What Can Labor Expect From the Democrats’ Victory?

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by Andrew Pollack / December 2006 issue of Socialist Action newspaper

In November, Democrats won control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 12 years. As always, big business contributed the most money but labor did their legwork. Hundreds of thousands of union volunteers from the AFL-CIO and Change to Win made millions of calls and distributed tens of millions of flyers.

Motivating workers’ votes, say unions, was not primarily last-minute corruption scandals, but the war in Iraq, the economy, health care, Social Security, and pensions. Now union leaders are talking about what they expect in return. Yet those expectations amount to pretty small change—and even that may not be forthcoming.

Union heads and Democratic leaders talk of raising the minimum wage and allowing Medicare to seek drug discounts. Unions will also push for the Employee Free Choice Act, or card check, which requires employers to recognize a union when a majority of workers sign cards, to avoid NLRB delays and harassment and firing of union supporters.

Also on labor’s agenda is “fair trade”; changing bankruptcy laws used to abandon pension and health care commitments; improved safety laws and enforcement; and eliminating tax and other policies that make it easy to send jobs overseas.

Standing in the way of all these goals are not just filibusters and vetoes, but Democrats’ pledges of “bipartisanship”—and labor leaders’ proven willingness to accept Democratic excuses for failing to deliver.

The minimum wage hike may be the easiest to achieve. It’s been at $5.15 since 1997 and buys less today than 50 years ago. Even such notorious exploiters as Wal-Mart and Starbucks pay on average two or three bucks more (their biggest profits come from using part-time, no-benefit workers).

And Democrats only talk of raising it to $7.25. Labor officials know this won’t reverse the income and benefit losses of recent decades.

Referring to the need to win card check, AFL-CIO legislative director Bill Samuel said, “One of the best ways we can address stagnating wages and lost pensions and health care is to restore the bargaining power of workers.” But even a weak minimum wage hike is no sure thing if workers aren’t mobilized. And the Democrats are sure to abandon card check without an even more massive mobilization. (Expect instead tinkering with NLRB rules.)

By the same token, we can expect Democrats, unwilling to take on Big Pharma, to backtrack quickly on drug price promises (neither labor federation is saying much about universal health coverage).

The shared conservatism of Democrats and labor leaders is also seen on trade issues. Mainstream media report Democrats are divided between “newcomers skeptical about trade” and “those worried about alienating business.” Says one academic, “The [Democratic] leadership doesn’t want to be painted as obstructionist on trade.”

Of course, NAFTA was pushed through by labor’s “friend” Bill Clinton, and the Democrats’ loss of Congress in 1994 is often blamed on their support for it. More recently 15 Democrats provided the margin of victory for NAFTA’s offspring, CAFTA. So the “fair trade” rhetoric in this year’s elections must be taken with a huge grain of salt.

But even the “fair trade” demanded by union leaders sounds more like protectionism than solidarity. Saving jobs on both sides of the border requires support for each other’s struggles—like the one going on right now in Oaxaca, Mexico, a region hit hard by NAFTA, or the fight against layoffs in auto in the U.S.—not bans on “unfair” trade.

On immigration, Democrats don’t even make promises. The Washington Post reports that despite the defeat of some of the most anti-immigrant Republicans, “Democratic leaders surprised pro-immigration groups by not including the issue on their list of priorities,” claiming the “explosive” issue “could give control of Congress back to Republicans. And a number of Democrats who took a hard line on illegal immigration were also elected.”

This shouldn’t surprise those who remember Democratic support for anti-immigrant “compromise” bills last spring. But that’s OK with Cecilia Munoz of the National Council of La Raza, who encourages Democrats to back “a plan that satisfies both sides.”

Also encouraging “unity” is Nativo Lopez of the Mexican-American Political Association:

“I’ve been making reconciliation calls. It’s extremely important that we come back together.”
And the reactionary “No Child Left Behind” Act is likely to be renewed in 2007 thanks to Democrats, especially key committee chairs Ted Kennedy and George Miller, who helped craft this heinous law in the first place. Summing up the Democratic approach, Matt Bai wrote in The New York Times that they “avoided offering new ideas, fearing that bold proposals on health care or retirement security” would take the focus off Republican failures.

This was OK with union leaders, of whom political scientist Larry Sabato said: “They’re not pushing the Democrats to the left. They want to win,” and so they were happy to back moderate and conservative Democrats.

Says the Associated Press, “lobbyists do not expect the partisanship of recent campaigns to last … pragmatism and the presidential election will pull both parties to the center,” and a spokesperson for the National Association of Manufacturers predicts new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will “reach out to nontraditional allies” to preserve the new majority.

Says The New York Times: “Those who delivered the new Democratic majorities by winning Republican seats show little appetite for ideological crusade. Democratic strategists recognize the new majority was elected in large part from Republican-leaning districts and states.”

Other social movements, says the Los Angeles Times, are also expecting payback, and getting the same standoffish response. Party leaders fear abortion rights, antiwar, and civil liberties issues “could alienate moderate voters and leave Democrats vulnerable to GOP attacks as big spenders or soft on terrorism.” (The paper ignores progressive referendum results on these issues in several states.)

The L.A. Times notes that both Pelosi and new Senate leader Harry Reid “pledged in recent days to ‘govern from the center'” after a campaign in which the party attracted “unusually conservative candidates.”

And “pragmatist” Senator Chuck Schumer, who helped design the party’s campaign strategy, plans to lay out a plan for long-term Democratic dominance by junking New Deal concepts and pushing aside “special interests.”

Business Week wrote that “just as unions have been burned before by political friends—think Bill Clinton’s push for NAFTA—it’s unclear what kind of dividend they can expect” from the new Congress. They add: “How beholden will Democrats be to labor’s agenda if union members back them no matter what? Not very.

“’Unions have had to reassess the benefits of even successful political action,’ says Cletus Daniel, a Cornell professor. ‘A lot of people they’ve helped elect are not staunch advocates of workers’ rights or willing to take risks on their behalf.'”

Soon union officials will be pleading with members not to be too hard on friendly Democrats battling newly elected “moderates.” “Wait for the 2008 presidential elections” will become the new mantra.

Despite labor support, the main money and ideas behind the Democrats have always come from the bosses. This was proven again in 2006.

Newsweek reported that in the final weeks of the campaign Democrats had more cash than Republicans, and that contrary to party claims, this didn’t come from the grassroots:

“Business interests have been hedging their bets, making friends with Democrats just in case.” The magazine cited increased donations by banks and securities brokers.

After the election the AFL-CIO said, “Many issues backed by Democrats this year were bread and butter basics—maybe not the sweeping programs that defined Great Society and New Deal Democrats, but certainly not issues that would have been supported by conservative Dems.”

But even those “sweeping” programs were pale reflections of more radical demands put forward by labor in militant periods for decent livelihoods for all at the bosses’ expense.

In his article “The Midterm Elections: A Return to Politics as Usual,” National Labor Party Organizer Mark Dudzic wrote: “The hopes of activists who made this election victory possible will be betrayed before the cherry blossoms bloom. … the new Congress will do nothing to confront the growing concentration of corporate power.…

“The Democratic Party remains dominated by corporate interests. Working people will remain stuck in the political wilderness … until we build a party of our own.”

One promising move in this direction was the Sept. 23 founding convention of the South Carolina Labor Party, which said it “will be active before, during and between elections, building solidarity in our communities and workplaces.”

That connection between election work and everyday struggle is key to reviving the kind of mass movements that have produced strong labor movements with independent politics and genuinely radical—and inspiring—programs.

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