Which Way Forward? It’s Time for Organized Labor to Move Left

Now union leaders face a huge, embarrassing question: Why, after unions spent more than $100 million to defeat Donald J. Trump, did Mrs. Clinton win only narrowly among voters from union households, by 51 percent to 43 percent according to exit polls? Clinton even lost to Trump among union households in Ohio, 49 percent to 44 percent.

“We underestimated the amount of anger and frustration among working people and especially white workers, both male and female, about their economic status,” said Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and chairman of the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s political committee. (New York Times, Nov. 26, 2016)

How can labor’s top leadership be so insulated from the reality of falling wages, rising health care costs, mounting debts, and endless wars that they were clueless to see the frustration of workers exploding right before their eyes? Are these same top leaders capable of organizing and leading the type of popular campaign to protect workers in the upcoming period.

In his recent posting “Red Dawn in Pennsylvania,” Coleman Saint James writes a critical analysis of the recent Trump victory and asks “What went wrong?” Not that a vote for Clinton was the answer, but what drove many in the working class to support Trump? Why was voter turnout lower? Why did working-class towns like Erie, Pa., that had previously voted for Obama now vote for Trump?

Was the Clinton message to workers so dull and muted that people did not bother to listen? Was it all about anti-immigrant racism and sexism?

The recent slew of billionaire right-wing appointments to cabinet positions by Trump signals that a sharp move further to the right is in the works. Trump’s appointees and congressional Republican leaders seem to have nearly every social program on the cutting board next year, a signal that Trump is prepared to betray some of his key campaign promises not to cut Social Security and Medicare.

Given the immense dangers that lie ahead, Saint James questions the strategies and tactics union members and working people might utilize to defend themselves and the public interest. Is the reliance on an all-consuming and one-dimensional strategy of electoral politics advocated by the Democrats and liberal establishment really up to the challenge after decades of decline?

For a relevant history lesson, Saint James offers the 1988 Jesse Jackson for President campaign as an example that might offer a few clues as to how to revive and deepen today’s struggles. The 1988 Jackson campaign, like the 2016 Sanders campaign, had as its foundation the now forgotten working-class message of jobs, peace and justice that resonated with a substantial numbers of workers in western Pennsylvania.

For example, Jackson received 22.5% of the Democrat primary votes in Allegheny County, 16.4% in Beaver, 16.3% in Butler and 49% in Lawrence County. And as a comparison, Sanders received 44% in Allegheny, 42% Beaver, 39% in Lawrence County.

A crucial forerunner of his electoral campaign was the Rainbow Coalition, a Jackson-led independent, grassroots organization that sought to unite broad masses under the banner of left and progressive policies. The Coalition’s record helped to give credibility to the local campaign organizers and opened the door to a wider understanding of the need for the unity of workers regardless of color.

This simple but powerful class-based message, coupled with an independent organizational strategy, is the antidote to the demagoguery of Trump and the phony corporate identity politics of Democrats today. Although most of labor’s officialdom supported Michael Dukakis, the eventual Democratic nominee in 1988, Jackson generated a critical mass of support amongst labor’s lower levels of leadership and the rank-and- file. A thorn in the side of corporate america, Democratic Party officials, and top labor leaders, Jackson’s campaign message was able to grab the hearts and minds of a sizable portion of the population, even without the financial and organizational support that was withheld by corporate, Democratic and labor leaders.

And contrary to today’s liberal rhetoric of an irrevocable divide between the white working-class and black America, these two groups were equal partners in Jackson’s coalition. Comments by Ted Rechel, a United Paperworkers union member during the 1988 strike against International Paper in rural Clinton County, Pa., typifies the strength of Jackson’s class-based message:

He’s the only guy in the whole lot who did anything for the people who work for a living and have been shoved out of the door by scabs and Ronald Reagan politics… He’s the only guy in the whole world who did anything for people who work for a living and is going to get a lot of votes from this rural, redneck community.” (Morning Call, Apr. 21, 1988)

However, the strong public support for a bold program of jobs, peace and justice promulgated by Jackson in 1988 did not result in the formation of an organization that could be a building block to give political expression to this untapped sentiment. Jackson disbanded his Rainbow Coalition and folded his grassroots election campaign into the waiting arms of the Democrats, where it and the key issues that propelled his success ultimately died. It became another failed electoral campaign that spent millions of dollars and left supporters demobilized with no clear path to continue building a grassroots movement.

Jackson went away from the political stage but the same issues resurfaced again in a smaller version with the Dennis Kucinich 2004 presidential run — a strong grassroots network with a left/progressive message that ultimately channeled these resources and enthusiasm to the mainstream Democrats.

Again, in 2016, the Sanders campaign, like Jackson in 1988 and Kucinich in 2004 (but with significantly more traction), has proven that there is a solid, consistent mass base in the working class for a program that focuses on the evils of corporate rule in America. Similar in many ways to the Jackson campaign, Sanders’ grassroots supporters were ostracized, belittled and ignored by organized labor and the officialdom of the Democratic Party. Like Jackson, Sanders is keeping his movement in the Democratic party and attempting to carve out a concrete left wing within.

Standing in opposition to the energy of Sanders’ insurgency was the floundering Clinton campaign which, because of its ties to Big Money and allegations of wholesale corruption, was unable to offer a strong anti-corporate message. Just how out-of-touch Clinton’s politics were with the conditions of working people in America are made evident in two recent studies.

The surging income inequalities of American society and the crisis faced by everyday workers are highlighted by a recent report from three economists, Thomas Piketty, Emanuel Saez, and Gabriel Zucman. They state:

Our data show that the bottom half of the income distribution in the United States has been completely shut off from economic growth since the 1970s. From 1980 to 2014, average national income per adult grew by 61 percent in the United States, yet the average pre-tax income of the bottom 50 percent of individual income earners stagnated at about $16,000 per adult after adjusting for inflation. In contrast, income skyrocketed at the top of the income distribution, rising 121 percent for the top 10 percent, 205 percent for the top 1 percent, and 636 percent for the top 0.001 percent.

It’s a tale of two countries. For the 117 million U.S. adults in the bottom half of the income distribution, growth has been non-existent for a generation while at the top of the ladder it has been extraordinarily strong.

An economy that fails to deliver growth for half of its people for an entire generation is bound to generate discontent with the status quo and a rejection of  establishment politics.
[http://equitablegrowth.org/research-analysis/economic-growth-in-the-united-states-a-tale-of-two-countries/]

Similarly, the sinking fortunes of the vast majority of American retirees is highlighted by a recent study conducted by the Institute for Policy Studies, “A Tale of Two Retirements,” which highlights the enormous gap between the pensions of the top CEO’s and those of working class americans.

Just 100 CEOs have company retirement funds worth $4.7 billion — a sum equal to the entire retirement savings of the 41 percent of U.S. families with the smallest nest eggs.  This $4.7 billion total is also equal to the entire retirement savings of the bottom:

  • 59 percent of African-American families
  • 75 percent of Latino families
  • 55 percent of female-headed households
  • 44 percent of white working class households.
  • Of workers 56-61 years old, 39 percent have no employer-sponsored retirement plan whatsoever and will likely depend entirely on Social Security, which pays an average benefit of $1,239 per month.

[http://www.ips-dc.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/IPS-Two-Retirements-Report-final-for-dec-15.pdf]

Rather than offer popular solutions that would address these and other issues related to the economic crisis affecting the vast majority, Clinton and the Democrats pursued a losing strategy of attempting to win over the more “moderate Republicans.”  They arrogantly assumed that workers had nowhere to go but vote Democratic. The remarks of  Chuck Schumer, chair of the Democratic Senatorial Committee in July 2016, show it best:

“For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.”

The essence of the Clinton campaign was to try to cement the neoliberal dream of a future America — that her coalition of the urban elite and sheep dogged identity groups in America, wooed by both an honest but only surface-level support of multiculturalism and a phony ideology of ‘pragmatism,’ can continue to elect Democrats while holding absolutely no one accountable. But set against the backdrop of world capitalism in crisis, this ideology (or lack thereof) — “America is already great” — excited few.

Enter the Donald, the other half of the two most disliked presidential candidates in US history. His right-wing “populist” campaign message of simultaneously blaming immigrants, Muslims, Washington insiders, and corporate-friendly “trade deals” for job losses whipped a nationalistic fervor that gradually gained traction and tapped into the economic angst of many.

Unfortunately, the groundwork of the anti-foreigner sentiment promoted by Trump had actually already been laid by the decades-long campaigns of unions that constantly railed against “foreign imports” while simultaneously preaching “labor management harmony” to protect their “partners,” soulless multinational corporations.

Confusion, disorientation, and apathy engulfed the rank-and-file as workers were told by union leaders and Democrats that the corporations are their “allies” and need “concessions” to remain “competitive,” even as jobs, benefits, pensions and whole communities were being gutted and poisoned over the decades by these same multinational capitalists.

In 2012, the AFL-CIO in Ohio even promoted the movie, Death by China, made by Peter Navarro, Trump’s appointee to a new White House position on trade and industrial policy. Recently, the AFL-CIO appeared optimistic about Navarro’s appointment and reported that he “has raised some important critiques of American trade policy and we look forward to working with him to translate that into real policies that benefit America’s workers.”  These are signs that Trump’s opposition to the TPP forebodes an even more aggressive trade position against China, escalating the possibilities of a retaliatory trade war and military conflict.


The road ahead

However, like during the Jackson campaign, there was a small but significant section of organized labor that both endorsed the Sanders campaign and is open to solutions that challenge the unfettered rule of corporations and the “free” market.  And as the primary vote totals show, this critical support from labor unions is accompanied by even greater support in the general public. As liberals are engulfed in a sea of finger-pointing to explain this loss, labor must recognize that there is already a critical mass of unionized workers and a large segment of the general population that can be a springboard for an alternative independent political movement.

How can we broaden and deepen this budding class consciousness inside of labor to regain the necessary power to defend workers on the job?

Is it possible to build an independent movement that educates and mobilizes those inside labor and the general public for policies that challenge the current right-wing corporate agenda?

A key to the revitalization of labor is to begin an honest dialogue about the class struggle against all workers being led by corporate America. It spans decades and continues under successive Democratic and Republican administrations. Organized labor’s response to these ongoing attacks has been totally ineffective, resulting in a sharp decline in the number of union members along with its ability to effect changes in the economic and political arenas.


What kind of trade union do workers need today?

And what are the changes in strategy and tactics necessary for labor to best defend worker interests on the job, in the community and in the political arena? The working class is searching for answers and is open to more militant and class-based responses but has no organizational forum to help move this debate forward.

Activists with a class struggle vision need to lead this bottom-up organizing with the understanding and confidence that real power comes through education and mobilization of the rank-and-file. This foundation that begins at the grassroots level will be a slow and arduous process of articulating a bolder and more militant approach to bargaining, organizing and politics. Victory is not always certain but never educating and mobilizing workers to challenge the rule of corporations is a guarantee for defeat.

The confusion, anger, and desire for change must be addressed at all levels within labor. It won’t be easy, nor are there any “hero leaders” that can change the internal lifelessness that typifies most labor organizations. Both labor-management cooperation, which pacifies and confuses the rank-and-file, and the poodle-like following of the Democratic Party must be critically examined and replaced with class- struggle unionism and independent political action — a strategy that consciously works to connect the dots and show that workers have more in common with each other than with their boss.

Building real power on the job also has its parallel in politics — independent political action. Issues like Medicare for All, Fight for Fifteen, taxing the wealthy to provide a public works jobs program to rebuild America, and support for public education, are just a few causes that resonate strongly and can be the catalyst for a powerful unifying message. This will be a message that counters the confusion, apathy, and hopelessness now afflicting many who are increasingly turned off by what is pushed as “practical politics” by the two mainstream parties.

The Rainbow Coalition can be an outline for the type of year-round independent political vehicle that restores the voice of the working class as the proper foil to Trump’s populist demagogy. Both the necessity of this sort of vehicle and the fading irrelevance of labor’s current strategies were again made evident by the 2016 election. The building of a working- class based, grassroots movement inside of labor and in the public can’t wait until the next election cycle.

Organized labor’s rich history through great upheavals like those of the CIO show that with principled leadership and a vision, labor, fueled by the energy of the workers within it, can lead this political movement.

Ed Grystar

(Ed Grystar was president of the Butler County United Labor Council, AFL-CIO, from 1987 to 2003, Pennsylvania state coordinator for the 2004 Dennis Kucinich campaign, and Western Pennsylvania coordinator of Labor for Jackson in 1988.)

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4 thoughts on “Which Way Forward? It’s Time for Organized Labor to Move Left

  1. Ed Grystar challenges labor and the progressive community in general to coalesce and to deliver a vision and its particulars to this generation of Americans. A number of existing organizations on the Left and Center-Left can meet his challenge, if they curb their collective individual and institutional egos and produce the kind of coalitions that working people did in past periods of crisis. Let’s get to it!

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