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How to Stop a Stolen Election: Mobilize the Unions

Trump’s election strategy is to attack voting rights in a bid to steal the election. Our unions have a crucial role to play not just in stopping him, but in fighting for real democracy beyond both parties of the ruling class. 

Jason Koslowski

October 10, 2020
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Photo: Win McNamee

Trump has made it clear that a key part of his election strategy will be fighting to cast doubt on the coming election results, using threats of violence from the far right, attacks on the Post Office, and the undemocratic nature of the U.S. political machine itself. 

Tatiana Cozzarelli writes for Left Voice that Trump is attacking some of the most basic norms of the U.S. election system. He’s refusing to say he’ll accept the results of the election or commit to a peaceful transition of power. Instead, in the first presidential debate, he told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.” His campaign is also assembling what it calls an “army” of so-called “poll watchers,” all part of a campaign of intimidation at the polls. In all this we see Trump supporting any groups that use violence to create havoc on election night.

At the same time, Trump constantly repeats the completely false idea that mail-in votes will be riddled with fraud — in order to discredit the huge number of mail-in ballots that will likely heavily favor Biden. He is also attacking the Post Office’s ability to deliver those ballots. He installed his lackey, Louis DeJoy, to oversee the sabotaging of the Post Office’s operations, including slowing mail delivery by removing mail sorting machines and carting away mailboxes from street corners. This sabotage, though, is part of a set of wider attacks on the USPS by Trump’s administration, which has been aiming to defund and privatize the USPS for years — part of a campaign that’s been going on for decades under both Democrat and Republican presidents.

But as Cozzarelli notes, echoing the Atlantic, the undemocratic nature of U.S. politics is making it easier for Trump to try to steal the election. For example: if Trump and his supporters can sow enough chaos on election night — declaring he won before mail-in ballots are counted, claiming mail-in ballots are fraudulent, using violence or claims of fraud to interrupt voting or vote-counting, etc. — he can lean on the anti-democratic Electoral College. With enough doubt cast on the popular vote, the legislatures of swing states like Pennsylvania could appoint electors they know will vote for Trump. And Trump has already announced he is planning for an election crisis that must be solved by the Supreme Court rather than the voters. 

The Democrats Can’t Help Us

It’s true that Trump’s strategy is far from certain to succeed. The right wing militias that his administration has long emboldened are still marginal. Trump’s bid to manipulate the Electoral College still seems to be a long-shot. Democrats, noting Biden’s large lead in polling over Trump, are hoping that a landslide victory for Biden on election night will make Trump’s maneuvers come to nothing. Still, since many more Democrats than Republicans are planning to vote by mail, the attacks on voter rights may blunt that advantage, and the 2016 election showed how shaky polling numbers can be. 

The possibility of Trump actually stealing this election may not be large, but the threat is still real. And Trump’s maneuvers could have a powerful effect even if he’s booted from office. A weak response in defense of democracy would only further embolden the white supremacist right and their militias well beyond the election. 

Despite what the Democrats want us to think, the solution is not Biden. Biden and his Democratic Party are making it clear: they have absolutely no intention to call for mass mobilization to fight the threat to the election. And they have absolutely no intention of getting rid of the wildly undemocratic Electoral College or Supreme Court that Trump aims to make use of — not to mention other authoritarian institutions like the Senate and presidency. In fact, in city after city this summer, it was Democratic Party-led governments that viciously attacked the democratic right to protest during the uprising against the racist police. 

It’s no mistake that Biden and the Democrats have no real plan to defend and expand democracy. Going further would mean pointing to the real solution: mass, militant action to demonstrate against Trump’s attempted power-grab, intimidate and defeat white supremacist organizing, and secure the safety of the polls. These are tasks that only the working class and oppressed have the power as well as the material interest to carry out. 

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The Democrats, like the Republicans, are a party of the ruling class. The clearest sign of this is the lead Biden has in the amount of money his campaign is raking in from Wall Street, as well as in the sheer number of billionaires donating to his election bid. If the Democrats called for mass mobilizations, they might help unleash once again the power of the working class and oppressed — power that was on display in the massive, historic uprising against the police this summer. The Democratic Party would rather have Trump in office — he might be unpredictable, but he’s been a gift to the ruling class from the start — than help ignite another wave of that uprising. 

Workers — and Especially Unions — are the Key

Instead, what we need right now is a militant, working class struggle against the attacks on the election. 

Workers are the key to the economy. With workers across the globe, we are the ones who treat the patients, manufacture the goods (like cars, food, and houses), drive the trucks and ambulances, teach the classes, make the phone calls, flip the burgers, sell the groceries, and clean the buildings that keep capitalism running. The pandemic shut-downs were a stark reminder of what Marxists have been saying for about 175 years: without workers, the economy grinds to a halt, and profits stop flowing. 

Unions in particular have a crucial role to play. They are the main way that workers band together for protection from the bosses’ endless thirst for profits. Union membership might be at historic lows, but unions are very far from powerless. In New York, about one out of four workers is in a union. Millions of workers across the country are represented by unions. And more importantly, some of the most strategic sectors of the economy today are highly unionized: in public education, for example, on such powerful display in the Virginia mass teachers’ strike in 2018; and in transportation, including many city bus drivers and train conductors, the Teamsters, and the ILWU port workers. Those workers were suddenly valorized during the early parts of the pandemic as bosses and politicians “discovered” how essential they actually are.

This power means that unions have a key role to play in the current crisis. We need a concerted, militant worker struggle, especially by our unions, to prevent or stop Trump’s attack on the election, and to intimidate and humiliate the white supremacists he has been encouraging so that they slink bank into their corners. 

And we need it to challenge and reject the Democrats, too — who are not just ducking their heads into the sand while they shout “Vote!”, not just failing to call for real and substantive democracy, but also spearheading the frontal assault on the democratic right to protest the police, all while championing the cops killing Black and Brown people. 

You Might be Interested in: Get Militant or Die: Labor Unions in the Age of Crisis

The Union Bureaucrats Are Blocking Our Way Forward 

We need to be preparing for that militant struggle right now — organizing our unions to take concrete steps to meet the threat and protect the vestiges of democracy in the U.S. 

And yet this is exactly what union bureaucrats at every level are refusing to do. Instead, they’re acting like Biden’s lap dogs. As Trump’s attacks on the elections have unfolded, union leaders in the CWA, AFT, SEIU, NEA, and beyond have been simply imploring their members to vote for Biden and spend their time phone banking for Biden’s campaign. They’re calling for this support despite the fact that Biden is the preferred candidate of Wall Street and the billionaires, and despite the fact the Democratic Party has proven itself again and again to be an enemy of organized labor. Democrats have given huge bailouts to the ruling class while refusing to pass important pro-union legislation, championed mass incarceration, and defend the cops murdering Black and Brown people.

Union leaders have banked everything on cozying up to this party for the billionaires and bosses. The union bureaucrats use mock-radical language about worker power and even strikes, yet they refuse to help build the rank-and-file power and organize the militant strike preparation across the country that would be needed to keep workers safe and beat back the bosses’ attacks during the pandemic. They even fight to undermine, silence, and attack the radical sectors of their membership. 

For example: Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, one of the biggest unions in the United States, seemed to suddenly become more radical this year. She endorsed the idea of “safety strikes” by AFT teachers being forced backed into the classroom during the pandemic. But this was a toothless gesture lacking any real commitment to help prepare for strikes across the country. Instead of mass mobilizing to build on the power of the 2018 wave of teacher strikes, Weingarten is focusing her and the AFT’s energies on photo-ops with Biden and calling on members to help with his campaign. 

In New York, the leaders of the public school teachers’ union — the UFT — threatened a strike authorization vote against an unsafe return to the classroom. But at the last minute, the bureaucrats struck a back-room deal with the city Democrats that didn’t even come close to dealing with the profound safety problems that come with teaching in a pandemic. The bureaucrats, in other words, made a deal that shut out the rank-and-file fighting the reopening — and then they stood shoulder to shoulder with Democratic politicians to try to sell the move as a win, instead of the failure and betrayal that it was.

More than this, Richard Trumka, the head of the AFL-CIO, has turned his back on the working class and oppressed people he claims to fight for. Endorsing and campaigning for Biden, Trumka is refusing to kick cops out of the AFL-CIO — covering for the thugs who murder Black and Brown people in cold blood and who mercilessly beat the Black-led uprising this summer. 

Like the Democrats, our union leaders are terrified of the power of the working class. The danger for them is this: a rabble-rousing, strike-ready, militant rank-and-file would have to turn against the Democratic Party and threaten the union bureaucrats’ warm and cozy position in the laps of the ruling class masters. 

Preparing to meet the crisis now means challenging and breaking with those bureaucrats. 

Where to Now?

What we need right now is militant working class struggle in our unions against and beyond the parties of the ruling class.

That means organizing, from the bottom up, our union coworkers to protect our polling stations. It means immediately creating rank-and-file committees to organize strikes against the threat of attacks on polls, disruptions of mail-in vote counting, et cetera. It means connecting those committees with other unions and the organizations of the working class and the oppressed in the streets so that we can coordinate our mass actions. And crucially, it means breaking our union ties to the Democratic Party, which has again shown its total bankruptcy in the face of this crisis.

All along the way, we need to be calling out our union bureaucrats at every level — local, state, and national — for blocking the way to militant, effective power. And we have to constantly push those leaders to support and expand our rank-and-file efforts however and whenever possible. In moments of intense struggle, it will likely be necessary to toss those leaders out and replace them with workers actually committed to a radical fight for workers and the oppressed.

Neither Biden nor our union leaders will save us. Now is the time to organize our unions for militant class struggle — against Trump, Biden, and Biden’s union bureaucrat lackeys — laying groundwork for real democracy for the working class and oppressed: socialism. 

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Jason Koslowski

Jason is a contingent college teacher and union organizer who lives in Philadelphia.

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