OCTOBER 2ND AND BEYOND: Rebuilding Our Movements

Posted October 1, 2010

Hopefully, tens of thousands of working people will descend on Washington, DC on Saturday, October 2nd. The unions, civil rights, immigrant, women’s and LGBT organizations that have built this demonstration to counter the “Tea Party” and the right’s program of new wars abroad and attacks on unions, immigrants, people of color, women and queer folks at home.

In 2008, most of us in the labor, civil rights, anti-war and immigrant rights movements celebrated the election of the first African-American President. Some of us believed that Obama’s promises of “hope” and “change” would result in more progressive government policies. Others recognized that Obama was an even more conservative Democrat than Clinton, but believed his election would energize progressives to fight for their agenda—an immediate end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, single-payer healthcare and amnesty for undocumented immigrants and an easy path to citizenship.

In 2010, the situation is exactly the opposite of what most of us expected. Rather than new progressive policies from Washington, Despite the Democrats’ control of both the White House and Congress, there have been no progressive reforms to benefit working people. Nor are the movements of working people and progressives dominating politics. Instead, a racist, nativist, homophobic, anti-union right occupies the center stage of US policies.

What happened?

The main thing fueling the growth of the “Tea Party” and the right today is the Obama administration’s failure to solve the economic crisis. Rather than launching a massive public works program at living wages to rebuild public schools, hospitals, roads and mass transit, Obama and the Democrats gave billions in loans and grants to the financial and manufacturing corporations who continue to lay off workers and cut wages and benefits. Rather than provide universal health care (“Medicare for All”), they have given us a “reform” that provides massive subsidies to private insurance companies and places the burden for obtaining insurance on millions of working and middle class families. Instead of peace abroad and expanded social spending at home, the Democrats have given us an escalating war in Afghanistan and an increased military budget.

Obama and the Democrats’ performance should not be a big surprise. The Democratic Party, despite its claims to speak for “working people,” has always been financed by corporate capitalists. Corporate dominance of the Democrats was clear in the Clinton years, when the Democrats promoted “free trade,” dismantled social welfare and laid the ground work for the Bush administration’s attacks on civil liberties. In 2008, many traditionally Republican capitalists threw their support to Obama and the Democrats in disgust with the incompetence of eight years of Bush and the Republicans, deepening the Democrat’s dependence on corporate financing.

The Democrats’ march to the right since the 1970s is part of a general trend across the industrialized world. Labor and Socialist parties around the world, many of which depend upon unions and other progressive organizations for their financing, have turned on their constituents, cutting social services, attacking unions, scapegoating immigrants, and launching new foreign wars. Faced with the demands of corporations across the world for government policies that prioritize the needs of profits over human needs, “pro-labor” and “progressive” parties have caved.

Why hasn’t nearly 25% unemployment and underemployment led to a progressive radicalization? The forces that should have been leading these fights—the official leaderships of the unions, civil rights, women’s and anti-war organizations—have supported the failed policies of Obama and the Democrats. Rather than organizing independent struggles for our own demands, they have urged us to be “realistic” so that we can have “a place at the table” where “our voices will be heard.”

The “realism” of the official leaders of the labor and social movements is, in some ways, very unrealistic. Without vibrant and powerful movements in the streets, the Democrats have no reason to listen the demands of labor, people of color, immigrants and LGBT people. The “Tea-Party” and the right are the only force giving voice to the growing resentments of many working and middle class Americans. The failure of unions and progressive organizations to lead movements for our agenda has allowed the right to direct many folks’ legitimate anger against other working people rather than the real source of our distress–the corporations and the Republican and Democratic servants.

Putting our time and energy into reelecting the discredited Congressional Democrats in 2012 will not get us out of this situation. We need to build independent movements that fight for our program, no matter who is in the White House and who controls Congress. The progressive, pro-union left needs to present a real alternative to the Tea-Party right– not merely echo the failed policies of Obama and the Democrats.

Even in today’s political climate, there are important examples of how to begin to rebuild our own movements and struggles. The Chicago and Los Angeles teachers’ unions, with new reform leaderships, are building movements of teachers, parents and students against cuts to public education, the growth of charter schools and attacks on teacher unions from both the Obama administration and the right. Students at the University of California staged mass demonstrations and built alliances with campus and public sector unions to oppose cuts to public higher education. Hundreds of young immigrants have staged demonstrations and hunger strikes in support of the Dream Act and a path to citizenship. Labor for Single-Payer and others are continuing to organize for real universal health care. Together these struggles should inspire many of us in unions and progressive organizations across the country to build the sort of movement that can stop the attacks, win new gains and turn the tide against the right.