Bernie Sanders? No! We Need a Class-Struggle Workers Party

This article was first published in Bridge City Militant No. 1, Fall 2015.

The first votes won’t be cast for many months, but the presidential election season is already upon us, and pressure is building on the unions to choose their candidates. Among labor activists and the left, attention is focused on the figure of Bernie Sanders, senator from Vermont. Sanders, who sometimes claims to be an “independent” and a “democratic socialist” is running to be nominated as the Democratic candidate for president in 2016. Labor Notes, the voice of “progressive” union bureaucrats who sometimes pose as “troublemakers,” hyped Sanders in a 17 July 2015 article by Dan DiMaggio:

“Sanders’ platform includes a $15-an-hour minimum wage, guaranteed vacations and sick leave, lifting the payroll tax cap on Social Security, and single-payer health care. He’s a vocal opponent of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the latest corporate-friendly trade deal. He rails against income inequality and how the ‘billionaire class’ dominates politics.”

Cheap talk. Class-struggle militants are not “feeling the Bern.” We are anti-Bernie, anti-Hillary, anti-Democrat, anti-Republican, anti-Green. Yes, we’re pretty much against everything that passes for “politics” these days, because it’s all about who will be the CEO of bloody, racist U.S. capitalism, and Bernie is no exception. We will oppose any endorsements or other forms of support by our unions for Sanders or any of the current candidates.

Many critics have pointed out that Bernie Sanders, the nominal “independent” who votes with the Democratic Party caucus in the Senate, has already made it clear that he will support whoever gets the Democratic Party nomination: presumably, Hillary Clinton’s lavishly-financed establishment campiagn. Sanders supporters are certainly chumps for Wall Street’s preferred party: “energizing” the “base” – the workers, poor people, oppressed racial minorities, and women – to vote for the “lesser evil” party of their oppressors. It’s a con game.

But what if he wins the nomination? He is surging in the (mostly meaningless) early polls. Or what if Bernie, under the ardent “pressure” of his fans, does the opposite of what he has repeatedly promised to do, and goes “independent”?

We would still not support him. In the Senate, he sometimes opposes U.S. military policy in words – but votes for war budgets. He voted for the genocidal sanctions against Iraq, that killed millions of innocent civilians and paved the way for the war he “opposed.” He opposed the Orwellian PATRIOT Act – in words – and voted for the USA Freedom Act, which continued massive government spying. His “radical” economic proposals amount to tinkering with the tax code and the anti-labor laws. Even if the millionaires’ Congress goes along with his talk of a $15/hour minimum wage (keep dreaming!) this would be a poverty wage. The rest is standard Democratic Party primary populist bluster about the “middle class.”

American workers should take note: not so long ago, last winter, a very radical-talking capitalist party – SYRIZA, the Coalition of the Radical Left – won the national elections in Greece. They were full of tough talk against the bloodthirsty banks that were condemning Greek workers to double-digit unemployment and starvation wages. The mouthpieces of high finance shrieked with terror. And then, SYRIZA imposed worse “austerity” measures on the Greek workers and poor than preceding right-wing governments had ever dared to.

A President Bernie Sanders – a milquetoast moderate compared to the Greek “radicals” – would likewise do what Wall Street will need of him. Wall Street can live with higher taxes: Warren Bufffet and Bill Gates agree. But it can’t live without endless war abroad and racist police-state repression “at home” to guarantee its property and its exploitation of labor. Bernie is not Wall Street’s candidate, but the decisive issue for us is that he seeks to rule on behalf of Wall Street, as a “socialist” who supports private property and demonstrably is willing to make whatever compromise this support requires.

This fundamental problem – the problem of class, as in which class should rule – is obvious when we seriously consider the most burning issue in American politics, the “color line.” And it should be clear that supporting Bernie Sanders, critically or not, will do nothing to end the oppression of black people in this country.

Black Lives Matter activists grabbed the spotlight by crashing Sanders appearances at the Democratic Party “Net Roots Nation” conference in Phoenix, Arizona, and again at a rally in Seattle to celebrate the anniversary of Social Security. The response from Sanders fans ranged from incredulous shock to ugly racist heckling. Oh how dare they! Don’t they realize that Sanders is the lesser-lesser evil? Is the fact that black women and men are being hunted and killed like animals on the streets by the police really a reason to interrupt the circus of Democratic politics-as-usual?

So Sanders appointed a new campaign spokesperson, the black activist Symone Sanders (no relation to the senator), and published a platform for “racial justice” on berniesanders.com. On MSNBC’s August 11 Chris Hayes show, BLM founder Alicia Garza claimed “that interruption really forced Bernie Sanders to have a strong platform on race and racial justice.”

So what is his platform? A laundry list of police training and policy reforms that are already in place in many major cities like New York, Oakland and Baltimore, and do absolutely nothing to stop the legal lynching of black people! Systematic state violence against black people is not just a policy, it is a fundamental feature of American capitalism. More training, different arming, or more black and latino cops and police chiefs, among other pseudo-reforms, have done nothing and will do nothing. Demilitarize the police? Eric Garner was strangled by hand on a busy New York City street in broad daylight, and the “justice system” let his killers walk without charges. On the mass incarceration of blacks, Sanders the “socialist” isn’t against prisons, just private prisons, and isn’t against drug laws, just mandatory minimum sentences. A lot of hot air and precious little substance: that’s a “victory” for the dead-end politics of pressuring the Democratic Party.

Sanders supporters and labor “radicals” in general tend to look back sentimentally to the era of president Franklin Roosevelt, and the segregationist imperialist war chief’s “New Deal.” But the massive labor upsurge that created the modern American labor movement was not created by any legislation, and the key victories of 1934 – Longshore on the West Coast, Teamsters in Minneapolis, and auto workers in Toledo – were victorious because they were willing to struggle independently from and against the labor laws and the Democratic and Republican governments that administered them. The decades-long decline of the labor movement that class-struggle militants seek to reverse is fundamentally the result of the labor leadership’s support for and loyalty to the bosses’ parties and their government.

To revive the labor movement we must break with all the capitalist parties, including the slightly-lesser-evil ones. The greater evil by far is the continued subordination of the unions to their class enemy through the instrument of the Democratic Party.

CSWP stands for class struggle, not illusions in capitalist election games. The unions can only rely on our own forces, the irresistible power of millions of workers, to fight poverty wages, to smash racist oppression, to champion the rights of women, sexual/gender minorities and immigrants. To coordinate this fight we propose a different kind of party, a workers party with a program of class struggle. ■

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“Right to Work” = Slave Labor Laws

Reprinted from Bridge City Militant No. 2

Bust the Union-Busters – We’ve Got the Power, Use It or Lose It!

“Right to Work” = Slave Labor Laws

Madison, Wisconsin, February 2011: over 100,000 unionists surround the state capitol to block Right to Work. A general strike was discussed, but local AFL-CIO tops called off protests in favor of electoral support for Democrats. Result: Wisconsin is a right-to-slave state. Labor’s got to play hardball to win! (Photo: Yuri Keegstra)
Madison, Wisconsin, February 2011: over 100,000 unionists surround the state capitol to block Right to Work. A general strike was discussed, but local AFL-CIO tops called off protests in favor of electoral support for Democrats. Result: Wisconsin is a right-to-slave state. Labor’s got to play hardball to win! (Photo: Yuri Keegstra)

A major attack is coming down on our unions. Last year, the Supreme Court took a case from a small group of right-wing ideologues, Friedrichs et al., against the California Teachers Association. The case seeks to crush the unions financially by overturning the “agency shop” rule. If the unelected life-term hangmen on the Supreme Court hand down a verdict for the business lobbies against the teachers union, it will give a green light to governments and bosses across the country to go on a union-busting, contract-shredding campaign against a weakened union movement. A decision is expected this spring.

Meanwhile, in Oregon, the anti-union “Freedom” foundation has brain-trusted and bankrolled a lawsuit that seeks to eliminate the agency shop for home care workers in SEIU Local 503. (“Freedom” for who? They are against our right to strike. Someone should remind them that the North won the Civil War.) And every election season in Oregon and Washington, as in states across the country, we see ballot initiatives that would implement these and other anti-union measures, going under the deceptive banner of “right to work.” In 2015, the initiatives were put on hold when the Oregon Supreme Court gave them a title that doesn’t jive with the slick marketing plans of the union-busting lawyers. But they’ll be back again next year.

2016 could be the year of a decisive struggle here and nationwide over union rights and union power. Union militants need to prepare our ranks for battle now. If the unions lose, we could be headed back to the bad old days before the mass struggles in the 1930s that founded the industrial unions in this country. Poverty wages, no job security, no health care (don’t count on ObamaCare – see “Obamacare Screws Workers, Windfall for Insurance Companies”), no retirement (they’re going after our Social Security, too), and unions reduced to ineffective guilds representing only the most privileged crafts.

But we can win. In every opinion poll, the big majority of workers say they would join a union if they had the chance. While the economic crash of 2008 never really ended for the working class, especially for black and Latino workers, the “recovery” is starting to make workers feel more confident about standing up for long-delayed raises and other improvements after decades of belt-tightening. Minimum-wage, non-union workers in fast food and retail are courageously rising up, even though the union leaders do little to actually organize them or defend their jobs. And although the established unions are much weaker than they ought to be, they still represent millions of workers in strategic industries that can shut this country down. We need to use that power before we lose it.

The union leaders know that this attack is coming. “Right to work” would put a big dent in dues collections. But as in everything else, these “labor lieutenants of the capitalist class” won’t lead the fight back. By relying on their Democratic Party “allies” and on desperate attempts to play the media spin game in the capitalist press (they call this “education”), while opposing any militant labor action, they are giving up before the fight even begins. We can’t let this happen.

It’s true that the Democrats are happy to take millions in campaign contributions from union political action committees, and the “Right to Work” hard-liners are mostly Republicans. But the Democrats won’t fight the union-busters. On the contrary, they are a capitalist union busting party just as much as the Republicans, and if the “Right to Work” holy warriors win their lawsuits or referendums, Democrats from City Hall to the White House will enforce the new laws against the workers. Who called out the Coast Guard against the locked out ILWU on the Columbia river last year? Democratic President Obama, endorsed by the ILWU leaders. Who is gearing up for another showdown with the Chicago teachers union? Obama’s right hand man, Democratic mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose cops are famous for assassinating black kids and running a CIA-style torture center at Homan Square. Who will be de-funding and attacking public workers in Oregon, from Laborers to teachers to SEIU, if Friedrichs wins? Labor’s phony “friend,” Democrat governor Kate Brown.

San Francisco newspaper Bloody Thursday ILWU
The capitalists will always try to chain the workers with anti-union laws. If we play by their rules, we’re bound to lose, but militant workers action can win. July 1934: the National Guard is deployed in San Francisco against an “illegal” general strike. Three strikers are gunned down, but the strike gives birth to the powerful International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU).

Union leaders say that our ties to the Democrats give us “influence,” but it’s really the other way around. Look at what happened in Wisconsin in 2011. The Republican governor, Scott Walker, tried to ram through a “Right to Work” law. Tens of thousands of union supporters surrounded the state capitol in Madison, physically blocking the meetings from going forward. The local Central Labor Council even talked about a general strike, which was possible and needed to kill the anti-union law. But at the last minute, the “labor lieutenants of the capitalist class” opted for an electoral approach, a petition to recall Scott Walker, presumably in favor of a Democratic successor. The workers were demobilized, and they lost. Now Wisconsin and neighboring Michigan, the birthplace of the mighty United Auto Workers, are “right to work” states. In Michigan, the union leaders’ usual “smart” tactics of lobbying and begging failed completely, and “right to work” was imposed without a fight.

The policies of the union tops fail because they are based on class collaboration with one wing of the party of capitalist property, the Democrats. But what we’re facing is a bipartisan, one-sided class war as Wall Street seeks to squeeze ever-higher profits from our labor and eliminate “unnecessary” expenses like education, health care and basic health, safety and environmental protections. To fight “right to work” we need to prepare to wage the class war. It’s a struggle that labor can win because it’s a struggle of millions of working people, without whose labor “not a single wheel would turn,” against a tiny class of parasites who produce nothing but misery and oppression for the vast majority of humanity.

“Right to Work” seeks to end the “agency shop.” The agency shop itself is a rotten compromise that was imposed on the unions in exchange for anti-labor laws that outlawed the closed union shop. Under the agency shop, workers at an organized company or state agency don’t have to join the union, but they do have to pay a portion of the union dues, often called “fair share fees” or “agency fees,” and everyone gets the benefits and wages that the union negotiates from the employer. The big majority of workers do sign up for the union, because they understand that it stands for their rights and welfare. But this arrangement still weakens the union, and encourages the natural tendency of the union bureaucrats to run the union like an “independent,” “neutral” welfare agency rather than the fighting self-defense organization of the workers.

The other arrangement that leaves the unions vulnerable to the “right to work” attack is that most unions have allowed the bosses – private companies or government agencies – to collect their dues through paycheck deductions. We never should have allowed the class enemy to get their hands on the finances of our organizations. Dues should be collected directly by the union. This is not just an elementary self-defense measure, it’s a boost for union democracy and a check on out-of-touch bureaucracy in our unions.

Above all, every union needs to begin preparing to fight the coming union-busting onslaught in the streets and in the workplaces. We need to form committees in every local and every workplace to prepare to tie up metro Portland like the workers in Wisconsin shut down Madison in 2011 – but Wisconsin shows that we can’t let the fight be diverted into the dead end of electoral support for the Democrats or any capitalist party. We need a class struggle workers party: not just a vote-getting apparatus but a party to organize and lead the fight for the oppressed and exploited, using the powerful weapons that our class has.

To defend the unions where we have them, and to encourage workers at non-union shops to go union, we must fight for the union shop no matter what the bosses’ laws or the bosses’ courts say. Workers fought and died to have a collective organization against the bosses, because as individuals we are “free” just the way the “Freedom Foundation” would have it: free to work under the bosses whim, or free to quit and starve. We shouldn’t allow freeloaders and suckers who’ve been duped by anti-union propaganda to undermine our power.

At the 2015 Oregon AFL-CIO convention, class-struggle militants brought this perspective to the floor in the form of a resolution to fight Right to Work. As expected, it was shot down by the union leaders, who are planning to lose this crucial battle. The labor bureaucrats who sit on top of Oregon unions are so loyal to their Democratic Party masters that they even endorsed a poverty wage ballot initiative designed to undercut efforts to get a $15 minimum wage initiative on the ballot, then, in an act of disgusting hypocrisy, they “endorsed” the $15 initiative too. Thanks a lot. If workers want a big raise we can’t rely on the rigged electoral game or the sellout union leaders. We are going to have to fight for it the class-struggle way, by unionizing low wage workers and shutting down businesses that don’t pay our minimum wage demand with solid strike action.

The perspective we outlined at the AFL-CIO convention garnered strong support from rank and file delegates, ranging from teachers to laborers and postal workers. The leaders of organized labor have learned nothing and are preparing to sell out big time, with disastrous consequences for the working class. They need to be replaced by a class-struggle leadership. Every step we take to prepare for a real fight against “right to work” union busting is a step to rebuild workers power and organize the unorganized. CSWP supporters will continue our efforts to defend our unions, and we urge fellow union members to join us. ■

Bridge City Militant No. 2

Bridge City Militant No. 2, Winter 2016
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