The Spark

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

A Working-Class Electoral Campaign in Michigan

Apr 15, 1989

Obviously, the whole left is weak in the United States, and the habitual vote recorded by the different organizations of the left reflects that weakness. Ordinarily, it stayed on the level of one tenth of one percent, if not one hundredth or even one thousandth of one percent, and ordinarily the vote for the left was often not even reported in the press, until two months after the election was over, when all the results are made official. For instance in the last presidential election the candidates of the Workers League and the Socialist Workers Party, two groups from the Trotskyist movement got respectively 18,579 and 13,338 votes, that is, two tenths of one percent and one tenth of one percent (according to the New York Times). This time the Communist Party didn’t run a presidential candidate. Many legal obstacles stand in the way of such candidates and they might only run in a few states.

Up until 1988, Spark had never carried out an electoral activity of its own.

We had given a hand to the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in several of its campaigns. And in our press, we had called for a vote for the SWP or Communist Party (CP) or other left organizations which had presented themselves in a particular election. We didn’t abstain out of principle, nor because we found those other campaigns completely satisfactory. It’s simply that we are a small group, and we never figured we had the forces nor found ourselves in a situation that would have enabled us to present a credible campaign.

Until 1988, we had never thought we could carry out a campaign that would touch enough workers to demonstrate that it is possible for workers to appear in the political arena. At any rate, in 1988 we thought we had the possibility to appear — at least in one state, Michigan.

A Resistance to the Concessions

There was still high unemployment in Michigan. It has been high, in fact, going back as far as 1974, without much relief. During the recessions of 1973-1975 and 1979-1982, it had, of course, been much higher, but it was nonetheless a constant factor in Michigan even during the recovery years, the reflection of a harsh drive for greater productivity, a drive led by the large automobile companies centered in Michigan.

The weight of the unemployed had made it easier for those companies, starting in 1979, to impose contracts which reduced, directly and indirectly, the wages and benefits previously negotiated between the auto companies and the UAW (United Auto Workers union).

That drive to reduce wages, benefits and working conditions came to be known as “concessions.” The heads of the union argued it was necessary for the workers to give up “concessions” in order to prevent, in the case of Chrysler, the company from going bankrupt; in the case of the other companies, to prevent them from having to close plants due to competition from the Japanese. In the first years, the workers accepted, maybe not happily, but, for the most part, they accepted this line of reasoning. Once the traditionally better off and more protected auto workers gave concessions, the other companies rushed to demand the same or even greater concessions from their workers. And then, it was just a matter of time before the auto companies came back to the trough, hungry for a new round of concessions.

This vicious circle had turned repeatedly before the contracts of 1987, with very few attempts by the workers in auto or elsewhere to refuse the concessions demanded.

However, it had become increasingly obvious that the concessions did not save jobs. Employment at the big 3 auto companies was reduced by almost 40% from what it had been in 1973. By the time the 1987 contracts came up, the main concession the companies were demanding was increased productivity, which would have meant the loss of still more jobs. In the 1987 round of auto contracts, the national contracts were voted down by a number of local unions, mostly in places where local officials or, in some cases, rank and file militants organized an opposition. These votes came despite the pressures and the arguments of most UAW officials, who even tried to present the latest contract as the one which put an end to the concessions, despite the big job cuts accepted in it.

As far as we could judge, the sentiments of the workers seemed to be turning against the arguments they had once grudgingly accepted for giving up concessions. Beyond that, they had come to distrust the union officials who argued for the concession contracts.

A Strike Which Was Not Defeated

At the end of 1987, there was a strike in Michigan in which workers had been able to throw back the companies’ demand for concessions: the 12-week strike of 4,000 clerical workers at Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Michigan, an insurance company centered in Detroit. The Blue Cross strikers were sufficiently organized to be able to control their own strike, from beginning to end, giving them the means to hang on for 12 weeks, resisting the pressure of the International UAW bureaucracy to give in. (Even though they are clerical workers, they are organized into the UAW, which is common with many non-auto workers in Michigan, where the UAW is centered.) If they were never able to spread their strike, they were nonetheless able to draw the attention of other workers to it and eventually to make it a kind of political fact. The company finally came up with a 17% wage increase and an immediate $1500 bonus, and it withdrew almost every single concession demand.

In another period a strike like this, with workers staying out 12 weeks, just to keep the contract and the kind of raises they had got before, would have seemed almost like a defeat. But the Blue Cross strike took place after almost a whole decade without any resistance; the few strikes that did take place were defeated, after the workers’ militancy was drained, ending in the same or even harsher concessions being imposed. That’s why the Blue Cross strike stood out a little. It was a kind of proof that it is possible for the workers to fight to defend themselves, despite the time period. Certainly this strike was known by many of the union militants who wanted to put an end to the drive for concessions.

The main leader of this strike was a long-time militant linked to Spark.

Testing the Waters

1988 was the big election year, the one which combined elections for the presidency, congress, the state legislature, and many local offices — all at the same time.

We were sure there was a strong sentiment among the workers against the concessions and other cutbacks, that there was a lot of frustration at the role played by the union in imposing the concessions. We thought it would be a good thing if the workers could express what they thought about their situation more broadly than they are able in their specific contracts. We wanted to take advantage of the elections to let workers make a political gesture, to let them escape the usual trap of having no other choice than abstaining if they didn’t want to vote for the “lesser of two evils” (meaning a vote for the Democrats who are supposedly considered a lesser evil for the workers).

At the same time, we thought it might be possible for the woman who had led the Blue Cross strike, based on the success of that strike there, to convince other union militants to take part in an election campaign. One advantage of such a proposal would be that the campaign could be carried out more widely than we could do with just our own forces. The other was that it let us address a concrete proposal to those unionists who feel the lack of a workers party in the U.S., those who want to see the working class enter the political arena today reserved for the bourgeoisie’s two parties.

There certainly are union activists in Michigan who would like to see a working class political party. The political content and the form that party would take obviously vary and are usually not very clear or precise. Nonetheless, a small fraction of union militants do want to see the workers appear politically.

We hoped that all of this gave an opening for a working class slate to be presented in the elections, one which clearly defined itself as working class, independent of the Democrats and Republicans. A slate which addressed working people about their problems and concerns, which raised the necessity for workers to depend on their own forces to resist the attacks. Such a slate would insist on the responsibility of both the Democrats and the Republicans for the current situation, on the fact that they were the stage managers for the concessions policy carried out by the corporations.

The Axis of the Campaign

In February of 1988, we began the work to see if such a campaign were possible.

We chose the name “Workers Against Concessions” for the slate. We did not choose the name in order to remain at the unionist level, but despite the problems raised by that.

Like workers in other countries, those in the U.S. have had their standard of living reduced, forced to be the ones to pay the cost of the economic crisis. The corporations and the government together have imposed a real austerity on the laboring population. But it’s not viewed in exactly those terms. It’s not felt as a question of one class weighing on another, nor as a question which is political in nature. Maybe that’s the reflection of the fact that there is no workers party in the U.S., and workers don’t envision their class having a role to play in the political arena.

In any case, each group of workers confronts the bourgeoisie’s austerity policy in the form of their own union contract, through which concessions have been imposed. Problems of increased taxes, decreased social services, worsening schools certainly add to the workers’ feeling that they are under attack, but those governmental measures don’t seem, for many workers, to derive from the same cause as the concessions.

Obviously in choosing the name “Workers Against Concessions,” we reinforced the same perception.

There were other problems presented by that name. Many workers in non-union or small shops and in offices or hospitals didn’t use the word “concessions” to refer to what was happening to them. And for the unemployed, the question was not concessions. It was jobs.

Nonetheless, we chose the name because we thought it was a name in which most workers would recognize themselves. For all its problems, the word “concessions” symbolized the sense that they were paying the price of the economic crisis.

It was on this base we rested the campaign — the desire of the workers to stop paying the cost of the crisis, to stop seeing their own standard of living reduced while that of the wealthy increased. The axis of the campaign was to ask the workers to express what they thought by voting for Workers Against Concessions; to warn the corporations, the bankers and the politicians that the workers were no longer willing to accept concessions. At the same time, we insisted on the idea that the concessions would not be stopped if the workers did not fight for themselves — with the determination shown by the Blue Cross strikers but with all the forces that are in the workers’ hands.

A Workers Slate

We discussed with as many union militants as possible. At the same time, we tried to fulfill the requirements for gaining ballot status.

The requirements for putting a slate of candidates on the ballot are somewhat restrictive. We had to get the signatures of a little more than 16,000 registered voters, with at least 100 in each of 9 of the state’s 16 Congressional districts. Formally each person signing says they are an organizer of a new political party. By the time we started, we had a little more than six weeks in which to complete the work. In fact, we managed to collect more than 37,500 signatures, of which more than 36,000 were validated.

We had less success with attracting union militants than with getting the signatures. Many of them feel the pressure of the union bureaucracy and its support for the Democrats. Others were pulled in the direction of the Democrats by Jesse Jackson’s campaign. (Michigan was one of the states where Jackson won overwhelmingly in the Democratic primary, by a margin of almost two to one.) Still others agreed that it was the thing to do, but said that 1988 wasn’t yet the year, or that it was too late to start a real campaign for 1988.

In any case, we did attract some other union activists to join with us in the campaign, but with a few exceptions, the people who were ready to engage themselves in the campaign were rank-and-file militants.

When we completed putting our slate together, we had 26 different people running. Many of them were union activists. Some were older workers who had lost their jobs. There were younger workers who found it impossible to find a decent job. Some were people who had been active in their community. Several were mothers whose concern was the education their children were getting in the public schools. All of them were from the working class.

We made a conscious choice to field a slate made up completely by workers. The workers, and particularly the American workers, must learn today that they have their own forces on which they can depend, their own militants who can lead their struggles and represent them. And they have to see consciously that they have every reason to mistrust those politicians from other classes who today try to speak in their name in the different levels of the government.

Those are not just words for us. The slate we fielded demonstrated our conviction more clearly than any pronouncements could have.

Those 26 candidates ran for different offices: from the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives to the State House of Representatives, to State Board of Education and County Commissioners.

This was a contrast to the usual habit of the left in this country, which often presents candidates only for the presidency or for the presidency and the U.S. Senate.

We chose, instead, to put some candidates at the top of the ballot, but also to put candidates in the other positions, hoping to give more workers the possibility to express themselves. The results, in fact, demonstrated that the percentage of these voters was bigger for the candidates for local positions than for the top.

Geographically, we presented candidates and carried out the campaign in almost one half of the state. But within those districts we focused our campaign on the working class areas — inside the workplaces, at plant gates, in the working class shopping areas and neighborhoods. Our campaign was a workers’ campaign, addressing as big a part of the working class as we could.

It was a campaign which was paid for by direct pledges from hundreds of people, and by thousands of people who bought buttons and t-shirts.

The Results

Certainly, the results were not very large. But nonetheless there were results, ones that were measured and reported. The total number of voters to vote for at least one candidate of the Workers Against Concessions slate was someplace between 30,000 and 40,000 people, in a state where the turnout was a little more than 3,200,000. Because of the overlapping candidacies, it is impossible to know the exact figure. The candidate with the single largest number of votes, for the State Board of Education, had more than 27,000 votes. In any case, the total vote was somewhere around 1%, perhaps a little less, maybe even a little more.

This result was tiny. But even this tiny result shows that it is possible for the left to address the working class ... and to be heard by a small section of the workers.

Class Struggle, April 15, 1989