Apr 2, 2011
The following is a balance sheet of the political and social situation in the United States over the past year, which was adopted by a meeting of the Spark organization.
On the eve of the 2010 elections, Obama declared – as he had been doing for almost a year – that he saw signs of “an impending recovery,” green shoots.
In fact, there had been a kind of “recovery” – one which has grown more ferocious in the months since the election. The biggest corporations announce heavy profits. The top CEO’s get bigger bonuses than before. The stock market has come roaring back. And the trillions of dollars put into the hands of the financial system are now circulating, rushing after one speculative venture after another.
But there has been no recovery for the working class – not at the time of the election, not now. Even the official unemployment rate – severely limited as it is – testifies to that, with nearly 16% of the labor force either unemployed or underemployed in March. And the real level is much worse, since many people have dropped out of the categories that officially are counted as part of the labor force. The total labor force has decreased by 7.5 million people since the “Great Recession” began in December 2007 – although increased numbers in the population should have translated into an increase of 3.8 million jobs. One half of all households had at least one member unemployed sometime during the last year.
And there is nothing to indicate that the situation will improve any time soon. The economic engine would have to create 11.3 million new jobs just to bring the unemployment rate down to the 5.0% level that existed in 2007. In all of 2010, after the February 2011 corrections, only half a million jobs were created – not nearly enough to keep pace with the increase in the population. In February 2011, which was trumpeted as a very good month, 192,000 new jobs were created. But at this rate, it would take until 2019 just to get back to the pre-recession unemployment rate.
The unemployed have been advised to go back to school – take advantage of their period of unemployment to finish their studies, prepare for the “high-tech” jobs that supposedly will exist once the economy picks up. But the politicians who preach this sermon are the very ones who today cut city, state and federal budget funding for colleges and universities. If it weren’t for the fact that all sorts of schemes catch unwary working class students on the hook of impossibly large loans, the advice to get training could be passed off as a bad joke. But the size of these loans will keep naive students indebted for most of their working lives. One study recently concluded that today’s university students who finance most of their four-year course with loans will still be paying off those loans when it’s time for their kids to go to college.
The mortgage crisis – a creation of the banks and real-estate speculators – has resulted in 3.4 million families losing their homes over the past four years. And we are not at the end of this disaster. By the end of 2010, five million homeowners were behind in their mortgage payments, and another 11 million were “underwater” – that is, they owe more than the home is worth. The downward spiral in home prices continues – leading ultimately to more foreclosures.
No city has escaped this crisis. Once booming “sun-belt” cities of Las Vegas, Phoenix, Miami/Fort Lauderdale, and a range of California cities, were ravaged as much or more than old “rust-belt” cities like Detroit and Cleveland. In Las Vegas, one of nine houses in the whole city was put into foreclosure proceedings during 2010 alone. In the worst-hit cities, there are entire neighborhoods where one in every three or four houses has been seized by the banks, many of them scavenged, with windows and doors broken, electric lines and plumbing torn out of the house.
The degradation of public services in the big cities leaves these neighborhoods without adequate sanitation or protective services. In Detroit this past summer, one fire spread to nine houses, another spread to 17 homes, laying waste to those that were empty as well as those still lived in. The fire station closest to the fire was on a “furlough” day – one of many “economizing” budget measures taken by the city. It took more than 30 minutes for the first fire company to even get there. Eight of 66 fire companies were out of commission that day in the whole immense city. Today, facing this crisis of public services created by years of cuts, the current Detroit mayor has proposed to “shrink” the city: that is, to cut off city services to some neighborhoods, forcing people to move into other parts of the city. In other words, he is preparing the way for a wholesale takeover of land by speculators, real estate developers, agricultural interests and gentrifiers.
Detroit may be among the most extreme in cuts. But it’s a story being told over and over again, in city after city, state after state, as the weight of the crisis is pushed more directly onto the shoulders of the laboring population.
This was the situation facing the working class when the 2010 election took place. Certainly, Obama inherited the economic crisis – as the leaders of the unions and the black churches have repeatedly explained ever since 2009. In the first year of his term, most workers probably accepted this explanation, and were ready to give him some time. But as it became more obvious that Obama was continuing in Bush’s foot steps, that explanation wore a bit thin.
Obama may have utilized a different language than did Bush, he may have made more effort to hide the significance of his actions, but the policies of his administration continued almost seamlessly down the path laid down by the Bush administration. He pretended to take a different stance toward the war in Iraq, but he did not take one soldier out in advance of Bush’s plans for a partial withdrawal of troops, nor did he call in question the continuing U.S. occupation of Iraq, envisioned by Bush’s building of the Green Zone and hundreds of bases in the country. And all the while, his administration considerably increased the number of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, and it transformed occasional raids into Pakistan into a full-out attack on sections of that country. He criticized the profits of the banks and the bonuses given to their executives, but his government continued to hand out money to the banks. He criticized GM and Chrysler management for bad decisions, but he demanded concessions from the auto workers – more concessions in fact than Bush had. He criticized Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” education reform as a bureaucratic nightmare, but he built on the basic aspects of that “reform” and made it more draconian, by requiring school boards to attack teachers’ tenure and income and to increase the number of privately run charter schools as a condition for qualifying for federal money. Obama criticized the Bush administration for carrying out workplace raids of immigrants without papers, but the methods of his own government have resulted in the expulsion of 10% more people than in Bush’s last year.
Sometimes Obama doesn’t even have a different language than Bush – particularly when it comes to playing the anti-terrorist card to drum up support for the wars and for a continuation of the repressive policies passed in the period right after 9-11. And it was right out of Bush’s book to reproach, as Obama did, the young black students in Jena, Louisiana, victims of a racist campaign, for responding physically against the racists who attacked them. And Bush would not have dared to peddle the reproaches that Obama threw at the poor layers of the black population, blaming their poverty on their behavior.
The one supposed change from the Bush years, what Obama called his “signature program,” was the health care “reform.” In fact, President Nixon had floated a similar idea in 1974, but then let it drop. There were all kinds of right-wing imbeciles who made the craziest accusations about the health care “reform”: for example, that death panels would decide who could live and who must die, or that the reform was “communism.” But many workers were suspicious of this plan, so complicated and so totally unclear about what it involved. Even among those who thought it might be a good thing, many reproached the Democrats for devoting so much time and effort to it, while the economic situation continued to get worse, and the problem of unemployment was practically ignored.
It was no surprise that the Democrats “took a shellacking” in the 2010 elections (Obama’s words). The Democrats had controlled all the levers of government at the federal level and occupied the governor’s chair in the majority of states. Thus, they paid the price for an economy that had worsened the situation of the laboring population, in the midst of growing wealth for the bourgeoisie.
In the post-election polls, the most common reason people gave for their vote was the desire to vote against whoever was in office. And since the Democrats had a large majority, they lost the most. But their defeat was hardly a ringing endorsement for the Republicans. Even among Republican voters, one quarter said they had a negative opinion of the Republicans.
But the people who expressed themselves most massively were those who didn’t vote. Sixty-two percent of those eligible to vote did not think it worth their time to vote, with a rate of abstention higher still among the laboring population. Despite last-minute appeals by union leaders for workers to get out and vote Democrat in order to prevent the Republicans from taking over, there is little indication that their own members rushed to the polls. And despite Obama’s last-minute appeals on black radio stations, calling on the black population to “get my back” by going to vote, over three-quarters of the black population did not bother.
There was an interesting aspect to the election campaign in Washington D.C., where the election for mayor was openly seen as a referendum on the “education reform” pushed by the Obama administration and by Mayor Adrian Fenty: specifically, on the closing of neighborhood schools, replacing them with privately run charter schools. Obama’s forces campaigned for Fenty and helped put money into his campaign chest. Nonetheless, Fenty lost – with an overwhelming vote against him coming from the poor and working class black neighborhoods, that is, the parents whose children go to the public schools and have been victimized by this reform. In fact, the only districts in D.C. to give Fenty real support were those where white, wealthy residents predominate, and where most children go to expensive private schools.
While “Tea Party” candidates made a strong showing in Republican primaries, those candidates may have cost the Republicans in some of the final elections. The three spectacular losses for the Republicans in the Senate – Tancredo, O’Donnell, and Sharron Angle – were all heavily supported by the Tea Party, as well as by Sarah Palin. Obviously, we can’t rewrite the election script, but it certainly is reasonable to assume that these three losses cost the Republican Party control of the Senate.
Nonetheless, the Tea Party took advantage of the 2010 elections to stoke a kind of reactionary populism in part of the white population, mostly middle class, but some working class. And organizations like the Tea Party are not going to go away anytime soon, financed as they are by some of the wealthiest people in the country. They will keep the Tea Party functioning, if for no other reason than to make propaganda for very reactionary views (for example, that renters should not have the right to vote in elections!). In any case, we should not discount the fact that there is a sizeable organized right-wing in this country, with part of it having already carried out violence against women and immigrants, as well as against the black population.
Republicans now control the U.S. House of Representatives, which they clearly intend to use as their pulpit for the 2012 election and as a springboard for raking in big bucks from many of those wealthy donors who supported the Democrats last time. But the Democrats, who still control the White House and the Senate, are now somewhat protected from taking the full blame for the attacks that are to come – especially since so many of those attacks are making themselves felt on the level of the states, where Republican governors now spearhead the attack.
Obama has taken advantage of the election results to justify his policies, blaming the election – that is, the population – and the Republicans for what he is doing. The elections were barely over before he cited the results as the reason he must “compromise” with the Republicans. Before November was done, Obama stepped forward with his first “compromise” – his unilateral decision to freeze the pay of government workers for two years, cutting a scheduled increase. Before December was done, even before the Republicans took control of the House, he engineered the next compromise: a two-year tax cut for the wealthy and the corporations, supposedly compensated for by Republican votes to extend long-term unemployment benefits. To add injury to injury, Obama also agreed to impose a tax increase on the poorest 25% of the population, by cutting the “Making Work Pay” tax credit.
These first “compromises” have been followed by others, most recently the funding of the 2011 fiscal year budget, which should have been done by October 1, 2010, but which was postponed until after the elections. Right after the elections, the Republicans announced that they were ready to shut down government if the Democrats didn’t agree to cut 70 billion dollars from the previous year’s level of spending for “discretionary” programs – i.e., spending that impacts the population. The Democrats said they would cut no more than 34 billion. But after a series of three partial agreements, plus the final one in mid April, the two parties had agreed to a total of 80 billion in cuts! Thus the Democrats and Obama “compromised” by cutting even more than the Republicans had first demanded.
The Obama administration, working hand in glove with the Republicans, massively adds to the government’s budget deficit by opening the Treasury to the bourgeoisie; at the same time, it prepares to savage what’s left of the programs most useful to the population. In his “State of the Union” address in January, Obama agreed with Republicans that the growing budget deficit requires cuts in government spending – then announced he was freezing all domestic programs for five years, a de facto cut in education, highways, infrastructure, public services and social services, jointly funded by states and federal government. But the real focus of his speech was to put Medicaid and Medicare on the chopping block, and let it be known that even Social Security was not immune.
On the state level, Republican governors are spearheading the attack: increase deficits by cutting corporate taxes – and then, under the pretext of those same deficits, increase taxes on poor people, cut social programs, cut education, cut public services. Of course, the Democratic governors that preceded them also attacked the population – it’s the reason so many were voted out in the past election. And in states like Illinois, California and Maryland, which the Democrats currently control, the cuts continue. And don’t forget the Democratic mayors: Rahm Emanuel, even before he took office as Chicago’s new mayor, listed a series of cuts he intends to impose on Chicago workers, and on their unions.
As of early March, five states – New Jersey, Nevada, Indiana, Idaho and Florida – had introduced laws outright eliminating teacher tenure. Many more states had introduced laws partially abrogating it. And governors in all 50 states introduced laws or budgets that in one way or another will reduce the wage/benefit package of state and/or local public workers this year.
The most vicious of those laws, at least potentially, is the “Emergency Financial Manager” law, as it was amended this year in Michigan. (Walker, apparently envious, proposed to introduce the same deal in Wisconsin, referring to it as “financial martial law”!) Essentially, the law allows the governor to decide on his own account that a city, county, or school board is “in danger of bankruptcy” and then appoint an “emergency financial manager,” who will have the power to make all decisions concerning the city, county, or schools – including, removing local officials, issuing edicts in place of laws, cancelling union contracts, setting wages and benefits, cutting workers, eliminating social programs or public services. Almost everything is put at risk – except the bonds held by big investors, and the interest payments those bonds make.
The attack on public workers and teachers mirrors what the capitalists did starting in 2005, when they made auto workers the target, pushing through waves of concessions that have served, first, to cut wages and benefits almost in half for the next generation of auto workers and to severely attack working conditions and retirement possibilities for current workers and, then, to use those auto concessions as the basis for demanding sacrifices from the whole working class.
Of course, the demands for concessions from state workers did not just start this year. Hit and miss, over the years, there has been one concession after another. And the attack on teachers has been going on ever since Bush’s No Child Left Behind.
But what was different over the past year – coming to a culmination as soon as the 2010 elections were over – was the constant push everywhere, using the same propaganda themes everywhere, to roll back wages and especially pension and health care benefits of state and city workers and teachers.
When public workers and teachers are under attack, this can only severely impact the population, whose standard of living is reduced when services delivered by public workers are cut. Under the pretense of budget deficits, the state apparatus is now organizing a much wider attack on the vast majority of the population, and especially on its poorest layers.
Shortly after Obama took office, his then Chief-of-Staff Rahm Emanuel issued capital’s famous call to arms: “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that is it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” Every politician in the country by now has tattooed that on his hand, if not his forehead. Every one of them has been using the economic crisis as an argument to get people to accept the most outrageous gifts to the corporations, the banks and the wealthy, gifts paid for by outright extortion of an ever increasing share of the wealth produced by working people.
The new crop of Republican governors, pretending they have a “mandate,” are working not only to answer the demands of capital, but to undercut the unions and thereby the unions’ ability to campaign for the Democrats. The new Republican Wisconsin governor, Scott Walker, may have attracted the most attention, but anti-union laws have also been introduced in Ohio, South Dakota, Colorado, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Indiana, Idaho, Alabama, Montana, Michigan, Arizona, Kansas, Mississippi and Missouri. The Republican self-serving aim in most of these laws is to eliminate dues check off or agency shop for unions representing state workers, as a way to cut deeply into union funds.
The leaders of the unions have made it clear since the beginning of these Republican-led attacks that they agree that everyone must sacrifice and that they are ready for their members to do their part. In Wisconsin, where new governor Scott Walker demanded, among other things, that state workers contribute 5.8% of their wages toward their pension, and double the amount they now pay toward health care premiums, union leaders from the beginning made it clear they did not oppose either of these demands.
What union leaders aren’t ready to do, and what the Democrats don’t want them to do, is commit organizational suicide. Thus the unions called on their ranks to make a resounding protest in Wisconsin where the Republican governor overtly attacked the very possibility for public employee unions to exist, and they spread that protest to other states. And the Democrats’ front organizations, like Move On, as well as, Organizing for America, Obama’s campaign organization, reinforced that call by bringing out their activists and other students – as well as by providing funds, setting up websites, bringing in bodies and, in fact, carrying out a big part of the behind the scenes activity.
Democratic legislators, who made themselves absent in Wisconsin in order to temporarily avoid a vote, also made it clear they weren’t opposed to making state workers and the population pay for the cost of the crisis. But the Democrats grabbed hold of the stage that Wisconsin gave them to make a big propaganda for themselves aimed at the 2012 elections. And they were openly jubilant after the Republicans finally pushed through Walker’s attack on the unions. Mike Tate, leader of Wisconsin’s Democratic Party, declared, “From a policy perspective this is terrible. But from a political perspective he could not have handed us a bigger gift.” And Steve Israel, chairman of the national Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said, “On every front of the battle to take back the House – fund-raising, volunteers, candidates – what is happening in Madison is helping.”
We can expect to see more demonstrations and protests of one sort or another. The union leadership must find the way to keep the workers’ anger bubbling, and focus it on the Republican governors, so that all those workers who stayed away from the polls in 2010 will return in 2012, so that all those who voted Republican in 2010 out of disgust with the Democrats will be even more disgusted with the Republicans once 2012 rolls around.
In any case, we can be sure that as time goes on, the organizing will shift more and more openly into a political campaign for the Democrats.
Whatever political goals the union apparatuses have in mind by continuing to call for protests, by doing so, they provided an opening for workers to finally express their anger, and to bring their forces together.
Protests have tied up state government in Wisconsin; they have massed not only by ten thousand on many days, but by nearly one hundred thousand on several Saturdays, in a single Midwestern state capital, and by the thousands or tens of thousands elsewhere. The turnout at those demonstrations has cut through this complaint we have heard for a long time: that workers will no longer do anything. It let workers feel some of the power they actually have. By everything we could gauge, workers were pleased by the demonstrations, and just by the fact they existed.
Perhaps workers, too, will end up doing “things they thought they could not do before”! The mobilization certainly reinforces and widens the small hints of change in the working class seen in recent years: the rejection of the Ford concessions in 2009; the appearance at the UAW 2010 convention of a current clearly opposed to the concessions; and the stubborn refusal of workers in several important plants to cave in to demands for more concessions.
Does the crisis mean that governments – federal, states, cities, counties, school boards – find themselves with less revenue? Perhaps, since the vast amount of unemployment and wage cutting means that tax revenues went down. But every level of government has provided a constantly overflowing trough from which the bourgeoisie has been slurping for years. What budget deficit would there be if the banks had not gotten trillions, if the biggest companies had not gotten hundreds of billions, if the armaments industry had not gotten hundreds of billions, if the wars had not eaten up trillions?
It’s obvious there are vast sums of money that could be used for the needs of the population. It’s also obvious that the working class and ordinary layers of the population did not cause whatever budget deficits that do exist – and should not pay for them.
Public services and education, laid waste by government cuts, must be restored. There’s money in the hands of the capitalist class that created the crisis. Use it to put people to work – rebuilding the crumbling infrastructure falling down in every city and state, improving the schools, providing public services.
No more cuts in public employment. In the midst of the crisis, the number of teachers, public service workers, public medical service workers should increase.
But that’s only the beginning.
No company that makes a profit should be allowed to lay off workers or cut jobs.
No company making a profit should be allowed to raise its prices or cut wages.
There is an enormous reserve of unemployed people and of youth unable to find their first job, even while workers with jobs are working too hard, for too many hours. Reduce the speed of work, lower the number of hours – with no loss in pay – and provide a job to every one who wants to work.
Of course, the capitalists would pretend it’s impossible, that they have no profit, even that they have no money. It’s why the working class needs to control the companies’ accounts, their bookkeeping. Workers in every workplace know what’s being produced, who’s being paid, how much is in the slush fund, what is being shipped, what’s coming in. It’s exactly why companies threaten us with discharge or even prosecution if we reveal their “business secrets.”
The politicians lie about the state budget. But working people know what is going on in their communities. Public workers in all those departments know the reality, the dirty deals behind the politicians’ speeches. Teachers know what is happening in the schools.
The knowledge that the working people have, taken together, lets us see the situation for what it is, and begin to control it.
A revolutionary workers’ organization has to find the ways to propose answers like these: answers that are eminently reasonable to the majority of the population, even if, at this point, few believe they could be realized. But demands like these are in accord with the situation and, at the same time, with the capacity of workers to fight for their own interests. And when the workers regain confidence in their own ability to lead a fight, then they can put demands like these, and many more, on their agenda.