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September 2023

Biden/“Squad” vs. Workers’ Most Basic Right

AOC and the Democratic Strikebreakers of America

Marching through Grand Central Station during December 2022 protest denouncing White House/Congress strikebreaking against railway workers. (Internationalist photo)

Congress “Blocks Sick Days for Rail Workers, Averts Strike by Forcing Biden Agreement” (press headline, 30 November 2022).

“Ocasio-Cortez endorses Biden’s reelection campaign, sending a strong signal of Democratic unity” (press headline, 7 July 2023). “I think he’s done quite well,” said AOC.

Question: What kind of “socialists” would trample workers’ right to withhold their labor, helping the White House use an anti-labor law to ban a strike by 115,000 railroad workers; vote for the capitalist government forcing them to stay on the job, under deadly dangerous work conditions; and impose a contract without a single sick day, after it was voted down by unions representing the majority of the workers?

Answer: The Democratic Socialists of America, of course, in the person of their #1 calling card: DSA “electeds,” most famously Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, in the House of Representatives. AOC and fellow DSAers Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush were among the five out of six members of the Democrats’ “Squad” of self-styled progressives that voted to break the strike that rail workers were about to begin in December. Loyal foot soldiers of Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi & Co., they helped shackle the workers with a contract mandated by the bosses’ government under the notorious Railway Labor Act.

Question: So are they really some kind of socialists?

Answer: Hell no. Unlike left groups that helped pitch illusions in AOC et al., we’ve always told the truth about these capitalist politicians, who have shown their true colors – red, white and blue – over and over, and yet again now as Democratic Strikebreakers of America. We call to break from the Democrats and build a revolutionary workers party that fights for a workers government. the media giants. ■

By Will

JULY 2023 – With strikes by actors, film/TV writers and other labor groups, and the dramatic potential of a massive UPS strike, this summer is giving radical-minded youth opportunities to learn important things about the class struggle. Among these, the meaning of the motto “Picket lines mean don’t cross”; how union solidarity and workers’ class power must be central for any winning strategy; and some examples of the role played by the labor bureaucracy (the social layer of union officials seeking to balance between the workers and the employers).

And like clockwork, we see capitalist politicians make their appearance for their photo ops and speeches, vowing eternal loyalty to labor rights as part of the usual rhetoric of Democratic Party campaigning. Among them: some new cogs in the Democratic machine who, when convenient for marketing purposes, sometimes style themselves as “socialists.”

Workers and youth, beware. Capitalist politicians from the Democratic Party, including such DSA stars like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, say they stand for workers’ rights but work to subordinate them to U.S. imperialism and its government apparatus. This was starkly shown when the White House and Congress unleashed blatant strikebreaking against the rail workers late last year. Even a prominent opinion writer for the New York Times (1 December 2022) stressed that “the yawning gap between Democratic Party rhetoric and behavior” was “perfectly captured” when House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi made a speech denouncing railroad owners who make “obscene profits while demanding more and more from the workers,” and then, “just one sentence later, announced ... that House Democrats would stand with the profiteers.”

Having ridden to office on claims to be lefty insurgents against the Democratic “establishment,” AOC and the “Squad” serve as loyal lieutenants to Pelosi and Biden, including when it comes to outright strikebreaking. “I don’t like going against the ability of unions to strike,” claimed Pelosi when lining up votes for the imposition of Biden’s contract last November, but “weighing the equities [sic], we must avoid a strike.” After all, “our” economy would have been disrupted by a massive rail strike, said the Democrats. No kidding – using the power of the working class to disrupt the normal operation of capitalist exploitation has always been the way to actually win strikes.

Deadly Conditions, Enormous Profits

What was behind the railway conflict? Last December, after working three years without a contract, some 115,000 railroad workers represented by 12 unions were poised to go on a national strike for crucial, urgent demands. During the pandemic, railroaders were deemed essential. Yet they have been worked to the bone without sick days for years. While lengthening freight trains, many of which are now two or more miles long, the railroad barons have ruthlessly slashed the train crews. Over 45,000 workers were cut from the payrolls in the last six years. Forced to be available at the bosses’ whim, those still employed are required to be on the job for intolerable lengths of time (with workweeks reaching almost 80 hours) and routinely deprived of sleep. This exposes everyone to the constant risk of deadly accidents.1 But for the train barons it has brought record profits.

The last railroad strike occurred decades ago, in 1992. With then-president George H.W. Bush and the “business community” screaming bloody murder at the impact of that strike, after two days Congress used the Railway Labor Act (RLA) to break it and order the railroaders back to work. Liberal Democrats like Edward Kennedy, head of the Senate’s Labor and Human Resources Committee, praised the “settlement.”2 Government strikebreaking helped pave the way for the intolerable conditions described above. Established in 1926 and used 18 times over the years, the Railway Labor Act was enacted after a series of hard-fought rail strikes showed the workers’ power. These went back to the huge labor rebellion of 1877 and the 1894 Pullman strike led by Eugene Debs, which was broken by presidential order with the use of federal troops. Imprisoned for his role in the strike, Debs became the most prominent socialist leader in the U.S. and was again sent to prison for his opposition to the imperialist First World War.

When President Joe Biden signed the strikebreaking act of Congress into law on 2 December 2022, it was the culmination of months of federal intervention in negotiations between the huge railroad companies and the rail workers unions. December 9 was when the strike was due to start, after the tentative agreement pushed by Biden was voted down. For the owners, holding the line against workers’ demand for 15 paid sick days reflected the determination to bolster the dictatorial control that helped them squeeze billions of dollars in profit out of the workforce. For the capitalist class at large, the government’s open strikebreaking was a boost to efforts to stave off the spectre of a major labor upsurge by U.S. workers who have been on the receiving end of the employers’ offensive for decades.

For the Democratic Party, a fig leaf was needed. House “progressives” stepped in to provide one. Having voted “Yea” for the bill to break the strike and impose Biden’s contract, they then had a second one voted on, for seven paid sick days – knowing full well that this would not make it through the Senate. It didn’t. Then they could try to alibi themselves: “All right, we voted ‘Yea’ to stop the strike and impose the contract, but look, we tried to get the sick days! Sadly, those pesky Republicans and Joe Manchin blocked it.” It was a classic ploy from the grab bag of bourgeois politicking.

“Accountability” Charades

Similarly cynical was the response by the Democratic Socialists of America to the actions of their Congressional stars. On 30 November 2022 an official DSA statement “call[ed] on Biden and members of Congress to force the billionaire railroad bosses to accept workers’ demands.” (As if.) It went on: “Any member of Congress who votes yes on the tentative agreement is siding with billionaires and forcing a contract on rail workers that does not address their most pressing demand of paid sick days.” And then the congressional DSAers and other members of the Squad (Rashida Tlaib being the one exception) went ahead and did just that.

So what did the DSA do then? After a few days, they issued another statement, declaring, “We disagree and are disappointed with” their star members’ vote in Congress. Here and there, some voices within the group called for measures to be taken for more “accountability” by the “electeds.” A handful even said they should be ousted. Needless to say, this led nowhere. In reality, the DSA as a whole, from top to bottom, is responsible for the strikebreaking by its most prominent members.

Offical AOC merchandise sold on her website. While the t-shirt claims union members stand with AOC, she stood with bosses’ government strikebreaking.

The DSA has since its inception been a pressure group in and on the Democratic Party, which it exists to serve. 3 Since AOC’s 2018 election the group has increasingly staked its future on having capitalist politicians it can claim as its very own. For such “electeds,” though, tossing aside the “democratic socialist” brand name would hardly be a problem, if such marketing got in the way of their political careers. Some already have. Mirroring claims that the Democratic Party, the oldest capitalist party in the world, could be transformed into its opposite, “leftists” of many descriptions cozied up to the DSA when it experienced major growth, claiming it could be reformed and pushed to the left. Instead, the group has moved even further to the right. 4

As for the rail companies, the terrible conditions that led to last year’s strike threat, followed by months of bad press, have made it even harder for them to retain skilled workers. Beginning this spring, some of the companies made deals with some of the unions to permit a tiny number (4-5) of paid sick days, while trying to squeeze concessions from the unions in return. (Some states also require that employees have sick days.) True to form, the Democrats and their supporters in the labor bureaucracy have tried to use this as a cudgel against unionists who denounce the Biden government’s trampling of the railroaders’ right to strike.

What does Ocasio-Cortez say about all this? In an interview with Jacobin (11 April), a journal closely associated with the DSA, she notes that “we worked with Senator Bernie Sanders” during the rail crisis, which is certainly true – and Sanders certainly helped the Democrats pull off the operation. Then AOC goes on to claim that what she and her fellow Squad members did was what “we were asked to do by the rank and file” of the railway unions! “‘Get us a paid leave vote.’... That was the request that was made of me, and that is what I agreed to deliver on.” So she promised sick days and delivered a strike ban. That’s called bait and switch, and here we see the cynicism of politicians who blame their anti-labor actions on the workers themselves. The strike is the most basic tool of the working class. Anyone who votes to take that away from workers is an enemy of workers’ rights.

In seeking to alibi her vote to break the strike with the claim that she was just doing what she was “asked to do,” Ocasio-Cortez argues that she worked “in tandem with” various groups within the unions. In the same interview, she says: “Because, for example, with the rail vote, the only partners that I had leading up to that were rail workers. And if that’s what they asked us to do, then that’s what we did.” She specifically cites Railroad Workers United (RWU), an organization of railroaders across different craft unions with ties to the social-democratic left, saying: “When you look after the vote, folks like RWU were saying, ‘This is what we asked them to do’.” 5

Railroad Workers United wrote to Jacobin (15 April) stating that this was not true. While they “cannot speak with any certainty as to what the official position of the various craft unions’ respective leadership was on the question of blocking the strike,” the RWU wrote that it “would never be in favor of any legislation denying railroad workers our human right to withhold our labor when all else fails in our struggle for safe working conditions and dignity, regardless of whatever concessions may be dangled.”

Bringing It All Back Home

The April interview with the DSA’s leading elected official is titled “AOC: The Biden Administration’s Rightward Turn Is ‘a Profound Miscalculation’.” In it, Ocasio-Cortez repeatedly refers to an ostensible “lurch to the right” by the Democratic president. Clearly referring to the services to the ruling party carried out by the Democratic “left,” she said it would be “very perilous should the Biden administration forget who put him over the top” in the elections.

Three months later, she endorsed Biden’s reelection campaign – no surprise there. Back in February she said she’d “enthusiastically support him” if (i.e., when) he got officially chosen as the Democratic nominee. Speaking on the “Pod Save America” podcast on July 7, she stated: “I think he’s done quite well,” making sure to add the standard Democratic escape clause, “given the limitations that we have.” On the same day, the U.S. confirmed that it was sending cluster bombs to Ukraine, for its U.S./NATO proxy war.

Advertising from AOC’s Bronx office for high school fair she co-sponsored this spring, featuring military recruiters.

AOC & Co. scrambled to distance themselves from that particular weapon – apparently preferring ones like the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) they voted to fund last year as part of the tens of billions in military spending they voted for the war. (See NATO ‘Socialist’War Squad,” Revolution No. 19.) Squad members have earned their stripes, many times over, as lieutenants in the imperialist war machine. Meanwhile on the home front too, Biden has been “doing quite well” for the racist capitalist order. Racist cop terror rages on, living conditions for huge numbers of workers and youth are miserable to say the least, and the administration has ramped up deportations. In mid-May, the “Title 42” COVID-related policy at the U.S.-Mexico border expired. Between then and late July, Biden deported 85,000 migrants – up 65% since the same period in 2022 (nbcnews.com, 27 July). Biden, formerly Barack Obama’s VP, is truly living up to Obama’s legacy as “Deporter-in-Chief.”

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has brought the real politics of the Democratic (Party) Socialists of America home. Back in March, she and fellow Democratic congressional representative Adriano Espaillat hosted a “Student Services Fair” at the Renaissance High School in the Bronx, which advertised that “We will be joined by special guests from: U.S. Naval Academy, U.S. Air Force Academy, U.S. Military Academy ... U.S. Coast Guard Academy,” together with the Department of Education and a merchant marine academy. In other words, the event served to lure African American and Latino students into the officer corps of U.S. imperialism’s armed forces.

Leftists rightly protested this clear act of militarism, and in response, Ocasio-Cortez took to Instagram live, saying, “Today, someone made up a rumor that I, me, was hosting a military recruitment fair for high schoolers. Does that sound like something I would do? No.” If her defense over helping Biden break the railroaders’ strike was victim-blaming, here it was gaslighting.

Notably, the Renaissance High School event was consistent with current military doctrine to “diversify” the officer corps, reiterated in the government’s amicus brief in the recent Supreme Court decision to ban affirmative action in all universities except for military academies. Ocasio-Cortez does her duty as a servant of capital again and again, this time helping the imperialist armed forces recruit yet more black and Latino students to rain death on the oppressed from Puerto Rico to the Far East. 6

From the fight to defend workers’ most basic rights, to the struggle to defeat U.S. imperialism, make no mistake. Capitalist politicians working to rope young people into the Democratic Party – and those seeking to give it and them a “left” cover – are on the other side. ■

  1. 1. Two months after Biden and Congress banned the railway strike, the companies’ profit-driven degradation of safety conditions led to a horrific train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. See “Norfolk Southern Derailment in Ohio: A Capitalist Disaster” as well as the in-depth article “Democratic Party Strikebreakers Shackle Railroad Workers,” in The Internationalist No. 69-70, January-May 2023.
  2. 2. In college, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez interned for Senator Kennedy. (See “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to the Rescue of the Democratic Party,” The Internationalist No. 53, September-October 2018.
  3. 3. On the DSA’s origins and history, see the Internationalist pamphlet DSA: Fronting for the Democrats (2018).
  4. 4. Still, the “Left Voice” website, which enthused repeatedly over the DSA’s growth, isn’t finished aiding such illusions. It just put up an item (27 July) proclaiming that the DSA’s upcoming 2023 convention “can set a new direction for the organization,” as it “position[s] itself to be a greater force in the labor movement” (etc.). Written by a slate within the DSA running for seats on its National Political Committee, the piece uncritically published by Left Voice goes on about the DSA now having the chance to “develop a concrete identity as a socialist political organization,” vowing to “push to take the organization in the direction of independence, unity, and discipline in the pursuit of a class-independent socialist party in the United States.”
  5. 5. In a characteristic bait against criticism from the left, she adds: “I think that got drowned out by the noise of people operating more on the theory of the situation.”
  6. 6. Readers of Revolution might like to take a look at materials from some of our first issues featuring items about struggles to drive military recruiters out of campuses in the Bronx and elsewhere, such as “Bronx Community College Students Drive Out Military Recruiters,” Revolution No,. 3, November 2005.