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Joe Biden's Build Back Better hits the buffers

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First published in Fifth International 22.
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President Joe Biden’s first one hundred days in the White House surprised many of his critics by the quantity of legislation announced and the price tags on it, worth roughly $6 trillion. Liberal Journalists were soon comparing it to the New Deal of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), the president who coined the ‘First Hundred Days’ phrase in 1933.

FDR kept Congress in a near permanent session for this period, passing 76 pieces of legislation, including the National Industry Recovery Act, a similar act for agriculture, and huge construction projects for the unemployed, amongst them the dams and electricity grid of the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Biden’s record bears no comparison. True, his first months were full of plans for major state spending and an Act for an initial $1.9 trillion Covid Recovery stimulus was signed in March along with a further $1.2 trillion plan to fund roads, bridges, public transport, the electricity grid and internet access over eight years — the “American Jobs Plan.”

The latter was agreed in principle by senators from both major parties in late June. But there his legislative achievements ground, if not to a halt, to a snail’s pace. The remainder of the Build Back Better Programme — Bidens’s version of FDR’s New Deal — was soon in trouble. Victims were the American Family Plan — which includes universal access to pre-kindergarten and community colleges, an expansion of Medicare, plus paid family and medical leave, childcare and care for the elderly, increases to welfare and climate change amelioration.

The contrasts with his illustrious predecessor were not just of scale but of opportunity. For one thing fdr had a three-to-one Democratic majority over Republicans in both the House and the Senate whereas Biden has a majority of 7 or 8 in the House, and only Vice President Kamala Harris’ casting vote in the Senate.

The need for major reforms cannot be doubted. The us has lagged behind European imperialist economies when it comes to universal healthcare, though it leads them in the amount its private system costs. Likewise on social housing and other forms of welfare, though British Conservative governments have done their level best to demolish the welfare state, built between 1945 and 1975, to US levels.

Social expenditure in the us stands at 18.7 per cent of gdp compared with 31 per cent in France, 28.2 per cent in Italy, 25.9 per cent in Germany, and 25.5 per cent in Sweden (2019 OECD statistics).

Every attempt to raise welfare, health and education to European levels arouses maniacal opposition from the gop as undermining an individual’s drive to realise the American dream. For them poverty is simply a register of personal failure. But substantive social reforms, and the taxation of the wealthy needed to pay for them, also finds lukewarm support on the right wing of Biden’s own party. Moreover, the US Constitution, with its separation of powers, and powerful federalism and interventions by the judiciary, provides ample weaponry to the right in both major parties to ambush any serious plans of reform.

Nevertheless, Biden’s Infrastructure Bill met with only limited Republican opposition since its immediate beneficiaries will be construction contractors and extractive conglomerates. Also, it plays to the pork barrel politics of senators and representatives in the states and cities where these projects are planned. After all Trump, too, made such promises but largely failed to deliver on them. Thus, it passed the Senate with 69 votes in August.

In retreat
But in sharp contrast Republicans declared all-out war against any extension of the “entitlement” society as undermining American enterprise values. Biden’s attempt to tie the Infrastructure and afp bills together to get the latter through, predictably ran into fierce opposition including from two Democrats — Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — who vehemently opposed the scale of the social spending plan, which would dedicate $3.5 trillion over a decade to expand healthcare and childcare and combat the climate crisis.

Counter-manoeuvres by the “the Squad” of leftwing Democratic Representatives to block the decoupling of the bills failed. It is likely the afp will be badly mauled by Congress even if part of it gets through.

Another target for Republicans and rightwing Democrats will be the PRO Act (Protect the Right to Organise Act aimed at limiting the misnamed Right to Work Acts which effectively outlaws effective trade union organisation.

Though Manchin and Sinema have been exposed as in the pay of corporate opponents of health care reform or defenders of fossil fuel extraction, they are far from only ones on the Democrat benches. In fact, they are the true face of a party that serves the bourgeoisie but exploits votes of the working class and racially and gender oppressed communities. And we must be clear that they are helped in this job description by those “Democratic Socialists” who constantly repeat the mantra that it is just not practical politics, to break from the Democrats . . . “yet”.

Thus the Biden presidency is now firmly on the road travelled by previous Democratic presidents, that of demoralising and fracturing their own voting coalition, with the inevitable result that another hard right Republican will likely win the presidency and probably both houses of Congress in November 2024.

The fond belief of some that the storming of the us Capitol by fascistic Trump supporters incited by the man himself, and his party’s refusal to unequivocally renounce the claim that the election was stolen, would somehow break up the gop, fails to understand just how right wing and anti-democratic that party has become over the last decade or so. Though it is certainly wrong to describe the Trump or the gop as fascists, they certainly contain many of the mass forces from which American fascism could quickly be born if the crisis of us capitalism and the decline of us imperialism deepens in the coming years.

Meanwhile Trump’s lasting legacy, in the form of a right wing dominated Supreme Court, is playing a devastating role on the social front. On 1 September, a vicious anti-abortion law came into force in Texas, banning terminations after six weeks of pregnancy, or when cardiac activity can be detected in the embryo. This would make 85 per cent of them illegal. Lawsuits can be brought by any citizen against anyone who either has an abortion, or helps access or provide an abortion. As a bounty the initiator will be given a cool $10,000 dollars.

The Supreme Court refused to rule this unconstitutional, thus signalling what its attitude to a more direct challenge to the historic Roe v Wade ruling will be. Pro-lifers have been campaigning against this for nearly half a century. But never have they been so close to success. A Mississippi law banning abortion after 15 weeks comes before the Supreme Court on 21 December. This could indeed open the way to a ‘constitutional’ ruling accepting the ban.

Already five us states have only one abortion clinic and 18 severely restrict terminations. Yet Pew opinion polls show 59 per cent of Americans support the right to abortion in all or most cases, indicating that a powerful movement to block this is a real possibility. Indeed, it is a necessity, but million-person marches will not be enough. Strike action that hits the profits of US bosses and disruption of normal political business will be needed to give the justices and legislators pause for thought.

On climate change Biden has reversed Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, pledging to halve the US’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and reach net zero emissions by 2050. He has also announced plans for a global scheme to impose minimum taxes on multinational companies and end a situation in which 91 Fortune 500 companies paid no taxes at all in the US in 2018. Nevertheless, so far we have only a series of headline targets which Congress will doubtless whittle down by the Reconciliation progress, whether or not it has Senator Bernie Sanders facilitating it.

Immigration has seen the biggest gap between Biden’s promises and his performance. In his and Kamala Harris’s manifesto they said, “Joe Biden understands the pain felt by every family across the US that has had a loved one removed from the country, including under the Obama-Biden Administration, and he believes we must do better to uphold our laws humanely and preserve the dignity of immigrant families, refugees, and asylum-seekers.”

Biden’s true attitude is revealed by the fact that he has used a Trump measure — known as Title 42 — supposedly aimed at preventing the spread of Covid-19 in holding facilities, to automatically expel almost all undocumented migrants seeking entry, bypassing normal immigration laws and protections. In September, the administration used it to deport nearly 4,000 Haitian migrants, denying them their right to seek asylum. Despite Biden’s promises, the situation along the Mexican border is a desperate as ever for migrants.

Biden also promised to support Congress setting up a commission to consider the issue of Reparations for slavery. The House Judiciary Committee has adopted the HR40 draft bill which will go forward to be debated by the House for the first time since it was first raised in 1989. While Biden has rejected Trump’s white supremacist language, praised Black Lives Matter and promised to support the investigation by Congress of a Reparations Bill for, it would require massive legal reforms to enact meaningful change in the huge inequalities black people still endure.

Congress Democrats are investigating Trump and his advisers over the storming of the Capital by a fascist mob, but when a Kenosha jury (all white bar one) found Kyle Rittenhouse not guilty of shooting three demonstrators, two of them fatally, who were protesting at cops shooting Jacob Blake, a 29 year-old black man in August 2020, Biden urged people to accept the jury’s decision and avoid violence. This indicates the true racist and privileged class nature of the American justice system where the “right to bear arms” enables whites to take assault rifles onto the streets and use them but where unarmed black citizens can be gunned down with impunity by white police officers.

Once again it is clear that the Senate, the Supreme Court and the Republican state legislatures, courts and governors, will always block the application of “equal protection of the laws” to its Black citizens. They will also do so both to other people of colour and to white people who support them as the Rittenhouse case shows. Without a movement even greater than the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and one ready to deploy mass physical force, no significant change can be expected. Only the mass involvement of workers of all races will be able to overcome the armed forces of white supremacy.

As a start what is needed now is a militant movement on the streets with its own defence force that could protect direct action from the workplaces and communities against the heavily armed police and fascist militias. Black liberation today requires movements whose activists are part of a revolutionary working class party. Meanwhile there is no greater danger than tying the existing movements of the last decade to supporting a Democratic presidency that will dissipate rather than increase their power.

Striketober and the Great Resignation
As the USA slowly recovers from the pandemic, American workers — in healthcare, on the production line, transportation, and food supply who at its height were suddenly discovered by the media to be “essential” and “unsung heroes” for continuing to work — are in revolt against miserly contract offers. In fact, during the high points of the pandemic, employers routinely denied essential workers raises related to added risks of close contact working, failed to provide protective equipment, flouted public health guidelines and refused paid sick leave to victims of the virus.

On 14 October, more than 10,000 workers at John Deere Harvester in East Moline, Illinois, represented by the United Autoworkers (uaw), began strike action after failing to agree to terms of a new contract. Even now, after nearly two years of the pandemic, only a handful of states have committed to using funds from the American Rescue Plan to lift essential workers out of dire financial straits.

Since October, workers across a number of industries have launched strikes for better pay and improved working conditions in a national movement the press and workers themselves have named “Striketober”. Workers at food producers Frito-Lay, Kellogg’s, and Nabisco have struck, joining coal miners in Alabama, healthcare workers, graduate students at Harvard and Columbia, and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), which represents 150,000 artists and technicians in the film and television industry. It is plain that this uptick in labor militancy indicates US workers are prepared to use their industrial muscle to recoup some of the losses of the pandemic period.

In October alone alone Cornell University’s Labor Action Tracker recorded 57 strikes across the nation — more than double the monthly average from January to September. The number of workers on strike in October likewise leapt to 25,000 — a far cry from the preceding three-month average of 10,000. Of course, this is not (yet) in any way parallel to the strike waves of the early 1900s, 1930s or post-ww2 but it could be a straw in the wind.

A related phenomenon is the haemorrhaging of workers from jobs across all industries. Whereas many socialists thought that the last phases of Covid would see a huge surge in involuntary unemployment since April 2021, statistics showed a remarkable exodus from the labor market now dubbed the “Great Resignation”. The National Bureau of Labor Statistics records that 30 million workers left their jobs from January to August. According to a Morning Consult poll from mid-September, about 46 per cent full-time employed adults are looking for or considering a different job.
Stephanie Luce, professor of Labor Studies at the City University of New York was quoted in Labor Notes, observing the trend for “. . . a lot more work stoppages that are not formal strikes called by unions, or formal strikes in smaller workplaces, and informal work actions.” Experts have put this down to the rise of remote work, but clearly the pandemic and its bottlenecks in supply and production has given workers more bargaining power than they usually have in the private sector.

John Deere workers rejected two offers before voting by 61 per cent to accept a third offer, which will increase pay by 10 per cent in the first year, followed by five per cent in the contract’s third and fifth years. While at best a marginal improvement on previous offers, the five weeks of strike action testifies to a growing mood of resistance among US workers.

As we go to press 1,400 Kellogg workers have been organizing work stoppages for two months against mandatory overtime leading to 84-hour weeks, plus a two tier workforce with a $10 pay gap between temporary and long term employees. In addition, “transitional employees” are not offered pensions, paid holidays, and health care coverage. When they rejected a new five-year contract the company sacked them and has refused further negotiations.

Kellogg’s bosses know that federal and state laws give them the power to their rebellions employees starve back to work. There are two ways round this - mass solidarity actions, mobilised locally and nationally from other unionised workers, combined with a campaign for a charter of workers’ rights, launched by the labor federations and the socialist organisations. This could start around the introduction of the pro Bill but should go much further with mass rallies, days of action, in which demands can be drawn up. As with the battle to stop the repeal of Roe vs Wade and the blm movement, only mass action can yield results — not waiting for Biden.

The uptick in labor unrest comes after a long period when union membership was at a historic low in the us. In 1965, one third of American workers belonged to a union; now that number is closer to 10 per cent. Ronald Reagan, after breaking the 1981 air traffic controllers’ strike, introduced a series of neoliberal and antiunion policies, followed by Right to Work Laws which made unionism near illegal in Republican states. Public support for unions dropped from 71 per cent in 1965 to around 55 per cent in 1984. But today, 68 per cent of the American public backs union participation — related in some degree to Biden’s promise to be “the most pro-union president” in American history.

During the failed Bessemer, Alabama Amazon organizing drive in March, where Amazon warehouse workers fought to form the company’s first union, Biden, without naming the company, said “there should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda.” But what has he done about it?

The victory of the Teamsters United slate in the 1.3 million-strong union is the first time in almost 25 years that a coalition backed by Teamsters for a Democratic Union has taken control. The incoming president, Sean O’Brien, says his top priorities are to unite the rank and file to take on employers, organize Amazon and other competitors in the union’s core industries, and withdraw support from politicians who don’t deliver on union demands. But a truly independent rank and file movement, under the control, not of left talking officials but of shop floor workers themselves, needs to be developed.

The Labor Notes conference due in June 2022, attended by thousands of rank and file militants needs to go beyond celebrating examples of militancy and grassroots organising to consider a strategy for winning a full, nationwide charter of workers’ rights — to organise, to strike, and overturning the states misnamed “right to work” laws. It needs to debate the issue of standing labor candidates and a labor party on an anticapitalist action program.

On its current trajectory Joe Biden’s presidency promises to equal Obama’s as another disappointment for workers and the oppressed, ushering in another reactionary Republican in the White House. But Black Lives Matter, Striketober, an incipient movement in defence of Roe vs Wade, can transform the situation — if workers organsie to press their own demands and equip themselves with an organisation to formulate and fight for them: a revolutionary third party that fights for the third American revolution.