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After Its Disastrous Defeat on November 4, Which Way Now for the Labor Movement?

There is no disagreement within the labor movement that we took a very big hit in the November 4 elections. Labor’s worst enemies among the politicians — Scott Walker in Wisconsin and John Kasich in Ohio, who led the charge against public employees’ bargaining rights—registered significant victories. A large number of other Republicans across the country share their anti-labor bias.

But what about the Democratic Party, supposedly the party that represents the interests of workers? It was repudiated by millions of workers who either stayed home on Election Day or cast their ballots for the Republicans.

In 2008, Obama was elected president, and Democrats won control of both Houses of Congress. Hope was in the air. But in short order, the Democratic Party betrayed its promises to labor—without whom the Democrats could never have won the election. No legislation guaranteeing full employment was enacted. No infrastructure funding was approved. No labor law reform was passed. No “card check” (“Employees Free Choice Act”) saw the light of day. No end to deportations and the breakup of families transpired. Instead, a bill on health care authored by the very conservative Heritage Foundation was pushed through Congress without even a promised public option, making the insurance companies happy but leaving vast numbers with no health care or patently inadequate coverage. And anti-worker trade bills were relentlessly pursued, wars and occupations in faraway countries were escalated, and more recently Democrats joined Republicans in allowing unemployment compensation for the long-term unemployed to expire while food stamp funding was cut further by $8.6 billion.

In short, the President and Congressional Democrats, with the exception of only a small minority, turned on labor and in the process fueled the disillusionment that led to Tuesday’s vote. Tens of millions of workers have had it with the Democratic Party. According to the latest Gallup Poll, 58% of the U.S. population has concluded that a new party should be formed.

A CBS exit poll taken on Election Day reported that 63% of Americans believe that the economic system favors the wealthy. Dissatisfaction with the status quo is very widespread and disgust with both major parties runs deep. All that is missing is leadership that only the labor movement and its community allies can provide to bring a new party into existence.

A Bankrupt Strategy

Unfortunately, up to this point, too many labor leaders have doggedly stuck with the Democratic Party. But the rank-and-file increasingly reject this strategy. So the generals in labor are losing their army as the labor movement sinks ever more deeply into crisis.

Today labor is a junior member of the Democratic Party’s coalition. But it is the big corporations and banks which continue to control that party. (Seventy percent of the Democrats’ funding comes from the big corporations and some millionaires and billionaires.) To be sure, Wall Street gave the Democrats more money in the 2008 elections than to the Republicans, but this time around they gave more money to the Republicans. When the Democrats win, Wall Street wins. When the Republicans win, Wall Street wins. But either way, labor loses.

We have to ask: What in the world is labor doing in the same party as the corporate elite? Shouldn’t we be in the same independent party — that is, a party without the bosses — as the civil rights movement, communities of color, the youth, working farmers, immigrants, and progressive social movements?

Where Do We Go From Here?

Tough times lie ahead for the labor movement. Blaming Obama for all that has gone wrong — of course he bears his share of the responsibility — won’t get us out of the mess we are in. What is urgently needed is a debate throughout the labor movement regarding what we must do in the political and electoral arena from this point on. Let advocates of sticking with the Democrats have their say. But let advocates of independent labor/community political action have their say as well.

There is no time to waste. The labor movement can be revitalized if we adopt as our slogan “The Bosses Have Two Parties—We need One of Our Own!” and take the concrete organizational steps to bring such a new party into existence. The alternative is for labor to continue to suffer further horrendous defeats and disappear as a viable social movement. The choice is ours to make, and it will determine where we in labor go from here.

To read additional comments on the key issues facing the labor movement—and to share your own comments—please visit the Labor Fightback Blog.


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