An interview with Alan Benjamin, editor of the independent workers’ newspaper The Organizer, conducted 2014-10-23 by Jean-Pierre Raffi for Informations Ouvrières / Labor News No. 324, the weekly newspaper of the Independent Workers Party of France (POI).
Question: A controversy erupted recently between President Barack Obama and General Martin Dempsey, commander in chief of the U.S. Armed Forces, concerning the conduct of the war in the Middle East. What is the significance of this debate?
Benjamin: Under pressure from the continued demonstrations against the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with the widespread opposition by the American people to these wars, Obama promised during his election campaign that there would be no more U.S. involvement in wars in this region, and he stressed, in particular, that there would be no more involvement of U.S. ground troops. Thus, he hesitated about sending troops into this new war against the Islamic State, or ISIS. But Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey said clearly: "U.S. troops will intervene on the ground, there is no room for hesitation."
He even said that it was a matter of weeks before this occurred, and he cited the Iraqi city of Mosul as the most probable theater of engagement of U.S. ground troops. Hillary Clinton, who will most likely be the next candidate of the Democratic Party in the presidential election of 2016, joined the fray, criticizing Obama harshly for his hesitation. She supported Dempsey very vocally. Hillary Clinton was Obama's Secretary of State; this kind of public debate does not happen every day. It is a fiery debate within the ruling party. The underlying issue here, and most political observers know this to be true, is that the American people, especially the workers, who are faced with budget cuts and other major attacks on their jobs and livelihoods, do not want war.
U.S. Labor Against the War, the labor antiwar coalition that represents unions with an estimated 30% to 40% of the organized workforce in the United States, has taken a firm stance in opposition to any form of U.S. intervention in Syria, Iraq and beyond. In various statements from its leadership, USLAW has made it clear that any such intervention by the United States would only aggravate the situation by continuing the "endless war" abroad and the deepening war at home against working people and the youth.
We are no longer in the period when the United States could provide both guns and butter – that is, it could fund the massive war expenditures without making cuts to the social budgets at home. Those days are long gone. Today, the cuts are massive, jobs are being destroyed left and right, and unemployment is still huge -- despite all the manipulation of labor statistics and administation statements to the contrary.
And, most important, there’s the resistance of the U.S. working class against this assault. This resistance was expressed in August-September 2012 in a major teachers' strike in Chicago, when the teachers showed that U.S. workers are willing and capable of fighting back when there is an opening to do so -- even at election time. Also very important, as a result of the teachers’ upsurge in Chicago, there has been a very powerful and widespread development of rank-and-file caucuses in cities across the country in both teachers’ unions: American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and National Education Association (NEA). In addition, this past summer, under pressure from these movements from below, both teacher union conventions voted to urge the resignation of Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, because of the education privatization plans pushed by Duncan.
There is also a growing fightback in defense of the U.S. Postal Service. The Obama administration has gone very far in its privatization-destruction assault on the USPS, but this drive is facing steep opposition by the four postal unions and by the public at large. A recent expression of this fightback was the election of Mark Dimondstein, a militant union activist, to the presidency of the American Postal Workers Union (APWU). Dimondstein ran on a platform that called for halting the privatization of USPS, forging unity of all four postal unions in the country to fight the corporate onslaught, and maintaining and improving the collective bargaining agreements. Dimondstein, who is an advocate of the independent working class political action, has participated in leadership meetings of the Labor Fightback Network. Since he was elected, Dimondstein and the postal workers’ unions have rolled back some of the attacks at Staples, an office supply store that has been given the franchise of large numbers of post offices, showing that it is possible to fight back and to win.
And then, of course, there have been mass mobilizations by Black workers and youth against the mounting attacks they have been subjected to. Over a year ago, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a decision that severely restricts the voting rights of Blacks, particularly in the U.S. South. In response to this decision and to a whole host of other attacks, a protest movement erupted in the state of North Carolina called the Moral Mondays movement – with protest marches, direct actions and more. It is a movement that has since extended to other states in the South. Last February 14, more than 100,000 gathered in Raleigh, N.C., in a region-wide march organized by the Moral Mondays movement.
Question: And there was the uprising that followed the police assassination of Michael Brown, a young Black man in Ferguson, Missouri. Tell us about this. . . .
Benjamin: Indeed, on August 9, a white cop, Darren Wilson, murdered Michael Brown, a Black youth in Ferguson, a majority Black city north of St. Louis. After so many police killings of Black youth nationwide, this one, with the body of Brown left in the street for hours, was more than people could take. What followed was an uprising of Black youth in Ferguson and all across the country. Everywhere, Black youth took to the streets, shouting "Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!” -- the last words of Michael Brown.
Along with the mass protest actions, there has been a growing debate among Black activist organizations around what to do next. Among the questions being debated is how is it possible that the racist attacks against Black people are getting worse and worse under a Black president and a Black Attorney General, both of whom have insisted that we are now living in a “post-racial” society. Black youth are asking why Obama and the Justice Department have simply sat back, with only a whimper of protest, while all the killings and miscarriages of justice have continued. Once again, the question of independent Black political action is being posed by organizations such as the Black Left Unity coalition.
This is not all. This past weekend, on October 11-13, there was a national march on Ferguson organized by the main Black organizations in the region, including the NAACP and the Southern Law Poverty Center. Also, very important, for the first time ever in such a case, the AFL-CIO leadership endorsed the Ferguson Weekend of Resistance and organized a labor contingent in
the main action. All endorsers called for the arrest and conviction of Darren Wilson and justice for Michael Brown.
These demands are key today because there is an operation under way by the police and the St. Louis prosecutor, Bob McCulloch, similar to what happened with Trayvon Martin in Florida more than a year ago. The man who assassinated Martin was let go scot-free. Everything points to a similar miscarriage of justice in the works in the case of police officer Darren Wilson.
But there is one difference today, and that is that hundreds of thousands of people have stood up for Michael Brown to say, “Enough Is Enough!” This, in turn, has raised the question of the role and responsibility of the police and all the institutions involved – all of which, to one degree or another, have supported, or given cover, to the racist cop killers. The question, therefore, of an independent Black political movement, and an independent Black political organization, is back on the political agenda.
Question: We are just a few months before the mid-term elections in the United States. In 2008, there was a huge outburst of support for Obama. What is the situation today, on the eve of these mid-term elections?
Benjamin: Indeed, in 2008, hundreds of thousands of people -- mainly Black people, but not only them – took to the streets in celebration, many of them in tears, upon learning of Obama's victory. They hoped this election would put an end to eight years of war and heightened exploitation and oppression under George W. Bush. Obama had promised there would be no more war. The election of a Black man represented a qualitative change. Hope was everywhere. But no sooner had Obama taken office than the promises were betrayed. The 2012 elections were marked by a very high abstention rate of the Black population, and increasing abstentionism among the working class as a whole. But the sharp rejection of the Republicans, combined with hope that Obama would return to his campaign promises in his second term, now that he didn’t have to worry about being re-elected, enabled Obama to win a second term in office. It was a vote to reject the Republicans and its reactionary wing of the Tea Party, rather than a vote for Obama and his policies.
Today, the situation is complicated. All polls and political analysts point to a likely loss by the Democrats of their majority in the Senate. Their fate hangs in the balance in eight senatorial races. This time around the abstention rate is expected to increase dramatically, as Obama and the Democrats are now being blamed more directly for the loss of jobs and the drop in real wages.
In 2016 there will be presidential elections, and there is already talk of Obama as a lame-duck president. Hillary Clinton is widely expected to be the candidate of the Democratic Party – and, as your readers may know, she is more of a “hawk” when it comes to war spending and U.S. intervention abroad. A Clinton presidency would be one of heightened war at home and abroad against working people and all the oppressed.
It is in this situation that a discussion is beginning to take place among labor and community activists about what to do next: How could we support a candidate who wants to send more U.S. troops to the Middle East and who wants to increase the assault on the gains won by workers in bitter struggles.
In Lorain, Ohio – an industrial city near Cleveland – trade unionists, including the AFL-CIO central labor council, launched a slate of independent labor candidates for mayor and city council, and they won – under the banner of an Independent Labor Party. The unionists said they were betrayed by the Democrats and had to rely solely on themselves and their community allies to ensure that their interests were promoted. Other independent labor-community candidates have been elected in Seattle and other cities in recent months.
This poses the following question and challenge before the entire labor movement: Isn’t the road taken by the Lorain labor movement the road that needs to be followed by the entire U.S. labor movement? Should the labor movement not be running independent labor-community candidates, beginning at the local level, to build momentum for rebuilding a Labor Party Advocates type structure in the coming period?
Already, a number of union leaders and activists have replied in the affirmative to the challenge of the Lorain trade unionists. Next May, the Labor Fightback Network will be hosting its second conference at Rutgers University in New Jersey under the theme of promoting independent labor action and independent labor political action – with an explicit goal of promoting independent labor-community candidates and laying the groundwork for relaunching a Labor Party advocacy committee in the trade union movement.
Mark Dudzic, current national organizer of the dormant Labor Party formed in 1996 by then OCAW leader Tony Mazzocchi, is a convener of the Labor Fightback Network Conference. Organizers are hoping that Postal Workers President Mark Dimondstein will be able to take a weekend off from his busy schedule to be a keynote speaker at the Rutgers conference. The Rutgers conference will also feature the struggles being waged in Ferguson and other cities (in North Carolina, for example)
against the attacks on Black people, and against Black youth in particular. This, in turn, poses the question of building an independent Black political party linked to the struggle to build a Labor Party.
The situation in the United States is very difficult, but it is very rich in possibilities. There is a genuine search for independent political action by workers and the oppressed.