How Can Labor End Its Death Spiral?

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As Assaults Against the Working Class Escalate, the Question Is How Can They Be Stopped?

Ever since the founding of the U.S. labor movement, labor has been under attack by the corporate class. In some periods there may appear to be a “temporary peace,” but these have proved to be short-lived.

During World War II, union leaders agreed to suspend strikes for the duration. But even during that war, when the corporations were making record profits, workers resorted to work stoppages and wildcat strikes in large numbers, often to protest lousy working conditions. To cite one statistic, during 1944 when the war was still raging, more strikes took place than in any previous year in American history.

In the first full month after the Japanese surrendered, the number of work days lost to strikes doubled. And in succeeding months in 1945-47, coal miners, lumber workers, oil workers, truck drivers, machinists, electrical workers, meatpackers and engineers hit the bricks. Most union leaders opposed these strikes, preferring to work out some kind of labor-management accommodation. But even these leaders were swept into the conflicts — either that or jeopardize their positions as leaders.

All of this provided the background for enactment of the Taft-Hartley Act, characterized by many in labor as the “Slave Labor Law.” This legislation struck hard at labor, and it has never recovered from the Act’s repressive provisions. Organizing and striking were made much more difficult. Together with the Landrum-Griffin Act which followed, labor solidarity actions were virtually illegalized.

Fast forward to the recent past and what we are confronted with today. Unlike Taft-Hartley, which was a frontal attack against the entire labor movement, the current employer attacks are mostly directed against particular sectors of the working class. Here are some examples:

  •  Wisconsin —  Bargaining rights for public employees (other than firefighters or police) were destroyed.
  •  Indiana and Michigan — Both became right-to-work (for less) states.
  •  The Obama administration — with Republican concurrence but over the heated opposition of the union — raided federal employees’ pension funds in 2013. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner wrote Congress saying the move would free up some $156 billion in borrowing authority so that the government could obtain more credit to pay its debts.
  •  Unemployment compensation for long-term jobless workers was lost in 2013 when the bipartisan budget was adopted.
  •  Food stamps were cut by $8.6 billion under the Farm Bill adopted in 2013 by bipartisan agreement.
  •  Cuts in pensions in the private sector were allowed for the first time under the $1.1 trillion spending bill approved by the lame duck Congress in December 2014 in a bipartisan vote.
  •  The House of Representatives adopted a rule that would cut Social Security payments to disabled workers by 19% effective January 1, 2016.

Many other examples could be cited. But the point is this: Specific groups of workers totaling many millions have been victimized in what may seem to be separate and isolated situations but which, in fact, reflect a pattern and strategy of picking off one group of workers after another to weaken and demoralize workers while swelling the coffers of the super rich.

This situation cannot be sugar coated. It is a crisis of the highest order. This is no time for complacency or an attitude of resignation to additional defeats.  The employers’ campaign has been a record of relatively easy victories, and it is high time for changes in labor’s strategy in order to bring the corporate class to heel.  We have to say “No to Austerity Measures!” imposed on the working class while the high rollers laugh all the way to the bank.

What Has Our Strategy Been?

When issues arise in the legislative arena vitally affecting working people, the emphasis within the House of Labor has habitually been, “Let’s lobby Congress. Call or write your representative and senator and urge her or him to vote labor’s way.” There is nothing inherently wrong with this strategy but what is wrong is focusing on it to the exclusion of mass actions and mobilizations in the streets. Without these, lobbying is a dead-end strategy, as the historical record makes abundantly clear.

We’ve lobbied and lobbied and lobbied and never slowed down the right wing’s juggernaut. Now that we have a Republican-dominated House and Senate, does anyone in our ranks seriously think that we can make a dent in protecting workers’ rights and advancing an agenda for urgently needed expansion of those rights and pro-worker programs by limiting ourselves to lobbying? Will we be able to safeguard and expand Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid by confining ourselves to lobbying?

Go back to the 1930s and ’40s at a time of great labor victories, or the ’60s when the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were passed by Congress, or the huge mobilizations of the Vietnam antiwar movement in the ’60s and ’70s, or the recent rapid surge in support of the Gay Rights movement and its fight for marriage equality. It was people marching in the streets, conducting sit-ins in segregated facilities, occupying city councils and state buildings and other acts of civil disobedience that were crucial to winning victories. In fact, the most effective form of “lobbying” has always been mass actions in the streets, where legislators look out of their windows and see nothing but an endless sea of determined protesters.

And when workers do organize and mobilize, especially in coalition with community and faith groups en masse, they can win — as they did in Ohio in a 2011 referendum, overturning SB 5 by a 69% to 31% margin. SB 5 would have abolished collective bargaining rights for the state’s public employees.

Unfortunately, today’s labor leaders, with some exceptions, do not call for mobilizations. Therefore, they preside over a movement that is largely defenseless and an easy prey to further attacks. The social movements have a better record than labor does in this regard, but it is labor with its 14 million members, in conjunction with community forces, that has the muscle to change the situation decisively through solidarity actions.

United, coordinated massive demonstrations should be called by labor, together with our allies, to demand jobs — starting with repairing our crumbling infrastructure — and stamp out poverty; increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour; restore unemployment compensation for the long-term jobless; end deportations; single payer health care; preservation of our environment, including concrete measures to deal with climate change; holding police accountable for killing unarmed African Americans; and opposing inflated military spending to finance the re-invasion of Iraq and war against Syria. Resolutions, policy statements, and speeches by labor officials and labor activists certainly have their place, but action is needed now to turn back the reactionary wave that threatens to engulf our movement and makes it harder for us to go on the offensive and win changes that benefit the working class majority.

Reliance on the Democratic Party a Proven Failure
The great majority of members of Congress are either millionaires or close to it. Their allegiance is to the big donors who bankroll their election and re-election campaigns. This applies to Democrats as well as Republicans. Union representatives are conspicuous by their absence in Congress.

Each election cycle, labor contributes hundreds of millions of dollars to business people, corporate attorneys, professional politicians and the well-to-do who dominate the Democratic Party and whose legislators, on key votes, too often betray us and vote the corporate agenda. We have cited above specific examples of where this has happened.

Labor leaders seek to justify their “lesser evil” electoral strategy by asserting, “The candidates we support are, at least, better than their opponents, who would do us greater harm.” But workers increasingly reject supporting evil — whether greater or lesser. The results of the November 4 elections prove this beyond the peradventure of a doubt. Tens of millions of workers either stayed home on election day or cast votes for the Republicans. It was a repudiation of the Democratic Party of historic proportions.

Given this, common sense mandates a re-evaluation of labor’s reliance on the Democratic Party to protect our interests. The alternative strategy, which we in the Labor Fightback Network have urged since our inception, is for labor and our community allies to run our own candidates for pubic office, based on a program that reflects the needs of the great majority of the population, with candidates we put forward accountable to their base.  So long as we continue to depend on either of the two corporate parties to overcome the crisis that the labor movement is up against, more defeats loom in our future. It’s time for a change!

Issued by the Labor Fightback Network. For more information, please call 973-944-8975 or email or write Labor Fightback Network, P.O. Box 187, Flanders, NJ  07836 or visit our website at Facebook link :

Donations to help fund the Labor Fightback Network based on its program of solidarity and labor-community unity are necessary for our work to continue and will be much appreciated. Please make checks payable to Labor Fightback Network and mail to the above P.O. Box or you can make a contribution online. Thanks!

  • Aquifer

    “for labor and our community allies to run our own candidates for pubic office,”

    Yes indeed, but NOT in the form of “prog” Dems! The idea of “reforming” the Dem party from the “inside” is a losing strategy – as demonstrated when the supreme poster boy for “prog” Dems, Kucinich, folded in the crunch over health care – choosing party over principle. Signing up with the Dem party is like dancing with the devil – one can do some fancy steps (ala Warren, now, e.g.) but if one steps on his toes, the pitchfork is applied ..

    Another danger, IMO, is for a bunch of parties to spring up, each drawing it’s own constituency, and splitting the vote, we have seen that before, we see it now – its time to have a discussion about uniting behind one party/candidate and taking it, her/him, all the way ….

    I think the Greens would be a good place to start – they have been around for awhile, and have good platforms, principles .. There are some issues with organization, no doubt – and, IMO, they need to be more open minded re critique and suggestions, but they have the basic solid foundation of principles needed to be built upon, a sine qua non, and solid practical prescriptions for our social and economic ills … we don’t have to start from scratch … and we don’t have time to do that, in any case …

    How did Syriza do it?

  • kevinzeese

    I completely concur on staying out of the Democratic Party. It cannot be reformed from the inside. Labor tried it and destroyed itself. Imagine if 40 years ago labor had decided to remain independent and created a working people’s party — it would be a significant force today.

    Syrzia is the “Coalition of the Radical Left.” It brought much of the left together under one banner. It would be like the Greens, various Socialist parties, Peace and Freedom, Progressive parties and the Justice Party (and any other left-leaning) parties together. We’ve suggested this to Bernie Sanders as an option for his presidential run — create a “Unity Campaign” by seeking the nominations of many left parties and remain an independent. That would be the most impactful option he has. You can win a three way race with 35% of the vote and he could leave a coalition party that could have a lasting impact even if he does not win.

  • Aquifer

    I don’t think Bernie is up for it – I don’t think he really wants to rock the boat enough – he made references to running without being a “spoiler”, (the tag attached to Nader when he ran as an indy) – a red flag, IMO, reminiscent of the disastrous GP “safe state” strategy in a previous election cycle … Choosing Bernie for the “practical reason” that he has a bully pulpit and has stood for some prog principles without looking at the whole package is, IMO, a mistake …

    He has said he wants to “raise the issues” and introduce them into the debate process – whenever i hear a candidate who is running to “raise the issues” i shudder – a campaign to “raise the issues” is quite different from a campaign to “win” and I, for one, will only support a candidate who is out to win – we have been “raising the issues” forever, time to win … No more appealing to the idea of using the polls for “conscience votes” or “protest votes” – time to use them for winning votes … And I submit that a candidate who is out to win would inspire much more energy and dedication than one who merely wants to “raise the issues” … So would Bernie run to win?

    And Bernie has a few areas that turn off a good many progs – apparent unwavering support for Israel even in the face of its ethnic cleansing policies, e.g.

    I’ll stick to a candidate whose principles, dedication and integrity I believe in – Stein would be my choice ….

  • DHFabian

    Not so impossible.Our own history provides the blueprint. We already know what works, what doesn’t. In a nutshell: From FDR to Reagan, the US implemented a range of policies and programs that took the US to its height of wealth and productivity. From Reagan onward, we reversed course, ending those policies and programs. Results: The overall quality of life in the US was rated at #1 when Reagan was first elected, launching the long campaign against our poor while deregulating Big Business and the financial sector. By the time Obama was elected, this had already plunged to #43. I would suggest reconsidering this agenda.

  • DHFabian

    Actually, the US Green Party now specifies that it stands for the (comparatively) better off, those who are able to work/have jobs. We need an FDR, not a “stay the course” George Bush Sr. Our own history shows why it’s impossible to save (much less, rebuild) the middle class without shoring up the poor, putting the rungs back on the ladder out of poverty.

  • DHFabian

    Bernie Sanders? He’s not on the left today. Sen. Sanders was once a powerful spokesperson for the poor, explaining how and why it’s impossible to save/rebuild the middle class without shoring up the poor, putting rungs back on the ladder out of poverty. That’s how we built the massive middle class we once had. Sanders (along with most Dems) then abruptly jumped on the Middle Class Only bandwagon. Reality: The US shipped out a huge share of our working class jobs since the 1980s, ended actual welfare in the 1990s. Not everyone can work (health, etc.), and there aren’t jobs for all who need one. Ask Sen Sanders what we do with them.

  • DHFabian

    What issue-raising? Dems and libs have pretty much remained engaged in a long, meaningless panderfest to middle class consumers and campaign donors. As long as we refuse to legitimately address poverty, there is no chance of reversing the agenda that is phasing out the middle class.

    Incidentally, I’m well to the left, and support Israel’s right to exist. The role of Palestinian Arabs who choose to stay in Israel, and to be used against Israel, is another very long discussion. Like Americans, the Israelis get touchy over things like acts of terrorism. Like Americans, they are likely to retaliate. Israel is the historic and modern homeland of the Jews. Check a map. Israel is a tiny country surrounded by vast, oil-rich Arab nations. Each of those Arab nations have modern military forces, well-supplied by China, Russia and the US. US soldiers fighting our periodic oil wars have a good chance of being killed by US made-and-sold weapons. To the US, Israel is a vital landing base for troops fighting our oil wars.

  • Aquifer

    Ask Bernie what issues he wants to raise …

    I don’t support the right of any nation to exist as a religious or ethnic state …. “Israel ” is the historic and modern homeland of several peoples, and ethnic cleansing is a big no-no in my book …

    “To the US, Israel is a vital landing base for troops fighting our oil wars.”

    No doubt …. how many peoples will be so much better off when our troops stop fighting our oil wars …

  • Aquifer

    “US Green Party now specifies that it stands for the (comparatively) better off,…”

    Citation, please ….

    What didn’t you get about a Green New Deal?

  • Jon

    Wise words, Aquifer. I am in accord. I like your use of “dancing with the Devil,” comparable to my own use of “dancing with a corpse.” Calling all cartoonists! This sell-out mentality applies not only to Labor, but also the a host of civil rights and environmental organizations. Perhaps we can instigate an internal rebellion against such misleaders. Maybe it is time to Occupy the offices of such timid accommodators? Go Greens!

  • Jon

    So, are you saying this gives them the “right” to deliberately bomb and deliberately kill children in UN refugee centers, those in hospitals and schools, and devastating the infrastructure of Gaza? No rationalization will suffice to cover such moral atrocities! Don’t also forget the deliberate long siege against the USS Liberty by Israel in the 1960s which killed many of the crew, but failed to sink the ship.

  • Aquifer

    Cartoonists! Yes! Amen! – i have been saying for some time that we need some good “prog” cartoons – a picture is worth a 1000 words and images often stick in one’s mind a lot longer than statistics and graphs to the point where the associations automatically appear when triggered by a phrase and evoke a visceral response without having to be explained – Goldman Sachs as a Vampire Squid, e.g.

    I have a bunch of ideas for cartoons, but I don’t know any cartoonists …. 🙁

    Go for it!

  • Jon

    I too have several ideas for cartoons, but have about a .000017% artistic talent. I am a conceptualizer but pathetic for art or mechanical devices. So, when y say go for it, “It ain’t me babe! No no no It ain’t me, babe, it ain’t me you’re looking for, babe.” I know someone who can and has rendered my ideas into card/poster form, but we had no way to market them. Ideas?

  • Aquifer

    Market – as in sell? Can’t help ya there – but if you want to just get them out there to spread the ideas or images – wonder if they were submitted to sites like this, they might publish them – i think this site would do well to have a cartoon section – and if you didn’t copyright them, they might at least “go viral” on social media ….

    Or if you had a local newspaper, it might …

  • Jon

    Aquifer, Thanks for responding. One artist I know, as referenced, has done a remarkable job for me in the past, so I sent him our exchange here and asked if he would be willing to do a book of political cartoons. I recently self published a book of my own: “Liberate Hawai’i! (subtitled: Renouncing and Defying the Continuing Fraudulent US Claim to the Sovereignty of Hawai’i”). I’d like to have some further talk with you directly, as I have with Kokanee, so I will give you my email: I’ll be traveling the next couple of days, but expect to be home by Monday. Jon

  • Margaret Flowers

    Artwork of all sorts can be submitted to for sharing (not for selling).

  • Aquifer

    Great! Thank you, Dr. Flowers! Just gotta find a cartoonist that will work cheap 🙂

  • Aquifer

    See Dr. Flowers’ response above – great news!

    Thanx! I will be in touch – this would be great ….

    This is a great site – and i think cartoons could make it even better 🙂