Bernie Sanders & the labor movement


Socialist Action has published several articles in recent issues exposing Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Party. This included a look at past primary elections that were used to raise workers’ hopes that there would be a place for their aspirations within the Democratic Party. Another article looked at Sanders’ role in Congress and his history with the Democratic Party.

It is also important to investigate what is happening in the working class in relation to the Sanders campaign. Examining the changing attitudes towards socialism and independent labor campaigns can help us to see beyond Sanders in order to evaluate the shifts in the working-class electorate.

We are in the midst of a financial and social crisis that has been festering for almost a decade. The economic crisis has brought on an upsurge of fightback activity from low-wage workers. At the same time, however, most union workers have yet to respond with the same militancy as their non-union low-wage brothers and sisters.

Long-time union activists have frequently asked each other, “Where are all the young workers?” The first answer is that many of them are in the Fight For $15 movement, and the second answer is that they are attending Bernie Sanders rallies. We have seen in the period of about 10 weeks this summer over 100,000 people crammed into sports arenas in a variety of cities to hear Sanders’ populist message about economic inequality and the fight against the “Billionaire Class.”

The many millennials, students, and young workers at the Sanders rallies have been joined by union members—a lot of them. These groups are all motivated by the same anger. They are angry at Wall Street and the taxpayer bailout of the banks, the lingering effects of the financial crisis, skyrocketing rents, the high cost of health care and shrinking income while the wealthy 1% profits from policies of austerity, war, and the prison industrial complex.

Crisis of union democracy

In the labor movement today, there is nothing as routine as the union bureaucracy’s deciding to support the Democratic presidential candidate. An early endorsement is often expected to show the Democratic Party bosses that there will be money and foot soldiers ready for them regardless of their anti-labor policies during the previous four years. Preaching “lesser evilism” to any union member who might balk at their marching orders is also part of the routine.

This year is slightly different. Distrust is evident toward Hillary Clinton on a signature labor issue, the unpopular Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and also because of her close ties to Wall Street. The fact that Clinton is openly raising $2 billion for her campaign has also not gone well in the unions.

With the populist Bernie Sanders on the scene, many union members are saying “slow down” on endorsements. The issue within some unions has moved from which candidate to support to “why don’t the members have a vote.”

When Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), announced they were the first national union to endorse Clinton, there was a strong backlash among teachers across the country based on the undemocratic process and rumors that Clinton had offered Weingarten a position in her cabinet.

A month later, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) announced it would endorse Hillary Clinton. President Tom Buffenbarger announced in a press release that the decision was made based on an internal survey of 1700 members. Again the union members were irate. One comment on their Facebook page was indicative of the members: “What a sham. Not in the least bit democratic … only 1700 out of 600,000 members is not a majority. … You guys need to wake up and listen to the members.”

Mary Kay Henry, president of SEIU, could see the way the wind was blowing and quickly said that there would be no early endorsement and that they would continue pushing issues of economic inequality.

When the National Nurses Union was the first national union to endorse Sanders, the most common comment from union members was about their process. As one member of a different union, who didn’t support any Democratic Party candidate, commented, “Did you see that? Their members all voted. It was the members who actually made the decision.”

While on the surface it appears that this is merely a disagreement over which candidate the union will endorse, it could be the beginning of deeper conversations about the struggle for union democracy. Hopefully, more specific discussions will also take place concerning Sanders’ lack of any solution to the attacks on workers that are increasing every day.

The lack of union democracy regarding presidential endorsements is not the only thing that has agitated the rank and file this summer. In July and August there were events to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Medicare. But instead of the regular “lobby and call your legislator” event, there were working-class rallies to demand the expansion and improvement of Medicare.

These rallies were called the National Day of Action to Protect, Expand and Improve Medicare and were organized by National Nurses United, Labor Campaign For Single Payer, AFL-CIO, and the union-based Alliance For Retired Americans. One of the largest rallies was on Aug. 8 at the Westlake Mall in Seattle, where 5000 rallied for both “Medicare For All” and Medicaid expansion. The energized Seattle labor movement showed up, coming off of their winning a $15 minimum wage, their growing movement to fight skyrocketing rents, and the re-election campaign of socialist Seattle city council member Kshama Sawant.

Every time there is a spark of rebellion in the working class, it ignites more activity. Two years of regular fast-food strikes became a movement of low-wage workers. The activity expanded from one-day strikes to include union bargaining campaigns. Then it moved to mass rallies and marches aimed at local governments. Now union members are emerging from decades of acceptance that union bureaucrats should make the decisions about candidate endorsements.

Poll results reflect the changing attitudes towards the major capitalist parties and an increasing interest in socialism. A Gallup Poll completed in 2014 shows that 43% of respondents do not identify themselves as Democrats or Republicans. They consider themselves “independent.” This percentage is a new high for Gallup, which has been polling on this question since 1988. Identification as a Democrat has declined the most during this period.

A poll in June of this year showed that 52% now support “government redistribution of wealth” by increasing taxes on the rich. This is the greatest support for wealth redistribution that has been measured since 1940. The pollsters also asked if respondents would vote for a “socialist” for president, and a high 47% answered that they would do so. The combination of increased support for wealth re-distribution and the fact that the word “socialist” is no longer taboo demonstrate a major shift.

For a labor party!

This is the time to start talking about an independent workers’ party. Workers both young and old are angry at the economic and the political system, and while at this time many are turning to a self-described “socialist” who is running as a Democrat and who has said he will support the eventual nominee of the Democratic Party, some union members are talking about a party of their own.

The traditional labor party is based in the union movement. While union membership in the United States is low compared to countries that have traditional labor parties, the labor movement itself has been energized by the movement of low-wage workers and their allies.

An August Gallup Poll reports that increasing numbers support unions while union membership remains at about 12%. Approval of unions jumped to 58%, which is an increase of 10% since 2009.

There was also an increase of those who want unions to have more influence on the political process (37%).However, those calling on the Democratic Party candidates for solutions to the problems we face will never find satisfaction. The fight against the “billionaire class” cannot be waged by the party controlled by billionaires.

Likewise, the struggles against racism and anti-immigrant bigotry will not be championed by the Democratic Party. They will never stop saying that the solution to racist cops is body cameras, and that the solution to the immigration “problem” is to increase the militarization of the border and to increase enforcement of laws against undocumented workers.

A labor party is not only about elections but about building a fighting labor movement to achieve major change. Building independent workers’ power in the political arena as well as in the workplace and the streets can help build a bridge from anger and disappointment to a successful struggle for pressing demands. The call for a labor party can be that initial step.


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