In the above Democracy Now! segment that attempts to provide some context for the Occupy Wall Street movement, Professor Dorian Warren extols the brilliance of Left Populism during the Great Depression and New Deal years, but coolly omits the role of socialist parties, communist parties, and anarchist organisations who –in conjunction with radical trade-unions (between which there was significant membership overlap)– provided the infrastructure, popular education, and grassroots media that provided a backbone for the “uprisings” Warren celebrates.
The way he tells it, farmers and factory workers plucked the idea of mass mobilisation from the air and went on to pressure for New Deal reforms. Wow…if only!
Warren also gives a pass to contemporary union leaders who have “been making some of the same critiques (as the Wall Street occupiers) for a long time but have not gotten the leverage politically or economically as the protesters have, in terms of capturing our imagination.”
First, despite the impressive grassroots fundraising efforts of the Occupation movement, the money at the disposal of unions has dwarfed anything else in what we call “the Left” for a very long time. So it’s unhelpful to talk about a relative lack of economic traction.
As for political traction, that comes down to union leaders choosing to squander their significant resources on backing corporate-friendly Democrat candidates who just were not that into workers.
Union leaders were willing to back Democrats just to keep “a seat at the table”, even if that table had nothing for them. The DNC has always known this and, since American unions have been largely phobic toward building real 3rd party alternatives, the Democrats continue to take workers for granted and cater to finance.
And let’s take a moment to point out that, during the boom years, many unions opposed initiatives popular among the #OWS movement, such as single payer health care/Medicare For All.
Why would a union leader oppose such a patently humane and effective program for working people? Because then the *union* would have one less benefit to offer members and, perhaps most importantly, the unions’ own health insurance companies were cash cows for cronies and retired leaders salivating for sinecures.
It comes down to this: radical, competitive parties of the Left are necessary to keep both Democrats *and* the leaders of labor institutions from giving the game away. As long as elected Democrats fear no challenge from the Left, they will continue to take the ecological and economic crises for granted.
When FDR said the country needed to “make him” pass reforms, he wasn’t talking about the power of a PAC with an email list. The New Deal passed because Washington DC faced real pressure from the Left in the streets, on the shop floor, *and at the ballot box* — from local elections on up.
And as long as unions have no parties to the Left of Democrats to back, the urge to stay in that abusive relationship will continue, and the DNC will use its influence to ensure the most corporate-friendly factions stay in leadership positions within labor.
A party that is unashamedly of the Left is only one piece of the puzzle, but it is a critical piece, and we have too long been in denial about its necessity.