On Tuesday, Philadelphians will vote in the Democratic primary election to elect the Democratic nominee for mayor, who will almost certainly become the next mayor. When the dust settles in this chaotic race that has seen the political machine splinter and the unions split 3 ways, Philadelphia will still remain among the poorest major cities in the US, acutely facing crises familiar to working people across the country. From cost of living to the opioid epidemic, from chronic underfunding and deterioration of public schools to violent crime, it is clear that a fundamental change is needed.
The debates among the candidates have focused heavily on worsening crime and public safety. These are real issues that impact the lives of ordinary working-class people, and they are closely linked with the cost of living crisis, lack of decent paying jobs, and chronic defunding of schools and public services. While most candidates have acknowledged the link between these issues and public safety, and many pay vague lip service to bolstering public programs, all call for increasing or “stabilizing” police funding.
What’s On Offer vs. What’s Needed
Despite at least seven candidates on the ballot, this election isn’t offering working-class Philadelphians many good options. One of the major candidates in this race is a billionaire real estate developer and another owns a chain of major supermarkets. The majority of the other candidates, entrenched in the local Democratic establishment, would continue the same old business as usual policies that benefit the wealthy elites.
Truly addressing public safety and the quality of life in our neighborhoods would require a robust program to provide living wage, union jobs to meet needs such as healthcare, education, elderly care, rebuilding and rehabilitating infrastructure such as crumbling schools and homes, and fully staffing public services, among other drastic measures – not more police. The scale of this sort of program would require taxing the rich, the developers, and the large, wealthy institutions in the city to fund it.
But none of the candidates talk about taxing the rich. They all act as if the funds the city is currently working with are all that could ever be available, and that making smarter or more efficient decisions for the use of those funds is the only task at hand. They hide behind the Republican-dominated state legislature, which has prevented much-needed state funds from being directed to Philadelphia and which controls the city’s ability to raise taxes. To tax the rich and get the money our city needs would mean mobilizing a broad mass movement – bringing in unions, neighborhood and community groups, students and youth to take on Harrisburg with class struggle methods such as strikes and occupations. This would mean a direct confrontation with the wealthy corporations and political establishment.
Helen Gym: Progressive Choice For Mayor?
Many progressives are looking to Helen Gym as an alternative to the buffet of establishment politics on offer. Philadelphia is a one party town, and many well-meaning activists choose to run for elected office within the Democratic Party. Unfortunately, through the immense pressure they face from their own party and from the capitalist class, they almost always, if at first slowly, abandon their principles and promises. Once elected, they are isolated with no accountability to the working class, and they have to choose between fighting for their campaign promises or getting along with their Democratic Party colleagues and its corporate donors to ‘get things done’.
Helen Gym exemplifies this process: she is an activist coming out of struggles for full school funding who became a Democratic City Councilmember. She often turns up at protests and picket lines, alongside proposed progressive policies on her campaign website. But she has caved on questions of police and rent control, she isn’t campaigning on taxing the rich to actually fund the programs she proposes, and she insists that one can be “pro-business and pro-worker.” That she has moderated her rhetoric to such a degree even before being elected is a clear indication of how she would govern.
The progressive policies that Gym does support are hollow without a clear class struggle strategy to win them. It’s not a coincidence that there is no class struggle candidate in the Democratic primary. The Democratic and Republican Parties are both tied to big business at all levels, and ultimately serve their interests. Many large business owners, investors, and corporate executives are not only part of the Democratic Party, but work closely with its leadership structures, including but not limited to funding the Party and candidates.
A Party Of Our Own
Elections under capitalism are set up to allow the few at the top of society who are in control of vast wealth and resources to essentially buy the winner, or otherwise heavily influence and frame how candidates campaign and govern. This election is a case in point. It is Philadelphia’s most expensive election ever, with millions pouring in from SuperPACs to all major candidates, including the nominally progressive ones.
There is no getting around the objective need for an organized working-class movement to confront head-on the capitalist class and their political representatives at all levels of the Democratic Party. This can only be expressed in the electoral realm through an independent working class position, based on struggle, clearly naming the enemy and drawing class lines.
This is why it is crucial that we build a party of our own, based on a working-class program and committed to using class struggle methods to win it, with candidates rejecting all donations from business interests and pledging to accept only the average wage of a worker.
With such a party tightly linked with unions and social movement organizations fighting against oppression, coordinating struggle on the streets and workplaces, and bringing the struggle into the electoral realm we can take on the corporate political establishment and win.
The Role Of The Labor Movement
The labor movement can and must play an important role in spearheading and building this. Unions put monetary and volunteer resources towards candidates, and their endorsements influence their members and working class people who don’t have unions alike. If the labor movement united around an electoral campaign for a bold, working class fighter who consciously breaks from and goes to war against the Democratic Party, it would be a huge step forward in building the party we need.
Unfortunately, the labor leadership is tightly linked with the Democratic Party and operates with a transactional, business unionist method, which extends into the electoral realm. For example, taking “working with the boss” to absurd extremes, the UFCW leadership even endorsed mayoral candidate Jeff Brown, whose employees are represented by the union at the grocery stores he owns! The Democrats are happy to have the votes and endorsements from unions, and union leadership is happy to have “a seat at the table”. This approach, which is itself a product of neoliberalism and austerity, has led to the decline of union density and lowering of wages over decades.
Our unions need to be democratic organs of struggle that take on the ruling class in their own workplaces and industries, and in society at large. This includes a willingness to fight the bosses and their political representatives, which means providing political leadership and clarity about the role of elections and the Democratic Party.
Build A Working Class Fightback – In Philadelphia and Beyond
Our city is in crisis. The rich are getting richer and working-class families are being squeezed on all sides. Whoever wins the Democratic Party primary is practically guaranteed to be Philadelphia’s 100th mayor. They will be confronted on day one with the choice of mobilizing a broader movement to tax the rich corporations and real estate developers to get the money we need to address the ongoing social crisis or stay in the box defined by the establishment. There is no sustainable middle ground of ‘reasonable compromise’. Socialists must point to what is necessary: the development of a real working class party, for workers and the oppressed to unite and effectively engage in class struggle against the bosses and the capitalist system, to win the city and the world we need.