What’s Ahead in 2006 on the Political Action Front?

It won’t be a very happy New Year for working people in 2006 . . . at least until November.

For working people, the coming year promises to be loaded with danger on the political action front.  Many political battles remain unfinished from 2005, with President Bush and his Republican Congressional majority determined to continue their anti-worker, pro-business course across the board.  Ironically, the scale of the Bush attacks, combined with his out-of-control federal spending and numerous festering corruption scandals, have unsettled even some of the most solid Bush supporters who now worry about possible damage at the ballot box.  And, once again, Congressional Democrats will be tested.  Will Democrats close ranks and defend working people?  Or will they continue to produce only scattered and haphazard resistance to the Bush attacks?  How these political battles — or lack of battles — impact the critical November 2006 Congressional elections will be answered over the coming 10 months.

The Congressional Forecast for 2006

Led by President Bush, Congressional Republicans will resume their attacks on working people as soon as Congress returns to Washington, D.C. in late January.  Legislation to increase spending for the Iraq and Afghan wars and occupations — as well as to expand the record-breaking costs of our national “defense” — will be placed before Congress yet again.  Republicans will push to slash funding for all non-military programs in order to subsidize the growing military machine.

Domestic spending for health care, Amtrak, aid to education, student loans, Head Start, food stamps, welfare, and practically every other non-military program will be assaulted.  Tens of billions more federal dollars will be funneled into completely bogus “defense” schemes and a growing number of corrupt “homeland security” boondoggles.  The federal deficit will continue to gallop upwards into record-breaking territory, and Republican lawmakers will push repeatedly to reduce taxes even further on business and the wealthy.  Our Social Security system will be spared a full-bore attack by Bush, however, as a consequence of the recent massive and negative reaction by the public to Bush’s privatization initiative.  Instead, Congressional Republicans will expand their efforts to dismantle the national private-sector pension system, working hand-in-hand with the corporations who are eager to junk this critical retirement benefit for millions of working people.

Besieged manufacturing workers will find no relief forthcoming from the Bush White House or Congressional Republicans in the coming legislative session.  Federal trade and tax policies will be refined further to apply even greater pressure on factory workers struggling to compete with corporate sweatshop operations overseas.  Needless to say, the Bush Republican majority will work feverishly during 2006 to derail any attempts to deal with our national health care crisis.  They will also block all attempts to stop plant closings, increase the minimum wage, fix our nation’s broken labor laws, improve workplace health and safety, punish corporate lawbreaking, investigate energy price gouging, or address the falling wages and living standards of tens of millions of working people.

The State Legislative Forecast for 2006

The fiscal situation has improved in most states, in some regions dramatically.  The result will be vigorous attempts by Republicans to slash state taxes on business and the rich — yet again.  As in the past, if these maneuvers are successful, they will serve to rob ordinary taxpayers and public employees alike of any benefit from the improved fiscal situation.  Successive waves of plant closings and corporate layoffs continue to erode state and local tax bases, with lawmakers from both parties seemingly oblivious to this deepening crisis.  Consideration of corrupt “economic development” schemes — in most instances nothing more than corporate welfare for low-wage companies such as Wal-Mart — will again become political battles in practically every state capitol in 2006.

Rick Wolff, “US Pensions: Capitalist Disaster” (19 December 2005); Michael Perelman, “The Social Meaning of Pensions” (23 December 2005) ; Andy Coates, “Note to Health Care Reform Activists: Public Employee Health Benefits to Evaporate” (25 December 2005); Jon Flanders, “What I Learned from the NYC Transit Strike” (29 December 2005)

Various privatization attacks will also escalate during the coming year, as corporations work hand in hand with each other to win control of entire public-sector agencies as opposed to individual functions or components.  This new “bundling” phenomenon increases both the scale of the risks to taxpayers and public-sector workforces alike.  The most ominous of all the attacks looming at the state level, however, are Republican-led schemes to destroy both the retirement and health care benefits of public-sector workers and retirees.  With the private-sector destruction well underway, Republican forces have now turned their sights on the public-sector counterpart.  Schemes to reduce benefits, eliminate some benefits for new hires, or end coverages altogether will be pushed as the state legislative sessions open.  These attacks will be a mirror image of those falling on workers in the private sector.  A massive anti-public employee propaganda blitz is likely at the state level — with the goal of softening up lawmakers by turning public opinion against public-sector workforces.  Republican and corporate PR campaigns will paint public employees who resist attacks on their pensions and health benefits as “greedy,” “overpaid,” and “lazy” — the cause of all governmental problems.

Once again, the success of these many attacks will in most states depend on the degree of resistance provided by elected Democrats.  And, with Democratic Party structures in decay and disarray in a large number of states, the likelihood of coordinated resistance to the corporate offensive will depend in large measure on how vigorous Democratic lawmakers are pushed by working people and organized labor to hold the line.

Outlook for the November 2006 Elections

These and other national, state, and local political battles will unfold over the coming year, in the run-up to Election Day, November 7th, 2006.  In addition to national Congressional and some Senate elections, many states will be holding contests for state office.  While there is little reason to believe that the Democratic Party will suddenly discover a widespread desire to provide a consistent opposition to the big business/Bush/Republican attack, gains for Democrats will be possible.  The probability of these gains, however, will depend in large measure on the missteps of the Bush Administration as well as the general status of the economy and the situation in Iraq come November.

Recent history has shown that the Bush White House and national Republican Party operatives are more than willing to lie, smear, and concoct governmental and military situations that work to their political advantage.  Again, Democrats have proven poorly equipped to deal with this aspect of Republican election tactics.  Individual Republican Governors and lawmakers — best illustrated by the example of Governor Schwarzenegger in California — who overreach or engage in poorly orchestrated and angry campaigns against public employees and Democrats, however, are vulnerable to voter backlash in November.

Working people in general — and the labor movement in particular — will play a key role in the November election battles, with massive campaigns of voter registration, education, and mobilization on the drawing board for 2006.  Increased voter turnout — above and beyond recent electoral experiences — by those opposing the Republican machine is the key to any success by Democrats.  There also exists some evidence that the most loyal supporters of the Republican Party at the ballot box — namely fundamentalist Christian “values” voters — are unsure of their continued unconditional loyalty to the Republican record of outlandish corruption and reckless fiscal behavior.

It’s going to be another interesting year on the political action front, to say the least.  Here’s one good way to follow political action developments and personalities at both the national and state level: visit the web site of Project Vote Smart at www.vote-smart.org.

Chris Townsend is the Political Action Director of the United Electrical Workers Union (UE) in Washington, D.C.