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Labor and the Art of Big Tent Construction

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A woman with a warm smile stands in front of a wooden fence holding a clipboard. She wears a red T-shirt that says “Working America AFL-CIO,” and a beige hijab.

How can unions build a sense of shared community interest among members of differing backgrounds and opinions?

Ever since Trump snared the presidency in 2016, pundits have had a field day pitting white working-class union members against people of color. Ugh.

But face it, progressive activists and funders have been complicit. Outracing class? Outclassing race? Too often, we’ve been positioning one set of constituents against another, assuming that those from whom we withdraw attention will either vote with us anyway or are no longer necessary for winning. However, being cavalier about diverse parts of our base is folly in the face of fascism: We need the broadest possible convergence of hearts, minds, and votes to keep our democracy intact.

For those of us who’ve made our home in and around the labor movement, that’s par for the journey. As a former colleague wryly noted, the pool of potential union membership is often determined first by whom the employer hires, rather than by a natural affinity; unlike most progressive organizations, which can draw people of a similar ideological bent, unions need to unite a broad spectrum of individuals, expanding their self-interest to include a concept of shared worker identity, mutual benefit, and, ideally, larger community well-being. The historical labor debate has been whether to protect our own chances for improvement by keeping others out, or by inviting others in.

As we tackle similar challenges in the U.S. today, the union endeavor, in all its success and failure, might shed some light on this moment. Somewhere in our intertwined and unruly strands of socio-political DNA, we need to identify and nurture the tendencies that, in the words of economist Heather McGhee, create a society that works not just for some of us, but for the “sum of us.”

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The vainglorious versus

Lefties like me, who came of political age in the 1960s, were often blessed with a certain clarity of purpose, and equally cursed with the discipline of dichotomous thinking. The binary mindset was baked into our approach to both ideology and organizing practice, focused on “us vs. them” strategies to win power. However, that doesn’t work so well when potential allies are pressured by conflicting worldviews. In 1973, when I joined the staff of the newly formed Pennsylvania Social Services Union, an SEIU local anchored by public sector social workers, I quickly learned that, beyond “which side are you on,” unionism is also about counting noses to ensure a majority of members are with you, and living with contradiction. To wrest contracts from the state, we needed to unite the rowdy leftists in Philly with the dogged conservatives in Cumberland County.

While the concepts of ecosystem and intersectionality have offered new ways to elude the neat bisection of our houses into either/or, there’s still a lot of churn in how we interpret and mesh the systemic and personal components of relationship and identity in the political world. And in our progressive sphere, anything that creates an uncomfortable juxtaposition of justified white working-class economic anxiety with unpardonable white supremacy tends to reinforce the “versus” between class and race.

However, the shards of data emerging from the 2016 and 2020 election cycles expose how insufficient our dichotomies are. AFL-CIO political strategist Michael Podhorzer has suggested that, rather than just rely on the standard voter categories (i.e. gender, ethnicity, age, education), we also need to ID voters based on their aspirations, experiences, and common social bonds. There is increasing evidence that, in our current environment, whether one is an urban or rural dweller, or an evangelical Christian, may be more useful in determining one’s place on the progressive-to-conservative spectrum than ethnicity or educational level (the popular stand-in for class). As Podhorzer trenchantly observes, even in 2016, “non-Christian, non-college white men supported Clinton by 5 points, while Christian white college women supported Trump by 8 points. Yet because we don’t apply the religious filter, we routinely take white non-college men to be much more Republican than white college women.” Things aren’t always quite as they seem.

The wages of fear

It’s a little-known fact that, in the decades before 2016, union membership had moved workers and their families to be more liberal than their non-union neighbors; in most years, two-thirds of white working-class union members had tended to vote Democratic, as opposed to only one-third of white workers who did not belong to a union. Interaction with a broader range of people and access to a worker-friendly information pipeline led to different outcomes at the ballot box.

But that Democratic support eroded in 2016, especially in the heartland industrial base, and even the National Education Association (NEA) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), generally considered bastions of progressive unionism, acknowledged that more of their members than expected had drifted toward Trump.

In 2017, as part of a research project for a liberal donor, I was invited to explore why that shift had occurred. When I spoke with United Steel Workers President Leo Gerard (he retired in 2019), he estimated that, while 20 to 25 percent of the USW union membership generally voted Republican, upwards of 35 or 40 percent probably voted for Donald Trump in 2016. Some had condoned Trump’s racism and sexism, some had overlooked it, but most longed for the return of well-paying, unionized jobs. Gerard, a Canadian, had generally been willing to engage on both diversity and environmental sustainability, but he was bleak about the outlook for his members. “It’s much harder now to get people to think broadly,” Gerard told me. “There’s not one place we represent that I can think of where the workers who come to work on Monday aren’t afraid of what’s going to happen by next Monday. Every Monday. They can’t worry about anything else.”

That fear was highlighted in a 2015 study by economists Angus Deaton and Anne Case, which suggested that mortality rates for middle-aged whites were on the rise, due to what they termed “deaths of despair” from drug and alcohol abuse, and suicide – fueled by their economic insecurity, downward mobility and loss of status and respect, both real and perceived. As a consequence, white working-class constituents were looking for both relief and scapegoats in all the wrong places, easy prey for a narrative that conflates economic fears with racism.

As journalist Isabel Wilkerson describes it in her 2020 book on caste, “Rising immigration from across the Pacific and the Rio Grande and the ascendance of a black man as president made for an inversion of the world as many had known it….In a psychic way, the people dying of despair could be said to be dying of the end of an illusion “that they were superior because of their whiteness.” In the zero-sum caste system, she adds, “The elevation of others amounts to a demotion of oneself, thus equality feels like a demotion.”

Winning and losing

Like so many colleagues, I’ve spent a ton of time obsessing about the race/class paradigm. But as I sifted through the research for that report, I was struck by the power of seeing oneself on the winning or losing end of the historical trajectory. What grabbed my attention was a labor story hiding in plain sight, that threw the dynamics of race and class into the meltdown of the political economy.

In the early 1970s, as corporations hollowed out the U.S. industrial sector and gutted their unions, public employees – who, overall, included more women, more people of color, and higher education levels – were organizing, gaining bargaining rights, and building their political clout. Those downward and upward trajectories, bisecting each other in time, changed the power dynamics both within the labor movement and within the Democratic Party; the concerns of the industrial workforce were increasingly sidelined in favor of the interests of public workers, who were a growing share of organized labor and of political contributions. This created a conflation among some workers between the fall of their own economic security, and the long-overdue rise of women and people of color.

That narrative was given additional room to fester because, as private-sector industrial workers lost their jobs, they consequently lost their active union memberships as well as their status in the Democratic Party. They thus became untethered from the two largest secular institutions that: (a) provided infrastructure and information for progressive civic engagement, and (b) created opportunity to meet and join forces with people across boundaries of ethnicity, religion, education, and income. That loss of communal space for exploring ideas and building relationships has cost us dearly. Neither the party nor the unions took sufficient steps, or showed sufficient leadership, to engage and educate their constituencies – both on the winning and losing ends – about the changes that were occurring. And they failed to offer sufficient policy remedies and relational ties to ameliorate the uneven distribution of benefits and harms.

The result was, essentially, two tenuously linked labor movements—one of private industrial sector unionists, clinging to the privilege and security they no longer felt they had, and the other of public sector unionists who saw themselves as ascendant and forward-looking. The schism – both functional and existential – ultimately weakened the entire labor movement and permitted an eager right wing to waltz in with a venal, nativist pitch that helped boost Donald Trump to power.

In search of better angels

My last full-time position in the labor movement was with Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO, whose mission is to reach out to working-class people who do not have a union on the job. “Our founding idea was that the loss of union infrastructure created a vacuum that was being filled by the Right Wing,” explained Working America Director Emerita Karen Nussbaum, “and that we had to seek out people who weren’t looking for us, and give them both good information and a sense of collective power.”

The theory proved viable. By 2005, Working America was practicing a version of what has become known as “deep canvass,” offering white working-class constituents an empathetic ear and a pro-worker perspective on issues like health care and a fair economy. The people who joined voted more like union members, leaning substantially more Democratic than their neighbors. Working America also provided a canary to monitor the toxicity of right-wing thought, often spotting a trajectory long before the pollsters and pundits got around to it.  As Nussbaum notes, that’s even more important now, given the epidemic of right-wing disinformation. “A person will blame immigrants or lazy workers for what’s wrong with the economy,” she says, “but that very same person also blames Wall Street and the big corporations. It’s our job to demonstrate that they’re better off joining forces and fighting together, to help people work through an internal dialogue over a basic philosophy of life and of society.”

But expanding self-interest to encompass the broader good takes remarkable leadership, dedicated popular education and thoughtful organizing. At an informal meeting of economists at the AFL-CIO about six years ago, one participant observed that, “Our problem is public employees who want lower prices at Walmart, and Walmart workers who want lower taxes and smaller government.” Digging beneath the metrics and the algorithms, this speaks to the need for a coherent framework to connect the needs and dreams of working people into a shared agenda – and broaden how self-interest is defined at the institutional level.

“We have to be on the right side of climate change, not aligned with the Koch Brothers to support pipelines,” one colleague had told me as he considered the way some unions were willing to engage with President Trump after the 2016 election. “But most people don’t know that in 2008 or 2010, there was 65% unemployment in the construction industry. So they made a pact with the devil. You know the most important part of the story? It’s in the picture of Trump surrounded by the Building and Construction Trades leaders. They knocked themselves out to get Obama elected. And then, we had a Democratic President who never invited them into the White House. That disappointment, lingers. It was class resentment on both sides.”

And yet, change does happen. President Joe Biden has been the first in our lifetimes to make unionism part of his platform. And this past April, United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts announced that the union was casting its lot with Biden on green jobs, creating the opening for a new conversation about meeting the survival needs of both the displaced workers and the planet.

In their book on unions and social activism, In the Interest of Others, political scientists John S. Ahlquist and Margaret Levi compare the East and West Coast longshore unions, probing why one turned corrupt and right wing, while the other became a beacon of progressive unionism. They suggest that to expand union members’ perspectives from a narrow definition of self-interest to a broader “community of fate” that binds a diverse constituency together requires “leaders willing to sacrifice salary and governance autonomy in order to signal credibility and accountability; a highly participatory democracy enabling challenges to leadership, contingent consent, and political learning; and, finally, work and neighborhood institutions (which) create ties, networks, and interdependencies among members and with leaders that insure reproduction of the organizational scope…” They observe that, “to convince members to go along, leaders must supply, first, information about the world and, second, a model explaining how members’ actions could result in some reasonable probability of making a difference.” In these situations, “individuals join for one reason but come to pursue goals they may not have considered previously. Membership changes them. It shapes their identity and choices.”

That transformative power is on the minds of today’s strategists and organizers as well. Research by Paul Frymer of Princeton University and Jacob M. Grumbach of the University of Washington suggests that beyond educating members in participatory democracy, unions also play a role in diminishing racism among white workers. Their paper, “Labor Unions and White Racial Politics,” published in the American Journal of Political Science in 2020, revealed that being part of a union tempered racial resentment, because people were part of a diverse workforce who had to pull together toward common goals, and because a union provides an exercise in democracy and an alternative source of information.  The openness on race issues persisted even when they were no longer active in the union.

As University of Southern California Professor Manuel Pastor recently told an audience of activists, “Folks tend to understand that people make movements, but they forget that movements also make people.”

Seeds for a better harvest

Early in the 2020 electoral cycle, I spoke with labor political strategist Steve Rosenthal about what might be useful for reaching union members who had drifted over to Trump four years earlier. “I think what happened in 2016 was that some of labor abandoned its own members,” Rosenthal told me. “Ideally, we should provide all members, not just those we believe to be persuadable, with information on our candidates and issues. When we don’t reach out broadly, shop stewards and activists, who normally carry our message, don’t have the tools or the backing to confront what, in this case, was a rising tide of avid Trump supporters. In the face of the organized and incredibly nasty onslaught of the Trumpers, our folks became silent. And we were not able to provide an effective counterforce.”

Hoping for a different playbook in 2020, Rosenthal and his colleagues in a number of unions created lists of people in some battleground states who had lost their union membership over the past years, and/or who scored high on the union favorability scale. “We started by giving them resources and information to cope with COVID, and then shared stuff about how the two candidates had acted on issues like health care, wages, unions and retirement security.” A poll on election weekend suggested that 72% of the voters included in the program supported Biden; and the union vote in Michigan and Wisconsin notably improved.

But what buoyed Rosenthal most were the post-election focus groups that he and Lake Research did with white working-class workers from likely 2022 battleground districts. “Most of these weren’t union members,” he said, “but they told us that they have a high regard for unions and see them as a viable and reliable source of information on issues and candidates.” The participants reported that they didn’t view the news as FAKE, they view it as biased, and had few sources that they considered trustworthy. “What really surprised us, was when they told us repeatedly, unprompted, that they carefully scrutinized sources and that they viewed the BBC as an unbiased news source,” said Rosenthal. “Unions could help meet that yearning for reliable information.”

And more.  This moment needs us to be a bridge, to forge a broad enough consensus, not just to squeak out a win but to get things done. The Biden-Harris administration offers breathing room to restore a baseline of good information and – if we are strategic and generous about it – an opportunity to build a broader foundation to address white supremacy, climate change, and the systemic recalibration of an economy that is no longer serves the needs of a democratic society. If we can expand our community of shared interest by even 10 percent of the people who voted for Trump, as well as by a cohort of new voters, our ability to nudge the arc of history closer toward justice will bloom.

Among things to consider:

We need a bottom line, not a party line. It’s useful and often gratifying to debate from our true left, but the achievable consensus invariably falls short. There are some half-loaves on offer that will make a lot of people’s lives better, so long as our bottom-line commitments to multiracial democracy and human rights remain intact.

Hold organized labor and the Democratic Party close. Warts and all, they constitute our largest and most diverse secular institutional infrastructures for evolutionary change. In 2020, laying claim to the Democratic Party was pivotal in Georgia and Wisconsin. And labor reaches into communities where much of the left rarely goes.

Seek face, space, and place. Organizing can’t thrive by digital communications and messaging alone. While social media offer many cheaper and glibber alternatives for interaction at scale, those avenues are auxiliary to the primary human connection and community that constitute Organizing 101. As this past year underscored, we can’t always get as close as we want, but we should get as close as we can.

Popular education is forethought, not afterthought. Often the immediate and quantifiable calculus of election cycles seems easier to envision, and to fund, than the more elusive long-term work to foster a more generous and inclusive worldview. While we long for a seamless convergence of the two, each endeavor has its own distinctive rhythms and skills. It often feels like we – including most of the labor movement – have relinquished popular education solely to the digital ether, letting our muscle for interactive dialogue atrophy. Fortifying that work is its own organizing project.

And oh yes, embrace laughter, chocolate, and each other. And call your mother!


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