Workers Are Walking Out

Workers Are Walking Out

After decades of retreat, it might just be that workers are coming into their own as a force for social change. Forty years of punishing austerity and a two-tiered labor system pitting new, temporary, or part-time workers against regular workers have finally found the lowest pay and conditions workers will tolerate. The risk of death and illness from COVID was a profound trigger magnifying an already dire situation. The bosses’ “race to the bottom” finally found the bottom.

The working class is cornered but the working class is fighting back.

It’s a two-pronged labor revolt: an organized strike wave and an unorganized but much larger movement in which millions of workers are quitting their damned jobs. The corporate media is calling it the “Great Resignation.” It’s less polite than that — millions have simply walked off without giving notice. They are not looking back.

This is good news. The only way for us to learn how to exercise power is to practice exerting it. The strike wave and the record-setting walkouts are so full of promise because the people are acting on their own behalf — on their own interests — both collective and individual. We hope people will see the connection between the two. Will the millions of discontented workers form unions? Will the unions field an army of organizers to help out?

Workers have reached the breaking point but not before inequality reached epic proportions and COVID revealed just how little the bosses cared if we live or die.  Fifty trillion dollars have been redistributed to the 1% since the mid-1970s with the corporate-bought politicians playing bag man. And as teams of scholars studying wealth inequality have suggested, this problem cannot be resolved through normal means. 

The same researchers found that pandemics sometimes redistribute wealth. At first, the covid crises led to a concentration of wealth unprecedented in its speed and scope. Corporations and their political servants saw the pandemic as a business opportunity or a chance to loot the public treasury (see CARES Act) instead of a public health crisis. But what goes up must come down and maybe — just maybe — it’s our turn.

1,600 Strikes Since the Start of the Pandemic

There is nothing better than the power of a good example. Strikes have been on the rise since 2017 and 1,600 strikes have been recorded by Payday Strike Tracker since the pandemic began.

Wildcats strikes and non-union workers were the cutting edge of the initial Covid strike wave. The current strike wave has shifted toward existing unions and national contracts with the rank and file leading the way. Remember, the Deere workers rejected the first UAW contract.  

Bottom-up momentum will intensify internal conflict such as we are already seeing in the Teamsters election, the Carpenter’s struggle over picketing, and the discontent with the IATSE tentative agreement.  

The strike wave will also push conflicts within the ruling class as the liberals push for incremental change while the hard-liners double down demanding even more blood sacrifice. Either way, it’s a strategic difference over the best route to preserving and securing their power and position.

A Tale of Two Tiers*

At Kellogg and Deere workers are rejecting not just low pay but also a system — the two-tiered labor system. The two-tier system has been one of the structural weapons used by bosses to break worker solidarity, weaken unions, and lower wages and benefits. Two-tier systems were innovated by the liberal management of higher education beginning in the mid-1970s when the corporatization of education and austerity kicked in. 

The evil genius of two-tier systems is that it entices existing workers with minor privileges and short-term benefits while luring new hires with the promise of work experience, or at least survival. The two-tier system makes class traitors out of people by encouraging them to sell out the next generation of workers.

Bill Gates’s big invention was not some smart computer program but the “permatemp”— permanent temporary workers. Amazon relies on millions of seasonal and part-time workers baited by bonuses and then trapped by non-compete contracts. Half of Google’s global workforce is part-time or temporary.  

If workers can break the two-tiered labor system. then we will have a fighting chance to rebuild the labor movement. 

Millions Walk Out

The great walkout is an unorganized yet powerful game-changer for workers because it has altered the labor market. The end of the meager unemployment benefits has not pushed workers back to poverty wages and abusive management.

Even marginal changes to the labor market can have considerable impacts because staffing is already stretched so thin. We are already overworked with millions working multiple jobs. The fear of covid deaths and illness are powerful motivations for staying home or seeking safer jobs. Vaccine mandates, when used by management as a way of breaking unions or attacking workers will add to the upheaval. The pilots’ union at Southwest put it this way: 

We want to be perfectly clear: SWAPA is not anti-vaccination, but we do believe that…it is our role to represent the health and safety of our Pilots and bring their concerns to the Company….We will not sit idly by while the Company blatantly ignores our legal right to represent you.

The combination of strike wave and walk-off will intensify conflict within the labor movement. Will the loyalty of union officials to the Democratic Party’s weak incrementalism be stronger than their loyalty to their own members and the working class in general? Will class collaboration or class struggle shape negotiation strategies? 

General Strike or General Election?

There is talk of a general strike again. It is unlikely that a general strike can be organized without a major rank and file upheaval that changes labor leadership. But a general strike will never happen unless we keep the idea alive.

The only time recently even a few labor officials mentioned a general strike was to halt Trump’s “stop the steal” campaign. Well, Jan. 6 came and went and there was no action at all. I can only guess that the specter of independent worker action on the national stage was just too scary to consider for the party bosses that hold sway over labor strategy. For them, it was better to let the ruling class deal with the rioters and to support increased funding for the Capitol Police. 

If some modest concessions can be won in Congress I am all for it. But the strike wave and walk-off are good evidence that it is far better to “vote with your feet” than electing lesser evil politicians and lobbying the trusted servants of the corporate class.

Austerity is not over but it’s possible that we are turning a corner. But, the pandemic and tight labor markets alone will not produce democracy: that must be fought for.

If everyday workers can force the strike weapon and organizing into the center of labor strategy and repurpose the millions funneled to the Democratic Party, then we will see a new form of pressure far stronger than phone banking and GOTV efforts.

Electoral politics may not be a total dead end but it sure as hell is a long winding detour compared to a direct confrontation with the corporations that dominate both the workplace and the electoral process. Why lobby politicians when you can challenge their masters?

 

*I worked with the contingent faculty movement in higher education for over 15 years where you can still find some of the clearest thinking about two-tiered systems. See Joe Berry and Helena Worthen’s, Power Despite Precarity and Keith Hoeller’s Equality for Contingent Faculty: Overcoming the Two-tiered System

Posted in austerity, Capitalism, Corporate Power, Labor Movement, organizing, Organizing Strategy, revolutionary strategy, Socialism, union organzing, unions, White Privilege, Working Class | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

How They Stole $50 Trillion. How We Take It Back.

Between the mid-1930s and mid-1970s worker organizing and unrest created a degree of economic democracy not achieved since. It was quite an accomplishment. After several decades of increased standards of living for most US workers, corporate actors organized a counter-attack that aimed to reverse those gains. 

The mid-20 century was no golden age. But, it does stand as a measure of just how much — and just how little — economic democracy the existing order will allow. Black and Brown workers, for example, saw the gains last and least but suffered from the austerity counter-attack first and foremost. While progressive reforms won during those four mid-century decades did help working people, the system still belonged to the bosses and they still called the shots. 

Against the backdrop of Cold War anti-communism, the US Congress restricted workers’ rights while top labor “leaders” pledged their allegiance to the empire. New global institutions such as the IMF were the cutting edge of austerity protecting the rule of big money by pitting workers vs. workers worldwide. 

The 1970’s:  The Great Austerity Begins

The deep multi-faceted crisis of the late 60s and early 70s undermined the existing social contract. Feeling threatened, the elites shifted costs and risks to where they had historically been: the backs of everyday people. Better, they thought, that workers struggle to survive than begin to dream of democracy and organize themselves into political movements. The most effective corporate strategy was wage reduction. Over the next four decades, they cut wages in half for millions and redistributed at least $50 trillion upwards.

The ruling class vision was set out by soon-to-be Supreme Court justice Lewis Powell in his infamous 1971 memo for the Chamber of Commerce. For Lewis, corporate elites should see themselves as a ruling class and act accordingly. While Powell issued the call, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), founded in 1973, became the vanguard pushing legislative reforms to suit corporate interests. 

The crackdown on workers included military reforms. In response to the Vietnam Era peace movement, the politicians and generals replaced mass conscription with the illusion of an “all-volunteer” army. Since 1973 the war machine has had a vested interest in austerity because poverty and insecurity pushed millions of young people into its ranks. They swapped an open form of coercion like the draft for a covert form of coercion: a poverty draft cloaked as “opportunity” for working-class kids. 

Prison slavery has a long history. Although it was legalized by the 13th Amendment, unions successfully lobbied to restrict its use during the heyday of the New Deal. By 1979 however, Congress joined the corporate counteroffensive and passed the Justice System Improvement Act and other pet projects of ALEC.

New laws opened the door to the rapid expansion of prison labor to match the rapidly growing ranks of the incarcerated. These corporate reforms also cemented public-private partnerships. Congressional action impoverished families of the imprisoned and drove down wages for all of us by providing the cheapest possible labor for the government and corporations.[1]    

The military, penal system, Congress, the Democrats, and Republicans became the agents of austerity and the tools of corporate power.

The Corporate Two-Step

The mid-1970 were pivotal. Workers would face greater insecurity as corporations consolidated their position through a remarkable two-pronged strategy that was decades in the making.

On one hand, the corporations successfully gained political rights and personhood under the 14th and 1st Amendments — gutting the old Constitution and recasting it in their own image. Corporations became “We the People” instead of actual people and their vast wealth became “free speech.” Using the Bill of Rights as their shield, corporations claimed the protection of individuals against the heavy hand of the state. This legal fiction is now the “law of the land.”

At the same time corporations acted more and more like the tyrannical state itself — even while posing as protected persons. Without political power, they simply could not maximize profits. Maximum profits through maximum power became the true goal and true method of neoliberalism.

Two landmark Supreme Court decisions (Buckley v. Valeo 1976 and First Nat’l Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, 1978) set the stage for the “corporate domination of the electoral process” finally completed with the 2010 Citizens United decision.[2]

In 1979, The Federal Reserve — long a bastion of corporate power — moved decisively to fight inflation, raising interest rates to historic heights, forcing recession, and boosting unemployment. The “reserve army” of unemployed workers undermined wages and concentrated power and profits in the hands of big capital just as Karl Marx had observed long ago. 

 

Big Unions Retreat

By the late 1970s, attacks on workers were codified in labor contracts — most decisively in the 1979 Chrysler bailout.[3] The United Auto Workers — the trendsetter for US Labor since the 30’s — buckled under by not just accepting the terms of the bailout but pitching it as good for workers.

The Carter Administration and the Democrats, (in control of Presidency,  House, and Senate) led the way. They and their Republican allies worked with bankers, business, and union officials on a $1.5 billion bailout for Chrysler. In classic IMF style, the bankers demanded at least $462 million in cuts to wages and benefits. The joint Corporate/Carter/UAW move was an early “too big to fail” bailout and a sure sign that the merger of the corporation and the state was well underway.  

What followed was the long disastrous era of “concession bargaining” as workers and union officials surrendered before the onslaught.[4] By the mid-1980s the Teamsters and the United Food and Commercial Workers further undermined worker pay and solidarity by agreeing to multi-tiered wage systems. Multi-tiered labor systems were also pioneered in the liberal haven of higher education where low-paid contingent faculty now far exceed the tenured minority.

These multi-tiered agreements created new class divisions within unions (as if the racist, sexist and ageist divisions weren’t bad enough) and paid second-class workers with lower wages. The new lower classes were either new employees or the temporary and part-time workers that are now common everywhere. Needless to say, two-tiered labor systems undermined worker solidarity. They mask the conflict between workers and bosses behind the conflict between different classes of workers. It was classic divide and conquer.

As unions divided their own members and failed to deliver the goods, they simultaneously turned away from large-scale organizing efforts. The slow retreat of labor turned into a demoralizing rout with devastating long-term consequences for the working class.

The Reagan Revolution

It went from bad to worse when Ronald Reagan took office. He fired striking air traffic controllers and staffed the National Labor Relations Board with hacks hostile to workers’ rights. The Reagan Revolution enacted more structural reforms: Republicans and Democrats passed the new tax, budget, money, and debt policies that would complete the groundwork for the ongoing redistribution of wealth. Together, the major parties rigged the economy.[5]

Here are a few of their achievements.

  • Dramatic cuts to tax rates for corporations and the rich.
  • Tax on Social Security and Unemployment for the first time — never to be reversed
  • Continue shifting budget priorities toward the military
  • Debt and money policies to favor dividends, interest, and rent — the income sources of the wealthy

The “race to the bottom” and the “race to the top” would continue through the following decades as the US continued structural reforms such as replacing welfare for the poor with corporate welfare. When Clinton ended “welfare as we know it” he flooded the bottom of the labor market with easy to exploit low-wage workers. 

The pandemic only accelerated extreme inequality. Congress propped up the rigged economy with the 2020 CARES Act. CARES was a power-play enforcing austerity and inequality for us while subsiding corporations with trillions.[6] The US government also took the unprecedented step of directly purchasing corporate bonds (debt). The government can retire corporate debt alright, just not educational or medical debt.

Austerity was created by structural changes and can only be repealed the same way.

How We Take It Back

History follows a twisted and tangled path. By their relentless resistance to reform, the US ruling class is making revolutionary solutions possible if not inevitable. The ruler’s drive for total domination — at home and abroad — sows the seeds of their own defeat.  

Austerity is a form of social control, not an economic necessity. Nothing reveals that more clearly than the simple fact that other wealthy capitalist countries took the path of reform. 

We could have labor law reform like the repeal of the Taft-Hartley “slave labor” bill; the passage and enforcement of the PRO Act; a $25 minimum wage effective immediately; national universal healthcare; national month-long paid vacations; shorter workweeks; national sick time; parental leave, the dramatic expansion of social security; free public higher education and debt cancellation for all medical and educational debts. Prison labor could be abolished.

These universal benefits would limit the most predatory effects of US capitalism. Such reforms have long since been achieved by other capitalist countries but are out of reach for our corporate two-party system. For the rulers to call off the class war by eliminating poverty and economic anxiety is to risk losing control. That is the lesson they learned from the mid-twentieth century.

Even if halfway reforms are passed, the problem, as the history of austerity shows, is that any reforms that leave the corporate empire intact will be open to powerful counterattack and cancellation. Since the ruling class refuses real reform they put revolutionary change on the agenda.

True solutions must place people and planet first. How can we restore economic democracy without reverting to the twin environmental catastrophe of infinite economic growth and perpetual war? Industrial expansion and forever wars must come off the table if we want to avoid climate chaos and mass death.

In the end, expropriation and redistribution may be the only practical solution since that would limit the need to produce new wealth. That means we must retake the $50 trillion stolen by the 1% and spread it around equal.

Yes, expropriate the billionaires and convert the industries already deeply intertwined with government into public assets.  

When fossil fuels, banking, the Military-Industrial Complex, Big Tech, and Big Pharma are converted into democratically controlled public utilities we will have true structural changes. When subsidies and political support — similar in scale to that now granted corporations — are directed to worker-owned enterprises we would have workplace democracy as a structural feature. These deep changes are far beyond anything the existing corporate order could envision or deliver. 

Big historic problems require big historic solutions.

Call it economic and workplace democracy, call it socialism or revolution, call it love or call it treason — I call it the only game in town. It’s democracy or catastrophe. 

1/ Heather Ann Thompson/New Labor Forum, “The Prison Industrial Complex: A Growth Industry in a Shrinking Economy” Also see Mike Elk and Bob Sloan/The Nation, The Hidden History of ALEC and Prison Labor

2/ The quote is in Justice Steven’s dissenting opinion in Citizens United. Also, see Ciara Torres-Spelliscy/Brennan Center’s great short review of the judicial roots of corporate personhood.  

3/See Lawrence Mishel/Economic Policy Institute, “The Enormous Impact of Eroded Collective Bargaining on Wages.

4/ Kim Moody lays out concession bargaining in “Concession Bargaining and the Decline of Industrial Unionism in the 1980s.”

5/ The Democrats controlled the House for all eight years of the Reagan administration and had both House and Senate the last two years. Kevin Phillips’s old bestseller details the “Reagan Revolution.” The Politics of Rich and Poor: Wealth and Electorate in the Reagan Aftermath (1990) 

6/ See Robert Brenner’s “Escalating Plunder” in New Left Review, for an excellent analysis of CARES.

 

Posted in American Culture, austerity, Capitalism, Corporate Power, Empire, History, Labor Movement, Military, organizing, Organizing Method, Organizing Strategy, Racism, Red Scare, revolutionary strategy, Socialism, Strategy, union organzing, unions, War, Working Class | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

What is Austerity? That is the 50 Trillion Dollar Question.

Photograph: Mike Kemp/In Pictures via Getty Images

The modern system of austerity took shape in the mid-1970s and we are still in its grip. Austerity is meant to trap us in a destructive double-bind; the race to the bottom for millions of people is also the race to the top for the few. The cost? More than $50 trillion. The human cost in misery, death, and despair? Devastating yet uncounted.

The deliberate creation of poverty and scarcity was necessary for the corporations to consolidate their power. It did not just happen on its own. Austerity required far-reaching structural changes in the US economy.

Beginning in the 1970s the reforms of the New Deal and Great Society were gradually gutted and the economy was recast to suit corporate demands. Biden’s corporate-centered, temporary, and incremental approach won’t touch austerity. Biden promises a small fraction of what is needed and will not reverse the wage cuts at the core of austerity. The major parties will not reform the corporate system that enforced austerity in the first place — instead, they aim to defend it.   

Austerity is the big lie: “We Are Broke.” When the big truth is: the economy is rigged and inequality is the result.[1] Austerity is when the ruling class gets most of everything society produces leaving the people with less than they can live on. To bridge that gap, the bosses and bankers substitute high-interest consumer debt for decent wages.

Austerity is the opposite of economic democracy — it is the dictatorship of big money. Contrary to corporate propaganda, austerity is the opposite of free markets too; it is the result of planned policy decisions made by corporations and government. 

Austerity is a core feature of neoliberal policy and the forefather of the recent fascist revival— both the overt vulgar fascism of the extreme right and the covert systematic fascism of corporate power, empire, and the police state. Austerity was the “solution” big capital devised to maintain profits in the short run. In the long run, austerity only intensified the crisis. In this context, both the powerful and powerless are drawn toward the other “fix” for the mess that austerity and corporate power created: fascist-style politics.

Austerity serves many purposes to those in power. Enforced despair was a political weapon as well as an economic one: keeping us all so busy surviving that we must struggle with all of our might to contest power or address the really big issues like war and climate change. 

While austerity reigns at home for workers, the US has the largest and most expensive war machine in world history, including a domestic cop army that ranks third among global military expenditures while a class of billionaires possesses wealth too vast to even imagine. 

Austerity is not the lack of money, it’s a statement of priorities. And those priorities are protecting the ruling class with the military force necessary to maintain order abroad and at home and to distract and demobilize everyday people. Money talks and money says they are going to double down. Austerity is social control.

50 Trillion Dollars!

The long-term results of the redistribution of wealth are absolutely mind-boggling.

A RAND Corporation report found that $50 trillion was redistributed from bottom to top since the mid-70s. It’s hard to grasp just how profound that is and just how vicious the class struggle waged by the owning class has been. According to Time

 

On average, extreme inequality is costing the median income full-time worker about $42,000 a year. Adjusted for inflation using the CPI, the numbers are even worse: half of all full time workers…now earn less than half what they would have had incomes across the distribution continued to keep pace with economic growth.

 

It’s the old half a loaf!

According to Business Insider: “The median college-educated American worker would have seen their annual pay double without this theft.”

This extreme exploitation is a systematic form of violence that results in suicide, premature death, and disease. It’s organized class warfare. According to a major study of life expectancy between 1959 and 2017:

“By 2014, midlife mortality was increasing across all racial groups, caused by drug overdoses, alcohol abuse, suicides, and a diverse list of organ system diseases.”

The report, cited by David Rosen in Counterpunch, continued: 

“During the half-century between 1959 and 2016, Americans’ life expectancies increased by nearly 10 years. Sadly, since then, the average lifespan slowly declined….There has been an increase in death rates among working age Americans…This is an emergent crisis. And it is a uniquely American problem since it is not seen in other countries. Something about life in America is responsible.”

That exceptional “uniquely American problem” is the extreme stress of extreme poverty not experienced in other wealthy countries. This is how the ruling class maintains control here in the imperial core. Yet, there is so much hoarded treasure that $21 trillion is stashed away in tax havens around the world that allow the very richest to legally avoid taxation.

So when the bosses say “we don’t have money” you better believe they mean “we don’t have money for you!” Biden will not recover the $50 trillion heist. Why? Because the Democrat’s sorry excuses for reform avoid the main culprit: wage suppression.

The Wages of Corporate Power

Wage suppression and the attack on workers and our unions are at the heart of this epic theft. It all began with a set of structural reforms designed to break the direct link between productivity and compensation that was forged by working-class struggles during and after the Great Depression and World War II.

Wage suppression creates austerity. If we cannot change wages the rest is tinkering around the edges.

Take federally enforced minimum wages for example — once designed to provide a decent wage floor it now tends to pull wages down. $15 was visionary when first proposed, now it is just a new substandard minimum wage — and we can’t even get that. The failure of the Democrats to live up to that often-made promise is proof that decent wages will not be won inside the existing political order.

Both major parties are sold to the highest bidder and union officials aren’t even “at the table” despite decades of being loyal Democrats. If labor was truly “at the table,” would the Democrats have gotten away with a cheap trick like hiding behind the Parliamentarian to kill $15? This is not just an insult to every union member but a signal that beyond a few stimulus crumbs the war on the poor continues.

Not only aren’t workers “at the table” they are behind bars. The system of slave-like prison labor is a ball and chain driving down labor costs, eliminating real jobs, and weakening unions. Unions once understood this threat and fought against it. Now? Nary a word. Austerity — and the wage suppression it is founded on — will not end as long as prisoners are worked like slaves.  

Now more than ever, working-class solidarity both within and outside of the formal labor movement is the best way forward. Organizing and the threat of strike, including a general strike, is infinitely more valuable than standard ways of lobbying politicians.

Since low wages lie at the heart of the austerity regime then workers are at the heart of the solution.

The Protect the Right to Organize (PRO) Act does contain many important reforms like the abolition of the “right to work” laws. The most potentially useful reforms are the legalization of spur-of-the-moment strikes; unpredictable on-again-off-again strikes; slowdowns while still at work; and “secondary” boycotts that allow unions to call boycotts against anyone they choose. All these powerful tactics were prohibited by the 1947 (and still enforced) Taft-Hartley Act — one of the first “reforms” that paved the way to austerity. 

But to pass PRO, enforce PRO, and realize its promise will take an aroused and independent-minded working class. We lost the class struggle of the last four decades, in part, because we laid down our best weapon. We failed to negotiate by abandoning the class struggle in favor of collaboration with the bosses. The increase in strikes since 2018 means the fight is on again and that’s the real reason unions feel confident enough to advance national labor law reform like PRO.

The chart misses many smaller strikes but does show that the period of relative economic democracy relied on strikes and the dramatic drop off in the number of large strikes from the mid-1970s until 2018.

Approximately 1,300 strikes — by essential workers of all kinds, including prisoners  — have occurred since the pandemic began.[2] Many strikes were self-organized, outside of official union channels.

Is this the shape of class struggles to come? Can the union movement be reborn? Only if we make it so.

 

1. Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century provides a wealth of evidence that the primary product of the modern corporate system is inequality. Also, see economist Richard Wolff’s The US Economy Excels in One Thing: Producing Massive Inequality in Counterpunch.

2. Follow Payday Report or join On the Picket Line for strike news.

Posted in Capitalism, Corporate Power, electoral strategy, Empire, History, Labor Movement, Military, organizing, Organizing Strategy, Racism, revolutionary strategy, Socialism, union organzing, unions, Working Class | Leave a comment

Cold War Liberalism and The Labor Movement: The Epic Fail

Cold War Liberalism

During the Cold War, Labor unions violated the basic principle of solidarity by joining forces with Imperial elites to weaken militant trade unionism abroad — usually under the mantle of anti-communism.

By undermining unions, AFL-CIO foreign policy helped corporations exercise global control and contributed its share to the availability of cheap labor abroad. That cheap labor then became a central ingredient in outsourcing, plant closing, wage suppression, and the loss of jobs at the heart of labor’s decline.

This support for empire was sometimes called “Cold War Liberalism” because many liberals, progressives, even some radicals joined the anti-communist crusade. Cold War liberals use logic similar to the lesser evil thinking so prevalent in US domestic politics. It goes like this: “Sure the US Empire is bad but in this case, the Russia, Chinese, etc. etc. “imperialism” is so much worse.” By this logic radicals vote for Democrats. By this logic radicals support US Imperialism. By this logic the peace movement is deprived of its most important political meaning: anti-imperialism. We cannot stop the wars unless we see war as a product of the war machine — not simply the foreign policy choices of one or another President. In fact, the enduring bi-partisan consensus on war has its roots in the Cold War liberalism of the post WWII-period.

While many workers and unions did oppose the Vietnam War, the AFL-CIO leadership was staunchly pro-war and anti-Communist. In 1972, George McGovern, a peace candidate, was the Democratic nominee and the AFL-CIO took the unprecedented step of refusing to endorse either him or Nixon — despite McGovern’s strong labor record. For AFL-CIO leader George Meany, McGovern’s pro-worker track record was less important then his anti-war positions. Meany sacrificed labors interests by running a concerted campaign to defeat McGovern — all in the name of Cold War anti-communism.

Labor’s eager cooperation with the Cold War agenda undermined our unions and our way of life at home. That was the price we all paid so union officials could be “team-players” and reap the illusory benefits of the machine: status, minor concessions and patronage positions.

The domestic counterpart of the Cold War was the mid-century social contract, also called the labor-capital accord.

The Mid-Century Social Contract

In the wake of W.W.II, America’s unrivaled economic and political power allowed most Americans to enjoy a remarkable period of economic opportunity. Government promoted economic growth through a vast array of Keynesian spending programs including investment in higher education. As the GI Bill opened the door to everyday people, higher education underwrote the scientific, technical, and theoretical knowledge necessary for post war economic activity.

Business leaders upheld their end of the bargain by agreeing to a rising standard of living for most workers that included such protections as pensions, medical benefits, job security and meaningful minimum wages set by law.[1] Unions were reluctantly tolerated as long as labor officials agreed to management’s right to be the sole authority governing business.

This contradictory combination of fighting for workers on one hand, while supporting the empire’s war against communism on the other worked a bit of ideological magic. It allowed Cold War liberals to maintain their progressive image and a seemingly radical critique of the system while collaborating with the ruling class. All they had to do was limit their vision of what was possible by keeping socialism, economic democracy or anti-imperialism off the table. 

The limits of the mid-century social contract were formalized by the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act. Democrats joined with Republicans to override Truman’s veto of what he called the “slave labor act.” Taft-Hartley purged communists, stripped unions of powerful tactics and promoted “right to work” laws.

The other part of the deal between labor and capital was the 1950 UAW contact known as the “Treaty of Detroit.”[2].  While Taft-Hartley was the “stick” the Treaty of Detroit was the “carrot.” It set the pattern for increased material rewards for millions of workers.

The benefits of the 1950 UAW contract was the result of years of rank and file power. Such power, based on organizing and activism, is always insecure under capitalism and could in no way be guaranteed by deals at the top. The Treaty of Detroit has been “repealed” by half a century of austerity, while Taft-Hartley is all too alive and well.

At that key moment in US history, labor made a fateful compromise and chose to pursue private welfare plans rather than commit to the struggle for universal health care, such as that proposed by Truman in 1945.

Special benefits may have temporarily motivated workers to join unions. But, once austerity kicks in by the mid-70s, exclusive union rights backfired and encouraged resentment among unorganized workers making them open to anti-union appeals. Exclusive union welfare plans yielded decisive ground in US political culture: health care or pensions became private matters for “member’s only” not political rights for all. Cold War liberalism trapped unions into setting the stage for, and then adapting to, the great austerity which continues to this day.

Be it Cold War liberalism or mid-century social contract, Labor’s political possibilities were set and policed by the Democratic Party. And, this is nothing new. Since the days of Tammany Hall in the 19th Century, big city machines have corralled first Irish-Americans then Blacks and many others since. The bribe: swap narrow self-interest in the form of racial, organizational or class privilege — including the most pathetic and temporary forms of material benefits or patronage — for freedom, equality and democracy.

Cold War Liberalism was quite a bargain for the Corporate Empire — it manufactured consent on the cheap.

As the New Cold War intensifies and the Biden Democrats throw a few crumbs to us, we can expect to see the reemergence of Cold War Liberalism. Russia-gate and China-hate have already paved the way. The Cold War Liberals ask us to forget what Martin Luther King asks us to remember. That whether at home or abroad:

“The greatest purveyor of violence in the world today – my own government.”


  1. For more on the mid-century social contract see David Brody, Workers in Industrial America, Chapters 5 and 6; Barry and Irving Bluestone, Negotiating the Future: A Labor Perspective on American Business, Chapter 2; Nelson Lichtenstein and Stephen Meyer, On the Line: Essays in the History of Auto Work, pp. 1-16; Kevin Boyle, The UAW and the Heyday of American Liberalism, 1945-1968.  For more see p. 109 Endnote #3, in Richard Moser, “Organizing the New Faculty Majority” in Equality for Contingent Faculty: Overcoming the Two-Tier System,Keith Hoeller editor.
  2. Nelson Lichtenstein, The Most Dangerous Man In Detroit.

Posted in Capitalism, Corporate Power, Empire, History, Labor Movement, Military, Movement Culture, organizing, Organizing Strategy, Red Scare, Socialism, Strategy, unions, War, Working Class | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

How Cold War Anti-Communism Built the US Empire and Destroyed the Last Vestiges of Constitutional Government.

This 10 minute talk was part of the Cold War Truth Commission held on March 21, 2021

Posted in American Exceptionalism, Capitalism, Empire, History, Military, Organizing Strategy, Racism, revolutionary strategy, Socialism, War, White Privilege, White workers, Working Class | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Organizing White Workers When The Klan Is In The Shop

With the rise of the extreme right, the Klan and its modern descendants are definitely “in the shop.” Here’s a story from a long time ago but it could have happened only yesterday. This is not a heroic tale just a memory of day-to-day struggle and the lessons learned.

As a young organizer in the mid-1970s, I went to work for District 65, an independent radical union. Martin Luther King called District 65 “The Conscience of the Labor Movement” after their early and staunch support for the civil rights movement.

Our dress pin was a black hand and a white hand working both ends of an old fashioned two-man tree- saw cutting through the chain of oppression. We were largely led by older radical Jews. Some of them had left the Communist Party during the Cold War purges to stay with the union.

65 organized low wage workers and small shops most unions would not even touch. Many members were Black, Puerto Rican, or Jewish. It was one hell of a good little union even if it remains largely unknown. [1]

Issued in 1968 this album recorded King at a number of District 65 events. King said, “I’ve been a 65er a long time” and considered himself an honorary member.

After a few months working as a “salt” (a clandestine organizer) in a giant book warehouse, the boss grew suspicious and fired me. Luckily, the union hired me full time.

I got to work with some mighty impressive shop-floor militants, like local legend Bob Mihalko. I loved Bob. We often worked as a team and I soaked in as much as I could from him. We worked aggressively opening up campaigns at multiple shops — looking for ones that could win. But win or lose, we knew it was worth the effort as long as we were talking with workers.

An updated version of the 65 pin. Not as good as the classic but you get the idea.

One day we got a lead about an electronics factory in Jamesburg NJ. There seemed a reasonable level of interest after a few days of handing out flyers; we called our first meeting. About halfway through I noticed a group of three workers (two men and a woman), wearing KKK shirts beneath their unzipped jackets. My heart sank. The meeting went well enough, but I was ready to move on to better prospects.

The next day I reported to Frank Engelberg, the Director of Organizing. Frank was a radical Jew and a great person loved by the members for his rabble-rousing speeches against the boss. And he had no illusions about what fascism really meant.

I went into his office and said: “Frank we’re fucked, we’re done, the Klan is in the shop and in our meetings.” He turned to me with a look far more intense than usual. In his gruff Jersey voice, he barked out: “No! Richie, you get your ass right back in there and you organize the Klan right into the union.”

After a moment of stunned silence, I thought to myself: “So this is what it means to organize the working class. Man, this is no picnic.” “Ok Frank,” I said, trying to muster some courage, “Fuck the Klan, we’ll go back and give it a shot.”

What Frank was telling me is that we have to engage workers the way they really are, not the way we want them to be or imagine them to be. And why bring the Klan into the union? Because better pay and the benefits of a union contract was good medicine for everyone — including racists. Frank knew that the boss was our real enemy.

We always have to pick our battles, true, and I am dead sure I would not spend scarce resources on white supremacist organizations. But, white workers with racist attitudes? White workers exposed to the neofascists? That is the battleground. That is right where white radicals belonged — and still do.

I did not just belong with these backward white workers as a revolutionary political project — that is where I was from, that is who I was. I grew up just 40 miles from Jamesburg in Neptune, a segregated working-class town where my high school was closed a week every spring for “the riots.” There were a lot of fights between Blacks and whites.

When a week-long rebellion in neighboring Asbury Park went down on July 4th, 1970, there were running battles between young Black rebels, cops, and National Guard. 180 people were injured including 15 state troopers. Large parts of Springwood Avenue were burned and I could see the smoke from my house.

I sure was relieved that school was not in session since we already went through our high school riot that spring. It weighed pretty heavy on my young mind. When I saw white teachers fighting Black students, and armed soldiers in the hallways and on the grounds I felt a strange resentment — like the adult world was forcing itself on all of us. When I heard some white parents whipping up hate and fear and heard that soldiers had shot Bob Ivey in the legs – Bob was a Black kid I ran track with — I knew deep down that something was terribly wrong — but I sure did not know what was right. So white workers with racist attitudes? I knew them because I was one of them.

Maybe you can show me some white people — radical or conservative, left or right — free from racism. How does any white person grow up in America and not internalize some aspect of racist culture? You? How? Explain it, please. I would really like to know how kept yourself clear from the long history of Whiteness.

There are many approaches. Antifa is a solid mobilization effort monitoring and resisting open white supremacy. And, there is nothing wrong with movement workshops and training for whites. It’s a good start and regular check-ups are needed but these tactics should be part and parcel of organizing. Organizing is about engaging people in a struggle for their own class interest and against the systematic forms of racism — if for no greater reason than it is impossible for white workers to win without the Black and Brown workers that have often led the class struggle. Working-class power demands solidarity. The bosses’ power demands racism. We only get free together.

The question is not are you trying to organize the multiracial working class — the question is how? Whether you choose to work in multi-racial groups like unions or focus on coalition work or engaging white workers as a form of community organizing, the dilemma is the same: are we a class, or aren’t we?[2]

Is the multiracial working-class real? Yes and no. On the one hand, it’s what Marx called “a class in itself.” Sure, it exists as a demographic, but not as a class aware of its own political power and potential. And the path to that awareness runs us right into a confrontation with white racism. How could it not? White racism has been the most effective form of class collaboration for well over 300 years.

How do we transform the working class from a “class in itself” to a “class for itself” — a class aware of itself as a force in history. There are no shortcut answers. But if we do not have projects to organize white workers, and engage in conversations that matter, we’ve lost before we started.

Yes, we went back to Jamesburg, proudly showed our anti-racist gear, and kept the conversation going. The meetings slowly lost steam and we heard the Klan was calling us an “n-word union.” No, this is not a tale of heroic victory. In the end, the workers were not strong enough to stand up to both the boss and the Klan. Sometimes organizers do change people but most of the time we just help people along. They’ve got to be ready to take the next step.

Eventually, we moved on but no matter where we went every workplace and every community was divided in some way. No exceptions. No matter how homogeneous it appeared, every workplace was divided. The should be no surprise since the boss’s first job is to divide and conquer– their profits depend on their power. Overcoming those divisions was our job. And we couldn’t do that by running away from trouble or taking shortcuts, like not talking with, and listening closely to, people we disagree with.

From time to time Frank comes back to haunt, challenge, and inspire me. I’ve never forgotten the hard-edged working-class wisdom he passed on to me that day. It continues to shape my thinking and practice. If you’ve got the guts to go out and engage the working class with all our shortcomings and flaws — if you’re full of “piss and vinegar,” as Frank used to say — maybe it will shape your practice too.

Also in Counterpunch

  1. The only book I know on District 65 is Lisa Phillips, A Renegade Union: Interracial Organizing and Radical Unionism.
  2. Hy Thurman’s reflections on the original Rainbow Coalition is a powerful new book on white workers: Revolutionary Hillbilly: Notes from the Struggle on the Edge of the Rainbow. See also Hillbilly Nationalists by James Tracy and Amy Sonnie.
  3. Also see my series of articles: Organize the White Working Class at befreedom.co

Posted in Capitalism, History, Labor Movement, Martin Luther King, Movement Culture, organizing, Organizing Method, Organizing Strategy, Racism, Red Scare, union organzing, unions, White Privilege, White Supremacy, White workers, Working Class | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

January 6th: Cops, Vigilantes, and the Ruling Class

As more and more evidence comes in, much of it reveals collusion between the neo-fascists who were the hard-core and vanguard of the mob and the police, military, politicians and President. While some of the overwhelmed Capitol Police resisted the mob others welcomed it, opening barriers and treating them like tourists — selfies and all.

This collusion was not extraordinary, rather it fits a long- standing pattern with one huge exception: when cops collude with vigilantes, white supremacists and right-wing gangs, it’s always against Black and Brown people or workers. Never is it an attack on the ruling parties or ruling class interests — until now. And, that makes all the difference.

On Jan. 6, a vanguard within the generally disorganized mob was well trained in military tactics and remarkably unafraid of the Capitol Police. Some arrested for their role in the riot were retired or off-duty cops, (including two Capitol Police officers) and nearly 20% of those arrested were veterans. At least 28 off-duty cops were in the crowd. Among those arrested were a white supremacist Army Reservist with a secret-level security clearance and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who carried zip-ties and wore tactical gear. One group marched up the Capitol steps in “Ranger File” a tactic used by the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A screenshot from video provided by Robyn Stevens Brody shows a line of men wearing helmets and body armor walk up the marble stairs outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in a formation known as “Ranger File.” (Robyn Stevens Brody/AP)

Was this a massive failure of the security forces or something more? More evidence is needed. Of the 2,000-strong Capitol Police only an estimated 500 were on duty. The Capitol Police Chief resigned amid allegations of incompetence. It appears that Pentagon officials restricted the use of National Guard in advance.

Now, I’ve been to many, many demonstrations, and scores in Washington D.C. I have been arrested six or seven times for “disorderly conduct” and I have never seen police unprepared. Never.

This was not a “failure” so much as it was the long-standing culture of policing gone haywire. Police, judges, and military officials simply don’t see the right-wing as a threat because they are part of the penal system itself. As reported in ProPublica officers describing the morning of Jan. 6 said, “It was business as usual,” said another, who has been on the force for more than 15 years. “The main thing we were told was to be on the lookout for counterdemonstrators.” So as the mob assembled police were told by their superiors that the real threat was the left-wing counterprotesters.


A federal judge actually decided to release the “zip-tie guy” on bail. A major consideration, according to the judge, was that the accused showed “apparent and clear respect for law enforcement.” Despite his role at the Capitol and his possession of a huge cache of weapons at home, the accused “does not pose an obvious and clear danger to the safety of this community.” That cozy relationship is what matters.

And talk about cozy, the leader of the Proud Boys, has a close relationship with the law. He served as an informer and collaborator with local and federal police. At least five Proud Boys have been charged with conspiracy.

Not to be outdone, a suspected leader of the Oath-Keepers Milita arrested for his role at the Capitol, was a Navy veteran, held a top-secret clearance, and served as a section chief for the FBI according to his own lawyer.

© Adam Rogan/AP Kyle Rittenhouse, left, walks along Sheridan Road in Kenosha, Wis., on Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020, with another armed civilian.

Collusion Yes. Coup No.

Collusion was the real source of mob power but it was far, far too little to make it anything like a serious coup/insurrection attempt.

There is still no significant evidence that Trump made the preparations and plans that a successful coup or insurrection would have required. Even Trump’s open, deadly, yet unsuccessful coup attempt in Venezuela suggests he understood coup making better than that. If he wanted anything more than the chaotic spectacle that did occur, he did not (or was unable to) put the pieces in place required to make it real. Despite the fears that members of Congress would be assassinated — something that might actually happen in a real coup — the claim that there were “kill and capture” teams has been walked back by official sources. There was collusion yes but not a single unit of the military sided with Trump. No troops no coup. If you have any doubt just look at the history of US-sponsored coups — that is the model.

This kind of collusion with white supremacists and right-wing has a long history dating back to Reconstruction Era when the police were accomplices to the white terror of the KKK. Thousands of lynchings, the Wilmington Insurrection of 1898, the Tulsa Massacre of 1921, the Battle of Blair Mountain, also in 1921, and hundreds of strikes, before and since, were repressed with a similar mix of vigilantes and regular police. During the civil rights movement of the 1960s attacks on activists were carried out in the same way.

The “Red Shirts” were some of the main perpetrators of violence during the Wilmington Insurrection of 1898. Photo courtsey of North Carolina State Archives and History.

This pattern comes right up to recent times when “oil cops” and real cops fought the water protectors at Standing Rock. The paramilitary gangs that police considered “armed friendlies” did their deadly work during the 2020 BLM protests. This mix is institutionalized at the highest level of empire in places like Afghanistan where, mercenaries — deceptively called “contractors,” — have largely replaced the US Army. As reported by Stars and Stripes, contractors now number 18,000, a stunning seven times the number of regular US troops.

The mob and its sponsors were easily overcome with ruling class solidarity against this half-assed but still potent sign of what could be. Was it a challenge to the existing social order? As a symbol perhaps, as reality, not even close. But symbolism matters and it was enough to trigger a ruling class response. The big strong forces of corporate power moved quickly against the weaker forces they usually count as allies: extremist police, vigilantes and neo-fascist gangs. 

The Ruling Class Flexes

For a century and a half, vigilantes were used to divide and suppress the working class. They are useful to the bosses but only when they punch down and punch left. If obedient to their master’s voice they get money, immunity and weapons of war. But, go rogue, sack the “Citadel of Democracy,” where the elites conduct their affairs, and it’s punishment time. 

We shall see how deep the purge goes. Will there be a major commission to investigate collusion, gross incompetence or both? Likely not. To do so would reveal the racist rot within the police. The militarized penal system is one cause of the fascist revival. Its a “prison-industrial complex” with direct profit interest in a “law and order” regime that includes right-wing violence. The parallel to the military-industrial complex is striking: major corporations with direct interests in war increasingly depend on a network of mercenaries and militias to do the dirty work.

Sooner or later the gang members and rogue cops that got caught will be removed from duty, the rest “vetted” and reintegrated back into the system to serve the broader agenda of corporate power. After all, the underlying crisis that requires violent, forceful social control is not going away. No, the elites will not defund the police.

Vigilantes are acceptable to the real rulers as long as they obey their masters. But, when the masters are no longer of a single mind and broadcast messages encouraging action against the government — as Trump did — the fascists types including some police and military slipped off their leashes.

The mob, thousands more in the legal demonstration, and millions of Trump supports were able to delude themselves into thinking that their support for Trump’s “Stop The Steal” conspiracy meant they were still “patriots.” What Trump and his followers missed is that the ruling class craved legitimacy and stability. After four years of Trump, they aimed at restoring what they believed to be the steadier government of the Obama years. Social order and harmony are required to maximize profits. To that end, the major ruling class players had already lined up behind Biden and that was that. 

To the degree that Jan. 6 — with its brief four-hour occupation of the Capitol — hinted at disrupting ruling class hegemony, the bosses quickly responded demonstrating impressive class solidarity. The extreme anti-worker National Association of Manufacturers condemned the mob and Trump; the Business Roundtable, the voice of large corporate CEO’s did the same; 25 corporate donors put their contributions on pause; all the Democrats and many Republicans closed ranks against Trump. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, the corporate media, and the corporate giants of Big Tech, all moved decisively. Trump’s favorite money merchant, Deutsche Bank, cashed in their chips. Even Trump’s henchmen Pence and McConnell showed themselves trustworthy company men in the end. 

Trump — the hero, the celebrity, the President — was outed as a feckless wannabe fascist who committed the unforgivable sin of letting the vigilantes off the leash. So now the state is rounding them up while using the opportunity to deploy a new round of censorship and repression against all social forces outside the order — left and right. Many on the left are cheering this on from what they mistakenly think are their safe spaces under the equally mistaken assumption that there is no alternative to state repression.

The calls for armed protest in 50 state capitols during inauguration week totally fizzled. Almost no one showed despite free national publicity from the FBI. Deindustrialized Michigan, a hotbed of paramilitary activity, drew a very small crowd that was far outnumbered by police. The brief season of dramatic right-wing action revealed the limits of the neo-fascist movement as an independent force.  

Fascists can only come to power and stay in power as a result of accommodation with the existing ruling class and military. That may happen someday but not today. The failed attempt at mini-insurrection and the ruling class response proves that.   

Will elements within the Proud Boys, QAnon, and others turn on Trump and strike out of their own? Most likely. But, as long as their relationship with the state remains adversarial their power will be limited — at least for now. But the threat remains.

The real struggle against fascism is not some surface conflict between Democrats and Republicans, but a struggle to confront the deep crisis of corporate power and empire both of which enforce austerity on an increasingly miserable and restless working class. A protracted struggle lies ahead, and it must include a struggle against austerity and for the entire working class. It will be led by the people or not at all. Neo-fascism is after-all, a product of corporate capitalism itself and the vast militarized penal system it needs to maintain order. The corporate state cannot and will not solve a crisis of its own creation.

Also featured in Counterpunch

 

Posted in Capitalism, Corporate Power, History, Masculinity, Military, Organizing Strategy, Racism, Red Scare, union organzing, unions | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

What We Have Here is a Failure to Negotiate

No relief worth a damn? No healthcare? What we have here is a failure to negotiate. And that is a direct outcome of the failure to challenge power. I was only chief negotiator once but I sat at enough bargaining tables to know an epic failure to negotiate when I see one. The Congressional progressives missed three great opportunities to use their leverage — if they had a desire to do so. The same problems of class struggle, corporate power and austerity plague the labor movement.

Pattern Bargaining: After the CARES Act It Was Downhill All The Way.

Originally “pattern bargaining” was a way for unions to leverage a strong contract at a major employer as a model for industry-wide negotiations.  Now the CARES Act sets the pattern, but for continued austerity.

The first and worst failure to do a damn thing for the working class was the multi-trillion-dollar corporate bailout of the CARES Act. If you walk into the first bargaining session with the bosses and give them everything they want, throw a few scraps to the workers, and agree to come back to the table later — you have surrendered all leverage and sold out. Why would the billionaires and their faithful servants in government agree to anything more?

Most government services are provided at the state and local levels. Once the CARES Act showered trillions on the corporations and starved the states and cities, it could only trigger a cascade of cutbacks and austerity measures. Did the politicians vote for it not knowing that CARES would reinforced austerity and corporate power? 

Yet, that is what every politician voted to do. Once CARES passed the die was cast and the pattern established. After CARES, winning real relief for the working class became a long shot at best and mere political theatre at worst. 

Now Sanders is threatening to hold up the relief bill — but for what? He is actually using the CARES Act as a model solution. In a speech deceptively described as “fiery,” Sanders did criticize both parties. But, when it comes to action he returned to the pattern established by the CARES Act. Sanders said:

“All that we want to do is to once again provide the same benefits that were provided in the CARES Bill.”….President Trump signed it and supported it…That is all we are asking is to do what we unanimously did in March.”

If setting your sites on the CARES Act is the measure of the congressional left, then that demonstrates just how the initial surrender set hard limits on all further relief efforts and blinkered the vision of those that agreed to it. Whether it’s $1,200 or $600 CARES determined what was possible and what was not. And the pattern was set — not by Sanders — but by the corporate politicians of the DNC and the RNC that negotiated CARES behind closed doors. 

They are not fighting for us, they are enforcing austerity and lowering expectations. “Half a loaf is better than none” is what the rich say to the poor as they push them toward eviction and hunger.

The 2020 National Defense Authorization Act was another chance to recapture leverage by delaying something the ruling class really wanted: war and empire. Again there was strong bipartisan support for spending 740 billion on war and almost no vocal opposition from the progressives. Did they not know or just not care that they once again surrendered? Or, is war and empire such a part of the Washington consensus that the thought of using the NDAA as leverage never entered their minds?

Will they challenge Pelosi for the speakership? Thanks to Jimmy Dore, a strategy of withholding support from Pelosi in exchange for bringing universal health care to a vote has become a popular way to lobby progressives. This tactic is not strictly performative, as some have claimed. It’s a tool for organizing. Making claims on Twitter that you are not serious about is performative. If showing the working class that the left is their champion is performance — then it’s just the show we need to see. 

Dore’s strategy will draw battle lines by revealing who is really for health care and who is not — that is crucial. If knowing where people stand is not important then why does Pelosi mask and protect Democrats on some of the most important issues of our time.

In March 2019 McConnell called the Democrat’s bluff by bringing the Green New Deal to a vote. Pelosi and AOC organized a “present” vote to hide the lack of support among Democrats. The three Democrats that broke party discipline all voted no.

The CARES Act was historic support for the ruling class — again a voice vote. As Robert Brenner observed in New Left Review:

“The DP leadership was able to provide political cover for House Democrats in general, and the Party’s left-wing in particular, by relieving members from having to vote on it through use of the House’s unanimous-consent ‘voice vote’ procedure.”1 

Will the Squad challenge Pelosi in the open and force a recorded vote on health care? We shall see.

Are the Bosses Adversaries or Allies?  

How do we interpret this failure to negotiate and challenge power? A quick look at negotiation strategies from the labor movement sheds some light. There have been two contending approaches to negotiations that can be applied to the electoral arena. 

The first is the class struggle approach of adversarial bargaining. Adversarial bargaining assumes a fundamental conflict of interest between workers and bosses. Successful bargaining hinges on the willingness and capacity of workers to disrupt the flow of profits and power. The bosses are recognized as class enemies.

A more recent corporate-style approach called “mutual gains” or “interest-based” bargaining has partially replaced adversarial conflict. Mutual gains bargaining assumes that workers and the bosses have a significant “community of interest” making win/win outcomes possible. Mutual gains accepts the idea that some level of class collaboration is a necessary way to ensure good relationships between unions and bosses. A community of interest replaces class conflict as the main principle.

The entire project of reforming the Democrats is on the horns of this dilemma: are the bosses adversaries or allies?

Bargaining Against Yourself

The critique of “mutual gains” is not just ideological but practical: by adopting a corporate mindset we end up bargaining against ourselves. In practice, this means taking the most visionary demands off the table before negotiations even begin. In practice, this means accepting austerity. In the union world, this capitulation is passed off as being “reasonable,” “responsible,” or “professional.”

For decades the unions have agreed to concessions — one of the most devastating being the acceptance of multi-tiered labor systems that reproduce class divisions within the union. This is the ultimate in bargaining against yourself as it undermines union power with the old “divide and conquer.”

In the political arena think of Obama silencing any discussion of universal health care during the run-up to the ACA. Similarly, the CARES Act safeguarded the power of the ruling class by crushing working class interests.

Union officials and politicians do the work of the bosses when they internalize the corporate world view. This often happens unconsciously — even by well-meaning people — because corporate viewpoints have achieved hegemonic status. Corporate culture appears as “common sense.” And, it works to enforce ideas of incremental change while managing the expectations of workers.

The left is anything but immune. When you hear “free-market fundamentalism” passed off as a description of reality or lesser evil voting offered as a cunning tactic you are hearing the left surrender to the hegemonic power of the corporate order. 

This ideological surrender leads to tactical failures. I was part of the union world for over two decades and saw far too many union officials that wanted to control their most militant members rather than learn how to leverage them. Here is how a good union leader does it: “Listen boss you got to give us a bigger raise because I have these militants that I cannot control. They are pushing for a strike and just want to burn the place down.” That is how we win. Instead, too many officials put their own perceived power first. 

The tendency of union officials for controlling their radical members finds its equivalent in the electoral arena when corporate Democrats punch left on reform Democrats who then, all to often, punch left on third-party voters. 

The Threat of Strikes and the Threat of Exit

The main tactic of adversarial bargaining is the threat of strike. In the electoral arena it’s the “threat of exit.” Both lay bare the class struggle. In strikes workers risk hardship to disrupt business. We gamble that we can hold out “one day longer” than the bosses who need a steady flow of profits to maintain their position relative to other capitalists. In politics, we threaten to take our support elsewhere if our demands are not met. If we take “threat of exit” off the table there is no way in hell we will ever have a “seat at the table.” AOC being passed over for important committee positions is a case in point.

The head of a state trade union federation (AFL-CIO) told me in 2011 how, after he expressed dissatisfaction to Vice President Joseph Biden with the Obama administration’s lackluster performance on labor, Biden shot back, ‘What are you complaining about? You know you have nowhere else to go!’ The bitter truth is that Biden was right. As long as labor’s officials refuse even to consider breaking with the Democrats, it will be exploited to its increasing peril.” —August Nimtz

Of course, the threat of exit is meaningless unless you have somewhere to go. Without a credible threat of exit, progressives cannot challenge power. They may be captive to the DNC but we don’t have to be.

Look to rank and file upheavals like the strike wave that started in 2017 and continues today. We need third parties, movement building, communal efforts at independent power, wildcat strikes, and a new militant wing of the union movement, maybe even a general strike. Without a powerful outside position, the inside efforts are doomed to failure. And no amount of wishful thinking or narrow partisanship can change that.

There is a lot at stake: people’s lives and our political future. If we fail to fight hard for relief or health care in the middle of a pandemic, we will be disqualified from leading the millions — and rightly so. In the end, the failure to negotiate and confront power will only reinvigorate the forces of Trumpism. 

1. One of the best analysis of CARES is “Escalating Plunder” by Robert Brenner.

Posted in Capitalism, Cooperation, Corporate Power, electoral strategy, Labor Movement, Movement Culture, organizing, Organizing Strategy, Socialism, Strategy, union organzing, unions, War, Working Class | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Ranked Choice Voting Begins: The People of Maine, Lisa Savage and Howie Hawkins Challenge Lesser of Two Evil Voting and the Politics of Fear

The electoral system is broken.[1] 

One way to restore a semblance of democracy is Rank Choice Voting (RCV). RCV gives voters more power because we can rank candidates by order of preference free from narrow binary choices. 

And, RCV insures that the winner has an actual majority of votes not just a plurality. Having more votes than the other candidate, is a very low bar indeed. Contrary to the convention wisdom that “majority rules” US elections are not based on majorities but pluralities.

Majority Does Not Rule

RCV would help correct one of the most pathetic shortcomings of the electoral system: presidents and most other politicians are elected by numerical minorities. RCV would make majority rules the standard and minority rules the exception. As reported in the Christian Science Monitor: 

“If there is no one with an outright majority – more than 50% of the vote – the votes are recounted, with a twist. The candidate with the least votes from the previous round is eliminated, and the ballots with that candidate as No. 1 have their No. 2 slot counted instead. This pattern continues until there is a winner with an outright majority.”

Just since WWII, presidents such as Truman, Kennedy, Nixon, Bill Clinton (twice) all failed to win a majority of those voting. Even worse, GW Bush and Trump won without even getting more votes than their opponents thanks to the anti-democratic Electoral College.  

For example, in 2016 Hillary Clinton won 48% of the vote, while Trump won 46% but neither won a majority. Factor in the 100 million eligible voters that do not vote and both Clinton and Trump got a meager 27%, more or less, of total eligible voters.

RCV would weaken party-line discipline and blind obedience. Winning over the second rank vote would become central to victory. Candidates would be more inclined to discuss policy and offer positive programs. Negative campaigning would be tempered for fear of alienating those key second rank voters. This matters because negative campaigning is an important factor feeding voter disgust and suppressing voter turnout. Millions chose not to pay the moral and psychological costs of getting involved with the vacuous, mudslinging circus that passes as electioneering in the US.

Fear and the Accommodation to Power

RCV would lower the level of fear. That is incredibly important since fear is the main form of social control in the US. All those scary arguments: the lesser of two evils, the spoiler, wasted votes, it’s not the right time, the corporate privilege arguments — all disabled by RCV. 

It’s not a coincidence that lesser of two evil voting first became a regular part of electoral politics in the 1950s and 60s. Just as the war machine gutted the old Constitution, lesser of two evil voting became common.

What a price we all paid for the Cold War: the old constitution was destroyed by the new all-powerful Imperial Presidency. Lesser of two evils replaced the idea of representation as the theory and practice of voting.

This transition to imperial politics was accomplished by the fear campaign of Cold War anti-communism. We have been living on borrowed time ever since. Trump is the wake up call: the empire destroyed democracy, all presidents are tyrants and we are not free.

From this historical perspective we can see that lesser of two evil voting was a dysfunctional adaptation to the system. Just as democracy died, the political culture legitimized the surrender of the basic principle of representative democracy: that people should vote for parties and candidates that actually represent their interests and values. As the government became unable and unwilling to represent the people, the people were told to settle for the least worst enemy and give up all claims to actually being represented.

Lesser of two evils voting was an accommodation to power displacing other forms of political struggle that challenged power such as the civil rights/black power movement, the anti-war movement, feminism, gay liberation or the workers movements of the 1930s.

There is no sadder comment on the strategic poverty of the left than the fact that lesser of two evil voting has been the main tactic used by progressives for 70 years. How is that working out? And, this accommodation to the system was led by left icons such as Noam Chomsky. Decade after decade, Chomsky has repeated the ruling class mantra that there is no alternative — no time and no conditions under which the working-class can have an independent voice in electoral politics. The ultimate meaning of lesser of two evil voting is now clear: we must remain forever under the tutelage of the corporate parties. 

I call on Chomsky and his followers to prove that they are not just adapting to the system by putting as much energy and urgency into electoral reforms like RCV as they put into the repeated calls for the Green Party to stand down. Stand for electoral reform and we are on the path to standing together. A new realignment is possible but not without recognizing that the two-party system splits progressives who otherwise have broad areas of agreement.

But perhaps most important of all, RCV could establish the minor parties without which no meaningful negotiations can occur.

Without a third or four force there is simply no leverage, no alternative, no credible threat of exit and no real negotiations with party bosses. Politically savvy reformers inside the Democratic Party will seize the opportunity to support RCV because it enables them to negotiate reforms. In contrast, the main current of the pro-Biden left is so scared of Trump they have abandoned all hope of moving Biden toward majority supported policies like health care or the Green New Deal. They settle for beating the vulgar frontal fascism of Trump with the softer less obvious institutional fascism of Biden.  

The Maine Chance

The people of Maine challenged power. In 2016 they used a referendum to decide how they wanted to elect representatives rather than letting the politician decide how the people would vote. They fought back and survived legal challenges led by Republicans. 

San Francisco, Corvallis and Minneapolis use RCV and New York City is on track for 2021. California was poised to bust the campaign for RCV wide open but when the California Legislature passed RCV twice, two liberal Governors, Gavin Newsome and Jerry Brown, vetoed it — proving once again that the Democratic machine is against democracy. But it’s worth noting that Wyoming is using RCV for their primaries and other state Democratic parties are considering it.

This year RCV is on the ballot in Alaska and Massachusetts in November.

Anyone interest in democracy should pay close attention to the campaigns of Howie Hawkins and Lisa Savage in Maine. Hawkins/Walker are running a working-class campaign that can think for itself and their Green New Deal is the mother of all progressive reforms.  

Lisa Savage started as a Green and still has the the Green platform even though backward state laws forced her to run as an independent. But with access to debates and media, Savage is running the strongest Green-style campaign for the Senate in history.

It is the first time for RVC so while we can expect the old political culture will continue to shape thinking and the old machine will continue to marginalize rivals — we will still get a truer idea of what Green candidates can do. 

Unfortunately, Planned Parenthood — with its long track record of opposing universal health care and supporting Democrats — gives us a sorry example of how the old culture and the old machine will continue to squelch democracy. According to Lisa Savage: 

“Planned Parenthood should be ashamed of themselves for lying to Maine voters. Put a Maine address into their Voter Guide and you’ll find no mention of my presence in a ranked choice voting race as a strong advocate for reproductive rights and health care. Yup, I’m just invisible so they can promote the Democrat and bash the Republican. I know RCV has a lot of enemies, but I didn’t expect PP to be one of them. Once orgs become beholden to one of the corporate parties, their actual advocacy on behalf of voters goes down the drain.”

To engage electoral work without fighting for electoral reform is more than hypocrisy — it’s a trap. We cannot win in a system so utterly rigged. We can start by recognizing that the US has the most dysfunction system of all so-called “western democracies.” We cannot blame the Russians for that. Even if the Green Party agreed to commit political suicide every four years that sacrifice would not even come close to fixing it. Only real reform can do that. 

  1. The Election Integrity Project based at Harvard, (not to be confused with the ruling class formation the Transition Integrity Project) ranks the US last among “Western Democracies.”

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The Last Third Party to Win Waged Political Struggle with a “Revolutionary Reform.”

 

The last third party to win — the Republican Party — used a revolutionary reform they called the “non-extention of slavery” to fundamentally alter the existing two-party system.

The history of the anti-slavery movement and the early Republican Party raises a question we are dying to answer: under what conditions and with what strategies can government be fundamentally transformed? Those conditions exist when there are major problems that the existing political order created but cannot solve. Back then it was slavery and the domination of the government by slave-owners. Now, it’s the interlocking crisis of climate change, empire, the militarized penal system, inequality and the domination of government by corporations.

Starting in the 1840s a series of third parties raised a fundamental challenge to the existing social order and they did so with a special kind of reform — a reform that required revolutionary measures to achieve.

Non-extension of Slavery was a Revolutionary Reform

The demand for the non-extention of slavery literally drew a line in the sand beyond which the system of slavery could not pass. Its appeal would mobilize millions of people from all walks of life. Non-extention was a first step leading to abolition and the creation of a revolutionary party. Non-extention was a wedge issue that busted up the existing order and convinced northern white people to oppose slavery.

A new array of social movements and political parties, including the Liberty Party, Free Soil Party and eventually the Republican Party organized resistance against the slave owners that controlled the federal government. By wielding the power of government the slave-owning oligarchs ruthlessly exploited slaves and threatened the interests and values of northern white labor.

As the demand for non-extension made slavery a mass issue, the existing two-party system began to splinter.

Non-extention was a reform because it did not demand the immediate abolition of slavery as the black abolitionists or the morally-driven white abolitionists did. But, it was revolutionary because both the anti-slavery movement and the slave owners themselves understood that slavery was a “grow or die” system, just like the modern corporate empire. To block its plans for expansion was to put it on the path to what the anti-slavery movement called “ultimate extinction.”

As early as 1846 non-extension became a popular issue in the struggle around Wilmont’s Proviso — a proposal to bar slavery from the new territories conquered from Mexico. Although Wilmont’s Proviso never passed Congress it became a lightning rod for anti-slavery organizing.

According to the greatest of all abolitionists, Frederick Douglass, the campaign for Wilmont’s Proviso was an effective way “to keep the subject before the people — to deepen their hatred of the system–and to break up the harmony between the Northern white people and the southern slaveholders.”[1]

As non-extention shattered “the harmony between northern white people and southern slaveholders,” it challenged the white racism on which the two-party system rested.

Where Did the Republicans Come From?

One important source was the splintered elements of Whigs and Democrats that were pushed to the left by the growing anti-slavery movement. By 1848 the Free-Soil Party — the forerunner to Republicans  — was created out of northern Democrats that split from their southern controlled party, Whigs pushed to the left by the antislavery movement and members of the Liberty Party, an explicitly abolitionist third party.[2]

Non-extension was a political campaign and an organizing tool. It was different from the radical abolitionists who spoke in the uncompromising language of moral outrage about the sinfulness and corruption of slavery.

The radical abolitionists demanded a clean break with slavery but were only able to attract about 5% of white northerners to its view. But by seeing slavery as a system hostile to everyone’s freedom, including whites, and damaging to the future of the country, the Republicans were able to reach a majority of northern whites estimated at 66%.

 

What Revolutionary Reform Can Break Up The Harmony Between Everyday People and Corporate Power Today?

We need to “break up the harmony” between everyday people and corporate power — including the politicians, police and military that enforce their rule. We can push the wedge by focusing on issues that cannot be accommodated or compromised: climate change, war, empire, the militarized penal system, and corporate control over the government.

What reforms can help us to disrupt the social order in a way that corporate power cannot agree to without compromising their political might? Here are a few examples:

  • The abolition or defunding of the vast militarized penal system including the police. Mass incarceration is the foremost example of systematic racism and social control.
  • The Green Party’s Green New Deal is one of the best examples of a revolutionary reform because it centers the role of war and empire in climate change.
  • Extensive election reform would reveal the rot at the heart of the system. No wonder election reform is ignored by corporate parties and media.
  • Returning the power to declare war back to Congress — as the Old Constitution clearly states — we would undermine the power of the “imperial presidency” and the empire along with it.
  • The repeal of “Citizens United” would strike at the heart of the legal fiction that gives corporations special powers: corporations claim the protections and rights of the people even as they merged with the state.
  • Reparations to American Descendants of Slaves would jump start the economy and strengthen leadership from this key community of resistance.
  • Land Back to Natives and recognition of Treaty Rights would erode one cornerstone of the settler state and safeguard the environment.
  • Projects and laws encouraging and subsidizing worker-owned enterprise and local cooperatives would help us build “a new world in the shell of the old.”
  • Restoration of the Old Bill of Rights. The tyranny of the corporate empire demands that our rights be restricted.

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” — William Faulkner

There are striking parallels between then and now.

White supremacy remains the most damaging form of class collaboration weakening all efforts to rebuild democracy. Breaking those bonds will be decisive in mounting any major challenge on the existing order.

One way to start is by reclaiming the arguments on white privilege as an educational and political tool. But, the most important paths are social movements like the on-going Black-led but multiracial uprising against police violence. Some 20 million people took part including millions of white people. The “harmony” between white people and the system is breaking down. No wonder the powerful have moved so strongly to coopt or crush the movement.

Beware the Wounded Ruling Class. Arm Ourselves With History

As the position of the slave owners began to weaken they doubled down. The pro-slavery forces actually claimed that slavery was a good thing in keeping with the natural order of things. And, a system to which there was no alternative. We can hear echoes of this in the bosses’ propaganda about the virtues of free markets or the doubling down by the ruling class to control the crisis they know full well is coming.

But, when the great day came and the Slave Power could no longer rule with an iron fist, — when all the special advantages of the three-fifths clause, gag rules, compromises, and evasions no longer worked — it plunged the nation into its deadliest war. They chose disaster over defeat. Beware the wounded ruling class. Beware.

History is terribly unpredictable as it unfolds and only seems inevitable or orderly in hindsight. In times of deep social change political movements once considered marginal become mainstream; ideas once thought impossible or unrealistic become both urgent and practical. Third parties become major parties. And so it is in our time.

Climate destruction forces us to both recognize the interlocking nature of our problems — the deep structural connections between corporate power, racism, patriarchy, war and climate change — and to seek solutions that aim at nothing less than what Martin Luther King called the “radical reconstruction of society.”

Yet, we have no choice but to start with the world we have inherited. To find our way forward we must study the past not as something dead and gone but as something very much alive in our minds and embedded in the very structure of the existing social order. Our anti-slavery ancestors crafted a winning political struggle with a revolutionary reform. Can this past live again? Only if we make it so.

[1]  Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men p 314

[2] Leonard L. Richard, The Slave Power, 154

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