By the time we made it to the gates of the massive River Rouge plant in Detroit, we were between 6 months and 40 years too late. As Bernie’s National Labor Organizer, tasked with organizing rank-and-file union members across the country to speak to their coworkers and fellow union members about the political revolution we were building, I was on a last hail mary junket to Michigan to do whatever I could think of to help us in that must-win state. The autoworkers’ responses, in the pre-dawn parking lot, with my cadre of Bernie volunteers, ranged from disinterest to hostility to passive enthusiasm. They talked about NAFTA, about economic inequality, about the attack on union workers.
It wasn’t just that it was too little too late. True, there was no way we could catch every worker, at every entrance, on every shift. But bigger than that, there was no way we could activate the already-existing networks of autoworkers and union members. Here was this massive factory, a clear “community of interest” (as labor lawyers would describe it), and a handful of isolated progressive activists at the gates, throwing pebbles at the window, hoping to wake the organized working class.
What did we have? A massive left populist grassroots upsurge, millions of donors, volunteers, canvassers, phone bankers. A militant minority of Democratic primary voters. What did we need? A working class institutional base that had done political education, militant class struggle, and, yes, a massive GOTV operation, not just since February 2019, when Bernie announced his candidacy; not just since Spring 2015, when Bernie came on the presidential scene; but for decades, between, before, after election cycles.
When all was said and done, three national unions came out for Bernie Sanders: the United Electrical Workers, National Nurses United, and the American Postal Workers Union. And the campaign more or less successfully executed a strategy to hold off the other major unions until relatively late in the primary; the AFT, for example, endorsed against Bernie eight months later in the cycle than they did in 2016. But these were three relatively small unions, all of whom had been part of the 2016 Bernie coalition.
Imagine, instead, a world in which the unions came out swinging for the obvious labor candidate — the one who ran on a platform of doubling union membership, of eliminating right to work, of taking healthcare off the bargaining table and funneling any savings directly into wages and benefits. Imagine then that they ran political education campaigns among their membership, paid media, and mass canvassing operations — in the primary — to tip the scales to Bernie.
We need the unions
In 2016, the left couldn’t win the primaries against the unions. We almost won this time without them. With a Biden/Harris candidacy, the left is once again on its heels, the rear guard of the Democratic Party. Of course, the left will have more room to maneuver if Biden/Harris defeat Trump, but it will remain the juniorest of partners. To avoid this happening every four years, over and over again, while the two parties of capital battle over the residual 1% of surplus value they can wring out of our dying empire, we need a labor movement worthy of its name. To build the kind of mass base that can win, and win decisively, we need the unions.
Sure, unions may be weaker than they were, but they remain the largest membership organizations, with political and legislative infrastructure, with certain legal rights that go beyond anything like an independent left NGO. The other thing that unions do that no other organization does is organize non-activists into a shared project of the working class — by virtue of working somewhere, you are bound up in the project of your union, cutting across every demographic and orientation. understanding why unions behave politically as they do is not simple, but is key to getting from here to there.
Why not work around the unions?
Even if we could, we wouldn’t want a left that wins without labor. That would create a base of reactionary, organized workers, that would work at cross purposes to the left. It’s also the case that we need something that functions as a union — building worker power at the workplace — if we are to win anything else that matters to us. It’s not just a representation without redistribution argument, though that’s real enough. It’s also the idea that we cannot have a workplace that remains the authoritarian, dehumanizing space that it is today if we want regular people to be empowered to run their own lives.
How do unions behave?
Unions are on the decline. Some of this is related to changes in the real economy, some changes in regulation of industry, some changes in labor law/practice, some is related to the change in the Democratic Party, some is related to failures of union strategy, some of it is related to failures of union leadership. All of these are worth exploring and understanding, but the upshot is you have institutions with shrinking bases and shrinking power.
There have been valiant efforts to fight against the sources of this diminution, but the symptoms of the disease of union decline have in the main created vicious cycles that exacerbate the decline itself. As unions weaken, they carve out increasingly sectional deals with employers and industries, with the rise of labor-management partnership and other capital-friendly “innovations”. They go for lower-hanging organizing fruit, scooping up low-wage workers without delivering gains for those workers, especially in the public sector where barriers to organizing are lower in traditional union states, and in the service industry. Politically, the unions become less politically independent, *just as* the need for political independence grows; they fight to preserve their status within the Party writ large rather than fighting for policies or political power in the direct interest of labor. We see more union mega-locals with fewer meetings, less member engagement or leader accountability.
Some particular manifestations of these types of behaviors are the unwillingness of 95% of labor to back Bernie Sanders, the obvious labor candidate in two successive presidential elections, and the refusal of all but one union local to endorse any primary challengers to incumbents across New York state elections this cycle. Labor being federated, localized, and very uneven across the country and across industries, none of these trends hold everywhere at all times, but in general we see a constellation of actors that sees itself as a partner in a Party, rather than a direct participant in political activity.
The vast majority of labor’s decisions on where to spend, who to support, how to lobby, are heavily mediated by the interests of the Democratic Party. But as labor shrinks in power, reach, an ambition, it increasingly takes a back seat to the other interests in the Party, especially big money donors and private capital. This limits labor’s political options even further. This is how we have a Democratic Party that hasn’t passed any labor reform in half a century, that continually champions anti-labor trade agreements, and generally worsens the political terrain upon which unions operate.
The disease and its symptoms are, as I mentioned above, creating a vicious cycle of union decline. So what would it take to change unions’ behavior, in terms of political action, bargaining/economic activity, new organizing/membership growth, or internal democracy and membership development? The answer is, these four fields are all inextricably tied together, and until there is a coherent push for a change in union behavior, on all four axes at once, we can’t hope to see a change in union decline.
The four axes of union activity
Unions essentially do four things.
- Represent workers at the workplace and in negotiations with employers
- Organize new workplaces into union representation.
- Build political power to change the terrain upon which negotiations and new organizing happen.
- Engage workers in democratic self-organization.
The problem with advocating for independent political action from labor is that its credibility with its membership is based on that fundamental representational activity at the workplace and between worker and employer. But that fundamental activity is weakened by the failure to organize new shops, creating an ever-shrinking island of isolated union members under siege by capital. That siege weakens the power of the union contract, making it less appealing to non-union workers to take the risk of organizing. That weakened growth then diminishes the political power of the union to change the terrain on which it organizes and bargains. All of this weakness creates a culture of fear and uselessness internally, often hardening the union leadership against member participation, and disincentivizing participation among the membership because who wants to waste their time on a dying organization?
Progressives and socialists in the labor movement can learn a lot from progressives and socialists in the Democratic Party. Some bristle at the comparison between unions and the DP — one is a self-funded, deeply-organized institution of members, the other is a corporate-funded, lightly-organized umbrella of donors and non-member voters — but there are more similarities than differences in this moment, from a strategic perspective. Both are in decline, both are semi-permeable, both are semi-democratic, both have eroded their own power bases through backsliding towards the interests of capital.
How has the left intervened in the Democratic Party? By running insurgent campaigns that challenge the Party to live up to its own purported image, by intervening in low-turnout elections, by using the bully pulpit to push incumbents left. In an old Trotskyist formulation, unionists with an eye towards union reform “aim at the boss and catch the union bureaucrats in the crossfire.” Is this not analogous to the left’s strategy in the Democratic Party? Aim at capital and catch the Democratic Party in the crossfire. It is a challenge to the Democrats as well as the union leadership to lead or get out of the way.
Existing critiques of labor’s political activity all tend to fall pretty flat (much as most pre-2016 critiques of the Democratic Party and socialists’ relationship to it seem flat, now, too). There is the over-broad denunciation of labor bureaucracy or labor “aristocracy,” anti-political syndicalism, sectarian proclamations about vanguard parties, labor law technocracy, and others. There is a little bit but not enough truth to all of these, and a need for a simple acceptance of the complexity of labor as an institution, and a willingness to get our hands dirty as we experiment, as DSA has in the Democratic Party.
Inside/outside strategy for labor
More than anything, it seems we need a coherent inside-outside strategy, with competent staffers doing good work around militant bargaining, progressive political action, new organizing, and member development and education in the limited number of unions where good work can be done without getting fired by a leadership committed against those good works for all the reasons stated above; and rank-and-file members acting politically independently of existing leadership, pushing union leaders to do the right thing from a position of strategic leverage, namely organizing a base of power within the unions from which to challenge union leaders in elections, contract campaigns, endorsement processes, issue-based resolutions, and other contestable spaces within unions.
We need an explicit organization of union members, and allied staffers and elected leaders, who will commit to certain bedrock principles: union democracy, anti-concessionary bargaining, militant tactics, new organizing, and independent political action. We need a union that fights for the whole working class by embracing social movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter. Too often, it is seen as a political risk to educate members on the connections between Black liberation, the women’s movement, and anti-colonial and anti-imperial movements, and the labor movement. We need to organize to make it a political duty. We need to run both issue-based campaigns and internal electoral campaigns in key unions. Building trades for a Green New Deal; a #RedforEd national leadership slate in the AFT; labor for Black lives.
These political groups exist in various forms, often as pet projects of various socialist organizations. Or there exist broader reform-minded formations or organizations (Teamsters for a Democratic Union, the United Caucuses of Rank and file Educators) but without an explicit political orientation beyond labor. What is needed is something like Labor for Bernie, but for the movement that is beyond Bernie, and one that is not afraid to challenge union leadership as it currently exists. Labor Network for Sustainability, Labor Campaign for Single Payer, the Association for Union Democracy, Labor Notes, all exist in a loose network of union reform, but there seems to be space right now for something more ambitious, more explicit about left politics, and more active in recruiting candidates for union leadership, and building issue-based campaigns within local, state, and national unions.
And maybe even more basic than any of this is a shared conversation around how labor operates politically, and why, and how we think we might break labor’s political status quo.