Interviews for Resistance: On Treating Trump Like a Bad Boss

by Sarah Jaffe

Interview with Ben Speight

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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.

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Bernie Sanders’ Book Offers Roadmap

by Steve Early and Rand Wilson

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Bernie Sanders’ segue from presidential candidate to barnstorming author was seamless. In between the Democratic National Convention in July and hitting the stump this fall to boost Hillary Clinton’s stock in battleground states, Sanders cranked out a 450-page book, which hit bookstores November 15. The author was not far behind, with sold-out appearances from Boston to San Francisco.

Often, quickie books from trade publishers hoping to capitalize on an author’s newly-achieved celebrity are nothing more than ghost-written schlock. Campaign memoirs—like the authorized biographies or ghosted autobiographies of presidential hopefuls—aren’t often memorable either, even when they display some evidence of real candidate involvement or reflection. But like Sanders’ 2016 campaign, his book, Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In, greatly exceeds expectations.

In the first third of the book, we get an insider account of his plunge into presidential politics when few in the corporate media, the Democratic Party or the AFL-CIO took his democratic socialist “fringe” candidacy seriously. Sanders also recounts his early life in Brooklyn, his activism at the University of Chicago during the 1960s and his four-decade career in Vermont public life.

The author’s description of the grassroots struggle to transform municipal government during his eight years as Burlington mayor is particularly instructive for progressives thinking about running for local office. As Sanders proudly writes, the electoral coalition “formed in 1982, became the foundation for progressive third party politics in Vermont. Not only has it continued in Burlington to this day, electing two progressive mayors after me, it has spread statewide.”

With representation in both houses of the Vermont legislature, the Vermont Progressive Party (VPP) has, according to Sanders, become “one of the most successful and long-standing third parties in America.” Its singular status was further confirmed on November 8, when Sanders-backed David Zuckerman, a VPP state senator and working-class oriented organic farmer, got elected lieutenant governor—marking the first time a progressive, other than Sanders, has succeeded in a Vermont-wide race.

A post-campaign agenda

In the remaining two-thirds of Our Revolution, Sanders outlines his agenda for the country and talks about what it will take to achieve it. His substantive proposals will be familiar to the millions of people who voted for him, and include recommendations on everything from health care, criminal justice reform, trade, Wall Street regulation, bank restructuring and free public higher education to combatting climate change, creating clean energy jobs, overhauling “our broken immigration system” and getting big money out of politics.

Not surprisingly—for someone from a state with large rural areas and relatively few homicides—Sanders’ agenda does not emphasize gun control, although he does confess to having mishandled that issue on the national debate stage.

In a well-documented chapter called “Corporate Media and the Threat to Our Democracy,” Sanders updates his long-time critique of the handful of multinational corporations that own a lot of the media and have an outsized influence on what people see and hear. Sanders himself was, of course, a case study in hostile or non-existent coverage by major newspapers and TV networks for much of his campaign.

Both as a campaign history and progressive policy guide, Our Revolution brims with the same righteous indignation and relentless optimism that drew bigger and bigger crowds to Sanders’ rallies. It concludes with the author’s oft-repeated call for follow-up activity now at the local level:

“Run for the school board, city council, state legislature. Run for governor. Run for Congress. Run for the Senate. Run for president. Hold your elected officials accountable. Know what they’re doing and how they’re voting and tell your neighbors.”

Going local with “Our Revolution”

Sanders’ encouragement and support for like-minded candidates began during his own “testing the waters” tour of the country, as a not-yet-declared contender for the White House. He was invited to Richmond, California, in 2014 by Green mayor Gayle McLaughlin and other progressive city council candidates facing an avalanche of corporate spending against them by Chevron, the largest employer in town.

Sanders writes that his town hall meeting “turned out to be one of the largest and loudest audiences that I had spoken to since I began traveling around the country.” In Richmond, four candidates he backed two years ago won their elections, as did two more members of the Richmond Progressive Alliance this fall. This time, they were endorsed by Our Revolution, the post-campaign organization created by former campaign staff and Sanders volunteers. Richmond’s top vote getter was 26-year-old Melvin Willis, an African-American Bernie fan, rent control advocate and local organizer for the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment. Elsewhere in Northern California, Our Revolution-assisted candidates won mayoral races in Berkeley and Stockton.

Nationwide, Our Revolution endorsed 106 local, state, and federal candidates and 34 ballot initiatives. Fifty-eight of those candidates were successful; twenty-three of the ballot measures succeeded, including several dealing with campaign finance reform. Among those backed by Our Revolution was Mike Connolly, a lawyer and community activist in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Like Zuckerman in Vermont, Connolly competed in the Democratic primary to clear the field. He narrowly defeated a 12-term Democratic incumbent backed by most Bay State unions and nearly all his Beacon Hill colleagues. On November 8, Connolly won the seat, running unopposed in the general election. Three other Our Revolution-backed legislative candidates in Massachusetts, all incumbents, also won their primary battles and/or general election campaigns as well. They were state Sens. Pat Jehlen and Jamie Eldridge and state Rep. Mary Keefe.

Connolly is now working with Our Revolution supporters to build a new state structure that better links issue-oriented campaigns with electoral politics.

“We need to push the Democratic Party to once again be the party of the people,” he says. “We need to turn politics around so that it is movement-centered and driven by the grassroots.”

At a Boston book tour stop in late November, Sanders stressed similar goals in his talk to an estimated 1,000 people. Bernie’s mostly young fans paid $33 to attend and got a copy of Our Revolution. The author was in fine form, sharing clear, concise, and useful insights into the lessons of his campaign and the challenges under President-elect Donald Trump. During the question period, a young Latina woman who was thinking of running for office herself, asked for Sanders’ advice.

“It’s not good enough for someone to say: ‘I’m a woman! Vote for me!’” he told her. “No, that’s not good enough. What we need is a woman who has the guts to stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies, to the fossil fuel industry.”

The crowd chanted “Bernie, Bernie” but the future clearly belonged to Sanders-inspired candidates of the sort he described, following in his footsteps and getting involved in politics at the local, state and national levels.

This article appeared on the blog of the In These Times magazine  and is reposted here with the agreement of the authors. You can make a tax-deductible donation to fund reporting at In These Times.

What Future for SEIU After Andy Stern Resigns?

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by Paul Garver

Articles and editorial comments in the Left and liberal press display a wide spectrum of reactions to Andy Stern’s divided legacy as SEIU President. I will analyze these reactions, note where they diverge and converge, and propose some modest course adjustments for a union that is too big, and too important to the movement, to be allowed to fail.

The articles and comments cited are:

Beyond Chron: Randy Shaw, “SEIU’s Post-Andy Stern Era”
Counterpunch: Steve Early, “Who’s Going to Pay the Tab Left Behind by Andy Stern?”
In These Times: Bill Fletcher, Jr. and Nelson Lichtenstein, “SEIU’s Civil War”
Labor Notes: Mark Brenner, Mischa Gaus, and Jane Slaughter, Andy Stern’s Legacy: Right Questions, Wrong Answers
Nation:
Katrina van den Heuvel, “SEIU’s Andy Stern Steps Down”
New Republic:
John Judis, “Andy Stern’s departure is another sign of labor movement’s decline”
New York Times:
Steven Greenhouse, “Andy Stern to Step Down as Chief of Politically Active Union”
Washington Post:
Harold Meyerson, “Andy Stern: A union maverick clocks out”
Washington Post: Alec MacGillis, “At the peak of his influence, SEIU chief set to leave a mixed legacy”

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Working In These Times

In These Times has been one of the few American magazines that regularly provides detailed coverage of  union and labor issues.  This week they’ve launched an exciting and badly needed new venture–a blog devoted to news and commentary about the struggles of workers.

It’s off to a great start.

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