U.S. Politics: Rough Sketch (Pre-Convention Document)

by Dianne F and David F

Back to pre-convention documents list

At the December 2, 2012, meeting of the National Committee, a document on the general U.S. political situation was commissioned to kick-start our pre-convention discussion and subsequently authored by Dianne F. and David F. Adam H., Isaac S., Mark A., and Jane S. assisted in its drafting. The document was generally discussed at the February 2013 National Committee meeting, but no formal votes were taken.

I. U.S. Politics Rough Sketch

FOUR MONTHS AFTER the November 2012 election registered a small but measurable leftward shift in the population, it’s an open question whether the result will be continued political “gridlock” – or something much worse.

Millions of African and Latino, immigrant, youth, women and working class voters came out to repudiate the Romney-Ryan platform and the hideous social policies of the Republicans. Same-sex marriage rights made progress, and state referenda for legalizing marijuana possession passed in Colorado and Washington State. These are important partial gains in the face of a socially repressive climate, and a repudiation of the penal victimization of youth and African Americans in particular for nonviolent drug “crimes.” There is a growing understanding that what is called “The New Jim Crow” system of mass incarceration is destructive, racist and dysfunctional.

Some thirty state governments, however, remain under Republican control waging ever more vicious assaults on unions (Indiana and Michigan are now “Right to Work-for-less” states), abortion rights and minority voters (voter suppression laws), noncompliance with the Affordable Health Care Act, etc. These developments are serious threats to democratic rights, particularly as they may open the door to the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

More and more state legislatures are making abortion effectively inaccessible, even while a clear majority of the population believes it should be legal under many or all circumstances. In fact, the opinions of the majority are increasingly ignored on questions from reproductive freedom to inequality and social justice.

At the national level, due partly to the urban concentration of Democratic votes and even more to blatant state legislatures’ manipulation of districts, the outcome of Congressional elections no longer represents a rough national referendum. A majority of votes in November were actually cast for Democratic candidates, but the Republican party – as fractured and absurd spectacle as it presents – retains a safe majority in the House of Representatives.

The enormous impact of money and influence of reactionary think tanks continually leverage the entire political spectrum further to the right. To be sure, there is also a substantial reservoir of white support for socially reactionary politics, including parts of the white working class. The Republican party today has moved further right and more racist than, say, Newt Gingrich.

In response to their electoral dilemma, one instinct among the Republican leadership is to shelve their more extreme anti-gay, anti-immigrant, anti-tax and anti-government policies and become a shade more ”bipartisan” on the issues that bit their butts in November. The other option, if they can’t win presidential elections, is to steal them outright.

In their most brazen move yet, rightwing legislators in several states that have voted Democratic in recent presidential races – Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin and Virginia – are floating laws to assign their Electoral College votes for president not by statewide results, but by individual Congressional districts, which by virtue of gerrymandering would give the majority of those states’ electoral votes to the Republican candidate. This incredible, undemocratic and blatantly racist scheme would have thrown victory to Mitt Romney in this past election – an election that president Obama incontestably won.

Is more proof needed that the peculiar institution of the Electoral College needs to be abolished altogether? It appears for the moment that this scheme won’t go too far immediately, if only because it’s hard to imagine the U.S. ruling class allowing up-front electoral theft to threaten the legitimacy of the central institutions in U.S. bourgeois politics. If allowed to go forward, however – and in today’s climate, the hardline right wing is capable of almost anything as it sees its power starting to slip away — this electoral rigging scheme could ultimately provoke the United States’ most profound Constitutional crisis in well over a century.

The paradox of a right wing growing ever more vicious, even as it becomes more unpopular, offers a window onto what drives U.S. politics today, against the backdrop of an uncertain economic recovery. It’s important to understand the fundamental reason why the Republicans are always on the offensive, even when they lose, while the Democrats are almost always in retreat even when they’ve won – in one word, austerity.

After the Election, What Next?

There’s no question about a corporate ruling class consensus for austerity, especially for ”competitive” (i.e. lower) wages, entitlement and education ”reform” (gutting Social Security, Medicare, teachers’ unions and the public school system). What’s less clear is whether the current state of bourgeois party politics is an asset or liability for this ruling-class program. According to conventional analysis, the political system is “gridlocked” due to the capture of the Republican party by an extreme fiscal and social right wing.

There is an extensive volume of punditry dedicated to this view, and some truth in it: Passage of legislation to avoid the artificial ”fiscal cliff” and debt ceiling crises requires a bloc of “centrist” Democrats and Republicans , creating an atmosphere of uncertainty and brinksmanship that can be damaging to confidence in the system.

Certainly, the rightwing stranglehold has become an obstacle to desperately needed investment in crumbling infrastructure, reform of the financial system, rebalancing of the absurdly distorted tax system, etc. There is even a possibility of miscalculation or ideologically driven intransigence over funding the government, or the absurd “debt ceiling,” producing a real disaster for U.S. and global capitalism.

On the other hand, the Republican right wing in its current form, even if unable and unfit to govern on its own, serves as a battering ram that forces ”entitlement reform” onto the political agenda with the backing of the array of the reactionary “Club for Greed,” “Americans for Prosperity for the One Percent,” Koch brothers, etc.

Liberals, who regarded Obama’s reelection as a major victory, now object that “the president gives away too much when he has just won a mandate to advance his own agenda.” There are certainly plenty of justified worries about the budget and debt-cutting negotiations to come. The liberals’ complaint, however, fails to recognize the extent to which “entitlement reform” — beginning with the Trojan horse of “adjusting” the cost-of-living calculation for Social Security, and possibly raising age eligibility again for Social Security and Medicare — is actually a central part of this president’s “own agenda.”

The president’s assertion that “I will not negotiate with Congress” on debt and deficits may be taken to indicate that he won’t engage in more fruitless bargaining with John Boehner, but that vice-president Biden will negotiate a deal with Mitch McConnell that gives a cover for entitlement and budget slashing. Will Congressional Republicans accept this process — or pursue the same kind of ruin-to-rule politics they deployed in the first two years of the Obama presidency with considerable success, leading to the big Tea Party gains of the 2010 midterm elections?

Whether such tactics would succeed again, or blow up in the Republicans’ face, depends first of all on whether the economic recovery continues, or at least appears to be continuing. It has also become fairly clear that running against lesbian/gay rights and immigrant youth is a loser for the Republicans, so these particular points of the right wing agenda may be toned down at least on the national stage.

It’s not really true, of course, that “bipartisanship is dead.” In fact, the very worst pieces of legislation and policy are truly bipartisan: By overwhelming majorities, Congress reauthorized and institutionalized the criminal acts of the GW Bush regime – Guantanamo, indefinite detention, “extraordinary rendition” and presidential authority to authorize assassinations including U.S. citizens.

From drone warfare to the prosecution of Bradley Manning to the massive surveillance of U.S. citizens’ emails and phone calls — indeed, on the whole range of civil liberties and democratic rights, with the exception of LGBT rights where the power of the movement has achieved gains – the record of the Obama administration has been unforgivable. Not one single perpetrator of torture has been prosecuted, but John Kiriakou, the CIA whistleblower who exposed the practice, will serve a 30-month prison sentence.

This attack on basic democratic rights and individual freedoms of the U.S. population in the name of “security” will continue into the future, under either capitalist party, precisely as the growing power of the imperial presidency intersects with the deeper reality of imperial decline.

As is well known, under the Obama administration deportations have increased over the numbers of the GW Bush regime. The massive Latino turnout for president Obama’s reelection has produced impetus toward “immigration reform,” but with how much progressive content remains dubious. This fight has only begun, and the movement of the undocumented and allies has a crucial role to play in shaping it. (A dedicated document should be written on this struggle.)

Regarding the climate catastrophe, it can safely be predicted that nothing will be done to stop the escalation of greenhouse gas emissions. The new vehicle fuel standards announced by the president will go forward – why not, since these can always be dropped or delayed later? – while the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline will very likely be approved in the name of “energy security.” Arctic oil drilling will be a bargaining chip for further political deals. All this is called “triangulation,” and the sacrifice of humanity’s future to narrow political calculation is as cynical as sounds. (The Ecosocialism Working Group will prepare a document on the magnitude of the environmental crisis and the necessary response.)

It was the president himself who called on his supporters to remain active and “build movements” to force positive change on Washington. This same president responded to the real live Occupy movement with a federally coordinated, systematic police suppression of encampments all over the country, crushing the movement’s hopes to claim an ongoing public space.

Fighting Back For Survival

There has been no shortage of will to resist the neoliberal/rightwing anti-labor rampage, from Wisconsin and Ohio to the Occupy upsurge, immigrant youth, Chicago teachers, Walmart workers and other examples. In a new development, teachers in Seattle have taken a powerful stand in refusing to administer pointless and wasteful standardized tests – a centerpiece of the truly bipartisan, corporate-funded campaign to destroy public education by “reforming” it.

These struggles continue, and new ones will arise. The biggest limitation has been that the extreme weakness of organized labor, and absence of strong African-American leadership, makes it very difficult for these important struggles to sustain continuity and momentum from one episode to the next. The fact that unions in the United States teeter on the verge of functional extinction is a powerful enabler of the corporate and rightwing rampage.

To repeat, the fundamental reality and context for all this is the corporate austerity offensive, which – despite all the complexities and frictions caused by partisan warfare and elements of political gridlock – is creating an ever more brutally unequal and unfair society. This can only be halted by the revival of mass organized movements, or some form of social explosion – if not both.

II. Social Decline and Resistance

In the United States, the first decade of the 21st century has been one of accumulating social crises. Lawrence Katz, an economics professor at Harvard, has dubbed it “the lost decade.” The balance of forces between labor and capital has dramatically shifted as capital has restructured. Even federal, state and local governments have outsourced and privatized, shedding 750,000 unionized workers over the last four years.

A sketch of the crisis appears in the “Appendix” at the end of this section. With these problems in mind, let’s turn to social movements that have the potential to challenge the hegemony of capital as it attempts to reverse the gains not only of the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s, but all the institutional gains won since the 1930s.

Let Hundreds of Occupys Bloom

Most important was the emergence of Occupy Wall Street and the hundreds of other Occupies in September 2011 with the call “We are the 99%”. From September-December 2011, Occupy represented an upsurge in class consciousness of a breadth which hasn’t been seen in the US for a long time. It opened a space for a belated, radical critique of austerity neoliberalism post-2008, government policy (Occupy was explicitly critical of both major parties), and the power of corporations and the 1%. This upsurge was particularly significant in magnifying the voice of left-of-center critiques of austerity and the bailouts, which otherwise would have gone largely unnoticed.

Furthermore, the movement engaged a wide swath of people, both as direct participants in the early days of the encampments and in a public conversation. More people identified with and in some way participated in Occupy than ever identified with the Global Justice Movement. Despite attempts at coordination and even regional conferences, Occupy failed to achieve lasting political or organizational coherence. After the end of 2011, Occupy has continued to organize, but its projects are not only diminished in size, they are diminished in scope; they tend to resemble more a series of activist projects.

Like the Global Justice Movement, Occupy provided an opportunity for labor activists, Marxists and anarchists to work together, and the structure of Occupy (general assemblies and working groups) at times involved more opportunities for cross-pollination than the affinity group/spokescouncil model of the GJM. In some places, probably the largest example being Occupy Oakland, this partially established a fused environment in which Marxist ideas and anarchist organizing intermingled — usually involving ultra-left or autonomist versions of Marxism. The fusion was not without its tensions and broke apart to some extent as the breadth of Occupy dissipated. Clearly this allowed little space for a kind of Marxism that was critical of ultraleftism.

The most positive examples of labor and Occupy’s capacity to work together might be the innovative campaign against the lockout of the Sotheby workers in New York City and the December 12, 2011 shutdown of the Port of Oakland. The latter involved marches of 30,000 union activists, students and community members. The most tension-filled example was around the role of Occupiers in the Longview, Washington dispute. (See “Assessing the Battle of Longview,” ATC 157, March/April 2012.)

The advent of the Occupy movement has provided an opportunity for rethinking organizing strategy and structures amongst some radical people of color activists. The prior hegemony of a non-profit-centered model has been shaken; trends such as people of color anarchism have gained traction. A Decolonize milieu arose as a critique of Occupy. In some places Decolonize allowed for a reassertion of leadership that was a) based in oppressed POC communities but b) tended to revert to leaders who are still in or come out of the nonprofit scene. At times Decolonize activists clashed with radicals in Occupy, including anarchist POC. The specificity of Decolonize as an alternative milieu to Occupy seems to have declined, but some continuation of those set of politics can be seen in the way Idle No More has been received here.

It’s difficult to evaluate the role of organized socialists in Occupy. Occupy Chicago took on a particular character due to the prominence of the ISO. Outside of Chicago, though, Trotskyists such as the ISO, Socialist Organizer, and Socialist Action seem to have had little impact. Trotskyists who tend towards the ultra-left (ex-Sparts, Labor’s Militant Voice, and the Bolshevik Tendency) played a role in Oakland; Occupy Oakland tended to be hegemonized by anarchists and council communists / communization current types, but the ultra-left Trotskyists’ labor connections allowed them to lead some of these important connections. Maoists played little role save for some Kasama collectives especially in the Northwest, and traditional reformists like the CP, DSA, and CCDS played almost no noticeable organizational role. Solidarity and our RWIOT partners seem to have had little overall impact although Solidarity members were active in urban centers such as New York, Chicago, Detroit, Oakland and in smaller cities such as Cincinnati. We have also covered Occupy through a number of ATC articles and on our webzine.

Although unable to sustain the heady days of the movement’s beginning in the face of winter and city governments’ determination to end the encampments, Occupy has particularly spearheaded foreclosure defense, environmental organizing and labor solidarity. It lives on in a variety of forms. When Hurricane Sandy hit, Occupiers sprung into action, organizing neighborhoods and setting up distribution centers through much of the disaster area. When state agencies directed the National Guard to distribute food, water and clothing, they found these activist centers the logical spaces to drop off supplies.

Immigrant Rights

The approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants and their families in the United States are part of an immense global wave of migration. Immigrants have dramatically reshaped the working class in cities, suburbs, and many rural areas. Neoliberal austerity measures and war in Mexico, Central and South America has resulted in a majority Latino, largely Mexican immigrant population in most parts of the United States. Asians, Middle Easterners, Africans and Eastern Europeans are other sizable immigrant groups. Following the passage of NAFTA, increasingly harsh anti-immigrant measures have been implemented in the United States; since 2001 these have increasingly been tied to “national security” and militarism.

Anti-immigrant policy takes the form of both political repression through detention, deportation, and denial of basic democratic rights (which divides the multinational working class) as well as oppression of whole nationalities through profiling, laws enforcing white supremacist-settler language, cultural practices, and history. Undocumented immigrants are viewed as criminals simply because they are undocumented.

Immigration has become a central political issue facing — and shaping — Latino communities, which have been the main base for social movements demanding a reform of the immigration system. The historic mobilizations in the spring of 2006 successfully fought a repressive federal law that would criminalize entire communities (not just the undocumented, but those who “aided” them); the breadth of the attack fused the community together. The movement was led by religious, labor, and ethnic organizations, acting on behalf of the undocumented, and mostly linked to the Democratic Party, in whose hands forward motion on “comprehensive” reform was stalled.

By 2010, self-activity by the undocumented began to accelerate with the emergence of openly undocumented youth-led national organizations DreamActivist.org and United We Dream. This took the form of pushing for the Dream Act, but the vital content was motion towards political independence (http://archive.truthout.org/dream-movement-challenges-with-social-justice-elites-military-option-arguments-and-immigration-refo) and self-determination. Despite its failure win passage of the act, the youth movement secured a leading role in the immigrant movement and today represents the best hope for future revitalization of a mass and militant immigrant movement with a working-class and undocumented core. It sees itself as a multinational movement.

Since coalescing in 2010 the youth movement has undergone a series of splits. One positive effect has been opening the space for its most militant wings to use inventive tactics such as “undocumented and unafraid” speak outs, street blockades, sitting-in Obama campaign offices, and infiltration and organization of detention centers. Attempting to contain the growing political liability of unruly young immigrants during his election, Obama announced a two-year deferred action policy that allows youth who qualify to work and live free from the threat of deportation. It does not provide a path to citizenship or even legal residence beyond that time period. Applications began to be accepted August 15, 2012; of the estimated 937,000 youth between the ages of 15-30, 308,935 have applied. (Probably another 900,000 undocumented youth are under the age of 15 and therefore cannot yet apply.) As of November only 53,273 had been accepted; 10,101 were rejected. A major barrier to applying is a $465 fee. (http://www.voxxi.com/fewer-dreamers-apply-deferred-action/)

However several states have passed laws that exclude these youth from obtaining a driver’s license—which obviously limits their ability to find work or go to school. Dreamers organized against this and recently Illinois and Michigan reversed themselves and now allow youth with deferred status to apply for licenses.

It is important to realize that deportations continue. In fact, over the past six years more immigrants have been deported than in the previous century. (http://www.immigrationpolicy.org/just-facts/decade-rising-immigration-enforcement) Immigration officials have been very aggressive about stopping people that “look like” they might be immigrants. For example, in Southwest Detroit, ICE followed Latino parents taking their children to school. The community, backed by unions as well as local and national elected Democrats organized mass meetings of several hundred and demanded that ICE officials stop the harassment.

In 2013 both the Obama administration as well as bipartisan congressional teams plan on developing proposals for immigration reform. Without doubt these will combine “enforcement,” a guestworker program, high fees and a long path to citizenship, with certain concessions to the higher strata of the immigrant population such as college graduates and skilled workers.

Expecting a “comprehensive” bipartisan bill before Congress this spring, mainstream immigrant rights organizations have announced an April 10 Washington, DC demonstration. For the undocumented, the key needs are ending sweeping deportations, winning legalization and prioritizing family reunification. One potential strategic danger in either “comprehensive” plans or “piecemeal” reform (which most youth advocate) is the potential for dividing immigrant communities. In this new situation the relatively vibrant youth immigrant movement has been unable to advance a coherent response or program of its own. Traditional programmatic demands of the left such as “legalization for all/amnesty” and “open borders” are seen as utopian. However the idea that “no one is illegal” does have resonance beyond the immigrant community.

Environmental Activism Heats Up

An important and growing area of activism is around ecological justice/environmental issues. All “new” sources of extracting fossil fuels—mountaintop removal, deep water drilling, fracking and the tar sands—have become important focuses of the environmental movement. The transportation of the Alberta tar sands through pipelines going to New Orleans for refining is a high priority for the Harper government. Because the pipeline crosses the border the US State Department must sign off on its construction. In the summer of 2010 over 1200 people committed civil disobedience in front of the White House, demanding that President Obama reject the application. During the election campaign the movement was able to force Obama to delay approval but a decision is expected soon.

An environmental coalition has called for a February 17th action in DC, once again demanding that Obama and the State Department turn the application down. Given the number of buses that have been chartered, it looks to be more than 20,000. Solidarity actions are also planned for this day in other areas of the country.

Approval of the Keystone pipeline would be a serious setback to slowing climate change and unfortunately most unions support it because it will create jobs.

Idle No More

Solidarity with the movement of First Nations people in Canada erupted on Human Rights Day, December 10, 2012. In response to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s introduction of Omnibus Budget Bill C-45, which gutted the Navigable Waters Protection Act, marketized indigenous land and capped federal money to tribes, First Nation organizers held rallies and teach-ins throughout November. Harper’s move to dissolve First Nation rights, as previous governments have attempted, is even more essential today as the government fronts for the extractive corporations in moving tar sands across the country. This is necessary in order to refine and sell the dirty tar sands, whether to China or to the United States. And First Nation land rights stand in the way.

While Native People in the United States represent only half the percentage that they do in Canada, they have strong moral authority as people who have survived the displacement of their world. The situation of Native People in the United States is similar to that in Canada. Whether in urban centers or living in tribal communities, they face racism, high unemployment, poverty and incarceration, with low levels of education, housing and health.

By the beginning of January 2013 solidarity events had been held in Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Arizona, Illinois, New Mexico, Washington, D.C. and Texas. Given the ecological devastation of tribal lands, one logical area where we might see the environmental movement and Idle No More come together is in the February 17th demonstration against the Keystone Pipeline.

Questions about Social Movements

One serious factor facing the vibrant social movements that have developed is the reality that the organized labor movement has been weakened both by capital’s attacks and by its willingness to give concessions under the mistaken belief this will help them live to fight another day. As a result social movements are more isolated and have less chance of sinking roots among the broad layers of the working class. The notion that “an injury to one is an injury to all” has been pushed to the bottom by the “common sense” idea that one must protect what one has against others.

We have witnessed, over the last 30 years, various social movements have that called massive demonstrations only to fall apart after their success. This is true of the anti-nuclear protests of the early 1980s, the antiwar protests during the war in Iraq, the 2006 immigrant rights demonstrations and the flowering of Occupy in the fall of 2010. True there have also been spontaneous mobilizations, such as the vigils and marches against Troy Davis’ execution, the hoodie protests around the Treyvon Martin murder, slut walks in response to sexual harassment and rape, demonstrations against laws restricting reproductive rights.

These social movements and the issues they raise are important issues for socialists to champion. But they also challenge us to integrate these issues, along with the struggles of women, African Americans and the LGBT community, into our ongoing work. As we have talked about before, socialists see the relationships between one form of oppression and another and can play a pivotal role in encouraging movements to be intersectional. This, of course, is particularly true as we carry out labor work.

Is the fact that diverse social movements were unable to grow inevitable given the state of labor? Are their counter examples we can find? How does a radical alternative flower when reforms are so truncated?

The fact is that despite small and brief radicalizations, no left group seems to have grown significantly; the new grouplets that have appeared are very small, and for the most part relations across organizations seem frozen. What initiatives can we take?

For the February 17th demonstration Solidarity’s ecosocialist working group is building an ecosocialist contingent as one small step. But we need to be bold in finding ways to be more visible as Solidarity and at the same time to encourage formations of broadly defined socialists who can discuss, meet, organize and march together.

Labor at the Edge

In the face of intensified attacks on public services, the social safety net, and workers’ rights, union leaders have generally been unwilling or unable to mobilize and engage the rank-and-file around a program of continuing resistance. When the rank and file has been energized, as in Wisconsin and Ohio, and even in Indiana, leaders are often inclined to direct the movements’ energies toward electoral strategies, reproducing the unions’ dependence on the Democratic Party. Last year right-to-work (for-less) laws passed in Indiana and Michigan. While in Michigan three school districts had to close their schools because so many teachers took a personal vacation day to go to the capital and demonstrate against RTW, and at the December rally Jesse Jackson called for a one-day general strike, so far the main response from the union leadership is to file lawsuits and call on the working class to turn the evil doers out of office in 2014. The truth of the matter is that most labor leaders have no idea of how to carry out substantive discussions with the rank and file and build toward a mobilization strategy that can challenge capital’s restructuring and continued dependence on fossil fuel energy.

Clearly public sector workers are the bastion of today’s organized working class. But in recent years what has been seen as successful “organizing” in the public sector are the backroom deals cut between public sector unions and state governments. While 750,000 federal, state and local workers have been laid off since 2008, those who remain face wage freezes, demands to pay more for their health care, speed up and threats of outsourcing their job.

Given that decades of concessions, backroom deals, and unquestioned loyalty to the Democratic Party have failed to halt the decline of organized labor, unionized workers often experience their union as the company’s enforcer. Most still recognize the need to belong to a union, but have become cynical rather than militant. The strong rank-and-file caucuses that existed in a number of unions from the early days of the CIO no longer exist. Nationally Teamsters for a Democratic Union is the exception, although some rank-and-file networks have developed in more recent years. The emergence of the Caucus of Rank and File Educators, begun in 2007, is an important renewal and their winning leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union in 2010 an exciting but challenging opportunity. Having carefully prepared and conducted a seven-day strike in September 2012, CTU faces the challenge of school closings. (See Rob Bartlett’s articles in ATC 160 & 161.)

As we have seen in 2012, occasionally a fightback develops—usually in one local or one industry—but even that is rare these days. The nurses union, the healthcare workers driven out of SEIU, and the Chicago Teachers Union are exceptions to the rule. What they have in common is a willingness to organize their base and to develop campaigns that are much broader than holding on to their wages and benefits. The fight for quality healthcare all and the demand for quality education for all children are examples of demands that would improve the working conditions on the job AND provide needed public services. True these unions represent workers who are at the middle to high end of the wage scale, although other workers in hospitals, clinics and schools are not.

Employers have attempted to paint this work force as aristocrats whom the growing number of low-wage workers should resent. Without reaching out to the community, these unions leave themselves open to this vicious attack. The nurses’ campaign to lower the number of patients they serve and their fight for single payer health care, along with the Chicago Teachers Union campaign to work with parents and the broader community in opposing school closings and demanding school enrichment rather than longer, drearier and test-driven school days, are compelling examples.

Most parents understand the important positive role teachers can play in the lives of their children. This was abundantly clear in the case of the shootings at the Newton, Connecticut school, where the heroic work of the staff — not just the six that died trying to protect the children — demonstrated the emotional tie between teachers and students.

Teachers in diverse areas as Newark, NJ, Hawaii and Seattle are spearheading campaigns against concessions. Most interesting is the Hawaiian teachers’ use of a work-to-rule strategy combined with weekly demonstrations. (Labor Notes, Jan. 2013, pages 11-12)

Postal workers have set up a national network, Communities and Postal Workers United (CPWU) that attempts to bring grassroots organizations into the center of the campaign to keep facilities open. CPWU is active in 20 cities. They staged a hunger strike in Washington, DC and are floating the idea of a national march on March 17, the anniversary of the 1970 wildcat strike. However they have been most effective at the local level, forcing USPS to back off from implementing the closure of 4,000 post offices—but only for a year.

Private sector unions have found themselves facing lockouts or threats of bankruptcy as favorite corporate methods of bullying workers into reluctantly accepting another round of concessions. Cooper Tire workers in Ohio ended their strike when faced with the threat of a plant closing while 18,000 Hostess Bakery workers refused to buckle and are now out of a job. Even when the corporation is flush with cash, they demand another round of concessions. This was true for Verizon workers, who, after carefully preparing for a strike in 2011, had it prematurely ended and ratified a concessionary contract the following year. It was also the case for Caterpillar workers, who struck for 15 weeks without turning the concessionary tide around.

Corporations feel greater confidence in playing hardball, even when facing strike action. The longshore workers in Longview were willing to go the extra mile and employ direct action and civil disobedience. Although there are differing evaluations about the role Occupy added to their struggle, the willingness of the union to block a ship forced the company to negotiate. Nonetheless it looks like the contract is a compromise that may undermine union jobs in the future.

Although union membership declined by 400,000 last year, California unions organized new members, even in industries that are considered non-union. One factor is the growing Latino population that is interested in joining unions and may have been labor organizers before they came to the US.

Are some unions willing to rethink their strategies? Can the few rank-and-file caucuses that have sprung up provide enough weight to chat a way forward? That’s certainly unclear at this point, but one interesting developments has been the willingness of unions such as the UE and UFCW to develop a long-range organizing strategy in the anti-union Walmart chain, among warehouse and retail workers. Walmart employs 1.4 million workers and has announced it will be hiring another 100,000. The walkouts last fall–that involved only 500 workers–and the support they received in the thousand Black Friday actions, indicate this may have some potential. But are these unions are willing to continue their support for workers who are not going to represent a majority at their workplace anytime soon?

There is potential in non-majority organizing where workers exercise their rights to redress their grievances collectively. The UE has employed this method in a variety of situations, both in public and private sector workplaces in right-to-work-for-less states such as North Carolina and Virginia. Inspired by the Walmart workers, hundreds of fast-food workers in New York City staged a day-long walkout, demanding higher wages. Of course this was not spontaneous, but the result of previous organizing. Domestic workers and taxi workers in New York City are also organized through campaigns, rather than through collective bargaining.

The reality is that in the private-sector organizing means thinking through strategies of how to build power against a powerful employer. Given the long supply chains in industries as dissimilar as retail and manufacturing, developing a strategy that looks for chokepoints—such as warehouses—is key. A second element is the employer’s use of temporary or contract workers. How can these workers, who have no job security, few benefits and generally low wages, come together?

These issues require discussing strategy, developing research about employer weaknesses and being open to innovative tactics, such a work to rule, short and coordinated walkouts and demands that resonate within the community.

APPENDIX: A Sketch of the Social Crisis

As the gap widened between the very top and very bottom of the income ladder, women, youth, African Americans and Latinos suffered disproportionately. For example, the poverty rate for single mothers and their children stands at 34%. This is true despite the fact that single mothers have a higher rate of employment than married mothers. That is, more than one-third of single mothers are trapped by low-paying jobs, lack benefits such as health care or paid vacations, and have irregular work schedules. (“Different Anti-Poverty Programs, Same Single-Mother Poverty,” Dollars & Sense, Jan-Feb. 2012, pages 11-17) Similarly, poverty rates among African Americans and Latinos tend to be two and a half times higher than for whites. These rates are directly related to the lack of full-time jobs at living wages and benefits.

While many Americans still believe this country has a higher standard of living than other countries, the reality is markedly different.

  • Nearly 50 million people live in food insecure households, the highest number recorded in the 52 years the Census Bureau has tracked the information. (Hunger & Poverty Statistics, http://feedingamerica.org/)
  • Although the U.S. economy grew more 18% between 2000-2011, the median income for working-age households during that period slid 12.4%. A quarter of all workers in 2009—about 35 million people—earned less than the hourly wage needed to bring a full-time worker to the federal poverty line for a family of four. ($10.63 an hour, or $22,113 a year). At the same time the top 1% captured 12.9% of the wage compensation, up 5.6% since the 1979 recession. (“Living Wage Laws: Worth the Effort?” Labor Notes, March 2012, pages 8-9; “Productivity Climbs, But Wages Stagnate,” NYT, 1/13/13, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities)
  • The National Employment Law Project reported that 60% of the job loss during the recession was from middle-wage jobs ($13.84-21.23 an hour), including more than half a million government jobs. In fact, layoffs at the local, state and national level continued in 2012. However 58% of the jobs created in the “recovery” are in low-wage industries. This uneven recovery means long-term income and wealth inequality is on the rise. (http://www.nationaljournal.com/thenextamerica/workforce/recovery-growth-largely-in-low-wage-jobs-study-says-20120904; http://blogs.wsj.com/economics/2012/05/08/unemployment-rate-without-government-cuts-7-1/)
  • Economic Policy Institute (EPI) economist, Heidi Shierholz, points out that the number of jobs lost since 2008 plus the number that should have been added to keep up with a normal growth in the potential labor force is nearly 9 million. There are now 1.5 million “99ers” (people without work for 99 weeks or more) but this figure does not include those who have given up finding work.
  • The rate of unemployment continues to be higher for people of color. By the end of 2012 Black unemployment stood at 14.3%; among young Black males it was as high as 40-45%.
  • Unionization is primary measure of working people’s organization. Sixty years ago one in three workers belonged to a union (32.5% in 1953), 30 years ago one in five workers were union members (20% in 1983), by 2012 unionization slide to 11.3%. What this means, explained Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, is that “there are very few occupations or industries where unions are strong enough where they can set standards.” Once union standards were able to bring up the wages of even non-union workplaces; today companies are able to reduce the wages and benefits everywhere. (“Productivity Climbs, But Wages Stagnate,” NYT, 1/13/13) When the federal government bailed out GM and Chrysler, it demanded that unionized autoworkers earn no more than the average non-unionized workers at the transplants.
  • While wealth inequality between Blacks and whites has always existed, the Great Recession resulted in a devastating drop within the African community. The decline in market value on homes and predatory lending practices that targeted Blacks has widened the ratio of wealth by a factor of 20. (Pew Research, reported in Dollars & Sense, Jan.-Feb. 2012, page 26.)
  • Unions in the private sector represent only 6.6% of the work force, one-quarter the level of the 1960s. Over the last 30 years, as unions gave concessions in the hope that they could reverse their situation as the economy recovered, became less able to mount a campaign for better wages and working conditions. Concessionary bargaining has led to a tiered workforce where people working next to each other have different wages and benefits, thus increasing the differences between the material circumstances of workers. It has also led to deteriorating conditions in the workplace, including speed up, overtime work without overtime pay and draconian absentee policies.
  • The reduction of public services is both an attack on the one highly unionized section of the working class left (35.9%) as well as cutting back on services working people need. In 2012 approximately 250,000 public sector workers were let go, joining the 500,000 that have been terminated since 2008. This “downsizing” has been accomplished through restructuring, outsourcing and privatization. For example, 40% of the nation’s post offices will see hours of service cut or closed altogether. The Postmaster General has floated a proposal to reduce delivery to five days a week.
  • The restructuring of public education has relied on the proliferation of charter schools, which are touted as being of higher quality because of a longer school day. They are also billed as “safer” than public schools. Most importantly, the best are privately funded by billionaires and are overwhelmingly union-free environments. A second front has been opened up in Michigan, where Governor Snyder has administratively moved to take over what he terms as the lowest-performing schools. That is, the governor has expropriated schools and their students to an Educational Achievement Authority that he will control.
  • The United States spends more than any other country on health care, yet the likelihood of a woman dying in childbirth is five times greater than Greece, four times greater than Germany and three times greater than Spain. If U.S. women had access to good pre- and post-natal care, this could be cut in half. Native American and Alaskan Native women are 3.6 times more likely than white women to receive late or no prenatal care. For African-American women it is 2.6 times and for Latinas it is 2.5 times. (“Deadly Delivery,” Amnesty International, March 2010)
  • In 1960, the United States had the 12th lowest infant mortality rate in the world; by 2008 it dropped to 34th. Once again, racial disparities in care mean higher infant mortality rates for infants born to women of color. The Center for Disease Control’s 2004 world rankings reveal that an African-American baby would have a better chance of survival if born in Russia or Bulgaria. (“US Infant Mortality Rate Higher than Other Wealthy Countries,” Huffington Post, 1/16/13)
  • Over the last three years state legislatures have passed a wave of reactionary health-related laws. These include limiting comprehensive sex education classes, cutting funding for contraceptives and blocking women’s access to abortion through mandating unnecessary procedures that will force clinics to close or drive up the cost of the services. Some of the laws dictate hospital-like doors and hallways for clinics that perform abortion, require ultrasounds for all women seeking abortions and demand a waiting period between when the woman sees the counselor and when the procedure is performed. The lame-duck Michigan legislature outlawed “telemedicine” and the use of an emergency contraception known as Ella in a state where 21 out of the 83 counties lack an OB/GYN provider.
  • The United States incarcerates at four to seven times the rate of other countries. With 5% of the world’s population, the country has 23% of the world’s prisoners. Currently it spends $42 billion a year on the prison system and has 2.2 million people in prison or on parole. Yet many of its prisons fail to meet health and safety standards and its rehabilitation and reentry programs are meager. The vast majority of the prisoners are young men, 70% of whom did not finish high school. More women are imprisoned in the United States than in any other country, although they represent just 10% of the prison population. African Americans are imprisoned at six times the rate—and Latinos at double the rate–of whites. In Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration and the Myth of Black Progress, sociologist Becky Pettit pointed out that in 2008 more Black men without a high school diploma were in prison (37%) on any given day than working (26%). Sociologists attribute mass incarceration to “tough on crime” laws rather than on any spike in crime. Additional policy factors include “stop-and-frisk” police abuse and the “war on drugs.” (“US Rates of Incarceration: A Global Perspective,” National Council on Crime and Delinquency, 11/06; “U.S. Has World’s Highest Incarceration Rate,” Population Reference Bureau at http://www.prb.org/Articles/2012/us-incarceration.aspx)
  • Between 2000-2010 tuition and fees at the average four-year public college or university went up by an annual rate of 5.6% while the average income of a college graduate (25-34) with a full-time job dropped by 1.6% annually. Student loans have increased by 81% over the last five years. Approximately two-thirds of the students graduating in 2010 went into debt, with the average of almost $28,000. The 11% delinquency rate for student debt, which now stands at one trillion dollars, cannot be erased even under bankruptcy. This means that college has slipped out of range for a portion of youth. For others, it means a growing economic burden. (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-11-29/student-loans-go-unpaid-burden-u-s-economy-chart-of-the-day.html and “Occupying Student Debt, Dollars & Sense, Jan/Feb 2012, page 6)
  • Since the 1992 environmental summit in Rio, the global fight has targeted keeping the rise in global temperature to less than two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). But already, with the average temperature having been raised less than 0.8 degrees Celsius, NASA scientist James Hansen, the planet’s most prominent climatologist, concludes that target “is actually a prescription for long-term disaster.” Yet if the fossil-fuel industry mined, transported and used the amount of carbon contained in their proven coal, oil and gas reserves, it would be five times over the limit. The mining of the tar sands, the development of the Keystone Pipeline, the expansion of fracking and mountaintop removal all push us in the opposite direction from cutting our ties to fossil fuels. (http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/global-warmings-terrifying-new-math-20120719?print=true)
  • As the war budget continues to grab the lion’s share of the federal budget, needed public services have been cut back as austerity is imposed at the state, county and local levels. This attack on the few public institutions we have has even affected public education. Both Democrats and Republicans claim that competitive market forces will produce better schools. The charterization of public education is already quite advanced in cities such as Philadelphia, Detroit and New Orleans. This attempt to close public schools, tie teachers’ salaries to merit pay, evaluate teachers on the basis of test scores or impose testing standards has nothing to do with enriching the experiences of students.
  • Although the mobilization of Latinos and other recent immigrants in 2006 was probably the most important workers’ actions in this decade, it was unable to sustain itself as a broad movement. While the draconian Sensenbrenner bill was off the table, attacks on immigrants continued. These took the form of state laws denying drivers’ licenses to the undocumented, attacks on bilingual and bicultural education and, under the Obama administration, deporting 1.5 million immigrants. Undocumented youth fought for passage of the DREAM Act that would grant permanent residency to youth brought to this country as children. Although the bill passed the House of Representatives and a majority of senators voted for it, the act could not pass because of a Senate filibuster that required 60 votes. A dozen states have passed DREAM Act laws.

III. The Middle East and Imperial Decline

We are not attempting here to chart the overall global trajectory of U.S. imperialism under Obama – which involves a complex set of maneuvers to extract the United States from Bush-era disasters and to reorient toward emerging issues in Asia particularly. In this brief discussion we present a quick overview of how the multiple crises from North Africa to Pakistan indicate aspects of the decline of U.S. imperial power, and its consequences.

1) The United States does not have the power to “shape events” (Mitt Romney’s campaign blather notwithstanding). Nor of course is there any alternative rising global power capable of doing so, with Russia concerned primarily with building its influence in Central Europe and the European economies in severe turmoil.

Obviously the massive U.S. debacle in the Iraq war was the most important manifestation of U.S. imperial decline – and also accelerated that decline. But there are other striking examples:

(i) U.S./NATO air power in Libya facilitated the overthrow and assassination of Qaddafi, but the United States has not successfully brought about a “guided orderly transition” to a client regime – quite the contrary. Nor can it control the ripple effects of the Libyan crisis in the region. (Mali in particular. NOTE: The growing U.S. concern with sub-Saharan Africa, reflected in the growing importance of Africom, should be analyzed separately. It involves particularly the fear of rising Islamism and, of course, the significance of the region’s oil resources.)

(ii) In the Syrian popular uprising and now civil war, the U.S. and its allies have no “solution” let alone the capacity to impose it. It was not very long ago that the U.S. “rendered” captured prisoners to Syria for purposes of torturing them. Today, while obviously wishing to see the Assad regime fall – as part of a bigger campaign to bring down Iran – Washington (and Europe) are afraid of a sectarian chaotic outcome that they cannot control. In the wake of the Iraq and Afghanistan twin debacles, a U.S. military invasion is obviously out of the question. So there is covert intervention and public calls for Assad’s removal, but also a certain policy paralysis. The administration was internally divided over arming the insurgents, and which ones. (It should go without saying here that all the posturing and maneuverings of various government including Washington, Moscow, Beijing, Arab kingdoms etc. have nothing to do with human rights or democratic concerns, but only their state interests.)

(iii) The Afghanistan war is ending badly for the U.S. – as it was bound to do – even if not as catastrophically as it ended for the Soviet Union in 1989-90. The very best (least bad) outcome Washington can hope for would be a perilously balanced regime of warlords incorporating elements of the Taliban. The U.S.-Pakistan relationship is a kind of dysfunctional codependency, where Pakistani military intelligence uses U.S.-supplied money to simultaneously support and control the Taliban (against the fear of Indian dominance of post-occupation Afghanistan). The Pakistani government itself requires U.S. support while also manipulating the overwhelming anti-American sentiment in the population, publicly condemning drone strikes while quietly supporting them, etc.

(iv) The U.S. suffered a major political black eye when it was isolated in the UN General Assembly vote on Palestinian statehood (a little more on Palestine below). And while Egypt’s military-controlled “transition” to pseudo-democracy counts as a qualified success for U.S. policy, it leaves Washington relying on the Muslim Brotherhood to preserve “stability,” which creates considerable resentment among liberal, secular and youth forces who may have initially thought the U.S. would be “on the right side.”

(v) The biggest U.S. success has been the imposition of crippling sanctions on Iran (deadly for the civilian population). But while Iran is clearly weakened by sanctions and by the revolution in Syria – which is bringing down an important regime ally – the United States is in no realistic position to wage the war that neocons and rightwing Zionists are promoting, nor is there domestic support (not even within the military) and much less any international “coalition of the willing” for such an adventure. The stalemate with Iran is likely to persist for a considerable time.

2) While U.S. imperialism cannot “shape” the Middle East as it wishes, the dynamic of imperial decline must not blind us to the immense damage and human misery its policies produce. The destruction of Iraq and carnage in Afghanistan are well documented. In Pakistan, from the time of the dictator Zia ul-Haq to the present, U.S. manipulations have contributed enormously to the ascendancy of the most reactionary and vicious Islamist fundamentalism. In a recent example, the CIA’s recruitment of a doctor to start a vaccination campaign to help track down Osama bin Laden now gives the Pakistani Taliban a pretext to murder vaccination workers in the countryside. Drone strikes shatter families and villages in Pakistan, Yemen and places we don’t yet know about – and since drone warfare is “a game any number can play,” other states are developing their own programs with predictable results. On a larger scale, of course, the overriding imperial imperative remains control of Middle East oil – which not only requires the maintenance of reactionary regimes, but perpetuates the cycle of environmental destruction that includes rampant climate change, desertification and other calamities affecting the peoples of these countries along with the entire planet.

3) At the same time, we must note the political and moral bankruptcy of U.S. behavior in those circumstances where it does have real power. Two obvious examples stand out. In Bahrain, where a major U.S. fleet is based, the United States has stood by (with feeble bleats of protest that no one takes seriously) in the face of brutal regime repression of a popular movement for democratic reform, in this case protesting the oppression of the majority Shia population. Even more blatant, of course, is the U.S. enabling of Israeli atrocities in the Occupied Palestinian Territories – a total political and ethical collapse. Obama, Biden and Clinton don’t even respond when the Israeli government openly laughs at their pathetic disapproval of expanding Israeli settlements and confiscations.

The perception among some pro-Palestinian activists that “the Zionist Lobby controls U.S. policy” is actually false. When it comes to central imperialist interests, Israel is compelled to be subordinate – as in the case of Netanyahu’s threat of preemptive war against Iran, which it had to abandon. And Israel and its U.S. arm AIPAC appear to be backing off from the neocons’ frontal attack on Chuck Hagel, which if successful would severely damage the Obama administration’s global image.

But Palestine in itself is a secondary, if not marginal, U.S. concern – hence Israel’s free hand to run amok in Jerusalem, the West Bank and periodically to smash up Gaza. This is why the international BDS movement is becoming so important. This should be a focus of our pro-Palestinian activism as well. The fact that Israel (with U.S. neocon and religious-right support and enabled by the overall bankruptcy of Washington’s policy) has pretty much wiped out the realistic prospects of a two-state solution is a source of contradictions that will become more explosive further down the road.

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Comments
  • Dan King says:

    You may be interested in this blog post about this convention discussion. http://trotskyschildren.blogspot.com/2013/06/democratic-centralism.html