The Spark

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

United States:
USA - The Clinton Legacy - Eight Years of Attacks Against the Working Class and Poor

Jul 21, 2000

The 13-million-member AFL-CIO used its convention last October to endorse Al Gore, Bill Clinton's vice president during the last two terms, for president.

But this endorsement was not unanimously enthusiastic. The UAW and Teamsters, two of the largest AFL-CIO unions, refused to endorse any candidate so early, especially, they said, since the Clinton administration was in the midst of pushing through permanent normalization of trade with China, which the union apparatuses opposed. This past May and June, both the UAW and Teamsters went a little bit further in distancing themselves from Gore, when they both made a point to speak about Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate, and, in the case of the Teamsters, Pat Buchanan, the expected candidate of the Reform Party.

Of course, all of this is just maneuvering and does not signal a change in policy. The June issue of the UAW magazine Solidarity ran a comparison of Gore and Bush that was favorable to Gore... and didn't even mention Nader.

The union apparatuses are not about to make a break with the Democratic Party. Some of them may be trying to show the Democrats that they cannot take the unions for granted. But the effort that union officials are putting together for the 2000 elections certainly shows the Democrats they have no cause to worry. The AFL-CIO apparatus has set aside a 46-million-dollar war chest, which is about 10 million dollars more than what they spent on the 1996 elections. And they also plan on exceeding their 1998 election effort, which included sending out 9.5 million pieces of mail and initiating 5.5 million phone calls.

But in supporting the Democrats, what is the AFL-CIO calling on workers to vote for? The Clinton-Gore administration certainly has a record of nearly eight years in the White House that can be examined.

Campaign Promises Are Made to Be Broken

In 1992, the Clinton-Gore team swept into office, along with a Democratic-controlled Congress, claiming to represent a change from the previous 12 years of Reagan and Bush. During the campaign, they had promised to create jobs, cut taxes for the middle class, provide universal medical insurance, guarantee a college education for everyone deemed qualified and spend 20 billion dollars a year more on new public works projects. And, to pay for all that, they proposed higher taxes on the wealthy and foreign corporations and modest cuts in military spending (38 billion dollars over five years).

Most people recognized the fairy tale quality to these election promises. But during the early days of the new administration, Clinton-Gore demonstratively reversed a few policies of the Reagan-Bush years.

First, Congress passed and Clinton signed into law the "Family and Medical Leave Act", a bill that George Bush had vetoed when he was in office. This act requires employers with 50 employees or more to provide up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave a year for family or health reasons. Of course, this law had big limits: family-medical leave remained unpaid, so its cost was shouldered by the employee; and the wording of the law left plenty of room for employers to refuse to let many employees actually take the leave.

Second, Clinton made a very public pro-choice statement supporting the testing, licensing and manufacturing of RU-486, the so-called morning after pill that had been available in Europe and Asia for years, but that had been banned from the U.S. by the Bush administration.

But there were real limts to Clinton's support for abortion rights. While allowing the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to run clinical trials on RU-486, which found the drug to be "safe and effective," his administration has never given final approval for its distribution and sale.

Neither did Clinton push the Democratic Congress to lift a ban which prevented Medicaid from paying for abortions for poor women, the Hyde Amendment that had been passed in 1977 when Democrat Jimmy Carter was president. Obviously, Clinton, Gore and the rest of the Democrats, who claimed to be so pro- choice, were not pro-choice when it came to poor women having the same rights as other women.

Moreover, the Clinton administration did not use the power of the Federal government to beat back right-wing attacks on the shrinking availability of abortion, especially in less populated regions of the country. For example, a large majority of medical schools and teaching hospitals have caved in to reactionary pressures and no longer train doctors in the procedure. The Clinton administration didn't use its power over federal subsidies – which almost all medical schools count on – to put the abortion procedure back in the curriculum.

In other words, in its first weeks the Clinton administration rescinded or pretended to rescind some measures the Republicans had taken to appeal to their right-wing electoral base. This created a certain aura around Clinton, hiding the real course of his administration.

That course was set when Clinton, claiming that the government deficit was running much higher than previously anticipated, introduced a massive five-year austerity plan, the "1993 Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act." This plan took the knife to social programs that serve ordinary people. It froze spending on most programs, which, taking into account inflation, was a de facto cut. And it made actual cuts to Medicare and Medicaid, by 56 billion dollars and eight billion dollars, respectively, over five years.

At the same time, the new law hiked gasoline taxes by 4.3 cents per gallon, an extremely regressive tax that takes a much bigger bite out of the wallet of a worker or poor person than that of a wealthy one. This tax increase was also insidious because it was practically invisible, as it was just rolled into the price of filling up the tank.

The Democrats did claim that they were hiking the corporate income tax rate, and they did – from 34 to 35% – a whopping one percent! But all the tax breaks they included more than offset this tiny rate hike. In reality, the taxes the corporations actually paid continued to fall from 24.5% of their declared profits in 1994 to 21.3% in 1999.

The Clinton administration's new budget was taking more money from ordinary people, in the form of both a very regressive tax hike and a cut in social services, and handing it back over to the corporations. The Clinton administration was picking up where the Reagan-Bush administrations had left off.

It should be mentioned that this budget package was a Democratic Party production from beginning to end. Since the Republicans were a minority in Congress, they had the luxury of appearing to oppose the unpopular measures, and no Republicans voted for it. The Senate passed the legislation only after Al Gore, as Vice President, cast the deciding vote.

With this legislation behind him, Clinton then put Al Gore in charge of a new commission called Reinventing Government (REGO), which they claimed would make government operations more efficient and save the taxpayer money. In fact, REGO was set up to do what bosses in the private sector had been doing: downsize the work force, either through speed-up or contracting out the work to companies that paid lower wages and benefits. Under Gore's Reinventing Government commission, over 350,000 government jobs were cut. One union, the American Federation of Government Employees, lost 100,000 members. But it didn't "save" ordinary taxpayers one cent in their tax bills.

1994 – The Health Reform Debacle and New Attacks

In 1994, the Clinton administration tried to engineer a "health care reform," something which had been presented as a form of universal coverage that would include the 40 million people who at the time were not insured. In fact, his reform was aimed at aiding the big corporations, which were complaining about having to pay ever higher prices to buy health insurance for their employees. Of course, to reduce their payments meant having to deal with different parts of the health care industry, which were profiting from the rising prices. The Clinton administration proposal was ground up by the competing interests of different corporations all worried they might lose some ground in the affair. By the fall of that year, health care reform was dead.

If Clinton had really intended to extend health care to the 40 million uninsured, he could still have done it: simply take the money which had gone to the corporations and use it to fund this coverage. But, of course, he didn't do it. The number of uninsured continued to rise by an average of one million per year.

The only way to carry out the kind of real health care reform that ordinary people had hoped for, that is, cheap and affordable for everyone, would have been to attack the profits of all the big corporations. But that was exactly the opposite of what Clinton was trying to do.

At the same time that health care reform was sinking, the Clinton administration was pushing through its "Omnibus Anti-Crime Bill." This right-wing, reactionary piece of legislation included a three-strikes provision, the expansion of the federal death penalty from two to sixty crimes, long mandatory prison sentences that could not be reduced by "soft-on- crime" judges and financial incentives to those states which required prisoners to serve more than 85% of their sentence. Even while cutting social programs, Clinton found plenty of money, more than 30 billion dollars, to hire more police and to build prisons.

Obviously, the issue of a rising crime rate is a real one. But the government was not about to tackle the social causes behind it, such as the deteriorating social and economic conditions of the most poor and desperate. On the contrary, the government itself was contributing to these worsening conditions by reducing jobs, services, education and health care for the laboring classes. No, the only thing that the Clinton administration did was to stir up and reinforce the most reactionary sentiments in the population and offer an ever larger police and prison infrastructure.

Finally, it should be noted that the Clinton administration and Democratic Congress broke one of the Democrats' main campaign promises to organized labor by failing to pass even a weak and watered down version of an anti-permanent striker replacement bill.

But the Clinton administration did fire off a warning shot at the union apparatuses. From the moment Clinton took office, his Justice Department had supported a Virginia judge's effort to impose a 60-million-dollar fine, the highest ever, on the United Mineworkers union (UMWA) for a grueling seven-month strike carried out by 17,000 coal miners against Pittston Coal in 1989. Pittston itself had agreed to drop the fine as part of its strike settlement with the union. But this did not daunt the Justice Department, which sent its lawyers in front of the U.S. Supreme Court to argue for imposing the fine. Even the conservative Supreme Court ruled against the Virginia judge and the Justice Department, throwing the fine out. But obviously, the Clinton administration used this case as a warning to union officials of what they could expect in the event of other hard-fought battles.

1995-96, the Clinton Program in Full Flower

The incessant attacks carried out by the Clinton administration and the Democratic Party meant that they lost support among their voting base; thus, in the 1994 elections, the Republicans captured control of both houses of Congress. The main difference was that it allowed the AFL-CIO to blame the new Republican majority in Congress for the anti-worker course that Clinton continued to carry out – the same one, in fact, that he had been carrying out for two years when he had a Democratic Congress.

In the spring of 1995, the Clinton administration used the occasion of the bombing of the Federal building in Oklahoma City to ram through a so-called "Comprehensive Terrorism Prevention Act of 1995." This act, actually a collection of dozens of new laws, legally broadens the power of several federal law enforcement agencies at the expense of different sectors of the population. To the INS, it grants greater power to deport people of foreign birth merely on the suspicion of being a terrorist, using secret evidence that the INS doesn't have to present to the accused, and bars any appeal to the courts. To the FBI, it grants much greater legal latitude to carry out surveillance. For example, it allows the FBI to make wire-taps on any phone that someone they claim might use, even tangentially. That is, they can tap phones used by many other people.

In addition, this law severely restricts the right of prisoners to habeas corpus, that is, their ability to appeal to the federal court system, even when local and state authorities committed blatant misconduct or there was no evidence to justify the convictions. This law almost completely removes one important legal recourse for so many people – whether they are political, like Mumia Abu Jamal, or just poor and can't afford a proper legal defense – who have been railroaded by the criminal justice system.

A year later, Clinton sponsored another bill called the "Prison Litigation Reform Act." Up until then, prisoners had the right to sue in Federal courts to correct the most horrifying prison conditions, such as extreme overcrowding, a complete lack of health care which allowed epidemics of tuberculosis or AIDS or the systematic rape of female prisoners by guards. By taking away the right of prisoners to bring suit in Federal court against conditions, Clinton gave one more green light for prison conditions to continue to deteriorate as the prison population skyrocketed.

The Clinton administration then went on to attack the organized sector of the working class. In May 1996, Clinton used the Railway Labor Act to stop a national railroad strike against 50 railroads. Obviously, the ability of the railroad unions to tie up the national transportation system gave them leverage to fight the concession demands of the railroad companies. Clinton helped the railroad companies stop the strike and impose the concessions.

The crowning achievement of Clinton's first four years was

the welfare reform bill, which was signed on August 22, 1996. This historic law was a very big step in the destruction of the social safety net that had been built up out of the big social movements of the 1930s and 1960s. The goal of the reform was simply to dump people from the welfare rolls and force them to take any job at any wage. And any reason or excuse was used: work requirements, time limits, a missed appointment, lost paperwork. It didn't matter if someone had a very young infant or several children to take care of, he or she had to find a job. Within three years, the welfare rolls were cut in half. Six million people lost government aid.

When Clinton argued for this law, he had dressed it up as the "Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act." What complete cynicism! The only "opportunity" he was giving people on welfare was to get the worst, lowest paid jobs – and without the government aid he promised would ease the transition. Promises of child care, food stamps, rent subsidies, continued Medicaid coverage – these were all lies!

People were forced to accept any job available, that is, most often jobs that pay six or seven dollars per hour, without benefits. For a family of three, that amounts to $13,290 a year, or three-fifths of the poverty line. And the government benefits that Clinton had promised turned out to be nearly impossible to get, tied up in layers of red-tape.

Even worse, depending on the state, 30 to 50% forced off welfare couldn't find jobs. Others lost their jobs within three months. When they applied to get back onto government aid, they were "diverted," as the welfare office calls it, back onto the street. That meant that millions have been pushed into a life of homelessness and petty crime, facing a one-way ticket to jail or prison.

Presently there are seven million people whose benefits are about to run out in the next year, a social time bomb that the Clinton administration has only prepared for with more police, prisons and harsher prison sentences.

But this human disaster has suited employers. It has provided a large reservoir of desperate people with little choice but to accept the lowest pay and the worst working conditions. This is one important factor behind the stagnation and fall of wages for the whole working class, even as the economy has expanded.

One month after Clinton's legislation "to end welfare as we know it" was passed by Congress, he augmented this attack with harsh new immigration legislation. Among other things, the new immigration laws gutted anti- discrimination rules protecting immigrants in the workplace, raised new barriers to refugees seeking asylum and stripped immigrants of the right to appeal an INS ruling in the courts. It also set aside money to double the number of Border Patrol officers and build new immigration detention centers.

Clinton sold this law as a means to supposedly protect "American" jobs. In fact, it simply created more fearful, desperate and vulnerable layers of the working class. It gave more legal weapons to employers and the government to deport any of the millions of undocumented immigrant workers – when they dared speak up or organize.

But 1996 was an election year. Clinton and the Democrats had to offer something to their traditional electorate. So they proposed a minimum wage increase, from $4.25 per hour to $5.15 over a two-year period. Not to be outdone, the Republicans in Congress followed suit, supported the increase and voted it through. In fact, the increase still left the minimum wage 20% less than what it had been worth in the 1970s, taking inflation into account.

But this was good enough for AFL-CIO officials. They called Clinton and the Democrats the friends of labor, and mobilized a big, expensive campaign in their support. In his first four-year term, Clinton had tried to bankrupt the miners' union; broke the railroad workers' strike; cut all the social programs; raised workers' taxes; gutted the rights of anyone in the clutches of the authorities and gave more money to the corporations. No, Clinton was no friend of the workers, only their enemy.

Clinton's Attack on Organized Labor

In the 1996 election, the AFL-CIO's support of the Clinton-Gore ticket proved decisive in their victory over the Republicans. But it didn't take long for Clinton to show what this effort had earned the unions. In 1997, he carried out two big attacks against organized labor.

In February 1997, the Clinton administration invoked the Railway Labor Act, the same act he had used against the railroad unions the year before, to stop the pilots at American Airlines from going on strike. This was the first time in 30 years a president had invoked that act against airline employees. Breaking the pilots' strike set a precedent throughout the airline industry. It helped to hold in check the employees at other airlines who were pushing to recoup years of concessions and takeaways now that the airline industry was generating big profits.

In another confrontation with organized labor, the Clinton administration took on the Teamsters after they organized a successful strike at UPS (United Parcel Service) in August 1997. The UPS strike was a little different than other strikes of the period. Not only had it been somewhat better organized, but it also managed to bring out a bigger proportion of the rank-and-file. Since some of its demands focused on curtailing the use of temporary and part-time workers, it also raised the general problem of fighting against the growing use of low-wage labor. Thus, it had taken on a significance that went beyond the fight at UPS.

The fact that the UPS strike ended with a settlement somewhat favorable to the workers seemed to be a small breakthrough, and it raised the possibility that other workers might be encouraged to carry out strikes of their own. First and foremost, the Teamsters themselves had two big nationwide contracts coming up, the Teamsters Master Freight Agreement and the Car Haulers.

But three days after the UPS settlement, with the support of the Clinton Justice Department, the government monitor in charge of overseeing the Teamsters announced that she was invalidating the election of the Teamster president, Ron Carey, who had led the UPS strike, under charges of corruption. The elections in question had taken place eight months before but the government monitor discovered corruption only after the Teamsters at UPS went on strike and won! Carey was not only removed from office, but eventually barred from running for office again and then even from membership in the Teamsters.

The Clinton administration was not through. At the same time, the Justice Department announced that it was investigating other top officials in the AFL-CIO, including the federation's treasurer, Richard Trumka. This investigation was a blatant threat against the top union officials, warning them to desist from agreeing to any kind of wider strike action. Whether or not the threat played any role in their decision, in any case union officials did not lead any more strikes like the one at UPS, nor practically any strikes at all!

Clinton's Second Term – Aiding, Subsidizing the Explosion of the Bourgeoisie's Wealth

In that same year, 1997, Congress also passed several important measures in Clinton's new budget.

First, Clinton proposed to cut Medicare and Medicaid funding – again. All during the 1996 elections, Clinton and the Democrats had warned that the Republicans had wanted to gut Medicare. This frightened a lot of people into voting for Clinton and the Democrats, who had posed as the defenders of Medicare, simply because they proposed to cut it less than the Republicans did, claiming that their cuts would be made to "save" Medicare, while the Republican cuts would "dismantle" it. Nonetheless, as soon as Clinton won re-election, the Democrats and Republicans were able to agree on 115 billion dollars in Medicare cuts over five years. For good measure, they threw in cuts of 25 billion dollars in Medicaid, which was already extremely underfunded. The new Medicaid cuts made it even more difficult for those on the program to get treatment from many doctors, hospitals or other medical providers who no longer accepted it.

One year after welfare reform had passed, millions of children were losing Medicaid coverage, which fueled some indignation. So Clinton offered a bill which he claimed would help the states expand coverage to reduce the number of children who had no health coverage – 10 million at that point. But this program has been a sham, with few children qualifying to be enrolled in it. The state social service offices, which have been so busy cutting all the other social programs, with Clinton's blessings, are not about to start enrolling children in a new one.

With Clinton's budget cuts containing new sacrifices for ordinary people, he offered what he called tax relief for ordinary families, a new $500 tax credit for each child. That came to a tax savings of about 200 dollars per family.

Of course, this was nothing compared to the tax cut he targeted for the most wealthy: a cut in the capital gains tax, bringing it down from 28 to 20%. Capital gains are considered the profits from the sale of stocks, bonds, real estate, etc., which constitute the bulk of income for the very wealthiest. It had already been set much lower than the federal tax on earned income, that is, wages and salaries. Corporate executives like Bill Gates, must have been overjoyed by the new cut. If he had cashed in his stock options in 1996, for example, the tax cut would have saved him 200 million dollars.

This is why commentators at the time estimated that the wealthiest one percent of the population would derive 80% of the tax savings in the new bill.

Besides that, hidden in the bill were even more breaks for specific corporations. For example, it turned out that Amway had its taxes cut by an estimated 280 million dollars. This little gift had been provided by Provision C of Section XI entitled "Modification of Passive Foreign Investment Company Provisions to Eliminate Overlap with Subpart F and to Allow Mark-to-Market Election, and to Modify Asset Measurement Rule." Whatever that nonsense means!

In the two years that followed, the government opened up its treasury even more to big business. The year 1998 saw huge funding packages, including a 200-billion-dollar highway and transportation package for the big construction companies and a 17-billion-dollar increase in the military budget. This was the largest increase in military spending since the end of the Cold War, and it brought a big boost in orders and profits for the big military contractors. There was also an 18-billion-dollar appropriation to the IMF so that it could continue to bail out U.S. financial interests all over the world. And there was a 20-billion- dollar "emergency" spending package with plenty of goodies for the big agricultural conglomerates. The government also extended and increased tax credits and shelters to corporations for things like research and development.

The bourgeoisie was continuing to enrich itself at the expense of ordinary people, with the aid of Clinton's budgets.

Some Social Consequences

In his last State of the Union address, January 27, 2000, Clinton proclaimed, "Our economic revolution has been matched by a revival of the American spirit. Crime down by 20%, to its lowest level in 25 years. Teen births down seven years in a row, adoptions up by 30%. Welfare rolls cut in half to their lowest levels in 30 years. My fellow Americans, the state of our union is the strongest it has ever been."

No, the past years have not seen an economic revolution, only a continuation of the same policies which benefit the rich at the expense of the rest of the population. There may have been a revival of the spirit – at least among the CEO's of major companies who in 1999 made 475 times as much as the average American factory worker, as opposed to "only" 84 times more just 10 years ago.

And, yes, Clinton's program to end welfare has already brought welfare down by 50%. But the poverty is appalling. According to Clinton's own figures, which understate the real extent of poverty, 12.7% of the population or 34.5 million people were living below the poverty line in 1998. In other words, after eight years of economic expansion, there are still more people living below the poverty line than the population of California, the biggest state in the country.

And that only tells part of the story. Severe poverty is worsening. The number of the extreme poor, people trying to survive on an income of less than half the poverty line, or less than about $6,750 a year for a family of three – actually went up to 14.6 million people in 1997 from 13.9 million in 1995. Among families headed by single mothers, the poorest 10% actually lost 15.2% of their income over the last two years.

This is why, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 10.5% of all U.S. households with 31 million people (19 million adults and 12 million children) did not have enough food in their households to meet their basic needs in 1998.

Thus, there is endemic poverty in the cities and rural areas, and growing poverty in the suburbs.

Clinton's policy has contributed to this. Under his administration, the government has been used to impose more sacrifices on the working class and poor, who have been forced to pay for the crisis, while allowing the profits of the bourgeoisie to continue to grow to untold heights.

With Friends like Clinton, Who Needs Enemies?

Today, with the elections approaching, the union apparatuses are not the only ones supporting Al Gore and the Democrats. So are most traditional black organizations from the churches to the Urban League. The NAACP, among the largest and most influential, formally doesn't support candidates. But in July, it gave Clinton a rousing farewell dinner. Said NAACP Chairman Julian Bond, "We know how to recognize our friends, and this president is our friend." According to press reports, Clinton wiped away tears!

A friend? The brunt of many of the attacks of his administration hit the black working class and poor the hardest. The black working class continues to suffer on average from higher unemployment, earns lower wages and continues to constitute a much higher proportion of the prison population and those sitting on death row.

There is No Such Thing as the Lesser of Two Evils

The Clinton administration has carried out a policy completely geared to serve the interests of the bourgeoisie, just as Reagan and Bush did. It has stood on the side of the bourgeoisie against the working class and the poor.

The union apparatuses certainly are not mobilizing workers and the other exploited and oppressed layers of the population to fight against these policies. They aren't even exposing it. Just the opposite. They are lining up in support of Al Gore and the Democrats – again. And they are trying to bring workers behind them, to campaign, contribute money and vote for their enemies.

This only shows the extent that most union officials are integrated into the bourgeois power structure. On the political level, they have accepted the only choice that the bourgeoisie gives them, which is narrowed down to the Democrats or Republicans. They settle for the few crumbs, like an occasional political appointment of one of their own or the possibility to speak to someone in power from time to time.

That is what union officials call choosing between the lesser of two evils. And it is a trap.

What the workers need is another policy, one that aims at bringing their forces together, defending themselves against the attacks of the bourgeoisie, both from the government and the corporations: one that allows the workers to let their interests prevail over those of the wealthy.

The workers should make sure that the wealth that they have created and that the government uses to make others rich, be instead used to assure everyone decent living conditions and standard of living.

This should be the first priority.

What prevents us today from wiping out all unemployment or underemployment? Why couldn't we ensure that everyone has a decent job that pays full wages and benefits? Why should we accept that even one person – not to speak of the 34 million adults and 11 million children today – does not have full medical coverage? Why should we accept that a mother be ripped away from her infant just to assure the profits of some cockroach boss? Why should we accept that a mother be forced to go to work without her children being provided decent childcare? And why should we accept that millions of the elderly have to work until they die, because they couldn't even work in one place long enough to secure a full pension?

Today we live in a society in which prisons are sprouting like mushrooms and literally millions of our young people are being consigned to live their life surrounded by armed guards, walls, steel and concrete. A society that holds that out as the future of so many is a society in an advanced state of decline and decay.

Yet, today we have the means to wipe out the plagues of this society: exploitation, unemployment, useless jobs, poverty destitution.

We have the means to do this today. The wealth is there. The working class created it. And because of its role and place in the society, it, and only it, has the interest and the power to assure that this wealth be used for everyone.

The first priority for the working class is to understand that it constitutes the alternative for this society. The working class needs its own party.