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We Can Thank Top Union Officials for Trump

Photo by Fibonacci Blue | Public Domain

As Trump keeps depressing us with his erratic politics swinging wildly around his fragile ego, even to the point of threatening nuclear war, one might ask: How did we get here?  And, of course, we naturally turn to the Democratic Party dominated by its pro-corporate agenda as the proximate cause.

The Democratic Party has always been pro-corporate and pro-rich. The philosophy underlying capitalism is, after all, the idea that successful people build successful businesses that run the economy. But when inequalities in wealth were far less severe, corporate interests and the interests of everyone else seemed mildly compatible, at least to the “middle class.” With inequalities in wealth widening and the “middle class” losing ground, interests between these two classes have deeply diverged. Democrats have embraced austerity, supported lowering taxes on corporations, and left education and social programs short-changed.

The far left has been critical of the Democratic Party for decades. But now, especially after seeing how the party treated Bernie Sanders, denouncing the Democrats has approached mainstream. This trend has been encouraged by a spate of books critical of the party and exposing its reliance on big financial donors.

For example, in his recently published book, On New Terrain, Kim Moody of Labor Notes describes the top-down, completely undemocratic structure of the Democratic Party and its obsession with raising money in order to keep pace with the growing expense of election campaigns. Referring to various committees that compose the Democratic Party’s structure, Moody notes, “by far the largest proportion of the funds they raise come from business and the wealthy – that is, the capitalist class.” Union contributions are far less in comparison.

Even long-time Democrat Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton, has raised his own criticisms of the Democratic Party:“The Democratic National Committee – like the Republican National Committee – has become little more than a giant machine designed to suck up big money from wealthy individuals, lobbyists bundlers, and corporate and Wall Street PACs” (“Why the Shake-up at the Democratic National Committee is Doomed” – 2016).

With this kind of a structure and orientation there can be little wonder that the Democrats have offered next to nothing to working people despite having a super majority in Congress during the first part of Obama’s administration. Working people, especially those who have been struggling, can hardly be blamed for turning to a wild card like Trump for salvation.

It would be wrong, however, to blame the Trump phenomenon on the Democratic Party, as if the Democrats somehow betrayed their true calling. Democrats are just being themselves. They have never claimed to be anything other than pro-capitalist. And although they have posed as pro-labor, this commitment has always been contingent on, and restricted by, the needs of capital.

Organized labor, under the reign of the top officials, is a different story. The unions are by definition unconditionally pro-worker. Consequently, as the Democratic Party pushes further to the right in pursuit of corporate money, organized labor, by following them, has betrayed its mission.

Some labor officials have tried to justify this loyalty by claiming to support only “progressive” Democrats, not “corporate” Democrats. But real progressives do not operate in an undemocratic, corporate-controlled political party. It’s like an environmentalist accepting a job with a coal company.And it’s not a matter of simply replacing cynical Democratic Party apparatchiks by honest, left-leaning politicians. The entire Democratic Party structure is rotten to the core and will eventually corrupt even the best-intentioned Democrats.

The pressure on labor to abandon the Democrats will inevitably intensify. There are already serious efforts towards building an alternative political party that is not tied to corporate interests. The Movement for a People’s Party, organized by staff and other supporters of Bernie Sanders’ presidential run, could become a viable alternative, especially with strong union support. With their vast financial resources, unions could divert the hundreds of millions of dollars they give to the Democrats to the People’s Party. And during political campaigns, labor could educate its members about the true nature of the Democratic Party and encourage them to support class-independent labor candidates by conducting door-to-door canvassing and phone banking, a form of support that has significantly boosted Democratic Party candidates in the past.

The leftward shifting political climate is creating fertile soil for the emergence of a new party.  The amazing spike in membership of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) from just a few thousand a few years ago to 38,000 now, due in large part to the Sanders’ campaign, offers testimony to this shift. And polls showing that youth between the ages of 18 and 29 now favor socialism over capitalism prove socialism is no longer just “pie in the sky.” What before was unthinkable has become realistic.

Organized labor has been on a downward trajectory for decades with membership in decline and with few big victories to inspire its membership. Many unions have adopted a neoliberal corporate culture: They are top-down with little information provided to their members about exactly what they are doing. They do not engage their members in any significant decision-making and treat them as customers, not comrades in struggle. They process grievances – hopefully – and negotiate contracts behind closed doors. True – unionized workers fare substantially better than non-unionized workers when it comes to wages and benefits. But doing better than Walmart employees is not an inspiring success story.

The teachers who have recently gone on strike across the country have provided a lesson plan for organized labor. These were grassroots movements, not primarily union-led, and at times they remained on strike in defiance of the union officials, resulting in significant gains.  In the end, many of them called off their strikes with the idea of continuing their struggle in the political arena (“Remember in November”), which unfortunately will mean campaigning for Democrats in the hope of forcing hyper austerity Republicans out of office.

If there were a people’s party that defended the interests of all working people, then teachers, along with everyone else, would have a better chance to score huge victories when turning to electoral politics. But such a party would need to go beyond electoral politics and spearhead the creation of a grassroots movement that fought for legislation to tax the rich in order to fully fund public education, social programs, and eradicate poverty. Towards this end it could build alliances with the Poor People’s Campaign, encourage the creation of rank-and-file union and neighborhood committees, and forge links with established community organizations and grassroots groups like Black Lives Matter and Immigrant Rights groups, all with the aim of creating a massive movement to stop and reverse the corporate war on the rest of us.

In short, we could begin to replace the I’m-only-for-myself capitalist culture by a culture where the common good is the guiding principle.

 

 

Ann Robertson is a Lecturer in the Philosophy Department 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 at sanfrancisco@workerscompass.org

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