Two individuals known for their close contact with the DSA are running as candidates for the City Council memberships of San Francisco and Berkeley. The former candidate is still on a Democratic slate, while the latter is running independently.
We shall not concern ourselves with the former that much, for he hasn’t made even the formal gesture to run independently. The Berkeley candidate Terry Taplin, on the other hand, claims to be independent, and moreover, has named his platform a “Labor Slate”. This, we understand, is at least a formal break with the Democratic Party, the shadow of which has been hovering over the DSA for long. We deem independent candidates running against age-old Democrats under the banner of labor to be a positive development. In our numerous written materials, we have put forward the slogan of a “clean independent slate for a workers’ party, workers’ candidates, and a workers’ government”. We therefore should pay attention to this move.
However, as we read the candidate’s program, we see sadly that the content of his campaign doesn’t live up to the formal gesture of breaking with the Democrats under labor’s name. The program fails to touch on three crucial aspects of class struggle: (1) democratic accountability, (2) rank-and-file activity, (3) organizational development. The demands he sets forward are positive, but are not based on the real workers’ movement in the workplaces and on the streets. We therefore do not intend to support this candidate, as his program stands. However, we ask him, his supporters, and DSA members to consider what we have to say about this program. We thereby call everyone for a discussion around the issue of labor candidates.
- Democratic accountability
In our very first sentence, we spoke of the candidates as “two individuals known for their close contact with the DSA”. Their formal membership, or their lack that of, is not our concern. What is important for our purposes here is that the Berkeley candidate is not running on an organization-based platform, but as a completely “independent” individual. We point out to this not as an arbitrary, bureaucratic matter, but as a matter of principle.
A candidate running on his own despite an organizational backing (in this case, the DSA) is a potential threat to his democratic accountability to his own supporters. Since there is no party line or organizational mechanism to compare what he does to what he or his organization says, the DSA is effectively entrusting all its representation to one individual. Let us emphasize: we are not stating these because we hold any grudge against Taplin as a person. We are pointing out an organizational blindspot in his candidacy. No single individual, even if they were to have proven themselves in long years of class struggle, can be entrusted to represent an entire organization in a bourgeois-democratic institution without any mechanism of control.
The East Bay branch of the DSA, of course, is backing Taplin. Some might argue that this might put a check on his actions in the City Council in the event that he does get elected. However, the DSA, to our knowledge, does not even have a united policy towards running candidates, as exemplified in the different slates its candidates are running in San Francisco and Berkeley (Democratic and independent, respectively). Thus, there is no consensus on what to expect from a candidate, leaving the door wide open to potential unexpected twists in an elected position. This, of course, is reflective of a larger unease within the organization concerning the nature of its positions vis-à-vis the Democratic Party. As long as the question of how to run candidates, in particular, and whether or not to break from the Democrats in general, are not settled, it would be difficult for the DSA to develop mechanisms to hold the candidates running in affiliation with the organization accountable.
2. Rank-and-file activity
We have always emphasized that any working class organization should be established and run democratically by the workers themselves. We see the rank-and-file activity of the working class as the sole basis of the establishment of a Labor Party, and the solution to any and every major social issue. In our appeal text, we wrote:
“The working class is on the move all across the country. From the Amazon workers in New York and GM workers in Detroit to the McDonald’s workers, longshore workers, and teaching assistants in California, workers of every state and type are organizing strikes, walkouts, and protests to protect themselves and their class from the double-headed monster of pandemic and economic collapse.”
This was before the anti-racist popular revolt upon the murder of brother George Floyd started to sweep across the nation. We had given the example of the May Day actions as the militant rank-and-file activity of the workers. Since then, from the massive Juneteenth rally in Oakland spearheaded by the ILWU to the campaign around the unlawfully laid-off Chicago bus driver Erek Slater, there have been innumerable instances of working class activity in tandem with the popular revolt. We have also emphasized in numerous statements that the participation of the rank-and-file workers en masse, with their own and entire organizational strength and banners, as the way forward for the popular revolt to take another leap.
We would expect that all of these strategically important points would find their way to the program of an African American candidate who runs on a self-identified “Labor Slate”. However, there is no word on either the revolt or workers’ struggle in the program. Anti-racist measures that he declares he will fight for are limited to a few police reform programs (de-escalation, racial bias, etc.), a loosely defined “equity-driven educational and professional development programs serving Berkeley’s youth”, and “programs that serve women, families of color, folks with diverse abilities, queer and trans people, young families, and elders”. The working class finds its way in one single clause:
[Taplin states he will] “fight to increase the number of labor unions, support labor campaigns, advocate for workers right, and promote workers’ cooperatives.“
In either case, how he envisions putting up the said fights is entirely missing from the program. Is he going to promote rank-and-file activity and self-organization of the workers and people of color? Is he going to engage in pen-stroking in the grey corridors of the City Council with the Democratic delegates? We are left with question marks. However, as he proudly announces everywhere, he is awaiting support from the Alameda County Labor Council, that is, the bastion of union-bureaucrat conservatism in the region. Ask any UPTE, UAW, or ILWU rank-and-file member, and they would tell you that historically, the Council has done everything in its power to curb any militant wave rising from the grassroots. Ask any organizer in the Bay Area, and they would tell you that the Labor Council has played the role of the buffer between the workers and the Democrats. An independent candidate supported by this leadership as it stands now would willingly or unwillingly give more and more bureaucratic concessions to the Democrats over time, eventually losing their independence.
3. Organizational development
This brings us to our final point, namely, the question of further development of working class’s autonomous organizations. We pointed out at the beginning that we deem it a positive development that an independent candidate is willing to put on labor’s mantra against the Democrats. Now, we shall bend the stick in the opposite direction, and point out the shortcomings of this candidate’s program as far as workers’ organizations are concerned.
The forms of labor organizations are as crucially important as the workers’ rank-and-file activity. 90% of the US labor force is enduring the pandemic and economic collapse without any union protection or benefits. The already existing unions are often bureaucratically managed, with the union bureaucrats completely paralyzed in the face of workers’ spontaneous actions to protect themselves against Covid-19. We therefore have called workers and comrades to “[f]ight the union bureaucracy! Democratic workers’ control over the unions that will put up true fights for workers’ rights! New, independent unions when necessary in the struggle for survival!”(see our Urgent call for a democratically controlled, mass labor party!). As we state in our introductory text, we need a Labor Party as an alternative to both bosses’ parties, because
“the societal collapse triggered by Covid-19 … showed that pushing either party from the left leads to a dead end. Neither party had any problem with approving Trump’s “stimulus program”, which gave billions of dollars to corporations and very meager amounts to workers and hospitals. The only political figure with a remotely pro-worker agenda, Bernie Sanders, has stepped down just when his slogan and call for “Medicare for All” is felt to be burningly needed. Neither party will provide a platform for working-class demands. Workers’ own political platform is as vitally necessary for survival as bread and healthcare.“
In numerous other statements, we tried to propose even more concrete action items towards these goals, such as Workers’ Health and Safety Committees, neighborhood and workplace defense committees against racist attacks, etc.
Once again, one would expect to see a few words on these questions on the program of a “Labor Slate” candidate. However, there is not a single point about the organizational methods for the working class in Taplin’s program. Reflecting the ambiguity within the DSA about the question of breaking from the Democrats, no such thing as workers’ independent political self-organizations, let alone a Labor Party, is mentioned. In fact, even the word “union”, the oldest and most common form of workers’ self-organization, comes up only three times in the entire program, and the last two only in passing. The first time is the only clause where anything resembling class struggle is vaguely mentioned (we have quoted this clause above), the second and third times, it is shoved in with a number of other things: eco-friendly policies and investments, community partnerships and alliances, construction business, and even partnerships with “small businesses”. Taplin seems to expect unionization efforts not from rank-and-file workers and their struggle, but from supposedly eco-friendly big investors and small business-owning “partners”. Labor as such is also treated as a “partner” in the Green New Deal, and not a central actor who takes the initiative. His vision of working class self-organizations is contained in these two clauses.
As opposed to working-class organizations, the phrases “local business”, “small business”, “small property owners” are repeated over and over in almost every section. One cannot help but get the feeling that the Labor Slate candidate has more to offer to the small businesses than to labor. This is precisely what we mean “the content of his campaign doesn’t live up to the formal gesture of breaking with the Democrats under labor’s name” (see above).
Miscellaneous demands on the program
Of course, as a potential representative of a specific geographical and administrative district of Berkeley, Taplin’s program enumerates a number of other demands concerning a variety of the neighborhood’s problems, from clean water to transportation and education. We would gladly admit that we are unfit to raise any points about the specific concerns of the neighborhood. However, we shall make a few notes on Taplin’s demands as far as the national and state political atmosphere is concerned. Let us state our conclusion from the get-go: Taplin’s demands hardly exceed, and in some sections even fall behind, some mainstream Democrats’ demands.
Let us take the police reforms he proposes, for instance. After all, police brutality is the number one item in the national political arena nowadays. Taplin’s propositions revolve around three points: establishing or enhancing bodies to hold the police accountable, educating the police in non-violent intervention methods, and diverting money from the militarization of the BPD.
Each individual point may sound well. However, together, they amount to a steady resuming, if not an increase, in the police budget. The bodies and programs Taplin wants to create to keep the police in check require additional money to go into the BPD. True, he says he will divert money from the BPD, but only from its militarization, and not from the Department as it stands. The money and resources that would emerge from this divestment would likely to go into the financing of the new programs and administrative bodies. Berkeley is already spending 44% of its yearly budget on its PD. Taplin’s program would either not touch or increase this huge percentage.
This is not only a budgeting matter, however. Taplin’s program is falling behind the national and state-wide political atmosphere, instead of enhancing it and driving it further. “Defund the police” has already become a popular and accepted slogan among the masses. The popular upheaval has already pushed many big cities (San Francisco included) to cut back on its police budgets. In Minneapolis, where the anti-racist revolt had originated, the Democrat-run City Council has even announced that it would abolish its PD completely, to be replaced with a different body.
Now, let us be clear: we harbor no illusions about the Democrats actually defunding or abolishing the PDs. We do know that they are putting up these sham measures that would be rolled back the moment the popular revolt retreats a single step. However, Taplin doesn’t even make this gesture. In today’s political climate, where defunding the police has become a common demand, a Labor candidate should raise further supplemental demands that would carry the struggle forward. Our suggestions of civilian-elected neighborhood and community defense committees can be read in this vein. Taplin, however, asks us to be satisfied with a few reforms that would render the police – supposedly – a little friendlier. Therefore, his proposed police reform is economically ineffective, and politically retrograde.
Another big issue in Berkeley is housing. Before the Covid-19 pandemic hit the region, rents were skyrocketing. Even the pandemic didn’t make the rent fall, but rather curbed its rapid rise. Most tenants faced an additional difficulty in paying their rent, as they lost their jobs to the Covid-19 shutdown and the accompanying economic downturn. In response, many tenants’ organizations and associations began immediately to discuss publicly possible means of resistance, including a “rent strike”.
Neither the problem of sky-high rent nor rent strike as a possible means of resistance makes it into Taplin’s program. If the “rent strike” might be deemed too “radical” for a program designed for a City Council candidacy, then at least more “moderate” measures around the housing crisis (such as general rent control and cancelling the rent obligations through the pandemic) could be mentioned. But we don’t find any word of these now commonplace demands either. Instead, Taplin states that he will fight for “programs to assist small landlords”, “promot[ing] pathways to homeownership and support[ing] small landlords looking to expand their homes”, and “support[ing] single-family homeowners looking to convert their homes into multifamily housing”. This is quite a generous gest towards the small property holders.
In contrast, people who pay rent are not defended by the program. The words “tenant” or “rent” are never mentioned. All a tenant struggling to pay their rent can expect from Taplin’s program is shoved into the vague promise of “municipally owned, democratically controlled, and decarbonized social housing”. Once again, the program gives the impression that it is geared towards upholding small private property – and in fact turning into big property – rather than defending the rights of the workers paying rent.
Like his police reforms, Taplin’s housing reforms fall behind the already commonplace demands of the tenants, rather than taking them a step further.
We analyzed Taplin’s program in detail. We contrasted it not only with our own demands where the convenience occurred, but also with demands that became widespread in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic and the anti-racist popular revolt. While we praised Taplin’s decision not to run on a Democratic slate and use the name “Labor Slate”, we concluded that his program doesn’t live up to that name. As we emphasized above, we are leveling these critiques not out of any personal grudge against Taplin or in a sectarian spirit of animosity, but with the aim of opening up his program to discussion. Our aim is to clarify through democratic discussion what a Labor candidate’s program should reflect.
If our words reach some ears and initiate a discussion, then our goal is reached.
16 July 2020
United Front Committee for Labor Party, UFCLP