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Washington's war on workers stokes growing discontent
What can stop Bush?

July 11, 2003 | Page 3

THE BUSH administration launched more assaults in its war on workers last week, though the mainstream media were too busy with July 4 flag-waving to notice much. For one, Republicans introduced legislation to wreck the Head Start education program that helps low-income families prepare preschoolers for kindergarten. How? By doing what Bush--and his predecessors before him, Bill Clinton included--have done to many other programs: Starve them of money, then hand off the mess to state governments, in the form of block grants.

Meanwhile, the White House got through another stage in its plan to change rules governing overtime wages, by reclassifying who is covered under the Fair Labor Standards Act. The AFL-CIO estimates that more than 8 million workers could lose their right to overtime pay.

The priorities of this administration couldn't be clearer. Save a couple million dollars by gutting a program that helps the poorest families--while showering the super-rich with hundreds of billions in tax cuts. Help Corporate America take away money that employees earn for working harder and longer--while doing next to nothing when corporate criminals help themselves to obscene sums.

This is class war, waged consciously, heartlessly and relentlessly--but right now at least, only by one side.

How is the Bush administration getting away with this war? It's not as if their policies are popular. For example, opinion polls show that, far from wanting Bush's tax giveaways, most people would rather pay more in taxes if the money were spent on schools.

Despite Corporate America's anti-union propaganda, a higher percentage of people than ever say that they would join a union if they could. Even on the issue of the U.S. war in Iraq, where Bush supposedly has strong support, cracks are emerging--the percentage of people who believe "things are going badly" has tripled over the past two months.

Yet the Bush gang continues to plow ahead--and generally gets what they want. One reason for this is the lack of real opposition within the mainstream political establishment.

Democrats in Congress have rolled over for Bush again and again--most recently, agreeing to a "compromise" on legislation to establish a Medicare prescription drug benefit that could have been written by lobbyists for the health care industry. Meanwhile, the supposed watchdogs in the media have actively helped the administration explain away what should be a full-blown scandal--the missing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

The lack of any real challenge within the establishment shows that the Bush administration has the confidence of a mostly united U.S. ruling class. But at the same time, it's important to recognize the weaknesses of the political forces that could mount an opposition outside the "Washington beltway."

Organized labor and mainstream liberal groups remain tied to the coattails of the Democratic Party. Thus, for example, when the legality of abortion was in jeopardy under George Bush Sr., the National Organization for Women (NOW) and other pro-choice groups put their weight behind two mass demonstrations in Washington, D.C., that played a central role in saving a woman's right to choose.

But two-and-a-half years into Bush Jr.'s reign, NOW's leadership has resisted calls to organize an active opposition to the right wing's stepped-up attacks. Pro-choice organizations are waiting until next spring to mobilize for a national demonstration. The timing of this protest--as the 2004 election campaign heats up--shows that NOW is concerned most of all with building electoral support for the Democrats.

Meanwhile, the leaders of organized labor are still retreating in the face of a two-and-a-half-decade-old employers' offensive. The sentiment exists among rank-and-file union members for a fightback. But turning this into action will mean overcoming the conservatism of union leaders, who still rely overwhelmingly on trying to pressure Democratic politicians, no matter how ineffective this has proven to be.

Even the antiwar movement that challenged Bush's war on Iraq--and produced the largest international demonstrations in history as Washington was preparing its assault--has suffered disorientation in the months since. Obviously, the tide of pro-war cheerleading from politicians and the media after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime is the main reason for this.

But it's also true that the movement's core of experienced activists was too small--a consequence of the fact that the organized left is only beginning to recover after decades of decline. The rise of the global justice movement in the late 1990s marked a revival of the left internationally, and that process continued during the movement against the Iraq war. But the rebuilding is in its early stages and won't be accomplished overnight.

To say all this is not to be pessimistic--but to recognize the scale of the struggle ahead of us. The situation isn't unique. In fact, the most important social upheavals of the past--the periods of struggle that produced the most important gains for the working-class movement--followed periods of seeming political calm. The great struggles of the 1960s were preceded by the conservatism of the 1950s. The Depression-era labor battles of the 1930s came after years in which it seemed that the unions would never overcome their weakness.

There is no doubt that new explosions of struggle are brewing. The rioting in Benton Harbor last month against racism and police violence, for example, was another signal of the discontent simmering beneath the surface of U.S. society. It echoed the social explosion that rocked Los Angeles in 1992 over the issue of police violence--a rebellion that highlighted the domestic crisis even as George Bush Sr. celebrated his war victory over Iraq.

Likewise, the dramatic growth of the antiwar movement in the lead-up to Bush Jr.'s war showed that millions of people were prepared to take a stand against Washington's drive to dominate the world. Today, the failure to locate weapons of mass destruction and the brutal character of the U.S. occupation have vindicated the arguments of the antiwar movement--and this can give activists confidence to revive opposition to Bush's imperialist adventures.

We can't sit back and wait for mass struggles to break out. From building solidarity for a strike to defending immigrant rights to fighting budget cuts, there are fightbacks in every city and town that--however modest--can pull together the activists who will be central to building the movements of the future.

But to succeed, we also need to discuss and debate the political questions we face today--for example, winning activists to an understanding that a strategy for social change that relies on influencing Democratic Party politicians has been proven thoroughly ineffective.

The patient work of organizing now can build the networks of activists that can reach even larger numbers in the future. And in the process, socialists can win more people to our alternative to this miserable system that breeds poverty and war.

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