There was a time when if one asked, ‘Who represents the working class?’, a reasonable answer would have been the Democratic Party. But since Jimmy Carter that party has moved to the right, supports so-called Free Trade, champions legislation that fosters financial speculation, has forgotten the poor as a group worthy of aid, and goes out of its way to turn its back on organized labor.
The other answer as to who represents the working class would, of course, be unions — and that answer would still be mostly accurate. But unions have been seriously weakened, down from 35% of the workforce in the mid-fifties to 12% now. Strikes are infrequent, concessions common, and many unions -particularly in the public sector- find themselves waging a defensive struggle to maintain their hard fought standard of living and pensions.
Politically, most of the major unions and the largest federation, the AFL-CIO, continue to support the Democratic Party despite the fact that the party does little to earn its favor.
The weakness of organized labor and its unrequited attachment to the Democratic Party can be seen in Governor Scott Walker’s decisive victory against a recall in Wisconsin, an event that received much attention at the Stony Brook conference on “How Class Works” earlier this month. One statistic that stood out like a flashing light in the election results showed that 38% of union households had at least one person who voted for Walker, a man who declared war on public sector unions. How could that be when so many unionists, other progressives and Democratic Party members mobilized to defeat Walker, knocked on 1.5 million doors all over the state and had petitions with over 900,000 names on it to force the recall? We don’t know all the answers to that; some say that a lot of votes weren’t pro-Walker, but rather against the idea of a recall; many point to the 8-1 advantage that pro-Walker groups spent in media money; and others blame President Obama for refusing to come to Wisconsin to campaign against the national symbol of an anti-union governor. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka refused to criticize Mr. Obama, whom the federation had already endorsed for re-election, for not showing up in Wisconsin. As Trumka put it, “We’re not trying to go back to second guess anything.” When asked whether the unions could have done anything differently on the recall campaign, Trumka responded, “Hell, I don’t know if we’d do anything differently.”
One would think that at a time when labor has suffered such a massive defeat in Wisconsin, especially after those heady days in 2011 when a mass movement was growing to support state workers, that the AFL-CIO would want to figure out why Walker won, and what organized labor might have done differently. But no, no second guessing allowed.
My own union president, Dennis Van Roekel, head of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest union with 3.2 million members, took a similar tack as Trumka did in explaining the loss. He pointed to the huge financial advantage the opposition had and the difficulty of winning a recall election as the major reasons for the defeat. And Van Roekel, despite heading the largest contingent of public employees –precisely the group that Walker demonized– said not a word about reevaluating union strategy, of looking within, to better wage the next campaign.
As the presidential election draws near, and as both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama promise the world to the ephemeral, disappearing middle class, it was refreshing to attend the “How Class Works” conference. The conference, sponsored by the Working Class Studies Association, takes seriously the reality of a class society. After hearing numerous sessions on the meaning of class, its nexus with race and gender, and representations of class in music and film, the hundreds of participants would probably agree that there’s a working class majority in the U.S. Many of those in the so-called ‘middle class’ that Romney and Obama champion lack the power at work and the security of tenure to be a solid middle, and should really be considered part of the 60% or more in this country who are objectively working class. That they may not feel, nor act, as if they have anything in common with a cab driver, beautician or nurse’s aide is a huge problem in building solidarity.
Is there another answer to who represents the working class? One of the plenaries at the Stony Brook conference, “May Day in NYC – Occupy, Labor and Community,” provides a third response. The panel included a spokesperson from an immigrant rights group, an activist from the Communications Workers of America, an Occupy Wall St. representative and a leader of the May 1st Coalition. May Day, the international workers holiday, had started as an American workers holiday, but had been virtually red-baited out of memory and existence. However, in 2006 and in 2007, immigrant rights groups, mostly Latino based, organized millions of workers and their families to march on May Day against repressive anti-immigrant legislation. All of a sudden May Day had been reclaimed as an American workers holiday. In recognition of that impetus, and because of the energy of Occupy, a number of groups had been meeting for months in New York to plan a coalition to march together on May Day. The plenary speakers spoke of the differences between the groups, of the tensions, nearly all resolved, and the unity that led to tens of thousands coming together to march on Wall St. on May 1st.
So who represents the working class? Certainly immigrant groups, many of whose members are workers with a strong working class consciousness. And what can we say about the Occupy movement, less than a year old but which has simply and strongly defined class conflict as the 1% vs. the 99%? Can they help resuscitate a weak labor and working class effort? If the energy and coalition building that led to a strong May Day showing is one indicator, than there is room for optimism. And, we were told, the varied groups that planned New York’s May Day continue to meet.
Can the Democratic Party be changed? Will organized labor continue to spend huge human and financial resources on party politics with little or no payoff? Will the kind of movement that spawned the Wisconsin uprising become the norm or will it be diverted to electoral campaigns? Will the Occupy movement be coopted by the Democratic Party? Will the type of coalitions and energy that led to May Day 2012 continue not just for months but for years and years? The answers to these questions need to be worked out; and the answers will tell us not only who represents the working class –and how legitimate that representation is—but whether we will soon see a vibrant working class movement.