USA - The Michigan campaign for a workers' voice

Spring 2015

The American Trotskyist group The Spark, decided to stand 5 candidates in the US general election last November, in a single state, Michigan. They did so with the objective of using the electoral platform to address the concerns of the working class, and to provide workers in these constituencies with a chance to say something different with their ballot paper: that the only way to change anything is for the working class to fight, collectively.

Two of the candidates stood for congressional seats in working class districts of Detroit, and 3 for seats on educational boards in Dearborn and Wayne County. Right from the start, they came up against a number of difficulties, thanks to US electoral law. But there were also practical problems which arose directly out of the dereliction of the working class areas of Detroit.

Despite the much vaunted "American democracy" enshrined in its constitution, standing in US elections is not straightforward at all. There are so many hoops to jump through, that these candidates ended up having no choice but to stand as individuals. Which meant there could be nothing on the ballot paper which would identify them as standing for a particular political viewpoint. Neither could the 5 be linked together as standing on a common "workers' fight" political platform!

But even so, they still had to collect thousands of verifiable signatures from registered voters in each of the constituencies in which they stood, in order to qualify as legitimate candidates. The congressional seats, for instance, each required 4,000 signatures to be submitted - an initial 1,000 which had to be handed in and verified 6 months before the election and then a further 3,000 within 3 months of election day.

This meant that the candidates and their supporters had to wage an extremely vigorous campaign from early in 2014 onwards, first to obtain the required signatures, and then to publicise the campaign objectives in order to overcome the fact that the ballot paper would say nothing about them. And over all of these efforts, loomed the problem of the "depressed areas" of Detroit - the poverty, de-population, social dispersal, the alienation of the youth and cynicism of their elders which had led to an increasing abstention from the electoral process and from politics per se. In fact the turnout in Detroit on the day was to be only 31%, compared to overall turnout throughout the country which was at a record low - 39%.

Of course, the tiny-scale campaign which Spark launched could never have broken down these barriers, but it certainly reached a lot of people - and as their results show, achieved a measure of success. Getting all the needed signatures - and a lot more, so that there was a comfortable enough margin of error (and that entailed getting at least 30,000 people altogether, to sign for these explicitly working class candidates), was in itself an achievement.

What made the two "workers' fight" congressional candidates' task even harder, was the fact that in one case the district was huge and in the other, extremely poor - with vast swathes of derelict houses with patches where people lived in between - which all had to be covered. One of them, Gary Walkowicz, was, however, known to many of the workers in Detroit as he has been a political and union activist for many years. He is union convenor of the Ford Rouge Truck plant and president of his Union of Auto Workers Local branch. The other, Sam Johnson is a former auto-worker and union activist - now retired, but still politically active and well-known among Detroit's black workers in particular.

The results of all of the candidates were not that bad at all: Gary Walkowicz, (Michigan's 12th Congressional district) received 5,039 votes, 2.44% of those voting. Sam Johnson (13th District including the central part of Detroit), got 3,466 votes which was 2.07% .

The 3 comrades who stood for the school and college boards received 5,153 votes (20%), 2,431 votes (10%) and 15,661 votes (95%) respectively - this comrade was in fact elected unopposed to the Wayne County Community College Board.

To give some idea of how the campaign's objectives were presented to the public this is the transcript of one of Gary Walkowicz's public speeches:

"Some might say about our campaign that we can't win; they would say that people who vote for us are throwing their vote away.

Certainly it's true that our campaign doesn't have millions of dollars; we don't have TV ads; we don't have billboards; we don't have the media talking about us and promoting us.

All we have are the volunteers, like the people who are here today, volunteers who will go out and hand out flyers; and talk to their neighbours and family and co-workers; and contribute a few dollars. So yes, we don't have the same chance to win the election and the people who vote for us realise that.

But you know what, if you vote for the candidates who have the millions of dollars to buy TV ads, and who have the media behind them, then you are truly throwing your vote away - because you are voting for the very people who have attacked the working class and are responsible for the crisis that we face. By voting for them, we are telling them it's OK to continue attacking us.

Whatever the outcome of the election, we will continue to say what we say here today - the working class must not continue to pay the cost of the crisis.

The banks and the corporations and the wealthy created this crisis. The banks caused the real estate crisis, charging outrageous interest rates, then throwing people out of their homes when they couldn't keep up their mortgages. The banks are responsible for the abandoned houses devastating our neighbourhoods, and these same banks took trillions of OUR dollars to bail themselves out.

The big corporations are responsible for throwing people out of work and forcing down wages, further deepening the economic crisis for the working class.

The wealthy few created this crisis. The only people able to do something about the crisis is the working class.

This campaign is about giving working people answers to the crisis we face; it is about giving straightforward solutions for the working class to fight for.

This campaign is about helping the working class prepare for the time when it is ready to fight.

The working class has an answer to the unemployment crisis. When you have one person doing the work that three people used to do, then the answer is to bring back to work those other two people, so they have a job, too.

Every year workers' productivity increases, each worker producing more. But instead of workers benefiting from this increased productivity, the bosses turn it against us. They have fewer workers working harder and harder. The working class answer is that this increased productivity should be used for OUR benefit. Workers could all work fewer hours for the same weekly wage or more, enough to live decently

The rich get increasingly richer every year, but they get richer by taking from the rest of us. While they get richer, everyone else's standard of living is going down. The money is there to bring up everybody's standard of living. We have to take it back from the wealthy few.

People working at McDonald or working at minimum wage - they work just as hard as everyone else. The money is there to pay them a decent wage.

People on pensions or disability worked hard, why should they live in poverty? The money is there for everyone to live decently when they can't work anymore.

The working class has answers to the problem of the deteriorating schools in our neighbourhoods. Our children should have just as much possibility for a good education as the children of the wealthy. The money is there to hire enough teachers and to fix up the schools. But today this money is being used for corporate tax breaks and corporate subsidies. We have to take back that money and use it for our children.

The working class has answers for public services and facilities that are falling apart. The money would be there to fix the roads and bridges and sewers and water systems, if this money weren't being stolen by the Gilberts and the Ilitchs. The working class can take that money back and use it for the benefit of all.

That is our program. That is our program today. And it will be our program after the election.

We know that this election won't change things. We say that, regardless of the outcome of the election, that it is going to take a fight of the working class to change what needs to be changed.

Whatever happens on November 4, on November 5 you will see us out there again, well maybe it will be November 6 or 7, but you will see us out there again saying that the working class needs to fight for its needs, with its own policy".

Yes, the working class needs its own, fighting, revolutionary communist party!