Why American unions support Obama – and why they’re right to do so

This article appears in the latest edition of Solidarity. Please post any comments you may have to the discussion there.

Every four years, an odd little debate occurs on the Left.

Here is what happens: An American presidential campaign begins. Someone on the American Left will write an article saying that there is no real choice between Democrats and Republicans and that workers need their own party.

Then left-wing papers around the world will reprint the article, or quote it, and agree with the comrade that workers have no real choice in America and need a class party, a labour party.

Some of those who make the case here in Britain will go further and say that British workers face the same predicament, that the Labour Party hasn’t really represented them for decades and is “Labour” in name only. They will call on those workers to create or support alternative parties such as the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC).

But there are also those on the British Left who say that Marxists belong in the Labour Party as a pressure group, and must be active where the workers and their unions actually are, not in some tiny, marginalized group with no influence.

They acknowledge that for decades that party has not been the kind of Labour Party we’d like, that its leaders no longer question capitalism, support privatisation and cutbacks in public services, won’t support strikes, and so on.

But it’s the only game in town, and that’s why of course we revolutionary socialists must support it, be involved in it, and pressure it to change.

The exact same arguments were made more than a generation ago by Max Shachtman and his small band of third camp socialists regarding the Democratic Party.

When Shachtman first made the case for the strategy known as “realignment”, many unions were not particularly interested in national politics. The AFL-CIO maintained a formal position of neutrality — one which stretched back to the days of Samuel Gompers, who insisted that unions would support their friends and reward their enemies, regardless of party affiliation.

That meant that some unions sometimes supported Republic candidates. The Teamsters were, a generation ago, rather chummy with Richard Nixon (and other unsavoury characters).

To be fair, a generation ago there were such things as “liberal Republicans” in the US who were not particularly anti-union or even anti-welfare state.

And 40 years ago, the AFL-CIO — for the last time — took a position of neutrality in a presidential election, not willing to back the liberal Democrat George McGovern against Nixon.

But over the last three or four decades, there’s been a seismic shift in the American labour movement and unions have become the backbone of the Democratic Party.

In November, it will be union members in their hundreds of thousands providing the bulk of the volunteers in the Obama campaign.

Unions will give many millions of dollars to support that campaign, and the campaigns of Democrats across the country in the hope that their party will win control of both houses of Congress.

And union members will vote overwhelmingly Democratic — even though their counterparts in the working class who are not union members will tend to vote Republican.

The Right in America is acutely aware of this and regularly accuse the Democrats of being in the pocket of “special interests”. (For them, unions representing millions of workers are special interests, but oil companies are not.)

The American Right has declared war on public sector workers and their unions, and has attempted to pass anti-union legislation, with varying degrees of success, in a number of states.

One of the reasons for this ferocious attack on those unions is their ongoing support for the Democrats.

As the Republican reasoning goes, if you can weaken the public sector unions, you weaken your political opponents.

The Democrats are far from being the kind of social democratic party that American workers need. But in that sense, they don’t differ all that much from moderate social democratic parties anywhere else in the world.

Obama didn’t pass the labour law reform that American unions demanded and so desperately need. But the Blair/Brown government didn’t repeal Thatcher’s labour laws either.

If we can understand the importance for revolutionary socialists to engage with the Labour Party in this country, with all its flaws, surely we can understand why the vast majority of America’s socialists have long been active inside the Democratic Party there.

They’re in that party for the same reason we are in Labour here: because they’re serious political people who want to work in the real world.

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