After 1965, Martin Luther King Jr’s thinking about poverty evolved from racial equality to more of a class perspective. He proposed a Poor People’s Campaign to challenge the government to end poverty and a broad coalition to support it. But building a coalition to back his program for economic justice proved more difficult than he imagined. It made his funders and even his closest advisors nervous. A proposed national march on Washington had to be postponed and King was growing frustrated.
Sanitation workers in Memphis, TN had been trying to get organized and win recognition from the city for years without success. After two workers were accidently crushed to death in one of the garbage trucks, a majority of the workers decided to strike on February 12, 1968 for union recognition and a contract.
The strike had been going on for months with growing frustration. Incidents of violence were increasing, mostly provoked by the racist and brutal Memphis police.
King recognized that the strike provided with an opportunity to demonstrate how the civil rights and economic justice movements could come together at the local level. He proposed bringing the campaign to Memphis.
Expand the Strike
King first went to meet with the strikers in Memphis on March 18. He spoke to 1,500 workers and supporters. King was well received and the crowd’s mood was militant and eager for action.
King said, “If America doesn’t use her vast resource of wealth to end poverty and make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life, she too is going to hell.” And he went on to describe how their strike was part of new direction for the civil rights movement:
“Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality. It isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?”
As the crowd cheered, King saw an opportunity to grow the movement by expanding the strike. He called for a general strike in the city of Memphis! Plans were made and a strike date was set. The tactical escalation was highly controversial.
Unfortunately, due to a freak snowstorm, the strike was called off. Amid growing threats to his life, King hurriedly left Memphis. However, he was not to be deterred and vowed to return.
Boycotts and economic action
King returned to Memphis on April 3, 1968 to support the strike again. At a rally with strikers and area clergy he gave his, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech — one of his most famous and fatefully his last. This is the speech where King predicted his own assassination.
However, the main subject of the speech was winning the sanitation strike. King advised they should use the power of the boycott to, “Always anchor our external direct action with the power of economic withdrawal.”
“We don’t have to argue with anybody. We don’t have to curse and go around acting bad with our words. We don’t need any bricks and bottles, we don’t need any Molotov cocktails, we just need to go around to these stores, and to these massive industries in our country, and say, “God sent us by here, to say to you that you’re not treating his children right. And we’ve come by here to ask you to make the first item on your agenda fair treatment, where God’s children are concerned. Now, if you are not prepared to do that, we do have an agenda that we must follow. And our agenda calls for withdrawing economic support from you.”
Making our pain, their pain
When workers go on strike, it almost immediately involves personal sacrifice. As the weeks and months go by, that sacrifice becomes real pain inflicted on the strikers and their families. King’s quote from his last speech is particularly relevant to most every strike situation:
“Up to now, only the garbage men have been feeling pain; now we must redistribute the pain. We are choosing these companies because they haven’t been fair in their hiring policies; and we are choosing them because they can begin the process of saying, they are going to support the needs and the rights of these men who are on strike. And then they can move on downtown and tell Mayor Loeb to do what is right.”
One day longer
King knew the importance of winning, of keeping spirits up and sticking together. He said, “We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point, in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through.”
To the clergy and other civil rights supporters, King delivered a powerful message of solidarity: “And when we have our march, you need to be there. Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together.”
Near the end of the speech, King used the “Good Samaritan” parable from the bible to implore everyone to make even greater sacrifices to help the workers win. He concluded with words that have an uncanny relevance to our time:
“Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness… Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation.”
King’s strategic advice to the striking Memphis sanitation workers is still useful for workers seeking to improve their lives with direct action today. Once on strike, expand the struggle beyond the immediate company to its corporate allies and suppliers; use boycotts and economic action to involve supporters; transform the pain inflicted on strikers, to pain inflicted on executives, board members and investors; be prepared to stay in the struggle one day longer with “dangerous unselfishness”; and perhaps most importantly, winning requires placing the struggle in a larger context that challenges elected officials and government at every level to make America a better nation!
*Adapted from remarks by Rand Wilson on January 16, 2017 at the Capital District Area Labor Federation’s 20th Annual MLK Labor Celebration in Albany, NY. In nearby Waterford, NY there are 700 workers on strike at Momentive Performance Materials and in Green Island, NY, dozens of workers have been locked out at a Honeywell aerospace plant for more than nine months.
 Memphis sanitation strike
 I’ve Been to the Mountaintop
 “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”
The Stansbury Forum has received a lot of interest in the article we ran by Leopoldo Tartaglia from the CGIL on the Italian NO vote on December 4. Many news commentators have characterized the NO vote as akin to the Trump victory in the US and the Brexitt vote in England in June of 2016. Our readers have asked for the specifics of the actual proposed constitutional amendments and the demographic character of the NO vote. Nicola Benvenuti and Leopoldo have graciously agreed to help clarify these issues for our American readers. Nicola and Leopoldo have analyses that differ on YES or NO but agree on some of the underlying social and political demographics.
We are proud to continue to present political perspectives from Italia Bella and we will be covering additional Italian national referendums to be held in the spring on labor reform.
The December 4 referendum on constitutional reform in Italy was of great importance. There was a high turnout, more in keeping with candidate elections than referendums that historically had drawn fewer voters. Commentators have attributed this turnout to the reckless gamble of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi who made the referendum a plebiscite on himself and his government. On the one hand he was counting on the fact that the reform reduced the cost of government by eliminating the salaries of the new Federal senators, and by changing the powers of the regions and reducing the salaries of elected regional councils. In truth these savings were for “populist appeal” and would have had little impact on the high cost of Italian government. On the other hand the referendum was about the unanimously recognized need to streamline political processes, in particular by reforming perfect bicameralism. At present the House and Senate have the same legislative powers – which means double the time for the approval of laws. The referendum also sought a revision of the system of checks and institutional counterweights, created in 1947 to ensure the coexistence of radically different positions such as those that emerged from the East-West conflict. These “safeguards” have now become opportunities for blackmail and the backroom deals typical of Italian politics.
“Forces that are totally antagonistic”
However a disaggregated analysis of the vote shows the social character of the result: a high percentage of young people and unemployed voted NO, with the highest NO votes in the South and on the islands (Sicily and Sardegna): a sign that the promises of Renzi to rejuvenate – or “scrap” – the ruling groups so as to make way for a new generation, new ways of thinking and new solutions to the problems of the country, had no effect on youth unemployment (in July 2016, + 2 points, reaching 39.2%), nor have his policies curbed the fall of the middle class into poverty (A decline of almost 8% of the population, with an increase of 141% in ten years). The referendum vote very dramatically highlights the separation between politics and the actual social situation.
From a political point of view the situation created by the referendum vote is as follows:
1. “YES” was supported by only the Partito Democratico (PD) despite the fact that the constitutional law (voted in Parliament) had also been supported by the opposition center-right (but not Five Stars), while “NO” was supported by: a) Five Stars, b) the right c) the left inside and outside the PD. Forces that are totally antagonistic. Hence the assessment that, politically, “NO” was not an alternative project but only a vote against Renzi and the Democratic Party government, without much real consideration of the merits of the constitutional reform. Renzi noted that the vote had meaning beyond the reform and resigned to leave the field to a very similar government to achieve electoral reform with votes in the Senate that has maintained its previous power because of the NO vote in the referendum. (In 2015 the Parliament had passed a law only in the Chamber of Deputies, anticipating the modification of the Senate on December 4).
2. This begins a period of instability and political uncertainty, something that the country does not really need given the difficult international and economic choices that lie ahead. Italy needs stability and a sense of responsibility, not political infighting. Germany achieved this stability with the Grand Coalition policy. In Italy there was a unity of purpose because of the danger of financial failure and international pressure, but only with a “technical” government, the government of Monti ( November 16, 2011 – April 28, 2013) supported by the whole parliament. The Monti government passed emergency measures, but also passed political reforms, like the one that provides for the extension of the age for retirement, that no party had the courage to make alone. The Renzi program, from the constitutional reform project and the movement of the party towards the center in an attempt to strike a deal with Berlusconi, was precisely to establish the political conditions for incisive action in this dramatic emergency situation.
3. The vote has sanctioned a fracture in the left and in the PD based in part on internal opposition and an attempt to regain control of the party more than on the merits of the legislative measures put in play. Renzi, who is also the Secretary of the PD has turned a deaf ear to corrections required by the internal opposition that voted against the reform. Even if this rift is overcome a restructuring of the left is inevitable. The former Mayor of Milan Pisapia of Sinistra Ecologia Liberta (SEL), a political organization to the left of the PD, formed an alliance between the radical left, PD and personalities of the center, and managed to maintain a center left government in that city while the PD lost the Mayor’s races in both Turin and Rome. Pisapia has proposed an independent aggregation of left forces with an explicit program of conditional support for the policies of the Democratic Party from the outside. But it is still too early to say what will happen.
Beyond political alchemy, the Italian situation is such that the public debt does not offer great margins for economic or social maneuvers, and the danger once again is that the radical differences and fracturing of political forces pushes everyone to avoid the grave and unpopular responsibilities necessary to escape the crisis.
Please scoll down to read the second article on the Italian referendum by Lepoldo Tartaglia
“Everyone can agree that a Constitution is the fundamental pact building a society and a State and that any change has to be evaluated carefully… That was not the case”
The Renzi government’s crisis was fixed in about ten days. A new government, led by Paolo Gentiloni, former Foreign Minister, obtained a confidence vote, from the Chamber of Deputies (the lower chamber), and the Senate (the upper chamber). Most of the ministers have been confirmed; the parliamentarian majority is the same; “continuity” is the word used most often in the policy speech of the new prime minister. None of the financial disasters predicted before the vote in the case of a No victory have happened; actually, the Milan stock exchange did better than before.
Nevertheless, the political earthquake was important and fresh elections are around the corner.
Two important events are coming. On January 11th the Constitutional Court will decide whether the three referendums that the CGIL has proposed that would delete the worst rules of the so called “Jobs Act” and previous labor market laws, can go forward. On January 24th, the same Court will decide on the electoral law pushed for by the Renzi government, in an attempt to resolve the unconstitutionality of the previous electoral law. Many predict a new negative decision, due to the fact that the so called “Italicum” (the Renzi made law) replicates the problem of too many parliamentary seats being given to the party with the largest percentage of the vote, and the fact that voters under Italicum have little chance of voting for the candidate of their choice, rather than a person decided on by the parties’ leadership.
In order to go to fresh elections, the Parliament has to approve a new law, based on the upcoming Constitutional Court decision, and establish an electoral system for both chambers, given that the Italicum assumed that only the Chamber of Deputies was elective – which would have been the case in the event of a YES victory in the December 4th referendum.
What was really at stake in the constitutional referendum? Why did a significant part of the left and the center left (including the minority of the Democratic Party, the Renzi party) and the most important leftist social mass organizations stand on the NO front? What are the linkages between the vote and the social situation of the country?
1) The reform’s contents
While the vote was charged by many political meanings (see below), there was widespread opposition to the reform’s contents. This begins with the method of its approval, which also explains why we went to the referendum.
Everyone can agree that a Constitution is the fundamental pact building a society and a State and that any change has to be evaluated carefully by searching for a large consensus in the parliament and in the country. That was not the case: the reform law had been approved only by the parliament’s majority (very narrow in the Senate), and with recourse to a confidence vote, reducing the scope of the debate also inside the majority itself.
The national referendum was not a nice democratic concession by the Renzi government: it was compulsory, according to the Constitution, because the reform didn’t reach the required two third parliamentary vote to pass directly without the need of electoral validation.
“… this would lead to dysfunction in the regulation and management of essential public services …”
Renzi propagated a myth that the “old” Constitution had never been modified in 70 years. In fact, the Italian Constitution was promulgated in 1948 and has been changed many times. The last change, in 2012 happened with a practically unanimous parliamentary vote, under the Monti government and it changed Article 81, introducing the obligation to balance the State’s annual budget. In 2001 and 2006 people were called to vote on constitutional referendums, again because the majority coalition changed the Constitution without the necessary parliamentarian approval. In 2001, the reform was backed by the center left, and the majority of voters confirmed it (with a very low turnout, about 30%). In 2006, the popular vote defeated the reform that had been approved in Parliament only by the Berlusconi majority (turnout 52%).
The Renzi reform was the largest one, so far, regarding 47 articles of the second part of the Constitution (institutional organization of the State). The core of the reform was to fix the present “perfectly bicameral” system, where the parliament upper and lower houses have equal legislative powers. Renzi wanted to replace the directly elected Senate of 315 seats, with a smaller chamber of 100 members, chosen by the Regional Councils from among their members.
Along with many other constitutional changes, the second most important “reform” regarded the relations between the central State and the Regions; taking away much of the authority of local governments that the 2001 center left reform had given them. And in the opinion of many constitutional scholars (including many former members and presidents of the Constitutional Court – most of whom stood on the NO front), this would lead to dysfunction in the regulation and management of essential public services delegated to the Region, and to a huge increase in authority disputes between the Regions and the Italian State.
“ … the majority of the population, particularly young people, workers and those living in southern Italy, has not seen any positive change …”
Also the supposed elimination of “perfect bicameralism” was unclear, due to the confusing nature of the proposed new regulation and the capacity of the Senate to call for the review of any proposed law it wanted to examine. The only clear new rule on the relation between the two chambers was that a confidence vote in the government was given by the reform solely to the Chamber of Deputies – leaving Italy with a parliamentary system, not a presidential one.
There is an important institutional question that also fueled the NO position, even if it was not directly included in the reform: the linkage between the new role of the Chamber of Deputies and the new electoral law. The electoral law called “Italicum” states that the party that wins the election (with 40% of the vote in the first ballot; or wins the second ballot between the first two parties, regardless the percentage of vote in the first run) gains the 54% of the seats (332 out of 615). So, due to the Italian institutional system, as a result of the reform, that party (which might be very small in terms of real representation), would have been able not only to elect the prime minister and the government, but the President of the Republic and the Constitutional Judges (elected by members of both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate).
So, the constitutional reform was seen by the leftist opposition (and not only) as a big concentration of powers: from Regions and local authorities to the central State; from Parliament to Government; from Government to the party winner of the elections (in a context of reduced representation, given the very high majority premium guaranteed by the new electoral law).
In the opinion of those on the left who opposed the reform, there was a clear continuity with the last institutional and electoral reforms in Italy, that were mainly pushed by the center-right parties and international financial powers, and aimed to concentrate political power, reduce the representativeness of the parliament and reduce the space of the opposition in order to sterilize the voice of the working class. In fact, in the last 25 years, several changes to the electoral laws and a push toward a “de facto” presidential system, denied by the Constitution, contributed to the restriction of the people’s political participation and, particularly, to the progressive exclusion of the radical left from the parliament (obviously, with a huge assist from the litigious leftist organizations themselves).
2) The vote’s political meanings
In a normal scenario, a constitutional reform is an issue largely in the hands of Parliament, with the Government less involved, or not involved at all. However, in this case, it was the Renzi Government playing the game, with two clear objectives: build up a more centralized institutional system and give more power to the government; realize a resounding victory in the referendum as electoral validation for a government and a leadership never chosen through a popular election. As you might remember, Renzi was not a parliamentarian and he became prime minister after his victory in the internal primary vote for the Democratic Party’s leadership and he pushed his own party parliamentarians to withdraw the confidence in then Prime Minister Enrico Letta, member of his same Partito Democratico (PD).
However, despite the clear signals of popular discontent – particularly in the June 2016 municipal elections, when the PD lost 19 out of 20 second ballots – Renzi launched the referendum campaign as a vote on him and his government, claiming that his government had obtained amazing results on the economy, employment, political renewal and so on.
Yes, the effect was truly amazing: he was able to coalesce not only previous voters of the opposition parties – those of the divided centre right, the small far left and, over all, the Five Star Movement, which actually was the largest vote getter in the 2013 political elections – but also a large number of people disaffected from politics, who in recent years had deserted the polling stations.
The popular rejection of the government and its policies and the opposition to the reform’s contents added up reaching together more than 19 million votes.
3) The demography of the vote: a class “revolt”?
Is there a social configuration of the vote? Yes, off course.
Firstly, it’s worth noting that, despite the Renzi propaganda on the “new”, on the YES vote “for the future” against the NO as the return to the past, the NO vote was particularly large among the young generations. While the YES prevailed only among the over 65 years old (56% against 44%), the largest NO vote was among the 25 – 34 years old voters (72% against 28%).
The YES vote won with a narrow margin only in three regions out of twenty (Trentino Alto Adige 53.9%; Tuscany 52.5%; Emilia Romagna 50.4%) which are regions traditionally on the centre left and PD side, but also among the better off regions in Italy. On the contrary, the largest NO results came from the southern Italy regions (Sardinia 72.2%, Sicily 71.6%, Campania 68.5%), notoriously the poorest part of the country, affected by a huge level of unemployment, and a high gap in terms of incomes and living conditions in comparison with the center and the north of Italy.
According to a survey of the Istituto Cattaneo, a think tank based in Bologna, specializing in opinion polls and research on electoral behavior, there was an apparent link between the vote and income. Considering that Bologna itself was one of the few towns were the YES vote prevailed, the difference in the NO vote there ranged from 51.3% for people earning less than 18,000 euros yearly to 40.1% for people earning more than 25,000 euros yearly.
In many districts, particularly in the largest towns and in regions where there was strong support for the rightist parties there was an apparent link between the NO vote and the presence of a relatively large number of migrants, meaning also a rejection of government policy perceived as too open to immigration.
So, what all the commentators argue – and, at the end, Renzi himself admitted before the steering committee of his party, is that the vote was largely a vote against the social and economic policies carried out by his government. Despite the optimism enthusiastically spread by Renzi, Italy is still in the midst of the crisis, with a very low rate of growth, large unemployment, particularly among the youth, a rising rate of poverty and inequality. Nor was Renzi’s attempt to distinguish himself from the unpopular austerity policies led by the European Commission seen as authentic.
The major social reforms the government claimed – particularly the so called “Jobs Act” (Renzi titled the law in the English language) – resulted, as unions and Cgil in particular said from the beginning, in making work more precarious, without any visible growth in jobs.
In general, in a stagnant economic landscape, the majority of the population, particularly young people, workers and those living in southern Italy, has not seen any positive change in its situation and doesn’t have any confidence in the political establishment, although the rulers attempted to disguise themselves as anti-casta (anti establishment).
The Stansbury Forum is proud to publish organizer and labor attorney Peter Haberfeld’s diagnostic of the Bernie Sander’s ground game in Berkeley/Oakland in the run-up to the California primary in June of 2016. This is a longer piece than The Stansbury Forum normally publishes, but we make an exception here because of the rich detail of the challenges of building grass roots political power that Haberfeld presents. Haberfeld contrasts the “organizing” work that he and his comrades attempted to do with the “mobilizing” approach of many in the national Sanders campaign, and their over reliance on social media and barnstorming meetings. It is useful however to remember that the work that Haberfeld describes is all in the context of a “movement moment” that electrified the country, particularly the millennials. Readers who are interested in contrasting styles of thinking about base building and power will enjoy, and learn much from Mark and Paul Engler’s book, “This is an Uprising” published by Nation Books, and soon to be reviewed on The Forum. Many thanks to Peter Haberfeld for being willing to publish such a compelling organizer’s tale. We hope that discussion and comments will flow. The Editors
“The ‘warmer’ the contact, the stronger the relationship.”
Let’s present the question simply as we confront a situation of growing urgency. How can the 99% defend themselves against the power of the 1% that have purchased the political system, continue to enrich themselves at our expense, and can be expected to stop at nothing as they seek to repress those who challenge their domination? How do we organize ourselves to alter that imbalance of power?
Together, we have to develop many different organizing strategies. The assumption here is that some of us have develop ways to win election campaigns at the local, state and national level. The following comments describe the “nuts and bolts” of election organizing: building a volunteer base, phone banks, house meetings, one-on-ones, canvassing door-to-door, voter registration, social media, forming alliances, the difference between mobilizing and organizing, and some ideas about how to continue fighting for the agenda past the election.
These are some post-election reflections from Berkeley and Oakland about trying to win the California Democratic Party primary for Bernie Sanders, a small but important part of his national campaign. The comments also point out some shortcomings of Bernie’s campaign in our area.
We can learn from the “elders”:
We did not invent these techniques of welding together a volunteer force capable of winning elections. Collectively, we learned, directly and indirectly, from the disciples of legendary organizer Fred Ross Sr.—whose story is well-told by Gabriel Thompson in the biography America’s Social Arsonist: Fred Ross and Grassroots Community Organizing in the Twentieth Century. Also deserving mention are: Cesar Chavez, Marshall Ganz, Fred Ross Jr., Larry Tramutola, Paul Milne, Glenn Schneider.
Creating a volunteer base:
My partner Tory Griffith, Carla Woodworth and I combined forces, beginning in October 2015, as we witnessed Bernie’s campaign pick up steam across the country. We prepared for the national campaign’s arrival and its hoped-for-success in the Berkeley-Oakland area.
Our first task was to begin creating the volunteer base. We printed a volunteer card, set a goal of 1000 volunteers by the end of December, and began to attend events to talk with people one-to-one about Bernie’s campaign. The volunteer card asked for contact information and listed campaign tasks: hold house meeting, talk to voters by telephone and house to house, staff office, distribute signs….
We asked questions. Had the person heard about his campaign? What did they think about it? We asked whether we could keep in touch with them and, together, find something they would like to do at a time that was convenient for them.
During one week-end, we went to a street fair, an event on Shattuck Avenue, one of Berkeley’s main arteries. We were surprised, and excited, by the cross section of people who were politically well-informed, and how many were ready to talk and willing to fill out the volunteer card. Some came from Walnut Creek, a mostly white, middle-class suburb about 20 minutes east from Oakland/Berkeley.
Listening, we quickly understood that there is widespread dissatisfaction. People want change, big change. Bernie’s message had hit a responsive chord.
Combining with young allies:
A few days later, we went to a meeting of students on the UC campus and connected with some “tech-savy”, motivated people who had visions of organizing the campus. They said that they wanted to run phone banks. (It is more productive and more social to call for three hours with other people than it is amid numerous distractions at home.) I told them that was our next step as well. They filled out cards. We agreed to collaborate.
Carla found an art gallery on University Avenue, Berkeley’s other main street. She talked the owner into letting us use it for free. It was a good space for a phone bank.
The UC students helped connect with the national Sanders campaign. It asked us to call voters in States that were about to hold their primary. Our volunteers were able to log-on and download phone numbers, instructions and scripts. We scheduled them to call in three-hour shifts and asked that they bring a cell phone, a lap top and a charger.
We began recruiting volunteers to attend the phone bank on Saturdays from 10 to 3, a time period that enabled them to reach the voters whose names and numbers were supplied by the national campaign. As the California primary approached, we called California voters.
Building an organization on the foundation of individual relationships:
We did everything possible to begin developing a relationship with each volunteer. Tory greeted people, had them sign in, gave them a name tag, set them up with a student assistant if they needed help, and pointed out the food and the location of the rest rooms. She captured them as they completed their shift to ask about their experience on the telephone, thank them, and sign them up for the following week on butcher paper at the exit. We promised to contact them at their phone number and email address a day before their next scheduled participation on the phone bank to remind them of their commitment. Tory quickly memorized everyone’s name, and treated each like a comrade.
During the phone bank session, we called people who had signed up the previous week but had not showed up. We had two purposes: reschedule “no-shows” and hold them accountable. We let them know that we noticed that they missed their shift, assured them that we knew they were committed to Bernie’s victory, and pointed out that they had a continuing opportunity to succeed. We signed them up for another day.
Our attendance grew. Several times we had over 95 callers on a Saturday. On one day we had 105. Together, we called thousands of voters in other States and enjoyed believing that we helped produce some wins.
In the words of Fred Ross Sr.: “Short cuts are always detours.”
House meetings, a building block:
Tory and I began doing house meetings. Aggie Rose Chavez, David Weintraub and Stu Flashman, three experienced organizers, helped by leading those we were unable to cover. Building a grassroots movement with house meetings is a technique that was created by Fred Ross Sr. and Cesar Chavez as they organized the farm workers union. It has been used since in many organizing drives throughout the US. Bernie’s national campaign did not do house meetings.
We began by meeting one-to-one with people who were interested in inviting relatives, friends, acquaintances, neighbors to a Bernie meeting at their home. We did not soft-sell the task. Instead, we were very clear with prospective hosts that to produce a decent house meeting, attended by12 to 20 guests, you have to make 60 to 80 calls, get firm commitments instead of “maybe”, and do a round of reminder calls a day before the event. (Our experience demonstrates that failure to do reminder calls results in a 30% loss of attendance.) Emails and phone messages help focus busy people on an event, but do not substitute for a person-to-person conversation that yields a clear commitment. In the words of Fred Ross Sr.: “Short cuts are always detours.”
The prospective hosts agreed that we check with them several times before the meeting about their progress getting firm commitments from potential guests. Our support would also include directing people to their meeting. But we would call off their meeting if they were unable to get at least ten. A number of potential hosts decided not to hold a house meeting. We cancelled some house meetings in order to avoid failures.
At the house meeting, we began with a welcome from the host who also explained what it was about Bernie and his campaign that motivated them to do the work of convening a house meeting. Then, we asked each person to introduce themselves and explain their interest in Bernie’s campaign. People were no longer anonymous. They could teach and learn from each other. Listeners acquired a sense about what they had in common with other guests and heard several perspectives about the importance of the campaign. Guests began to be aware that they were not alone. Some began to sense the possibility of collective power, an important part of creating organization.
We began the meeting by explaining the agenda and promising that the meeting would be completed in less than one and a half hours. That promise justified a rigorous adherence to the agenda and the time allotted to each item.
We showed some Bernie videos we got off the web, told our respective stories (some biography and why the campaign was personally important to us), held a brief discussion, explained the campaign, filled out volunteer cards, and made a pitch for money. We signed guests up to participate at the phone bank. Others volunteered to hold a house meeting. We raised about $10,000 that we sent to Bernie and cash that we used to pay for the food and drinks we made available to volunteers.
Our best organizers, as usual, turned out to be the people who held the most successful house meetings. We enlisted them to help us call the local campaign’s volunteer base to schedule volunteers for phone banking and the canvassing that took place in the neighborhoods contacting voters at their residence.
Our initial meeting with the prospective house meeting host resembled an additional technique that is used by organizers of grass roots movements. The organizer asks questions designed to get to know the person’s interests and values. What is it, in the individual’s view about their background and hopes that causes them to respond positively to Bernie’s campaign? The interchange encourages the person to think about, and act on, their aspirations for a better world, for themselves, their children, and their community. The one-to-one is a respectful and somewhat probing exchange that evolves into an invitation by the organizer to act with like-minded individuals.
A local Democratic Club served as the sponsor of the phone bank and fronted the money for signs, buttons and later lawn signs. Merely a few of its members showed up at the phone banks and held a house meeting. Some prefer the realm of ideas to building collective power, the labor intensive, person-to-person contact with voters.
A few people who show up at phone banks, canvassing, and house meetings prefer to talk, give advice about what else should be done, and speculate about the various candidates’ chances of winning. Try as you may, you can’t get them to commit to a specific task. Unless you are careful, they will waste the time you have to spend with active volunteers.
Why didn’t more people who had gone out of their way to sign-up on the national web site feel they had made a commitment and honor it by returning another volunteer’s phone call, signing up for a shift, and then showing up to do their part?
The new technology:
We discovered a treasure trove of potential volunteers. One of the UC students “accessed” the Sanders national web site and downloaded about one thousand of the 7000 names of people who had signed up from the Berkeley area to volunteer in Bernie’s campaign.
We made cards for the new people and began calling them. (Later we developed a data base for all volunteers and listed the results of our various contacts.) It was difficult to reach them. Despite our pleasant, sensitive, caring messages, hardly anyone called back. We found some good people, but very few out of the number we called. It was like “cold calling,” a term used by telemarketers.
Why didn’t more people who had gone out of their way to sign-up on the national web site feel they had made a commitment and honor it by returning another volunteer’s phone call, signing up for a shift, and then showing up to do their part? One reason was that it is always best to find something for the new volunteer to do immediately. Unfortunately, the new list was “cold”: they had signed up weeks before and had not received a call or contact.
An additional reason has to do in some way with the limitation of social media. Those communications, alone, do not produce the kind of personal relationships which in turn can produce mutual commitments. I recall Cesar Chavez teaching his organizers about how to deliver the union’s newspaper El Macriado: “Don’t leave a stack of them on the counter in the union office. Don’t leave them where people live. Hand them to people individually and have a face to face conversation. The ‘warmer’ the contact, the stronger the relationship.”
Neither signing up on a web site, nor communicating by email is warm enough. It does not create the powerful bond needed to weld together a community of mutually committed activists. In our local experience, the national campaign’s approach relied too much on social media and was weak on relationship building.
There may be an additional factor operating. Our society has become more and more atomistic. Fewer people live in areas they grew up in, with familial ties, as part of communities they depend on. The new technologies and the demands of a person’s job(s) isolate them further. Although there appears to be yearning for community, people are accountable at most to immediate family. They find it difficult to commit to others even for something they believe in. These obstacles may be overcome as worsening conditions give more and more people an urgent, personal stake in confronting what Bernie has aptly described as a rigged economic and political system.
The national campaign’s “barnstorm”:
One day, we learned that two volunteers from San Leandro would use our space in Berkeley to conduct a “barnstorm” on a Friday evening That is a Sanders campaign invention that puts out an invitation on social media, asks for confirmation and hopes for the best. We did not ask permission, but had eight of our people greeting guests at the door with pens and volunteer cards. We collected 383 cards.
“We lost an experienced organizer.”
The meeting had a good spirit but a totally chaotic way of recruiting people to work. Individuals were encouraged to stand up and invite people to their house, office, a local café, or wherever, to make calls, in other words to organize an impromptu phone bank. The do-your-own-thing approach did not urge the hosts to get the contact information from people who wanted to come, and there was no organized way to give reminder calls–a fatal flaw. Also, the national campaign encouraged people to log-in and begin making calls from their homes, but it had no way of knowing who was doing what. It had no on-going contact with those potentially active volunteers.
On the day following the “barn-storm”, we began using the completed cards to call people and urge them to come to our phone bank on Saturday. Later, after the national campaign people came to Oakland, they did another “barnstorm,” but they refused our offer to connect with people individually at the entrance, fill out cards, and get contact information. Instead, people stood in line to sign-in at a computer.
Carla considered the national organizers inexperienced and viewed their campaign structure as ill-conceived. She wanted a full time office for the Berkeley campaign and a precinct operation in which captains were recruited and trained to take responsibility for contacting voters in a particular geographical area. She finally quit over disagreements. We lost an experienced organizer.
Precinct captain structure:
We tried to negotiate with the staff an opportunity to put together a precinct captain structure. The Sanders people had claimed they were building an organization as opposed to merely mobilizing. We argued that without a structure in which people take ongoing responsibility for part of the campaign, in this case contacting a certain number of voters in the precinct to which they were assigned, preferably in their own neighborhood, the campaign was reduced to mobilizing volunteers each week from square one. The campaign seemed to agree with our request but did not want us to do anything different and made it all so complicated that it became impossible.
We went along with their structure. Our volunteers wanted to work with the campaign rather than quit.
Mobilizing for each week-end continued to be difficult and frustrating. We were not building an organization of shared responsibility and leadership.
To illustrate how this contrasts with a more effective organizing campaign, let me explain briefly how to set up a precinct captain model. The county registrar of voters has divided the electoral district into precincts, and produces lists of voters’ names, addresses, phone numbers, political party, and age, that can be obtained in hard copy or on the computer. The organizer approaches the most energetic and reliable volunteers and asks them to be responsible for contacting voters in a particular geographical area, the precinct, to identify Bernie supporters and later turn them out to vote. The captain is responsible for figuring out how to be most productive, namely making the contact when the voter is most likely to be home.
The organizer and precinct captain set a realistic goal for the precinct and schedule phone conversations to take place during the week when the captain will report numbers of voters contacted and responses. The organizer explains that s/he is there to help the captain, to suggest ways to overcome any difficulties and to send other volunteers to help form a team under the direction of the captain. A strong, on-going connection is forged between the organizer and her/his captains. The campaign is clear what it needs and encourages the captain to use her/his creativity how to accomplish the goal.
The Sanders campaign did not venture into our suggested realm of organizing. It even refused to take its list of supposedly 7000 people from the Berkeley-Oakland area who had signed up on the national web site and match their addresses with precinct numbers. We had explained that such a list would enable us to interest potential captains in assuming responsibility for working their particular neighborhood. Staff members told us that the national campaign wanted to keep that list separate for fund-raising.
The staff person assigned to our office had launched a Bernie student group at UC Davis and worked in another State’s primary before California’s election. She had good computer skills and worked hard to implement her campaign’s program. She was encouraged about our capacity to turn out more people for phone banking and precinct walking than “any other office in the State,” a fact that, if true, reflected badly on what was going on elsewhere.
There was no effort to figure out whether to attribute our “success” to the relationships we built or to Berkeley’s political history. The national campaign’s East Bay “headquarters”, located in upscale Rockridge, had the reputation as an unfriendly place run by an in-group of staff members. Some of that office’s refugees preferred to work out of our office in Berkeley.
Immediately, after their arrival in the East Bay, the national staff asked us to register voters at supermarkets and other locations of high volume pedestrian traffic. We approached passers-by and offered to register those who had never voted. We offered to re-register those who recently had moved or changed their name, or who were registered in another Party (primarily Peace and Freedom and Green Party members) and would have to re-register as Democrats to vote for Bernie in the primary.
Although this kind of voter registration gave the campaign visibility, it did not focus on the campaign’s main objective. We were legally obligated to, and did, register people whatever their party affiliation, which included the Republican Party and the further right American Independent Party. We had no idea whether the person we signed up to vote was a Bernie supporter. We were not necessarily going to have further contact, to persuade the Bernie supporters to vote on Election Day.
Later the staff agreed that it was best to register voters as we canvassed neighborhoods, a task that was focused, in contrast, on the campaign’s main objective: contact voters, get a commitment to vote for Bernie, turn Bernie supporters out on Election Day.
GOTV (Get out the Vote):
On the last week-end before the election, the staff sent us to houses of voters we supposedly had identified as Bernie supporters. We could increase turnout by motivating them to vote the following Tuesday, Election Day. Most of the people on the list, to our surprise, had not been contacted before. Many had voted absentee and others intended to vote for Hillary. The campaign was wasting our time. More importantly, it risked motivating Hillary supporters to go to the polls.
I do not know how widespread the problem was. California had been expected to vote for Bernie but the turn-out was surprisingly low. Perhaps that was because voters assumed by that time that Hillary was the winner. Her campaign was implying that Bernie was a bad sport by not conceding the California race.
“The organizer has an obligation to explain, without letting anyone off the hook, how that hard work can and must be accomplished.”
Relationship to Bernie’s national campaign organization:
Although we began by running a separate operation before the national campaign arrived in the Bay Area, it affected our work before and after its arrival. The national campaign engendered a “do your own thing” mentality. People interpreted the on-line “how to” suggestions as encouragement to do whatever. As a consequence, undirected volunteerism was a problem.
One self-appointed volunteer-recruiter encouraged people to act in ways that were really a waste of their time, for example to wave Bernie signs at passing motorists from freeway overpasses. She was not aware of, and therefore did not explain, the campaign’s priorities at the little barnstorm meeting she convened in her friend’s back yard.
The “disorganizer” and the local director argued that the campaign did not want to discourage anyone who was inclined to volunteer. That orientation, in my mind, fails to meet the organizer’s responsibility to potential volunteers. They wanted Bernie to win. The organizer has an obligation to explain, without letting anyone off the hook, how that hard work can and must be accomplished.
The “do you own thing” approach was related to another shortcoming of the campaign. If it had numerical goals for the State and our local operation, they were not communicated to the volunteers. If the campaign kept track of the State campaign’s progress and the contributions local groups were making toward meeting its goals, the information was never published to the volunteer base. That presented a big problem. We did not know what we, or any of the other local operations, had to do to meet goals and whether we were doing our share or better. Meeting goals did not become every participant’s project. We were not empowered by knowing what we were accomplishing collectively.
Some self-criticism is in order:
Our phone banks could have been more systematic. Although we spoke with callers on an ad hoc basis, we should have conducted an orientation at the beginning of each shift that explained the stages of the voter contact: national calling, and then local calling, house-to-house canvassing, and getting Bernie supporters to the polls. We could have calculated the average number of voters contacted per hour and asked the caller to adopt that number as a personal goal and to keep track of the total calls made. We could have included an explanation how each caller’s results, although they may have appeared insignificant because voters did not answer most of the calls, combined with others to make an impact.
Our difficulty arose from the fact that callers arrived at different times between 10 and 3. But we could have conducted trainings every 10 or 15 minutes.
They also left at different times. That made it difficult to bring them together for their comments and our summary of what people accomplished collectively. We could have presented that tally if we had insisted that each caller maintain an accurate count of their calls (voters contacted and voters reached).
Some potential volunteers pushback against a campaign that is directed from the top. There is apprehension about structure, authority, organizers rallying them to produce numbers. They resist clear goals and continual measurement. They are unwilling to be personally accountable for their part of the campaign. We saw that tendency in the Occupy movement as well as, to some degree, during Bernie’s campaign.
To elect a candidate, the labor-intensive work of contacting voters has to be done thoroughly, in a finite amount of time. Of course, you have to have a hard working candidate who has no illusions about what it takes to win and helps focus the volunteers on meeting the campaign’s goals. Mail is important, and some endorsements help, but it is the superiority of the ground operation that makes the difference.
As many people as possible deserve the opportunity to participate in a well-functioning organizational structure that wins improvements in people’s lives. That happens on an election campaign when the candidate defeats her/his opponents. It is the experience of doing one’s part with others, building that kind of collective power, that increases the probability that volunteers will continue on grass roots campaigns.
Your relationship with the candidate:
Bernie explained to his supporters that an election campaign has to be about more than electing a candidate to office. It has to be part of an ongoing campaign to bring about significant improvements in our lives. It’s about organizing for a specific agenda before and after Election Day.
Sander’s biography demonstrates that his success in Vermont has depended on the on-going organization of his constituents. He meets with them periodically throughout the State to discuss the issues that affect their lives. He invites them to tell their personal stories at public forums, to formal bodies, to the media. The 80% support he received in Vermont’s last senatorial election is a product of many years of relationship building.
Even the best-intentioned office holder with the most progressive agenda is relatively powerless without the continuing activism of supporters. Yet, unlike Bernie Sanders, most of them make no effort to develop it. They fear that it would complicate their life. They depend, instead, on their limited power of persuasion and deal-making with other elected officials. They are drawn to the pomp, perks, and flattery that surround them. Typical office holders become isolated and remote from the average constituent. Their relationships are almost exclusively with (1) the campaign donors who can be persuaded to help them remain in office, and (2) the heads of, or legislative representatives of, key endorsing organizations that have a large presence in their districts (like big public employee unions). In addition, they count on their staff members to provide individual services to constituents whose loyalty they expect in return at the time of the following election.
“Before signing up to help a candidate get elected, insist on a specific agreement about the relationship that will continue after the election.”
What can you do to ensure that your candidate remains loyal to the constituents and to those of you who personally contacted voters to build support for a progressive agenda? Will the candidate take steps to continually expand her/his base among the voters throughout the electoral district? Will the voters be enlisted to present testimony to, and lobby, elected officials in support of the campaign’s agenda? Does the candidate agree that the data base of volunteers and supporters that you built during the campaign belongs to the organization that put it together to fight for the progressive agenda, that it is not the private property of the candidate? Will there be periodic meetings with the campaign organizers who fought to ensure the candidate’s election?
According to Dolores Huerta, Cesar Chavez referred to elected officials as “public servants,” to make clear that they are to serve their constituents, not the other way around. Before signing up to help a candidate get elected, insist on a specific agreement about the relationship that will continue after the election. Your effort to secure an agreement may reveal that you have chosen the wrong candidate.
Did the campaign produce a lasting organization?
From the time Bernie announced his candidacy, there was discussion about building an organization that would have a life beyond the campaign. That remains an open question.
A few days after the June primary in California, we convened a meeting of the people who showed up to do the work of contacting voters. Forty- five people attended and expressed their desire to have an ongoing impact on Bernie’s agenda, locally and nationally.
Anna Callahan, who emerged the most talented and energetic organizer, made the calls and ran the meeting. Her subsequent efforts to keep something going, however, have not had the desired success. It could be because there has been no agreement that everyone choose one project instead of dispersing to various campaigns. That is the problem that the 2008 Obama campaign invited after its victory when it urged people essentially to “do their own thing.”
Hopefully, Bernie will help focus the work of his followers. There should be only one or two options at a time. The project, or projects, should be about implementing the agenda that was central to his Presidential campaign. The appeal should be directive: this is what we need to accomplish by this date. Although top-down, it should be clear where individual and local creativity is in order.
Conclusion: What does all of this mean for the future?
First, reliance on social media is insufficient.
Second, there are models that combine the benefits of social media with organizing principles. Obama’s 2008 campaign built an organization out of personal relationships, trained leaders, and gave participants a role in the organization and an experience of collective power. That campaign was designed by Marshall Ganz, one of Cesar Chavez’s key organizers. Use of the new technology should be incorporated into that refined model.
Third, it is vital that thousands of people across the country learn the difference between effective organizing and mobilizing, between people who call themselves organizers and those who really are capable of building the power necessary to shift the power balance and create a vital democracy and just society. It is a set-back when campaigns waste the time of well-meaning people. They deserve better.
We have urgent and exciting work to do. Bernie’s Revolution is not a tea party. Only organizations built on the foundation of strong and respectful personal relationships can match the 1%’s monopoly power of money, military and media.
Bill Fletcher and Bob Wing have written an important post election analytical essay with many excellent recommendations on the path forward. “Fighting Back Against the White Revolt” is a must read for all people of good will concerned about the future of humanity. Throughout the election period, both authors provided clear and clarion voices on the importance of uniting all to vote for Hillary to stop Trump and did education on the left to convince skeptics in the movement to vote for the lesser of two evils to stop the racist, misogynist, xenophobic, authoritarian Donald Trump. Everything in Trump’s behavior since November 8 upholds the wisdom of that advice.
Serious engagement in electoral politics is not the sum total of the struggle, but as we are witnessing in the aftermath of November 8, elections do have real consequences. Therefore any strategy must take into account the winner take all and electoral college features of our politic. As Fletcher and Wing point out, Trump won the election by a razor thin margin in three battleground states: Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania by the margin of 77,000, the size of a large union local. Labor’s turnout effort and union household votes clearly could have made an enormous difference in the outcome. That’s why it is so important to critically examine how organized labor failed to carry union households to the degree that Barack Obama did in either 2008 or 2012.
I argue that a defection of working class voters to Trump was key to the loss of historic battleground states, and thus the election. The change in Ohio is stunning: from a 23% margin for Barack in 2012 to a Trump margin of 8% in 2016 among union households. These are voters who have been voting for change at least since 2008 and they haven’t gotten it from a corporatist Democratic party.
The problem in Fletcher and Wing’s analysis of working class support for Trump is that they resort to income as a proxy for class. The working class is a many splendored thing, but the traditional Marxist definition of someone who works for a wage and does not own the means of production still resonates for me. But let’s put any doctrinaire disputes aside and look at the income argument. Fletcher and Wing assert that there was no massive defection of working class voters to Trump by pointing to the fact that Clinton won the majority of voters earning under $30,000 and under $50,000. By that line of reasoning, half the unionized workers in American would be cut out of the working class! My son, a fourth-year IBEW apprentice has just been displaced from the proletariat because his income is $30,000 over the threshold that Wing and Fletcher use. The pollster Nate Silver used the figure of $70,000 to debunk the working class support for Trump argument. Do the math. Divide $70,000 by 2087 annual work hours and you get $32 dollars per hour, hardly an outrageous hourly rate and not even a labor aristocrat’s rate! The defection of union households is an important number and accounts for the marginal shifts that proved definitive in those mid Western states.
The distinction is important because going forward there is plenty of work to be done among these workers who voted for Trump, many of them good union members. Fletcher and Wing acknowledge that: “A key starting point (in combating racism) will be to amplify the organization and influence of whites who already reject Trumpism. Unions will be one of the key forces in this effort.” There is cause for hope in the fact that the largest group in the more than 100 local unions that broke with their parent bodies to support Bernie Sanders were IBEW locals, (the union my son belongs to) where a journeyman in the Bay Area can make $125,220 a year. Of the thirty-six IBEW locals that endorsed Bernie, twenty-eight were construction locals.
None of this means that the points that Fletcher and Wing raise are to be negated, but it does mean that there is potential on the margins to shift significant sections of the electorate as the Trump anti-worker, anti-union realities set in.
Below is a slightly different and more narrowly focused trade union-based program. I modestly call it “Go Red!”
“Without re-establishing an allegiance with members who supported Trump, progressive electoral victories backed by working class union members will be much harder to achieve”
Organizers must go to the Red states, the Red counties, and to the Red members! “Organize or Die!” doesn’t just refer to external organization; it also applies to the singularly important task of organizing our existing members. Ignoring this challenge led us to the colossal disaster of a Trump presidency.
Look at the electoral map. We see slivers of blue on the coasts. And while there are a few exceptional inland pockets of blue, they are surrounded by a sea of red. What is to be done in these massive areas of Trump and Republican dominance in the most recent election? Unions have members who span the entire political spectrum. This is especially true in 25 states that are not yet “Right to Work,” where membership is a condition of employment.
The first part of “Going Red” is being willing to work in the “red” states, that is, those that Trump carried. Many of those who voted for Trump are good and loyal trade unionists. Before the hammer of legislative and court initiatives (ala “Friedrichs Two”) shatter compulsory membership, we have a superb opportunity to speak to the sons and daughters of New Deal Democrats who voted in key electoral states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin for Trump and helped him carry those states. These discussions cannot be approached as rectification and remedial sessions with “wayward” members, but must be part and parcel of massive internal organizing involving their issues, their contracts and their concerns. It’s time to come home and patiently build organization from the bottom up. And when union leaders and activists do, they should be prepared to hear some harsh critiques and serious questions.
This internal organizing cannot be accomplished by inviting members to meetings. Rather, we need to embed newly trained worker leaders into our work sites. Those leaders (Business Agents, Field Reps, Shop Stewards) responsible for contract enforcement cannot carry out this task. New armies of internal organizers are needed to talk to their sister and brother members about unions, politics, and the future of the working class. This internal organization on a massive scale must begin immediately to move this program because the resources for it may be considerably diminished within a year after the onslaught of “right to work” under the NLRA and the Railway Labor Act.
The second part of “Going Red” is labor’s new political project. Union leaders’ comfort with — and access to — the Democratic Party’s neo-liberal establishment just isn’t going to cut it. Our future lies with the exciting political movement within labor that we witnessed in support for Senator Bernie Sanders, the Democratic Socialist from Vermont. Not since Eugene Debs and his 1920 race from prison for President has there been a candidate who espoused our anti-corporate, pro-working class values like Senator Sanders. He captured 13 million votes, won the endorsement of six major unions and was supported by more than one hundred local unions — many of whom defied their International’s support for Clinton. Many Clinton supporters now realize that Bernie, with his “outsider” message, an uncompromising record, and decades of political integrity, would have been a far better choice to beat Trump.
Bernie Sander’s new Our Revolution organization needs a strong union core in order to sustain itself financially and organizationally. Unions that supported Bernie should consider coalescing in a new formation around Our Revolution. Unions that didn’t support Bernie should do some serious self-examination, consider a new path forward, and hopefully join with the Bernie unions. A new “Labor for Our Revolution” could be a network of national and local unions that actively engage their members in electoral politics at both the primary and general election levels to support Our Revolution endorsed candidates who reflect labor’s values. The Labor for Our Revolution network could link its political work with member mobilization around local and national labor struggles to defend workers’ rights and contribute to building a broader movement for social and economic justice.
“Going Red” by having a face-to-face conversation with all our members and launching a new political project are two tasks bound up with each other. Without re-establishing an allegiance with members who supported Trump, progressive electoral victories backed by working class union members will be much harder to achieve. Without giving those members an alternative political vision, like that of Bernie Sanders, there is no moving them politically. That alternative political vision must include the fight for multi-racial unity by recognizing and combating the pervasive effects of systemic racism.
Finally and perhaps most importantly, “Going Red” means being ready to make sacrifices to defend our brother and sister immigrant workers, Muslims, People of Color and all those who are hatefully targeted by the Trump administration. We can take inspiration from the recent efforts of thousands of veterans to stand with the Standing Rock native peoples. We can take inspiration from unions like the ILWU that sent their members to the Dakotas to stand in defiance of the energy companies. More of these kinds of sacrifices will be necessary to win the allegiance of all people to the cause of labor and the defeat of Trump.
“Go Red” to grow and win power!
This piece originally ran in the 26 December 2016 issue of Portside
It was 1978 at the swank Boston Park Plaza Hotel. The company was late. Our team sat in a fancy conference room with crystal chandeliers and a long dark wooden table with leather chairs around it. A gold-plated tray with ceramic coffee cups and a brass water pitcher sat in the middle of the table.
We were a motley crew of ten. Marlin and Davon kept their hats on and their below-the-knee length brown leather-like vinyl coats. They hung back, quiet, maybe a little uncomfortable in such a high-class hotel. Liza, the Local’s financial secretary, had a big pocket book on the chair next to her and her gypsy-like scarf draped over her shoulders. She looked busy and serious with lots of papers in front of her but that didn’t prevent her occasional raucous laugh from joining in the non-stop chatter in the room.
Lew sat quietly in his standard worn out plaid black sports jacket with a ruffled shirt and plain tie. Nothing on Lew ever seemed to look up to date but he always tried his best to look right in his old-fashioned way, maybe to hide his lifelong membership in the Communist Party.
Connie sat quietly with her beau, Cliff, somewhat out of place as a mom from Southie, but having earned her stripes when she went to jail after me during our December strike for a quick election.
Ray was the boss-man, in theory, representing the national USW and the only one in the room who had ever bargained a union contract. Ray was white-haired and old in everyone else’s book, and the only one in a coat and tie, except for Lew. We all agreed he was a nice guy. Poor Ray – god knows what he thought of us, but we certainly didn’t see him as our leader. He was just the official union rep although, after all, we were in his union now.
It was awkward for me to be in charge, Ray aside, but on the other hand perfectly natural. I was the local union president and had an Ivy League degree of fairly recent vintage, although I hadn’t told most of the drivers. But it would be up to me, I assumed, to articulate our demands – I mean I had done the survey and then written up the results and made them into proposals, with Ray’s help, and despite his skepticism that we were asking for too much in a first contract.
But we weren’t to be denied. I was sure of that – a gut feeling of invincibility. After all, we had taken on everybody in our December strike for a quick election – the two companies, the city, the governor, the mayor, and the courts. We were national news – “Boston school bus drivers’ strike closes schools at the height of desegregation busing.”
And they backed down after Connie and I were thrown in jail and the drivers started chanting “jail one you jail us all,” all the while knowing that half of them had previous or outstanding offenses that would prevent them from defying the injunction. And we kicked butt in the election two weeks later-250-11. So it was time for them to cough up some money and other stuff for our folks.
Of course I had zero bargaining experience and knew nothing about it that I hadn’t learned very recently, but I was a radical guy and didn’t want to get tied down by the way things had been done before or were supposed to be done now. That was against the whole spirit of the 60s and 70s. We were too busy making history to be reading it. I didn’t even ask Lew who had been a veteran of the Mine Mill and Smelters Workers struggles in the Southwest.
It was my job, with Ray, to explain to the team how it all worked. Ray talked about contract language and how we would make a proposal, and they probably would too, but the first session might just be to set the whole process working. I gave my speech about how, when at the bargaining table, we were all equals. They couldn’t tell us what to do or what to say and, although Ray was our designated spokesman, we could all chime in if we had something to add. We were all equals under the law. But the next day, when we clocked in back at the yard, they were the boss again and we were the workers – the power shifted back. So we didn’t have to take any shit at the table or let them insult us or lie to us. My speech went over well. Marlin really liked that idea and laughed and nodded knowingly to Davon. Others on the team made a note of it, too.
Finally the company arrived. Fitzsimmons led the company’s team – a white haired, well-dressed lawyer, with a warm professional smile. He shook hands all around the table obviously a pro at this kind of meeting. The three Anzoni brothers trailed awkwardly in his wake – Antonio, Michael and Mario. Mr. Wilson, the grizzled yard manager, stayed in the background looking out of place. They were all in their 40s or 50s, except maybe Wilson, much older than our bunch of mostly 30 somethings. There were some strained hellos. The Anzonis hadn’t ever talked to any of us in person throughout the whole fight to win the union, but they were the owners after all.
The company’s team sat down on their side of the table and lots of paper shuffling began and note pads came out. Ray led the introductions of our side and they went next – just the names. We already knew who was who. The battle to get to the table was ugly and public and there were no secrets about the antagonists and antagonisms that clogged the air under the delicate chandelier.
Fitzsimmons cleared his throat and said “So, let’s begin.” Anthony Anzoni, sitting by his side, put a large worn leather briefcase on the table. Ray seized on the moment, staring at the briefcase: “Mr. Anzoni, I realize you aren’t familiar with the bargaining process but you don’t bring the cash to the first meeting.” Our team burst into loud and unrestrained laughter. Anzoni, taken aback, pulled his briefcase off the table. Fitzsimmons pretended it hadn’t happened and passed some papers across the table for us to look at. Maybe Ray did know something, I thought. Strike one for our side.
The up and back preliminary talking happened between Ray and Fitzsimmons. Checking on dates to meet in the future, talking about times and the formalities of how the negotiations would proceed. One of the proposals from the company said that the bargaining group for each side would be no more than 5. Davon looked at it and burst out “Hey, what is this about only five of us being able to come to a meeting. We don’t go for that shit.”
The room tensed. Michael Anzoni shot back authoritatively—“We won’t have that kind of language in this room.” Devon was defiant: “you got your language and we got ours. If I want to say shit I will say shit. Shit, shit, shit.” It sounded like a battle cry. Fitzsimons wisely suggested that his team caucus and they left quickly. As the door closed Devon turned to me: “Right Gene – you said they aren’t the boss of us here, so that means they can’t tell us how to talk. We don’t agree to no five people“ Lots of “amens” in the room. Ray was wisely silent. “You got it Devon” I said, not sure what I thought but not about to disagree with the moment.
Within a short time the company returned and we all acted as if nothing happened, with Fitzsimmons picking up where we left off. He stated that the company was just suggesting a number for each team but didn’t really think it was that important if we wanted to leave that issue open. Strike two!
We moved on, asking for clarification about some of the items in the company’s initial proposal. I was following Ray’s lead and inserting comments occasionally where I thought they were needed. Most everyone else on our team just listened, taking in the process and the vibes.
Tension hung in the air but things seemed to have calmed down slightly, with quiet conversations among the teams on either side of the table. Suddenly Marlin, sitting at the end of the table closest to the Anzouni brothers jumped up and pulled his long coat back. “I heard that,” he shouted angrily looking directly down at Michael Anzoni, seated about 3 feet away. “I heard you say nigger. I heard it. We aren’t going to take that shit.”
I froze, thinking “holy shit – what the hell is he going to do.” Anzoni recoiled and Marlin began to take his long coat off, sneering at Anzoni and repeating that nobody talks to him like that. The Anzoni brothers, with their backs to the door, began to gather their papers up and slide their chairs back. Marlin stepped forward. Ray leaped to his feet but said nothing. I was paralyzed, trying in a quick second to decide how to intervene but coming up with nothing.
Suddenly Devon was behind Marlin, holding him back by wrapping his arms around him and telling him to calm down – the two biggest guys in the room pushing and pulling. The company’s side by now had grabbed their papers and headed out the conference room door into the hallway and down the hall to their caucus room. Our whole team looked stunned.
The minute the door slammed Devon let go of Marlin who turned and they both let out huge grins and slapped each other five. “We taught those motherfuckers didn’t we” said Marlin. I was aghast. They staged the whole thing. They had picked up on the tone that the company had set and decided to assert themselves with their street smarts. The rest of us didn’t have a clue what was happening. I had gone through so many emotions in the last couple minutes that my head was spinning. But how could I do anything but smile and shake my head. After all, I had framed this whole power relationship as legal equality and they weren’t going to miss this moment to establish actual equality. Soon we were all laughing, except Ray, and joking about the looks on the company’s faces and how quickly they had grabbed their papers and run.
Finally, after a long pause, Fitzsimmons poked his head in the door and then entered. In his gentlemanly legal tone he suggested: “What if we reconvene as scheduled on Tuesday.” Ray replied to the affirmative and Fitzsimmons bid our team good night and closed the door. Strike three – they were out!
Another round of slapping-fives broke out all around – even Ray seemed pleased if a little off balance. We reverted to meeting mode and talked briefly about bargaining schedules and next steps. I was reviewing in my mind again and again what just happened, wondering if I did anything wrong by not knowing what Marlin and Devon were up to and missing their obviously successful strategic intervention.
As we walked out through the fashionably old and luxurious hallway of the hotel I noticed Liza had her shawl draped over something. “What’s that?” I asked. She pulled up a corner and I saw it was the gold plated tray that was the centerpiece on the bargaining table. “Are you shitting me?” I asked, nervously looking around. “Hey” she answered. “I am the financial secretary. I am saving us money. We need this for our executive board meetings.” Home run!
I had a lot to learn.
A bit of background to this article:
Gene Bruskin is a labor organizer and campaigner who dates his first experience in the labor movement to the 1977 strike by Boston school bus drivers for a union election. The drivers organized a union during the tense and violent atmosphere in the city that resulted from the implementation of school desegregation in Boston created by mandatory busing. The union organizing had gone on unsuccessfully since busing began in 1974 and created a new and diverse workforce of hundreds of drivers coming from every neighborhood in Boston. The final spur to organizing was an 88 cents an hour cut in wages which brought drivers pay to under $6 an hour with no benefits or guaranteed hours. After months of delay the drivers defied court subpoenas and struck in zero degree temperatures in December 1977 for a quick election. Two weeks later they voted overwhelmingly to join the Steelworkers Union (USW). This article is a personal reflection by Gene on the first bargaining session with one of the private companies contracted by the School Dept. to handle the busing. Boston school bus drivers now are paid well over $20 and hour with benefits and job protections.
For additional background, read The Stansbury Forum’s co-editor Peter Olney piece OO #9 Odyssey Interrupted – Boston Busing 40th Anniversary.
At the end there was not a lot of suspense. A few minutes after the Italian polling stations closed on Sunday evening, 4 December, the mainstream TV and newspaper web sites delivered different but quite unanimous exit polls: the gap between the “No” and “Yes” vote ranged from ten to fifteen points. Half an hour later, the second battery of exit polls even enlarged the pro “No” advantage. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi called a press conference for midnight. Actually, he came to the pressroom around thirty minutes later and, in a short but very intense speech, conceded defeat, and announced his resignation from the office of Prime Minister.
At 1 a.m. I was in my bed, sleeping very peacefully. The result was resounding. With a very high turnout (65.5%) more than 59% of the voters said “No” to the so-called constitutional reform, obstinately pushed by Renzi. Despite the previous defeat of his Democratic Party in the recent run-off voting in local elections (losing 19 second ballots out of 20 votes), Renzi was sure that he would get a popular plebiscite – to legitimize his government, one never elected by the people – that he transformed the vote on the constitutional reform into a referendum on himself. It was very difficult, during the electoral campaign, to discuss the actual contents of the reform. Renzi occupied every single TV and newspaper, every town square all over the country talking about the choice between the “new” and the “old”, talking against the political caste, and for reducing the costs of politics, etc., as though he was something different than the main representative of this kind of caste or this kind of politics.
On the eve of the vote there was not the debacle of mistaken pollsters that we saw in other countries (recently in the UK and USA) or in previous Italian elections. Practically all the polls predicted the “No” victory. However, no one was able to understand the very high turnout, particularly in a referendum without a required quorum (voting threshold), and the widespread popular sentiment for “No”.
So is the Italian vote like the Brexit, or like the Trump victory? Is this another episode of “populism” spreading all over the world, or at least the western world?
The media, the opinion leaders, many politicians, before and after the vote, are unanimously talking about a wave of “populism”.
Pierre Dardot, a French scholar who along with his colleague Christian Laval, is studying and writing about the neoliberal “war” against democracy, is nauseated by the use of a term, “populism” that doesn’t explain anything. In Europe, “populists” would be the Greeks of Syriza and the Italians of the Five Star Movement(HERE & HERE), as well as the French National Front, the Italian Northern League, as well as Podemos and Ciudadanos in Spain, and so on. These are all very different political movements and parties. Particularly, Dardot is outraged by the media “escamotage”(trickery) in their avoidance of calling the French National Front (and the Northern League, may I add) with its correct name: fascist, racist, and xenophobic. He is also outraged by the negative meaning the mainstream media and politicians extend to the people by defining their political behavior as “populist”. It is another way to avoid taking seriously the issues people are raising with their vote or their abstention or other actions.
The Italian “No” vote is the result of many different motivations and political positions, even if similar to the Brexit and Trump votes, in that it stems from the deteriorating living and working conditions of the majority of the people.
The narrative of the Italian government, pretending that the country has exited from the crisis, is completely irrelevant to the daily experience of workers, trapped in precarious and poorly remunerated jobs, young people, most of them unemployed or inflating the ranks of the so called Neet generation, pensioners, more and more unable to reach the end of the month with their allowances. No doubt, the “No” vote is anti-establishment, given the perverse continuation of the neoliberal and austerity policies, without any visible difference between the center-right and center-left parties and governments.
The Italian “No” vote is not only a right-wing vote. Certainly, the rightist parties and leaders (starting with Berlusconi) stood on the “No” front, but very important albeit weakened leftist mass organizations stood there too. The largest trade union confederation, CGIL, the largest free time, culture and leisure association, Arci, and the ancient organization of the Partisans (combatants who founded the Republic and the Constitution fighting against fascism and Nazism), in recent years renewed with a large young democratic membership, all of them were very active in informing their members and the citizenship as a whole on the democratic risks of the reform and calling for a “No” vote.
So, what will happen now? Not one of the disasters the “Yes” front predicted in the case of a loss is going to happen. The political instability of the Renzi resignation, and the path to build up a new government is part of a normal political process, quite ordinary in Italy.
The problem, for the workers and the people clamoring for a real alternative, is very profound and independent from the referendum result. Contrary to the concrete hope the Sanders campaign has opened in the United States, in Italy for many years there is not the prospect of a left wing political organization able to represent the demand for social justice that this vote also highlights. The road is hard, and discussion is beginning. But at least, the Italian workers may still count on a strong and well-oriented trade union confederation, the CGIL, which is immediately launching three referenda to fundamentally change the worst legislation on labor market and workers’ rights. They will be voted on next year and covered in The Stansbury Forum.
I met Danny Lyon in 1963 in Ruleville, Mississippi. I was on the staff of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) visiting the Delta town in Sunflower County (home of Sen. James O. Eastland, one of the most notorious racists of the period) with Bob Moses, SNCC’s Mississippi Project Director and Martha Prescod, a young African-American University of Michigan student volunteer who was there for the summer. Danny took a picture of us talking with a local woman sitting on her porch. The picture became well-known because it was used on the cover of a widely distributed SNCC flyer. The story it told was that we were trying to convince the woman to register to vote. But Martha recently reminded me that we were asking directions!
From those beginning photographer days, Lyon went on to become one of the major photographers of the civil rights movement, and then on to 50 years of using photography to tell the stories of the marginalized, discriminated against and left-out, as well as other important subjects. Along the way, he branched out to make 16mm documentaries and videos. All these are now on display at San Francisco’s De Young Museum, having come here from the new Whitney in New York’s West Village. (Unfortunately, these are its only two stops.)
Of his civil rights movement photos, Julian Bond said, “They put faces on the movement, put courage in the fearful, shone light on darkness, and helped to make the movement move.” Lyons was one of a number of photographers assembled by SNCC Executive Director Jim Forman to be chroniclers of The Movement (we always capitalized the letters “T” and “M”); he and Matt Heron are the best known of them.
Among his subjects after the civil rights movement: biker subculture, Texas Department of Corrections prisoners, the destruction of Lower Manhattan to make way for the World Trade Center, his friend noted sculptor Mark di Suvero, New York City subway riders, Uptown Chicago Appalachians, the tattoo artistry of Bill Sanders, undocumented workers in the southwest, “Occupy” in Oakland and Los Angeles, workers in a Chinese coal producing area, Bolivian campesinos, street boys in urban Colombia and revolution in Haiti.
One of my favorites is of the yet-unknown sculptor Mark Di Suvero’s Fulton Fish Market loft. I was there with Mark’s younger brother Henry, a co-conspirator in the early days of the UC Berkeley student movement (1956/58). At the time, Mark was poor as a church mouse. It showed. The huge loft (a whole floor of what had once been a warehouse), where Mark both lived and worked, was barren except for his working tools and sculpting materials. At its center a bed was atop four hefty beams. Under the bed was a pot-belly stove, the only heating in the place. “Dear Mark” is one of the films. Less than five minutes, you can see it on YouTube.
Most of the photos are black-and-white. Many capture individual faces in moods ranging from joy and pleasure to trials and tribulations. The continuously screened six films range from five minutes to more than an hour. My favorite was tattooist Bill Sanders at work in his artistry, and philosophizing with his clients and with Lyon. He’s an alcoholic, and he’s consuming during the filming. Sometimes he can barely speak. When he does, he has surprising things to say: he’s against the war in Vietnam; he’s not a bigot.
Many of the pictures are of people in distressed situations. But these are not photos of despair. The vitality and durability of the human spirit shines through them, as does Lyons’ compassion and empathy.
One wish. The photos from Lower Manhattan show the skeletons of buildings. While you can infer from their destruction that a community was destroyed, I would like to have seen the faces of the displaced in at least some of the shots.
Lyon does more than take photos. He makes friends with his subjects, in some cases lifetime friends. He writes, “You put a camera in my hand, I want to get close to people. Not just physically close, but emotionally close, all of it.” He succeeds. Stupendously! See this show if you can, and leave yourself enough time not only to wander through the galleries but to watch the couple of hours of films and videos.
Danny Lyon: Message to the Future is at the San Francisco De Young Museum, November 5, 2016 – April 30, 2017. Adults $22, seniors 65+ $17, students with current ID $13, youth 6-17, $7, members and children 5 and under free.
Rand Wilson and Peter Olney have penned another in a series of commentaries on American politics and labor. This article first appeared in Sinistra Sindicale, an internal newsletter of the Confederazione Generale Italiana dei Lavoratori (CGIL), the largest trade union federation in Italy. This article deals with the US election result.
European elites were shocked at the surprising victory of “Brexit” last June. American elites — and especially the pollsters and major media outlets — were similarly shocked by the results of the U.S. elections on November 8.(1)
While Brexit was a straight up “Yes” or “No” vote, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, but lost because of the Electoral College system of electing our national presidents. The Electoral College is an arcane constitutional provision intended to protect smaller states from the population power of larger states and the rule of the “mob” over the perceived wisdom of elite electors.
This is the fifth time in U.S. history that a presidential candidate has won the popular vote, but lost the election because of the anti-democratic Electoral College. The last time was in 2000 when George W. Bush became President after a Supreme Court ruled that he had won the vote in the state of Florida. That state’s electoral college vote gave Bush the election, even though a plurality of the American people voted for the Democratic nominee, Al Gore.
Trump heralded his election as “Brexit on steroids” and appeared at a rally in Mississippi with Nigel Farage from the British Independence Party. Both Brexit and Trump’s triumph tapped into a distraught white working class buffeted by globalization and new demographic realities. In many cases Trump’s appeal was pure and simple racism, attracting alt-right and overt racist elements. Yet while all racists, misogynists and xenophobes most likely voted for Trump, not all of his 60 million votes were racists, misogynists and xenophobes.
The Electoral College system made winning the states of Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin key to either candidate winning the White House. Why did Secretary Clinton lose in these three states that her predecessor Barrack Obama carried in 2008 and 2012? Workers in all three states have suffered huge job losses in basic industry and in the case of Pennsylvania, the closure of coalmines. The sons and daughters of “New Deal” Democrats many of whom supported Obama in 2008 and 2012 were looking to make a statement against the ruling elites and voted for change.
Exit polls in Ohio tell the story. In 2012 when Obama carried Ohio, he won union households by a 23% margin. In 2016, Trump, the New York billionaire, carried union households by a 12% margin. Similar voting patterns took place in the crucial battleground states of Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. In short, many white working class voters simply deserted the Democratic Party.
After the election, a railroad worker from Ohio who is a member of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees (a division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters) and who voted for Trump said, “I didn’t vote for my retirement. I didn’t vote for my healthcare. I didn’t vote for my union membership. I voted for my son. Because I just didn’t see a future for him if we elected Hillary. I actually voted for Obama in the last two elections. Now, I stand here and tell you that if we lose our retirement, I will not bitch. If I lose my healthcare, I will not bitch. If my tax rate goes through the roof, I will not bitch. I cast my vote and I will stand behind it.”
An SEIU member in Massachusetts felt betrayed, “I’m a registered Democrat, but they have let me down,” said Peter Blaikie, a custodian and shop steward in the Somerville Public Schools. “I expect Republicans to screw me, but the Democrats take our money and do worse, so I voted for the lessor of two evils. Clinton just looked like Obama’s third term. She just seemed entitled. And it was also a matter of how I feel about right and wrong. Hundreds of her emails were mishandled. She should have been charged with treason. If you do something wrong with classified information you should be held accountable. Others have been severely punished for lessor crimes. I obey the law, so should she.”
In the run-up to Election Day, pollsters and pundits talked of re-configuring the electoral map because of the anticipated strength of the Latino vote. In the end, Trump polled as strongly among Latinos as the Republican candidate in both 2008 and 2012. The Black vote — without Obama at the top of the ticket — polled below the last two election cycles in cities like Detroit that are crucial to winning industrial states like Michigan.
After the election, Sen. Bernie Sanders summed up Clinton’s defeat: “Donald Trump tapped into the anger of a declining middle class that is sick and tired of establishment economics, establishment politics and the establishment media. People are tired of working longer hours for lower wages, of seeing decent paying jobs go to China and other low-wage countries, of billionaires not paying any federal income taxes and of not being able to afford a college education for their kids – all while the very rich become much richer.”
Many people believe (including these authors) that Sanders would have won against Trump. The Sanders’ campaign (and many down-ballot victories on 8 November) showed that an explicitly anti-capitalist campaign can succeed.
Now the Neo-Liberal wing of the Democratic Party (the Clintons and their Progressive Policy Institute think tank friends) is completely discredited. The Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren populist wing of the party is challenging its national leadership. Even New York’s Chuck Schumer, the ranking minority leader in the Senate, acknowledged the need for a new approach. He is supporting Congressman Keith Ellison, a Muslim African American from Minnesota, and a supporter of Senator Sanders, for Chair of the Democratic National Committee.
Perhaps more importantly, grassroots activists inspired by Bernie Sanders’ campaign are challenging the leadership of the party at the state and local levels across the country. Sanders is backing a new group, “Our Revolution”, formed to build on the movement that he started. “Our Revolution” backed over 100 new progressive leaders in the November election and hopes to transform American politics to be more responsive to the needs of working families.
Trump’s victory, although made possible by an angry white working class, has also elevated working class issues to a degree not seen since the 1930s. Ironically, it also led to the defeat of the Trans Pacific Partnership, the trade deal negotiated by the Obama administration with Pacific Rim nations.
“The movement we built has brought down, at least for now, the Trans-Pacific Partnership,” said Larry Cohen, the past president of the Communications Workers and now Board Chair of “Our Revolution”. “This was because of the work of union members and environmentalists, farmers and immigrants. This was the work of the political revolution. Our defeat for now of the TPP is a bright spot in a bleak week for our country. Let’s celebrate our victory, and get ready for the fights to come.”
Going forward, workers and the unions that protect them, will likely be under a heavy attack by Trump and the Republican Party majorities in both the House and Senate. The labor movement will have an opportunity to organize more workers while also attracting more militant leaders if it can offer a “port in the storm” to those who are most vulnerable in the Trump era.
The unions that backed Sanders — and hopefully many others — will help lead the fight against Trump and by doing so, build the strength of a more militant, class conscious wing of the labor movement.
1) For a more thorough discussion of the election’s similarities with Brexit, see, “Democrats, Trump, and the Ongoing, Dangerous Refusal to Learn the Lesson of Brexit,” by Glenn Greenwald, The Intercept, Nov. 9, 2016.
The articles by Mike Miller, Garrett Brown and Bill Fletcher Jr.(found below) on the elections form part of what needs to be a wide-ranging look at the implications of Trump’s victory. What follows are comments that I hope form a contribution to continuing the discussion.
Mike Miller speaks to an important truth — working class support for Trump grew out of anger at deteriorating economic conditions and lack of a political voice in our country. In consequence: many were willing to overlook his racism and misogyny. So too, Hillary Clinton lost because she failed to address basic concerns of working people and embodied the corruption and self-serving nature of the political system. Yet I would add that millions of workers voted for Clinton, notwithstanding a total lack of enthusiasm for her, because they feared the implications of a Trump victory and because they saw value in the possibility of expanding democratic rights by building upon the legacy of the Obama’s Administration. These two truths need to be held in mind or else we fall into a zero sum game of posing social rights and economic rights against each other. Furthermore, while it is certainly true that many who voted for Trump are not racist (and that Clinton’s characterization Trump supporters as “deplorables” was of a piece with her decades earlier characterization of black youth as “super-predators”), it is also true that they were willing to overlook his racism and sexism and thus acted in disregard for those whose plight is worse than their own. People may have immigrant neighbors and friends whom they like and respect and for whom they wish no harm. But harm will come their way. This isn’t to wag a finger at people from a standpoint of moral superiority, but simply to state the obvious that solidarity isn’t a choice — it is a necessity not only to movement building but even more critically to the task of organizing in the tradition of the models Miller suggests. Absent that, right-wing demagogues will reap the benefits of discontent by pointing the blame away from the real culprits.
Miller’s conclusions are reinforced by Garrett Brown’s information — his breakdown of election results paints a picture of people responding in anger to a world spinning out of control. The assault on “government” (in reality, an assault on democratic rights and public control over public resources) led by the right has so devalued politicians in the public mind, that people could see themselves voting for someone “unqualified,” for what difference does it make if one is disenfranchised anyway. That said, it is important to note that people who are genuinely in danger of being disenfranchised, those whose economic and living conditions are most dire, rejected the demagogue. It is not irrelevant to note that Clinton won more votes than Trump; that her vote total would have gone up had their been no voter suppression, that Bernie would have in all likely have done even better. There is a crisis in the system, and as Brown notes, there is an opportunity in Democratic Party politics, in progressive politics more generally, to break out of this impasse and address our society’s structural crisis. Yet we must recognize that the other side has more power and is willing to use it. The threat to civil liberties, civil rights and union rights are palpable and have to be soberly considered as we search for common ground upon which to move forward.
Bill Fletcher’s analysis was, frankly, inspiring — he addresses these nuances and provides a framework to conceptualize resistance. And he is correct that Trump’s appeal is based on a false nostalgia for a mythical past in which every one “knew their place,” and in which the “American Dream” was possible. I will add that we need to be careful about slipping into a liberal version of this (as many unionists do) when we look back on the 1950s as a golden time for the American working class — because that feeds into a subtext that social struggles (i.e. civil rights/black freedom, women’s liberation, anti-war movements and the counterculture) were in some ill-defined way responsible for decline; rather than seeing those movements themselves as active agents creating new rights (and indeed, new opportunities) that benefited all working people. We can and should mourn the loss of industrial jobs that have devastated communities from Michigan to West Virginia and fight to rebuild manufacturing, without for a minute forgetting or ignoring the oppressive conditions, low pay, health risks, discrimination, ever-present on those jobs. We do not contest myths of the right by substituting myths of our own.
At the same time, I would add to Fletcher’s analysis the important point that we have too readily allowed the right to wrap itself in the American flag. US history is complicated, its birth inseparable from slavery and the destruction of Native lives. Yet that is not the whole story; for people have fought to build and create a more equal and just society and thereby created a heritage that we can and should build upon. The universal rights inscribed in the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution’s “We the People,” the words of the Gettysburg Address and on the Statue of Liberty — all form a part of our heritage that we should claim as our own. Struggles throughout US history have largely been defined by those prevented from enjoying such rights demanding that they be made real to them. Again, this doesn’t mean forgetting the structures set up to preserve a “white republic,” it does mean that we can hold that two clashing truths are valid at the same time: the racism and oppression at our founding and the promise of inalienable rights that are also part of our founding. . Anti-Trump protestors holding up signs that proclaim that Trump doesn’t speak for “my America” does that — for it defines the tradition we seek to realize in the future.
And a last point: we need to put opposition to war abroad and militarism back into the center of progressive, labor, left organizing. Trump’s election — in a complicated way — speaks to the coarsening effect of perpetual war, of the undermining of democratic rights it has entailed. The acceptance of violence as inevitable is an inevitable outcome of perpetual war. On the other hand, it has engendered a war weariness that has been misplaced. This is important because Trump’s election raises the danger of war in a new way, contained in the promise of a narrow assertion of US power abroad — a danger which coexists even with his “peace-making” noises. Those noises (similar to those Hitler made, notwithstanding his bellicosity) contributed to Clinton’s loss of the vote of many veterans, many soldiers, who are tired of “nation-building.” Too little recalled is that Obama’s initial victory over Clinton was because he was seen as an anti-war candidate (at least compared to her); Trump too played that card. The left needs to make non-intervention and peace part of every aspect of our resistance.
On all the above we need further thoughts and proposals — Stansbury Forum is providing a valuable service by giving space to this discussion.