What to do with the Democrats
When Joe Biden walked a UAW picket-line, it was easy to be cynical. After all, this is the same Joe Biden, that, less than a year before, broke the railway workers’ strike, using the power of his office to send some of the most exploited, most essential workers in the country back into the meat-grinder of mustache-twirling Robber Baron bosses.
What are we to make of a president who breaks a strike and then joins a strike? Remember, no American president has ever walked a picket-line with striking workers, and this is the first autoworkers’ strike in history to target all of the big car-makers.
Autoworkers’ strikes are the kinds of strikes that ripple out through the entire US labor market. It was an autoworkers’ strike that created the American middle-class, ushering in employer health-care, pensions, and cost-of-living allowances.
Current UAW leadership is amazing, and their smart tactics are paying off: the UAW just won a massive victory, and autoworkers at non-union shops across the USA are taking notice and seeking to organize their workplaces.
So it wasn’t just that Biden joined a strike — Biden joined this strike, a strike that might once again transform America, clawing back the worker power that previous administrations helped US oligarchs siphon away.
Biden broke the railway strike.
Biden joined the autoworkers’ strike.
Does this make Biden a hypocrite?
But more to the point, it shows that Biden’s actions are driven by expedience as much as they are by principle.
Biden, after all, is a career politician, who was sold to voters on the basis of his deal-making ability, his history getting things done in bipartisan smoke-filled rooms.
Biden doubtless has principles, and maybe they’re even good principles, but when those principles conflicted with “good politics,” politics won and principles lost.
Seen in that light, Biden’s decision to join the autoworkers’ strike makes perfect sense. With support for unions at their highest point in two generations, joining an autoworkers’ strike is good politics.
I’m not saying that Biden doesn’t sincerely support the autoworkers. I’m saying that it doesn’t matter, because Biden is the kind of politician whose actions are driven by politics first and principles second.
In other words, Biden may want to do it, but, more to the point, we can make him do it.
When Biden broke the railroad strike, he continued to work for the railroad workers. Months later, the administration brokered a deal to give those workers the sick leave that had been at the center of their dispute.
This was a very Obama-ish move. Obama’s Chicago Democratic Machine-style politics was suspicious of the grassroots. That’s why Obama’s first act after winning office was to literally switch off the server that his grassroots campaign used to coordinate his victory.
In Obama-style politics, the president is a power-broker, petitioned by various factions in his administration, the electorate and the legislature, and he weighs all their requests and apportions out wins based on his wise and technocratic view of what’s best for everyone.
Like all benevolent dictatorships, this model works well, but fails badly. A benevolent dictator isn’t the same thing as an infallible dictator. If the president decides he should take the side of bankers over homeowners, he must first kick noisy activists out of the room, close the door, and bargain among the “grownups” without being distracted by their noisy protests.
It’s not enough that Biden won the railway workers sick-leave. If worker power comes from presidents unilaterally choosing which of their demands deserve to win, then workers are at the whim of the president.
For Biden, the railroad gambit — sidelining the workers and then delivering for them on his own — was bad politics. Rather than burnishing his credentials as Union Joe, it made him look like a union-buster.
Biden’s instinct is to find compromises between fundamentally incompatible positions. He’ll appease the Sanders-Warren wing of the party by appointing the brilliant Lina Khan to run the FTC and aggressively target corporate consolidation; but he’ll also appease the Clinton wing by appointing Jacqueline Scott Corley to the bench, from which position she will rule against Khan.
This is pizzaburger politics: half the family wants pizza for dinner, the other half wants burgers, and Biden serves up pizzaburgers, which no one wants. Because everyone is equally unhappy, he declares the compromise to be “fair.”
What changed between the railroad strike and the UAW strike? The outrage at Biden’s paternalistic I’ll-take-care-of-this-you-go-back-to-work gambit with the railroad workers convinced him that pizzaburger politics were bad politics.
Biden wasn’t my first, or second, or third choice for president. But he has done some undeniably good things. Khan’s leadership at the FTC, for example, has transformed American corporate consolidation, halting corrupt gambits to circumvent even the weak regulation that we labored under before Khan’s term.
Biden counted noses and decided he didn’t have the votes to get the free college he’d promised, so he’s got a compromise position that includes free pre-K and community college.
The Supreme Court knocked back Biden’s plans for student debt cancellation, and rather than seeking to neutralize or circumvent the court, he found ways to work in the margins, cancelling billions.
I’m glad he did these things.
I wish he’d done more.
I wish he’d play hardball with Synema and Manchin (say, by loading up bills with pork for their states and then campaigning in person in their capitals to get voters to put pressure on their senators to back his play). I wish he’d campaign on packing the Supreme Court or putting term-limits on its judges (or both).
What we’ve learned from Biden v Rail Workers and Biden v Autoworkers is that if we make weaksauce compromises and other pizzaburgers politically unpalatable, Biden will respond. He may or may not care about principles, but he definitely cares about politics.
Cory Doctorow (craphound.com) is a science fiction author, activist, and blogger. He has a podcast, a newsletter, a Twitter feed, a Mastodon feed, and a Tumblr feed. He was born in Canada, became a British citizen and now lives in Burbank, California. His latest nonfiction book is The Internet Con: How To Seize the Means of Computation, a detailed policy plan for dismantling Big Tech (Verso, 2023);. His latest novel for adults is Red Team Blues. His latest short story collection is Radicalized. His latest picture book is Poesy the Monster Slayer. His latest YA novel is Pirate Cinema. His latest graphic novel is In Real Life. His forthcoming books include The Lost Cause, a utopian post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation with white nationalist militias (Tor, 2023).