Thursday, December 4, 2008

Waiting For Obama

by Norman Markowitz

In the mid 1930s, playwright Clifford Odets, then a Communist Party USA member, wrote a powerful labor drama, Waiting for Lefty, which many believed caught the spirit of the time. Its main setting was union meeting where angry workers are debating whether or not to strike. An old guard union leader, named as I remember "Happy Fat," calls upon the workers to be moderate, wait, wait, wait for the new administration to provide aid, wait for a message from another official, Lefty, to give them more information. Finally, after the story of the workers struggle against the depression is told, a leftwing militant (to people at that time and place a Communist) passionately addresses the workers and tells them to abandon their illusions, that Lefty may never come, that they must strike and strike now. The play ends in a cathartic moment as the actors and the audience join together shouting Strike.

Today, we are all waiting for Obama as the economic crisis deepens around us. Today we are reading about auto executives asking for a federal bailout and the UAW being asked to make significant concessions (as if workers wages and benefits are somehow comparable to executive pay). No sane worker anywhere who has union based supplemental unemployment benefits for example would compare that to an "unemployed"executive's golden parachute.

If Agate Keller, the militant hero of Waiting for Lefty was around today (I hope I am spelling his name correctly because I have not really seen or read the play in a very long time and my internet access is erratic) he would tell workers to tell their union leaders that they did not create this disaster and they must not be punished for it. That a democratic government with a small d represents the people, not the corporations. That a Democratic congress and President with a big D was elected by labor and moderate and lower income people, not by big business and the wealthy, who have shown a very distinct preference in elections for the Republican party since the late 19th century.

"Bailouts" in advanced industrial countries of anything, banks, corporations, state and local governments, education, housing, can't be separated from serious regulation in the interests of workers and consumers. A socialist solution of course would be public ownership connected to job, benefit and wages guarantees to workers (an equivalent of the government "loan guarantees" to capitalists). The present "race" to save through bailouts the system from the top down without substantial protections and benefits for labor and moderate and low income people can only result in a greater political and social crisis. If congressional Democrats act like the fictional Happy Fat" in Waiting for Lefty, going along with corporate bailouts on corporate terms, they will be shooting themselves and the President in the foot even before the administration begins.