Discussing Sanders in my union

March 31, 2016

Sean Petty, a pediatric ER nurse and member of the board of directors of the New York State Nurses Association, comments on a political endorsement in his union.

I AM a nurse and a socialist. In March, the board of directors of my union, the New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA), voted to endorse Bernie Sanders for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. We joined the country's largest nurses' union, National Nurses United, in supporting Sanders, who regularly calls himself a democratic socialist.

The endorsement was notable for my union. While the NYSNA is rank-and-file-led--everyone on the board of directors is an experienced staff nurse who has organized in their hospitals--it had a reputation for being corrupt and more politically conservative until five years ago, when a slate of militants won a majority on the board.

Despite all this, though, I chose to vote against this endorsement, and I want to explain why in this article.

It might be surprising that a socialist would vote against his union endorsing a socialist running for president. I do believe that Sanders' unabashedly left-wing and pro-labor positions on most, if not all, issues is a breath of fresh air in U.S. politics, and that the enthusiastic response to his campaign gives unions and the left something to build on in future struggles.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders

But I also believe that Sanders' decision to run inside the Democratic Party raises questions about political independence and how we advance a pro-union agenda that the labor movement has long needed to come to terms with.

ELECTIONS IN the U.S. are usually a pretty miserable time for union activists.

We spend hours fighting small-scale struggles, with few resources at our disposal and many institutional barriers before us. We try, often unsuccessfully, to convince co-workers to engage in basic actions on our own behalf. We face union-busting corporations and "non-profit" organizations, right-to-work laws, and demands for huge concessions on wages, pensions, and health care--while the politicians of both parties are busy giving tax breaks to corporations and dismantling public services like health care, education and other vital municipal institutions.

In most cases, electoral activity diverts precious union resources toward supporting Democratic Party candidates who, despite what they say to get our votes, end up pushing for the very policies that make our work as unionists so difficult.

Additionally, our political horizons are lowered by the pragmatism of supporting "the lesser of two evils." Our unions are left silent in the face of political campaigns that let the corporations off the hook, support gutting social services, and compete mainly over the extent to which immigrants, welfare recipients, "criminals," single moms and other vulnerable sections of workers are to blame.

The problem with lesser evilism isn't just that we are still stuck with an evil, but by accepting the limitations of the choice, our vote and our ideas are taken for granted--and therefore our demands are ignored.

Since the social movements of the 1960s and early '70s went into retreat, both Democrats and Republicans have moved further and further to the right. The Democrats haven't had many social struggles or movements to worry about--on the contrary, almost all of them have wound up back in the smothering embrace of an ever-more-conservative party establishment.

The sad truth is that Republican President Richard Nixon implemented far more progressive policies than Democratic President Barack Obama. Nixon was right wing, racist and utterly corrupt, but he was under huge pressure from social movements that he couldn't ignore. Obama was a former community organizer with all manner of left-wing ideas. But as president, he's the head of largest capitalist economy and military in the world, and he's faced very little pressure from his left. That makes all the difference.

As a nurse and someone who's tried to study health care policy, I see the ever-growing trends of more corporate control, more profiteering and more power for drug and insurance companies--and less funding for Medicaid and Medicare--implemented just as aggressively under Democrats as Republicans.

Hard as it may be to believe, Obama's Affordable Care Act (ACA) is more or less what George Bush Sr. proposed back in the early 1990s. When he took over, Bill Clinton put forward a stronger, though still flawed, version of health care reform than Obama even considered--but it never even got to a vote in a Congress where Democrats had a majority in both houses in the first two years of his presidency.

Under Obama, advocates of a single-payer system that gets rid of private insurance were kicked out of the room while the Affordable Care Act was being crafted. Even the watered-down half-measure of the "public option" was bargained away. All this was justified as "political realism" to get something passed, but the effect of the law was to make corporations stronger and health care facilities in poor neighborhoods weaker.

This pattern--of Democrats compromising, conceding and moving further to the right, and taking the left along with them--has been a consistent feature of the last 40 years.

THIS YEAR, mainstream politics is different, at least in the race for president.

The success of the Sanders campaign has given a much-needed national platform to pro-worker policies that are usually ignored. Especially for health care unions, it's very important that single-payer is actually being debated in the national media for the first time since before the ACA was passed.

And as a nurse at a public hospital, the fact that corporations and Wall Street are being squarely blamed for the economic crisis--along with calls for taxing the rich to restore and expand much-needed social services--is an important shift from previous years of Democrats and Republicans blaming public-sector workers for municipal budget crises.

So it's no wonder that the Sanders campaign has captured the imagination of fellow nurses' union activists. Many are "feeling the Bern."

I know a lot nurses who supported Barack Obama--even after he pushed through the ACA, which actually cut billions from Medicare and from funding for community and public hospitals--who are now supporting Bernie Sanders because, as a candidate, he is more in line with their values.

I also know other nurses from conservative upstate New York communities who say they are voting for Bernie because he rightly blames the rich, not immigrants and Muslims, for the problems facing working-class communities.

Beyond that, Sanders is (mostly) giving socialism a good name in this country that still bears the scars of the anti-communist McCarthy period 60 years ago. For someone like me, who has had about a thousand conversations with people that went something like, "I like what you're saying, but people are really scared of the word 'socialist,'" this is a very welcome development.

This is what's been great about the Sanders campaign.

But if my years of being a socialist and union activist have taught me anything, it's this: though there are always important political moments when short-term victories are easier to win, it matters what you build over the long run.

When we protested the looming invasion of Iraq in February 2003 during a day of action that mobilized 10 million people worldwide, some people thought we were going to stop the war that day. They were wrong. Those who weren't prepared for the long run left the movement in demoralization.

When Occupy Wall Street erupted in the fall of 2011, it seemed like the country had overnight begun talking about how the 1 Percent was responsible for ruining the economy. The week before, it was teachers and other public-sector workers who were being blamed.

But when city officials across the country sent in police to clear the Occupy encampments--with the Obama administration providing coordination and support--the movement wasn't prepared to respond to the repression. After that, the mobilizations lost their momentum.

THOUGH THERE are many lessons to be drawn from those and other experiences of the recent past, I'll point out two: First, being politically prepared is really important, and second, every political moment--including the current one--has a time limit.

For the Sanders campaign, the time limit is coming soon. Mainly because of the corporate control and undemocratic character of the Democratic Party, Sanders will almost certainly fall short of winning the Democratic nomination come July.

From the start of his campaign, Sanders has said that he will support the party's eventual nominee--and oppose any left-wing independent candidate from outside the two-party system. Right now, that looks fairly likely to be Hillary Clinton. So Sanders will be asking all of us to vote for an opponent of single-payer health care, an unqualified supporter of Wall Street and a former Walmart board member.

If Obama's campaign slogan was "Yes We Can," Hillary's main message is the opposite: "No We Can't." She says so openly. Single-payer? No we can't. Free tuition? No we can't. Taxing the rich? No we can't.

People will believe Bernie and Hillary when they say that this is the best we can do for now. But it's not. We can use the renewed confidence in left-wing ideas to build social movements that can shift the balance of power in this country toward working people.

Unions and liberal organizations could build on the popularity of Sanders' message to fight for single-payer, a $15-an-hour minimum wage, increased union rights for all--and, in the process, put pressure on both Clinton and whoever the Republicans come up with. We can use the spotlight of the national elections to continue our struggle, not get in line behind a candidate who will continue the attack on working-class organization and living standards once in the White House.

Unfortunately, for most unions, this won't be the strategy. The pull of "political pragmatism" and lesser evilism will be too strong--and the Sanders campaign, because it has taken place within the Democratic Party, will have contributed to that pull.

That's why, as enthusiastic as I am about the excitement surrounding the Sanders campaign, I believe I was right to oppose our union endorsing his campaign inside the Democratic Party.

THE LONGER we delay building our own party to represent working people--one that is truly independent of the two pro-corporate parties--the more we should expect our enemies at the bargaining table, in City Hall, in the governor's mansion and in the White House to grow stronger.

There are numerous independent electoral projects to get behind, even if they are in their beginning stages.

In New York state, we had the largest third-party vote in decades in the last election for governor. The Green Party ticket of Howie Hawkins and Brian Jones won almost 5 percent of the vote. Among unions, it broke through the close ties between Democrats and organized labor to pick up several endorsements from teachers locals, where members were fed up giving their support, their money and their votes to a governor who constantly tries to attack them. I wish our union had done the same.

Our side can get stronger this year, but only if we politically prepare ourselves and organize against, not for, Hillary Clinton. We need to use this opportunity to continue to rebuild a social justice-centered labor movement.

Additionally, we need to also prepare for the even longer term--and build a stronger socialist movement in the U.S.

Socialists used to be everywhere in the labor movement. Almost all of the most significant struggles that built the modern labor movement were organized by radicals and socialists of one stripe or another. Bernie Sanders reportedly has a picture in his Senate office of one of the most famous socialist labor leaders in history, Eugene V. Debs.

Debs, too, ran for president, and he got over 1 million votes. He was the candidate of the Socialist Party, and he never wavered from insisting on the need for political independence from the two-party system. As he said during one campaign:

The Republican and Democratic parties, or, to be more exact, the Republican-Democratic party, represent the capitalist class in the class struggle. They are the political wings of the capitalist system and such differences as arise between them relate to spoils and not to principles.

Debs was right. The differences between Democrats and Republicans are real, but those differences are smaller than what they share in common.

On the other hand, there should be a "principled differences" between our organizations--unions, social movement organizations, activist groups--and the organizations of the ruling elite in society. Blurring the lines between them has weakened the labor movement and the left historically.

We can work now toward rebuilding the labor movement and a genuine socialist movement. We need to have patient discussions with the thousands of people who are attracted to socialism because of the Sanders campaign and the wider social radicalization in the U.S. right now. And we need to build the workplace struggles, however modest, that can strengthen our unions and other social movements.

There's a lot more work to be done in 2016. This week, I'll be talking to my co-workers and fellow NYSNA members about the one-day strike of the Chicago Teachers Union on April 1, and I'll be attending the Labor Notes conference in Chicago to discuss how we can strengthen our unions.

There are still plenty of socialists in the labor movement. We're not as numerous or organized as in the past, but you'll find us, if you're not one of us already. We're the ones who always want to fight to the finish--and you should join us.

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