WHICH SIDE ARE YOU ON? Emergency Labor Network


With the four  2012 presidential and vice presidential debates now history, what is  particularly striking is that no questions were asked or answers given with  regard to labor’s rights. The irony is that the Democratic Party is heavily  dependent on trade unionists to do the heavy lifting in order to win the  election: organizing millions of home calls, staffing the phone lines,  contributing a fortune, etc.

What has  labor received in return?

We got no  support for the Employee Free Choice Act (card check), nothing in relation to  labor reform legislation, imposition of the “Free Trade”agreementsover labor’s vehement opposition, cuts in federal workers’ pensions  to pay for the payroll tax holiday, and the list goes on.

It is  indisputable that labor’s relationship to the Democratic Party is a one-way street: we give and they take.  After elections are over, things go back to normal: our needs are ignored or ─  after a superficial effort to get some legislative remedy ─  abandoned.

[Note: In the  presidential debates, the word “union” was never uttered, except in the last  debate when Mitt Romney denounced the Teachers Union. President Barack Obama sat  silent, declining to come to the union’s defense.]

But what  about the big battles that labor has waged over the past couple of years? In Wisconsin, Tom Barrett, characterized by  Wisconsin trade unionists as anti-labor, won the Democratic primary and  immediately promised that if elected, he would retain the austerity takeaways  that Walker had  imposed on public employees. Meanwhile, Obama took no position in support of the  workers.

In Ohio, labor was fighting  for its life after the state’s General Assembly passed legislation gutting  public employees’ bargaining rights. The whole country was transfixed on the  referendum to repeal the legislation, which passed handily. But Obama was a  neutral.

Then there  was the action taken in Indiana when that state’s legislature enacted  the misnamed “right to work” law. Again the president declined to come to the  support of the state’s trade union movement in its struggle to prevent adoption  of the law.

Then there  was the Chicagoteachers’ strike. The  president’s former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, led the fight to cut teachers’  pay and benefits, while attempting to undermine the union’s power and privatize  public education. The president refused to take a stand in support of the  teachers.

Finally there  was the Machinists’ strike against Caterpillar in Joliet, Illinois. Although the company was making  record profits of several billion dollars a year, it demanded substantial cuts  in workers’ benefits. After a three-and-a-half-month strike, the company  prevailed. Again the president was only a silent  spectator.

The question  may be asked: Why should the president take a stand on these “local issues”?  There are three reasons why he should have done so. The first is that when he  ran for president, he promised to walk picket lines with striking workers, a promise  not kept.

The second is  that each of these battles had significant repercussions going beyond city or  state boundaries. Repressive legislation passed on a state or city level opens  the door wider for similar legislation being adopted by other governmental  entities. Cuts in pay and benefits by both public and private employers also are  likely to get replicated elsewhere. 

The third is  that the escalating attacks against labor in this age of austerity are part and  parcel of the strategy to put the burden on the working class and the poor to  pay for the debt and deficits, while the rich and powerful laugh all the way to  the bank. Meanwhile purchasing power plunges, impoverishing more and more  people, while making a bad economy worse.

This is not  just a presidential problem. It cuts across party lines, as witness the fact  that Democratic Governor Jerry Brown of California and Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York, like  other Democratic and Republican governors across the country, are leading the  charge to cut workers’ pay, benefits, and working conditions, while attempting  to weaken the power of unions to fight back.

The Democratic Party’s National  Convention

On Labor Day,  the Democratic Party convened its national convention in Charlotte, North  Carolina, one of the 22 states where the Taft-Hartley Act (“right to work” for  less) was enacted to undermine and prevent the national growth and consolidation  of the trade union movement. While North Carolina is one of the 11 southern  states originally hamstrung by Taft-Hartley, it is also notorious for its  legislative ban on collective bargaining rights for public-sector workers. Even  so, the Democratic Party Convention steamed ahead, despite the fact that  Charlotte city workers had waged  a month-long campaign leading up to Labor Day of picketing, rallies, and  protests outside of City Hall citing problems faced by city workers and calling  for the right to collective bargaining, to meet and confer with city managers on  the job, for dues check-off, and for a “Municipal Worker’s Bill of Rights.” An  “Open Letter” was sent to President Obama and Democratic National Committee leaders at the local, state,  and national levels calling for the president to take action in support of  solving these problems. There was no response.

The millions  of Black and Latino workers, both male and female across the U.S.,  suffer the sharpest edge of the attacks on labor and trade union rights and the  brunt of the economic crisis. But even though Obama cannot win ─ in what is  shaping up to be an extremely close election ─ without organized labor, women,  Black and Latino support, he has not reached out to these constituencies with a  program that meets their needs. So it is clear that without an independent labor  movement, anchored in these most oppressed sectors of the U.S. working class,  labor will not be in the strongest position to effectively pressure Obama for  crucial progressive reforms if he should win re-election, or to fight the  devastating plans of the right wing Republican agenda directed against us if  Romney/Ryan take the election. 

Rebuilding a  labor movement, independent of the Democratic and Republican parties, anchored in the most  oppressed sectors of the U.S. working class, and vigorously  fighting not only to protect trade union rights, but also to organize southern  labor, and to directly challenge the racism, sexism, and attacks against  immigrants’ rights suffered by these communities, is the only way forward!

What Next?

Back in the  1930s, coal miners immortalized a song titled “Which Side Are You On?” with one  of the lines being, “There are no neutrals there” (referring to Harlan County  in Kentucky).

We in the  Emergency Labor Network believe that same spirit should drive labor’s policies  in the period ahead. We cannot continue to be subservient to a political party  that fails to represent our interests ─ a party that takes from us but does not  give. There can be no neutrals when sharp fights break out between labor and  capital. And as the old saying goes, “You always find out who your true friends  are at a time of crisis.” This is a time of  crisis.

Here is how  AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka put it: “When it comes to politics, we’re  looking for real champions of working women and men. And I have a message for  some of our ‘friends.’ It doesn’t matter if candidates and parties are  controlling the wrecking ball or simply standing aside ─ the outcome is the same  either way. If leaders aren’t blocking the wrecking ball and advancing working  families’ interests, working people will not support them. This is where our  focus will be ─ now, in 2012 and beyond.”

We in the ELN  are keenly aware that the Republican Party leadership is a sworn enemy of the  labor movement. We also recognize that the Democrats have better positions than  the Republicans on some issues, such as preserving Roe v. Wade.  What is needed in the absence of a mass-based independent labor party is  building a broad coalition of labor and its communality partners to protect and  preserve Roe v. Wade, and the same is true with regard to Social  Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other urgently needed social programs. But that  does not negate the need for labor to build its own independent party. For  decades we relied on the Democrats to advance our program, and that has not  worked. We need to rely now on our own power and our own organized  strength.

We also agree  with Trumka’s May 20, 2012, statement when he said, “Moving forward, we are  looking hard at how we work in the nation’s political arena. 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.”

The challenge  now is to give life to those words and build that independent labor movement  without delay. For starters, it would be big step forward for labor to run  independent candidates for office at the local or even the congressional level.  Labor can also utilize the referendum in some states to rescind repressive legislation, as was done so successfully in Ohio in 2011. And for states whose laws or  constitutions do not permit initiatives or referenda, how about campaigns to  make the needed changes so that the people can use these instruments of  democracy and make the ultimate decisions regarding which laws govern their  lives?

Issued  by the Emergency Labor Network (ELN)

For  more information write emergencylabor@aol.com or P.O. Box 21004, Cleveland, OH44121 or call 216-736-4715 or visit our website at www.laborfightback.org. Donations gratefully accepted. Please make checks payable to the ELN  and mail to the above P.O. Box.



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