Will U.S. Labour Challenge Austerity?

Across the U.S., working-class people are struggling, scraping together meager sums in order to get by. In state and local governments throughout the country, workers are watching public services slashed in the name of balanced budgets. Trillions of dollars have been doled out to Wall Street titans and big banks. And while the epidemic of home foreclosures and cuts to public services rages on, corporate profits are soaring to record highs, and banks are sitting on hordes of accumulated capital. Still, we are told, there simply isn’t enough money to help the millions struggling in these economic hard times.

Earlier this month, in the same city where Congress is enacting cuts from the bottom, more budget cuts affecting child care and affordable housing were voted on by the city council of Washington, D.C. Community activists and affected residents insisted on a different path: increasing the tax rate by up to 1 per cent on the city’s top income-earners.

One young unemployed single mother on disability approached Council Chair Vincent Gray. Her glassy black eyes peered into the darting glances of a city bureaucrat, who nervously recoiled before the faces of low-income residents affected by his decisions. In her soft, trembling voice, she told the chairman that she might lose her daughter if the council carries through with the budget cuts. With a straight face, Gray – who will soon replace Adrian Fenty as mayor of the District – looked at the young woman and said, “If you can print money, please do.”

On the same day and in the same chamber, Gray led the council in voting down a resolution that would have modestly raised taxes on the top income-earners in D.C. and staved off cuts that hurt the poorest residents in the city.

This is the human face of Merriam-Webster’s word of the year: austerity.

Congress’ Priorities

The reality of a system based on such backward priorities that reward the rich and punish workers and the poor was again laid bare in the waning days of the lame-duck Congress of 2010. Many were left wondering why it was that the only “pragmatic” way to extend unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed was to extend tax cuts for the rich.

We live in a society where Congress becomes deadlocked in dispute over aiding the jobless, while it simultaneously passes a massive war spending bill without so much as a symbolic show of debate.

Workers demonstrate against austerity, September 29, 2010 in Brussels [more pictures].
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, scenes of barricades, burning park benches, outraged students “kettled” by police and striking workers stand against the backdrop of plumes of tear gas. From Greece to Ireland, harsh austerity measures that threaten to eradicate the already besieged traditional welfare states of Europe are inspiring rolling strikes and student mobilizations against fee hikes.

By contrast, the streets in the U.S. remain comparatively calm. Where is the organized uproar of workers in the U.S.? Where is the labour movement? The weakness of a small, institutionalized labour movement in the U.S., as compared to the clout of trade unionism in Europe, helps to explain some of the discrepancy.
But in addition to its shrinking numbers, a major qualitative failing prevents the U.S. labour movement from becoming a fighting force against austerity. Organized labour in the U.S. is impaired by its entanglement in one of the political machines championing austerity in the first place: the Democratic Party.

Much has been said about the fury that erupted among President Barack Obama’s liberal base since the White House pushed its “tax-cut compromise.” The deal struck between Obama and the Republicans adds on to the administration’s ever-growing rap sheet of offenses that infuriated progressives.

The Labour Movement

And somewhere between Obama’s band of centrist apologists and his spurned liberal base lies the U.S. labour movement, a disjointed community of institutional organs for collective bargaining and the 15 million rank-and-file workers they represent. The labour movement may be fragmented in many ways, but the loyalty of labour leaders to the Democratic Party has for the last three decades remained a point of unity.

In 2008, labour spent an unprecedented amount of money – more than $400-million – to support the election of Obama and Democratic candidates to Congress. And even after a Congress controlled by labour’s supposed allies dropped the Employee Free Choice Act – labour’s top legislative priority that would have made it easier for workers to join unions – unions stuck by Obama and the Democrats.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) alone spent $87.5-million to support Democrats in 2010. A few weeks after the 2010 midterm elections, the Obama administration showed its appreciation for labour’s undying fidelity by announcing a two-year pay freeze for federal employees, one of the most unionized sectors of the workforce.

Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka condemned the wage freeze. But leaders like Trumka have been increasingly caught in the awkward position of defending Obama while condemning anti-worker policies pushed by his administration. “No one is served by our government participating in a ‘race to the bottom’ in wages,” Trumka said of the federal pay freeze. “The president talked about the need for shared sacrifice, but there’s nothing shared about Wall Street and CEOs making record profits and bonuses while working people bear the brunt.”

Politicians on the right would have us believe that it’s not Wall Street that caused the economic mess vexing the nation. Rather, it’s public sector workers. Those workers and their unions are the new scapegoats for the country’s economic woes. Incoming GOP Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker recently declared, “We can no longer live in a society where the public employees are the haves and the taxpayers who foot the bill are the have-nots.”

In early December, AFSCME announced it was launching a media campaign called “Stop the Lies” to “expose right-wing lies” against public sector workers.

But Democrats have also joined the efforts to demonize public workers. The campaign of Democratic Gov.-elect Andrew Cuomo of New York included calls for public-sector unions to grant massive concessions in order to ease the state’s budget gap. The incoming governor is rallying business-lobbying groups to his side to launch a $10-million anti-union effort against worker in the public sector.

Meanwhile, Obama’s deficit commission, with its crosshairs trained on Social Security and other “entitlements,” has set the terms for congressional debate on reducing the nation’s deficit through punishing austerity measures.

So it’s fair to ask how far to the right Obama and the Democratic Party will shift before the labour movement can no longer support them. How much longer can labour leaders continue to justify to their membership the massive sums of money spent to prop up Democrats, whose allegiance to corporate welfare surpasses whatever expressed interests they share with working-class people?

Losing Strategies

Looking forward to 2012, Chris Townsend, political action director of the rank-and-file-driven United Electrical Workers Union (UE), doesn’t see the abusive relationship between Democrats and labour ending anytime soon:

“Labour leaders and the apparatus they control will go all out and spend even more money than they did this year. They see no other way to proceed. They don’t call it the two-party ‘trap’ for nothing. Labour will not support third-party efforts, and they will not sit out the election, either. So they will crank up the negative campaign and scare machinery to mobilize for the Democrats and against the even-worse Republicans.”

What’s more, unions are increasingly spending huge portions of their budgets on these political losing strategies and devoting fewer resources toward organizing and workplace activism, a trend that Townsend describes as a kind of “reverse syndicalism.” As he put it, “It is obvious to me that growing numbers of unions are opting to demobilize and dismantle workplace structures, replaced by election-time activities to prop up Democrats.”

As the White House cleared the final hurdles in Congress to secure the tax-cut deal, Trumka described the compromise thusly: “This is a huge relief for the more than 1.4 million long-term job seekers who already have lost their emergency unemployment benefits. But this deal comes at a terrible price: It rewards obstructionists with huge tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires.”

If ever there was a time for the labour movement to assert bold political independence rather than a slavish deference to Democratic talking points, that time is now. But Trumka is careful not to be too critical of Obama, reserving the main thrust of his criticism for Republican obstructionists.

Any hope of the labour movement helping to forge a genuine progressive alternative independent of Republicans and Democrats is, of course, diminished by the continued division of the labour unions in two separate camps – the AFL-CIO and Change to Win federations. But that hope is even more hampered by the culture of union leadership that is so thoroughly intertwined with Democratic Party politics.

The latest tax-cut deal with Republicans is certainly another compromise by Obama and the Democrats that tacked decidedly to the right, leaving progressives feeling profoundly betrayed and further harnessing the livelihoods of workers to the welfare of Wall Street.

But so long as the lesser-evil calculus of the two-party system remains the prevailing wisdom among liberals, Obama and the Democrats can always count on browbeating much of their progressive base, including labour, to come around again when it’s time to hit the campaign trail. Short of a mass grassroots movement on the left buttressed by a unified, independent labour movement, there is little reason for politicians like Obama to fear being held accountable by workers.

A serious challenge is needed to stop the agenda of austerity that both political parties are using to bludgeon workers and the poor. But fighting back against the bipartisan cutback consensus requires higher levels of bottom-up organization, as opposed to top-down institutionalization. And it requires an independent labour movement through which workers can chart their own political course.

If the conventional political wisdom among unions is that the Democrats are the only game in town, then we must ask when the labour movement will step out from the sidelines. •

This article appeared on the socialistworker.org website.

Brian Tierney is a freelance labour journalist.