Routing the barbarians at the gate

During a national AFL-CIO conference call last Thursday, Vice President Joe Biden made a powerful statement in favor of unions and collective bargaining and added: “The only people who have the capacity — organizational capacity and muscle — to keep, as they say, the barbarians from the gate, is organized labor. And make no mistake about it, the guys on the other team get it. They know if they cripple labor, the gate is open, man. The gate is wide open. And we know that too.”

Biden was not exaggerating when he called the right-wing Republicans “barbarians at the gate,” who see crushing organized labor as key to destroying the civil and democratic rights of all Americans and establishing open naked corporate rule. But he is mistaken if he believes the responsibility for stopping them rests solely on labor’s shoulders. 

Certainly the fight cannot be won without labor. Labor is the most powerful democratic force and has the greatest organization and strength. This strength derives from its numbers, resources, experience and especially its unity. But even the most united labor movement can’t do the job alone. It needs the broadest coalition of community allies, including traditional allies in the Black and Hispanic communities, youth, women and seniors as well as many other progressive forces.

But even this labor-led coalition of progressive forces is not enough. This coalition also needs the centrist-led Democratic Party, still the only political organization capable of defeating the right-wing in the critical electoral-legislative arena. It is only this left-center coalition that is capable of keeping “the barbarians from the gates.”

It was the left-center coalition that elected Barack Obama president and it is this coalition that the right-wing works overtime to break up at all levels. Karl Rove, the billionaire Koch brothers, the gang of right-wing think tanks, the ultra-right propagandists on Fox News, talk radio and elsewhere in the corporate media incessantly seek to divide all parts of the broad democratic coalition.

Despite extraordinary efforts by labor and its allies to mobilize voters and warn of the danger, the right made a dangerous comeback in last November’s elections. They succeeded in mobilizing the Republican base and dividing and demoralizing the Democratic base with Big Lies that Obama and the Democrats were responsible for the continuing recession.

Unfortunately, some of the blame for the setback lies with Biden’s team, which failed to provide the political leadership needed to answer the lies and prevent some very vicious barbarians from entering the gates. 

The Republicans never had the slightest intention to create jobs and have offered no program for economic recovery. Instead, they have used their new power in Congress and many states to launch an unprecedented, wide-ranging attack on labor and democratic rights. It is a desperate, extremist maneuver aimed at smashing the opposition and keeping Obama from a second term in 2012.

This campaign has included trying to split the labor movement – safety forces and teachers versus other public employees, public employees versus private, organized versus unorganized workers, employed versus unemployed and retirees.

They seek to demonize gays, Muslims, immigrants, Planned Parenthood, National Public Radio, split workers from “tax-payers” and break the unity of the full range of grassroots groups from the Democratic Party.

But the fact is they have failed. The Republicans have succeeded in doing what the Democrats could not do. The coalition that elected Obama has arisen from the ashes of November. The barbarians have stirred up a hornets’ nest and awakened a sleeping giant.

A massive, united democratic uprising has occurred especially in the Midwest that has energized democratic forces nationwide. This uprising not only threatens to keep the barbarians from the gate but may have much more far-reaching historic consequences.

The right-wing offensive is backfiring. It is the Republican base that is splintering and in retreat. The left-center coalition is on the march moving forcefully to recall Republicans in Wisconsin and repeal Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s bill to destroy collective bargaining.

Approval ratings of both Kasich and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker have collapsed and Republican officials are distancing themselves from their party’s extremist program as their voter base defects en masse.

The labor-led rallies, which have brought this about in both states, show an unprecedented degree of unity, class consciousness and outreach to the community. Groups like MoveOn and the Sierra Club are mobilizing their members, as is Obama’s campaign group, Organizing for America.

Finally even Democratic officials are mustering the courage to denounce the Republican offensive as “open class warfare.”

Polls are also showing a rise not only in class but socialist consciousness. The conservative Rasmussen survey reported this month that one in nine likely U.S. voters consider “Communism” superior to the economic and political system in our country.

The poll reported that this view is even more prevalent among young voters. This follows on an earlier Rasmussen poll before the current uprising showing that 20% of U.S. voters prefer socialism to capitalism, rising to 30% among Democrats and 33% among youth.

The battle is far from won. The barbarians have unlimited funds and are able to buy, intimidate and neutralize much of the dominant corporate media. But they seem to have overplayed their hand. In their extremist arrogance and blind determination to crush labor and democratic rights they may have conjured up their Waterloo.

The left-center coalition has re-emerged with a vengeance and may once again prevail, only this time with a much stronger, broader, more conscious and more united left.

Photo: Hundreds of students at Niles West High School in Skokie, Ill., walk out of class in solidarity with Wisconsin and union rights. (Charles Bakes)


Rick Nagin
Rick Nagin

Rick Nagin has written for the People's World and its predecessors since 1970. He has been active for many years in Cleveland politics and the labor movement.

Rick is the Ohio District Organizer of the Communist Party USA, member of The Newspaper Guild Local 34071 CWA, and delegate to the North Shore AFL-CIO Federation of Labor, serving on its Political Coordinators and Racial Justice Committees. He is co-convenor of the Tamir Rice Justice Committee and is currently a Neighborhood Team Leader in the Ward 14 Hillary Clinton campaign.