by Bill Onasch
We Need More Than a Bernie
The raucous Questions for the Prime Minister in the British House of Commons televised on C-SPAN look like scholarly civil discourse in comparison to the so-called “debates” that have winnowed the field of Republican presidential hopefuls. The now ignored one time front runner Dr Ben Carson politely asked if someone could please insult him. As those still standing dwindles, differences center on who sweats the most, who may have a bladder control problem. Some ad libs had to be bleeped to protect the ears of any innocent children who might be within hearing.
Unfortunately, this is not another foul-mouthed stand-up comic competition so rife on cable television. All this shooting from below the hip is a dress rehearsal for making America Great Again.
Those most disturbed by bullies competing for the bully pulpit are not the radicals and liberals but the majority of the ruling class elite. They see the once preferred of their two parties becoming a raging rogue elephant. The Saturday New York Times has a good process story about how even the Koch brothers aren’t up to either taming or stopping Trump.
It appears the presidential election is the Democrats’ to lose—as well they may. The big majority reject the bigoted bluster of Trump but his base is sure to vote. Over the past few years, polls have shown American working people have lost faith in the traditional two parties and would like to see a new party. But so far we have only seen polarization of the right and “left” in the old ones. The Democrats need to convince the working class majority to turn out for them.
This degeneration of stable two party political rule is what opened the door for the Political Revolution of the Senator known as Bernie. The few popular reforms he advocates—single-payer health care, 15 dollar minimum wage, free public college education–were won decades ago in most other industrialized countries where there are mass workers parties–but they are fresh and inspiring to young American students and workers. The youthful, vibrant pinkish tinge of Bernie’s campaign is a sharp contrast to the beige, aging New Democrat moderates of the Clinton family era.
Bernie’s palpable appeal also explains why the boss controlled mass media, who long sought to make even Liberal a dirty word, is now remarkably tolerant of a socialist interloper in the presently governing ruling class party. Their embrace is not warm but it is symbiotic. They can’t stop Trump without Bernie’s followers. Bernie is trusted to live up to his pledge to work to unite the party behind who ever is nominated. Since that nominee will likely be Hillary Clinton it remains to be seen whether he can deliver.
Undoubtedly, Hillary Clinton, who has so far picked up the most union endorsements, would extend her put-down of single-payer as pie-in-the-sky to the other reforms of Political Revolution. She stresses that she played a major role in shaping policies of the Bill Clinton administration. That’s when we got NAFTA, Three Strikes sentencing of the poor, and the End of Welfare As We Know It. As a Senator she praised Bush II’s launch of the Iraq war. As Secretary of State she backed Israel’s brutal repression in Gaza and the West Bank, sold the policy leading to a failed state in Libya, and tried to advance the Keystone XL pipeline. Like most “friends of labor” her allegiance is to Wall Street where she is often paid to speak and listen. She will be a bitter pill for Bernie’s followers to swallow.
In any case, the election will mark the definitive end to the Revolution. The Revolutionaries that stick it out that far will be commanded to stand down until the next election cycle. Even if the Democrats win with Bernie’s help it will be a demoralizing experience for many who felt the Bern.
Instead of Bernie’s one man crusade to influence and elect the party of our class enemy we need not only a new party—we need a new type of party. One that will recover our stolen class identity. One that is democratically controlled, with office holders responsible to those who worked to elect them, not vice versa. One that is more than just an electoral machine but is above all part and parcel of ongoing working class struggles in the workplace, in the communities, on the campuses, and in the streets. One that can also pave the way for replacing the pro-boss Establishment with an elected working class government.
I once was a member of such a party. I was part of an exploratory group called Labor Party Advocates initiated by the late Tony Mazzocchi of the old Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers that, after determining there was substantial interest within the union movement, called a Labor Party Founding Convention in Cleveland in June, 1996. 1400 mainly union leaders and activists showed up to hammer out a program and structure. While it could use some updating and expansion after twenty years I believe the Call for Economic Justice still stands the test of time.
Jeremy Corbyn, a left socialist elected last year as leader of the British Labor Party after the crushing electoral defeat on the watch of “New Labor” leaders still mimicking Bill Clinton, was an enthusiastic observer at the Cleveland convention. Labor Beat recently released a 25-minute video, Jeremy Corbyn In America featuring interviews and a moving speech in Cleveland.
1400 attended a second convention two years later in Pittsburgh. The gathering registered significant growth in both union affiliations and community chapters that were open to the unorganized, unemployed, and retired. There were now thousands of individual dues paying members and a quality party newspaper. That convention launched a Just Healthcare campaign for an advanced single-payer plan and adopted an Electoral Policy.
We were feeling wind in our sails leaving Pittsburgh but important set backs were soon to come. In a period of merger mania, two key affiliates—the Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers, and the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees [rail] were absorbed by bigger unions hostile to the Labor Party project. Membership losses in the United Mine Workers and United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers forced them to cut their financial and staff support—and many local union affiliates disappeared through plant closings. And, after Bush stole the 2000 election from Gore, most union officials were wary of “spoiler” campaigns and tried to forgive and forget their complaints about the Democrats.
Dedicated leaders and ranks continued to do some good work with diminishing resources for more than a decade including collecting thousands of signatures to establish official recognition and ballot access for the South Carolina Labor Party. But eventually the lack of union material support led to a desperate and destitute situation. Reluctantly, the Labor Party was put in a sort of medically induced coma.
It was a necessary step. You can’t have a real labor party without labor backing. But it was taken at a time of growing attacks on workers that required a political response. Some of us argued for reviving the party’s precursor formation—Labor Party Advocates–but that approach has been taken on a modest scale in only a few local areas.
Over the last three or four years we have seen some resurgence in worker political action outside the Establishment institutions. Most inspiring has been the election—and reelection—of a socialist to the Seattle City Council. Kshama Sawant won because of respect she earned in local mass movements—especially the fight for a 15 dollar municipal minimum wage. Her presence on the City Council helped drive that big boost in wages for the working poor in Seattle—an example that inspired similar victories in dozens of other cities and even states.
Kshama and her small Socialist Alternative Party are constantly involved every day in worker struggles—not just at election time. She has won significant support from the local union movement. I don’t believe this is some curious local anomaly. Neither did Bernie Sanders.
Bernie has skillfully tapped in to this new political awakening of workers and students. But Bernie is trying to shape it in to a support movement for his political advancement—diverting it back in to the perfidious Democrats.
In my opinion, it is high time to revive the movement for a labor party. We won’t be able to build a credible labor party before the election this November. But, if we do nothing—or worse support the Democrats—we will never have the desperately needed party of our own.
We should begin with modest efforts to revive Labor Party Advocates to educate, agitate, and organize in our only class based mass organizations—our unions. But we also should reach out to those other forces in motion against our common class enemy in the mass movements that have emerged among low wage workers, socially conscious students, Black Lives Matter, immigrant rights defenders, womens’ right to choose, LGBT equality—and those awakening to the urgency of the climate change crisis.
Yes, we need a lot more than a Bernie.
That’s all for this week.
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