Pluralistic: Biden should support the UAW (18 Sept 2023)

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A vintage illustration of striking workers massed before a factory. The image has been altered to insert a large, ogrish, top-hatted 'boss' figure holding a comically large loot sack and screaming angrily; he stands before the factory gates, facing the workers. One worker's shirt has been altered to add a UAW logo. Looming over the factory are two figures: one is Uncle Sam, raising a glass in toast; the other is Joe Biden, grinning. A GM logo has been inserted over the factory gates.

Biden should support the UAW (permalink)

The UAW are on strike against the Big Three automakers. Biden should be roaring his full-throated support for the strike. Doing so would be both just and shrewd. But instead, the White House is waffling…and if recent history is any indication, they might actually come out against the strike.

The Biden administration is a mix of appointees from the party's left Sanders/Warren wing, and the corporatist, "Third Way" wing associated with Clinton and Obama, which has been ascendant since the Reagan years. The neoliberal wing presided over NAFTA, the foreclosure crisis, charter schools and the bailout for the bankers – but not the people. They voted for the war in Iraq, supported NSA mass-surveillance, failed to use their majorities to codify abortion rights, and waved through mega-merger after mega-merger.

By contrast, the left wing of the party has consistently fought monopoly, war, spying, privatized education and elite impunity – but forever in the shadow of the triangulation wing, who hate the left far more than they hate Republicans. But with the Sanders campaign, the party's left became a force that the party could no longer ignore.

That led to the Biden administration's chimeric approach to key personnel. On the one hand, you have key positions being filled by ghouls who cheered on mass foreclosures under Obama:

And on the other, you have shrewd tacticians who are revolutionizing labor law enforcement in America, delivering real, material benefits for American workers:

Progressives in the Biden administration have often delivered the goods, but they're all-too-often hamstrung by the corporate cheerleaders the party's right wing secured – think of Lina Khan losing her bid to block the Microsoft/Activision merger thanks to a Biden-appointed, big-money-loving judge:

These self-immolating own-goals are especially visible when it comes to strikes. The Biden admin intervened to clobber railway workers, who were fighting some of the country's cruelest, most reckless monopolists, whose greed threatens the nation:

The White House didn't have the power to block the Teamsters threat of an historic strike against UPS, but it publicly sided with UPS bosses, fretting about "the economy" while the workers were trying to win a living wage and air conditioning for the roasting ovens they spend all day in.

Now, with the UAW on strike against the monopolistic auto-makers – who received repeated billions in public funds, gave their top execs massive raises, shipped jobs offshore, and used public money to lobby against transit and decarbonization – Biden is sitting on the sidelines, failing to champion the workers' cause.

Writing in his newsletter, labor reporter Hamilton Nolan makes the case that the White House should – must! – stand behind the autoworkers:

Nolan points out that workers who strike without the support of the government have historically lost their battles. When workers win labor fights, it's typically by first winning political ones, dragging the government to the table to back them. Biden's failure to support workers isn't "neutral" – it's siding with the bosses.

Today, union support is at historic highs not seen in generations. The hot labor summer wasn't a moment, it was a turning point. Backing labor isn't just the moral thing to do, it's also the right political move:

Biden is already partway there. He rejected the Clinton/Obama position that workers would have to vote for Democrats because "we are your only choice." Maybe he did that out of personal conviction, but it's also no longer politically possible for Democrats to turn out worker votes while screwing over workers.

The faux-populism of the Republicans' Trump wing has killed that strategy. As Naomi Klein writes in her new book Doppelganger, Steve Bannon's tactical genius is to zero in on the areas where Democrats have failed key blocks and offer faux-populist promises to deliver for those voters:

When Democrats fail to bat for workers, they don't just lose worker votes – they send voters to the Republicans. As Nolan writes, "working people know that the class war is real. They are living it. Make the Democratic Party the party that is theirs! Stop equivocating! Draw a line in the sand and stand on the right side of it and make that your message!"

The GOP and Democrats are "sorting themselves around the issue of inequality, because inequality is the issue that defines our time, and that fuels all the other issues that people perceive as a decline in the quality of their own lives." If the Democrats have a future, they need to be on the right side of that issue.

Biden should have allowed a railroad strike. He should have cheered the Teamsters. He should be on the side of the autoworkers. These aren't "isolated squabbles," they're "critical battles in the larger class war." Every union victory transfers funds from the ruling class to the working class, and erodes the power of the wealthy to corrupt our politics.

When Democrats have held legislative majorities, they've refused to use them to strengthen labor law to address inequality and the corruption it engenders. Striking workers are achieving the gains that Democrats couldn't or wouldn't take for themselves. As Nolan writes:

Democratic politicians should be sending the unions thank you notes when they undertake these hard strikes, because the unions are doing the work that the Democrats have failed to accomplish with legislation for the past half fucking century. Say thank you! Say you support the workers! They are striking because the one party that was responsible for ensuring that the rich didn’t take all the money away from the middle class has thoroughly and completely failed to do so.

Republican's can't win elections by fighting on the class war. Democrats should acknowledge that this is the defining issue of our day and lean into it.

Whose fault is a strike at the railroads, or at UPS, or in Hollywood, or at the auto companies? It is the fault of the greedy fuckers who took all the workers’ money for years and years. It is the fault of the executives and investors and corporate boards that treated the people who do the work like shit. When the workers, at great personal risk, strike to take back a measure of what is theirs, they are the right side. There is no winning the class war without accepting this premise.

Autoworkers' strikes have been rare for a half-century, but in their heyday, they Got Shit Done. Writing in The American Prospect, Harold Meyerson tells the tale of the 1945/46 GM strike:

In that strike, the UAW made history: they didn't just demand higher wages for workers, but they also demanded that GM finance these wages with lower profits, not higher prices. This demand was so popular that Harry Truman – hardly a socialist! – stepped in and demanded that GM turn over its books so he could determine whether they could afford to pay a living wage without hiking prices.

Truman released the figures proving that higher wages didn't have to come with higher prices. GM caved. Workers got their raise. Truman touched the "third rail of American capitalism" – co-determination, the idea that workers should have a say in how their employers ran their businesses.

Co-determination is common in other countries – notably Germany – but American capitalists are violently allergic to the idea. The GM strike of 45/6 didn't lead to co-determination, but it did effectively create the American middle-class. The UAW's contract included cost-of-living allowances, wage hikes that tracked gains in national productivity, health care and a defined-benefits pension.

These provisions were quickly replicated in contracts with other automakers, and then across the entire manufacturing sector. Non-union employers were pressured to match them in order to attract talent. The UAW strike of 45/6 set in motion the entire period of postwar prosperity.

As Meyerson points out, today's press coverage of the UAW strike of 2023 is full of hand-wringing about what a work-stoppage will do to the economy. This is short-sighted indeed: when the UAW prevails against the automakers, they will rescue both the economy and the Democratic party from the neo-feudal Gilded Age the country's ultrawealthy are creating around us:

There's a name for a political strategy that seeks to win votes by making voters' lives better – it's called "deliverism." It's the one thing the Trump Republican's won't and can't do – they can talk about bringing back jobs or making life better for American workers, but all they can deliver is cruelty to disfavored minorities and tax-breaks for the ultra-rich:

Deliverism is how the Democrats can win the commanding majorities to deliver the major transformations America and the world need to address the climate emergency and dismantle our new oligarchy. Letting the party's right wing dominate turns the Democrats into caffeine-free Republicans.

When the Dems allowed the Child Tax Credit to lapse – because Joe Manchin insisted that poor people would spend the money on drugs – they killed a program that had done more to lift Americans out of poverty than anything else. Today, American poverty is skyrocketing:

Four million children have fallen back into poverty since the Dems allowed the Child Tax Credit to lapse. The rate of child poverty in America has doubled over the past year.

The triangulators on the party's right insist that they are the adults in the room, realists who don't let sentiment interfere with good politics. They're lying. You don't get working parents to vote Democrat by letting their children starve.

America's workers can defeat its oligarchs. They did it before. Biden says he's a union man. It's time for him to prove it. He should be on TV every night, pounding a podium and demanding that the Big Three give in to their workers. If he doesn't, he's handing the country to Trump.

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