Stand Up For Workers' Rights, Jobs and Peace

Stand Up For Workers' Rights, Jobs and Peace

The following is an excerpted version of the keynote address to the first annual conference of the Communist Party USA in New York City, April 16-17. To watch the video, click here.

Wisconsin: ground zero

Not in our lifetime have we witnessed such a deep going assault on the rights and conditions of the American people.

But neither have we seen such a broad surge of struggle of labor and its allies against this assault.

The enemy was joined in Wisconsin. What the Republican governor assumed would be a minor battle turned into a stunning display of people's power and solidarity. It was truly awesome.

If the sight of 125,000 people demonstrating, a tractor-cade of righteous farmers, and firefighters marching in with pipes piping doesn't inspire you, you are in the wrong business.

Can you think of a sustained action in recent memory that had such an infectious and energetic spirit? That demonstrated such unflinching courage? That attracted such a broad cross section of people? That employed such flexible and creative tactics? That displayed such determination in the face of a rabid right wing punk of a governor?

It made me think that Wisconsin might be our era's Montgomery, Ala. Montgomery being the place of the bus boycott in 1955-56 that triggered and inspired the modern day civil rights movement led so ably by the revolutionary democrat Dr. Martin Luther King. Only time will tell, but in the meantime all of us should "get crackin'."

While Wisconsin is the ground zero of the class war, it isn't the only ground on which working people are gathering and fighting to defend their rights and living standards.

Indiana, Ohio, Missouri, Michigan, Florida, and other states are also in the throes of this all out battle for democracy and democratic rights.

Full bore attack

Meanwhile Republicans at the national level, like their counterparts at the state level, are in full bore attack mode against the social contract that was won in the Depression years and consolidated over three decades following WW II. The "welfare state," they say, is no longer sustainable.

Indeed, if they have their way, here's what they would destroy:

Affirmative action and anti-discriminatory legislation - gone
Food stamps and employment compensation - gone
Quality desegregated public education - gone
Environmental protections - gone
Immigrant rights - gone
Health and safety standards - gone
Medicare and Medicaid - gone
Social Security - gone
Tax relief for working and poor people - gone
Head Start - gone
Pell grants - gone
Abortion rights - gone
Public radio and TV - gone
National Parks - gone
Public housing - gone
Right to collectively bargain and organize - gone

What would be left standing? A government not by and for the people, but rather one whose sole function is to facilitate by any means necessary the enrichment of the wealthiest families and corporations.

This is a raw grab for power, privilege and profits, coming at the expense of the democratic character and soul of our country. The extreme right, if it has its way, will turn our beloved United States of America into "America Inc." - a modern day plutocracy.

Obstacle to Republicans

A special target of this grab for power is the labor movement, because it is the most powerful obstacle to the Republicans' plans to transform the government into an ATM for the very richest.

Their aim isn't to weaken labor, but to crush it, much like ACORN was crushed two years ago, much like they tried to crush Planned Parenthood only a week ago.

Sobering yes! Dangerous yes! But labor and its allies are not backing down.

A living, dynamic working class led people's counteroffensive is emerging - so much so that it is fair to say a new phase of struggle is afoot.

This counteroffensive is national in scope, diverse in form, and creative in tactics. It is accompanied by a change in class mood, feeling and consciousness the likes of which we have not seen in a long while. Tens of millions of people can see that capitalism isn't working, the American Dream is crumbling, and something better is needed.

Socialism isn't yet a dinner table subject, but it is part of the broader discourse that includes the need for public works jobs, taxing the rich, the urgency of spending for people's needs, cutting the military budget, exiting Afghanistan and Libya, and much more.

The counteroffensive dates back to the 2006 elections, where labor and its allies scored a victory and thus threw the Bush administration on the defensive for the first time.

It continued two years later when tens of millions of all races, nationalities, and ethnic groups came together on the political stage and elected an African American president who promised a U-turn from the far-right policies of the Bush years.

There was an unfortunate lull in this counteroffensive in the first two years of the Obama administration. At the same time, the Republican right regrouped and went immediately into attack mode and the Democrats, not being fully surrounded by an energized mass movement, vacillated, lost control of the narrative, and compromised more than necessary.

But the lull is over. Labor and its allies are standing up for democracy and democratic rights. Their march is resuming in a strikingly new and promising way.

No one should expect this march to avoid bumps, setbacks and defeats going forward. The Republican victory at the polls last fall and its determination to press its advantage politically and ideologically will make the sledding very tough for a while.

In politics, winning and losing isn't a matter of simple arithmetic, not simply a matter of tallying up what was won and what was lost. Rather, it depends on which side is able to expand its support, deepen its unity, and capture the initiative. It also depends on which side is best able to frame the debate and win the battle for public opinion.

On these counts, labor and its allies, fighting in difficult circumstances for the moment, is in the fray.

2012 elections

The 2012 elections are casting a long shadow over the nation's politics, economics and public discourse.

For the Republican right, electoral success next year is crucial in order to radically transform the country to the advantage of the most reactionary sections of monopoly capital and their mixed bag of dangerous allies.

No one on their side, including tea baggers, is going to stay home on Election Day 2012. They will all be expected to march to the polls and bring others with them.

For the people's side of the struggle, the 2012 elections are of paramount importance too. No other struggle has the same possibility to rearrange the political balance of forces in a progressive direction, to put the working class and people's counteroffensive onto a new forward trajectory.

Some on the left disagree, and advocate either staying home or making a "strategic break" with the two-party system. But there are three questions that must be asked:

1. Would staying home or making a "strategic break" enhance the chances of beating the right?

2. Are millions of people and their organizations ready to drop the Democratic Party and form a big, broad, labor/people-based political party in the near term?

3. Are the differences between Republican and Democratic parties so insignificant that it doesn't matter who wins?

I believe the answer to each of these questions is an emphatic "No."

While millions understandably feel dissatisfied with the Democratic Party, it hasn't risen to the point where they are ready to bolt anytime soon. Nor are they ready to dismiss the real differences, say, between House Republican Paul Ryan's draconian, fatten-the-rich, long-term budget plan, and the plan that President Obama outlined, in which he defended Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other public programs.

The aggressive role of right-wing extremism in recent months has only reinforced these sentiments.

Politics is a complex and impure process. And as the Rolling Stones sang, "You can't always get what you want." In which case, you try to get what you need with what is available. That's not pragmatism, but political realism informed by the overriding necessity to decisively defeat the right in next year's elections.

Thus, for now, the only vehicle – as inconsistent as it is – that can take down the right in an electoral contest is the Democratic Party.

So what is to be done?

Here are five things that strike me as critical.

The further building of the spirited, hopeful, visionary, labor-led people's coalition and counteroffensive in every neighborhood, city, state, and nationwide is at the top of the agenda - especially in the context of the elections. This movement is the power base of any progressive turn in our nation's politics. Take it out of the equation and only minor reforms are possible at best; at worst, the Republicans go on the offensive as they are currently doing, Democrats waver and give in; and politics shift to the right. But neither our nation nor the world can afford another era of right-wing-dominated politics. The price is too steep. The future of humankind and the planet is too fragile.

The next task is to deepen the unity of this movement. Only a movement that unites all races and nationalities, young and old, men and women, immigrant and native born, gay and straight, urban and rural, workers and small business people, and labor and its allies has the political capacity to push the country down a progressive path and safeguard the future.

A requirement of any progressive and radical agenda is an elevated and sustained struggle for racial and gender equality. Both are of strategic importance. Anyone who devalues the struggle for racial and gender equality and against racism and male supremacy limits the sweep of any potential victory, and provides an opening to the Republican Party and the most backward sections of our ruling class to mobilize people along racist and male supremacist lines.

There is a burning need for progressives, liberal, pro-labor and left-wing forces to engage our adversaries on an ideological level. Our side fights with one hand behind its back when it doesn't bring persuasive arguments and compelling stories into the marketplace of public opinion.

Though the people don't own the mainstream media, the people's movements should still fight to be heard in it and also take full advantage of online media.

When the broader movement takes part in the battle of ideas, people respond positively.

Some of the ideas that already resonate with millions include: tax the rich, racism chains working people of all colors, economic crises hit racially and nationally oppressed people harder; wealth comes from labor and nature, working people have no stake in wars of occupation, and the country is not broke.

The image of socialism as economically just, ecologically sustainable, democratic, peaceful, and part of the American experience can and does resonate as well.

Finally, a bigger left and Communist Party are necessary for any sustained and far-reaching political advances. It is a fact that progressive and democratic breakthroughs in our nation's history have been bound up with popular uprisings in which a growing left played a critical role.

There is no reason to think it will be any different going forward. But here's the rub.

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