Should socialists back Obama?

by Eric Lee

This article was published in the most recent issue of Solidarity.

The latest issue of Solidarity contains two articles about the American presidential elections, offering two different perspectives with the aim of stimulating debate. That’s certainly positive, except for one thing. I can’t tell the difference between the two points of view.

In one corner, Malik Miah argues for not voting for Obama and possibly backing Nader or the Greens. In the opposite corner, Sacha Ismail urges socialists to … not vote for Obama.


I think the only difference between the two articles was that Miah calls on socialists to mingle with Obama supporters, to try to woo them to the left, while patiently explaining to them why real socialists won’t actually be voting for Obama. (I’m sure that will endear those socialists to Obama supporters and will win lots of recruits to the left.)

Meanwhile, back on Earth, progressives, trade unionists and even socialists in the U.S. have welcomed Obama’s candidacy. Obama was not the first choice for most unions – John Edwards was. But once the dust of the primary battles finally settled, every union in the U.S. has thrown its weight behind Obama.

Of course you will all know a socialist here or a radical there who isn’t backing the Democrats in 2008. Some will be voting Green and some for the independent Ralph Nader. Some will vote for the Socialist Party (quick – name that candidate!) and some will find other, even more obscure, micro-parties to vote for.

Collectively, the entire constituency “to the left of Obama” would comfortably fit into a London taxi.

There have been times in the past when the American left was truly divided about its choice for the presidency. Back in 1932 and even 1936, significant sections of the unions still backed Socialist and Communist candidates, even as the majority swung behind Roosevelt. In 1948, there may still have been some trade unions not in the Truman camp, some remaining under Communist influence and backing Henry Wallace.

But since 1948, there has not been a single election in which the union vote was divided, with some going to the left of the Democrats. Not one.

Part of the reason for the enthusiasm among trade unionists for Obama today is not just the usual liberal stuff, like wanting to end the war in Iraq, provide health care for all, or reduce tax handouts to the super-rich. (As if those are minor things!)
Unions have a very specific reason for hoping for both a Democratic victory in the Presidential election and, equally important, in Congress.

Obama is committed, as is his party, to enacting the Employee Free Choice Act. Not since the 1930s have the Democrats found themselves backing labour law reform that would actually benefit unions. But this time they are. Reforms that were proposed back in the 1970s (but never enacted) may open up the door to union organizing drives on a scale not seen since the days of the CIO.

To understand why this will happen, one has to know something about the American working class. The U.S. remains a country – possibly the only Western democracy where this is true – where joining a trade union is an act of personal courage. Employers routinely crush union organizing drives, sack organizers and ordinary workers who’ve made the mistake of signing a union card.

Union organizing takes place in a climate of terror. The Employee Free Choice Act aims to put an end to that terror.

Things have gotten so bad for trade unions in the U.S. that well over 90% of the private sector is now union-free. And this in spite of public opinion polls that show most non-union workers would join a union – if there was no danger of being sacked for having done so.

If you want a powerful trade union movement in America (and socialists surely want that), and recognize that the only possible way a future labour party could ever emerge would be from such a movement, then at the very least you want to pass this new law. One would think it would be our top legislative priority. It certainly is for the unions.

When you look back at Roosevelt’s New Deal, much of it is only a fading memory. Many of the federal programs to create work, such as the National Recovery Administration (NRA) are long gone.

But the impact of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), signed into law on 5 July 1935, is still being felt. Before the NLRA, unions had no legal right to exist. The NLRA was a huge step forward and unions seized the initiative. For nearly four decades after the enactment of that law, unions continued to grow with union density peaking in the early 1970’s. And that was in spite of the enactment of other, more anti-union laws, designed to curtail union power, such as the infamous Taft-Hartley law.

The election of Obama to the White House and a Democratic majority in Congress (including a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate) opens up the possibility for a 1930’s style resurgence for the organized working class.

The job of socialists is to be part of the movement that is going to bring that about.

Eric Lee is the founding editor of LabourStart.

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