USA - Clinton's legacy - eight years of attacks against the working class and poor

Sep-Oct 2000

By now, the campaign for the forthcoming US presidential election this November, is in top gear. The two main candidates - Al Gore, Clinton's heir apparent and vice-president since 1992, is standing for the Democratic Party and George Bush Jnr, whose father led the US into the Gulf War ten years ago, for the Republicans. And as has usually been the case in past presidential races, the US union leaders have taken the side of the Democratic candidate.

Already in October last year, the 13-million-member AFL-CIO used its 1999 Convention to endorse Al Gore. However, this endorsement was not unanimously enthusiastic. The UAW and Teamsters, two of the largest AFL-CIO unions, refused to give their backing to any candidate so early, especially, they said, since the Clinton administration was in the process of pushing through permanent normalisation of trade with China, which the union apparatuses opposed. Then, in May-June this year, both the UAW and Teamsters went a little bit further in distancing themselves from Gore, when they both made a point of speaking about Ralph Nader, the Green Party's candidate, and, in the case of the Teamsters, Pat Buchanan, who was then expected to stand for the Reform Party (the billionaire Ross Perot's right-wing outfit).

Of course, all of this is just manoeuvring and does not signal a change in policy. In fact, the June 2000 issue of the UAW magazine Solidarity ran a comparison of Gore and Bush that was favourable to Gore - without even mentioning Nader.

The union apparatuses are not about to make a break with the Democratic Party. Some of them may be trying to show the Democrats that they cannot take the unions for granted. But the effort that union officials are putting in together for the 2000 elections certainly shows the Democrats they have no cause for alarm. The AFL-CIO apparatus has set aside a £30m war chest, or about half as much again as they spent on the 1996 elections. And they also plan on exceeding their 1998 election effort, which included sending out 9.5 million pieces of mail and initiating 5.5 million phone calls.

But in supporting the Democrats, what is the AFL-CIO calling on workers to vote for? The Clinton-Gore administration has a record of nearly eight years in the White House that bears examination.

Promises are made to be broken

In 1992, the Clinton-Gore team swept into office, along with a Democratic-controlled Congress, claiming to represent a change from the previous 12 years of Reagan and Bush. During the campaign, they had promised to create jobs, cut taxes on middle incomes, provide universal medical insurance, guarantee a college education for everyone deemed qualified and spend £13bn a year more on new public works projects. And, to pay for all that, they proposed higher taxes on the wealthy and foreign companies and modest cuts in military spending (£24bn over five years).

Most people recognised the fairy tale quality of these election promises. But during the early days of the new administration, Clinton-Gore demonstratively reversed a few policies of the Reagan-Bush years.

First, Congress passed and Clinton signed into law the "Family and Medical Leave Act", a bill that George Bush had vetoed when he was in office. This act requires employers with 50 employees or more to provide up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave a year for family or health reasons. Of course, this law had major limitations: family-medical leave remained unpaid, so its cost was shouldered by the employee; and the wording of the law left plenty of room for employers to refuse to let many employees actually take the leave.

Second, Clinton made a very public pro-choice statement supporting the testing, licensing and manufacturing of RU-486, the so-called morning after pill that had been available in Europe and Asia for years, but that had been banned from the US by the Bush administration.

But there were limits to Clinton's willingness to be seen supporting abortion rights. Despite Clinton's statement in favour of RU 486 and the positive report issued by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on this pill (the drug was found to be "safe and effective"), his administration has never given final approval for its distribution and sale.

Neither did Clinton push the Democrat-dominated Congress to lift a ban which prevented Medicaid from paying for abortions for women on low-income - the Hyde Amendment that had been passed in 1977 when Democrat Jimmy Carter was president. Obviously, Clinton, Gore and the rest of the Democrats, who claimed to be so pro-choice, were not so pro-choice when it came to ensuring that women from the poorest sections of the population enjoyed the same rights as other women.

Moreover, the Clinton administration did not use the power of the Federal government to beat back right-wing attacks on the shrinking availability of abortion, especially in less populated regions of the country. For example, a large majority of medical schools and teaching hospitals have caved in to reactionary pressures and no longer provide doctors with abortion training. And the Clinton administration did not use its power over federal subsidies - which almost all medical schools count on - to put the abortion procedure back into the curriculum.

In other words, in its first weeks the Clinton administration rescinded or pretended to rescind some measures that the Republicans had taken to appeal to their right-wing electoral base. This created a certain aura around Clinton, hiding the real course of his administration.

That course was set when Clinton, claiming that the government deficit was running much higher than previously anticipated, introduced a massive five-year austerity plan, the "1993 Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act." This plan took the knife to social programmes that serve ordinary people. It froze spending on most programmes, which, taking inflation into account, was a de facto cut. And it included actual cuts to the two main health benefit programmes set up in 1965, for the aged and the poor, Medicare and Medicaid, by £36bn and £5bn, respectively, over five years.

At the same time, the new law hiked petrol taxes by slightly over 1 cent per litre, a regressive tax that takes a much bigger bite out of the wallet of those on low income than that of the wealthy. This tax increase was also insidious because it was practically invisible, as it was just rolled into the price of filling up the tank.

The Democrats did claim that they were hiking the corporate income tax rate, and they did - from 34 to 35% - a whopping one per cent! But all the tax breaks they included did more than offset this tiny rate hike. In reality, the taxes the companies actually paid continued to fall from an average 24.5% of their declared profits in 1994 to 21.3% in 1999.

The Clinton administration's new budget was taking more money from ordinary people, in the form of both a very regressive tax hike and a cut in social services, and handing it back over to the companies. In other words, the Clinton administration was picking up where the Reagan-Bush administrations had left off.

It should be mentioned that this budget package was a Democratic Party production from beginning to end. Since the Republicans were still a minority in Congress at that point, they could afford the luxury of appearing to oppose the unpopular measures, and no Republicans voted for it. The Senate passed the legislation only after Al Gore, as vice-president, cast the deciding vote.

With this legislation behind him, Clinton then put Al Gore in charge of a new commission called Reinventing Government (REGO), which they claimed would make government operations more efficient and save the taxpayer money. In fact, REGO was set up to do what bosses in the private sector had been doing: to cut the workforce, either through speed-up or contracting out the work to companies that paid lower wages and benefits. Under Gore's REGO, over 350,000 government jobs were cut. One union, the American Federation of Government Employees, lost 100,000 members. But it didn't "save" ordinary taxpayers one cent on their tax bills.

1994 - The Health Reform Debacle and New Attacks

In 1994, the Clinton administration tried to engineer a "health care reform," which was presented as a form of universal coverage that would include the 40 million people who at the time were not insured. In fact, his reform was aimed at aiding the big companies, who were complaining about having to pay ever higher prices to buy health insurance for their employees. Of course, to reduce their payments meant having to deal with different parts of the health care industry, which were profiting from the rising prices. The Clinton administration's proposal was paralysed the competing interests of different companies all worried they might lose something in the process. By the fall of that year, health care reform was dead.

If Clinton had really intended to extend health care to the 40 million uninsured, he could still have done it: simply by taking the money which had gone to companies and using it to fund this coverage. But, of course, he stopped short of doing this. The number of uninsured continued to rise by an average of one million per year.

The only way to carry out the kind of real health care reform that ordinary people had hoped for, that is, cheap and affordable for everyone, would have been to attack the profits of all the big companies. But that was exactly the opposite of what Clinton was trying to do.

At the same time that health care reform was sinking, the Clinton administration was pushing through its "Omnibus Anti-Crime Bill." This right-wing, reactionary piece of legislation included a "three strikes and you're out" provision, the expansion of the federal death penalty from two to sixty types of crime, long mandatory prison sentences that could not be reduced by "soft-on-crime" judges and financial incentives to those states which required prisoners to serve more than 85% of their sentence. Even while cutting social programmes, Clinton found plenty of money, more than £19bn, to hire more police and to build prisons.

Obviously, the issue of a rising crime rate is a real one. But the government was not about to tackle the social causes behind it, such as the deteriorating social and economic conditions of the most poor and desperate. On the contrary, the government itself was contributing to these worsening conditions by reducing jobs, services, education and health care for the labouring classes. No, the only thing that the Clinton administration did was to stir up and reinforce the most reactionary feelings in the population and offer an ever larger police and prison infrastructure.

Finally, it should be noted that the Clinton administration and Democrat-dominated Congress broke one of the Democrats' main campaign promises to organised labour: they failed to pass even a weak and watered down version of ban on replacing permanent workers involved in strike action.

But the Clinton administration did fire off a warning shot at the union apparatuses. From the moment Clinton took office, his Justice Department had supported a Virginia judge's effort to impose a £38m fine, the highest ever, on the United Mineworkers union (UMWA) for a gruelling seven-month strike carried out by 17,000 coal miners against Pittston Coal in 1989. Pittston itself had agreed to drop the fine as part of its strike settlement with the union. But this did not daunt the Justice Department, which sent its lawyers to appear in front of the US Supreme Court to argue for imposing the fine. Even the conservative Supreme Court ruled against the Virginia judge and the Justice Department, throwing the fine out. But obviously, the Clinton administration used this case as a warning to union officials of what they could expect in the event of other hard-fought battles.

1995-96, the Clinton programme in full flower

The constant attacks carried out by the Clinton administration and the Democratic Party meant that they lost support among their voting base. Thus, in the 1994 elections, the Republicans captured control of both houses of Congress. The main difference now was that it allowed the AFL-CIO to blame the new Republican majority in Congress for the anti-worker course that Clinton continued to carry out - the same one, in fact, that he had been carrying out for two years while he had a Democrat- dominated Congress.

In the spring of 1995, the Clinton administration used the occasion of the bombing of the Federal building in Oklahoma City to ram through a so-called "Comprehensive Terrorism Prevention Act of 1995." This act, actually a collection of dozens of new laws, legally broadens the power of several federal law enforcement agencies at the expense of different sectors of the population. To the Immigration and Naturalisation Service (INS), it grants greater power to deport people of foreign birth merely on suspicion of being a terrorist, using secret evidence that the INS does not have to present to the accused, and bars any appeal to the courts. To the FBI, it grants much greater legal latitude to carry out surveillance. For example, it allows the FBI to make wire-taps on any phone that a suspect may use regardless of whom that phone belongs to.

In addition, this law severely restricts the right of prisoners to habeas corpus, that is, their ability to appeal to the federal court system, even when local and state authorities committed blatant misconduct or there was no evidence to justify the convictions. This law almost completely removes an important legal recourse for many people who have been railroaded by the criminal justice system, whether they are political prisoners, like Mumia Abu Jamal, or just poor and unable to afford proper legal defence.

A year later, Clinton sponsored another bill called the "Prison Litigation Reform Act." Up until then, prisoners had the right to sue in Federal courts to correct the most horrifying prison conditions, such as extreme overcrowding, a complete lack of health care which allowed epidemics of tuberculosis or AIDS or the systematic rape of female prisoners by guards. By taking away the right of prisoners to bring suits in Federal court against conditions, Clinton gave one more green light for prison conditions to continue to deteriorate as the prison population rocketed.

The Clinton administration then went on to attack the organised section of the working class. In May 1996, Clinton used the Railway Labour Act to stop a national railway strike against 50 rail companies. Obviously, the ability of the railway unions to tie up the national transport system gave them leverage to fight the concessions demanded by the rail companies. Clinton helped the companies stop the strike and impose the concessions.

The crowning achievement of Clinton's first four years was the welfare reform bill, which was signed on August 22, 1996. This law was a big step in the destruction of the social safety net that had been built up out of the large social movements of the 1930s and 1960s. The goal of the reform was simply to dump people from the welfare rolls and force them to take any job at any wage. And any reason or excuse was used: work requirements, time limits, a missed appointment, lost paperwork. It didn't matter if someone had a very young infant or several children to take care of, he or she had to find a job. Within three years, the welfare rolls were cut in half. Six million people lost government aid.

When Clinton argued for this law, he dressed it up as the "Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act." This was pure cynicism! The only "opportunity" he was giving people on welfare was to get the worst, lowest paid jobs - and without the government aid he had promised before in order to ease the transition.

People had to take jobs that pay between £3.80 and £4.50/hr, without benefits. For a family of three, this amounts to £8,460 a year, or three-fifths of the US poverty line. And the government benefits that Clinton had promised, like child care, food stamps, rent subsidies, continued Medicaid coverage, these turned out to be nearly impossible to get, tied up in layers of red-tape.

Even worse, in some states, 30 to 50% of those forced off welfare couldn't find jobs. Others lost their jobs within three months. When they applied to get back onto government aid, they were "diverted", as the welfare office calls it, back onto the street. As a result, millions were pushed into a life of homelessness and petty crime, facing a one-way ticket to jail.

Presently there are seven million people whose benefits are about to run out in the next year, a social time bomb that the Clinton administration has only prepared for with more police, prisons and harsher prison sentences.

But this human disaster has suited employers. It has provided a large reservoir of desperate people with little choice but to accept the lowest pay and the worst conditions. This is one important factor behind the stagnation and fall of wages for the whole working class, despite the relative expansion of the economy lately.

One month after Clinton's legislation "to end welfare as we know it" was passed by Congress, he escalated this attack with harsh new immigration legislation. Among other things, the new immigration laws gutted anti- discrimination rules protecting immigrants in the workplace, raised new barriers to refugees seeking asylum and stripped immigrants of the right to appeal for an INS ruling in the courts. It also set aside money to double the number of Border Patrol officers and build new immigration detention centres.

Clinton sold this law as a means to supposedly protect "American" jobs. In fact, it simply created more fearful, desperate and vulnerable layers of the working class. It gave more legal weapons to employers and the government to deport any of the millions of undocumented immigrant workers - when they dared speak up or organise.

But 1996 was an election year. Clinton and the Democrats had to offer something to their traditional electorate. So they proposed a minimum wage increase, from £2.70/hr to £3.30 over a two-year period. Not to be outdone, the Republicans in Congress followed suit, supported the increase and voted it through. In fact, the increase still left the minimum wage 20% less than what it had been worth in the 1970s, taking inflation into account.

But this was good enough for AFL-CIO officials. They called Clinton and the Democrats the "friends" of labour, and mobilised a big, expensive campaign in their support. In his first four-year term, Clinton had tried to bankrupt the miners' union; broken the railway workers' strike; cut all the social programmes; raised workers' taxes; gutted the rights of anyone in the clutches of the authorities and given yet more money to the companies. Clinton was certainly no friend of the workers; he was their enemy.

Clinton's attacks on organised labour

In the 1996 election, the AFL-CIO's support of the Clinton-Gore ticket proved decisive in their victory over the Republicans. But it didn't take long for Clinton to show what this effort had earned the unions. In 1997, he carried out two big attacks against organised labour.

In February 1997, the Clinton administration invoked the Railway Labour Act, the same act he had used already against the railway unions the year before, to stop the pilots at American Airlines from going on strike. This was the first time in 30 years that a president had invoked that act against airline employees. Breaking the pilots' strike set a precedent throughout the air transport industry. It helped to hold in check the airways employees who were pushing to recoup something after years of concessions and cuts, now that the industry was generating big profits.

In another confrontation with organised labour, the Clinton administration took on the Teamsters after they organised a successful strike at UPS (United Parcel Service) in August 1997. The UPS strike was a little different than other strikes of the period. Not only had it been somewhat better organised, but it also managed to bring out a bigger proportion of the rank-and-file. Since some of its demands focussed on curtailing the use of temporary and part-time workers, it also raised the general problem of fighting against the growing use of low-wage labour. Thus, it had taken on a significance that went beyond the fight at UPS.

The fact that the UPS strike ended with a settlement somewhat favourable to the workers seemed to be a small breakthrough, and it raised the possibility that other workers might be encouraged to carry out strikes of their own. First and foremost, the Teamsters themselves had two big nationwide contracts coming up, the Teamsters Master Freight Agreement and the Car Hauliers'.

But three days after the UPS settlement, with the support of the Clinton Justice Department, the government monitor in charge of overseeing the Teamsters announced that she was invalidating the election of the Teamster president, Ron Carey, who had led the UPS strike, under charges of corruption. The elections in question had taken place eight months before but the government monitor discovered corruption only after the Teamsters at UPS went on strike and won! Carey was not only removed from office, but eventually barred from running for office again and then even from membership in the Teamsters.

The Clinton administration was not through. At the same time, the Justice Department announced that it was investigating other top officials in the AFL-CIO, including the federation's treasurer, Richard Trumka. This investigation was a blatant threat against the top union officials, warning them to desist from agreeing to any kind of wider strike action. Whether or not this threat played any role in their decision to comply, in any case union officials did not lead any more strikes like the one at UPS; indeed they led practically no strikes at all!

Clinton's 2nd term and company profits

In that same year, 1997, Congress also passed several important measures in Clinton's new budget.

First, Clinton proposed to cut Medicare and Medicaid funding - again. During the 1996 elections, Clinton and the Democrats had warned that the Republicans had wanted to gut Medicare. This frightened a lot of people into voting for the Democrats, who had posed as the defenders of Medicare, simply because they proposed to cut it less than the Republicans did, claiming that their cuts would be made to "save" Medicare, while the Republican cuts would "dismantle" it. However, as soon as Clinton won re-election, the Democrats and Republicans agreed on £73bn worth of cuts in Medicare over five years. For good measure, they threw in £16bn worth of cuts in Medicaid, which was already extremely underfunded. The new Medicaid cuts made it even more difficult for those on the programme to get treatment from many doctors, hospitals or other medical providers who no longer accepted it.

One year after welfare reform was passed, millions of children were losing Medicaid coverage, which fuelled some indignation. So Clinton offered a bill which he claimed would help the states to reduce the number of children who had no health coverage - 10 million at that point. But this programme has been a sham, with few children qualifying to be enrolled in it. Social service offices, which have been so busy cutting all the other social programmes, with Clinton's blessing, are not about to start enrolling children in a new one.

With Clinton's budget cuts containing new sacrifices for ordinary people, he offered what he called "tax relief" for ordinary families, a new tax credit for each child, worth £318. That came to a tax saving of about £127 per family.

Of course, this was nothing compared to the tax cut he offered to the wealthy: a cut in capital gains tax, bringing it down from 28 to 20%. Capital gains are considered to be the profits from the sale of stocks, bonds, real estate, etc., which constitute the bulk of income for the wealthiest. The tax had already been set much lower than the federal tax on earned income, that is, wages and salaries. Corporate executives like Bill Gates, must have been overjoyed by the new cut. If he had cashed in his stock options in 1996, for example, the tax cut would have saved him £127m!

This is why commentators at the time estimated that the wealthiest one per cent of the population would derive 80% of the tax savings in the new bill.

Besides that, hidden in the bill were even more breaks for specific companies. For example, it turned out that Amway, the controversial distribution giant, had its taxes cut by an estimated £178m. This "little gift" had been provided by Provision C of Section XI entitled "Modification of Passive Foreign Investment Company Provisions to Eliminate Overlap with Subpart F and to Allow Mark-to-Market Election, and to Modify Asset Measurement Rule." - whatever that means!

In the two years that followed, the government opened up its treasury even more to big business. The year 1998 saw huge funding packages, including a £127bn highway and transportation package for the big construction companies and an £11bn increase in the military budget. This was the largest increase in military spending since the end of the Cold War, and it brought a big boost in orders and profits for the main military contractors. There was also an £11.5bn appropriation to the IMF so that it could continue to bail out US financial interests all over the world. And there was a £13bn "emergency" spending package with plenty of goodies for the big agricultural conglomerates. The government also extended and increased tax credits and shelters to companies for things like research and development.

The capitalist class was continuing to enrich itself at the expense of ordinary people, with the aid of Clinton's budgets.

Some Social Consequences

In his last State of the Union address, on 27 January this year, Clinton proclaimed: "Our economic revolution has been matched by a revival of the American spirit. Crime down by 20%, to its lowest level in 25 years. Teen births down seven years in a row, adoptions up by 30%. Welfare rolls cut in half to their lowest levels in 30 years. My fellow Americans, the state of our union is the strongest it has ever been."

No, the past years have not seen an economic revolution, only a continuation of the same policies which benefit the rich at the expense of the rest of the population. There may have been a revival of the spirit - at least among the top executives of major companies who in 1999 made 475 times as much as the average American factory worker, as opposed to "only" 84 times more just 10 years ago.

And, yes, Clinton's programme to end welfare has already brought welfare down by 50%. But the poverty which exists is appalling. According to Clinton's own figures, which understate the real extent of poverty, 12.7% of the population or 34.5m people were living below the poverty line in 1998. In other words, after eight years of economic expansion, there are still more people living below the poverty line than the entire population of California, the biggest state in the country.

And that only tells part of the story. Severe poverty is worsening. The number of those defined by statisticians as "extremely poor" - i.e. people trying to survive on an income of less than half the poverty line, or less than about £4,300 a year for a family of three - actually went up to 14.6m in 1997 from 13.9m in 1995. Among families headed by single mothers, the poorest 10% actually saw their income reduced by almost one sixth over the last two years.

This is why, according to the US Department of Agriculture, 10.5% per cent of all US households or 31m people (including 12m children) did not have enough food in their households to meet their basic needs in 1998.

Thus, there is endemic poverty in the cities and rural areas, and growing poverty in the suburbs.

Clinton's policy has contributed to this. Under his administration, the government has been used to impose more sacrifices on the working class and poor, who have been forced to pay in order to help the profits of the capitalist class to continue to grow to untold heights.

There is no such thing as the lesser of two evils

Today, with the elections approaching, the union apparatuses are not the only ones supporting Al Gore and the Democrats. So are most traditional black organisations from the churches to civil rights organisations such as the Urban League. Although the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People), which is among the largest and most influential, formally does not support candidates, it gave Clinton a rousing farewell during a dinner organised in July. Said NAACP Chairman Julian Bond, "We know how to recognise our friends, and this president is our friend." According to press reports, Clinton wiped away tears!

A friend? The brunt of many of the attacks of his administration hit the black working class and poor the hardest. The black working class continues to suffer on average more from unemployment, earns lower wages and constitutes a much higher proportion of the prison population and those sitting on death row.

The Clinton administration has carried out a policy completely geared to serve the interests of the bourgeoisie, just as Reagan and Bush did. It has stood on the side of the bourgeoisie against the working class and the poor.

The union apparatuses certainly are not mobilising workers and the other exploited and oppressed layers of the population to fight against these policies. They are not even exposing them. Just the opposite. They are lining up in support of Al Gore and the Democrats - again. And they are trying to bring workers behind them, to campaign, contribute money and vote for their enemies.

This only shows how deeply the top layers of the union machineries are integrated into the bourgeois power structure. On the political level, they have accepted the only choice that the bourgeoisie gives them, which is narrowed down to the Democrats or Republicans. They settle for the few crumbs, like an occasional political appointment of one of their own or the possibility to speak to someone in power from time to time.

That is what union leaders call choosing between the lesser of two evils. And it is a trap for US workers, just as the traditional "lesser of two evils" choice of voting for Labour has been a trap for the British working class at every single general election to date.

What the working class needs, in the USA as in Britain and in fact all over the world, is another policy - a policy that aims at bringing its forces together, defending workers against the attacks of the capitalists, both from the government and the companies and which allows workers to let their interests prevail over those of the wealthy.

The working class should make sure that the wealth that it has created and that the government uses to make others rich, be used instead to guarantee everyone decent living conditions.

This should be the first priority.

What prevents the US workers today from wiping out all unemployment or underemployment? Why couldn't they ensure that everyone has a decent job that pays full wages and benefits? Why should they accept that there is even one person - let alone the 34 million adults and 11 million children today - who does not have full medical coverage? Why should they accept that a mother be ripped away from her infant just to inflate the profits of some scrooge boss? Or that mothers are forced to go to work without their children being provided decent childcare? And why should they accept that millions of senior citizens are forced to work until they die, because they could not work in any one place for long enough to secure a decent pension?

Today in US society, prisons are sprouting like mushrooms and literally millions of young people are being consigned to live their lives surrounded by armed guards, walls, steel and concrete. A society that holds that out as the future for so many is a society in an advanced state of decline and decay.

And much the same could be said of the situation faced by the working class in all industrialised countries. Yet, today the working class has the means to wipe out the diseases which plague society - exploitation, unemployment, useless jobs, poverty and destitution. The wealth required exists, the working class created it. And because of its role and position in society, the working class, but only this class, has an interest in this wealth being used for the benefit of all and the power to ensure that it is.

It is vital that the working class should understand the primary role it has to play in providing an alternative to capitalism. And to embody this alternative, the working class - whether in the US or in Britain - needs its own independent party. It needs a party which stands for its class interests and one which will not allow itself to be sucked into the devious operation of a parliamentary system designed to conceal the dictatorship of profit.

17 September 2000