Assessing the Nagle/Tracey Argument – and Some Alternative Explanations
By Bill Barclay
Ventura County DSA and CPEG
The 2020 Sanders presidential campaign underperformed compared to the 2016 campaign: fewer delegates, lower vote shares and often even lower numbers of raw votes. This is the issue that underlies the recent “First as Tragedy, Then as Farce” article by Angela Nagle and Michael Tracey (hereafter N&T) in American Affairs magazine.
I realize that N&T don't really formulate their analysis in quite that way, and their tendentious approach to the Mueller investigation, Russia, DSA, etc. sometimes obscures this question. But that loss of voters, in both numbers and shares of total Democratic primary vote, is central to their argument. More importantly, it should also be the focus of any discussion among socialists in this country trying to assess what happened (or failed to happen) in the Sanders campaign. And, while Dustin Guastella's critique of N&T in Jacobin makes some interesting points, I think he doesn't engage the central question that underlies N&T article:
So, why did Sanders 2020 campaign underperform his 2016 campaign?
As N&T note, correctly, Sanders had many advantages coming into the 2020 campaign cycle that he did not possess in 2016: name recognition, no single dominant opponent, a large and committed base, etc. (I don’t think, contrary to N&T, that he had “unlimited amounts of money.” Only one Democratic presidential candidate had that.) But his underperformance is all the more striking given the 2018 surge of Democratic voters that took back the House by flipping more than 40 seats held by Republicans.
I’ll begin by looking at the two arguments that are the core of the N&T article. Their first argument is that the Sanders campaign had a theory of the electorate that didn't match well with reality. They note, correctly, that Sanders consistently stressed the need to expand the electorate, that his best chance of winning would be to bring new voters into the political arena. Of course, Sanders was not alone in this argument. Indivisibles, Stacy Abrams, DSA., etc. have all sought to expand the electorate, also believing that this would benefit progressives (if not necessarily Sanders).
After the Iowa debacle, turnout for Democratic primaries did increase overall and very significantly in some states, e.g., by 68% in Virginia, 45% in South Carolina, 32% in Michigan (see here: http://centerforpolitics.org/crystalball/articles/2020-turnout/).
But the increase did not favor Sanders. Why? N&T argue that the youth-focused voter mobilization of the Sanders campaign was unable to significantly increase this demographic. Instead the increased Democratic primary voter turnout favored Biden rather than Sanders.
So, who turned out? The increased Democratic primary turnout was driven primarily by college educated voters, especially those in the suburbs. In fact, the under-30 share of the Democratic primary vote declined in several states, especially on the important Super Tuesday states
In addition, although Sanders had led the effort to switch states from caucuses to primaries, he lost all states that switched. These losses underline the failure of increased turnout to power the political revolution thesis of the Sanders campaign. Thus, this first piece of the N&T argument, that the Sanders campaign had a poor understanding of the Democratic electorate, appears accurate.
The second argument advance by N&T, and one they try to tie to where the increased voter turnout went, is more controversial: that the Sanders of 2020 was not the Sanders of 2016. The cause, they believe, was the rise of woke culture on the left and the redefinition of Sanders and his campaign to identify with, or even try to personify, that culture and milieu. This, they believe, was a fatal weakness in the campaign. (It seems to me that, to some extent, the Guastella piece accepts that this was a weakness in the Sanders' campaign; this is implicit in the very title, “We Need a Class War, Not a Culture War,” even though he doesn’t agree with the weight given to it by N&T.)
By Harold Meyerson
It’s not only those who forget history who may be condemned to relive it. Less forgivably, some who remember history condemn themselves, and others, to endure horrors they clearly recall.
No one can argue that Bhaskar Sunkara, the founder and editor of Jacobin, doesn’t remember history—socialist history particularly. His book The Socialist Manifesto, published last year, contains the best short (150-page) evaluative history of socialism in thought and action that’s appeared in decades. The strengths and limits of European social democracy, Russia’s and China’s blood-drenched variants, the Sisyphean ordeals of American socialists—all get a smart and balanced treatment at Sunkara’s hands.
One grim interlude that Sunkara dispatches with appropriate contempt is that of Third Period Communism, the doctrine that Stalin propounded in the early 1930s, and that the German Communist Party faithfully and tragically acted upon. Third Period Communism asserted that social democrats were actually fascists—“social fascists” was the term—who posed a threat to socialism and humanity’s future every bit as grave and imminent as fascists themselves.
Faithful to Stalin’s diktats, Germany’s communists refused to make common cause with the Social Democrats, their rival left party, to block Hitler’s ascent. Instead, they treated Hitler as just another, if more violent, capitalist tool whose excesses would only hasten the revolution, while directing most of their boundless ire at the Social Democrats. “For every action Stalin took to defeat fascism,” Sunkara writes, “he took another to undermine the anti-fascist struggle—supporting the disastrous Third Period policy that directed Communists to see social democrats as their primary enemy.”
By the early 1930s, it took almost superhuman myopia to miss the growing Nazi threat, but Germany’s Communists were up to the challenge. As historian Michael Goldfield noted in the pages of Jacobin, “Despite huge growth in Nazi membership and votes and the growing murderous violence of their storm troopers, the CP continually underestimated Nazi strength.”
But having duly chronicled and edited accounts of this blindness to the fascist threat, Sunkara appears to have caught a case of it himself. In April, he tweeted that he’d vote come November not for presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, but for Green Party presumptive nominee Howie Hawkins.
He pointed out that he had no desire to build the Green Party as such, and he encouraged fellow lefties to continue to work for causes like Medicare for All. He chose not to mention that because he’s a New Yorker, his vote for Hawkins carried no risk of throwing electoral votes to Donald Trump. But his rejection of Biden, if followed by his readers, could be lethal in close swing states.
Ed.note. DSA member Sunkara posted an updated view of consequence to this essay. It was posted after the essay was written. Recommended.
In his refusal to vote for Biden, Sunkara has company on the left. By a vote of 12 to 4, the National Political Committee of the Democratic Socialists of America recently declined to encourage members in swing states even to “grapple with the question of voting for Biden.” While polling shows that roughly 80 percent of Bernie Sanders supporters say they’ll vote for the former vice president, and while the sentiments of DSA’s (thus far unpolled) rank-and-file members remain unknown, there’s a wing of the democratic left for whom a Biden vote looks to be unthinkable.
The history of the American left contains plenty of precedent for such reluctance. Some of the most active members of DSA hold to a perspective honed for decades in Trotskyist and other socialist sects that shunned involvement in the Democratic Party, even though DSA was founded as an organization that encouraged socialists to build the movement by competing openly within the Democratic Party. Indeed, DSA’s growth spurt since 2015 (from an organization of 6,000 members to one of 66,000 today) is largely due to the groundbreaking campaigns that socialists Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and others have waged within the party—compelling those with more sectarian perspectives to join DSA rather than continue talking to the same marginal few.
But the real precedent for Sunkara and the dozen DSA National Political Committee members isn’t Trotskyist or Debsian or anything like that. It’s Third Period Communism.
By Dr. William Barclay
Chicago Political Economy Group
What will the recovery from the slump driven by COVID-19 look like? There are arguments for at least three different paths. We can call them: V, U, and L shaped. (A fourth, W-shaped, recovery can be seen as simply a variant of either V or U.) In each case, the letter describes (i) the path the overall economy is expected to take; and, (ii) importantly, defines the time frame of the recovery. Recovery can be best understood as getting back to and exceeding the previous levels of GDP. It does not necessarily mean back to the pre-COVID-19 growth path.
The next three sections of this paper describe the arguments for each of the three recovery scenarios. The fourth section asks what we might learn anything from the economic impact of the 1918/19 influenza pandemic. In a very brief conclusion, I make a guess at the probability, as of mid-May when I am writing, for each recovery scenario.
This scenario is the most optimistic. In this projection, the economy will rebound quickly, the recession, while likely deep, will be short-lived, although the United States will probably not return – or at least not quickly – to the pre-COVID-19 growth trend. We will, however, embark on new growth path with GDP expected to exceed the 2019 level by late 2020 or in the first half of 2021.
There are several points that favor this scenario. First, and probably most important, is consumer spending. The U.S. economy has been consumption-driven for the past three decades. Personal consumption expenditures account for almost 70% of GDP. The COVID-19 slump is primarily the result of a sharp decline in consumption. This dramatic drop in consumption has been driven by the restriction on personal movement, including social distancing, and the closure of many businesses and non-profits. Once these restrictions are relaxed, there will be pent up demand – for leisure, household goods, sporting events, food and drink, etc. And, because of the payments to families earning less than $75,000 annually plus the enhanced payments from the four-month boost in unemployment insurance, there will be some disposable income available to satisfy this demand.
Even the favoritism to the ultra-wealthy in the form of write offs against some business profits (available only for households with incomes over $500,000) and the shoveling of money into the pockets of large corporations may strengthen the case for the V-shaped recovery. Since the top 10% of households account for 30-35% of total consumption spending, their post-pandemic consumption decisions could drive a rapid recovery.
There is also a psychological dimension here: many people, especially those who indulged in “retail therapy” pre-pandemic, will be so overjoyed to have the chance to get out and about that they may even spend at a higher rate than usual. (Of course, doing so has more negative long-term debt implications.) The result could even be some limited, local, and short-term shortage of some goods – but not oil. In fact, the likely ongoing oil glut will reduce the price to travel – either by car or, as airlines seek to entice customers back, by air. Thus another avenue of consumption will open.
In short, this model predicts that a consumption-led downturn will be followed, quickly, by a consumption-led recovery.
A wide array of commentators and policy leaders have argued that the V-shaped recovery is the most likely outcome of the COVID-19 slump. Certainly, the stock market’s recent behavior suggests that many investors see much the same path. From early February to mid-March the S&P 500 fell more than 1000 points, but it has now (mid-May) recovered about half of that decline. (It is less clear what the bond market is saying. Yields have continued to decline, suggesting little future demand for capital.)
Both Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers have articulated this view. Economic commentators Paul Krugman and Dean Baker have also made the case for this path to recovery. The V-shaped recovery scenario also appears to be favored by the International Monetary Fund, although with Vs of different slopes for various countries. The recent Congressional Budget Office projections look like a V-shaped recovery, with the expectation that 2021 GDP will exceed 2020 and almost equal that of 2019. And Trump, of course, wants it to become reality.
MAY 12, 2020
Following the withdrawal of Bernie Sanders from the presidential race, our country has lost the only viable Presidential candidate advocating the comprehensive reform we need to address this pandemic head-on. Sanders’s exit leaves Joe Biden as the presumptive Democratic nominee for president. His differences with Sanders and the broader left could not be starker, as was recently made clear when he committed to vetoing Medicare for All, Sanders’s signature legislative priority. Biden’s recent, disgraceful embrace of anti-Chinese xenophobia in his general election campaign, and credible allegations against him, are dangerous examples of how corporate Democrats continue to fail at stopping the ugly advance of far-right politics, racism, and misogyny.
The Democratic Socialists of America will not be endorsing Biden. We fully agree with Senator Sanders that taking on the reactionary, racist, and nationalist right wing represented by Donald Trump is imperative for the survival of millions of working-class people across the country and the world. We believe that the only way to beat the radical right once and for all is through a socialist movement that draws millions of disillusioned working-class people, here and abroad, into the political arena. We will continue to welcome the millions of people who supported Bernie’s platform and are looking for a political home.
We also recognize this moment to strategically strengthen our movements and power. We will fight like hell against the Trump agenda by running pressure campaigns, engaging in mutual aid, helping to build strong, democratic unions, building coalitions with those organizing against capitalism, acting in solidarity with immigrants and incarcerated people against deportation and detention, working to protect tenants and unhoused people, organizing to expand voting rights, locations, and the right to vote by mail. We will demand COVID relief that addresses inequality through a lens of reparations, push for an end to sanctions that are killing millions and fuel militarism in many parts of the world, and will back democratic socialist candidates at the grassroots level. That’s because we know that politics does not begin every four years with a national election: when we get organized, we become the agents of the change that will win the better world the working class desires and deserves.
A Left Strategy for 2020 and Beyond
By Bill Fletcher and Carl Davidson
(Ed. Note. This piece was written in early 2019. The strategy is significant. It is even more important now that Bernie has withdrawn from the campaign.)
As the 2020 presidential campaigns begin in 2019, nearly everyone on the left knows the stakes are high. The defeat of Donald Trump and the ejection of his right-wing and white supremacist populist bloc from the centers of political power is a tactical goal of some urgency not only for Democrats but also for leftists. The outcome of the upcoming election will have a direct effect on thwarting right-wing populism and the clear and present danger of incipient fascism and war.
The removal of Trump’s bloc would also remove a stubborn obstacle to a range of urgent progressive reforms much needed at the grassroots — Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, no new wars and interventions, a $15 minimum wage, and so on. Given how unlikely Trump’s resignation or impeachment is, the election of the candidate running on the Democratic Party line seems like the likeliest path toward his removal.
What would be the most effective way for the left, and especially the socialist left, to go about unseating the Trump bloc? The most fruitful strategy would not only accomplish that goal, but would also strengthen the left’s leverage in other upcoming rounds of class and democratic struggles, keeping the country on a socialist road.
Electoral Politics Is Not a Sideshow
Work in elections is always conflicted for socialists. There is a uniqueness to any campaign in that it is time-limited. There are specific tensions that are unleashed given the intensity of the effort, but one knows that on a specific day — Election Day — it all ends. There is no seamless spillover, moreover, into organizing on-going political organizations and their many longer-term mass campaigns, such as organizing the unorganized, or unionizing the South. Here the time frame is far more open. The election-of-the-day looks a lot like the Gramscian “war of movement,” mobilizing forces quickly for the taking of a strong point of power. The other protracted base-building campaigns are more like the “war of position,” gathering strength, taking or winning over stronghold by stronghold, concentrating our forces on the weak spot to make a breakthrough.
What we want to argue here is that the “war of position” and the “war of movement” are best seen as tightly interconnected, like casting out nets and drawing them in. The art and science of strategy and tactics, then, is to know which to emphasize and when, which is not so easy with a battleground always in motion.
This requires a wide-awake assessment of our current conjuncture, a fresh survey of the terrain, and a good estimate of the balance of forces. The dramatic growth of left forces since 2016 — especially Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) surging to 60,000-plus members located in every congressional district, plus the election in 2018 of two DSA members to Congress and many more to state and local offices — is the most obvious change. But we are still in a period of overall strategic defensive, within which we view the war of position strategically and the wars of movement tactically. This is our orientation through 2020 and its immediate aftermath.
Election campaigns are not a sideshow. We use them to make our local base communities stronger, more connected and more aware.
This means election campaigns are not a bothersome, if still required sideshow. They are at the center of our work. We use them to make our local base communities stronger, more connected and more aware. Through electoral campaigns, our mass outreach can be magnified tenfold or even more. And we integrate electoral work in creative ways with all of our non-electoral mass campaigns for organizing our respective base communities.
But there is also a range of ways to do electoral work: effective, ineffective and in-between. The most ineffective way is merely to contact the local Democrats and volunteer for whatever task they might assign to you. At the other end is organizing a left-progressive bloc under their tent that becomes stronger than the regular Democrats themselves, where they might even begin to take our lead locally.
The starting point is getting a good grasp on exactly what the Democratic Party is. To say that it is “capitalist” is true, but only tells us something at the general level. Repeatedly, all too many of us on the left misread the Democratic Party and believe that it is actually a political party. It is not, at least in any regular meaning of the term.
The Democrats, instead, are an alliance of class interests and grassroots civic forces that exist in the form of a political party, dominated by a segment of the capitalist class. Since the 1980s, that segment has moved further and further in the direction of neoliberalism. The politics of Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council represented a rejection of traditional liberalism and a rejection of the progressive populism represented by forces such as the Rainbow insurgency of the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
In many countries, the Democratic Party would exist as a coalition in which component “parties” were engaged and disengaged depending on the moment.
In many other countries, the Democratic Party would, in fact, exist as a bloc or coalition in which some of the component “parties” were engaged and disengaged depending on the moment. Thus, a healthy sentiment has emerged on today’s left that the way we should participate in electoral politics is through our existing organizations rather than simply jumping into an official campaign.
In other words, we should not provide volunteers for a campaign of the regulars, but instead, take on campaign work that we do in our own names. This sentiment arises from an understandable concern that electoral politics can suck in and suck up all the energy from the left. The danger, however, is that such a view can alternatively lead to practical sectarianism. It thus must be deployed carefully.
Think of it this way: If the only way that the left participates in electoral politics is on its own terms, that limits the possibilities for building broader fronts. But even if it participates in the campaigns of more mainstream Democrats (but only operating within its own formations), it reduces the possibility of bringing together a broad assortment of left forces to collaborate more and exert more influence on the ultimate direction of a campaign.
We should not abandon working within campaigns of non-left Democrats. We should, however, ascertain what is gained or lost through working within such efforts, while at the same time creating and strengthening independent political organizations that help left/progressive forces to build up independent base areas.
What Are Our Options?
We want to start with a more realistic and nuanced view of the Democratic Party. First, it is often weak at the grassroots in many areas. It consists of a cluster of lawyers and publicists around a few incumbents, lists of voters and donors and not much else. There are exceptions — such as the network of working-class Democratic Clubs in California, and in the ward organizations in a few larger city machines.
We should not provide volunteers for a campaign of the regulars, but take on campaign work that we do in our own names.
But its main strength is at the top, and rests in the Democratic National Committee-aligned think tanks and big-donor PACs. In the Congress itself, it operates first in caucuses with shared platforms or interests, and second, in clusters of these caucuses or even subdivisions of caucuses.
At the moment, there are two major caucuses: the social democratic Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) and the neo-Keynesian New Democrat Coalition (NDC)/Third Way Caucus. A minor one, the Blue Dog Caucus, seeks compromise with the GOP neoliberals in the South and West, as well as with health insurance companies. DSA, Working Families Party (WFP) and Progressive Democrats of America (PDA) make up the left wing of the CPC. The Congressional Black Caucus, Congressional Hispanic Caucus and others like them divide their forces between the NDC and the CPC, as does labor, although some unions are also working with Blue Dogs around tariffs.
The Congressional Progressive Caucus gets even greater reach at the grassroots through Our Revolution and Indivisible. Our Revolution grew out of the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign and has hundreds of local chapters. Indivisible was formed in the protests around Trump’s inauguration, first around a manual on how to organize. It now boasts a reported 3,800 local groups.
The implications? Socialists shouldn’t work “within the Democratic party,” but with one of its clusters, the Congressional Progressive Caucus, especially its DSA/WFP/PDA left wing and its mass allies. The Progressive Caucus is by far the largest of the Democratic Caucuses, with numbers above 100 members (compared with the smaller New Democrats and Blue Dogs).
The goal would be to develop and expand the CPC, win over as many of the New Democrats as possible, and isolate the Blue Dogs if they can’t be budged. How could people on the left do so? By simply fighting for what people need, defined as those redistributionist and structural reforms that can unite a progressive majority of voters. Medicare for All is now a case in point, and the Green New Deal is becoming one. When connected with the base communities in the local congressional districts, the left could elect progressives until it becomes a solid majority among Democrats in the House.
This will eventually raise the stakes and the tensions to a new level. The left forces under the Dem tent will be tempered by the need for wider left-center unity to defeat far-right measures and candidates, but we will wage our “war of position” nonetheless.
Back on the Bloc?
Some on the left have asked: Why doesn’t DSA just start a new party? The answer: because DSA and its close allies, objectively, are already helpingto do so by growing the social-democratic bloc and giving it an organized and independent grassroots base in the working class and communities of the oppressed. But the work begins under the Democratic tent as a largely inside job. Once you get over 100,000 or even 200,000 new DSA members from the organizing and base-building of backing Sanders on the Democratic line, you’ve created at least one key component of the large bloc needed for a new First Party.
Much of what Sanders articulated in 2016 — and was treated as radical at the time — has come to be accepted since.
Read the entire piece here. It is both long and significant.
Reposted from Truthout.org
Bill Fletcher will be one of the participants in the We Are The Future conversation on May 7. Register at DSA or at Dissent.
By Peter Dreier
Outside the U.S., May 1 is international workers’ day. In Asia, Latin America, Europe, Africa, Australia, and Canada it’s normally observed with speeches, rallies, and demonstrations calling for higher wages and improved working conditions. Unlike the rest of the world’s democracies, the United States, which alone among first-world nations doesn’t require employers to provide workers with paid vacations, doesn’t celebrate May Day as an official national holiday.
This year, the global Covid-19 pandemic will keep most workers around the world in their homes on May Day. But Americans are more aware of the plight of workers than at any time in decades.
Despite the Trump administration’s incompetence and indifference in handling the virus crisis and the economic collapse, the courage and resilience of front-line health care workers, grocery store and drug store employees, farm workers, food processing workers, and many others are in the news.
Trump’s most recent demand – that workers in meat-processing plants return to work as “essential” employees, with no guarantee of adequate safety measures – is is yet another example of why we need a stronger labor movement.
Few sectors have been more disrupted by the current crisis than the tourism and sports industries, where millions of hotel, restaurant, stadium, and sports arena workers have lost their jobs. Last week, the labor movement in Los Angeles – which is heavily dependent on tourism – won a big victory when the City Council passed an ordinance by a 15-0 vote to require those businesses to offer jobs in the hospitality and other sectors to their former employees, based on seniority, at their existing wage levels, when they start rehiring. The measure will guarantee that workers are not replaced by newer, cheaper labor once the economy rebounds. UNITE HERE (the hotel workers union), the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor spearheaded the campaign for the law. That coalition will now seek to get the state legislature to adopt a similar bill.
But in too many other cities around the country, the 28 million people who have already applied for unemployment insurance remain vulnerable to further trauma, even if the economy starts to recover. The current crisis has exposed the fragility of the nation’s economy, as well as its health care and housing systems. As a result, many progressives are demanding a dramatic rethinking of what the country should do to improve living and working conditions for America’s families.
That’s precisely what the nation’s radicals were thinking in the late 19thCentury when they first developed the idea for May Day. Yes, this international celebration of working-class solidarity was started in the United States by labor organizers. The holiday Americans had invented soon spread around the world, even if it never earned official recognition here.
The original May Day was a byproduct of the movement for an eight-hour workday. After the Civil War, unregulated capitalism ran rampant in America. It was the Gilded Age, a time of merger mania, increasing concentration of wealth, and growing political influence by corporate power brokers known as Robber Barons.
As the gap between the rich and other Americans widened dramatically, workers began to resist in a variety of ways. The first major wave of labor unions pushed employers to limit the workday to 10, then eight, hours. The 1877 strike by tens of thousands of railroad, factory and mine workers — which shut down the nation’s major industries and was brutally suppressed by the corporations and their friends in government — was the first of many mass actions to demand living wages and humane working conditions. By 1884, the campaign had gained enough momentum that the predecessor to the American Federation of Labor adopted a resolution at its annual meeting, “that eight hours shall constitute legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886.”
On that first May Day, unions and radical groups orchestrated work actions and large-scale demonstrations in cities across the country. More than 500,000 workers went on strike or marched in solidarity and even more people protested in the streets. In Chicago, a labor stronghold, at least 30,000 workers struck. Rallies and parades across the city more than doubled that number, and the May 1 demonstrations continued for several days. The protests were mostly nonviolent, but they included skirmishes with strikebreakers, company-hired thugs, and police.
On May 3, at a rally outside the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company factory, police fired on the crowd, killing at least two workers. The next day, at a rally at Haymarket Square to protest the shootings, police moved in to clear the crowd. Someone threw a bomb at the police, killing at least one officer. Another seven policemen were killed during the ensuing riot, and police gunfire killed at least four protesters and injured many others.
After a controversial investigation, seven anarchists were sentenced to death for murder, while another was sentenced to 15 years in prison. The anarchists won global notoriety, being seen as martyrs by many radicals and reformers, who viewed the trial and executions as politically motivated.
Within a few years, inspired by both the American labor organizers and the Haymarket martyrs, unions and radical groups around the world had established May Day as an international holiday to celebrate the ongoing struggle for the eight-hour day, workers’ rights and social justice.
In the U.S., however, the burgeoning Knights of Labor, uneasy with May Day’s connection to anarchists and other radicals, adopted another day to celebrate workers’ rights. In 1887, Oregon was the first state to make “Labor Day” an official holiday, celebrated in September. Other states soon followed.
In 1894, the American Railway Union, led by Eugene Debs, went on strike against the Pullman Palace Car Company to demand lower rents (Pullman was a company town that owned its employees’ homes) and higher pay following huge layoffs and wage cuts. In solidarity with the Pullman workers, railroad workers across the country boycotted the trains with Pullman cars, paralyzing the nation’s economy as well as its mail service. President Grover Cleveland declared the strike a federal crime and called out 12,000 soldiers to break the strike. They crushed the walkout and killed at least two protesters.
Six days later, Cleveland — facing worker protests for his repression of the Pullman strikers — signed a bill creating Labor Day as an official national holiday in September. He hoped that giving the working class a day off to celebrate one Monday a year might pacify them.
For most of the 20th century, Labor Day was reserved for festive parades, picnics, and speeches sponsored by unions in major cities. Meanwhile, May 1 faded away as a day of protest in America, even though the Communist Party and other radical groups tried to keep the tradition alive.
In 1958, at the height of the Cold War, with a renewed Red Scare still in full swing, even in the wake of the most virulent forms of McCarthyism, President Dwight Eisenhower proclaimed May 1 as Loyalty Day. Each subsequent president has issued a similar proclamation, although few Americans know about or celebrate the day.
However, things have begun to change recently. In 2006, some U.S. unions and immigrant rights groups resurrected May Day as an occasion for protest. That year, millions of people in over 100 cities — including more than a million in Los Angeles, 200,000 in New York, and 300,000 in Chicago — participated in May Day demonstrations. Each year since immigrant workers and their allies have adopted May Day as an occasion for protest.
America is now in the midst of a new Gilded Age with a new group of corporate Robber Barons, many of them operating on a global scale. The top of the income scale has the biggest concentration of income and wealth since 1928. Several decades of corporate-backed assaults on unions have left only seven percent of private-sector employees with union cards. More than half of America’s 15 million union members now work for the government (representing 37 percent of all government employees), so business groups and conservative politicians have targeted public-sector unions for destruction. Last week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnel opposed federal relief funds to cities and states facing bankruptcy and massive layoffs, a plan designed to weaken government employee unions, who have led the fight against Trump and the Republicans. Meanwhile, a Brookings Institution report released in November found that more than 53 million people, or 44 percent of all workers ages 18 to 64, earn low hourly wages. Many families need more than two jobs to make ends meet, including one-fifth of all schoolteachers.
But as wages and living standards for the majority of Americans have declined in the past decade, the appeal of unions has started to make a comeback.
The new slogan for many unions is now “One job should be enough.” Congress hadn’t increased the federal minimum wage ($7.25) since 2009, so activists launched “The Fight for $15,” with wildcat strikes at fast-food and retail outlets prompting successful legislative initiatives and ballot campaigns. According to the National Employment Law Project, 24 states and 48 cities and counties will raise their minimum wages sometime in 2020. In 32 of those jurisdictions, it will reach or surpass $15 per hour. Activists also pressured McDonald’s, Walmart, Disney, Bank of America, and other large employers into raising their pay scales. The idea of a $15 minimum wage, a pipe dream in 2010, is now mainstream.
The fight for higher wages has coincided with an upsurge of successful strikes by GM workers, and of teachers in both red and blue states. According to a recent Gallup poll, public support for unions reached a two-decade peak of 64 percent. There’s a growing demand for paid family leave – a policy that, had it been in place three months ago, would have lessened the suffering caused by the pandemic. During the current election season, many Democratic politicians have called for a federal $15 minimum wage, unlinking health insurance from jobs, reform of labor laws to make it easier for workers to unionize, a requirement that workers elect representatives to serve on the boards of U.S. corporations.
Workers at Amazon, Walmart, and other companies will be engaged in a one-day job action on Friday. Renters around the country have planned a one-day rent strike.
So, while there may not be big parades and mass protests on May Day in this pandemic year, there’s no reason why Americans can’t join together to sing “Solidarity Forever” –even if remotely — while sheltering in place.
Peter Dreier is Professor of Politics at Occidental College. You can tweet with him @PeterDreier.
May 1, 2020
On April 13, 2020 Bernie Sanders endorsed Joe Biden for President. It is highly likely that Biden will be nominated at the Democratic National Convention. This is, of course, disappointing to the movement that coalesced around Bernie’s campaign, and to the many DSAers that have played an active role within it.
At the DSA convention in August 2019, DSA adopted a resolution to not endorse a Democrat if Bernie Sanders is not the nominee (Resolution 15). We respect the decision that DSA should not explicitly endorse a candidate for president who is not a democratic socialist. We are confident that DSA members recognize the danger of further consolidation of the nativist movement and that we will work with our allies to defeat Donald Trump.
Donald Trump is unfit to be president. The list of his crimes is long and well known. The most glaring failures, corruption and depravity of his presidency have become fully realized with the Covid 19 crisis. The death toll of Covid 19 has struck the working-class as a whole, and African Americans, Hispanics, and other people of color in particular, in greater proportion than people working from home. Trump’s racism in calling the coronavirus the “China Virus” has incited many racist acts against Chinese Americans and Asian Americans more broadly.
Despite Biden’s shortcomings and checkered past, a full array of issues overrides our reservations about him. At stake are issues such as judicial nominations; the climate crisis; women’s rights and reproductive choice; people of color’s and LGBTQ rights; the assault on immigrants; and the increasing burdens upon the working class. Most troubling is the Trump presidency’s promotion of incipient neofascism and racist white ethno-nationalism, and his ongoing efforts to dismantle governmental and social institutions.
We therefore ask DSA members and allies who live in battleground or swing states and congressional districts to organize for the defeat of Trump. Of course, this includes voting for Biden, but it also means much more. DSA members should work with the myriad of organizations that will seek to push Biden to the left, in terms of both his policies and his appointees, including his choice for running mate. It also means helping elect democratic socialist and progressive candidates, especially those supporting Medicare for all, a Green New Deal, and taxing the rich, to Congress and state houses across the country. Ending control of the US Senate by the current GOP majority in thrall to the radical right is particularly crucial.
We understand that the nomination of Biden confirms that for 2020 we have to choose between one candidate who is far from being a democratic socialist and another who is close to being a neofascist, but it is clear that another Trump term would be horrific. The opportunity to work with other socialist, progressive, and liberal groups can further build democratic socialism in the USA. We acknowledge that during the primary season working-class voters and African American voters made a choice that they felt was paramount in saving their lives. We commit to listen to the concerns of voters of color with respect and trust.
We ask that DSA members in decisive locations work to defeat Trump in broad coalitions or fronts that allow others to see that DSA members are working for the common good. By working with others and selflessly giving our talents and energies in defeating the danger of neofascism, we will awaken in the people support for democratic socialism and respect for DSA.
North Star Caucus of DSA. May 1, 2020.