The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

The Democratic Party:
Friend of Labor ... or of the Bureaucrats?

Sep 30, 1993

It took Bill Clinton and his new Democratic administration only a few months to show what his presidency was going to do. He dropped his so-called "jobs" and economic "stimulus" bill. He proposed, and the Democratic Congress passed, a new budget which even the carefully measured New York Times called "A budget worthy of Mr. Bush". And when the Democratic Congress refused to overturn the Hyde Amendment, which prevents Medicaid funds from being used for abortions, Clinton stayed on the sidelines despite pre-election promises to put the "fight" to get rid of the Hyde Amendment near the top of his priorities list.

Still on Honeymoon

Nonetheless, the top leaders of almost every union in the country continue not only to support Clinton, but even to praise him.

The AFL-CIO Executive Council fully endorsed Clinton's first budget in March saying, "The president's program will reorder the government's priorities so that America can begin investing in the future again." Soon after, Clinton deleted even the few pieces of "labor-friendly" window-dressing included in that budget. Nonetheless, the Council continued to support him, with such comments as the following one it made in mid-May, when it met to consider its "legislative agenda": "...the advent of the Clinton Administration...breathes new life and hope into the [legislative] campaigns discussed by the Council."

Individually, some of these union leaders were even more ecstatic. For example, Lane Kirkland, president of the AFL-CIO, after a meeting with new Labor Secretary Robert Reich, had this to say, "It has been a long, dry spell. We have, I think, reached an oasis." Lynn Williams, the president of the Steelworkers said he feels, "very good, very positive, very encouraged" about the Clinton administration.

Certainly, some officials were more prudent, making their focal point the change from Republican to Democrat, rather than venturing big predictions about a wonderful future under Clinton. For example, Owen Bieber of the United Automobile Workers Union, proclaimed at the International Metalworkers Federation's Congress in mid-June: "For too many years, we have had to endure reactionary governments whose devotion to the ideal of the free market has been surpassed only by their hostility to unions. We suffered through 12 long years of Republican rule until the American people finally had had enough and elected Bill Clinton as President."

By the time Clinton's first budget was passed in August, the UAW had tempered even this enthusiasm a little. Alan Reuther, the union's Legislative Director, admitted: "Obviously the UAW was not happy with all of the provisions in the budget reconciliation legislation. Nevertheless", he continued, "taken as a whole, the budget package represents a major step forward in reducing the federal deficit and expanding investments in human resources."

And, Frank Garrison, head of the Michigan AFL-CIO, explained at the Detroit Labor Day parade that while "Clinton may not be a close friend of labor, at least he is a friend."

Of course, most of today's union officials have been down this road before, in 1977-80 with Jimmy Carter, for example. They know not to expect a lot, to talk in terms of "first steps" toward a brighter future. Even now, some of the highest levels of the union apparatuses are hinting that it may be necessary for the unions to bring pressure on Clinton (perhaps to reinforce his backbone?). The AFL-CIO's Industrial Union Department set up a committee headed by United Mine Workers President Richard Trumpka to organize a publicity campaign in support of the striker replacement bill. The Teamsters Union just collected and sent Clinton 200,000 "Teamstergrams" from members urging his support for a Canadian styled single-payer health care plan – that is, one which the government would more directly fund.

Bob Kingsley, National Director for Organization of the United Electrical Workers union (UE), even explained, "What ought to be happening right now is that labor should be clearly identifying its own independent agenda, independent of Clinton, independent of the Democrats. We ought to be out there organizing, in coalition with our community allies. That creates a strong left flank, to the left of the Clinton Administration, to counterbalance the force of the corporations and the conservatives that are already noisily working to move him to the right."

And Labor Day Parades around the country focused on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), with union speakers indicating that on this question the president is 100% wrong – and needs to be convinced of his mistake. (The union's focus on NAFTA, of course, raises other questions about their policy.)

In any case, you would think, from all this, that Clinton were somehow an innocent, simply trapped by the machinations of corporate America.

Of course, there are a few top officials who are even ready to openly and more generally criticize Clinton. For example, the leaders of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union raised doubts about him even during the election campaign – but they called for a vote for him anyway. The national leaders of the OCAW have recently been speaking about the need for labor to have its own party. Of course, having said that, and even having set up a kind of committee to examine this question, they repeat the time-worn argument that this is not yet possible and so, for today, a Democratic administration is the only realistic alternative.

“We Have No Choice”

The leaders of the traditional "civil rights" organizations, as well as elected black Democrats, who style themselves as the representatives of the poor, were as fulsome in their praise of Clinton before the election as were the union leaders. Jesse Jackson criss-crossed the country in a national get-out-the-vote drive for Clinton, and made pleas on a special broadcast on the Black Entertainment cable channel. When Jackson was asked what had brought him to do this, since relations between Jackson and Clinton had been somewhat strained, he explained that Clinton "represents a change in direction and economic hope for the underprivileged." He went on to say that whatever concerns he had had that Clinton was failing to reach out to the black community were allayed by Clinton's readiness to include Jackson himself in the campaign, and that Clinton has run a campaign that brings "everyone under one big tent."

After Clinton's victory, John Jacob, head of the National Urban League, declared, "Black American in 1992 turned a hopeful, expectant face to the future, even as the terrible conditions of the present led to despair and rebellion. It is still remarkable how much hope has been sparked by the Clinton victory."

When Clinton appointed Vernon Jordan, formerly head of the Urban League, to head his transition team, the praise of almost every black organization was ecstatic. After Clinton took office, and began to appoint several black officials to positions in his Administration, that praise continued.

When Benjamin Chavis, head of the NAACP, was invited to the White House, along with a number of other leaders of civil rights organizations, he affirmed: "We have to regain some of the ground lost during the Reagan-Bush era. The fact that I have access to the White House, as you have just witnessed, enhances the capacity of the NAACP to achieve its mission."

It was not until June 3, when Clinton withdrew his nomination of Lani Guinier to be the Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, that criticism from these quarters became somewhat open. Newsweek, in fact, called it the day the Congressional Black Caucus "found its voice". Kweisi Mfume, spokesperson for the Caucus, which is supposed to be the bastion of "liberalism" in the Congress, publicly blasted Clinton for withdrawing the nomination. According to Mfume, it was the proof that Clinton was ignoring the black voters who had put him in office. For the first time, liberal Democrats like Mfume began to notice that Clinton's budget proposal, which had been around since February, was notably lacking in social spending. Mfume went so far as to say it was time for a "... re-evaluation and reassessment of the administration." Only a few days later, however, Mfume announced that the Congressional Black Caucus would support Clinton and his budget anyway: "Many people in this particular party that I'm a member of realize that we really don't have a choice."

And, as the vote in Congress drew near, and it became obvious that Clinton could not afford to lose a single liberal vote, Mfume even found the way to praise that same budget a little, of course, with some qualifications: "The bill falls short of what we think is necessary in many respects, but it's long since time to seek to undo the past 12 years of Robin-Hood- in-reverse and provide not only a cushion for the working poor and middle class but also cut the deficit."

In early August, just before Clinton's Bush-like budget was passed, several cabinet members addressed a meeting of the National Urban League, whose response to the Clinton budget was, according to the Associated Press, "polite but tepid". However, John Jacob continued to be "encouraged", and praised the "sensitivity" and "understanding" of Clinton cabinet members who addressed the Urban League. He did allow himself to give a veiled criticism: "Inside government, the role is, seemingly, to do what you can with what you have. We are trying to help them broaden their vision."

What ever the degree of criticism we have seen so far, it has essentially hidden the fact that the new Democratic president is acting like the old Republican ones. And even if the criticism gets harsher, which it might easily, the black politicians, like the heads of the civil rights organizations, give every sign that they will continue to support the Democratic administration. In so doing, all of them continue to promote the idea that the Democratic Party is, or can be, the party of the workers and the poor.

An Old Partnership … against the Workers

For the top officials of the trade unions, and for that section of the black petty bourgeoisie which has, or aspires to, a political career, it is true that the Democratic Party is their party. The reason for that is simple: the Democratic Party is the party which opened its doors to them.

The trade union bureaucracy has been integrated into the Democratic party, as well as into the bourgeois state apparatus, since the late 1930s and early 1940s. Those union leaders who helped demobilize a still combative working class, and who helped pull it back from forming its own party, were rewarded with positions in, and privileges from, the Democratic party. (Of course, another fate awaited the leaders of the working class who would not line up behind a bourgeois policy – for example, Trotskyist militants or, at certain points, Communist Party militants – or even just those unionists who wanted to continue the struggles that had built the unions. The state apparatus used its forces to purge them from the unions, imprison them, kill them or otherwise get rid of them).

A similar evolution took place in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when those black leaders who worked to keep the mobilization of the black population within a framework respecting bourgeois law and order were welcomed into the party, their careers made for them. (The more militant leaders suffered the same fate as had the more militant leaders of the working class in the 1940s and 1950s.)

Of course, during the 12 years of the Reagan and Bush Administrations, both union leaders and black politicians found themselves in limbo. Even the show of respect usually accorded to them by the Democrats was denied them by the Republicans. And, while black politicians continued to make headway, gaining more elected positions on local levels as Democrats, the Republican controlled Justice Department looked for pretexts to remove them. As for the union officials, Reagan made a point of attacking them as "labor bosses", trying to play on the dissatisfaction that many workers feel with their unions. Certainly, the White House was not a friendly port of call for them, in many cases not even open to them.

So, of course, it's no wonder that these layers are pleased to see a Democrat back in the White House. According to the Progressive magazine, Gerald McEntee, of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, was anxiously awaiting his first invitation to visit the Rose Garden. "I've never been in the Rose Garden", they quoted him as saying. The Democrats, at least, are willing to give McEntee and his friends respect, not to mention a few more positions.

The Clinton Administration has made every effort to make the labor officials feel wanted. Robert Reich, the Secretary of Labor, praised them as the "most articulate, indeed the only voice of the front-line workers in America." He also said he intends to regularly call them in for "discussion". Former UAW president Doug Fraser was appointed as a permanent member of the new Commission for the Future of Worker-Management Relations. And the UAW even pointed out the fact that William B. Gould, a Harvard Business School professor who, 20 years ago, was an assistant legal counsel for the UAW, was appointed to head the NLRB.

If Jesse Jackson wasn't exactly welcomed with open arms, he was at least quoted occasionally, without being attacked. In addition to calling on Vernon Jordan to head his transition team, Clinton appointed 4 black politicians or professionals to cabinet level positions – the most any Administration has ever doled out. There are now 40 black legislators in Congress, including 14 who were elected last November at the time of the Clinton victory.

Of course, the Democratic Party expects something in exchange for such consideration. Commerce Secretary Ron Brown made it clear that unions are being called on to take part in his commission so that "Labor and management should become not only partners in the competitive struggle, but advocates for an entirely new way for American firms to compete and win in the global market place." In other words, the union leaders will be expected to help the corporations push their workers to become still more productive.

As for the black politicians, they are the ones who are expected to work inside Congress to help get Clinton's legislative program passed, despite any and all "liberal" objections. This first Clinton budget, containing as it does, further cuts in social programs which were already decimated, will weigh most heavily on the working class, especially its poorest layers – in other words, on the vast majority of the black population. Nonetheless, after issuing a few critical remarks, the black politicians in Congress bit the bullet and delivered Clinton the votes he needed to pass his "Bush budget". In fact, they kept every single liberal Democrat in line in the Senate where the vote was close.

Putting Pressure on the Democrats as a Way to Support Them

Of course, the trade union officials and black politicians grasp for any justification they can find to support the Democrats. For example, they talk of Clinton's promises about the Striker Replacement bill, while ignoring the fact that this bill would do little other than give replaced strikers the right to be called back some day, if and when the company ever needs more workers. Their previous seniority will not put them in front of the scabs hired during the strike. And that even presumes the bill will ever pass the Senate. Up until now, Clinton has not made it a big priority.

In any case, the union officials' and black politicians' main argument will continue to be the one which is always their last and best resort. It's an argument they know well, having had to justify their support for the Democrats under some very difficult circumstances. What it finally boils down to, no matter how they word it or whatever reasoning they make, is one simple idea: the Democrats are the lesser of two evils. Or as Kweisi Mfume put it: "We have no choice"; as the OCAW put it, putting the Democrats in office is our "only realistic alternative."

Having established this basic position, the union bureaucrats and black politicians may, and often do, voice the disappointment felt by many people. They sometimes even criticize the Democrats – and they may easily do this with Clinton. Some of them, people like Jesse Jackson or Tony Mazzochi of the OCAW, for example, may even propose to set up structures outside the Democratic party – Rainbow Coalition, Labor Party Advocates, whatever, in order to force the Democrats to "do the right thing." But all of this keeps the Democratic Party at the center of their perspective.

Some of these "critics" will even propose that people take actions to put pressure on Clinton or the Democrats.

But just look at the type of actions the union officials and leaders of the black organizations propose. They call on people to turn out in larger numbers to increase the ballot strength of labor and poor people, that is produce more Democratic Party votes. They say the unions and black organizations must win more influence in the Democratic Party, that is contribute more money to it. They ask people to make direct appeals to the Democrats in power – through publicity and mail-in campaigns. They even say we should demonstrate for social and economic justice – and so they organize a few large, but well-controlled demonstrations, like the one which brought out 125,000 people in Detroit in late June, or the one of 75,000 people in Washington D.C. in late August, or Labor Day parades in cities around the country in September; all of these demonstrations gave Democratic Party politicians a prominent place. Their most extreme position, that is, to set up a structure outside the Democratic Party, still keeps the Democratic Party as the center of their perspective.

All of this, whatever the degree of criticism, boils down to reinforcing the Democratic Party, and thereby keeps the working class tied to it.

Preparing for Tomorrow

If we can gauge by what we see in the few narrow milieus where we are, there are not only many rank and file workers disgusted with the Democratic Party; there are also some union activists, including those who hold office at the lower levels of the unions, who feel uneasy about supporting the Democrats or Clinton. But, not seeing any other alternative, they also feel trapped, and so they feel there is nothing else to do but accept the reasoning of the union leadership or of the black Democratic Party politicians.

Since there is no other political party except the Republicans and the Democrats – goes this reasoning – is it not better to choose the latter? Is it not better to support those politicians who at least claim they are "friends of labor", as opposed to those who openly speak against labor and the black population?

If anyone questions this reasoning, those who defend it argue that the popular layers of the population haven't shown themselves ready to do anything else.

And it's true, there is no mass working class movement, and no signs that one might soon develop. Workers have barely reacted to the crisis which has endured in one form or another for almost 20 years. There have been few attempts by even a section of the working class to resist the continuing decline in the standard of living and the general decay of daily life, both on the job and in the streets. The number of strikes is at an all-time low. And while Los Angeles proved that there can always be a sudden spontaneous explosion, there have not been, and still are no, social movements to speak of. As for political activity, most workers shun it; and when it comes to elections, most workers vote for the Democrats – or don't vote at all.

Of course, those who aren't ready to ask the working class to engage itself in action tend to exaggerate the situation ... and to glide over the fact that the union leaders' own actions or inactions have contributed a lot to this situation. But even if this were accurate, the whole picture today, it would not justify supporting the Democrats.

First of all, support for the Democrats is beside the point. If the working class is not ready to fight, it can't gain anything at all, no matter who is in office. It won't have the power to press for its interests, much less to impose them. The only kind of pressure the Democrats have ever responded to has been the pressure of masses of people mobilized for actions which go outside the confines of the Democratic Party.

Moreover, when union militants support the Democratic Party, however provisionally, however critically, they reinforce the illusion that a part of the working class still has, the illusion that the Democratic Party is a party favorable to the working class and the poor. This support gives the Democrats whatever legitimacy they still have with the population.

As for that part of the working class which has no illusions in the Democratic Party – when they see the union leaders supporting the very people who have led the attack on them, it can only reinforce cynicism. This sets up obstacles in the way of the working class, and anyone else oppressed by capitalist society, when they will once again think about using their own forces.

When the working class does begin to engage itself in struggle, the workers' consciousness of who their real enemies are will make a difference. This was shown during the battles of the 1930s and the 1960s. On the one hand, the working class and black population were able to carry out massive fights to gain their demands; on the other hand, they gave up their struggles before winning even all they had set out to gain, much less all that might have been possible in those circumstances. But to have gained more, they would have had to fight consciously against the bourgeoisie and all its defenders; they needed to be clear about who their friends really were – and who they were not. But neither in the 1930s, nor in the 1960s were the masses clear about the Democratic Party, which was one of their enemies. And most of their leaders did everything they could to reinforce the belief that the masses could rely on the Democrats, and that therefore they didn't dare embarrass those Democrats who held elected office. This confusion helped to disarm large sections of the working class, and later a large number of the black population, at a very high price. Instead of understanding what they had already done through their own mobilization and determination, and thereby learning something more about their own possibilities, they gave part of the credit for what they themselves had done to the very people who had tried to hold them back from doing it. No matter what they gained from those movements, and they certainly gained a lot, they were not prepared to expand their struggle, nor even really to mobilize to protect their gains for any period of time. Instead, they had been tricked into trusting the Democrats to protect them, politicians who were ready to turn on the masses as soon as they demobilized themselves.

What the working class needs to do is exactly the opposite of what the trade union officials and black politicians propose. It is true that there will be no concessions from the government unless the workers and the poor put enough pressure on it. But what these defenders of the Democratic Party propose means that the working class won't put any real pressure on it. To vote or to carry out a publicity campaign to bring pressure on the Democrats is not a real threat. It may bother some individual politicians or candidates. But it is all very safe, as far as the bourgeoisie, which stands behind the Democratic Party, is concerned. And it's the bourgeoisie which decides whether concessions will be granted, whether directly or through its state apparatus or Democratic Party.

The history of the 1930s and the 1960s demonstrates how much the bourgeoisie can give up when it feels threatened by the possibility that a deepening mass response of the working class and the poor could break outside the confines which had been used to control the population. But what followed the 1930s and 1960s also shows how much the bourgeoisie can take back when the threat recedes – and more than take back. It also shows to what limits the bourgeoisie will go to crush whatever militancy and understanding are left, once a movement recedes.

In any case, the first step to defend the interests of the working class in this country is to break with the Democratic Party, that is, to break with the policy of the union bureaucracy.