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Unions in the Biden Era

The Capitol riot showed the threat of an emboldened Far Right. At the same time, however, it allowed Joe Biden’s new government to present itself as a “defender of democracy.” It is urgent for the working class to fight not only against the Right, but also against Biden’s neoliberal and racist policies, and unions will be a key part of that struggle. 

Jason Koslowski

February 12, 2021
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Photo: Stephanie Strasburg/Post-Gazette

The storming of the Capitol on January 6 shook the peaceful transition of power that the U.S. ruling class had been longing for. In an attempt to shore up the legitimacy of U.S. democracy, the imperialist state took action against the Trumpist threat. Both that threat and the Far Right are in disarray for now — but they will attempt to regroup in the years to come. 

Unions have a crucial role to play in fighting the white supremacist Far Right as it tries to regroup. Workers hold a key strategic position in capitalism: we do the work that produces the bosses’ profits and keeps the entire system running. And unions are the natural form in which workers organize. This means that unions are strategic sites for working-class organization to fight the Far Right. 

The Far Right represents a danger to the U.S. working class. And yet the most serious threat we are facing comes from Biden’s Democratic Party. The Democrats are a party of a ruling class that is facing the most extreme economic crisis since the Great Depression. They are aiming to restore profitability and the legitimacy of their state. For them, the Capitol riot is an opportunity to prepare the repression of the Left and of the kind of mass mobilizations that shook the country last summer during the BLM uprising. 

Now It’s Time to Fight Biden 

In his inaugural address, Biden preached unity. And in fact, much of the ruling class has united behind him. Some corporations ended their donations to the Republican Party after January 6. Even during the election, though, Biden was the favorite of the ruling class, winning far more billionaire backers than Trump did.

And yet Joe Biden’s neoliberal unity appears impossible. The new administration has arrived in office with little legitimacy. tens of millions of people consider the election “stolen,” and the ruling class is divided about how to alleviate the effects of the pandemic and the economic crisis. 

Biden has offered a $1.9 trillion aid package that involves putting money directly into the pockets of the working class. This includes some concessions, such as raising the national minimum wage to $15 — but only gradually, to avoid upsetting the bosses too much. Wall Street, the Republicans, and some Democrats are against these measures, and want a bailout more tailored to corporations and big capitalists. 

You may be interested in: Class Struggle in the Biden Era

The masses are still celebrating the end of Donald Trump’s tenure. They are hungry for reforms, and they have illusions that the new government can implement concrete measures against racist police violence. There are a number of concrete demands in the air: the right to unionize, a hike in the national minimum wage, Medicare for All, student debt forgiveness, etc. This is the context of Biden’s arrival at the White House.

With the new Covid-19 aid package, the new president hopes to gain a “honeymoon” lasting at least a few months. Biden and a sector of capital are amenable to the idea of some limited wealth redistribution. This would serve two goals: on the one hand, alleviating the consequences of the crisis and averting greater social convulsions; and on the other hand, fueling consumption in order to jumpstart the sluggish economy in the spring. 

The sector standing behind Biden is running with the idea that it is necessary to put a little more pressure than usual on hegemonic capital. As economist Paul Krugman puts it:

The narrow Democratic margin in Congress means that the most ambitious progressive goals will have to be put on hold. But the rescue package Biden unveiled Thursday already indicates that he won’t exhibit the excessive caution that inhibited President Barack Obama’s response to the economic crisis.

On the “progressive” side of Biden’s coalition, there are also the union leaders who helped him win the presidency and see an opportunity to eliminate some of the more draconian aspects of anti-union legislation in the United States. This would help them regain prestige in the eyes of their members. As two Wall Street Journal columnists put it:

Labor unions are urging President Biden to move quickly to fulfill his campaign promise to champion organized labor and workers’ rights, including by pushing for legislation to bolster unionizing efforts.

Biden is also under pressure from the left wing of his party, led by Bernie Sanders and the Squad. But the progressive demands coming from these sectors will get limited hearing from a ruling class facing the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression. The capitalists are not just desperate to restore profitability. They also intend to use the Capitol riot as an excuse to expand police forces that can be used against the Right and the Left. They need “law and order” to exploit the working class in peace. 

Biden’s starting offer for increased federal unemployment aid was $400 per week, barely more than the current level. His promise of $2,000 direct payments was lowered to $1,400. Even this relief will not be sent out until March, a slap in the face of working class people who are struggling to pay their bills. 

Workers still face high unemployment while about 40 million people are facing the threat of eviction. While Biden is touting the next stimulus package, the ruling class has already begun rolling out austerity plans at the state and local level. This is where austerity always starts, since balanced budget laws forbid states from running a deficit, and major services (like education and housing) are funded at the state and local levels. Cities like New York are already passing austerity budgets, cutting funding for public services such as transportation and education, which is leading to massive layoffs of public-sector employees. Biden’s plan includes some aid to states — and yet that aid seems far lower than they would need to stave off the massive loss in tax revenue that the pandemic crisis has caused. 

Despite Biden’s push for another stimulus package, economist Michael Roberts points out that the main problem is a lack of new investments by capitalists, and this is a result of low profitability, i.e. a low return on investment. This was the underlying reason that the U.S. economy was already headed into a recession before the pandemic hit. Biden’s stimulus does nothing to address this structural problem; it only addresses some of the symptoms. In other words, the structural situation of the working masses in the medium term, even if the Biden plan is fully implemented, will not be profoundly changed. 

We can’t forget that last summer, during the largest social movement in U.S. history, it was the Democratic Party’s mayors and governors that led the savage counterattack. This same party then co-opted the movement by demanding that we all vote for “shoot ‘em in the leg” Joe, an architect of mass incarceration who rejected all calls to defund the police. In fact, The Wall Street Journal just ran an op-ed by the head of a police union positively gushing over Biden’s choice to head the Department of Homeland Security. 

The events at the Capitol are giving the Democrats the chance to declare themselves the real party of “law and order.” They are preparing for a nationwide crackdown on “extremism” to create the stability that the ruling class is demanding. That means even more funding for the police, who will attack the Left far more than the Right. In fact, recent months have shown again just how much more brutal the police are against the Left.

Only the unity of the exploited and oppressed in the streets and in the workplaces can win our demands in full. The two-party system is doing everything it can to preserve the substance of the system of oppression and exploitation, with a combination of superficial concessions and forcing the masses to pay for the crisis.

Unions Against Biden and Against the Far Right 

Biden and the Democrats pose as friends to unions. Wooing organized labor in the election, and Biden promised to champion the “Protect the Right to Organize (PRO) Act,” which contains protections for workers and unions. But history shows what we can expect from him. 

Over a decade ago, Obama and Biden ran on promises to pass another piece of pro-union legislation, the Employee Free Choice Act, and union leaders fell over themselves to support Obama’s campaign. When the Democrats controlled both the House and Senate, Obama put this legislation in a drawer. Today, in an even more critical context for U.S. capitalism, any extension of union rights will have to be wrested from the government with the methods of class struggle, not by relying on negotiations with those at the top. 

The U.S. labor movement is weak, both politically and in terms of organizing, as a result of the neoliberal offensive that drastically decreased unionization levels, generalized precarious work conditions, and took elementary benefits like health care out of the reach of millions of workers. The BLM movement injected new energy into sectors of the working class. Although unions did not intervene at a national level in support of the movement, workers held important solidarity actions. West Coast dockworkers, for example — occupying a strategic position because of the sheer volume of commodities they bring into and out of the U.S. — held a strike against racist police violence

In recent years, the U.S. working class, divided between organized and unorganized, citizens and non-citizens, Black and white etc., has begun to awaken. We can hypothesize that, as a result of a profound “thirst for reform,” battalions of the proletariat may begin to fight, with the hope of wresting concessions from the new government that seemed impossible under Donald Trump. We see some signs of this trend in the formation of a union at Google; in the historic unionization drive at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama; in the numerous teachers’ strikes against unsafe reopenings; and in the hundreds of struggles throughout the country for economic demands, such as the recent Hunts Point Market strike in New York City. It is also possible to imagine BLM returning to the political scene and injecting more energy into the working class by putting the anti-racist struggle back on center stage. If these tendencies develop, a great opportunity would open up to reorganize the labor movement in a militant way, uniting the ranks of working people against racism and capitalism. 

Unions hold crucial weapons in their hands for the fight against both the Far Right and the Democrats. When Trump threatened to disrupt the election in 2020, the Rochester AFL-CIO and a number of other labor councils called for a general strike in the case of a contested election. Those statements were symbolic moves, to be sure, but they pointed to the power that unions could have — if the rank and file were organized. 

Strikes can build solidarity between union members and anti-racist activists, and they can be crucial for isolating, intimidating, and repudiating far-right violence. They can also force the arrest or firing of white supremacist cops, or the defunding of police. And organizing in our unions to kick cops out of the AFL-CIO and the SEIU would mean taking away some of cops’ protections. During the BLM uprising last summer, as Democratic mayors and governors unleashed their cops against anti-racist protesters, rank-and-file union members played a key role in fighting back, like when some MTA bus drivers refused to transport cops.

These weapons of the working class — the disruption and stoppage of the work that keeps the capitalist machine running — are crucial to both fighting the Far Right and fighting the main threat facing the working class today: the Democratic Party governing for the ruling class. But to wield those weapons, we need to make our unions fighting organizations

You may be interested in: Black Struggle is Class Struggle: Five Demands on Unions

A United Front of The Working Class 

The union leadership, however, constantly stands in our way. 

All too often, they are the lapdogs of the Democratic Party. For decades, union leaders have mostly bet on class collaboration. They agree to keep class struggle to a minimum in return for paltry concessions; to improve conditions in the workplace, they lobby the Democratic Party for new legislation. It’s no coincidence that the past several decades have seen a steep drop in the number of strikes, with far fewer in the last few years than at any time since statistics have been collected. We see what class collaboration has gotten us: decades of stagnant wages and a steady decline of unionization. 

In 2009, unions got out the vote for Obama and Biden — and they got precious little in return. This time around, union leaders again beat the drum for Biden, with the SEIU alone giving $150 million. Tamping down militancy and pleading with the Democrats isn’t a strategy that can win much of anything, and indeed it isn’t really intended to — it’s a strategy to slow down the rate of losing. Biden and the Democrats will be under constant and extreme pressure to make the working class pay for the crisis through austerity. Workers will be sitting ducks if we don’t change our approach.

To beat the Democrats’ austerity and the Far Right’s racism, we will need fighting unions that embrace militant tactics like strikes. That will mean organizing in shop committees and rank-and-file structures that constantly push the bureaucrats to take more radical action — or organize such actions ourselves, dragging our leaders behind us. We need strikes, sit-downs, slow-downs, walkouts, and so on — not pleading with the Democratic Party. 

Real union power will mean fighting racism on and off the job, inside and outside our unions. Racism is a poison instilled by slaveowners and their capitalist descendants. Black and Brown people, and women in particular, are paid less than white men for the same jobs; they are the last hired and the first fired. Racism divides the fight for better wages and living conditions, while also suppressing wages overall. The Trump administration stoked racism — but that racism is always present in capitalist society. Biden has appointed a diverse cabinet, but he has no proposal to overcome racism. In fact, he campaigned on increasing police budgets.

Our unions must fight racism at every turn. Yet union bureaucrats like Richard Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO, want unions to represent the vicious police that murder Black and Brown people with impunity. Fighting racism within our unions means following the lead of the SEIU’s Strike for Black Lives, pushing our unions to strike in solidarity with anti-racist and anti-fascist struggles and to join protesters in the streets. It means fighting tooth and nail against our union bureaucrats to kick cops out of our unions. And it means organizing for equal wages for the same work.

But we can’t fight as a united working class if we’re siloed into our separate unions. We need, above all, rank-and-file organizations that push for the unions to join united fronts of the entire working class. That would mean rejecting the Democrats and their allies, and instead building joint actions of unions, local BLM chapters, the unemployed, and the student movement. Only the combined power of the working class is going to be able to fend off the attacks that have already begun.

This doesn’t mean begging the union bureaucracy to give us this kind of militant unity. It means finding creative ways to reach larger sectors of the working class, particularly Black people and people of color, and the vast army of the unemployed and underemployed. It also means fighting against the bureaucratic leaders of social movements in the form of NGOs, as we could observe in the BLM movement. A workers’ united front is about fighting to make the Black proletariat and the working class as a whole the leadership of the struggle against racism. This strategy is completely different than that of the bureaucracies of the unions and the social movements 

It is urgent that we draw on the lessons of the labor movement from the past and from around the world. In France in recent weeks, for example, Grandpuits refinery workers fought to stave off the boss’ attacks by building a militant strike action using workers’ democracy. As one union member said to the workers’ assembly: “No matter what the state says, it is not on the side of the workers. Otherwise, it would have already banned layoffs. The only way to win is through struggle.” 

And in the 1930s in the U.S., when the Great Depression pushed the working class toward the abyss, they began to establish unemployment councils under the leadership of the Trade Union Unity League (TUUL) — an organization created by the Communist Party (CPUSA). This example spread to other groups, and organizations and councils emerged in Chicago, Seattle, Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. The following anecdote narrated by Christine Ellis concentrates the strength and potential of these united front organs

We spoke simply, explained the platform, the demands and activities of the unemployed council. And then we said, ‘Are there any questions?’…. Finally an elderly Black man stood up and said, ‘What do you folks figure on doing about that colored family that was thrown out of their house today?… They’re still out there with their furniture on the sidewalk.’ So the man with me said, ‘Very simple. We’ll adjourn the meeting, go over there, and put the furniture back in the house. After that, anyone wishing to join the unemployed council and build an organization to fight evictions, return to this hall and we’ll talk about it some more.’ That’s what we did…everybody else pitched in, began to haul in every last bit of furniture, fix up the beds…and when that was all done, went back to the hall. The hall was jammed!

The working class faces great threats in the coming years, but also great possibilities. We have the power to smash the Far Right and win all our demands. If the workers and the oppressed fight together, the very dynamics of the struggle will reveal the true character of the Democratic Party and the two-party regime. It is in the class struggle that the multiethnic U.S. working class will learn to distinguish who are its friends and who are its enemies.

An earlier version of this article was published in Spanish on January 24 in Ideas de Izquierda.

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Jason Koslowski

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

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