On March 13, tens of thousands of workers received an email from AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. The powerful union confederation was announcing its support of President Obama in his bid for re-election: “As president, Barack Obama has placed his faith in America’s working men and women to lead our country to economic recovery and our full potential. So we’re putting our faith in him.”
Should Unions Support Obama in 2012?
For many workers, this election may seem like a no-brainer. There’s no secret where the Republicans stand on issues relating to unions and workers’ rights. As Trumka expressed in his endorsement letter, “Each of the Republican presidential candidates has pledged to uphold the special privileges of Wall Street and the 1% – privileges that have produced historic economic inequality and drowned out the voices of working people in America.”
The Republicans are unabashedly on the side of the corporate captains and the super-rich. They have done untold damage to the lives and rights of working people. Trumka argues that although labor hasn’t always agreed with Obama, we must keep the rabidly anti-worker Republicans from taking the White House, no matter which right-wing nut ends up being their candidate.
While showering the president with praise, Trumka was also careful to acknowledge that Obama has taken anti-worker positions: “The labor movement has sometimes differed with the president and often pushed his administration to do more – and do it faster...”
So what has Obama done for working people and unions? After reviewing his first term in office, it’s apparent that beyond occasional rhetoric, he’s no ally to working people.
Upon assuming office in 2009, he followed in Bush’s tracks and continued to bail out Wall Street and the big banks. He demanded zero concessions of bailed-out banks in terms of halting foreclosures or limiting pay and bonuses for billionaire executives. Yet when he bailed out the auto industry, something he continually highlights as a job-creating centerpiece of his first term, he demanded plant closures, layoffs and numerous other attacks on auto workers.
Obama has repeatedly vowed to end Bush’s tax cuts for the rich. But in the end he’s always caved on this in the face of Republican threats. Candidate Obama cast himself as an antiwar candidate in 2008. Once president, he initiated a massive troop surge into Afghanistan in 2009 and also attempted to convince the Iraqi government to allow some U.S. soldiers to remain stationed there beyond a troop withdrawal deadline negotiated by the Bush administration.
Could Labor Wait to Endorse and Pull Obama to the Left?
Some union activists criticized the AFL-CIO leadership for backing Obama so quickly. In their view, labor should’ve waited and placed more demands on Obama. Once he promised to support a pro-worker, pro-union program, then unions could endorse.
But we’ve been down the road of broken promises with Obama before. In 2008, he pledged if elected to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, to end employer harassment of unionizing campaigns. Once he took office, Congressional Democrats let the bill die, arguing they didn’t have the votes to get it passed. Obama simply let the issue drop, rather than using his influence and access to the media to put pressure on Congress to pass the bill.
We don’t even have to look too far in the past to see where his true allegiances lie. Less than a month before the AFL-CIO endorsement, Obama signed an F.A.A. funding bill – another sellout “compromise” with Republicans. The new law was a major attack on rail and airline workers and a victory for the bosses – increasing the number of workers required to sign a petition initiating a union election from 35% to 50% at their workplace.
No matter what Obama promises us, be it now or later in the campaign, he’ll most likely not deliver. Waiting won’t change his record of betrayal or make him any more accountable to us.
Wall Street Has Two Candidates
During every election, Wall Street and the 1% donate tens of millions to both parties, the Democrats included. The hundreds of millions that Obama and the Democrats received in 2008 were mostly from big business and the rich. He received more Wall Street money than his Republican opponent John McCain.
Corporate America is not stupid. They donate to both parties knowing that no matter which one wins they will implement their agenda. They know both Democrats and Republicans will give them a profitable return on their campaign investment.
Some union activists, for example supporters of the publication Labor Notes, don’t take a position on whether labor should support Obama and the Democrats. They instead argue we should focus on reforming ineffective union leaderships, and on more organizing and education among rank-and-file members for democracy.
These activists are correct about the need for more fighting union leaders and organizing among members. But the unions’ failure to effectively resist the bosses’ attacks is related to their support of the Democrats. We can’t fundamentally strengthen our unions without ending our support for them. Taking on corporate domination without a working-class political party means we’re fighting with one hand tied behind our backs.
In numerous states controlled by Democrats, they’ve been responsible for layoffs and attacks on public sector workers. This is the situation here in Washington State, where a Democratic governor and Democratic-controlled legislature laid off thousands of public workers, while cutting pay and increasing health care costs. Yet nothing has been asked of big business or the rich, no repeals of tax breaks or demands that they do anything to shoulder the burden of the state’s budget crisis.
The Democrats and Obama have either stood aside in attacks on us or taken part. We as union activists can’t ignore that they’re accomplices. Doing so only weakens unions, politically and organizationally disarming ourselves by not properly educating working people on the real role of the Democratic Party.
What Other Choice Do We Have?
Given that there will only be two candidates, Obama and a Republican opponent, who stand a chance at winning the presidential election, aren’t our only options supporting one of them or sitting out the election?
In 2008, labor gave $200 million to Obama and Democratic candidates, while having tens of thousands of union members get out the vote. Instead, the unions should use their tremendous resources to organize the unorganized, build educational protest campaigns and run independent labor movement candidates for President and other offices. Unfortunately, most top labor leaders have more in common with rich politicians than with the workers they’re supposed to represent. We need to elect leaders from the rank and file who are willing to lead strikes and mass direct action to fight for our interests and disrupt “business as usual.” These tasks need to go hand in hand with running independent working-class candidates.
The disappointment with Obama and the Democrats’ failure to deliver on promises of hope and change led to some voting Republican and even more sitting out the 2010 elections. The same thing happened when Bill Clinton was elected in 1992 and the Democrats held both houses of Congress. Their passage of NAFTA and other attacks led to Republicans sweeping Congress in 1994. The Democrats’ betrayals only bring the Republicans back into power. So no matter who wins, in the end working people lose.
If labor were to run its own independent, anti-corporate candidate for president, it’s true that initially we would be unlikely to win. However, campaigning for and popularizing issues that would benefit the 99% like a single-payer, Medicare-for-all health care system, a public works program to create living-wage jobs, and ending the disastrous war in Afghanistan would put way more pressure on both parties to implement them. Running our own independent candidates gives us more leverage over the political system than writing a blank check to the Democrats to sell us out after the election.
By creating and building a working people’s party that gets its support from fighting unions, workers, young people and the poor rather than corporate contributions, it would be possible to win victories for working people. As a step towards this, we can build movements to empower people in the workplaces, communities and campuses while also campaigning for independent left candidates.
Socialist Alternative supports building the strongest possible pro-worker, anti-corporate challenge to the two corporate parties in 2012. Jill Stein is running as a presidential candidate for the Green Party, putting forward a program of job creation, increased social services, an end to wars, and taxes on the richest 1% while stopping short of calling for fundamental socialist change. Rocky Anderson, formerly a liberal Democratic mayor of Salt Lake City from 2000 to 2008, is also running as an independent for president on a left-populist program. Socialist Alternative is still discussing who we will support. We will support the strongest left independent candidate for president in 2012, while supporting independent left candidates in other races and advocating socialist ideas.
Malcolm X once said to civil rights activists, “You put the Democrats first and they put you last.” Unions and working people need to stop supporting a party that puts Wall Street and the rich before us. It’s time to break with them and run real pro-worker candidates as a step towards forming a real party for working people.