Originally published at: Joe Biden is headed to a UAW picket-line in Detroit – Pluralistic: Daily links from Cory Doctorow
“I want to do it, now make me do it.”
No sitting president in US history has ever walked a picket line with strikers.
This is a big deal.
UAW members are striking against all of the Big Three automakers — that’s another unprecedented move.
At issue: the automakers are retooling to switch to EV production, action they were prodded into by public protest over the ongoing climate polycrisis, and bribed into by giant subsidies in Biden’s Infrastructure Bill.
But the Infrastructure Bill was compromise legislation, a hollowed-out and denatured version of the original Build Back Better plan. Build Back Better had no future in the Manchin-Synematic Universe, which we arrived at thanks to the cynical maneuvers of Democratic Party string-pullers, whose idea of victory is a 50.1 percent majority that is — conveniently — incapable of achieving transformative change. That’s why the Infrastructure Bill hands public money to the automakers but doesn’t require them to build their EV in union shops.
Now, union organizers face all the same challenges as election campaign consultants: gerrymandering, disinformation and voter-suppression. But union organizers don’t shoot for 50.1 percent majorities. They work for supermajorities, and no experienced union organizer would call a vote unless they knew they had 70 percent or more.
The UAW strike? It carried with a 97 percent majority.
Apologists for Democratic Party inaction like to pretend that politics begins and ends with parliamentary procedure. If you don’t have the votes, your hands are tied.
This is the carefully cultivated learned helplessness of centrists who don’t want change, but don’t want to be blamed for it.
US Presidents have lots of things they can do beyond signing or vetoing legislation. Their administrative agencies have broad powers that allow them to act without dragging Congress behind them.
For example, Jennifer Abruzzo, the ass-kicking superhero that Biden appointed as National Labor Relations Board General Counsel, has used her powers to establish a rule that companies that break labor law during union drives automatically lose, with the affected union gaining instant recognition.
For a followup, Abruzzo is using a case called Thrive Pet Care to impose a “duty to bargain” on companies. If a company won’t bargain in good faith for a union contract, Abruzzo’s NLRB will simply force them to adhere to the contractual terms established by rival companies that did bargain with their unions, until such time as a contract is signed.
But wait, what about the dastardly Supreme Court? What if those six dotards in robes use their stolen seats on the country’s highest court to block Biden’s administrators?
Well, Biden could do what his predecessors have done. Like Lincoln, Biden could simply ignore the court, embracing popular policies he was elected to enact, revealing the Supremes to be toothless, out-of-touch, undemocratic and illegitimate.
(Andrew Jackson was a monster, but when he ignored his own Supreme Court, he proved that the Supremes’ only leverage came from their legitimacy; recall the (likely apocryphal) quote, “[Chief Justice] John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it!”)
Like FDR, Biden could threaten to pack the court, creating a national debate about the court’s illegitimacy, which would add fuel to the court’s plummeting reputation amidst a string of bribery scandals.
Backing the UAW strike isn’t merely the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do. Public support for unions is at its highest point in generations, and there are thousands of labor actions raging across the country right now.
Since the Carter years, Democratic strategists have taken unions for granted, “triangulating” on a sellout position that brings in millions in donations from the finance sector while workers continue to vote for a party that screws them over because “we’re your only choice.”
Trump revealed the flaws in this strategy. If you lie to workers over and over again, eventually they’ll switch sides and vote for the party of plutocracy. Letting liberals sideline leftists in the Democratic Party coalition meant that the Republicans could claim to be the party of radical change, while Democrats insisted that “America is already great.”
As we saw in 2016: when Dems abandon workers, Republicans use their faux-populist “workerism” to destroy Democrats in elections.
Money talks. Bullshit walks. By showing up for workers, Biden is offering something better than cathartic scapegoating: he’s offering economic security. A good job with a good pension and health benefits. A union that protects you from harassment and abuse.
Biden showing up on the picket line isn’t a mere gesture: “Organized labor has made gains when it had the support of the government and it has been beaten down when the government was trying to crush it.” Biden’s support can mean the difference between a workers’ victory and their defeat.
Big strikes like this one are about more than the striking workers. When the UAW struck GM in 1945/46, they transformed the American labor bargain. That strike gave birth to the defined-benefits pension, employer-provided healthcare, the cost-of-living allowance, and worker pay raises linked to employer profits. The UAW strike of ’45 created the American middle class.
Today, that middle class is an endangered species. American oligarchs have spent decades siphoning away the wealth of workers and gathering it into fewer and fewer hands. Today, “autocrats of trade” have replaced the aristocrats that American revolutionaries overthrew at the nation’s birth.
These new aristocrats are powerful and ruthless, but they’re also vulnerable. They lack the executive function and the solidarity to stop draining the American economy as it grows increasingly brittle. The plute’s “efficiency” comes from long, fragile supply chains, skeleton crews working punishing overtime, and regular federal bailouts for companies that are designed to be both too big to fail and too big to jail.
The UAW only has enough money in its strike fund to support all its workers for 90 days. Car bosses — like other C-suite sociopaths — are prepared to halt production for years in order to smash worker power.
But the UAW doesn’t need to send all of its workers to the picket line to shut down production. Their bosses have made themselves terribly vulnerable, by eliminating backup suppliers and by relying on workers accepting “voluntary” overtime to meet production quotas. Simply by shutting down just a few facilities and refusing overtime at a few more, UAW members can immobilize US car production while barely touching the strike fund.
Joe Biden spent his long political career as a centrist, and repeatedly demonstrated his willingness to sell out the American people to Big Business predators in order to keep the campaign contributions flowing.
I had little hope for the Biden presidency.
But whatever history Biden brings to the job, he has held up his end of the bargain with the party’s left wing, making strong appointments to the agencies and backing those appointees as they deliver real benefits to working people.
I don’t know whether Biden is doing this because he understands that it’s good politics, or if it’s because he’s found a moral center at the end of his life in politics, or if it’s because he wants to cement his legacy.
I don’t care.
Money talks and bullshit walks.
By walking the picket-line with UAW members, Biden is doing well and he’s doing good. He’s venturing where Republican strategists can’t follow him, taking the side of workers against bosses in the fight that matters most: the fight for workplace democracy.
FDR delivered the New Deal, a foundational reworking of the power structure in America, putting the American government on the side of the people, not the side of the money.
FDR wasn’t a political radical by nature. He was an American aristocrat who broke with his class in order to secure the power he sensed he could get by channeling the rage of the American people. His “New Deal” was a blank sheet of paper until he took office, and that sheet of paper was filled in by the organized workers who dogged his heels — and backed his plays — while he was in office.
The story of FDR meeting with Black labor activists and responding to their demands with, “I want to do it, now make me do it,” is likely apocryphal.
But the truth is even more stirring. FDR bullied and threatened the organizers who tried to hold him to his promises. He privately derided them and schemed against them.
But when those workers demonstrated to FDR that he could either march in front of them or get run over, FDR took their side. When workers showed FDR who was boss, he found his conscience.
I don’t care if Biden is motivated by political calculation, by genuine principle or by fear. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that workers win, because when workers win, America wins.