The Politics of Austerity, Occupy and the 2012 US Elections

A Solidarity Pamphlet – Published on Solidarity, by Marc Aaron, Warren Davis, Dianne Feeley, David Finkel and Kit Wainer, (on July 26, 2012 = on Socialist Project). Download the 16 pages-pdf.

AT THIS MOMENT, the central issue facing our society is how to respond to the deepest crisis of global capitalism since the 1930s. Unfortunately, we won’t be hearing a substantive debate about this in the 2012 elections. The Democratic and Republican parties both favor austerity — in short, making working-class people pay to bail out the corporations and get capitalism back on its feet.   

Austerity means sacrificing the wealth and the rights of the working class (i.e. jobs, wages, pensions, housing and public services) in order to preserve the wealth and the rights of banks, large corporations, and those few families who live off profits and interest (i.e. capital).

More than that, austerity asks us to lower our hopes and expectations of a decent life for our families and communities. And it seeks to transform political and economic institutions in order to be sure that workers and governments will remain “disciplined” into the future.

Those of us who would prioritize human needs and democracy over capitalist profit and corporate power do not have a political party capable of mounting a serious challenge to austerity in the electoral arena. Yet the dramatic emergence of the Occupy movement proves that there is widespread opposition to austerity, as well as deep frustration with the narrow “choices” offered by our legislative and electoral system … //

… The Unions and Austerity:

Unions, with all their flaws, remain a critical arena of working-class collective capacity — a perennial thorn in the side of capital, and a potential resource for resisting or reversing austerity.

However, labor leaders’ continued commitment to Democratic Party electoral efforts above all threatens to squander the potential for unions to serve as centers of working-class resistance.

Every election year, unions spend millions on political contributions, direct mail and advertising, while enlisting their staff and rank-and-file activists for nightly phone banks, weekend door-belling, and worksite leafleting.

Unions and their PACS spent an estimated $400 million in 2008 on campaign contributions and independent expenditures, plus many thousands of paid and volunteer hours, aimed mainly at electing Democrats.

The Democrats took the White House and the Congress. But instead of the Employee Free Choice Act (labor’s top legislative priority in 2009) and the $9.50 minimum wage that Obama trumpeted during his campaign, we ended up with a pro-corporate health care reform and more “free trade” agreements.

Most importantly, perhaps, we got Obama’s centrist version of austerity, complete with a wage-slashing auto bailout, attacks on teacher unions, bank bailouts that left working-class debtors in the lurch, a Deficit Commission and an overdose of rhetoric about shared sacrifice. It is true that Republicans have taken to union-busting as a general principle. For them, the economic crisis presents an opportunity to wipe out what remains of unions’ institutional capacity and legal rights.

Centrists, including Obama, have chosen a different path, working to incorporate union leaders as partners in implementing austerity. The objective here is to minimize opposition to the core project of austerity while holding the Democratic electoral coalition together.

Union leaders have focused their energies on beating back the most direct (usually Republican) attacks on bargaining and organizing rights. This resistance to direct attacks on unions as institutions has, however, gone hand-in-hand with rhetorical and material concessions to the larger project of austerity.

In this respect, the role of President Obama and the Democratic Party has been crucial. Playing the “good cops” to the Republican “bad cops,” the Democrats have been able to present their version of austerity as the only reasonable alternative for frightened union leaders.

Obama has been explicit in calling upon union leaders to discipline their members to the requirements of austerity. In doing so, he has even drawn strength from the divisive rhetoric of the far right.

At a 2011 town hall meeting in Deborah, Iowa, Obama argued that unionized public sector workers must accept concessions in order to avoid a “natural backlash” by those who have seen their wages and pensions slashed in recent years.[1]

Referring to teachers’ unions, Obama said “If there’s a feeling that unions aren’t partners in reform processes in things like education, then they’re going to end up being an easy target.” Meanwhile, Obama’s Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and his former Chief of Staff, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, have made attacks on teachers unions the centerpiece of their education reforms.[2]

Like every “good cop,” Obama needs a bad cop, in this case the Republican Right. Teachers have not been alone in feeling the pressure. Public workers and services have suffered mightily in the crisis. Over the last two years, federal workers have given back $60 billion through pay freezes imposed by the Democrat in the White House, and a change to federal pensions passed by the Democrat-controlled Senate will cut new hires’ retirement pay by 41%.[3]

From January 2009 to December 2011, the number of state and local government employees declined by 583,000, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. From 2008 to 2011 local school districts alone cut 278,000 jobs.[4]

The Obama Administration’s bailout of GM and Chrysler applied the centrist approach to austerity in the private sector. As a condition of the bailout, the Obama Administration mandated that unionized auto workers accept “parity” in wages and benefits with non-union auto workers.

In the end, the union agreed to a 50% wage cut for all new hires and replaced their defined benefit pension with a 401K. Further, the UAW allowed General Motors and Chrysler to reduce their previous commitments for payments toward retiree health care, which was already underfunded. As a consequence, the Department of the Treasury ordered fund trustees to immediately cut retiree health care benefits, which they did. The UAW also gave up its right to strike in 2011 contract negotiations.

Ironically, the auto bailout is trumpeted as evidence of Obama’s support for workers and unions. By playing the “good cops” the Democrats have arguably been more effective at implementing austerity than the clumsy, over-reaching and increasingly rabid Republican right.

Yes, there are differences between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to issues of concern to workers. The point we want to emphasize is that Obama and the Democratic establishment are fully committed to the core project of austerity, and using fear of the Republican Right to divide workers and rally union support.

Should workers put their energy behind the “good cop” of austerity in the 2012 elections? We think it would be a better bet to develop effective extra-electoral tools to defend unions’ historic achievements and challenge the bipartisan consensus around austerity.

In our view, the moment is ripe for the rise of an independent political movement to challenge austerity. In fact, the most important missing ingredient in the construction of such a movement right now is probably a full commitment from organized labor. Subordinating union political energy and “messaging” to Democratic electoral campaigns will make such a commitment impossible. Unions cannot hope to build on the Occupy movement’s successful efforts to “change the conversation” while campaigning for pro-austerity politicians.

The Occupy movement resonated so strongly with large sections of the American people because it gave expression to the widespread anti-austerity sentiment that has no home in the capitalist parties. The big question for union militants now is how to direct the organizational capacities of the labor movement toward mass mobilization for direct action against austerity, and for constructing a new, democratic, independent, anti-capitalist, political force that embodies the sentiments and the spirit aroused by the uprisings in Ohio and Wisconsin and the Occupy movement.

Around the country, many union members (and some unions) have begun building bottom-up coalitions, using direct action, and cooperating with Occupiers in locally-focused but nationally linked campaigns against home foreclosures, school privatization, and anti-democratic legislation intended to advance austerity.[5]

The Occupy movement, driven by a small cadre of thousands of dedicated activists, was able to change the national conversation by daring to challenge Wall Street directly. We have no doubt that sustained labor movement initiatives along these lines could radically alter the political map of the country to an even greater degree.

Beginning Resistance: … //

… Workers and Occupy Fight Back

Summer and early fall 2011 saw a number of other workers organizing strategic campaigns to win decent contracts in the face of the employers’ demands for more givebacks. First, Verizon workers set up mobile pickets that followed managers functioning as scabs and organized noisy picket lines at wireless stores, turning customers and suppliers away. Although the two-week strike was cut short, the company accumulated a backlog of 100,000 orders.

The most dramatic case was the longshore workers in Longview, Washington. Last summer they began protesting the opening of a state-of-the-art grain terminal whose managers refused to negotiate a contract with the union. By early September they escalated their tactics and massed on the railroad tracks to physically block trains, opening the hoppers and dumping out the grain. The next day ports in nearby Tacoma and Seattle were shut down by wildcats as the longshore workers headed to Longview, where they invaded the terminal. Of course they were met by police, who arrested hundreds, but neither the arrests nor a temporary restraining order banning picketing that blocked the trains convinced the International Longshore and Warehouse Union to back down.

Yet it was the Occupy movement — initiated by a handful in a small park near Wall Street — that captured mainstream media with its message of “We are the 99%.” The movement has now successfully defended people’s homes against eviction, marched and rallied in defense of city services, called for the cancellation of a trillion dollars’ worth of student debt and supported workers’ struggles ranging from the locked-out Sotheby workers in New York City to the Longview struggle.

To be sure, there have been tensions in the alliances that formed between Occupiers and the unions, and of course the resistance itself is uneven. Anti-immigrant, anti-women’s reproductive rights and anti-union legislation such as Indiana’s right-to-work-for-less bill continue to be passed. Politicians continue to rant against the rights and dignity of poor people, working people, gays and lesbians, immigrants and women. Employers continue their aggressive tactics, including locking out workers. Unions have continued to sell the need for concessions to their members, and members have reluctantly gone along.

Resistance has not stopped the attack. Yet the new-found energy is amazing. We are beginning to fight and realize that turning around a country based on inequality and injustice is not an easy task. It’s too easy to believe we aren’t having much of an impact. Two months before the scheduled G8 meeting in Chicago, President Obama announced the meeting would be transferred to Camp David. That is a direct result of the movement’s plans to be in Chicago.

As a movement of resistance to austerity, social justice activists have a better sense of who are our allies and who opposes us. We have begun to discuss a range of collective tactics and decide which to use on various occasions. We have shown creativity in our signs and democracy in our decision-making. So we are further than we were a year ago because we have rejected the politicians’ rhetoric of divide and rule, because we have built a broad unity and because we realize that the way to be taken seriously is to disrupt business as usual. As a sign in Wisconsin summarized it, “Walk like an Egyptian.” (full long, text and Notes 1 to 5).

Links:

Iraq: After the Americans – Fault Lines travels across Iraq to take the pulse of a country and its people after nine years of occupation: watch this video, 25.00 min, published on Al Jazeera, July 25, 2012: … In a special two-part series, Fault Lines travels across Iraq to take the pulse of a country and its people after nine years of foreign occupation and nation-building.
Now that US troops have left, how are Iraqis overcoming the legacy of violence and toxic remains of the US-led occupation, and the sectarian war it ignited? Is the country on the brink of irreparable fragmentation?
Correspondent Sebastian Walker first went to Baghdad in June 2003 and spent the next several years reporting un-embedded from Iraq. In the first part of this Fault Lines series, he returns and travels from Basra to Baghdad to find out what kind of future Iraqis are forging for themselves ….

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