Friday, August 22, 2014

Labor Party?

Finding Labor’s Political Independence in Chicago

(All photos by Larry Duncan)

CHICAGO — Will Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis run for mayor, and will such a possible candidacy create a third party break with the Democrats in city government? Events leading up to these two questions go back at least four years.
In December of 2010 the CTU, under newly-elected Karen Lewis, sponsored a forum to hear all of the candidates in the upcoming 2011 mayoral election. All the candidates speaking at that forum were Democrats.
The event was unprecedented for the CTU — to make deliberations about mayoral endorsement so public. It suggested that the way the CTU decided should not be an automatic, undemocratic process. And it suggested that politics-as-usual in Chicago was on its way out. Although the forum set out to hear all mayoral candidates, one of the invited candidates did not show up — Rahm Emanuel. He went on to win the spring Democratic Party primary, and then the election.
With that election victory of Rahm Emanuel, the die was cast for an historic confrontation between the re-born, militant CTU and City Hall. The fireworks came in 2012 with the five-day strike in the country’s third largest school system.
Much has been written about the size, impact, and outcome of that strike, involving some 30,000 teachers, 350,000 students and their households, and a broad network of community organizations. It was a political watershed, for two reasons.
First, the strike dramatized inchoate, popular political power independent of the Democratic Party and City Hall. Power coming from a union.
Second, the problems that led to the strike could not be overcome through trade unionism alone. Although the CTU in 2012 put on a clinic in union militancy (despite the fact that it was legally restricted by limiting its demands to wages and benefits), only so much could be achieved by striking. The problems that had accumulated in the Chicago public school system were systemic to decaying capitalism. Lack of tax funding from the deadbeat 1%; starvation of the public sector; a long history of cuts in art, music, library, and science facilities and teachers; increasing class sizes; an unelected school board; a city and state government that was on the warpath against the unions; the list was endless. These problems could not be solved by the CTU alone. A political strategy involving the whole working class was needed.
Unlike a strike in private industry, the employer that the teachers’ union (a public-sector union) negotiated with was a government, a city government. The battle here between the workers and management was inherently political.
In that same 2012-13 academic year — despite huge and impassioned turnouts expressing opposition to school closings at rigged “hearings” — CPS closed 50 schools anyway. This was part of CPS’s master plan to eventually shut down public education and replace it with for-profit, private charter schools. CTU’s and their community allies’ last massive pressure-protest stratagem against mass school closings didn’t work. The School Board was, after all, the unelected puppet of big investors and property developers. After that, there was nothing left in the quiver except political weapons.
But should the CTU stay in the old default mode of political protest: find or foster Democratic Party candidates who support a list of particulars, and try to get those candidates elected, or re-elected?
Anyway, the first concrete step was to mount a massive voter registration drive. That begun, the debate proper commenced in the union. The union caucus (CORE) that twice successfully got Karen Lewis elected began to weigh working with the Democratic Party versus splitting from it.
Tim Meegan — a teacher, member of CORE, and independent non-Democrat candidate for Alderman in Chicago’s 33rd Ward — spoke recently about that period. “At the CORE convention earlier last year there was a debate within CORE: Should we split with the Democrats and form an independent party and go that way or should we continue to work with the Democrats? And there’re a lot of different opinions there. And we really never did come to a consensus on that. So what we now have of course is an Independent Political Organization that is comprised of SEIU, CTU, Grassroots Illinois Action, and Action Now. And it’s really exciting because we don’t know what is going to happen with it.”
Meegan was speaking at the August 1, 2012 Chicago Socialist Campaign Open Forum sponsored by the CSC and co-endorsed by Solidarity, International Socialist Organization, Chicago Socialist Party of Illinois and Jorge Mújica for 25th Ward Alderman. The title of the Forum was “Breaking Left from the Two Parties of the 1%.”
Although two of the speakers were candidates for Alderman (Tim Meegan and Jorge Mújica) a portion of the discussion naturally centered on whether CTU President Karen Lewis would declare she was running for mayor against Rahm Emanuel, and how she would politically define her campaign.
With only months now before the deadline in November for petitions for mayoral candidates to be submitted to the Board of Election Commissioners, Karen Lewis and the CTU have not answered these two questions. The August 7 Chicago Tribune paraphrased Lewis as saying that it could be months before she would make a decision. (The Sun-Times in mid July said that an Early & Often Poll had Lewis beating Emanuel by 9%.)
The debate impasse within CORE and CTU back in 2013 continues into the present. A coordinated rupture with the Democrats through the formation of a new political party would have required a certain time window. Delaying a formal decision during the CORE convention in the fall of 2013 became, in effect, a decision favoring the default settings for the “progressive Democrats” strategy because that requires less preparation, and is a well-worn path. (A path strewn with skeletons.)
Jorge Mújica, speaking at the August Forum, observed:
“There is in Chicago these days the possibility of a really excellent candidate for Mayor — Karen Lewis, the president of the teachers’ union. We do hope she runs . . . but we have to push for this to be a leftist movement because if it is not, it’s going to be co-opted again because this is my fear.
“I have experienced, although I have long ago left Mexico, when the PRD, the Party for the Democratic Revolution, was founded . . . and 25 years later what we can see in Mexico is this incredibly electoral only, pretty much, opportunistic so-called leftist party. . . . What I mean is we have to keep pushing left, and the more left we get the liberals and progressives to be, then we have to be even more left for them to keep following and following. Otherwise, if they stay on the ‘progressive’ side only, the ‘liberal’ side only sooner rather than later they are going to fall to the right again.
“In City Council in Chicago we don’t have one, but two progressive caucuses and it’s like, ok, next year we’re going to have three progressive caucuses? And then in 10 years everybody’s going to be progressive in the Democratic Party?”
Whether the CTU will endorse the aldermanic campaigns of declared socialist Jorge Mújica and declared non-Democrat CTU member Tim Meegan — both of whom will be collecting signatures to officially get on the ballot — will depend on CTU’s political strategy for a Karen Lewis campaign. (As of early August at least five CTU members are considering running for Alderman. One of these is a CTU member who wants to run in the 25th Ward, where the socialist Jorge Mújica is also running. Not being a requirement in the aldermanic elections, these other candidates may not specifically declare whether they are Democrats. They presumably will also have to get on the ballot first before the CTU will consider endorsing them.
If Karen Lewis decides to run for mayor, she would first need to gain enough signatures to get on the ballot. As in the aldermanic elections, she would not be required to declare any party affiliation. If Karen Lewis, Rahm Emanuel and any other candidate — such as Democrat 2nd Ward Alderman Robert Fioretti — in the February election does not get 50% of the vote, the top two will face each other in a run-off election in April. Without defined political affiliations, anti-Rahm aldermanic candidates, possibly running against each other, may present a confusing field of choices. It remains to be seen whether Karen Lewis or all aldermanic candidates will volunteer information on their relationship to the Democratic Party, as have candidates Meegan and Mujica. Avoiding such political clarity in the City election in 2015 would be a denial of the historic process begun by the CTU strike in 2012.
A variety of developments swirl around the mystery and suspense of Karen Lewis’ decision to run: In late July the United Working Families (UWF) was officially launched. UWF is a partnership among the CTU, Grassroots Illinois Action, and other community organizations. Since the CTU is part of the UWF, it seems more likely at this point that a possible Karen Lewis campaign would be linked to the UWF’s strategy.
The UWF executive director, Kristen Crowell, headed up We Are Wisconsin as it redirected the mass movement there into the Democrat’s failed attempt to to recall Governor Walker. Not in itself a good omen, as it reinforces the fears of many that the revolutionary potential born in the schools rebellion of 2012 may be blunted and dismantled by this kind of guidance.
Independent non-Democrat Alderman candidate Tim Meegan, speaking to the August 1 Breaking Left from the Two Parties of the 1% forum, had this to say about the CTU/Grassroots Illinois Action IPO (the precursor to the newly-formed UWF): “So I have high hopes for the IPO but at the same time I don’t know how to answer the question because I don’t know if it’s going to end up, you know, becoming this third political party or if it’s just going to promote candidates it sees as representing the best interests of the participants of the organization.”
The term “working families” in this context brings to mind the Working Families Party in New York, which got Mayor Bill De Blasio elected. The WFP is a “fusion” party — meaning a party that runs Democrats both on the Democratic Party ballot and on a separate WFP ballot. Fusion is allowed in many states across the country. It is a sleight-of-hand provision that permits voters otherwise angered at, or disenfranchised by, the Democratic Party to vote for a “progressive” Democrat on a third-party ballot.
But, According to Politics Early & Often, Chicago’s UWF “is not a formal affiliate of the Working Families Party.” However, “The Chicago group has been in discussions with the Working Families Party . . . about modeling some of their programs, including community outreach and candidate training.” Progress Illinoisputs it another way: “Chicago activists are looking to borrow ideas for their new group from the Working Families Party (WFP), a progressive political party that has had success in places like New York City and elsewhere.”
United Working Families in Chicago is not saying that it is a political party, but only that it will play a role of searching for existing candidates and supporting them.
Well, so what if a United Working Families strategy never really creates a clear, irrevocable break with the Democratic Party? Can’t we just inject into the Democratic Party our own list of demands and fight for them one by one, politician by politician? Isn’t a political party simply a shopping list of platform points?
More than the sum of its positions on particular issues, a political party essentially represents the interests of an economic class. Both the Republican and Democratic Parties are champions of privatization of the public commons to profit the few, which is the ideology driving the schools crisis. However, there has always needed to be one capitalist party that can consistently convince the working class not to “walk out the door”.
The Democratic Party with its avatars in the communities and in the union bureaucracy has organizational techniques for doing this. Accepting various particular demands usually can be worked out or lied about in campaigns, such as agreeing to increases in the minimum wage (which afterwards can be neutralized and worked around). But the golden rule for the capitalists and the 1% is to maintain their ownership of finance, of land, and of the the means of production. With that, they hold on to the power and the profits by which they can purchase any government. The trick is to prevent the working class from creating its own political party because that is the most important first step toward overturning class control.
True, a political party of and for the working class in Chicago — a labor party — is only a theory. To the pragmatic and impressionistic observer, the earth was clearly flat; and it was foolhardy to commit resources to demonstrate a theory that was not prima facie evident. But the theory of the Earth being a sphere was verified through applying in practice a scientific conviction.
Similarly, during the administration of previous CTU President Marilyn Stewart, the idea of a fighting rank-and-file-run union was just a theory and only a handful of teachers believed it could become a reality. Those few took up a long political struggle within the union, guided at first by a blueprint for union democracy. Today, can the CTU afford to reject the historically ripe idea of an independent political party of labor and its allies? And as for the pragmatism of working within the Democratic Party over the last few decades — how’s that really working out, pragmatically speaking?
Tim Meegan put it another way: “What the CTU saw was when we did not give money to Democrats and the Democratic machine when the CORE took over, we got punished. When we learned our lesson and we donated to the Democrats and the Democratic machine, we got punished anyway.” Although Meegan takes pains to avoid being politically labeled, he commented, “I would like to see instead of an anti-capitalist party – a pro-labor party, a labor party or workers’ party. I always think of putting the optimistic, positive spin on it will attract more people, and it’s a bigger umbrella, frankly.”
The political situation today in Chicago came about through a rank-and-file transformation inside a labor organization. The largest union in the state of Illinois (CTU) was the incubator in which a citywide movement, working with community organizations, brought us to the point where everybody today is debating whether to leave the Democratic Party, and how to do it. Although a powerful labor organization gave birth to this movement for independent politics, why is the discussion about a labor party off the table?
To oppose a third party with strong support in the unions would be to surrender to the Democratic Party within the unions — or, to reference the CTU’s history, surrender to the way the CTU was run under Stewart. Once Stewart was voted out by CORE, the countdown began for confrontation with the Democratic Party Machine.
The fight to unlink unions in Chicago from the Democrats will be at times like drilling through granite, true enough. The changes within the CTU did not happen automatically. Very hard work went on for years, in the creation of the Caucus of Rank and file Educators (CORE) within the union, and years of activist journalism from the CTU-oriented rank-and-file publication Substance News.
SEIU Local 73, which represents 28,000 workers in Illinois and Northwest Indiana, could be a place to start. It has already donated $25,000 to Rahm Emanuel, the man who is trying to destroy the teachers union! Is there any effort within SEIU 73, staffers or members, to change these kinds of decisions? Daunting as that job will be, it must be undertaken to advance the movement for political independence.
Tim Meegan said: “[The CTU is] the other type of labor union, the bottom-up, social movement unionism that’s so critical to and is inspiring …many workers all over the city. . . . And that’s what I want to bring to City Council, that bottom-up, real, transparent, public democracy and a democratic process where the City Council is not just a rubber stamp…”
Ultimately, winning the city over to independent labor politics cannot succeed without the support of its public sector unions. The municipal and county unions in Chicagoland must reject the political party of the management they work for — the Democrats. Unions (such as AFSCME, SEIU, ATU, NEA, and other AFT locals) that negotiate with public-sector management are the places to begin.
The aldermanic campaigns of Meegan and Mújica, who have declared a clear split with the Democrats, can be the basis for evolving a citywide labor party, looking beyond the February election. But the birth process of a new political party independent of the Democrats begun in the fight for public schools would be thwarted by a mayoral campaign centered basically on an individual. That would be a movement not clearly focused on replacing the Democrats with a distinct, permanent, alternative political structure. But if Karen Lewis does choose to decisively break with the Democrats as a candidate of a labor-based party, this would be a big step forward.
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1 comment:

  1. First, the Working Families Party in NY that the CTU wants to model itself on endorsed horrific dem gov. Cuomo, big backer of privatization and charter schools, two things the NY Mayor Bill De Blasio was against. Hmm...
    Second - the CTU's Independent Political Organization or IPO is not a political party. Karen Lewis stated this after the question was asked at a meeting.
    So the CTU, like all unions in this city, is still tied to the democrats.