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

Originally published at: Pluralistic: Biden should support the UAW (18 Sept 2023) – Pluralistic: Daily links from Cory Doctorow

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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, public 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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private education?

That whole “vote blue no matter who” thing really hasn’t worked out. I hate that the Biden camp feels such an inevitability that they don’t even have to try; they know we have no real choice. The idea that right-wing talking heads are floating that Biden might not even debate in '24, and Trump already isn’t… they aren’t even interested in putting on a show anymore. Providing even the thinnest illusion of a healthy democracy. Could we actually see a general election with no debates? I want to believe that couldn’t happen, but I’m honestly not sure anymore. That viral “nothing will fundamentally change” clip has proven to be a little too prophetic.

I really hope we get some good news on the anti-trust front here soon and that these strikes can manage to be successful in spite of the white house. If Biden wants to be on the wrong side of history, so be it; we can’t wait for him to grow a conscience; if it hasn’t developed in 80 years, well, as my magic 8-ball says, outlook hazy.

Whoops - thanks, sorry!

Maybe Biden heard you, @doctorow?

Let’s see how the pics look out of this photo op… I’m also really interested to see how Trump’s speech goes over…

Hopefully, it can keep us out of violent fascism, which has become a real threat to some of us? :woman_shrugging: We see what they really want to do in states dominated by the GOP. Compare Florida to Michigan, in terms of how the rights of trans people are faring, for example. And it’s not like they actually have made things any better for the white male working class that they’ve been making a play for since Nixon…

This point is highly relevant to this discussion. The far right has offered culture wars as working class struggle in place of an actual addressing class issues. Attacking trans people and migrants (who are both constituent parts of the working class) doesn’t solve off-shoring and the cost of living… all it does is give some white working class people an outlet for their frustrations by hurting people they don’t care about or understand-- David Roediger’s Wages of Whiteness in other words. The GOP has literally no wings that are pro-union or pro-worker. They are all, uniformly, pro-billionaire class. They just offer people to be punched down on… so I don’t know how voting for the objectively worse party will improve our problems?

I think we can hold in our heads the ideas that the Democratic party (and the two-party system and our constitutional system) are deeply flawed and in need of a good dose of left-wing populist reform and that the GOP as it exists is deeply dangerous to the rights of anyone who isn’t a white, straight, cisgendered, wealthy man. Women in America have already lost their rights (depending on the state we live in), and so have trans children. Those who are working class are even more screwed in those states, as all these social categories intersect and make some more vulnerable than others. I’m curious if you honestly think that we’re gonna get to those needed changes by electing fascists or if you’re argument is that we need to reform the Democratic party by electing more progressive Democrats (which is happening, as we speak).

I’d argue that our only real path for change that doesn’t come on the back of a societal collapse in America is the push the Democratic party further to the left. We should make it more responsive to our needs by expressing those needs to the party leadership. It’s not ideal, of course, and yes, there are deep, structural problems with the party, and third wayism absolutely needs to die in a fire. But we clearly can’t let the current Trumpist GOP win anything, because of the threat they pose to many of us…

I totally agree on that point. It seems like Biden is going to send a strong message of support to the UAW on Tuesday, but we’ll see. It’s certainly worth being skeptical, but it seems a far more effective a strategy to actively engage the Democratic third wayism and let it be known how absolutely unacceptable this has been. Electing more progressive Democrats will help us to do that.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” - Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Why We Can’t Wait, 1964

A real threat to you is a real threat to me; don’t misunderstand me, I don’t take the threat lightly. I won’t be the one standing there wondering what happened after they came for everyone else and there was no one left to speak for me.

These things are absolutely the key, but perhaps not quite in the way that you describe. I haven’t read David Roediger’s Wages of Whiteness, but I will risk a response here anyway (and I’ve added that to my reading list).

I don’t think it’s fair to lay the culture war at the feet of the far right, nor the white working class people. It’s especially unfair to say the white working class don’t care about or understand trans people and migrants. The people you’re speaking of that are casting those dispersions are a very loud minority being amplified by media specifically to keep us enraged and engaged, but especially divided.

You clearly understand the root cause of the problem though. One of the most enlightening things I’ve read lately that surprisingly didn’t come from this blog (Cory of course wrote about it at the time, but that was before I’d tuned in) was this largely overlooked article about a largely overlooked study that came out while we were all still firmly in shell-shock from the pandemic:

There are horrors beyond horrors in there, but most surprising and enlightening to me were these tidbits:

But unfortunately, much of the narrowing we see is more an artifact of four decades of flat or declining wages for low- and middle-income white men than it is of substantial gains for women and nonwhites.

That the majority of white men have benefited from almost none of this growth isn’t because they have lost income to women or minorities; it’s because they’ve lost it to their largely white male counterparts in the top 1 percent who have captured nearly all of the income growth for themselves.

Thus, by far the single largest driver of rising inequality these past forty years has been the dramatic rise in inequality between white men.

This speaks volumes to me about what the white moderate is really upset about. About how you get otherwise decent people to vote for someone as monstrous as Donald Trump. How you get them to perjure themselves by throwing their lot in with a charlatan who promised to make things great again and then find themselves unable to admit when they’ve been taken, doubling down when they should fold.

“One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.” - Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

I understand these people. I’ve watched people I love and care about fall into this trap. People that are admittedly misguided, but far more decent than the lot they’ve fallen in with.

Dr. King understood these people as well and the common cause that we all have. This quote, like so many of his, shoots like a bolt of lightning from the past right into the present moment. He had a depth of understanding of these issues that far transcended the time he lived:

“We must develop a federal program of public works, retraining, and jobs for all—so that none, white or black, will have cause to feel threatened. At the present time, thousands of jobs a week are disappearing in the wake of automation and other production efficiency techniques. Black and white, we will all be harmed unless something grand and imaginative is done. The unemployed, poverty-stricken white man must be made to realize that he is in the very same boat with the Negro. Together, they could exert massive pressure on the government to get jobs for all. Together, they could form a grand alliance. Together, they could merge all people for the good of all.” - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Interview with Alex Haley of Playboy, Atlanta, January 1965

You’re right of course, and Bernie himself dropped out, twice, endorsed his opponent, twice, went around the country stumping for his opponent, twice. Thankfully his opponent won the second time.

Trust me, I’m absolutely not suggesting we vote GOP or elect fascists (one in the same). What I am concerned about is the degree to which we allow the two party system to defeat us before the battle has even begun. The way that we capitulate to false compromise instead of demanding change. The way that we allow ourselves to be divided by obvious pandering and manipulation. The way that the “Vote Blue No Matter Who” chant was so incredibly convenient for the DNC that it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if they engineered the whole thing. The way that they don’t even need to call our bluff because we’ve tipped our hand with our in-fighting from the start.

In spite of all that, we did in fact win real victories in the progressive appointments in the Biden admin that Cory is always detailing us on. The progressive left significantly shifted the conversation on what is radical vs. what is indeed normal everywhere else in the world.

But Bernie got me dreaming a lot bigger. It will have been 12 years before we even have the chance of another opportunity like that, and we had two chances, and it was stolen from us by the DNC and their plute backers both times. Who can replace Bernie? Yes, someone younger. Yes, someone less white, less male, and perhaps even less cisgendered. But Bernie is the real deal, despite his demographics, he’s spent his entire career standing with people that didn’t necessarily look, talk, or act like him. People without power that could do little on their own to aid him. But he did it because it was the right thing to do. He doesn’t care about what’s politically expedient, he cares about what’s right. Some argue that makes him an ineffective politician. Maybe it made him an ineffective candidate. But he definitely woke me up out of a giant douche / turd sandwich induced political coma. He gave real hope to a generation that was in desperate need of it.