May 11, 1996
At the end of March, the AFL-CIO, headed by the recently elected "insurgent slate", decided to endorse Clinton and Gore for re election. According to new Secretary Treasurer Richard Trumka, this endorsement was a "signal that labor is doing things differently when it comes to politics." The AFL-CIO News, reporting on the endorsement, proclaimed that it "heralded a new day for working people and a new process for union political action."
Formally, there was something different: the AFL-CIO issued one single endorsement, in contrast to its usual practice of letting each of its member unions issue their own endorsements.
Practically, there may be a difference also: it seems that the unions will be significantly more active in this campaign than they had been in recent years. The Executive Council voted to fund a massive "political education" campaign to the tune of 35 million dollars. This money, coming from its member unions' treasuries, is in addition to the money that COPE, CAP and the other political action committees of the unions will directly spend on various candidates' campaigns. The Executive Council, in discussing its plans for the "union summer" project, made it clear that a great deal of the activity of the 1000 or so young students enrolled in this project will be aimed at the elections. Among the first projects discussed, half were either voter registration projects or "political education campaigns" in working class areas.
While the AFL-CIO may have initiated "a new process for union political action" by issuing a single endorsement, one thing hasn't changed much. The AFL-CIO continues to focus its campaign more on the crimes of the Republicans than on the record of the Democrats with good reason, given the Democrats' record!
Before the endorsement, the UAW (United Auto, Aerospace and Agricultural Implements Workers) proclaimed in a full page spread in the January February issue of Solidarity:
"American workers are being clobbered by politicians who care more for the wealthy than they do for us. Since coming to power last year, the Republicans in Congress have introduced bills to substitute comp time for overtime pay. To give companies the right to de fund employee pension funds. To pass tax cuts for the wealthy while cutting the Earned Income Tax Credit for working people. To weaken clean air and water laws. To repeal President Clinton's ban on striker replacements by government contractors. And to further cripple OSHA's ability to keep workplaces safe."This year, we'll see one of the most important elections ever. If the GOP takes the White House, in addition to Congress, our last line of defense a Presidential veto will vanish."In 1994, nearly 60% of Americans didn't vote. And look what we got! This year, your vote is more important than ever."After the endorsement, the May issue of the Michigan AFL-CIO News listed one whole page of Republican crimes, introduced by the following weak endorsement of the Democrats: "Since assuming power in 1995, Republicans in Congress have launched a series of attacks on unions and working people in general. On this page is a list of just some of the anti union, anti worker activities of the 104th Congress. Thankfully, congressional Democrats have been able to defeat or moderate Republican legislation, and President Clinton has been there to veto any radical GOP legislation to reach his desk."
Every issue of the national AFL-CIO News repeats the same refrain: the Republican danger has to be blocked.
Of course, the Republicans are every bit as bad as the unions say they are.
But Clinton and the Democrats share responsibility for almost all the attacks on the working class. During every one of the 12 years that Reagan and Bush were in the White House, the Democrats controlled the House of Representatives by a wide margin, and controlled the Senate at the same time. That is, not one single one cut could have been made in the social programs if the Democrats had not given Reagan and Bush the votes to do it. In fact, the first reduction in unemployment benefits was put through, not by Reagan, but by a Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, and a Democratic congress. They eliminated the 26 week extension, reducing the number of weeks unemployment benefits could be paid from 65 to 39. Not one of the restrictions on abortion rights could have been implemented without the support of the Democrats. And, in fact, the first and still the major restriction on abortion rights denial of Medicaid coverage for abortions for poor women was passed by a Democratic congress and signed by Jimmy Carter.
During the first two years of Clinton's term the Democrats again controlled both the congress and the presidency. Not only did Clinton and the congressional Democrats do nothing in favor of the working class, they carried out the same kind of attacks that the Republicans had been carrying out under Reagan and Bush. (In fact, although they are brushing this under the rug right now, the unions effectively sat out the '94 election for this very reason.)
It's true that Clinton has thrown a few bones to the unions and to working people, especially in the last few months that is, with the election staring him in the face.
During the budget stand off last January, Clinton vetoed a budget passed by the Republican Congress, denouncing the Republicans for making a "mean spirited" attack on Medicare.
In February, Clinton began to talk about increasing the minimum wage which has been stuck at $4.25 an hour for 5 years.
In early April, Clinton offered a bill designed to let workers more easily transfer their pensions from one company to another when they are laid off.
In early May, Clinton went so far as to veto legislation passed by the Republican Congress which would have set a limit on the dollar amounts that big corporations can be forced to pay workers or consumers who sue them.
In the same week, in response to a sudden run up in gas prices at the pump, Clinton released oil from the government's strategic reserve into the open market. And, he announced, he intended to appoint a commission to see whether the oil companies had colluded together to fix prices, in violation of anti monopoly statutes.
And, just to bring the point home, Clinton announced that he intends to veto any "anti worker" legislation which the Republicans might pass. He also continues to condemn them for preventing Congress from taking up the question of "anti scab" legislation, that is, the bill which would have prevented employers from permanently replacing strikers.
Such pronouncements may make Clinton look good in the 20 second sound bites with which the networks convey the evening news. But in reality they are just gestures.
Minimum wage, for example. The increase proposed by the Democrats comes to a total of only 90 cents an hour, in two increments ???, with the final one not coming about until the year 2000. ???? If the whole increase were passed immediately today, it still wouldn't be enough to pull the person earning it above the poverty line set by the government itself. For a family of four, the government's standard measure, the poverty line today is $15,600 a year. At 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, a person earning the full new minimum wage would pull down only $10,608 a year, just over 2/3 of the poverty line. (Today, 1.6 million people earning minimum wage are the sole support of their families.)
Oil prices. The amount of oil Clinton released, less than 1% of one day's consumption, can't affect the prices, even if what the oil companies are saying were true: that is, that the price increases have been caused by "market forces". As for the commission to look into price fixing: the oil companies themselves gloated that no such commission appointed by a president has ever found evidence of "price fixing."
Medicare. While the Republicans have introduced a proposal to cut back severely on Medicare, the program which partially pays for medical care to retirees, so have the Democrats. The Republican plan will cut total Medicare spending by 168 billion dollars over seven years; the Democrats' plan will cut "only" 123 billion. Whatever figure is finally worked out, both parties have already agreed between themselves to cut Medicare and to delay the vote until after the November elections. Both parties have already raided Medicare and Social Security, arranging year after year to dip into the surplus in these funds to cover the regular budget deficit. Both parties have already implemented large cuts in Medicaid, the public medical coverage program which serves retirees, as well as poor people without medical insurance.
Striker replacement. The Democrats' bill which has been floating around for years, would not prevent strikers from being replaced "temporarily", including after the strike is over. All it would do is give strikers recall rights if openings occur, but it would not give them the right to reclaim their jobs as soon as the strike is over.
But the real mark of Clinton's stance toward unions and strikes came in his actions. His administration went into court in 1994 to ask the courts to uphold the 52 million dollar fine levied against the mine workers union after the mine owners went to court to ask that the fine be vacated when the strike was settled.
Budget deficit. While Clinton claims that he wants to make the budget cuts "fair", he continues to push through enormous subsidies for the major corporations, while at the same time he proposes cuts in social programs. According to the unions' own estimates corporate subsidies amount to many more billions of dollars a year than what either party is proposing to cut from Medicare.
Obviously, Clinton's pronouncements in favor of the working class are only a charade, and they don't stand up to much scrutiny. In reality, Clinton either attacks the working class but just a little less severely than do the Republicans or he makes proposals which he himself knows won't be passed.
For example, look what he did about the minimum wage. According to a New York Times survey of the Congressional Record and the Presidential press record: during the first two years of his term, Clinton mentioned the minimum wage a grand total of NO times. Congressional Democrats held a grand total of NO hearings about the minimum wage. None, zero, zip!
Things changed, however. The Republicans took over control of Congress, and Clinton suddenly discovered the issue. As soon as the Republicans moved in, Clinton began talking about his intention to raise the minimum wage. He mentioned it, not once, not five or six times, but 47 times. And Congressional Democrats suddenly sprang to life, actually submitting a bill, probably hoping that the Republicans would bury it in committee.
Today, once again, the unions are asking us to vote for the Democrats. We did it four years ago. And what was the result? When they were elected, in a position really to do something because they controlled all the branches of the government, they turned their backs on whatever vague promises they had made to the working class and ruled in favor of the bourgeoisie.
Looking at the example of these last four years, the unions, if they were logical, would ask us to vote for the Republicans...since the only time the Democrats seem to remember that they are supposed to be our friends and defenders is when the Republicans are in office!
In fact, the unions, once more, are asking us to vote for the Democrats without even demanding that the Democrats explain their actions over the last four years. Much less do the unions ask the Democrats to give any guarantees about what they will do once in office.
These elections are taking place at a time when the working class is, and has been, under attack; workers see their standard of living going down while the profits of the bourgeoisie are increasing and the real wealth of this country has never been higher. But even with all this, the unions don't ask the Democrats to give any guarantees that they will act, even minimally, in favor of the working class.
This shows that the leaders of the unions themselves know that the working class will get nothing from the Democrats except fine words when they are not in office and attacks when they are. In fact, it's not possible to get any guarantees that mean anything from someone we vote for, only to send on to the White House for four years, or the Senate for six years, or the House of Representatives for two years. Once seated, they can do what they want, while those who voted from them have no means to exert any control over them at least, not through electoral activity. So, of course, formal promises from these people don't mean anything. And the leaders of the unions know this.
The working class won't get any guarantees by giving someone our votes. What can guarantee us something is our own mobilization, our own struggles and our capacity to threaten not only the politicians, Republican and Democrat, but also the bourgeoisie they both represent.
In the past, when the Democrats did give something, it wasn't because workers voted for them, but because the social and political situation workers had created through their struggles forced the bourgeois state to concede gains to the working class.
The vast mobilization of the working class during the 1930s produced social security, unemployment insurance and the minimum wage; the widespread mobilization of the black population during the 1960s produced equal rights laws, Medicare, Medicaid and education assistance. The Democrats were in control of the government when these things were passed, so they took credit for them. But they have been in control of the government many other times, without ever giving anything. The issue is not the Democrats; the issue is our own capacity to struggle.
The AFL-CIO, under its new leadership, broke with the tradition of letting each union decide for itself what it will do in the elections. This time, they proposed one single policy for the whole labor movement.
Of course, this was only a united policy in support of a bourgeois party. But it shows that it's possible for the various unions which make up the AFL-CIO to propose one single united policy, instead of all going their separate ways. So why not do it where it really counts, in the class struggle? Why not raise the idea right now that the working class will not gain what it needs, no matter who is in the White House, unless it is ready to struggle? Why not prepare the working class for the fights it will have to make? Why not propose concrete goals to the working class that it can begin to fight for right now?
The new heads of the AFL-CIO say they want to do things differently.
Proposing that the working class go on supporting the Democrats is not a way to "do things differently." It is simply a continuation of the long standing support the unions have given to the Democrats, one of the bourgeoisie's two parties.
Someone who wants to do things differently would start by talking about what would really change things in favor of the working class: a united struggle by the whole working class which posed a real threat for the bourgeoisie.