Whose Fault Is It?
Unifying around the class war is an enormous opportunity for the Democratic Party
The UAW strike is on. There are many very good stories explaining why and how the strike is happening. Read them! Any major industrial strike like this is first and foremost a story of labor power and its possibilities. Here, I want to talk about a separate but related aspect of this story: the mainstream political response to it. What is being held up as a dangerous burden is, in fact, a wonderful opportunity for the god damn Democrats.
One reason why you should read actual labor journalism is that mainstream media often covers things like this strike through the prism of “What will this mean for electoral politics?” “Auto workers strike poses ‘significant complications’ for ‘Union Joe’ Biden,” goes a typical headline. This orientation on the issue is grounded in the fact that much of the press is only capable of covering anything within this frame and also lacks any concept of organized labor as a force separate from political parties. It misses the true importance of the strike. It evinces an inability to see that politicians exist to serve workers, and not vice versa. As the main course of the meal that is coverage of labor, it’s annoying.
How Things Work is a reader-supported publication. If you like it, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Still, the choices that Democratic politicians are making right now about how to react to things like strikes and how to position themselves regarding the recent surge in popular interest in unions is a real matter of concern. You can read extremely interesting labor history books for your entire life but if you would rather have all of US labor history summed up in a single sentence, a decent one would be “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.” That’s a fact, jack. It’s not a reason to stop struggling during times of hostile political opposition, nor does it mean that politics are why workers reap their gains, but it does mean that the labor movement has a strong material interest in whipping the Democratic Party into the right place. We are living in a time with the potential for serious, generational gains for labor if the Democrats can be convinced to make it a priority, which is not something that I have ever felt was true in my lifetime.
This is about more than Democrats being generally supportive of moderate pro-labor measures, or tweeting supportive statements about unions, or doing picket line photo ops during campaigns. During the Clinton and Obama eras, the party’s general pitch to unions was “We are your only choice.” They accepted labor’s support but did not feel particularly compelled to expend political capital to prioritize things that unions wanted. Biden, by contrast, has gone much farther than his two Democratic predecessors to take affirmative steps to push labor’s political priorities. But the task of getting the Democratic Party’s mind right is very much a work in progress.
Last winter, there was a national railroad strike looming. Biden blocked it, robbing those workers of their fundamental right to strike. When an enormous Teamsters strike at UPS was looming, the overwhelming posture of the White House was “we are nervous about what this will do to the US economy.” The same feels true with this UAW strike. I’m not talking about superficial signals of support, but rather of what the Democrats seem to feel is the most important consequence of these labor actions. There is a big difference between “We want to get this strike settled for the good of the US economy” and “We support the workers.” If Democrats—or just Biden himself—can be compelled to adopt the second position, there are incredible gains to be had. Not just for working people, or for unions, or for the American income distribution, but for Democrats themselves.
Democrats need to accept that the class war is real. After fifty years of rising wealth inequality, the task of working people fighting to secure a bigger piece of the pie for themselves is justified virtually always. Which is to say, just about every strike has a right and a wrong side to support. Democrats could unlock a whole world of opportunity for themselves by simply acknowledging this reality and acting on it. By becoming the party that represents the right side of the class war. By saying: “In the UAW strike, we support the workers.” “At UPS, we support the Teamsters.” “At the railroads, we support the unions.” The Bernie wing of the party is there, but this is not the default position of the Democrats, nor of the White House. It is a problem of both substance and of messaging. Every attempt at concerned neutrality, every failure by Biden to smack his hand on the desk in the Oval Office and say “We’re with the workers!” creates an opening for the monumentally tiresome Republican pseudo-populist rhetoric that is allowing that part of fascists to lure working people into their arms. Those 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 political instinct to pull back from the hottest battles in the class war, to try to smooth down the harsh rhetoric coming out of the mouths of Shawn Fain or Sean O’Brien, to always try to leaven the demands of workers with the demands of Wall Street is not just wrong on the morals. It is a missed opportunity. The membership of our two parties are already well into the process of 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. Democrats must accept that politics is about heroes and villains. The less they are prepared to lionize the heroes and villainize the villains, the less distinct the party is in the public mind, and the wider the door for Republicans to try to seduce people with culture war bullshit.
Should Joe Biden have allowed a national railroad strike to happen, potentially at great cost to the US economy? Yes. If that is what the workers wanted, then yes. If the auto industry strike drags on, should he lean hard on the companies, in public? Yes. These things should be understood not as isolated squabbles but as critical battles in the larger class war. Winning the class war means bending the curve of inequality back towards equality, which will sap corporate power and drain the wealth of billionaires and push that wealth down the income distribution and raise living standards for hundreds of millions of people. That is the Democratic Party’s most vital job. Major strikes are good for that. Major strikes help that task. 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.
Make the class war the defining political issue of our day. Lean into it. The Republicans cannot win on this issue. As an existential matter they will never support worker power over corporate power. The Democrats can. But they have to be loud enough and clear enough about it that nobody can be mistaken about who is on which side. 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. There is no winning the class war without at least one of our two political parties committed to it as a goal. The Democrats will either join this fight without reserve, or they will continue to lose it without even knowing that they are fighting.
One powerful way for Democrats to get on the right side of things would be to use federal government money to fund union organizing. (We will talk about this more one day, I promise you.) I wrote a piece about the UAW strike this week for MSNBC. There has been a lot of good coverage of the strike in Labor Notes, In These Times, Jacobin, and The Real News. Read those places too.
My book about the labor movement, “The Hammer,” is coming out in February. You can preorder it here. You are very cool if you do.
I had a birthday this past week—17 years old. Can’t wait to start smoking! Most of you did not get me a present. But there is still time to make up for that. The best gift you can give me is to become a paid subscriber to How Things Work, thereby lending your material support to this project to create an independent publication that can support the life of at least one writer (me). Consider it a contribution to the class war. We’ll get to the other side together, my peoples.