Now the Work Begins

The left’s task, under a Biden-Harris presidency, remains the same as it would under a second Trump term: organize and fight like hell.

When the presidential election was called for Joe Biden, some of us (myself included) felt pulled in two different directions. We were joyful about Trump’s defeat but also well aware that a Biden presidency is not worth celebrating. Biden, who has been credibly accused of sexual assault multiple times, is no friend to workers or their movements. His time in the Senate will be remembered for being tough on crime and tough on the very poor, who desperately need to file for bankruptcy—not tough on Wall Street or war profiteers. But in our bizarro world, our current President is even more evil than the one we just elected, so it’s a good thing we’re able to both party and plan.

First, let’s party: there’s much to celebrate about the defeat of Donald Trump. Incumbent presidents rarely lose; the last time was nearly 30 years ago when Bill Clinton defeated George H.W. Bush. It’s incredibly difficult to defeat a sitting president, even when that president has had a hand in killing well over 200,000 of our friends, family members, and neighbors; even when he’s presided over one of the worst economic recessions since 2008; even when he’s a monster. We should absolutely commemorate this moment, especially when many on the left played a huge role in making it happen. Progressives, leftists, and even many socialists engaged in the election in a variety of ways, on a spectrum between canvassing for down-ballot candidates, against Donald Trump, or even, despite their reservations, for Joe Biden himself. 

It’s important to assess where we are and how we got here, so we’re able to leave and never come back again to a place where we had to organize on behalf of an unacceptable centrist candidate against a wannabe-fascist who has made clear that if he had the power, he would stay in office indefinitely whatever the election result. This election was bittersweet in more ways than one: yes, we beat Trump. But he still got more votes than any Republican presidential candidate ever, and even more strikingly, Black voters (according to exit polling) supported Trump more than any other Republican presidential candidate since 1996. While many voters were disgusted by Trump’s racism, we know that others revelled in it, and some perhaps weren’t drawn to it but weren’t repelled by it either. It’s true that many Trump supporters are racist, but that may not be their only common denominator. Everyone holds racial biases and prejudices, but we have also seen that those biases are not necessarily the only drivers for decision-making. After all, many Trump voters were former Obama voters, turning out in droves for the first Black president. (This is not to say that those who vote for a Black president, or have a Black friend or a Black co-worker, are not racist––just that their racism may not be the only factor in how they make decisions.) But after eight years of the Obama presidency or living in major cities that are by and large controlled by Democratic Party politicians, potential voters are tired, scared, and looking for solutions. 

Trump’s bluffs about trade and the working class could easily appear like solutions––especially to white workers, whom he purposefully pitted against workers of color. But poor workers of all races haven’t seen real change, or been the recipients of any kind of social program that speaks to their fundamental needs. Millions of eligible voters, many of them working-class people, sat out this election and the 2016 one as well. Our social and economic crises have deepened over the last decade, and that’s the vacuum Trump was able to exploit.

To be honest about this vacuum and what it will take to fill means being honest about Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and the vast majority of the Democratic Party. When Harris announced her run for president, she received donations from more than 24 billionaires. Biden received donations from 44 billionaires. Friends of billionaires are rarely friends of the working class, as the working class are the ones who actually create those billions through their labor. And while Biden has positioned himself as a union man, it’s difficult to maintain a healthy relationship with both the workers and the bosses. When workers form unions, they take power back from bosses. When bosses crush unions, they sap strength from their workers. A president can’t straddle both sides, can’t have one foot in the boss’s corner and the other in the workers’. 

This is the crux of the issue for both the party and for voters. Most working people don’t want to vote for someone who promises wins for workers while only delivering wins for the rich. When Barack Obama was running for president in 2008, one of his major (unfulfilled) campaign promises was to pass the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would bypass long, intimidating union elections if a majority of workers in a workplace signed union authorization cards. As it stands now, forming a union is a long and dangerous process; it is all but legal to be fired for organizing, and even if workers succeed in unionizing, many new bargaining units never make it to a first contract. Passing the EFCA would have been a battle: a spokesperson from the Chamber of Commerce called it a “firestorm bordering on Armageddon,” and the co-founder of Home Depot called it “the demise of a civilization,” Their fear is a good indicator that it would have been effective in building worker power. But even with a majority in Congress, Obama reneged on his promise (and many others too). He didn’t even try––it was as though the promise disappeared on the day of his inauguration. In order to pass EFCA, Obama would have needed a groundswell of working class support. And if we had passed EFCA, our working class movements would have grown stronger in the process. Unions and movements are muscles: they grow when worked.

The deepest irony of this, however, is that Obama’s decision not to act on EFCA may be one of the reasons (among many others) that Trump got elected. There will never be any way to know for sure, but union members are more likely to vote than non-union members, and for the last few decades, they’ve followed their union leadership and voted overwhelmingly Democratic. That is, until 2016, when many union members flipped to Trump in part because of the Democratic Party’s many disappointments and broken promises. (NAFTA, one of these major betrayals, was a hugely successful campaign issue for Trump.) If Obama and other Democrats had really delivered for working people, it is likely that working people would have delivered for them. 

Beyond EFCA, though, the old guard of the Democratic Party has been working overtime to lower all expectations for potential voters, as people like Bernie Sanders and the Squad fight to raise them. Medicare for All? No. Even in the midst of a deadly pandemic that has killed 200,000 people and exposed the absurdity of a system of employer-provided insurance? Still no. Green New Deal? No. Even as hurricanes and other tropical storms ravage the Gulf Coast and entire Californian towns are engulfed by flames? Still no. Medicare for All would mean an end to hobnobbing with the health insurance execs; a Green New Deal means the same for the CEOs of Shell and BP. Biden and his friends will never give that up, not those corporate campaign donations and not their influence––not without a fight.

Biden has already made clear who his allies are (if it wasn’t already clear before). The campaign has announced their transition team, which includes executives from Amazon, JPMorgan, Airbnb, Uber, and many others who have made their fortunes off the backs of regular people like us. None of this is a surprise; Biden’s near-50 years in office have told us all we need to know about the man and his political ideology. And he said it himself, promising that if elected: “Nothing would fundamentally change.” Perhaps that’s true from his perspective, but it won’t be true for us. We will make things change; we are the only ones who can. 

Whatever promises Biden or his staff have made to unions and community organizations in private will not come true unless we organize for them in public. Biden, like Obama, campaigned on labor law reform––this time, passing the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act. The PRO Act, if and when passed, will weaken right-to-work (for less) laws and give workers more freedom to organize without employer intimidation. Like EFCA, it would be a gamechanger for the workers in this country, and for the bosses too. Biden won’t do it unless we force him, and he couldn’t do it all on his own even if he wanted to—his friends at Amazon wouldn’t let him. It will take a massive display of working class pressure to prove to Biden and his team that they can either pass pro-worker legislation—or lose the next election.

Under Obama’s presidency, movements retreated, as though getting Obama elected was the sole victory. This was a mistake for which we paid dearly. Movement politics came back under Trump with a vengeance, but now they must not ever leave. Some liberals may believe that Biden’s election means the war against racism or nastiness or even suffering is over, but socialists must be ready for a pitched battle with the new administration––and not one that begins in January, but one that starts today. To fight Biden––which we must do, even as many of us fought to get him elected––we have to rebuild our working class institutions. This means unions, of course, but it also means growing the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). In raw numbers, DSA is now the third largest socialist organization [1] that has ever existed in this country, but it needs to be bigger. DSA’s recent popularity is a testament to the deep need to build a new world, and to do so quickly. Whether we will grow large enough to be able to push Biden in any capacity is still up for debate, but whether we can move him can’t be our central question. Almost everything beyond our own organizing is out of our control, but growing and strengthening our organization is a task that’s in our hands, as is raising expectations for our friends, family, neighbors, and all working people. And doing so will not only allow us to prepare for the next crisis, but enable us to get in front of it. In the meantime, we’ll keep organizing workers, organizing tenants, fighting for a Green New Deal and Medicare for All, and electing socialists who are taking up our fights in city halls, state legislatures, and Congress.

If we are to become a country that has healthcare for all, that takes climate change seriously, that puts an end to the endless wars, it will only become so because of an organized working class. As conditions worsen for working people––thanks to the pandemic, its economic repercussions, and the ever-changing nature of work in this country (such as the cementing gig workers’ serf status)––we will need stronger movements that won’t back down just because there’s a D next to the President or any other politician’s name. The ugliness of Trumpism can only be extinguished by us––by building a powerful, fighting working class movement. And by using that movement to fight for a society that provides healthcare, jobs, and housing for all, where no worker can be pitted against each other by rich politicians.

[1]  The DSA now has 80,000 members. According to the Prospect, DSA is the largest socialist organization in “the memory of everyone under 80” and that was when DSA had only 56,000 members. The Socialist Party of a century ago had 113,000 members at its height in 1912. The Communist Party had 85,000 in 1942.

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