Our nation is at a crossroads. Forty years of continued assault on working-class living standards have eroded working people’s faith in government. Corporations have attacked wages and benefits, destroyed good jobs, busted unions, and devastated whole communities through plant closings. Meanwhile, politicians of both parties have pursued privatization and deregulation, doing their best to turn government from an instrument for the public good into an opportunity for private gain — for themselves and their wealthy friends.
One response to this ongoing economic crisis for working people has been the growth of right-wing populism. The attacks on our nation’s capitol on January 6 were a direct outcome of this. Trump and a shameful number of other Republican politicians repeated, with no evidence, the “big lie” that the presidential election was stolen. The willingness of a significant section of the U.S. working class to believe this big lie reflects the culmination of decades of lies told to working people in the U.S. about our economic problems: that globalization is inevitable, that unions are to blame for job losses and high taxes, that Black communities are to blame for crime and that immigrants “steal” our jobs.
Another, more hopeful response to the economic crisis has been the increased willingness of many people, particularly young people, to question what has been the economic orthodoxy of the last forty years and demand that their government serve the people, not profit. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaigns in 2016 and 2020, the wave of teacher strikes across the country, racial justice protests and youth-driven climate activism have helped consolidate a movement behind a broad, positive set of policies to help working people. Creating millions of good, union jobs through a Green New Deal, providing universal health care through Medicare for All, taking concrete steps towards racial justice, fixing our broken immigration system, and strengthening the labor movement by restoring our right to organize are all now on the agenda.
The Biden Administration and the Democratic majority in Congress must embrace this vision and put forward a bold program that can draw broad support from working people by addressing our urgent needs. Our duty as a labor movement is to mobilize to pressure them to do so. History, and our own experience, tells us that politicians will only lead when a mobilized working class forces them to, through aggressive struggle and non-violent direct action.
The first thing working people need from the Biden Administration and Congress is an immediate relief program to prevent the pandemic-induced economic depression from getting any worse. We need a bill that includes enhanced unemployment, direct payments to individuals to maintain purchasing power, and funds for state and local governments to prevent mass layoffs and budget cuts. In addition, working people also need relief on the healthcare front, such as that provided by the Health Care Emergency Guarantee Act. This bill would leverage the existing Medicare payment infrastructure to ensure that everyone can get the healthcare they need for the duration of the pandemic.
We also need a strong, federal led effort to get the COVID-19 pandemic under control, instead of the current patchwork efforts of states, local governments, and employers. Vaccines will be an important part of this effort, along with public health measures such as sick and family leave, but they must be distributed in a way that recognizes the suspicion of forced medical procedures in many communities, especially communities of color. We urge the Biden administration, along with state and local health departments, to ensure a strong role for community organizations, unions and workers’ centers in the vaccination campaign, to build trust with working people who are often rightly suspicious of their employers and the government.
Beyond that, we need a comprehensive stimulus program to rebuild the economy and put people to work meeting the people’s needs and addressing the threat of climate change and any future public health emergencies — a “Green New Deal.” This will require massive investment in infrastructure, healthcare and education, and that investment should come with the requirement that the jobs created be good, union jobs, and be targeted towards communities and populations that have suffered from deindustrialization, climate change and systemic racism.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made it starkly clear that the federal government must do more to provide healthcare for all, regardless of employment. To permanently fix our nation’s broken healthcare system, and remove healthcare from the bargaining table, we need the kind of Medicare for All, single-payer healthcare system that UE has supported since the 1940s.
Workers also need stronger rights to organize — our lives depend on it. A study in New York state found that unionized nursing homes had 42 percent fewer COVID-19 infections and 30 percent fewer deaths than non-union nursing homes. Worker action has been crucial to winning personal protective equipment and safety policies across the country, not only in UE and other union shops but also in unorganized workplaces. We need the Biden Administration to appoint strong worker advocates to the Department of Labor, the NLRB, and OSHA, and we need Congress to pass comprehensive labor law reform, such as the Workplace Democracy Act, the PRO Act, and the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act, to give workers full rights to organize, bargain collectively and strike.
In response to the January 6 attacks, some have suggested that we need stronger domestic anti-terrorism laws. We disagree. Such measures will end up being used against workers’ struggles. The January 6 attackers got as far as they did not because police lacked the legal authority to stop them, but because of a lackluster response to a violent attack. The gentle treatment of the overwhelmingly white crowd of Trump supporters was in stark contrast to the heavily armed response to multi-racial Black Lives Matter protests last summer. At best, this represents a tragic mistake; at worst, it raises very real fears of the infiltration of our police and military by white supremacists who sympathize with the insurrectionists.
We also have reservations about the responses of big tech companies to the January 6 attacks. Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms have become, for better or worse, central to how we communicate with each other. They are also unaccountable, profit-driven companies, and should not have the power to remove individuals from their platforms at their whim. At a minimum, they should be subjected to the same kind of regulation and oversight that the Federal Communications Commission exercises over television and radio, and Congress should consider turning them into public utilities.
The solution to the kind of divisions we have seen during the past four years is not suppression of civil liberties, but rather more democracy, in all aspects of our lives. We need to reject the “common sense” of the past forty years that all decisions should be left to markets, and reclaim our democratic rights to shape society according to the needs of people, not profits — including our democratic right to form unions free of employer interference.
There is good reason to believe that popular pressure can be mobilized to move Biden and Congress to pursue an agenda that both speaks to working people’s material needs and expands democracy. This will require labor to take a leading role, build a broad coalition that includes Black Lives Matter and environmental activists, and be willing to take militant action and challenge the Democratic Party.
As we said in our August statement on the elections, after a Biden victory working people “should then be prepared to fight like hell to hold a Biden administration accountable to the people.” This is exactly what we intend to do, guided by our core principles of aggressive struggle, political independence, and uniting all workers.