Obama elected: now "everything depends on workers getting organised to fight back from below"

Submitted by AWL on 29 October, 2008 - 6:23 Author: Kim Moody

Kim Moody, an American socialist activist living in London who was formerly the director of the US rank-and-file labour movement publication Labor Notes (www.labornotes.org), spoke to Sacha Ismail

What do you think will happen in the election?

It's hard to tell. Obama has spent astronomical amounts of money, not just from the small donors he likes to talk about, but from the traditional corporate sources too. However, a factor that could well be decisive is racism. The economy is crucial, as any news outlet will tell you, but it's also very visible that unfortunately many white working-class people are reluctant to vote for a black candidate.

Working-class people in particular?

Not just working-class people, but they're the ones who seem to be less affected by the general decline in racism. On the other hand, I think the outcome of this election is going to be determined by the unions. I know that must sound strange, given what a small percentage of workers is unionised. But they're the largest collectively organised group in the country, and they've made an enormous effort this time. This is the first time, moreover, that the union leadership has taken on the question of race, a question they usually prefer to avoid.
This time they have no choice; they support a black candidate, and they see there's a problem with some of their own members and certainly in the communities and workplaces where their members are based. Many of the labour leaders have made very explicit statements about this issue; for instance Richard Trumka, who is the secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO [one of the two main union federations in the US] and former leader of the mine workers. The miners have campaigned hard on this in the upper south and in Pennsylvania. There is more honesty about race.
At the same time, there is the economic crisis, which I believe is going to have a decisive effect on many working-class people in turning them towards the Democrats.

Is that simply an instrumental thing - vote for anyone who isn't the Republicans - or is it having an effect on consciousness too?

It is partly instrumental, but not simply. I think it's going to create an interesting dynamic in the South. Even if Obama doesn't win many states down there, he's mobilised an awful lot of people. Mostly African Americans, but not exclusively. If the tens of thousands they've had working on the streets there keep moving, but on issues and not just candidates, they could be a tremendous force. In the South, you can't separate race and class when it comes to organising. The South is a fast growing industrial area, with new industries, transportation, logistics, an automobile industry that isn't in decline. Economically, it's very important, it's not the same place as 20 or 30 years ago. You have a large working class that is overwhelmingly not unionised. In the past, when they've gone into the South, the unions have dodged the issue of race, but now they simply won't be able to.
Of course, it's not inevitable that this will happen, that people will become more organised, but I think an interesting potential is there now.

If Obama wins, what will it mean for American workers?

Obama in power won't be George Bush or even McCain, but the possibilities of the changes he will make legislatively are very limited. Not only limited by the ideology he has, by that of his advisers, by the whole Democratic Party, but remember that the US government will be up to its eyeballs in debt in the middle of an economic crisis.

What about the Employee Free Choice Act? [A piece of legislation demanded by the unions and which the Democrats formally support; it would allow unions to win recognition through workers taking out union cards rather than having to have a ballot in the workplace.]

Well, in order to get that past a Republican filibuster, which is what killed it last time, they'll need 60 seats in the Senate, 60 solid pro-labour Democrats. The last time there were that many Democrats in the Senate was 1977 to 79, and they didn't pass labour law reform then. But even if they do win the seats, Obama is going to have a legislative calendar and priorities of his own; sure, he'll sign it if it passes, but will he really want to spend political capital to get it up the agenda? He's more likely to want to bring in his healthcare plan, which is very inadequate, or do something about the economy, although God knows what. He's more likely to do want to do something about the wars the US is fighting, which means de-escalation in Iraq but escalation in Afghanistan.
Mike Davis wrote an article last week in which he made the point that Obama's people have very little analytical framework. They've been pro-deregulation all along, and all they have to go back to anyway is a very mild sort of Keynesianism. To them the Employee Free Choice Act is just another piece of legislation; they can take it or leave it.
And then what if the act does pass? They already have something similar in two Canadian provinces. The record there is that it does help, and yet even in those provinces union density continues to fall. No, the decisive thing is not this legislation, but to what degree the unions and social movements are willing to treat an Obama administration as an opening - an opening to fight.

There are parallels to the 30s, and the supposedly pro-worker reforms Roosevelt brought in.

Yes, we shouldn't buy the idea that the National Labor Relations Act [brought in under Roosevelt] really opened things up; it was held up by the Supreme Court until May 1937, long after the upsurge of the mid 30s had begun and in fact when the most intense phase had passed. Like in the 30s, we need a social upsurge, or we will not be able to exert the necessary pressure to get the priorities we want.
That means the unions need to mobilise their rank-and-file, instead of relying on professional organisers; it's all very tightly controlled. As long as they stick to that play book, they're not going to grow significantly.
What psychological effect will Obama have on US workers? Difficult to tell. If it is one of raising expectations, which are then dashed by recession, ok, but if the unions and other don't take advantage of it people will just get disillusioned.
If people rely on the government to make these things happen, they'll be waiting forever. Obama's job is not to create a social upheaval like we want to see in America; in fact he wants to create social peace in America.

Have the unions presented a solid front for Obama, or is there anyone supporting something more radical?

There really isn't anyone out there backing anyone more radical; maybe some local candidates I don't know about, but from top to bottom the union officialdom is for Obama. That includes very conservative unions, like the building trades which until 20 years ago were practically all white, and which had a history of exclusion. They now have a lot of immigrant members, which may partly explain the shift. Some of the attitudes from for instance the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers have been very surprising. It's not because they're great anti-racist campaigners, it's more a sense that they have to put someone in office besides the neocons. They would have done the same for Hillary, despite their sexism. So it's instrumental, but that's how changes in consciousness often begin.

So the unions are asserting their influence as a block? What does that imply in terms of working-class representation, for instance the demand for a labour party?

You know we had a Labor Party, in the late 1990s, which had support from five unions. It had two very impressive conventions and so on, but never rose to the position of running candidates, except I think once in North Carolina where they ran a black candidate with the support of some unions. Today it has withered. No top leader in the labour movement is willing to move even an inch beyond support for the Democrats; but what's important, of course, is what the activists think, what the rank-and-file decide to do with it. If people are enthusiastic and find that the Democrats are a roadblock rather than the open door they expected, there is potential to rediscover these ideas.

What became of the 2006 strikes and protests by Latino and other migrant workers?

That was around a specific piece of anti-migrant legislation that Bush was putting forward, which was very draconian. There were five million people on strike, most of them not in a union, and they closed down major industries. It was remarkable, really. Both parties have come forward with a number of alternatives, none of which are very good from our point of view. Now the organisations behind that movement have splintered over what things to demand and support and so on. The unified dynamic is gone. You still get these May Day demos, but it's more like half a million; that is the left-wing of the migrant movement, if you like.
The issue has not gone away. It was not a big focus in this election, and yet here you have a workforce of 20 million, most of whom are manual workers. This is a key question for union growth. The AFL-CIO has to some extent realised the potential: there have been successes in meatpacking and in areas like healthcare. The unions have made gains. But again what will a Democratic administration mean for that? Since 2006 there have been an enormous number of raids on plants and workplaces; it's not clear if the Dems will be better. They won't go for Bush's plan, but they may make their own attacks. Some are arguing for a guest worker programme, which would be disastrous, since it's basically indentured servitude. It would make organising very difficult.
You also have the possibility of an amnesty for existing migrants, which may not sound great, but it's a huge number of people, and if you had that they would be able to organise. That would certainly make a difference. Unfortunately, Obama talks out of both sides of his mouth on this issue.

Lastly, could you say something about the split in the US labour movement [between the AFL-CIO and new union federation Change to Win]?

It's a split that's healed for the election. In other ways, too, it doesn't matter very much. Change for Win is an unholy alliance of semi-progressives with unions which not long ago were under investigation for mob control. It's not the CIO [Congress of Industrial Organiations, the industrial union movement which was created during the upsurge of the 1930s and eventually merged with the more conservative AFL]. It may be that it's encouraged some of the AFL unions to be more aggressive, but I'm really not sure. In both federations, everything depends on workers getting organised to fight back from below.

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