The U.S. on the Eve of the Inauguration of Barack Obama
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The following article will appear in the forthcoming (January-February 2009) issue of La Vérité/The Truth, the theoretical magazine of the Fourth International.
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U.S. Section of the Fourth International
THE UNITED STATES ON THE EVE OF THE INAUGURATION OF BARACK OBAMA
By ALAN BENJAMIN
AS THIS article goes to press, preparations are under way for a January 20, 2009, presidential inauguration in Washington, D.C., expected to draw more than 1.5 million people -- the largest crowd ever at such an event -- from across the United States.
Newspapers everywhere are featuring stories about the "change in direction" they anticipate from a Barack Obama presidency. After eight years under George W. Bush, working people all over the United States and internationally are breathing a sigh of relief and hoping that things will get better.
And there is reason for hope. The November 4 election was an historic election. Millions of Blacks, Latinos, youth, and working people of all backgrounds seized on this election to say: enough is enough, racism and oppression must end now. In the context of the deepening economic crisis, the election also was a cry from working people of all backgrounds: We cannot accept the destruction of our jobs, our homes, our public services and our communities ... this crisis is not of our making and we should not be made to pay for it.
Youth, particularly Black youth, told radio and TV reporters across the country that they had voted for the first time because they felt they could make a difference ... because Obama promised to create jobs for inner-city youth, to provide public funding so that every young person could go to college, and to end the war in Iraq so that the economic draft was not their only option.
One Black youth in Harlem, N.Y., who was interviewed on Democracy Now on Nov. 4 put the aspirations of millions of Black people best when he said: "With Obama, everything is going to change. We will finally be free and equal. We will finally get our dignity back!"
Bruce Dixon, managing editor of the Black Agenda Report, captured this profound sentiment for change in a recent editorial:
"The first Black president carries with him into the Oval Office the hopes and dreams and aspirations of many people he will never meet, but who imagine they know his heart and intentions. Although these things were not on the ballot, and were kept largely out of the discussions by the media and the candidates themselves, the tens of millions who voted for Obama did so because in the main, they want an end to the war. They want to see the military budget and the prison population reduced. They want single-payer national healthcare. They want a more just economy and they objected strenuously to Bush's -- and Obama's -- bailout of Wall Street.
"Their expectations of social and economic justice at home and peace abroad are, in Dr. King's famous language, a gigantic and long-overdue promissory note. ... That is the change his voters believed in, that's what they expect to see." (BAR, November 6, 2008)
But will these millions of people see this change from an Obama presidency?
The Obama cabinet nominations and the policy directives Obama has been spelling out as President-Elect over the past six weeks have sent shivers up the spines of his supporters. Isn't this more "politics as usual?", they ask. In the labor and liberal press, trade unionists and activists have expressed their growing concerns, and they have begun to ask some central questions: What will it take to secure the change that people aspire to and expect? How can working people use the political opening provided by the November 4 election to build a strong and powerful movement that can impose the real change so desperately needed by the working class majority that voted for Obama?
To begin to address these questions, it is necessary to first examine the current economic and financial crisis of U.S. capitalism that provides the setting within which Obama and his new cabinet will take office on January 20.
THE DEEPENING ECONOMIC AND FINANCIAL CRISIS
In its statement of October 28, 2008, the National Committee of Socialist Organizer wrote the following about the current crisis:
"The current crisis that is sweeping Wall Street and that has witnessed the White House scrambling to bail out the speculators to the tune of $1.3 trillion (when previous loans and bailouts related to the mortgage collapse are included) is ... the expression of the failure and death agony of a 'free market' economic system based on the private ownership of the means of production.
"The most recent phase of the ever-deepening crisis of capitalism began two years ago as a sub-prime mortgage crisis. It now has exploded into the deepest financial crisis since the Great Depression. ... There is a very real possibility that this financial crisis could develop into an economic meltdown more devastating than anything experienced during the 1930s."
What seemed only a few months ago as a possibility has now become a reality: The crisis, which began as a financial crisis, has spread to all realms of the economy at a pace that has alarmed even the most cautious analysts. Such is the degree of decomposition of the system based on the private ownership of the means of production.
Economists are now stating openly that the economic recession will be deeper and longer than the preceding nine post-1945 recessions. Jack Rasmus, writing in Z Magazine (December 2008), warns that "the U.S. economy could be thrust toward a full-fledged Depression by early 2010."
Throughout 2008, the Federal Reserve and the U.S. Treasury have intervened with massive funding to attempt to stave off an impending economic and financial collapse. The Federal Reserve has provided $2.5 trillion in loans to ailing financial institutions, while the U.S. Treasury has provided $1.3 trillion in bailout funding for the banks, the latest being the $700 billion for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, voted by the Congress on October 31.
This has led to a sharp increase in the aggregate U.S. debt. Whereas in 1980, the total U.S. debt (including business debt; federal, state and local government debt; and consumer debt) was $5 trillion, in 2008 it has skyrocketed to $53 trillion. Of this total, $22 trillion were incurred since the Dot Com bubble burst in 2001. Only $1 trillion is consumer debt, however. This belies all those ruling-class pundits who continue to insist day after day in the media that the reason for the deep financial crisis we are facing today is that "the American people have been living well beyond their means."
The massive war budget in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003, and the massive tax cuts to the rich have contributed heavily to this massive debt.
But despite this huge amount of funding by the Fed and the U.S. Treasury, not only has the crisis not abated, it has gotten worse by the day.
Economist Jack Rasmus notes that,
"The cumulative effect of the Banking Panic of 2008 has been to accelerate the credit crisis that had been growing since the summer of 2007. ... The crisis [has] spread rapidly from residential housing to commercial property to municipal bonds (provoking solvency crises in several states, including California), to money market mutual funds, to commercial paper -- and now placing Pension Funds, Hedge Funds, and Money Market Mutual Funds seriously at risk as the economy enters 2009.
"The sharp credit contraction and freeze has also resulted in a virtual collapse of consumer credit and spending, raising growing concerns that auto, student and credit card markets and companies are also on the edge of default. Consumer spending fell off a cliff in October 2008, and shows signs of continuing to deteriorate as layoffs grow." ("Confronting the Deepening Economic Crisis: A Program for Recovery," Z Magazine, December 2008)
Indeed. The layoffs are mounting daily and at a staggering rate. According to official government statistics, 530,000 workers lost their jobs in the month of November alone -- the highest one-month job loss since 1931. But this official count -- as Jack Rasmus points out -- does not give the full story, as the official jobless rate does not include those "discouraged" workers who are out of work and didn't actively look for work in the preceding four weeks after having pounded the pavement for more than 6 months without success; nor does it include workers laid off from jobs but hired back as part-time employees working anywhere between 5 and 20 hours per week. (Two decades ago, these two factors were included in the assessment of the U.S. unemployment rate.)
When factored in to include the "discouraged" workers, the November job losses exceed 750,000 workers, and when the "minimally employed" are accounted for, the total number of jobs lost is more than 1.3 million.
Taken over the last year, the number of jobless rose officially by 3.2 million (to a rate of 6.7%), but, again, when the "discouraged" and minimally employed are added, the totals are close to 5 million jobs lost -- for a 9% unemployment rate.
Likewise, economists are predicting that if the current recession continues its current course in 2009, there will be an estimated 3 million to 4 million jobs lost, according to official estimates, but as many as 7 million more jobless if one factors in the discouraged and underemployed. This would mean between 8 million and 12 million jobs lost in the span of 2008-2009. Economist Jack Rasmus warns that as many as 20 million jobs could be lost by 2010 if nothing is done to "stimulate" the economy." (Z Magazine, December 2008)
In this situation, Barack Obama has announced his intention to launch a $700 billion jobs program aimed at creating between 2.5 million and 3 million jobs within 18 months. The plan, Obama stated, will focus on public works such as highway, bridges, and infrastructure repair and construction. There are no provisions for job creation in the education or healthcare sectors. Critics of the Obama plan point out the inadequate number of jobs created given the soaring unemployment. Others still question how Obama will come up with $700 billion for a jobs program when he remains committed to maintaining a massive war budget and to bailing out the Wall Street speculators.
The depth of the economic crisis calls for a job-preservation and job-creation program unlike anything known in the history of the United States, including during the New Deal. It calls for a total re-ordering of the economy through an Emergency Workers' Recovery Plan.
The situation has become intolerable for working people. On every front, the country is confronted with a catastrophic situation: In addition to the massive job losses, more than 2 million people have lost their homes to foreclosure -- and it is estimated that another 5 million to 7 million people risk foreclosure in the coming 18 months. Most of those losing their homes are Blacks and Latinos.
Meanwhile, social services are being dismantled left and right as state and local budgets are facing unprecedented deficits. In California, a $13.4 billion budget deficit is being wielded as an axe to cut tens of thousands of public education and healthcare jobs.
Pension Funds Also Under Assault
In the United States there are basically two types of pension funds for working people. One is the defined pension plan system, mainly in the form of Taft Hartley Pension Plans, which most unionized workers are entitled to through their union contracts. These amount to about $450 billion, or roughly 6% of the nation's total pension funds. This concerns the 11% of the workforce that has a union contract.
These Taft Hartley pensions are guaranteed by the government through the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation. There are strict regulations to ensure that the workers are not penalized and lose their benefits if the financial markets in which the funds are invested go into in a downturn. The funds are administered jointly by the unions, employers and government.
Given the meltdown of the financial markets today, the Taft Hartley funds have lost about one-third of their value. There is not enough money in the funds today to pay those workers who are already receiving their pensions or are about to receive their pensions.
Given this new situation, the Congress voted in 2008 a Pension Protection Act that would allow the pension fund administrators to cut back substantially on the amount paid to each vested pensioner, while also forcing the pensioners to transfer a large part of their funds to non-regulated 401(k) plans. This is highway robbery pure and simple.
The unions are demanding a suspension of this so-called pension "Protection" act.
The overwhelming percentage of workers with pension plans have 401(k) plans through their work or through individual purchase. They have been even more severely impacted. These funds have dropped in value by 55% on the average, and there is no government guarantee under these plans for even the smallest amount to paid to people who have set aside thousands of dollars every month to ensure their retirement.
More than $6 trillion in this type of pension funds are at the whim of the fluctuations in the stock market. Millions of people watch, in shock, as the value of their pensions continues to decline with each passing day. There have been reports of hundreds of suicides on account of the declining pensions. The situation is dramatic. Working people are facing a corporate steamroller the likes of which they have never even imagined.
House of Cards Has Collapsed
In its October 28 statement, the National Committee of Socialist Organizer wrote the following:
"The capitalist system, incapable of furthering the development of the productive forces of humanity, is able to survive only on the basis of a permanent war economy and the proliferation of a 'fictitious economy' where mega-profits are made through speculation outside the sphere of production. War and speculation have become the main driving wheels of an economy whose debt has soared to the mind-numbing figure of $53 trillion. ...
"But herein lies the dilemma that today faces the captains of industry and finance, as well as the politicians in their service. For decades, the capitalist system has been able to stave off a major financial and economic crisis by offshoring factories, busting unions, and driving down workers' wages -- and by artificially pumping ever more debt and more fictitious capital (or 'toxic debt,' as it's being called today) into the economy. But by postponing the day of reckoning of a failed economic system in this manner, the inevitable collapse of the house of cards only becomes more devastating in scope."
The house of cards has collapsed. The crisis that is sweeping the United States and internationally is leading humanity as a whole into the abyss of barbarism. All the gains of human civilization are on the chopping block.
ISSUES BEHIND AUTO BAILOUT
On October 31, despite the massive opposition of an enraged American public that compelled the U.S. Congress to reject the Wall Street bailout in an initial vote four days earlier, the $700 billion bank bailout was approved. It took the active intervention of George W. Bush, John McCain, Barack Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to compel the Congresspersons to defy their constituents and approve the bailout bill.
To date, just about half this sum -- that is, close to $350 billion -- have been spent bailing out the speculators.
Despite repeated requests by financial journals and consumer groups for full disclosure, the U.S. Treasury and the banks have refused to say how this bailout money has been spent. There was no oversight and accountability written into the bailout law.
According to sources quoted in the business press, most of this funding appears to have gone to hefty CEO "compensation packages" and to corporate mergers and acquisitions. The actual benefit to the economy from this bank bailout has been nil.
Working class anger over this corporate theft of taxpayers' dollars is widespread -- and intense. In union halls across the country, workers are denouncing this "heist of the century."
Barely a month later, in early December, the CEOs of the Big 3 auto companies (GM, Chrysler and Ford) -- as well as leaders of the United Auto Workers' union (UAW) -- went to Congress to testify before the Senate Finance Committee. They were there to request a $34 billion bailout for the auto industry.
Republicans in the Congress, all of whom were more than happy to give away $55 billion to Citicorp's bailout without any questions or strings attached, opposed the bailout. They insisted that the companies should be allowed to go bankrupt, so that once in Chapter 11 of the U.S. Tax Code they could restructure their companies without union contracts and without any other such brakes on profit-making.
The Democrats, equally content to turn over billions to the banks without any demand for accountability, took a different approach. They insisted that a bailout was necessary to keep the U.S. auto industry afloat. They said the UAW could be brought to the table and "convinced" to make all the wages' and benefits' concessions demanded by the corporations without the need for bankruptcy. What American worker would buy a car from a company that had gone bankrupt, they insisted.
From Day One it was clear that Democrats and Republicans alike had one main goal with these hearings: to smash the UAW and deal a major blow to the auto workers.
Debt-Relief Plan Enacted
After two weeks of heated deliberations in the Congress, and faced with an impasse in providing debt relief, President Bush stepped in and announced on December 19 that the U.S. Treasury Department would make loans available from the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program.
Under a plan aimed at "assisting the domestic auto industry in becoming financially viable," the auto manufacturers were to be provided with $13.4 billion in short-term financing. An additional $4 billion would be made available in February 2009, contingent on the implementation of the companies' restructuring plans.
Among the conditions stipulated in the U.S. Treasury Department decision were the following:
* Make one-half of Voluntary Employee Beneficiary Association (VEBA) payments in the form of stock.
* Eliminate the jobs bank.
* Implement work rules that are competitive with transplant auto manufacturers by December 31, 2009.
* Implement wages that are competitive with those of transplant auto manufacturers by December 31, 2009.
Analysts predict that the "financial viability plan" will lead GM to cut its workforce by 20,000 to 30,000 workers -- roughly one-third of its U.S. operation.
Chrysler is expected to slash its workforce and to suspend the company's match portion of the 401(k) plan, while also increasing the workers' contributions to healthcare costs.
Ford, which did not received any funding under this agreement, is nonetheless expected to cut 10% of its U.S. workforce; to eliminate merit pay increases, bonuses, 401(k) matching and tuition assistance benefits; and to cap insurance benefits for retirees at $25,000.
This is a major union-busting attack. The media and Congresspersons sought to portray the workers as "overpaid" and "overbenefitted." They spoke of workers receiving $75 an hour -- which was a bold-faced lie. The average wage is now $27 an hour, for back-breaking and highly skilled work. Their goal was to blame the workers for the crisis in the industry.
Initially, on November 15, UAW President Ron Gettlefinger issued a very firm statement explaining that the auto workers had already made all the concessions imaginable; it was not the workers' fault the companies were losing money. He insisted that the UAW would not budge from a "NO Concessions" stance. It was up to the CEOs to make concessions this time, and it was up to the federal government to preserve up to the 3 million jobs linked directly or indirectly to the auto industry.
Gettlefinger was absolutely right: The Big 3 have already "restructured" -- that is, eliminated jobs and outsourced their factories. This has been going on for the past 25 years. At one time the workforce in the Big 3 was 1.5 million workers. Now the totals are below 400,000 workers.
But in his speech delivered before the Senate Finance Committee on December 8, Gettlefinger announced that the UAW leadership was now willing to accept all the concessions demanded by the bosses and the government to keep the industry above water. The "hard-cop, soft-cop" act by the Democrats and Republicans had attained its objective.
The employers are taking advantage of the Wall Street financial crisis to cut jobs, slash wages and break the union contract. It's a plan that is totally unacceptable and that calls for a major and immediate response from the entire trade union movement.
Not One Layoff!
Auto workers at all levels -- from the rank and file, to local UAW presidents, to former UAW national executive board members -- are insisting that a line in the sand must be drawn to make sure that not a single auto workers' job is lost. They have been joined in this demand by union officials and activists across the country.
Many point out that the auto industry could be re-tooled quickly to produce more efficient cars, electric cars, high-speed trains, wind turbines, and more. All current jobs could be saved and tens of thousands of new jobs could be created, they insist, through a Manhattan Project-style "retooling" of the country's entire transportation system. These union activists are calling on Obama to make good on his promise to preserve and create jobs by taking immediate action in support of the embattled auto workers.
A group of these activists took their message to Washington in a UAW rank-and-file caravan during the Senate hearings -- but, not unexpectedly, they received little media attention for their pro-worker message.
A growing number of auto workers are also now saying that the only way to preserve jobs and create new ones is for the federal government to nationalize the Big 3 and place them under the administration of a Labor-Government-Community Board.
Labor activist and journalist Dan La Botz put it this way in an article distributed widely by the Center for Labor Renewal:
"The UAW and the auto workers -- unions and workers who worked for Barack Obama -- need to put forward their own plan. What would be at the center of the auto workers' plan? ... Saving auto workers' jobs and communities. Rebuilding America's auto, transportation, and energy industry. ... Making a good job the center of a good life.
"Our tax money should be used to save jobs, not destroy them. For that the auto companies must come under public ownership. This is the message that needs to be taken to Obama, who can and must take such decisive action."
Clearly the last word has not been said on the auto workers' situation. The $17.4 billion debt relief package is only a stop-gap measure through next spring. The auto corporations are going to need up to $150 billion in financing from the new administration to remain solvent.
There is no better moment than now to demand of the incoming Obama administration that it nationalize the Big 3.
THE OBAMA CABINET AND THE QUEST FOR A "NATIONAL CONSENSUS"
In his acceptance speech on November 4, Barack Obama spoke about the need for national unity between rich and poor, between a "thriving Wall Street" and a "revitalized Main Street."
The corporate elite who own and control most of the nation's wealth are deeply worried that the tide of Blacks, Latinos and working families of all colors that lifted Obama to power may be too difficult to contain and to redirect back into safe channels for the ruling class. They have loudly applauded Obama's call for a "national consensus" between workers and bosses, rich and poor -- but, in their own way, they understand that the workers and all the oppressed nationalities may not be so easily co-opted into accepting "common solutions" with the employers.
For the corporate elite "national consensus" means that working class organizations must give up their own specific demands and interests in the name of "national unity" and the "common good." This means bailing out the corporate elite, not addressing the pressing needs of working people and all the oppressed.
Hence their drive, which began the very moment the vote totals were announced on November 4, to urge the American people to "lower their expectations."
Obama himself warned: "The road ahead will be long, our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year, or even one term."
Leon Panetta, former White House Chief of Staff under Bill Clinton, put it this way. "We've still got two wars to pay for and hundreds of billions of dollars committed to unfreezing credit. The new president will have to set the country on a course to fiscal discipline. Š That means back-burning most of the initiatives the winning candidate campaigned on." (San Francisco Chronicle, November 5)
Of course, this would mean no "bailout" for working-class America -- that is, no real jobs program, no genuine healthcare reform, no support for the main demands put forward by the organized labor movement, among other urgent items.
Henry Kissinger Pleased With Cabinet Nominations
In the aftermath of the election, the question of what way forward for working people is posed immediately and urgently.
For the capitalist class the answer is clear: They must rescue the bankers and speculators to shore up their own class interests. They welcomed with great satisfaction the announcement of Obama's team of economic advisors, which includes, among others, Paul Volcker, former Federal Reserve chairman; Warren Buffet, a man who made billions through Wall Street speculation; and Lawrence Summers, a former Treasury Secretary. Obama's list of advisers reads like a Who's Who of old guard Wall Street financiers.
The capitalist glee was even greater when Obama nominated Robert Gates, former Defense Secretary under George W. Bush, to remain in his post under the new Democratic administration, and Tim Geithner, former head of the New York Federal Reserve, to head up the Treasury Department. Both nominations prompted Henry Kissinger, former President Richard Nixon's Secretary of State (and a man accused widely of genocide against the people of Southeast Asia), to write in the Wall Street Journal on December 4 that he was "extremely satisfied with Obama's nominations."
The liberal magazine The Nation, which campaigned loudly for Obama, noted in its December 12 issue the great distress expressed by Obama supporters over these and other nominations. Author Jacob Laksin wrote:
"For a candidate who famously championed 'change,' President-elect Barack Obama seems to have a soft-spot for continuity. Such, at least, is the inference to be drawn from his newly announced war cabinet, which includes such consummate Washington insiders as former adversary Hillary "the Hawk" Clinton; Bush administration Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who will retain his post; retired four-star general national security adviser James Jones; and Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, Obama's nominee as Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. ...
"[T]here is a hint of desperation in the air. ... As Kelly Dougherty, the executive director of the 54-chapter Iraq Veterans Against the War, complained recently, 'Obama ran his campaign around the idea the war was not legitimate, but it sends a very different message when you bring in people who supported the war from the beginning.' ...
"If the presence of Clinton and Gates in Obama's cabinet has been hard for some antiwar progressives to bear, Obama's decision to choose as his national security advisor a retired Marine Corps commandant, friend and advisor to John McCain, and unabashed advocate of global American leadership has added insult to injury.
"Little wonder that Obama's activist supporters are apoplectic. Personnel appointments are never a faultless guide to policy, but Obama's war cabinet does suggest that his administration will be inclusive. It just won't include the antiwar activists who once hailed the senator as their savior."
The Nation goes on to lament that Obama seems hell bent on NOT changing U.S. foreign policy in any substantial manner.
At this writing, many of Obama's hard-core supporters remain convinced that Obama will deliver on his pledge for "change." In letters to the editor to the mainstream newspapers, in TV interviews, and in the many pro-Obama blogs, they insist that the right-wing cabinet nominations mean nothing, as Obama "is in charge, and he will make all of them do what he wants." Of course, their assumption is that what Obama wants is what they, the rank-and-file Obama supporters, want.
This assumption is being dispelled, however, with each passing day -- even before Obama takes office.
In relation to the war, Obama has backed the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which would keep U.S. troops and bases in Iraq till 2011 and beyond. He has insisted that it is necessary to send 20,000 more troops to Afghanistan to "fight the good war" on Al Qaeda and terrorism. (Obama's national security advisers now tell us that troop levels may have to be increased by 30,000 in the coming months.) He has insisted on the need to bail out the Wall Street bankers as a pre-condition for turning around the economy. And he has called for "defending our borders" in relation to undocumented immigrants. The list goes on.
The deep anxiety among a growing wing of Obama supporters over their candidate's policy direction is mounting.
Two "National Consensus" Nominees
Two more recent cabinet nominations have met with less criticism and have, in fact, been hailed widely by the U.S. labor movement. They are Arne Duncan, past superintendent of the Chicago public schools' district, as Secretary of Education, and Hilda Solis, a liberal Congresswoman from Los Angeles, as Secretary of Labor.
The strong support for Duncan by the top leaders of the country's two teachers' unions -- the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) -- is at once appalling and revealing. It's appalling in that Duncan has been a strong proponent of three education directives dear to the Bush administration and to the right wing: No Child Left Behind (NCLB), charter schools, and merit pay for "high-performing" teachers.
NCLB is all about testing. Schools that fail the new mandated tests can fire their teachers and become privatized, with their union contracts voided. Everything is thus geared toward teaching to these tests, at the expense of basic education and critical thinking. The "merit pay" is wielded here to entice teachers to have their students get high test scores.
Author Greg Palast describes how Duncan implemented NCLB at Collins High in the Lawndale district of Chicago:
"Teachers there work with kids from homeless shelters from an economically devastated neighborhood. Believe it or not, the kids don't get high test scores. So Chicago fired the teachers, every one of them. Then they brought in new teachers and fired THEM too when, surprise!, test scores still didn't rise."
Many of these failing schools were then turned over by Arne Duncan to the Army, the Navy and the Marines to run as charter schools. These are schools that continue to receive public funding but function as private schools in that they are not bound by District policy on curriculum or union collective-bargaining agreements and standards. In the case of the high schools run by the military, they function essentially as recruiting grounds for the warmakers!
So how is it that the teachers' unions could possibly applaud the Duncan nomination? This is what's so revealing: It's largely because their local chapters in Chicago have been co-opted by Duncan into participating in the "roundtable agreements" with the administration, the military and the "business community." Duncan makes it possible for teachers to have a seat at the table, these local union officials argue.
Hilda Solis and EFCA
The nomination of Hilda Solis also points in the direction of forging a "national consensus" between labor and capital.
Solis is known as a staunch union supporter and a strong partisan of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), a proposed piece of legislation that would give a majority of workers in a plant or office the right to join a union of their choice through a card-check agreement (that is, by obtaining a majority of signers on a union petition card). Unions have been pushing for such an agreement for many years, but with no success.
Though EFCA has some severe weaknesses (for example, there is a ban on the right to strike during the first two years of the contract, with all disputes going directly to binding arbitration), the employers have understood very clearly that passage of EFCA would open the floodgates to massive unionization across the country. This is why the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has already announced that it plans on spending $200 million in a drive to defeat any attempt to pass EFCA.
For their part, both the AFL-CIO and Change to Win leaderships are lobbying heavily for the passage of EFCA. They have told Obama that it is time for him to deliver what he promised the unions when he ran for office. They are planning a massive lobbying and mobilizing blitz to get Obama to implement EFCA during his first 100 days in office.
But Obama has not addressed the issue of EFCA in any of his recent speeches. In fact, the only statement on the subject came from his chief of staff, Rahm Emmanuel, who told the Las Vegas Sun on December 1 that EFCA was "not a priority" for the new administration and that given the current economic crisis, it "might not be possible" to move forward in getting this passed in the near future.
This is where Hilda Solis comes in. According to Barbara O'Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Media and Politics at Sacramento State University, Solis "will badger the unions and beat them into doing things they might not ordinarily do" (quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle on December 20). Though EFCA was not mentioned by name, the implication was clear. For Obama, EFCA is a "divisive" issue at a time when a "national consensus" is needed with Big Business to develop a "stimulus plan" on the economy. The only way to get the unions to accept something they don't want -- that is, postponing the implementation of EFCA -- is by having someone in the labor movement's camp to carry the ball for Obama.
Whether Obama and Solis can actually get the unions to back off and accept deferring the implementation of EFCA is another matter, however. Clearly, a showdown between labor and important sectors of the corporate class is in the works if the unions stick to their guns on EFCA -- which they must.
RESISTANCE GROWING TO CORPORATE ATTACKS
On November 24, the San Francisco Labor Council (AFL-CIO) voted to constitute an Economic Crisis Committee with the aim of assessing the current crisis and coming up with policy solutions and recommendations for submission to the Labor Council, the California Federation of Labor, and the entire U.S. labor movement.
The discussion of that resolution at the November 24 delegates' meeting revealed the depth of the anger among union members over the corporate assault on workers' rights while Wall Street is being bailed out and CEOs are receiving hefty compensation packages.
Howard Wallace, a vice president of the Labor Council, told the delegates that a "steamroller is headed our way, one aimed at destroying millions of jobs and attacking every right and gain made by working people through their unions."
Wallace continued: "We cannot wait for the union officials to act. We have to push them to act. A door has been opened for us with the Obama victory, regardless of all the hawks and Wall Street people Obama is appointing to his cabinet. It is an opening because the people have sent a signal that they want real change. Now it is up to us to kick the door wide open to win some of our most pressing demands like preserving our pensions, saving our jobs, winning single-payer healthcare, and ending the war in Iraq."
And Wallace concluded: "We have to act quickly and mobilize people in the streets in huge numbers. The crack in the door that was opened November 4 may not stay open for long. We need to move fast to let Obama know that we mean business and that we won't let the bosses pay for the crisis out of the hides of working people."
What Wallace put in words is now being acted upon by unionists and activists across the country. There is a growing sense that we must act now to press for our specific demands as working people -- and not heed the warnings of people who tell us to wait for Obama to do things his way, or to give him 100 days or 1000 days to act. No! With the corporate pressures bearing down on Obama to implement the bosses' agenda, it is time, folks are saying, for us to pressure Obama to do the right thing.
Labor For Single-Payer Healthcare
* This is happening, for example, in relation to single-payer healthcare. A new coalition -- Labor For Single-Payer Healthcare -- has formed to demand real healthcare reform that takes the private insurance companies out of the healthcare equation. The coalition was launched by Labor Party national organizer Mark Dudzic, AFL-CIO Executive Board member Nancy Wohlforth, former UAW National Executive Board member Jerry Tucker, and South Carolina AFL-CIO President Donna Dewitt.
At this writing, Obama and a number of Democratic senators are working on a variation of the Massachusetts mandate law, which would maintain the role of private insurance companies and require everyone to purchase health insurance if not receiving it from their employers.
A meeting of Labor for Single Payer state and local union leaders is taking place in St. Louis on January 10-11, 2009. Top labor officials from the national AFL-CIO Executive Board and from some of the 39 state federations that have endorsed Single Payer have announced they will be there.
But this initiative is being opposed vehemently by Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and organizer of the Change to Win coalition that split from the AFL-CIO in 2005.
Stern is supporting the Obama "compromise" -- even before there are discussions about the options.
Stern has a sordid record on the issue of healthcare reform. In California, he broke ranks with the California Labor Federation (AFL-CIO) to support an "individual mandate" healthcare reform plan in alliance with Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and with the insurance industry. (In fact, Cal Fed President Art Pulaski and the Los Angeles AFL-CIO picketed the very convention at which Stern joined with Schwarzenegger to promote this fraudulent brand of healthcare "reform.")
Stern gave The Nation magazine a long interview, excerpts of which are reprinted in its December 10 issue. The editors summarized Stern's views as follows:
"Stern doesn't think Obama is beholden to Wall Street in the ways previous presidents or even today's senators are. He said Obama has 'his own accountability system,' and he believes that in this 'transformational moment' progressives need to ask [when it comes to domestic priorities], 'How do we make sure what the President wants to get done, gets done?'"
Specifically, "Stern believes 'we're going to pass universal healthcare -- Max Baucus' plan is close to what Kennedy has proposed.' Tom Daschle [the new Secretary of Health and Human Services -- Ed. note] as point-man is 'an incredibly good sign'."
This Baucus-Daschle plan, of course, is an "individual mandate" plan that leaves the private insurance companies in the drivers' seat and that, hence, will not be a real healthcare reform plan.
In his interview with the editors of The Nation, Stern makes it clear that he continues be firmly wedded to "corporatist" or "labor-management partnership" solutions to the crisis. The Nation article notes:
"Along those lines, Stern discussed the kind of strategic thinking which would mean seeing a 'difference between independence and interdependence.' We can't approach this moment only with our own issues -- we need to see a range of issues and work together."
This is the heart of problem: It is not possible for labor to win its demands by helping Obama get done what he wants to get done -- as opposed to what the labor movement wants to get done. It is not possible to give a positive solution to the demands of working people in partnership with Wall Street and the bosses. Working people need to reject this concept of "interdependence" with the bosses and with the Wall Street speculators. To win its demands, the working class needs to preserve its independence and fight for its own issues.
In this sense, the Labor For Single Payer conference in St. Louis in mid-January, ten days before the Obama inauguration, points the way forward for the entire labor movement.
Other Important Signs of Resistance
The mood of working people is shifting after the November 4 election toward taking matters into their own hands.
* In Chicago, 240 unionized workers walked off the job on December 4 at Republic Windows and Doors Co. They also occupied the plant -- an action not seen in the United States since the 1936-37 sitdown strikes that led to the formation of the United Auto Workers' union.
The workers, organized by the United Electrical Workers' union (UE), demanded their severance pay, back pay and health insurance after the company announced they were shutting down the factory because Bank of America, one of the banks that had received federal bailout money, would no longer lend money to the company.
The sitdown strike captured the national spotlight. Immediately politicians from the entire region demanded that Bank of America release funding to meet the workers' demands. Barack Obama himself intervened on the side of the workers -- which sent a signal throughout the U.S. labor movement that if labor takes determined action, it can compel Obama to respond positively in support of their demands.
After 10 days of intense struggle, Bank of America changed course and opened the credit line that permitted Republic to pay the $1.75 million to the workers. A formidable victory had been won -- even though the workers were not able to keep their jobs (a struggle they are still waging). By taking such decisive action, the 240 workers at Republic -- mostly Latino and Black workers -- energized the labor movement and showed that workers can actually win their demands.
* Important sectors of the immigrant rights' movement are organizing a national march in Washington, DC on January 21, the day after Obama's inauguration, to demand an immediate end to the ICE raids and deportations. The national march will be accompanied by local actions across the country.
Immigrant rights' activists are insisting that all the raids and deportations must be halted and that a full, comprehensive and just immigration reform program must be enacted. Labor activist David Bacon -- echoing the views of the broad labor-community coalition that is organizing the January 21 protest action -- has called on Obama to implement the following planks during his first 100 days in office:
* Stop ICE from seeking serious federal criminal charges, with incarceration in privately run prisons, when a worker lacks papers or has a bad Social Security numbers.
* Stop raiding workplaces, especially where workers are trying to organize unions or enforce wage and hour laws. This would help all workers, not just immigrants.
* Halt community sweeps, checkpoints and roadblocks, where agents use warrants for one or two people to detain and deport dozens of others. End the government's campaign to repeal local sanctuary ordinances and drag local law enforcement into immigration raids.
A comprehensive and just immigrant reform, Bacon writes, should include an end to the guestworker programs (as occurred in 1964, when the Bracero program was ended) and a law to give permanent residence (green-card) visas to the undocumented, and clear up the backlog of people already waiting for them abroad. In addition, employer sanctions that make it a crime for immigrants to hold a job should be repealed.
* Activists in the Black Liberation struggle are pushing for a full Reconstruction program for the Gulf Coast. They are demanding that the billions of dollars still destined to bail out the Wall Street speculators should instead be redirected to bail out the majority Black residents of the Gulf Coast. Today, in Orleans Parish, for example, only 56% of the hospitals, 43% of child care centers, and 28.6% of the schools are open when compared to pre-Katrina levels.
Specifically, these activists are urging support for the Gulf Coast Civic Works Act (H.R. 4048). This bill is being put forward by a group of Katrina movement organizers in New Orleans. It has been introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Zoe Lofgren of San Jose, Calif., and has been co-sponsored by 27 other members of Congress. Thus far it has not been introduced in the Senate.
The bill would create a Gulf Coast Recovery Authority tasked with the creation of 100,000 new prevailing-wage/living wage reconstruction jobs for hurricane survivors, including both current residents and displaced persons.
Black activists are also promoting widely the lawsuit filed on behalf of Black homeowners and hurricane survivors by the NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund, the National Fair Housing Alliance and the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center.
An editorial by Glen Ford, editor of Black Agenda Report, explains the importance of this lawsuit. Brother Ford writes, in part:
"Barack Obama's domain will soon include the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). HUD was recently sued by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and a coalition of civil rights and fair housing groups on behalf of more than 20,000 African-American homeowners from New Orleans. Theirs is a classic case of institutional racism.
"HUD and the Louisiana Recovery Authority collaborated in administering the $10 billion Road Home program, designed to allow homeowners to rebuild after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Payments were based on either the cost of repairing or replacing the property, or the value of the property before the hurricane hit. And there lies the problem. Because of the legacy and ongoing reality of housing segregation, homes in Black areas are valued at less than identical structures in similar white areas. The 20,000 Black New Orleans plaintiffs charge that the federal and state governments have incorporated the race-based disparity in housing values into government policy. Plus, they say the compensation is woefully insufficient to replace what was lost to Katrina.
"Whites, whose homes are valued higher than Blacks, even when the houses are virtually identical, wind up being rewarded for housing segregation, while Blacks are penalized -- again. ...
"The New Orleans case goes to the heart of institutional racism, through which the past manifests itself in the present in clear and tangible ways. In this instance, the legacy of devalued Black neighborhoods (and devalued Black lives) is allowed to reproduce racial injustice in the present by shortchanging Black homeowners and making it less possible for them to rebuild their lives in New Orleans. Past evils become present injustices, the impact of which will affect the fortunes of future generations. ...
"Correcting the racial wrong, in this case, will cost about a billion dollars. Let's see what Obama thinks racial justice is worth -- or if he can even recognize institutional racism when it stares him in the face."
This is an open challenge to Obama from leading organizations in the African American community -- that is, from those who were so pivotal to his election.
* In addition, important sectors of the antiwar movement are posing the need to take to the streets in massive numbers to demand an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
An important call has been issued by the ANSWER coalition and by the National Assembly to End the U.S. War in Iraq and Afghanistan for a national antiwar protest in Washington and San Francisco on March 21, the sixth anniversary of the war in Iraq, to demand that all troops be brought home from Iraq and Afghanistan, and that all war funding be redirected toward meeting human needs.
The call by the National Assembly states, in part:
"These actions are needed to remind the nation that all U.S. military forces must be brought home from Afghanistan and Iraq, and that the U.S. antiwar movement -- marching behind a banner demanding 'Out Now!' -- will intensify its struggle to make it happen.
"The actions are needed to assure the people of Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries threatened by Washington's expansionist policies that tens of millions of people in this country support their right to settle their own destinies without U.S. interventions, occupations and murderous wars. International law recognizes and we demand that the U.S. respect the right to self-determination. We reject any notion that the United States is the world's self-appointed cop.
"The March 21 united mass actions are also needed at this time of economic meltdown to demand jobs for all; a moratorium on foreclosures; rebuilding the crumbling infrastructure; guaranteed quality education and health care for all; an end to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids and deportations; and funding for sorely needed social programs. So long as trillions of dollars continue to be spent on wars, occupations, and bailouts to the banks and corporate elite, the domestic needs of people in the United States can never be met."
PEOPLE'S DEMANDS FOR CHANGE MUST NOW BE HEEDED!
On November 8, the National Committee of Socialist Organizer issued a new statement following the election of Barack Obama titled, " An Historic Election: People's Demands For Change Must Now Be Heeded!
In its final sections, the statement noted that no real change is possible under the Wall Street bailout plan and that "to address the AFL-CIO agenda (which in large part is endorsed by the Change to Win trade unions) it is necessary to stop the Wall Street bailout plan in its tracks. Not one more penny should go to the speculators and bankers!"
The statement concluded with a section on the need for "Unity to Secure the Emergency Measures Needed to Address the Pressing Needs of Working People" that reads as follows:
"At this historic crossroads facing our country, we believe it is more urgent than ever to forge the broadest unity in action of the labor movement, Black and Latino organizations, antiwar and other social protest movements to secure the emergency measures needed to address the pressing needs of all working people and oppressed nationalities.
"Here are eight fundamental demands that we believe should be included in an Emergency Plan to Plan to Bail out Working People -- NOT Wall Street.
"1) Put a halt to the Paulson bailout plan. Not one more penny should be earmarked to bail out Wall Street. It's time to bail out working people.
"2) Enact a moratorium on all home foreclosures, utility shut-offs, evictions and rent hikes.
"3) Enact a universal, single-payer healthcare plan.
"4) Enact the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) so that every worker can have union representation.
"5) Stop the layoffs in auto and other industries across the country. Nationalize the Big 3 automakers.
"6) Stop the ICE raids and deportations.
"7) End all funding for the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and bring our troops home now. Redirect all war funding to meet human needs.
"8) Enact a massive national reconstruction public works program to rebuild the nation's schools, hospitals and crumbling infrastructure and to put millions of people back to work, with a living wage. Provide all necessary funding for a genuine Reconstruction program in the Gulf Coast."
Socialist Organizer members and supporters have distributed this statement widely and gathered endorsements from unionists and activists nationwide. To date, more than 300 people -- including high-level trade union officials -- have endorsed this statement.
Socialist Organizer is promoting this signature-gathering campaign to give voice to the urgent need for workers' unity in action and independence in relation to the bosses and the government both at the trade union and political levels -- to help build a movement for independent working class politics.
More than ever, the need for the labor movement to break with the Democratic Party and launch its own political party based on the trade unions and open to all the oppressed is a burning question, just as building a Black-led Reconstruction Party linked to the struggle for a Labor Party is a burning question. This 8-point platform initiative is a step in the direction of building this independent political instrument for working people and all oppressed nationalities.
The goal is to obtain 500 endorsements by mid-January 2009 and to send this statement with all the list of endorsers to the leaders of the trade unions and of the main activist / community organizations in the United States with a call that they take the lead in mobilizing support for the demands included in this Emergency Workers' Recovery Plan.
The letter of presentation will also pose the urgent need to convene an Emergency Workers' Conference to discuss both the emergency platform and the action plan required to save workers' jobs, rights, and working and living conditions.
At this writing, supporters of this campaign are already discussing the possibility of bringing unionists and community activists together to map out a strategy to ensure that the change working people voted for on November 4 is implemented. More and more working people are realizing that the time to act is now!
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