The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) Political Committee’s statement on the election was quite strong, pointing out a path by which to build in unity against the dangers posed by the Trump Administration. One paragraph, however, stood out as an exception in tone and tenor from everything else — the paragraph on labor. We find these the views expressed there to point in an inappropriate direction that could hurt our future work with the labor movement and inhibit building a political alternative.
Below we offer a critique of that paragraph and a proposal for a different approach in the spirit of encouraging a needed discussion throughout the labor movement on our strategic choices in the future. Although we raise specific suggestions to guide DSA’s union work, and the matter at hand might seem purely internal, we believe the issues at hand are relevant far beyond our ranks.
“Further, Trump will move quickly to destroy organized labor in the United States, particularly in the public sector. We must resist, though our efforts will be complicated by the AFL-CIO’s self-defeating conciliatory stance toward the President-elect. Unions are the most powerful tool we have for building inter-racial solidarity among working class people around a shared economic interest. The questionable strategic and tactical choices made by much of their leadership both to support Clinton in the Democratic primaries and to commit themselves to working with Trump show the absolute necessity of a bottom-up left insurgency within the house of labor.”
The federal sector is already right-to-work. The Republicans have clearly stated that they intend to declare war on federal workers and their unions (Trump will be the boss of Executive Branch workers). A couple of discrete pieces of legislation that have been floating around for several years on Capitol Hill aimed at busting federal unions will probably be resurrected and, with Trump in the White House, may very well become law.
Although the TPP has been stopped for now, private sector workers will find continual new obstacles in their way. Likely changes in a new Department of Labor will make the fight against wage theft harder, likely changes in the NLRB will turn back steps forward in protecting organizing initiatives. Public sector workers will face one of many “Friedrich”-like cases that are in the pipeline; with the appointment of a conservative Supreme Court Justice they will likely lose, making all state and local government right-to-work. Moreover, Wall Street and corporate power that have been behind the unrelenting drive to undermine union strength in the US and around the world will see this as an opportunity to further their direct attacks on collective bargaining and on union rights.
Socialists must try to work with all levels of the labor movement. Calling for an “insurgency” within the labor movement doesn’t further that goal. Moreover, it ignores or (in essence) disparages the work of unionists at every level of the labor movement who have been keeping the movement alive. And rest assured, notwithstanding any weaknesses and limitations, most unions are involved in progressive initiatives, whether they supported Hillary or Bernie, or stayed on the sidelines. The endorsement of Keith Ellison for DNC by the AFL-CIO, preceded by announced support for him by the International Presidents of AFSCME, AFT (which both endorsed Hillary) and CWA is extremely significant.
However, that doesn’t mean rank-and file democratic control of unions is not essential. It is critical for a healthy union to not only defend workers rights but to go on the offensive. For DSA to have any influence in this area we have to be involved in local unions. How many DSA members are active union members? How many are shop stewards, local officers or members of local union committees? Where we have a concentration they should be helping to build a strong and involved rank-and-file. Sometimes this could take the form of support for progressive initiatives of the International leadership, adding real power to these initiatives, and sometimes it could be oppositional.
Moreover, we should be a force for genuine labor unity by building ties between unions representing workers in the same sector or industry; a genuine force for unity by challenging hostility to immigrants and Muslims, and the racism and sexism that influence sections of working people, including union members.
The Trump onslaught against unions will come immediately after he assumes office, probably through executive orders in the first days of his administration. While supporting a strong rank-and-file we must work with anyone we can, including union leaders who supported Hillary. To do otherwise otherwise will weaken the chance of labor’s survival. The statement concerning labor in the Political Committee is a roadblock to this effort.
Proposed Alternative Language
The work of Labor for Bernie shows the possibilities of building change within organized labor. The perspective put forward by CWA, NNU, ATU, APWU, the independent UE and ILWU and that of numerous leaders and members at every level of the union movement inside and outside the AFL-CIO points in the direction of defending labor by building solidarity with other social justice movements. Without underestimating the defeats and setback unions have suffered, the weaknesses and divisions in our ranks or the instances of failure in leadership or direction, we can also point to genuine achievements. The Chicago Teachers Union’s strike, CWA’s successful national strike at Verizon, the NNU’s, AFSCME’s, SEIU’s and other unions’ organizing drives, the Fight for 15, campaigns led by Jobs with Justice, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and the National Day Laborers Network are amongst a few of the many examples of the kind of struggles that have won real victories, even in a period of reaction, and serve as a reminder of labor’s potential strength.
As such, DSA makes a priority of support for the core demands of progressive union leadership: challenge every step that strengthens the power of Wall Street and of the “1%,” over and against working people. We hold Trump to account in his demagogic promises of job creation, without giving in one inch to his bigotry, to his attacks on Muslims, to his anti-immigrant proposals. We join with all labor to resist privatization, to resist all anti-union measures aimed at public or private sector workers.
Programmatically we join other unionists in defending our tattered social safety net and to expanding it especially in the struggle to make healthcare a right. We encourage DSA locals to act in solidarity with strikes, organizing drives, low-wage workers campaigns, and local labor legislative initiatives in their communities. We push our unions to join in the fight within the Democratic Party for a change in its direction and support inside/outside and independent political initiatives wherever they have a base amongst working people. We will work to build stronger ties between unions and other social movements including continued defense of those who successfully stopped the North Dakota pipeline in support of Native rights and environmental justice.
DSA union members should combat any manifestation of racism and sexism amongst our co-workers, and work to build membership involvement at every level of union decision-making with the understanding that union democracy is essential to union strength, indeed, to union survival.
Kurt Stand has been active in the labor movement for decades, primarily in the private sector as a rank-and-file member, steward, staff member, and elected officer. Currently he works with unionists in the DC Metropolitan area on reentry issues, education programs, and other labor-community initiatives.
Carl Goldman started his work in the labor movement over 40 years ago as a taxi driver attempting to organize his workplace. He is currently the Executive Director of AFSCME Council 26* which represents federal employees. He is also a member of the Executive Board of the Metropolitan Washington Council, AFL-CIO.*
Both are active members of the Metro DC local of the Democratic Socialists of America.
*These organizations are listed for identification purposes only.