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Issue 47

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Issue 47, May 2000

The US enters a new political period

    Not isolated events
    N7: The revenge of the angry voter
    It's the gap between rich and poor, stupid

30 November, 1999. 17 April, 2000. 7 November, 2000. Sometime in the future, political pundits who only recognize historical changes in retrospect, will see these dates as marking the threshold of a changed political situation in the US. Not so much for what happened on these dates, but for what they represent as tips of the icebergs that lie below the simple occurrences of the day. CARLOS PETRONI writes.

30 November, 1999. Over 50,000 labor, environmental and youth activists rocked Seattle and effectively shutdown the WTO meetings for a day. Mobilizing under an at times confused critique of the workings of international capitalism, demonstrators bore the brunt of state power in the form of indiscriminate police violence. It was a day when the AFL-CIO union federation leadership and ranks, and a new, emerging, radical youth movement, attained tactical unity in action.

15-17 April, 2000. Around 10-15,000 people, particularly young activists from around the country, demonstrated and participated in conferences and teach-ins in Washington DC, against two of the most relevant poster boy institutions of capitalism: the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. Once again, as in Seattle, the state moved to smash the mostly peaceful demonstrations the minute they blocked the first sidewalk and hurled the first slogan against the up-until-now undisputed rule of capitalism. The fact that the AFL-CIO provided major speakers for the rallies, but did not mobilize its ranks as it did in Seattle, is telling. The AFL-CIO tops did not want another Seattle, another day of interaction between rank-and-file workers and young people.


Political observers showed surprise at the anti-capitalist rhetoric of the demonstrations and tried to minimize their impact. They steadfastly refused to acknowledge that for every demonstrator on the streets of Seattle and Washington, there were thousands of workers and youth following the events. These observant thousands were confirming long-held suspicions about the reality which the people of the semi-colonial world realized long ago: that the central institutions of the system they lived under are by their very nature greedy, exploitative and oppressive.

top     Not isolated events

FOUR OTHER RECENT events have contributed to the general shift in the political environment of the US. The stock exchange took a deep dive, led by most of the titles. In some cases, stock dropped over 40-50% in value. NASDAQ alone lost 30% of its previous gains. The bubble within the bubble - the e-commerce and e-corporate bubble - crashed. Most analysts are now predicting that only the strong ones of the bourgeoisie - AOL and others - will be doing business a year from now. Only one week before, these same analysts were singing hymns to the e-locomotive driving the US economy.

This was not a drill. Nor was it a bump or correction. This was the initial step in the collapse of a significant and dynamic segment of the speculative world of the stock exchange. Most of the bourgeoisie have yet to produce profits from their industry. Their expansionary IPO bluff (untested companies launching an initial public offering of their shares at inflated prices) was called. The bubble-within-the-bubble burst without producing a negative big bang, a total financial implosion. But it was close.


Widespread corruption in the police departments of Chicago and Los Angeles has also made national news in the last few months - while details of the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agency (ATF) and the FBI's massacre at the Branch Davidian's compound in Waco, Texas in March 1993 continue to surface. The New York Police Department's brutal murder of an unarmed West African, Amadou Diallo, sparked a week of anti-police brutality demonstrations in which thousands participated.

A national campaign against the police's practice of racial profiling of suspects has also developed in recent months. Young activists in California forced the Pacific Gas and Electric Company to acknowledge and atone for their support of the racist, anti-youth Proposition 21 initiative (passed in California last year, making it a crime to belong to a gang, criminalising a wide range of youth behavior). The first-hand experiences of many young, white protesters in the Seattle and Washington DC actions has further deepened distrust of the police. Many of these young people were able to see clearly that when presented with a choice between the safety of the WTO, the IMF, and the World Bank, and the safety of the public, the police will choose the institutions.

At 5am on Saturday, 22 April, twenty commandos disguised as Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) agents stormed a house in Little Havana, Florida. These commandos rescued the kidnapped six-year old Elian Gonzalez. The raid lasted less than five minutes.


For five months, young Elian had been the focal point of a confrontation between the Cuban government and the right wing of the Cuban exile community in the US. As the support of most of the US population evaporated the exiled Cubans became politically isolated, supported only by the fundamentalist right and their consortium of talk-show hosts. The presidential candidates of the Democratic and Republican parties and most of the media, pandered to the right wing Cuban exiles, launching a barrage of anti-communist propaganda to justify Elian's kidnapping. But the US public declined to bite. By 23 April, polls showed that more than 60% favored the commandos' action.

President Clinton and US Attorney General Janet Reno's reluctant intervention to end the stalemate handed a big victory to Fidel Castro. Right-wing groups hoped to use Elian's unlawful custody to commemorate the failed invasion of Cuba in the early 1960s. Their hopes were transformed into a new defeat when Elian was handed to his father at Andrews Air Force base the day of the raid. These events would have been impossible to visualize during the Reagan and Bush years of reaction, or even during the first six years of the Clinton administration.

1999 also saw the AFL-CIO's strategy to rebuild the ranks of organized labor apparently paying off. 1999 put Labor in the black, increasing their absolute number of members by 150,000. The surprise for many labor organizers is that this increase was mostly due to organizing hundreds of thousands of immigrants, particularly Latinos, and especially in California.


This emerging situation was materialized in mid-April when 9,000 janitors took to the streets of Los Angeles to demand wage increases and better working conditions. The campaign was soon replicated in thirteen other cities, including Chicago, Seattle and New York. This militant struggle is a new phenomenon. Most of the participants are Latino immigrants, many of them undocumented workers with no legal status in the US. The janitor's strike, which at the time of writing is about to be settled in favor of the strikers, joins a string of labor actions mobilizing workers in different states with some good results for organized labor (ATU, steel workers, machinists).

And the AFL-CIO, as a result of this new environment which could save its depleted rolls (union membership now stands at 14% of the labor force, down from 30% three decades ago), broke with a 100-year old tradition of anti-immigrant prejudices and requested an amnesty for undocumented workers living in the US.

Not enough to change the overall situation, but clear signs of bigger battles to come.

top     N7: The revenge of the angry voter

A RECENT POLL by Zogby Polls, gave Ralph Nader's six-week-old presidential bid 6% of the national vote. In certain states like California, Nader is now polling as high as 11%. Democratic Party hacks are extremely worried about an anti-corporate, consumer-advocate and pro-labor candidate like Nader threatening to get as high as 10-12% nationwide and around 15-17% in key states. Most of these votes come from the traditional bastions of the Democratic Party.


Ralph Nader may very well cost the Democrats their presidential race. Moreover, the Democrat hopes that Pat Buchanan, the right-wing populist, would do the same to the Republicans, were dashed by the same polls, showing the TV commentator and former Reagan speechwriter with 3% of the vote as the candidate of the Reform Party. Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), a liberal media watchdog, denounced the fact that 'immediately after' those polls were released, 'the traditionally liberal media gave Buchanan full exposure and participation in its programming and news' with the obvious intent of undermining Nader's appeal.

Powerful voter anger at the polls is not a new phenomenon in America. However, this is the first time since the Progressive Party's 1924 challenge to the bipartisan regime that this anger is being channeled in favor of a candidate to the left of the Democrats. Perot's 19% in 1992 was, in reality, a challenge from the right. Comparing Perot and Nader's respective messages gives a picture of how much the mood has shifted to the left in the last two years.

Nader's message perfectly matches the new mood developing amongst young people and workers. It is not anti-capitalist and socialist: it is anti-corporate, against greediness and over-exploitation and oppression, with some anti-capitalist elements. It is also profoundly democratic, against corruption and is pro-civil libertarian - exactly the make up of Nader's political personality and philosophy. After all, organizations founded by Nader were among those organizing the anti-WTO and anti-IMF demonstrations.


The more energetic layers of young activists are organizing campaigns on college campuses against sweatshops and in favor of labor organizing drives of student workers and staff. They are campaigning against the death penalty. They confront police brutality and demand civil liberties. They oppose corporate greed. Nader is campaigning on all of these issues.

Nader is not called the 'shop steward of America' for nothing. Labor activists and rank-and-filers see Nader as the candidate who supports a living wage for all workers, fights for good working conditions, and opposes the 'bottom line' (sacrificing everything for profit) and privatization. Nader supports universal health care.

On 7 November, if between five and ten million voters side with Nader, he will deal a terrible blow to the bi-partisan regime. This would open the floodgates for a bigger, deeper challenge to the regime and the system that it upholds. It would certainly stimulate the growth of the socialist left, even if the Green Party and reformism benefit more directly at first, and it would certainly put on the agenda the need for a union-based new workers' party.

Even Buchanan knows this. That's why he made all efforts to climb on the bandwagon in Seattle and Washington, DC. Buchanan claims that he and Nader agree on not letting the big corporations decide the economic future of the US. However, Buchanan's racist, anti-immigrant, and pro-imperialist positions have not raised his stock with young marchers and labor activists. Buchanan would have had no platform at the anti-IMF demonstrations in Washington DC if the right-wing president of the Teamsters, Jimmy Hoffa, Jr had not offered him a platform at a reactionary, anti-China forum.


top     It's the gap between rich and poor, stupid

SOCIALIST ALTERNATIVE (SA - formerly Labor Militant), the US section in solidarity with the Committee for a Workers International (CWI), recognized that this new mood existed before N30 in Seattle and A16 in Washington, and before the present growth of the Nader campaign confirmed the changing political climate in the US.

That's why SA has waged a campaign to build amongst the youth, put out a paper with more in-depth analysis, and participated in campaigns in campuses, workplaces and communities - without abandoning our long-standing work in the Labor Party and in the unions. We are competing for leadership and striving to build an alternative to reformism, syndicalism, and the shallow anarchism that is popular among certain sectors of young people.

This effort is paying off. New branches were built in Oberlin and Minneapolis, and existent branches have successfully recruited among young people, workers and people of color, as in San Francisco, Boston and New York. In the case of Seattle, growth has been a geometrical 300%. SA also fielded candidates for local elections in San Francisco which gathered 20-30% of the vote in working-class districts, and recently sponsored a referendum ballot initiative in San Francisco that obtained 66,000 votes.

This was done by taking the movements and struggles from where they are and patiently explaining the next steps, discussing strategies and making the connections between them and the struggle for socialism. Socialist Alternative was the only organization that intervened in both the Seattle and Washington demonstrations with pamphlets specially designed to discuss the issues and the system behind them.


Only Marxism can explain that these events are not driven by moral wishes alone or a deep-seated desire for justice based on a perceived sense of inequality. While those factors play a role, there are more powerful social and economic reasons that explain why, in the midst of the most celebrated and prolonged upswing of the US economy, the anger and dissatisfaction of US workers and youth is growing day by day.

While many could not explain this situation with statistical certainty, there is a popular understanding that, while corporations and multinationals are fighting to recover the profit margins they enjoyed in the 1960s, the variable they use to get there is based on widening the gap between the rich and the poor - produced by denying fair wages, cutting social services, refusing democratic rights to whole segments of the working class, promoting the maintenance of pools of cheap labor, and expanding the domination of foreign markets.

A report issued by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Economic Policy Institute released earlier this year points to the extraordinary growth of social polarization and increasing economic disparity among classes in US society: 'Income inequality increased significantly... a stark reversal of the trend that prevailed between World War II and the 1970s'. According to the study, the fastest growth of the inequality occurred during the eight years of the Clinton-Gore administration. In 18 states, 20% of the poorest families grew poorer. In four states - Arizona, New Mexico, Wyoming and New York - the same portion of the population experienced a more than 20% decline in income. In 31 of the remaining 32 states, the income of the richest fifth of families rose faster than those of the lowest fifth. In Florida, for example, the average income of the poorest families increased by only 1.2%, or $140, while the richest families increased their incomes by over 36% or $33,240.


Nationally, the income of the top 5% of the population rose by a whopping 35%. The number of individuals without health insurance doubled, and now stands at 40 million, while those with insufficient health insurance rose by 200%. The total income received by 20% of the population is 45.5% of the total national income, while the bottom 20% of the population receives 6% of the total income. The real hourly wages of the average worker in the US is now at a record low. And the domestic economic disparity is just the national reflection of an international economic order in which 80% of the world's population receives just a fraction of what the 20% of the most economically advanced nations receive of the world share of income, profits and technological updates.

Clinton explained why the middle class massively rejected ideological conservatism in favor of an expected share in the economic upswing with the slogan: 'It's the economy, stupid'. Fuelling the N30, A17 and N7 timelines for the slow but relentless development of a new social conscience in the US is the slogan: 'It's the class divisions, stupid'.

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