The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

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

United States:
The AFL-CIO and the 1998 Elections:
A New Kind of Dance with the Democrats

Dec 10, 1998

The November 3 elections were considered to be a semi-victory for the Democrats. Even though Republicans maintained control of congress, the Democrats picked up five seats in the House, held onto their seats in the Senate, and picked up one governorship in all-important California, which has by far the most votes. This was hardly an overwhelming victory. But the Democrats had avoided the potential disaster of the Clinton sex scandal and even managed to turn it against the Republicans.

By no stretch of the imagination did the Democrats receive a groundswell of support. They simply had less of a drop-off in their voters than the Republicans had in theirs in an election with still another record low turnout. The faster Republican collapse allowed the Democrats to overcome the historic trend, in which the party that controls the White House almost invariably loses off-year elections.

The most notable fact about the 1998 election was that 64% of the electorate didn’t bother to vote at all. This was the highest rate of no-shows since 1942. Since 1966, the rate of abstention, of those not voting, has steadily increased. In 1998, 74 million people voted, while 120 million did not.

The one exception to this low turnout came in Minnesota where Jesse Ventura ran on Ross Perot’s Reform Party. With a voter turnout of just under 60%, Ventura won the election for governor. Despite a shoestring campaign budget, Ventura managed to defeat the candidates of both big parties, one of whom, Hubert Humphrey III, the state attorney general, and the scion of the powerful family of Hubert Humphrey, had been expected to win. Ventura built his campaign on a populist appeal. He said that the two big parties are the parties of big business. He said he opposed corporate welfare, and supported greater funding for public education. And he made taxes—and a promised tax cut—a big issue, without really being clear whose taxes would be cut.

Not only did he take votes away from the Democrats and Republicans, he attracted to the polls a big number of people who ordinarily don’t vote. The Minnesota turnout was almost twice as high as the vote in most of the rest of the country.

"People-Powered Politics"

With election results tallied, John Sweeney, president of the AFL- CIO, declared that the elections had been a victory for the unions: "I believe that the 1998 elections usher in a new era of people-powered politics with members turning out at record levels and making the difference in race after race..."

The AFL-CIO certainly had focused on getting out the vote this time, mailing out 9.5 million pieces of literature, registering more than 500,000 union members and, on Election Day alone, making hundreds of thousands of phone calls. Said Steven Rosenthal, political director for the AFL-CIO, "Since most voters are getting their information these days off television, and don’t like it, because it’s just a barrage of negative TV ads, it seemed like it made sense to go back to the process of people talking to each other again."

Exit polls showed that people in households with at least one union member did vote in a higher proportion than did the voting public as a whole. Twenty-four percent of the people voting came from union households, although they make up only eighteen percent of the voting public. Exit polls also indicated that compared to the last midterm election, the number of votes from union households jumped by 6.7 million, going from 10.1 million in 1994 to 16.8 million. Although the method of polling has changed in such a way as to somewhat exaggerate the changes, these numbers still mark a significant increase.

The "Friends of Labor"

So, what did the AFL-CIO throw its weight behind? According to Sweeney, "The labor movement is supporting candidates in both parties who support working families and who support the issues that our members are concerned about. There are more Democrats than Republicans who are on that side. But those Republicans who speak out, and who help achieve legislation that satisfies our members’ agenda, we’re going to support them."

This talk about "candidates in both parties who support working families" is nothing but a smokescreen. It covers the fact that the unions called on their members to give their support to the same two parties which are responsible for decades of government policies harming working families.

Even if it were true that these two parties contain some people "who support working families," the fact is that these two parties in their majority have carried out policies in favor of the bourgeoisie, at the expense of "working families." And those candidates who supposedly "support working families" consistently vote for those policies.

For the last 22 years, we’ve seen almost every variation of control over the federal government: a Democratic president and Democratic congress; a Republican president and Democratic congress; a Republican president and a split congress; or, once again, a Democratic president and a Democratic congress; or, as now, a Democratic president and a Republican congress. Whichever party controlled whichever part of the governmental apparatus, the attacks continued unabated. With no response by the working class, both parties competed with each other in "reforming" away social protections which had at one time been gained by the working class through its struggles.

The government, no matter which party controlled it, has used its fiscal powers to continue boosting the profits of the major corporations through outright subsidies and fat government contracts, as well as through tax cuts. Ever more of the tax burden has been shifted onto the working class and poor; big cutbacks have been carried out in such social programs as education, welfare, food stamps, unemployment insurance, Medicare and Medicaid.

Both parties have wielded state power to break strikes and help the capitalists impose concessions on the work force. Clinton signed an executive order forcing strikers at American Airlines back to work only six minutes after the strike broke out. He was only following in the footsteps of Ronald Reagan who broke the PATCO strike in 1981 and Jimmy Carter who tried to use a Taft- Hartley injunction to break the miners’ strike of 1978. A bi- partisan Congress rushed through emergency legislation ordering an end to a strike of railroad workers before it was one day old.

The unions have called on their members to give their votes to "friendly" politicians in these two parties, but those votes haven’t stopped the two parties from carrying out all these policies. And the votes that were given away this year won’t stop the attacks either. These two parties, which pretend to be in deep disagreement with each other, agreed last year that they would take up Social Security "reform"—but not until after the November elections. That should have sounded a great big warning bell: they intend to "reform" Social Security in exactly the same way they reformed welfare, unemployment and workers’ compensation; that is, cut it.

Bureaucratic Maneuvering

This isn’t to say that the union leaders themselves are very happy about government policies. The fact that Sweeney made a point to say that the unions support candidates from both parties, and only those candidates who are friendly, is a reflection of that.

Since 1992, when the Democrats took back the presidency and retained control of congress, the unions have been openly displeased with the Democratic party, which they traditionally have supported. With key support from the unions, Clinton and the Democrats ended 12 years of Republican control of the White House, and kept a solid majority in congress in the 1992 elections. But government policies did not become more favorable to the workers. The 1993-94 Congress did not pass a single item on the AFL-CIO’s extremely modest legislative agenda. It was a real embarrassment for union officials.

This fiasco was an important factor contributing to the AFL-CIO’s change of leadership in October 1995. It also brought about an electoral policy on the part of the unions aimed at warning the Democrats the unions won’t be taken for granted.

In the 1994 mid-term elections, union officials withdrew most of their support for the Democratic Party; they gave financial and other support only to those candidates who had openly identified themselves with labor’s legislative agenda. The Democrats lost to a Republican sweep on the national, statewide and local levels. It’s not clear how much the Democratic Party’s losses could be attributed to the union boycott, and how much people would have voted against the Democrats anyway as a protest, because the Democrats were the party in power. In any case, this lack of support by the unions was apparently intended as a demonstration that the Democrats needed the unions.

At the same time, those union officials who were about to take over the leadership of the AFL-CIO pursued a complementary line of attack. They set out to demonstrate that they might not need the Democrats, that they could have somewhere else to go. In 1994, they set the wheels in motion to allow the formal establishment of a labor party, several years after a few unions had organized a committee to raise the issue. The founding convention of the Labor Party was finally held in June 1996—in other words, right in the middle of the period during which the Republicans and the Democrats were meeting in their conventions to nominate candidates for president.

In the 1998 election year, the unions gave their support to "friends" in both parties. But then, just 10 days after the elections, they threw their tacit support to the first constitutional convention of the Labor Party.

This new party is not very big, and it has not grown as fast as it could if the unions were really to push for it. Only a small minority of the AFL-CIO’s forces have been directly involved. Nonetheless, a few unions, including important ones, have given just enough support to demonstrate that the AFL-CIO wants at least to keep it around. The number of national unions sponsoring it has gone from five in 1996 to nine in 1998. In the last two years, the number of central labor councils and local unions has also more than doubled to 473. What is perhaps most significant is that among its endorsers are counted the UMWA (United Mine Workers), which had been headed by Rich Trumka, the AFL-CIO’s number two man, as well as many locals from the union which Sweeney used to head, the SEIU (Service Employees International Union). It was a way for the top heads of the labor movement to say that this party is not going away; it has a future.

At its founding in 1996, the unions took the position that the party was not yet strong enough to run a credible election campaign for its own candidates. At the 1998 convention, union leaders modified this position, saying that it might run candidates, under certain precise conditions which excluded the possibility of the Labor Party competing anywhere it might cost a "friend of labor" an election.

In other words, the union bureaucrats want their "friends" in both parties, and the Democrats especially, to know that the Labor Party is still there, hanging as a threat over their heads; at the same time, the bureaucrats don’t want to damage the electoral chances of any friendly candidate, and more generally of the Democratic party.

Unfortunately, what the unions won’t do, the right wing will.

Ventura hardly had more possibilities than the unions would, given their human and material resources. Yet, he obviously managed to carry out a "credible" campaign the first time he ran. In so doing, he put the lie to the idea that it’s not possible to challenge the two big parties.

The fact that the unions don’t try to do the same proves that they consider the Labor Party not as the beginning of the party that the working class so desperately needs, but only as one part of an endless series of maneuvers with the Democrats. This confirms how completely tied and integrated the union bureaucracy is to the capitalists and their state.

Right-wing demagogues like Ross Perot and Jesse Ventura, who present themselves as populists, will gain a hearing. By not presenting worker candidates to contest the bourgeoisie’s two parties, the unions give up in advance. They leave the ground open for the right wing to address all those people dissatisfied with the bourgeoisie’s two parties. In so doing, they reinforce not only the Democrats, but also the extreme right.

For A Working Class Party

Certainly for the working class, an independent party is its number one priority. The working class needs a party that is ready to lead struggles and unite its forces, including the struggle to get rid of not only the effects of the capitalist system, but to get rid of the capitalist system itself. A true working class party, both in composition and program, would not leave the electoral field open to the bourgeoisie. It would not try to put the workers’ hopes in the elections, but it would use the elections to oppose the workers’ class interests to those of the bourgeoisie, and to express the working class’s aspirations. Stepping forward as an alternative to the Republicans and Democrats, a real working class party could energize the mass of ordinary people in and outside the unions, who are desperately looking for answers today. This real working class party could reinforce the working class in a way the union officials today make clear is not part of the Labor Party’s agenda.