for candidates that represent the interests of the 1%. Then the tables will begin to turn.
Ann Robertson is a Lecturer at San Francisco State University and a member of the California Faculty Association.
Bill Leumer is a member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local 853 (ret.). Both are writers for Workers Action and may be reached email@example.com.