by Sarah Jaffe
Interview with Ben Speight
Ben Speight is the organizing director of Teamsters Local 728 in Georgia. (Fred Nye/ IBT photographer)
As Republicans introduce legislation that would make labor law for the entire country like it is in the deep South, who better to talk about making unions relevant than an organizer with lots of experience organizing in a so-called “right-to-work” state? Contrary to popular belief, right-to-work laws don’t ban unions, they just allow workers to opt out of paying representation fees to the union while still requiring the union to represent all workers in a workplace. But it is still possible to fight for workers under a right-to-work regime—as long as unions remember to fight.
Ben Speight: My name is Ben Speight. I am the organizing director of Teamsters Local 728 in Georgia.
Sarah Jaffe: Last week we heard that different labor leaders met with now-President Trump. Would you talk about your reaction?
Ben: Trump is the corporate bully-in-chief. For us, in labor, in looking at him as a boss, he’s one that has shown his inclination to align with some of the most reactionary forces in the 1% and folks that are rabidly anti-union.
His demagogic appeal to working people has been extremely successful. His form of economic nationalism has cut against our ability to build broad solidarity amongst white working people, black working people, brown working people, and to have a working-class perspective that is opposed to the right wing. His economic populism is very appealing to some in the labor leadership who are very risk-averse and want to try to maintain their positions and the institutions that we have as they exist over the short term. Trump’s promises of big infrastructure projects going to the construction trades, his symbolic withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, his pronouncements of bringing manufacturing back to the United States appeal to traditionally conservative, mostly white-male-dominated smaller building trades and construction unions. Those were principally the ones that he met with earlier last week.
It is not terribly surprising that they would be the first to meet with him and give a full-throated endorsement of his initial actions. But the devil is in the details—what are we going to get out of it? When you go to somebody like Trump, like you would go to an intransigent employer, if you go from a position of weakness where you are happy just to be at the table—I think Trump viewed the labor leaders that came to the White House as pushovers. They came and spoke afterwards, clearly excited just to be there, not for what we could get out of it.
It has come out recently in a New York Times article that [when Trump met with] the construction trades, whose entire existence, in part, relies on their ability to enforce the Davis-Bacon Act, which sets prevailing wages for public infrastructure projects and other large-scale construction projects, and requires contractors to pay a family-sustaining prevailing wage—Trump was non-committal that the infrastructure projects that he is endorsing would require that wage. We have got a lot of work to do in order to understand the threat that he poses to working-class solidarity and ability to grow a labor movement today.
Sarah: I want to talk about how this, “We have got to go make a deal with the boss” mindset, in terms of dealing with Trump, is reflected in how a lot of unions have dealt with the more direct boss in recent years.
Ben: We are at an all-time low in strikes in this country. In the labor movement, because we are big enough to have power and we are big enough to get sued and to want to protect the institutional capital that we have left, we are extremely risk averse. The leadership that we have throughout labor has been burned so many times by every level of government, we have almost abandoned the strike as a weapon. We have abandoned any kind of innovative strategies that would end up maximizing our leverage when we get to the table. We have become overly reliant on the National Labor Relations Board and other legal tactics. Our institutionalization has caused us not to be as forward-thinking and visionary in being willing to use widescale collective action to put pressure on employers the way that we could and need to. Over time, we have become very, very conservative.
As a result of that, the standards that we have been able to achieve through collective bargaining have declined and our power politically has declined. What labor showed in 2016 is that even when we boast about our ability to mobilize our members in elections, we are not even successful at doing that. Our organizations have not, for years, talked to our membership, asked our membership what they want to see in their next contract, asked our membership to get involved in fighting for tangible changes in the next contract or, in the interim, fighting around issues collectively, building solidarity in the workplace, and applying it to community struggles and others that are fighting for expanded democracy. We simply have not learned, internally, how to fight.
When it comes to organizing in existing union work sites for improved conditions, organizing in non-union industries, mobilizing our membership to fight political battles, showing solidarity with others that are trying to expand and defend democratic rights, we have abandoned those basic tasks for so long that, in many ways, our organizations are paper tigers. So when we go and we are invited by somebody that has just taken power, we are not bargaining from a position of strength, because we know internally how weak we are.
Filed under: Organizing, Politics, South, Uncategorized | Tagged: Ben Speight, In These Times, Teamsters | Leave a comment »