US election - The unions and the "lesser evil"

Nov/Dec 2004

On the eve of the Democratic Party convention in July, President Andrew Stern of the country's largest union, the SEIU (Service Employees International Union), gave an interview to David Broder of the Washington Post, publicly expressing frustration with Kerry and more generally with the Democratic Party and its readiness to ignore the needs of labour.

On the practical level, he complained that Kerry and the Democrats made it difficult for the unions to campaign for them and to bring back to the polls those workers who traditionally don't vote - because the Democratic platform "declined to address" the problems facing blue-collar families. But Stern also had more substantive criticisms of both the labour movement and the Democratic Party. Calling the Democratic Party a "hollow party," one which, along with the labour movement is in "deep crisis," Stern predicted that if Kerry were to be elected president it would hurt needed efforts to reform both the Democratic Party and the labour movement. Saying that Kerry, like Clinton before him, would use the party mainly for his own political benefit if he were elected - Stern expected to see union leaders once again in the tow of a US president who did little but use them. He went so far as to say that both organised labour and the Democratic Party might be better off in the long run if Kerry lost. This did not prevent Stern from reiterating the SEIU's endorsement to Kerry - saying that "overall Kerry would make a better president than Bush."

Later that same day, John Sweeney, head of the AFL-CIO, issued a damage control statement from the convention, saying that he was "optimistic about the future of the Democratic Party." By the next day, Stern, trying to reinterpret even if he could not deny what he had said, issued a statement via his own website: "What I was saying yesterday is that when you accomplish a big goal like beating George Bush there can be a tendency to lose energy and unity and we cannot let that happen.... George Bush has dug this country into such a terrible hole it is going to take the strongest labour movement and party possible to help John Kerry turn it around. When it comes to fixing America, we have to make sure we hold up our end of the deal even after Senator Kerry wins." Just to make the point perfectly clear, he insisted: "There's nothing I want more than a John Kerry victory."

In other words, the Democrats might use the unions - but until after November 2, election day, the union leaders' task is to help them do it. And this from the man many people talk about as the hope for a "reinvigorated" union movement!

Giving the Democrats all they could ask for... and then some!

The unions have certainly made an extraordinary effort this time to put a Democrat in the White House - by their own account, they are spending significantly more money and devoting significantly more union resources than ever before.

Last March, the AFL-CIO Executive Council announced that it had already kicked off its 2004 election campaign, eight months earlier than usual. And it voted to increase member unions' assessments (special contributions) to the AFL-CIO, with the aim of spending $44m to get George Bush out of the White House. If the AFL-CIO spends this much, it will be a new record, but this is not all that labour organisations will spend this year on behalf of the Democrats. In the 2000 campaign, individual unions altogether spent almost £10m more than did the federation. The unions say they expect their total contribution this time will be significantly more than $100m. Moreover, this year, there is a new vehicle through which unions can also contribute or raise money - the so-called "527" committees (named after the section in the election code that allows so-called "single-issue" committees to spend money to discuss their issues and the stands taken on these issues by various candidates). As of August 23, according to Newsday, labour-oriented "527" committees had raised almost $52m on behalf of the Democrats - and already spent the largest part of it. If the unions hit their expected mark, they will have contributed nearly half of what Kerry will take in.

But money is only the smallest part of what the unions will contribute to the Democrats. The SEIU (Service Employees International Union) estimates that it alone will contribute $65m worth of "union resources" to the Kerry campaign - a good deal of which is not money. Officials from the SEIU, as from almost every other union, have been assigned to work on the Democratic Party campaign while remaining on union salary. And union activists, taking union leave from their jobs, are working full time on the Kerry campaign. Union gatherings called ostensibly to discuss such questions, for example, as organising or workplace safety, are being cut short so that unionists attending could fan out into working class neighbourhoods to ring doorbells, "getting the word out" against Bush. Phone banks, again manned by union activists and union clerical staff, are already being used to call people, and will certainly continue and increase running up to the last days before the election. And significant parts of union meetings at the local level have been taken up by discussions of how to mobilise for the election. It is the unions that organise most of the Kerry and Edwards election rallies, supplying the audience and everything else.

In fact, almost since Bush took office, the AFL-CIO and many of its member unions have been carrying on a campaign aimed at the 2004 election. A section of the AFL-CIO website, "BushWatch," has been laying bare the attacks carried out by the administration for the last three years. And the federation devoted the whole August issue of its journal, America@Work, to comparing the Bush record with what the federation said were Kerry's campaign promises. Most individual unions have done something similar in their publications and/or their web-sites.

Starting in late winter this year, the AFL-CIO organised a "Show Us the Jobs" bus tour, in response to a "Jobs and Growth" campaign bus tour made by Bush and some of his cabinet members. Fifty-one people who had lost their jobs, one from each state and from the District of Columbia, were bused by the federation following behind Bush to rallies in 18 cities in eight key states. In the spring and summer, tens of thousands of union activists were mobilised to work on voter registration campaigns, making sure that union members and people living in Democratic-leaning areas are registered. An IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) campaign was typical, carried out under the slogan "My Vote, My Right: Don't Let Them Steal It Again!"

In June, an effort was kicked off to sign up union activists to go door to door in working class neighbourhoods in 16 "battleground" states - that is, those states that swing back and forth between Democrat and Republican - to "educate" people about the Bush record. According to John Sweeney, "In the Northeast, we've got the Massachusetts state federation working on New Hampshire. New York and New Jersey are taking on Pennsylvania. Indiana is taking on Ohio. We've got people going from Illinois to Wisconsin and Missouri and Minnesota." On the opposite coast, starting from the Democrats' "safe" state of California, a range of unions have sent their staff and activists over to Nevada and Arizona. The SEIU alone says it is sending over 2000 members into the so-called "battleground states." The Teamsters say they have sent election material into workplaces around the country via their drivers who transport materials and supplies.

In New York City, the national AFL-CIO organised what it called a "real Labour Day rally" on the Wednesday before Labour Day outside Madison Square Garden, where Bush was being nominated by the Republican convention. Speaking at the rally under the slogan "We're Taking Back America," AFL-CIO President Sweeney indicted Bush for the loss of a million jobs, for the fall of 4.3m more people into poverty, and for the loss of health insurance by 5.2m more people. The next night, the AFL-CIO organised, according to an AFL-CIO press release, "15,000 union volunteers to knock on one million union household doors in swing states as President Bush is accepting his party's nomination."

In the several weeks around Labour Day, unions around the country organised rallies, festivals, entertainments, concerts on different days - aimed at allowing Kerry, Edwards or other Democratic big names to speak to as many union members as possible. Almost certainly, many tens of thousands of union activists will be mobilised in the last days leading up to the election in a "get-out-the-vote" effort.

Kerry's main asset: his name isn't Bush

If the unions made this big effort to get out the vote for the Democrats - an effort significantly bigger than what has been seen in recent years - it certainly was not because they were enthusiastic about Kerry. As St. Louis AFL-CIO Council President Bob Kelley expressed it in September, "With our people, the issue isn't Kerry, it's George Bush." What took form a year ago in the slogan, "Anybody but Bush," today appears simply as "we have to get rid of Bush."

In fact, that's nothing but the unions' long-standing "lesser evil" argument: yes, the Democrats might not really answer the workers' demands, but the Republicans are worse.

Worse? Better? Based on what? The two parties may use a different rhetoric - and today, there isn't even much difference in that regard, since Kerry has been doing everything he can to align himself with Bush's policies. On Bush's wars: he promises to step them up, sending more troops and more bombs. On tax cuts to the corporations: he promises to give the corporations still more, under Bush's pretext that tax cuts produce jobs. On government spending: he promises to reduce the budget deficit, which is nothing but code for cutting the social programs, public services and education working people need - the same code that Bush used and that Clinton used before him.

Given the Democrats' record, not only in helping Bush push through his policies over the last three years, but in pushing through the same kind of policies when they were in control, the lesser-evil argument is preposterous. Whether Bush wins or Kerry wins, the working class will confront the same problems - more calls for sacrifices, continuing wars and a further lowering of the standard of living.

The Democrats a lesser evil? That's like arguing that it's a lesser evil to die from arsenic rather than strychnine. Lesser evil it may be, but you're still dead.

Two parties for the capitalists, none for the working class

The unions' efforts to push the workers to vote for the Democrats amounts to asking them to give their OK to the policies that the Democrats carried out against them in the past and will carry out against them again if elected. Of course workers cannot vote for Bush and the Republicans, who are their open enemies. But the workers don't in any way serve their own interests and needs by handing themselves over to the Democrats, who pretend to be their friends while carrying out an equally anti-worker policy. To vote for either party can only reinforce their readiness to impose more sacrifices on the population. With their vote, the workers give their stamp of approval to the anti-worker policy the Democrats (or the Republicans) have carried out and will continue to carry out.

The stance of the union leaders is all the more damaging because it serves to maintain and strengthen the status quo in which the bourgeoisie has two parties to pick from while the working class has none. And it pounds home the idea that the working class cannot intervene politically in its own name, that it doesn't have enough forces itself. It reinforces the myth that the workers have no possibilities other than to hand themselves over to a bourgeois party.

The bourgeoisie, which is a tiny minority of society, can have its own party, and even several parties - but we are supposed to believe that the working class, which is the majority, could not have even one of its own? Nonsense! This lie has been pushed on the workers for years by the bourgeoisie, the politicians, the media, all the establishment - and by union leaders.

Of course the working class has more than enough forces to build its own party. If Kerry wins this time, it will be mainly because of the efforts of all those union activists who, despite what Kerry stands for, manage to convince their fellow workers to go to vote. If Kerry wins, a good part of the price of his victory will have been paid for by the unions' fund raising efforts - and, what's even more significant - by all the activities union activists have carried out. Think about all this effort, all the energy that is put in by working class militants campaigning for Kerry. If this same energy were spent in defending the interests of the working class, in telling the truth about the trap of the two-party system, in exposing the policy of both parties, in helping workers to regain confidence in their own capacities, we would have a workers' party.

The working class has the forces required to build up its own party in this country. But this party won't come into existence so long as workers follow the path laid down by union officials, throwing the money workers raise down the rat hole of the Democratic party, letting all their militant efforts be used to put the Democrats back in office once again.

A workers' party is not only possible, it is an absolute necessity. Whatever comes out of the November elections, the working class will still have to confront new attacks. What will count then is what workers decide to do, standing up for themselves, refusing further calls for sacrifices, fighting against the downsizing that has cost so many jobs. And, not least, making their voices heard against these bloody wars, which are not only setting American workers against other peoples in the world and grinding down a new generation of young people who are sent off as cannon fodder, but are stealing from the population's needs at home. In beginning to fight against these things, workers can start down a road that could end up with them breaking out of the two-party straitjacket that has imprisoned us for so long, building their own party, one devoted solely to defending the interests of all working and oppressed people.