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Workers - break from the Democrats!

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When George W Bush, clad in a naval flight suit, staged the ultimate photo-op aboard a US warship in May, most US commentators assumed that his re-election in November 2004 was a sure thing. Of course, Bush’s melodramatic announcement that the war in Iraq was essentially over proved to be wishful thinking.

Since the imperialist occupation began US casualties have far exceeded those sustained in the official war between 20 March and the fall of Baghdad to US forces on 12 April. With American forces bogged down in a low-intensity but bloody guerrilla conflict, Bush’s astronomical opinion poll ratings have come down to earth with a bump. His approval has slumped from 66 per cent in April to 45 per cent, no different from the summer of 2001, immediately prior to the attacks on New York’s World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. The erosion of support has occurred nationwide, with polls in traditionally conservative states such as Arizona showing Bush is in serious trouble.

The corporate media may still wrap itself in the Stars & Stripes and provide an endless stream of pro-war propaganda, but network television news also regularly features images of flag-draped coffins, grieving widows and high school photos of dead soldiers. Such imagery has fuelled mounting anxiety and even anger against the Bush administration. The post-Vietnam syndrome has never really been exorcised from mass consciousness in the US, and the impact of daily casualties has grown just as the fabric of lies woven into the case for war publicly unravels on both sides of the Atlantic.

There is suddenly a sense of déjà vu and many mainstream pundits are suggesting that Dubya could follow in his father’s footsteps as a one-term president. The sheen came off the first Bush’s administration in 1991/92 largely because of a steep recession and the “jobless” recovery has compounded his son’s potential problems.

Unemployment in August stood at 6.4 per cent, two percentage points higher than when Bush strode into the White House in January 2001. In August 2003 the total number of employees on US payrolls fell by 93,000. All told, some 2.5 million jobs have disappeared in the past 30 months and the official figures show that more than nine million Americans are out of work. Lawrence Mishel of the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute has characterised the slump in jobs as “the greatest contraction in private sector employment since the Great Depression” of the 1930s.

Meanwhile, the Bush prescription for the economy has amounted to little more than tax cuts for the rich, while most workers have seen a fall in real wages, down 1.4 per cent since the end of 2001 for the “median worker”. At the same time, the reduction in support from the federal government to states and local authorities has triggered cuts and layoffs in social services, higher education, schools, fire departments and even policing. California, with its Democratic governor now fighting for his political life, is only the most dramatic example of the kind of budget squeeze affecting many state administrations. Against such a background Bush’s call for an appropriation of another $87 billion (£53 billion) to bolster the occupation of Iraq has hardly struck a resonant chord with his fellow Americans.

Little wonder, then, that what had appeared as a group of no-hopers in the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination has become the focus for international media attention.

The race in the other main political party of US capital has itself been transformed by the recent entry of a tenth candidate, former NATO commander General Wesley Clark. Like Bill Clinton, Clark grew up in Arkansas and was a Rhodes scholar. Again like Clinton, he has been painted as “liberal” on a range of social issues such as abortion rights, same-sex marriages and affirmative action. Crucially, though, from the perspective of Democratic Party fixers, he was a cautious opponent of the war on Iraq, who in sharp contrast to commander-in-chief Bush has actually seen combat.

In fact, Clark has been a loyal, life-long servant of US imperialism and its military ventures from Vietnam’s Mekong delta to the former Yugoslavia. Clark has been described as the principal architect of the Nato war against Serbia in 1999, widely depicted as a “humanitarian battle” to liberate Kosova from the bloody tyranny of Slobodan Milosevic and other Serbian chauvinists. Of course, this campaign featured a massive aerial bombardment of Serbia, resulting in hundreds of civilian deaths and massive infrastructural damage as well as hundreds of Kosovan casualties. In the wake of two months of warfare and the passage of more than four years the Kosovan national question remains unresolved and the country is an unhappy Nato “protectorate”.

But Clark is still far from capturing the Democratic nomination. Candidate Clark has not yet been subjected to serious media scrutiny, and though donations have poured in since declaring his candidacy, he still lags behind several of the other nine hopefuls in terms of fundraising. Despite the initial flurry of enthusiasm, Clark has still not overtaken former Vermont governor, Howard Dean. Dean has been loathe to back cuts in the Pentagon budget and publicly reiterated his support for both the war against Afghanistan and the Zionist regime in Tel Aviv. He made his name as a fiscal conservative during his time as governor of the small New England state and, taking a leaf from the Clinton book of cynical electoralism, he has emphasised his support for the death penalty.

Of the other Democratic candidates Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, who once joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War, has since becomr a career politician - to the right of his supposed mentor Ted Kennedy. He has backed calls for still more troops to Iraq. Richard Gephardt commands some support within the AFL-CIO union bureaucracy but has sparked no enthusiasm among rank-and-file members. The African-American candidates, self-styled civil rights campaigner, Al Sharpton, and former Senator Carol Mosley-Braun, simply lack the funds to compete.

Whoever emerges as the Democrats’ nominee, however, Bush’s defeat is not a foregone conclusion. Remember... the current occupant of the White House has already benefited from one fraudulent election victory in 2000.

The danger is that some activists are so desperate to defeat Bush at the polls in 2004 that they have backed the “draft Clark” call. Among them was the radical populist writer and film-maker, Michael Moore, who devoted an online column to urging Clark to stand. Moore’s crudely pragmatic rationale was that Clark was the only candidate likely to beat Bush.

The California Federation of Labor expects to spend more than $5 million to urge the 2.1 million members under the AFL-CIO umbrella to follow its recommendations: no on recall, yes on Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante for governor. California Federation of Teachers spokesman Fred Glass explained the psychology the union tops are resorting to, in order to drum up support:

“I think the fear factor is important. [Union members] are not wildly enthusiastic about Davis as a person, but they see he has tried to hold the line in times of fiscal austerity for education spending.”

The “fear factor” is not insignificant. The AFL-CIO reckon the official figure of 9 million out of work masks a reality of 15.5 million jobless. And the Democrats’ willingness to impose austerity on the working class is indisputable.

But many union activists are particularly anxious to kick Bush out of office because of his quiet war on the unions. In March 2001, Bush told 10,000 workers of Northwest Airlines that they could not strike for 80 days. The President also told United Airlines strikers that unless they agreed to further concessions the administration would refuse the $1.8 billion that the airline needed to avoid bankruptcy. Most famously, after 9-11, Bush invoked the Taft-Hartley Act forcing West Coast dockworkers in the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) to return to work -ending a lockout and giving the employers’ the backing of the federal courts.

Bush has outlawed more strikes than any previous president. As a result, less than 10 per cent of the private sector is now unionised. Strikes - often local but extremely bitter -continue to demonstrate the fighting capacity of the US working class. 3,300 members of the Teamsters Union, for instance, have gone on strike against private-sector garbage services in the Chicago area. Blue-collar university workers at Bush’s alma mater, Yale University, also recently led a successful strike in their battle against low pay.

But the big union leaders are a powerful obstacle to the development of such strikes. The United Auto Workers have just agreed a four-year plan with Ford to close two factories and an assembly plant - the first such shut-down in 19 years. Ford is planning to cut 12,000 manual jobs, while announcing a grotesque $1.3 billion profit for the first half of this year. And the UAW has signed up to it!

Union activists must urgently challenge and reverse this scandalous double betrayal: handing over union funds and votes to the big business, warmongering Democrats with the one hand; and signing away low paid jobs to billion-dollar profiteering companies with the other.

The first step must be to link the growing anger at the economic situation to the anti-war movement. US Labor Against the War has won the official support of a third of all the unions and called a march on Washington on 25th October to end the occupation, linking the illegal and bloody occupation of Iraq with wage cuts, the slashing of welfare budgets, attacks on immigrants and the dismantling of civil liberties.

By linking the issues and fighting US imperialism - at home and abroad - American socialists and workers can begin the fight for their own party, so that never again will the Democrats be the only option against the “neocons” around Bush. The fight for a US workers’ party must go alongside the fight for a political programme that points to the overthrow of the system that squeezes living standards at home, impoverishes billions internationally and holds out the promise of little more than a series of imperial adventures in the name of democratic rights that it is daily stripping away.