Like many of you, I’m having trouble getting revved up to work for the election of John Kerry. Yes, I know that the election in November is basically a referendum on the direction of the country. Yes, I know that worldwide a Bush victory will be seen as an ominous affirmation that the cabal in Washington has public support.
But John Kerry? I choked on my toast a few weeks ago when Kerry advocated eliminating certain corporate taxes. He characterized this as a bold, new idea, cutting taxes on corporations to “create jobs.” Talk about a faith-based initiative.
I am co-chair of a local chapter of a national union-based organization, the Labor Party, which was formed under the slogan “The corporations have two parties, now we have one of our own.” And I’m going to work like hell to make sure someone, even if it’s John Kerry, defeats Bush.
Is that because I’ve given up on building independent working class politics? Exactly the opposite, I think this is the most important step that we can take to building independent parties, including the Labor Party, in the next few months.
Why? Let’s talk about the good old days. Eight years of Clinton was–how shall I put this?–fertile ground for working class and progressive politics. Not only for the Labor Party, which was founded in 1996 with 1600 delegates from unions representing over a million workers, but also for the unity of labor, environmental and global justice forces in Seattle in 1999. Clinton brought Teamsters and turtles together against neoliberalism, and that neoliberalism had a big-d Democratic face.
A coincidentally tight job market gave the labor movement some room to move. Lots of strikes and a couple of big victories–UPS foremost among them–led to some nasty union busting from the Clinton Justice Department, understandably scared witless by a million-person Teamsters with a leadership, finally, willing to go up against big employers. The destruction of Ron Carey was another reminder to labor that the Democrats will smile in your face while they pocket your money and piss on your leg.
Then there was that bracing welfare ‘reform’ law, which sought to push a bunch of people into the job market with no bargaining power and thereby undercut wages–in particular women’s wages. By all accounts it was pretty effective.
We were working harder with less pay and less benefits and less security and we knew the Democrats were not the answer. It was eight years of never having to hear someone say, “Yeah, but it’ll be different as soon as we get a Democrat in the White House.”
I’m not one to say there’s no difference between the Democrats and the Republicans. It’s as a result of successful struggle that the Democrats are no longer the party of “raceyhaters, pinkybaiters, deadbrainers and fraidycats” as Woody Guthrie once characterized the politics of the solid South. There are many differences between the parties, from abortion rights to affirmative action to the minimum wage, but neither party represents the interests of the majority of people in this country, which is why we formed the Labor Party.
Some say the reason more people are not active and motivated to make change is that it just isn’t bad enough yet, people in the U.S. are too comfortable, implying that with another 4 years of Bush people will “wake up.” But it was 1968, near the peak of wages in the last 50 years (and following 8 years of Democrats) that marks the most recent high tide of resistance.
What if our nonparticipation is instead due to obstacles, in our lives and in the political system itself, which incapacitate and discourage us?
We certainly suffer enough of these: Long work hours (the longest in the developed world), lack of reliable or affordable childcare, depression from believing that the problems our lives are ours alone to solve, making up for missing public programs and services through individual unpaid effort, endless fundraisers to supplement school and community shortfalls, and helping sick and needy relatives, coworkers, friends and neighbors. And in our spare time we fight with the health insurance company, the phone company, the bank and the various other corporate jackals that impinge on our wellbeing.
Overworked, discouraged, isolated, and made poorer, we’re harder pressed to keep up with the news (other than read an occasional frightening headline), go to a community or union meeting, or fashion a strategy with neighbors and co-workers about what should be done.
The Labor Party favors an organizing approach to politics, face to face, person to person, door to door, and that’s what we’re doing in our area. We think Bush can be successfully attacked on healthcare–which might seem to be strong point to those not familiar with the details of the Medicare drug ‘benefit.’ We think it’s best to explain that Bush is awful, Kerry is not as awful (and that’s who we’ll be voting for) but that to solve the health insurance crisis we need to eliminate private insurance companies and redirect that money to care, a program we call Just Health Care. We explain that it would cost less than we’re all paying now although everyone would be covered, like they are in other countries where less money is spent, people live longer, and they never have to fight with a health insurance company over bills or worry they can’t pay for care.
Mindful that in Florida we continue to face efforts designed to discourage working people and especially people of color from voting, we are registering voters and distributing requests for absentee ballots. Polls in Florida are open 7 a.m.-7 p.m. on election day, making it difficult to vote if you work (in New York they’re open till 9 p.m.) Under the sinisterly-titled ‘Help America Vote Act’ many of the polling places in our county have been moved, so we’re helping people sort that out.
We want to be stronger on the day after the election than we are now, and that means talking about reality with people and building an organization, not selling a candidate. But it also means getting Bush out as phase one of a several phase project.
It’s worth noting that the seeds of the Labor Party were planted under another anti-union Democrat, Jimmy Carter. The late Tony Mazzocchi, the main motivator of the Labor Party and its national organizer until his death in 2002, was Legislative Director of the Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers union from 1965-1977. He recalls national AFL-CIO leaders saying throughout the 70s that what the labor movement needed to get good labor legislation passed was a Democratic president, and a Democratic veto-proof majority in the House and Senate. Finally, after much struggle and more money, we got that under Carter. “We tried to get through a weak labor law reform, it didn’t get anywhere,” Mazzocchi recalled in 1996. “The boss goes up there with a barrel-full of money and that’s the logic of politics.” It’s only as long as they’re out of power that Democrats can credibly claim to represent us.
This experience proved to Mazzocchi and many other unionists that the Democrats are not the answer. This is something we must keep being able to prove each day, to more and more people. More people will see it, but it’s much clearer when the Democrats are in power. Bush is close to the worst this system has to offer, and Kerry may be the best, which means that Kerry is better proof than Bush will ever be that we need to upend it.
This article appeared in the Summer 2004 issue of the Independent Politics News, published by the Independent Progressive Politics Network (www.ippn.org) IPPN, P.O. Box 1041, Bloomfield, NJ 07003-9991. Subscriptions are $10 a year (4 issues).