… To Build an Independent Labor Movement
By ALAN BENJAMIN (Editorial Board, The Organizer)
[Note: Following is a slightly edited version of the presentation delivered by Alan Benjamin to the opening session of the Labor Fightback Conference on Saturday, May 11, 2012, at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.]
On May 20, 2011, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka issued a statement in which he said the following:
“We have listened hard, and what workers want is an independent labor movement that builds the power of working people — in the workplace and in political life. Working people want a labor movement that is strong enough to help return balance to our economy, fairness to our tax system, security to our families, and moral and economic standing to our nation.”
“Our role is not to build the power of a political party or a candidate, it is to improve the lives of working families and strengthen our economy.”
The Labor Fightback Network that we are launching this weekend at Rutgers University is about building a wing of the labor movement that presses labor to match words with deeds — so that labor acts as a genuinely independent movement in the streets and in the workplaces, fighting to win the demands that reflect the needs and aspirations of the working-class majority and our community allies — not demands that have been watered down to make them acceptable to this or that wing of the corporate class.
What we need — and this is a life-and-death question for labor — is an independent labor movement that never subordinates the interests and needs of the working class to the dictates of politicians of either major party, as these politicians, with only a few exceptions, have demonstrated time and again that they will always defer to the corporate class.
Today, on the eve of the September 2012 national convention of the AFL-CIO, there is a lot of talk in the top echelons of the labor movement about “revitalizing” and “reforming” labor. There is talk about forming “listening commissions” to hear the complaints and proposals of the rank and file. There are plans to open the AFL-CIO’s membership rolls to workers not covered by collective-bargaining agreements and to expand our labor-community alliances.
Some of these proposals may have merit; others perhaps not. But what must be clear is that if labor does not change course around this fundamental question of affirming its independence in relation to the bosses and the politicians in their service, the downward spiral will only continue . . . and deepen — no matter what other “reforms” are carried out.
So what are the obstacles we confront in this effort?
The main obstacle is that despite its fighting words and seemingly firm positions, the leadership of the labor movement refuses to draw a hard line in the sand when it comes to opposing the wholesale attacks raining down on working people. Seduced by the siren call of “shared sacrifice,” labor has continued to draw what can only be called “moveable lines in the sand.” Labor must break with the entire notion and strategy of “shared sacrifice” and “shifting lines in the sand” if we are to move forward. This must be a top priority — if not THE top priority — of the upcoming AFL-CIO national convention.
This is why:
Take the Wall Street bailout of 2008-2009, for example. While militant wings of the labor movement, such as the San Francisco Labor Council, of which I am an executive board member, called for bailing out Main Street — NOT Wall Street, the AFL-CIO and Change to Win called for bailing out Main Street AND Wall Street, again, in the name of shared sacrifice. What was the result?
Anywhere between $8 trillion and $14 trillion in federal funds and loans went to bail out the banksters, while the ranks of the unemployed and underemployed swelled to 27 million people, home foreclosures soared, and poverty skyrocketed. There is no such thing as “shared sacrifice.” it is a hoax. it is a means to get labor to swallow the bitter pill of corporate austerity.
An independent labor movement would have taken to the streets in huge numbers — the sentiment was there for this — together with all the victims of the Great Recession to demand: Not one penny to the banks, whose speculative ways created the crisis to begin with; nationalize the banks; fund a massive public jobs program to put the 27 million people back to work and to jump-start the economy; retool Detroit to produce vehicles for mass public transit. This is what the San Francisco Labor Council called for, supported by a handful of other councils nationwide.
Or take the fight for jobs. Soon after Obama’s election in 2008, labor called for a public works program to put 15 million people back to work. When Obama announced his Jobs Act, which was based primarily of providing incentives to the private sector, labor essentially dropped its call for a public works program so as not to offend Obama and the Democrats, whose Jobs Act, at best, would create jobs for 2 million people.
The same was true of healthcare reform: Had labor stuck to its guns in support of single-payer healthcare — a position adopted at the 2009 AFL-CIO Convention — we might not have won single-payer right off the bat (the relationship of forces at the time may not have permitted this), but we might have won the Public Option, a real progressive reform and a step toward single-payer. Instead, labor moved its line in the sand more and more backwards, acquiescing to what Obama and the Democrats said was possible and feasible. And today we are stuck with an Affordable Care Act based on promoting the profit margins of the private insurance companies at the expense of workers’ health.
And the same is true today in relation to immigration reform: At its convention in 1999, the AFL-CIO adopted a position calling for amnesty/legalization for all undocumented workers, an end to the militarization of the border, an end to employer sanctions, and an end to guest-worker programs. But in its effort to find common ground with Obama and the Democrats, the trade union leadership today has jettisoned its own adopted platform of 1999 and accepted what are truly unacceptable trade-offs: In exchange for a very tenuous — and for many, a highly unlikely — “path to citizenship,” labor has accepted employer sanctions (E-Verify, Secure Communities), militarized borders, and a slightly revamped guest-worker program as part of a new immigration reform bill.
What does this mean today in relation to one of the key fights of our lifetimes: the fight to defend, expand and improve Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid?
If you read the many statements from all the top labor officials, they are all opposed to any and all cuts to these vital programs. But given labor’s past history on key questions, we must ask two questions:
1) Has labor drawn a hard line in the sand?
2) What is labor doing to mount a fightback to stop the announced attacks?
In relation to the first question, we must note the statement by Richard Trumka immediately following President Obama’s State of the Union address last February 12.
We should recall that Obama’s address put forward the goal of “broad-based economic growth [which] requires a balanced approach to deficit reduction, with spending cuts and revenue, and everybody doing their fair share.” Obama also stated, “The biggest driver of our long-term debt is the rising cost of healthcare for an aging population. And those of us who care deeply about programs like Medicare must embrace the need for modest reforms.”
Please note again Obama’s call for “shared sacrifice.”
Despite Obama’s open call for major cuts to the cherished social safety-net programs, Trumka lauded Obama’s speech, stating: “Tonight, President Obama sent a clear message to the world that he will stand and fight for working America’s values and priorities. And with the foundation he laid, working people will fight by his side to build an economy that works for all.”
But this is precisely the problem: Obama has made it crystal clear that his intention is to build an economy that works first and foremost for Big Business. Can anyone doubt this any longer, after five years of corporate and Wall Street bailouts, new corporate “free trade” agreements, cuts to social programs, the administration-led drive to privatize public education, and so much more?
As for what kind of line in the sand will be drawn, Trumka also did not mince words. “A president’s budget is more than just numbers,” he said. “It is a profoundly moral document. We believe cutting Social Security benefits and shifting costs to Medicare beneficiaries — while exempting corporate America from shared sacrifice — is wrong and indefensible.”
This, again, is a moveable line. While a majority of Republican legislators are opposed to raising taxes, discussions are under way aimed at reaching a bipartisan agreement, a “Grand Bargain,” that would close tax loopholes and tax some offshore accounts in exchange for lowering the corporate tax rate. Obama would then be able to present this as a victory of his “compromise” — or “shared sacrifice” strategy — and labor would be left having to support cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
As for the second question — what is labor doing to organize a fightback against the cuts, the recent experience with the bipartisan “sequestration” is illustrative.
While a national day of lobbying was held on January 30, 2013, to oppose the impending sequestration, a national day of protests in the streets — a national day of mass action that had been initially called for February 20 — was jettisoned in favor of a 14-city labor tour to promote the Obama administration’s immigration reform plan.
So, no, we cannot sit back and feel confident that our labor leadership is doing what’s necessary to oppose the attacks on our earned benefits programs. In fact, we have every reason to be alarmed: The simple truth is that Obama and the U.S. ruling class would never have been able to implement all the huge corporate and bank bailouts and all the cuts to social services without the support — either tacit or overt — of the labor movement.
This brings me to my last point: What is to be done?
First on some dates and actions that have been confirmed:
* As a result of a lot of organizing work by the Alliance for Retired Americans (ARA) and Bernie Sanders (who helped to gather 2 million signatures, delivered to the White House, opposing any and all cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid), a joint call has gone out from ARA and the AFL-CIO to mobilize on July 2 in a National Day of Action “to stop the Chained CPI (which is a cut, changing the way the COLA is calculated in Social Security), the increases in Medicare premiums, rate reductions for Medicare and Medicaid providers, and the plans to raise the beneficiary age for Medicare and Social Security.”
The proposal is to form human chains around Federal Buildings and the offices of targeted Members of Congress who need to receive our clear message. This is very positive, and we urge everyone to go back to your cities and labor bodies and urge them to build the July 2nd actions as massively and broadly as possible.
But lobbying and organizing human chains, as important as they are, won’t be enough to stop the steamroller that is headed our way. More than ever it is necessary to bring the full power of the labor movement to bear, in conjunction with retirees and civil rights organizations, in a huge mass mobilization in Washington, DC — where the decisions are made — to demand: No to all the cuts to the social safety-net programs, expand and improve them, don’t cut them; a federal public works program to put millions of people back to work; tax the rich and the corporations; slash the war budget and redirect the money toward meeting human needs — and more.
And we have a huge opportunity to do this on August 24, when the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and The King Center are calling to gather in Washington, DC, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights March on Washington and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
The AFL-CIO has endorsed the commemoration events, but it has not explicitly called to mobilize on August 24 around labor’s independent and pressing demands. Moving the labor movement to call to mobilize in DC on August 24 is our job as a Labor Fightback Network. This is why we are asking everyone here today to sign the Endorsement coupon of August 24, with its pledge to go back to your unions to move the Model Resolution, or something similar, in your local union or council.
[Model Resolution and Endorsement Sheets are circulated at this time.]
The task of gathering support for this initiative has already begun. On May 6, the San Francisco Labor Council’s Executive Committee endorsed a resolution unanimously calling to mobilize on July 2 and urging the AFL-CIO to call to mobilize on August 24. A similar resolution was passed by the North Shore Federation of Labor in Ohio.
An independent labor movement is one that prioritizes mass working class action to confront and demand redress of grievances from the government, the politicians in their service, and the bosses. There is a world of difference between mobilizing labor’s full strength in independent mass action and the lobbying and symbolic actions that accomplish very little in terms of (1) motivating the working-class majority to continue fighting back, and (2) forcing the ruling class to make concessions.
That is why we are proposing that building August 24 — around a Martin Luther King Economic and Social Justice agenda — be an immediate signature campaign of the Labor Fightback Network.
The time is ripe to pursue this campaign around August 24 and to promote this nationwide campaign for labor to break with its ties of subordination to the Democrats and with its strategy of “shared sacrifice” — and to champion the interests of the working-class majority, in the streets and workplaces.
In the recent period we have witnessed the willingness of workers to rise up and fight back every time a credible opportunity to fight presents itself. This is what happened with the Uprising in Wisconsin, the successful Ohio referendum, the fight of the Longshore workers in the state of Washington, the fight of the workers and students to Save City College of San Francisco, and, most important, the ongoing and deepening fightback of the teachers and workers in the public schools of Chicago.
The problem we face is NOT the lack of willingness to fight back by the rank and file of the labor movement. The problem is the orientation of the labor officialdom, which speaks about the need to build an independent labor movement but refuses to take steps in this direction.
Now is the time to take such steps — pressing the labor movement to mobilize around a platform of labor’s fightback demands. The Labor Fightback Network seeks to bring together all those in the labor movement — from the rank and file all the way to the leadership of national unions and state labor federations — who agree with our proposals in such a way that we can be more effective in our task of renewing the labor movement on the only basis that it can be renewed — that is, as an independent labor movement.
The Labor Fightback Network does not seek to compete with any unions, nor does it seek to substitute itself for the unions. Rather, our goal is to help coordinate initiatives that will help move labor on an independent course. We urge everyone here to sign up for the Labor Fightback Network.