The Democratic Party begins 2021 controlling the U.S. Congress and the presidency. For workers this means that the ruling elite has temporarily reached an agreement regarding which party will pass laws and govern in the interests of big business in the most effective way. History demonstrates that Democratic Party initiatives rarely benefit workers. During Obama’s two terms in office Democrats helped usher in one of the greatest transfers of wealth from the working poor to the very rich in human history. This transfer includes the implementation of the bank bailouts signed by George Bush at the end of his 2008 term, uprooting of families with massive foreclosures, and unbridled war spending.

Which party presides in the U.S. largely depends on the needs of the ruling capitalist class. Capitalists proved in this past election that they can still govern with the consent and help of the trade-union leadership, who participated in organizing the massive voter turnout. Illusions remain in the vast majority of working-class organizations that in some way the Democratic Party is their political representative.

The maintenance of these illusions by a layer of the union leadership has largely deepened over the past four years of the Trump administration. The growing threat of a far-right/fascist swell reinforced the illusions with a sense of urgency. Capitalism also showed in this case that while it prefers to rule with the facade of democracy, it could at any time unleash a reactionary backlash. Today, the far-right anger is directed toward “BLM” and “Antifa” in a confused and irrational way.

The rightists’ general abstention from Jan. 20 actions at state capitols was only a tactical retreat. In the coming period, the emerging far-right/fascist forces, emboldened by examples of state repression against workers, will no doubt shift their focus toward combating a resurgent workers’ movement. For example, the arrest of striking Teamsters at Hunts Market in the Bronx on Jan. 19 paints a picture of how the anti-Black and xenophobic organizing of the right wing and of the police can quickly pivot to attacks on organized labor.

How can the unions turn back a reactionary tide? What do the recent elections show about the actual strength of organized labor even with a class-collaborationist misleadership? First, using the example of UNITE HERE, let’s look at their current electoral strategy.

Mobilizing the ranks to win elections

UNITE HERE alone mobilized over 1700 workers and staffers to knock 3 million doors and dialed 10 million phone numbers for Joe Biden. The union mobilized in key electoral battlegrounds like Pennsylvania, where it claimed to have knocked on 575,000 doors. The goal for the union was turning out Black and Latino voters in record numbers. This particular union has one of the most driven political programs in the country and it’s worth reviewing their strategy.

UNITE HERE had a deep electoral strategy laid out during their convention in 2019, well before the start of the COVID crisis that precipitated a stark 98% member unemployment across the country at the beginning of the pandemic. The union expects big returns for their get out the vote effort.

“The key takeaway from this election is that workers saved our democracy—workers did the essential door-to-door canvassing and everyday working voters turned out; with their votes comes a mandate for change to help working and low-wealth people,” said UNITE HERE Secretary-Treasurer and acting Political Campaigns Director Gwen Mills. “We expect the administration to provide economic relief for workers left jobless by COVID-19 and to support workers to join unions. Protecting access to quality health care, implementing structural change for racial equity and immigration reform, and ensuring workers are at the center of the economic transition necessary for climate change are the key issues. UNITE HERE is proud to have made a critical difference in this election so that agenda can move forward.”

The Democrats, however, have never provided such a robust economic and social package for the working class. Any economic relief they provide will be because working people have mobilized in the streets, initiated strikes, or organized the unemployed as part of the union fight. Yet today, most unions are mostly organizing their members for electoral purposes. Union leadership is looking for a “get rich quick” scheme by supporting Democratic Party candidates.

The case of Georgia

The most stunning example of this was in the Georgia Senate race, as it became the battleground for the Democrats to finish with a decisive majority in Washington, D.C. UNITE HERE, for example, spent around $3.9 million. The money went mostly to pay for members to canvas for the Warnock and Ossoff Senate campaigns.

Some 1000 UNITE HERE members knocked on over 1.5 million doors in the state and held 15,000 face-to-face conversations each day. A press release by UNITE HERE discussed their strategy: “A relic of Jim Crow-era policies aimed at diluting the influence of Black voters, Georgia’s runoff elections have historically favored Republicans. Democrats have struggled in previous Georgia runoffs to maintain participation among Black voters and other voters of color critical to their success. Members of UNITE HERE supercharged a program to reach those voters directly by mounting the largest door-to-door canvassing operation in its history, becoming a central figure in the multi-racial statewide effort that delivered the win for Democrats by hitting 9 million doors altogether.”

UNITE HERE’s electoral strategy of flipping “red” districts and states, and making them “blue” was first put into practice by Local 11 in Los Angeles and the Culinary Local 226 in Nevada. In 2018, UNITE HERE helped elect Senator Jacky Rosen and Governor Steve Sisolak. Their serious operation on the ground saw dozens of rank-and-file members on leaves of absence, door-knocking six days a week for nine-hour days.

Where does this strategy leave workers? What is gained from expending so much energy and or investing so heavily in the Democratic Party? Before answering those questions, we should examine the strategy in a more historical context.

Democratic Party: Dead-end strategy for workers

One can see countless examples of where the Democrats have fallen far short in providing benefits and safeguards for the working class. In Nevada, despite Governor Sisolak’s signing Bill 4, which was supposed to provide workers with health and safety protections, COVID-19 is running rampant. A Reno hospital had to turn its car park into a sick ward. The minimum wage two years later is still $8.25.

On the national level, President Biden may grant a few concessions to dampen the discontent of the fiery masses. True, on day one Biden signed several executive orders reversing Donald Trump’s more reactionary positions, like withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement. Biden also fired the conservative head of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). But these moves are largely symbolic. The Paris Climate Agreement did not go far enough to mitigate the real threat of climate change, and the NLRB is not set up in the first place to protect workers’ rights. A return to the Obama era might damp down a few of the worst policies of the Trump regime, particularly in response to mass pressure, but it will also bring additional hardships for the working class.

The simple fact is that the Democratic Party will never be able to provide the relief that workers in the U.S. need. Why? What happened in the past when Democrats were in power in Congress and the presidency?

Lessons of Democratic Party control

From 1937 to 1945, the Democrats controlled Congress and the presidency. Not only were hundreds of thousands sent to fight a war for the profits of capitalism, Franklin Delano Roosevelt fought a war against the working class at home. The first use of the military by FDR was to send the aviation workers on strike for a living wage back into the factories at the point of the bayonet! Labor was conscripted, co-opted, and terrorized by the state. Not only did the “Little Red Scare” of the late thirties attack union militants but Roosevelt used the federal government to racially segregate formerly integrated parts of the North following World War II.

From 1961 to 1969, Democrats again controlled Congress and the presidency. Some 500,000 working-class youth, many of whom were Black and Brown, were sent to Vietnam, where they were told to brutalize workers and peasant farmers fighting for their liberation against French colonialism.

At home, the so-called “War on Poverty” programs provided wholly inadequate relief for the Black community. On top of failing to usher in truly equal rights, the Democratic-run federal and state programs, alongside expansive new forms of urban policing supported by LBJ, set the stage for modern-day mass incarceration and a new era of Jim Crow.

In reality, the gains that were made around wages, civil rights, and ending the war in Vietnam were made by masses of workers, students, and oppressed people mobilizing independently and fighting for their demands.

Capitalist parties

But what if Democrats held every elected position in the U.S., from local school boards on up to the president? Would the type of political and economic program workers need today be attainable? No, workers would still find themselves exploited by their bosses, being sent to war for their bosses’ profits, and/or facing the threats of racists, fascists, Klan members, and other far-right creeps.

Elections raise the question about power and what class is going to run society. The Democrats and Republicans are capitalist parties. They create and manage the policies that the wealthy elite need to continue making profits. Every time a worker votes for a capitalist party, they are voting against their own self-interests. Similarly, politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Raphael Warnock, who is one of the two senators recently elected in Georgia, find themselves more and more co-opted into the Democratic Party machinery. Warnock, for example, has steadily moved away from his criticism of the brutal apartheid regime in Israel.

Who should workers vote for in elections? What option do workers have to confront the capitalists electorally? How do we build the type of party workers need? UNITE HERE’s current electoral strategy, in its misguided form, provides a glimpse into what is possible even with a relatively numerically weak labor movement.

Building working-class independence

UNITE HERE’s initiative for the Biden campaign and the Georgia run-off shows concretely how unions can easily mobilize thousands of their members and play a decisive role in an election. Hoping to negotiate their way to small improvements, unions use their resources year after year to elect a party that has consistently betrayed the working class.

Today, the triple crisis of COVID, climate, and the economy demands a new direction from organized labor. What would be possible if a similar effort were applied to a different strategy? What would it mean to put aside old internal conflicts in the labor movement and combine the forces of unions like UNITE HERE, Carpenters, Teamsters, IBEW, SEIU, UFCW, CWA,  Nurses, ATU, and so on? Could organized labor run their own candidates in elections? Is it possible to build a new party independent of the Democrats and the influence of capitalists? What type of program could a Labor Party put forward?

A Labor Party could immediately set about confronting the current crises. A real program for COVID relief could be won that includes tripling the minimum wage, converting industry to develop better and more effective PPE, and faster development of vaccines. An independent Labor Party could mobilize millions to fight for those demands and organize the unorganized to strengthen their numbers. The alternative is a harsher pandemic, continued destruction of the environment, greater austerity for workers, and a deepening advance of far-right/fascist forces.

The current union leadership is not going to change course or come to new conclusions on its own. Workers who see the need for their unions to break with the Democratic Party  should have discussions with their coworkers about working-class independence. They need to build a class-struggle left-wing leadership from the ranks that leads not only in the economic struggles from the shop floor but also with a political vision for the future, rooted in working-class solidarity.

It will be these concrete struggles that lead workers to new conclusions about what to do next. Again, we can look at history: In 1918, Connecticut machinists at the end of the First World War were betrayed in their strike by the Democratic Party and in response formed Labor Party clubs in union locals across the state to agitate for working-class independence.

We need a massive propaganda campaign that turns workers in motion like the Teamster at Hunts Point, the Constellium strike, teacher strikes, or the union drive at Amazon in Bessemer, Ala., toward a political fight that develops the perspective of an independent Labor Party.

Top illustration by General Strike Graphics.