Putting its energy into the wrong fight

March 16, 2015

WE ARE writing in response to the recent Socialist Worker article "An alternative to Mayor 1 Percent?" We certainly agree with the characterization of Mayor Rahm Emanuel as the "Mayor of the 1 Percent" and also with the criticisms of challenger Jesús Chuy García. We feel, however, that the article does not adequately address the larger question of an alternative to labor's stubborn reliance on the Democratic Party to bring change. And in fact, the Chicago Teachers Union's (CTU) own recent history of struggle points to that alternative.

In 2012, the Chicago teachers did something many of us have been hoping for for years--they put a teachers' strike back on the map. With picket lines, large rallies and community support, they fought for a contract that not only addressed the needs of their members, but also spoke to a vision of an equitable and just public education system for all. Such a strike puts the political power into the hands of the people involved: teachers, students, families and communities.

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Fast forward to 2015, and the CTU is still operating as a political heavyweight in Chicago politics, but this time in a very different fashion: endorsing and campaigning for the progressive Democratic rival to Rahm Emanuel in the upcoming mayoral runoff election. We believe that this is a mistake, and given the CTU's recent and impressive history, a wholly unnecessary one.

Understandably, many are excited and energized by the potential of defeating Rahm Emanuel. And the fact that García is giving him a run for his money is significant. It shows where popular opinion stands on issues such as attacks on schools and racist policing.

However, the article does not stress enough how dangerous it is to put the hopes of that progressive consciousness into another Democrat. While the authors do critique García's record and show that he is not the progressive hope that voters might think he is, one could read the article and conclude that he just isn't the right "progressive" Democrat. As quoted in the article, CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey described García's opponents as "corporate Democrats." That is, García stands in distinction to a wing of the Democratic Party, but not to the party itself.

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And this leaves the door open to the suggestion that García's policies and commitment to presiding over austerity are the problems. The fact is that even with a better record, without a break from the Democratic Party, even the most progressive candidate serves to prop up a party which answers to its corporate backers, while only paying lip service to the needs of its working-class voters.

Despite labor's general willingness to bargain concessionary contracts with any Democrat, the CTU was willing to mobilize its members to wage a heroic strike against Emanuel. If García is elected, given his record and the fact that he's a Democrat, chances are they will still need a fighting force to win a fair contract.

The CTU and all the unions supporting García with their money, precinct walking and phone banking are using precious resources that they may need for contract campaigns and possible strike preparations.

THE ELECTION in Chicago may be an upset for the backers of Emanuel, but the dynamic is not unique to this election. For liberals and people on the left, choosing between two perceived wings of the Democratic Party shapes U.S. politics as much as their choice between a Democrat and Republican, especially as the Democratic Party nationally has continued to move rightward and embrace austerity.

In fact, the Chicago mayoral election is a harbinger for things to come in the 2016 presidential election. The two names holding people's attention for the Democratic primaries are Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren. No one on the left, especially socialists, should get pulled into the mentality that the "progressive" Democrat Warren will be any better than the "corporate" Democrat Clinton. If Clinton wins, Warren will funnel all of her supporters' energy into Clinton's campaign. If Warren wins and becomes president, she will no doubt leave the left pecking at crumbs, as Obama has.

In a similar dynamic, the November 2014 race for California state Superintendent of Public Instruction, voters were given a choice not between a Democrat and a Republican, but between a "progressive" Democrat, Tom Torlakson, and a "corporate" Democrat, Marshall Tuck. The "lesser evil" dynamic was at play, only between two Democrats. And unions such as the California Teachers Association poured money and resources into Torlakson's campaign, at the expense of local organizing. Like the Chicago mayoral election, the race was "nonpartisan," but both candidates ran as open Democrats and used party resources to fund their campaigns.

As stated in a Socialist Worker article titled "Are there any liberals left?" on March 20, 2014, "[C]onservatism still dominates American politics--not because the 'grassroots right' pulls the strings in the Republican Party, but because big business interests that control both major parties make sure that both carry out a conservative agenda." This is the type of sharp argument that we have come to expect from SW when criticizing "progressive" Democrats.

HOW DO we avoid the trap of the "progressive" Democrat?

The question of labor's ongoing support for Democrats is critical in any election discussion. As union members ourselves, we see this pull all too clearly every election cycle.

Even the most radical union activists and leaders operate within the bounds of capitalism and must negotiate the best terms in an underfunded system. The call to be practical and realistic is an even bigger pull on unions when elections come around. This is especially true with public-sector unions, which essentially feel like they get to elect their "bosses" in the form of mayors and city council members.

As socialists we have the opportunity to change the discussion, to not limit our demands to the framework that capitalism allots us right now, but to talk instead about what we really want and the kind of class struggle it will take to get it. Our role as socialist union activists is not to manage austerity or to elect people who will be kinder to workers in tough times, but rather to continually reframe the discussion about what is possible if we organize and use our collective power to demand more.

Getting rank-and-file members to have the confidence and the ongoing organizational structures to engage in struggle for better jobs, schools, health care, etc., is the project we further through all our work as ISO members in unions. And the CTU, under the leadership of the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators caucus, has shown that it is able to do this. The CTU showed us what class struggle unionism could be, and in a moment now when it is heading back to the bargaining table, it appears that the union is spending valuable energy and money on an election campaign aimed at getting a better manager of capitalism into office.

What would it look like if the resources being spent on the election were instead going into organizing a boycott of the PARCC tests? What would it look like to put these resources into a grassroots campaign to re-open closed schools? What kind of organizing will it take for the CTU to lead another successful strike?

These are not easy questions to answer and are not intended to be posed in a flippant manner. All of us in the labor movement know that the question of how unions spend their resources (money and time) belies where their real priorities are at any given moment. It is because of the very leadership that the CTU has shown in rebuilding a militant, class struggle labor movement that these kinds of questions are critical for socialists within CTU to be raising.

It seems from the outside that these important conversations are being pushed to the background in order to focus on the election. As socialists, we should be the people who at every opportunity bring these questions back into the conversation and make clear that whoever is in office, we will have to organize and fight for what we want.

This is not an easy task, and there are no shortcuts to building a militant core of rank-and-file fighters who understand that only through collective struggle can we win what we deserve. This large political task before us is only made harder when we concede ground to the Democratic Party and allow elections to pull resources away from the project of rank-and-file organizing.
Dana Blanchard, Jenna Woloshyn and Jessie Muldoon, Oakland Calif.

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