Labor under Trump

Great four-part series from the Recomposition blog about the implications for the American working class of the Republican majorities in every branch of government with President Trump at it’s helm.

To escape Trump's America, we need to bring the militant labor tactics of 1946 back to the future

The last general strike in the US was in Oakland in 1946. That year there were 6 city-wide general strikes, plus nationwide strikes in steel, coal, and rail transport. More than 5 million workers struck in the biggest strike wave of US history. So what happened? Why haven't we ever gone out like that again? ... When we allowed ourselves to lose our most important weapons 70 years ago, we took the first step towards Trump's America. We're stuck in the wrong timeline - if we want to get out, we have to bring the militant labor tactics of 1946 back to the future!

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33f67f059784d21f6ddf16ef6011c8e3 Oakland General Strike. Dec 3, 1946.

Back to the Future, Part 1:


The last general strike in the US was in Oakland in 1946. That year there were 6 city-wide general strikes, plus nationwide strikes in steel, coal, and rail transport. More than 5 million workers struck in the biggest strike wave of US history. So what happened? Why haven't we ever gone out like that again? Congress amended US labor law in 1947, adding massive penalties for the very tactics that had allowed strikes to spread and be successful - and the business unions accepted the new laws. In fact, they even went beyond them by voluntarily adding "no-strike clauses" to every union contract for the last 70 years, and agreeing that when they do strike in between contracts it will only be for their own wages and working conditions, not to support anybody else or to apply pressure about things happening in the broader society. When we allowed ourselves to lose our most important weapons 70 years ago, we took the first step towards Trump's America. We're stuck in the wrong timeline - if we want to get out, we have to bring the militant labor tactics of 1946 back to the future!

 

oakland-gen-strike The retail workers who began the general strike. Oakland, 1946.

Back to the Future, Part 2:

The Oakland General Strike began early in the morning of December 3, 1946, when police were trying to break up a picket line of mostly female department store clerks who had been on strike since October 21 ("Back to the Future Day"). A streetcar driver saw it happening and stopped his car. This stopped all the cars behind him. All of the passengers who were no longer going to work began immediately picketing at other businesses in Oakland, calling out those workers, and shutting down the businesses. The strike spread from there. Some important points:

  1. The heroes of this story are the department store clerks who maintained an effective picket for 6 weeks, shutting down the operations of the business, refusing limitations on their ability to picket, and defending their picket when the cops were trying to break it. We need to re-learn how to organize "hard" pickets which actually disrupt commerce, and how to defend those pickets from our enemies. We also need to reject all of the limitations that courts, and the unions, will tell us we have to impose on our pickets.
  2. The streetcar driver who stopped his car when he saw the cops breaking the picket deserves an honorable mention, like Peter Norman ("the white dude" at the Mexico City Olympics). He knew which side he was on, and he didn't just keep moving. He saw fellow workers under attack and he used his power as a worker to support the right side - despite the fact that the retail workers strike had no immediate tie to his own wages and working conditions. He didn't ask his union if it was OK. He didn't wait to go back to his union meeting and ask them to pass a resolution supporting the retail workers. Basically, it doesn't even matter whether he was a union member. It doesn't even matter if he abstractly thought that women should be quitting their jobs now that World War 2 was over, or if he abstractly supported Jim Crow - he supported fellow workers against the cops. Since 1947, "secondary strikes" like that have been illegal, and his union could have been attacked by the court - but the union probably would have been training him all along that he can only strike in between contracts, and definitely not for anyone else's cause. We need to reject any limitation on our ability to strike in support of fellow workers, or to strike about things beyond our own specific workplaces.
  3. The passengers on his streetcar and the ones behind it also deserve credit for immediately forming mass pickets, reinforcing the retail workers' picket and also spreading throughout the city and pulling other workers out on strike. They didn't come up with this all in the moment, they learned how to do this over years of tough strikes, including the 1934 general strike in San Francisco that also shut down Oakland. Mass pickets have also been illegal since 1947, and we've lost those traditions. We urgently need to relearn them.
  4. The unions didn't call the Oakland General Strike - but they sure as hell called it off, and left the retail workers alone in the cold. The general strikes that have happened in the US have almost never been called ahead of time by union. They've almost always happened by workers semi-spontaneously going on strike in solidarity with other workers, supporting the demands of the first group and adding their own. (I say "semi"-spontaneously because the working class had years of practice and preparation leading into each strike - something that's been forcibly removed from our culture over the past 70 years.) Yet by the third day of the Oakland General Strike, the local union leadership was already declaring that the strike was over and everyone except the retail workers should go back to work. As the streetcar drivers were told by their union president, "The International Brotherhood of Teamsters is bitterly opposed to any general strike for any cause. I am therefore ordering you and all those associated with you who are members of our International Union to return to work as soon as possible … No general strike has ever yet brought success to the labor movement." Once the retail workers were left to keep striking alone, it was only a matter of time before they were beaten and had to give up. If we're serious about reviving strikes, we need to prepare people as much as we can for how quickly the union leadership and the Democratic Party will do everything they can to prevent strikes from the start, and to get workers back to work..


Back to the Future, Part 3:

The 70th anniversary of the Oakland General Strike is coming up in three weeks, on December 3rd. As all of our movements go into overdrive, and we all start networking and holding bigger events than we're used to, we should consider holding "Spirit of '46" events across the country on December 3rd to talk about the Oakland General Strike and the relevance of their tactics for today. This is obviously coming up very soon, but it seems do-able, and if it's presented right, could pull a lot of interest. What else can we start doing to prepare for the kind of labor movement we need - the kind that is ready to stand up to the state and the capitalists? What should we think about the calls that have already started circulating for a general strike to stop Trump's inauguration?

  1. The "Labor for Bernie" initiative showed the potential for a cross-union, bottom-up movement that fought for big goals, overcame the separation that is built into the labor movement, and directly challenged the right of the Democratic party and the labor bureaucracy to speak for union members or the working class. We've all just seen that electoral politics are inadequate to stop fascism - it's time for union members and supporters to build a similar movement that is based on supporting all labor action, rejecting all limits on strikes and pickets whether they come from the government or the unions themselves, making all pickets effective, and spreading strikes when they occur (through so-called "secondary" strikes and pickets) - as well as driving police out of the labor movement. This movement should organize in city-wide groups independently of any union structure, inviting all workers to be involved, and then those groups could network nationally. The groups should be open to any worker, union member or not, but should keep union and non-profit staff and and high officers out. Once they get going, it is important that they consider themselves to have all of the legitimacy they need to organize pickets or call strikes, whether through calling for mass workplace meetings to organize action or through supporting minority action - these groups will need to do this because the existing labor structures will put brakes on all action by citing their no-strike clauses and respect for labor law. It's important for these groups to have a name that people can identify with, like "Labor United for All", "Labor Against Fascism", or "One Big Union."
  2. The IWW is experiencing a sudden growth spike, as most radical left groups probably are right now. In particular, the IWW's General Defense Commitee, which focuses on

    tumblr_o0v5ruyom61tuvn3go1_500 Twin Cities GDC and African People's Caucus responding to police murder of Jamar Clark. January 2016.

    defense of the working class and community self-defense, is seeing a lot of interest of people wanting to start new locals. The GDC has a picket training that began with the 2005 Northwest Airlines strike, when the union was trying to tell workers to keep the pickets tame and ineffective. The training focuses on the tactics needed to hold effective, disruptive pickets and to maintain them against scabs. These tactics have ended up being very useful for community self-defense. We should try to make sure that  we spread this picket training to as many of these new locals as possible, and prepare as many trainers as possible. If we're going to have the labor movement we desperately need, we're going to have to re-learn how to hold effective pickets, and how to engage in community self-defense - very, very quickly.

  3. The growth that we're seeing shows that people think we have something to offer now that electoral anti-fascism is discredited. We should double down on our efforts to recruit and to integrate these new members. We also need to prove that they are right when they think we have something to offer. We need to organize boldly, which will inspire our new members to become active and take leadership, and will also inspire hundreds and thousands of more people to join.
  4. We absolutely need to double down on our support for Latino workers. We need to prepare to mobilize boldly against any repression that they face, and to support them when/if they take action. They've already proven through the May Day strikes of 2005 and 2006 that they know how to organize mass industrial action better than any other group of workers in this country. We also need to emphasize our Spanish-language materials and infrastructure  in an effort to make our organization a useful tool for Latino workers.
  5. Millions of union members, and workers, voted for Trump. A lot of factors went into this, including massive undercurrents of hatred and bigotry, but it also seems that there was an economic element - many white workers saw him as the only program offering anything different from decades of factory closures, social cuts, and poverty with no escape. Our best bet to win them away from fascism is if we show that we have a real program to fight for, and win, a better world. If we can't do that, we won't. (The business union leadership have already thrown themselves on the mercy of the victor and declared that they're ready to work with Trump - but it's debatable whether he'll have any use for them.) We're on the verge of being in a similar situation for organizing as radicals were during Jim Crow - and we will have to organize in the same way, focusing on the needs and defense of the most oppressed and vulnerable groups of workers and forcing bigots at work to decide whether they'll side with the boss or with their co-workers. Someone can vote based on abstract bigotry and still choose to side with their flesh-and-blood co-workers against the boss that yells at both of them every day. And if they don't, they're scabs, and we'll have to treat them as such. As CLR James and Grace Lee Boggs put it in 1958, "if a white worker or group of white workers after reading and contributing to the paper as a whole finds that articles or letters expressing Negro aggressiveness on racial questions make the whole paper offensive to him, that means that it is he who is putting his prejudices on the race question before the interests of the class as a whole. He must be reasoned with, argued with, and if necessary fought to a finish."
  6. It's good that people are already thinking in terms of how we can use our power at work to exert pressure on our lives outside of work. We're supposed to think that we only have power at the ballot box, every four years. It's just become much more obvious to a lot of people that we don't have any power there. We need to encourage workers to think about leveraging their power at work in new ways in every possible respect. As the old slogan goes, the National Guard can't dig coal with bayonets - if the government legislates against women's reproductive rights, it can only do so if healthcare workers accept it; if the government sends more police into schools, they will only find students to criminalize if the teachers have not gone on strike. We need to push as hard as we can to break through this limitation of self-confidence, where workers think that workplace action (if they even take it at all) can only be about their own conditions. Even the head of the Chicago Teachers' Union, one of the most confrontational and inspiring unions in the country, accepts cops in schools and does not challenge these limitations. When workers do break through on this - and they've got to, sometime, somewhere - we need to be ready to support them with everything we've got.
  7. The initial discussion of a general strike points to the kind of labor movement that we've needed for a long time and we're going to desperately require now. We are entering a period where the state will bring on all ferocity against any oppositional movement. They've also made it clear that the very existence of unions is one of their targets - Reagan focused on crushing militant unions to scare the rest; the current Republican party, including Trump, want to completely abolish unions, as they basically have in Wisconsin since 2011.
  8. A general strike will only ever happen over the ruins of labor law and workplace contractualism. As we saw in Wisconsin in 2011, the day after people began talking about general strike, the international unions came down hard saying that nobody in Wisconsin had the authority to call a general strike, since each union's contracts prohibited striking. Ironically, if the Republicans try to pass nationwide right-to-work laws or outlaw dues checkoff, the only way to stop it would be a general strike - but the union leadership is neither willing nor even capable of calling such a strike. At the end of the day, if we believe that workers can overcome capitalism - then we have to believe that they can overcome US labor law and workplace contractualism.
  9. We will also need to be ready for minority strikes or action when and if they happen. Many workers and union members may have voted for Trump and may actually want him to take office. We still need to create a movement that encourages and supports action by any size group of workers, whether it's individual fast food workers refusing to serve cops, or groups of workers going on strike, for whatever reason, even if they aren't the entire workforce. We particularly need to support trends where workers are taking action at work over issues beyond just wages and working conditions, and to emphasize how much potential power we have if we only use it. As we all begin holding mass meetings in cities around the country and building new infrastructures, we should plan out some kind of "flying picket" infrastructure which can mobilize mass pickets in immediate defense of any minority workplace action especially.
  10. And what about the ideas which have begun floating around about a general strike on January 20th to stop Trump's inauguration? I would say that we in the IWW should be cautiously optimistic, but should wait and see whether this catches on more broadly before we consider officially engaging with it  - in the meantime, we should emphasize our efforts to build a sustained, pro-strike culture and infrastructure along the lines of what I've written above. I want to be clear, that I think it is absolutely correct to promote as much unrest as possible (including industrial unrest) to prevent the inauguration. If there is a lot of excitement around the country for a day, or a week, or a month of "no work, no school" to prevent the inauguration, that would be a fantastic development. There are some who think that the IWW can just ignore Trump because we do not take a stand on politicians - this is missing the point of what is happening in this country and would be a disastrous mistake. The biggest challenge towards any industrial action will be the union bureaucracy. The AFL-CIO is "ready to work with Trump", and would be incapable of calling for or organizing a general strike even if they wanted to. We need to build the kind of movements which can challenge the hegemony of the business unions and call for strikes over their heads.  Maybe a starting point would be agitating hospitality and restaurant workers in DC to shut down all hotels and restaurants leading up to the inauguration, or agitating media workers to refuse to broadcast anything by Trump. The main point is that there won't be one general strike that saves us and then we all go back to normal - our focus has to be recreating a culture of militant, production-stopping strikes which seek to spread through secondary strikes and mass pickets, and which take aim at all injustice in society, not just workplace issues.

Nothing is a forgone conclusion, as bad as it looks right now. One day we will raise a cooperative commonwealth from the nightmare of capitalism, and one day there won't be any more presidents to inaugurate. As surprised as we all might be to have waken up on November 9 and found ourselves hurtling towards fascism, we have to remember that sometimes we will be surprised by spontaneous outpourings of solidarity that people will show as they create new movements which leave us struggling to catch up. The protests which began the night after the election are a very encouraging step in that direction, and they still have time to spread from the street to every aspect of society.

Originally posted on the Lifelong Wobbly blog.

A general strike will only ever happen over the ruins of labor law and workplace contractualism. ... At the end of the day, if we believe that workers can overcome capitalism - then we have to believe that they can overcome US labor law and workplace contractualism.

This Is Not a Drill: Bracing for the Trump Era

In our second installment in our Labor under Trump mini-series, Mark Brenner from Labor Notes explores what union members can do in the face of anticipated threats. At this point most of the debate is speculation, but the labor notes piece is worth discussing because they explore concrete experiences in areas where anti-labor policies have been implemented such as organizing in right-to-work states and solidarity with coworkers independent of their immigration status. Brenner paints a picture of a labor movement at a crossroads, a theme we will return to next week.

Donald Trump’s win is the gut-punch finale to a surreal election season. For thousands of rank-and-file activists the outcome is even more bitter after the inspiration and energy stirred up by Bernie Sanders’ improbable campaign.

Unfortunately, we don’t need a crystal ball to figure out what a Trump presidency has in store for labor, especially with Republicans controlling the House and the Senate.

National “right-to-work” legislation, outsourcing and privatizing more public services, large-scale deportations, a ban on prevailing-wage laws, pulling the plug on Obamacare—these are just the tip of the iceberg. So after we mourn, we need to organize.

Open Shop America

Near the top of labor’s to-do list is preparing for the real possibility that the whole country may be right-to-work before the snow melts.

As we’ve written before, such a law isn’t a death sentence. Unions have survived, even thrived, in right-to-work states. But as we saw in Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan 2012-2015, decades of business-as-usual unionism have left most of our movement ill-prepared.

Last year’s Supreme Court case Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, which could have required open shops in the public sector, was a dry run—and a painful reminder that most unions don’t realize what it’s going to take to survive in open-shop America.

Many put their heads in the sand. Those that tried to prepare for Friedrichs usually assumed all that was needed was a better explanation of the “union advantage” together with high-tech mechanisms to sign up members and collect dues. Few asked the deeper question—what inspires people to organize a union in the first place?

What’s needed is not a better sales pitch, but getting back to basics. Members will stick with a union that’s visible and vocal in the workplace, one that uses collective action as a shield and a stick against management’s abuses.

Democracy the best defense

No one is riding to our rescue. Members will have to do this for themselves. And union leaders who want to inspire more rank and filers to step up to the task have to mean it when they say “you are the union.”

For too long unions have treated members as an ATM for predetermined priorities or an unruly nuisance that needs to get “on program.” This democracy deficit explains why so many members feel disconnected—and why so many are likely to vote with their feet under right to work.

When you’re getting clobbered every day on the job and no one seems to notice, why would you want to foot the bill for an agenda you had no hand in creating, one that offers you little relief?

But simple self-preservation isn’t the only reason union members need to reclaim the driver’s seat. It’s also the only way unions can identify, recruit, and train enough leaders for the fights ahead.

Defensive victories, much less forward progress, in the Trump era will require more audacity and breaking a lot more rules. Precious few members will be willing to take those risks unless they’re part of making the plan and steering the ship.

Which us, which them?

Drawing in exponentially more leaders will require a shared understanding of how we got into this mess—something labor can no longer sidestep after this election.

Exit polls show that 51 percent of voters in union households voted for Hillary Clinton, the lowest percentage for a Democratic nominee since 1980. The numbers were even worse in white working-class communities across the Midwest, where over the last 15 years millions of factory jobs have disappeared.

After voting for the nation’s first Black president by large margins in 2008 and 2012, how could so many union members pull the lever for Trump, a candidate who nakedly stoked racial resentments and blamed Mexican immigrants and Muslim refugees for the country’s problems? Figuring that out will require frank conversations with our co-workers—uncomfortable but essential.

Unions are one of the few places where Trump supporters and those on the receiving end of the backlash are in the same room. And there’s no stronger anchor for the fight against Trump’s racial divide-and-conquer than labor’s principles of solidarity.

Millions embraced Sanders’ argument that the devastation in working-class communities stems from unchecked corporate greed and a government that’s bought and paid for by bankers and billionaires.

This is fertile ground for creating a different common sense—without whitewashing history or ignoring labor’s own checkered past, from Jim Crow to immigration.

An injury to all

An injury to one is an injury to all. We can put that principle to work by defending the people Trump is attacking, starting with our own members.

For instance, many unions have negotiated contract protections for immigrant workers when employers challenge their legal status or Immigration and Customs Enforcement demands audits.

Given Trump’s promise to deport 3 million immigrants once he’s sworn in, we need to extend such contract protections everywhere—including to workplaces with no immigrant workers, as a declaration of solidarity and an organizing opportunity.

The same goes for ensuring Muslim workers’ right to religious expression—the issue that laid the foundation for the very first Fight for $15 campaign, the one at the Seattle airport, which kicked off a national movement.

In health care, education, and much of the public sector, we have more points of connection—it’s easy to make the case for defending our patients, students, and clients too.

And starting within our ranks can lay the groundwork for unions to take the next step and help defend targeted communities, the way the Electrical Workers (UE) and the Chicago Workers Collaborative did in 2007 when they developed a citywide rapid-response network.

Through pickets and direct action, the network helped hundreds of immigrant workers keep their jobs. And in 2008 it mobilized union members and community activists to serve as a buffer between police and the Republic Windows and Doors workers who occupied their factory.

To reverse the rightward momentum that brought Trump to power, we’ll need thousands more of these experiments in community solidarity.

DIY politics

As we gear up, we need to take a hard look at what happened at the polls and why. The flaws in labor’s electoral strategy have never been more glaring.

For more than a generation unions have placed our fate in the hands of political insiders and party operatives. Each election cycle we pour more money, time, and shoe leather into Democratic candidates and campaigns—and have less and less to show for it.

It’s past time for union leaders to admit that the Democratic Party is run by suits. The people calling the shots are perfectly comfortable with trade deals like NAFTA, and completely out of touch with working-class voters.

They’ve won handsomely at the Wall Street casino. They idolize Silicon Valley billionaires. They embrace privatization schemes such as charter schools. Voters didn’t just reject these policies—they rebelled against a party run by and for the elite.

Thankfully there was some debate about labor’s electoral strategy this year, led by the Communications Workers, National Nurses United, the Amalgamated Transit Union, the Longshore Workers, the UE, and the Postal Workers, who broke with AFL-CIO decorum and backed Sanders in the Democratic primary, where he bested all expectations.

Had larger unions such as the Service Employees, Teachers, AFSCME, and the National Education Association lined up behind him, Sanders could have secured the nomination—and we might be looking at an entirely different landscape.

The Sanders campaign revealed a widespread hunger for an audacious social and economic agenda. Unlike the politicians on both sides of the aisle who’ve spent generations telling us to lower our expectations, Sanders challenged voters to dream big, and their response was overwhelming. We live in the richest country in the history of the human race. Why can’t we provide health care for everyone, or have the best schools on the planet, or develop viable alternatives to fossil fuels?

It’s labor’s job to make sure these aspirations don’t disappear, and trumpet an ambitious vision of what our society could be long after the election cycle winds down. If not now, when?

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #453, December 2016.

Labor’s death under trump? The potential for a renewed workers movement in an era of dangers

Following the Trump victory speculation has been rampant and has led to various proclamations yet again of the death of labor. Our third piece exploring the potentials for labor under Trump comes from one of our editors S Nicholas Nappalos. He argues that while these dangers are real, they also come with new possibilities for a militant participatory workers movement. Moreover it is not apolitical unions that can address the weaknesses of the labor movement heading into a collision with this government, but an active politicized union movement marking its opposition to both capital and the state.

It’s no secret that the labor movement of the United States is in serious danger. Every year union membership continues to shrink. This happens despite large scale organizing attempts by the minority of unions willing to do something about it. Having put all their eggs in the basket of the Democrats, AFL-CIO and Change To Win unions were handed a spectacular failure with the election of a Republican sweep of all branches of government. All this comes on the heels of a broad decay of living conditions amongst the working class in general, but disproportionately concentrated upon women, blacks, latinos, and indigenous communities in particular. The Democrats kept their loyalty to business interests at all costs and the unions largely didn’t flinch.

Today the vast majority of union members are public employees, and attacks on their ability to bargain and sustain union membership are all but certain by the incoming Congress. If something significant doesn’t change we can anticipate nation-wide union membership in the single digits, whole regions virtually union free in some areas (many states in the South presently sit at less than 3-5% unionization rates), and a calling of the question on the labor movement’s ability to defend the workers. 2016 is set to close with ominous tones as the second largest union in the US, SEIU, plans to cut their budget by 30% as revealed in a leaked internal memo with clear implications for organizing in the coming days.1

Is an injury to one union, an injury to all workers?

Some of the implications of this may not be obvious. The old stereotypical image of unions as bastions of white males with cushy jobs was a distorted picture of the truth, but changes in the past decades have shifted the situation. Over the past thirty years unions have become closer to gender parity, are overrepresented by blacks compared to the broader population, and is approaching racial parity if it continues it’s trajectory.2 Labor unions for all their faults have done better on these points than the activist left. The labor movement is more diverse and representative than the less and weakening of the labor movement would thereby also impact the progressive landscape more generally.

The erosion of the last bastions of decent working class jobs thus is likely to have a particular impact in the oppressed communities already most effected by the financial crisis and subsequent precarity that spread across the working class. It is widely know that loss of union jobs decreases wages for non-union workers as well.3 Those losses are concentrated amongst those locked out of the alternative paths to better jobs: particularly women, immigrants, blacks and latinos. Public sector de-unionization then will target and impact those already hardest hit in recent years and under attack by the renewed racist, patriarchal, and xenophobic efforts of the right.

Additionally, being one of the few organized forces behind the Democratic Party makes the unions a tempting target of the Republicans who hold the legislative reigns. Not only will such support be threatened by an emboldened conservative movement, but also whatever meager checks there were on progressive policy by the labor movement will be undermined by their loss of objective strength on the one hand (should unionization rates fall further), populist challenges from the right on the other, and the Democrat’s foolhardy attempt to lure Republican-linked capitalists.

Marching over the edge

How did we get here? The unions are not just organizations of workers, but organizations with political objectives and ideology. We were reminded of this fact when Wikileaks exposed the leader of AFT coordinating with the Hillary Clinton campaign to “go after” National Nurses United for their support of Bernie.4 The AFL-CIO and CTW have remained tied to the political policies and destinies of the capitalist political class organized in the Democratic Party. This is the same party which has pursued policies ultimately to bring about labor’s decline. There are many false steps that led to the labor movement allying with its enemies right over the Trump cliff.

The Cold War purges of the militant independent unions inside and outside CIO dismantled democratic leadership built from the organizing wave of the thirties through the strike waves at the closing of WWII.5 In it’s place it installed a loyal bureaucracy that was institutionalized through collaboration with employers and the government in the context of unparalleled world economic expansion and rising living standards for workers. Eliminating the only organized opposition to the bureaucracies paved the way for generations of corruption, union graft, and organized crime. This led to the shameful path of American labor that put the leadership often against the working class in dramatic ways; for example when the AFL-CIO worked for the CIA to help murder union organizers in Latin America.6 As that social abundance wore thin in the crises of the 1970s, the ruling class moved on but labor didn’t. When the bosses no longer needed the unions, they began to get rid of them. Labor, under the yoke of bureaucracies thoroughly insulated from the conditions of its members, mostly took this lying down.

Across the world governments, left and right, attacked social safety nets, union protections, and the benefits workers had won through decades of direct action. The right-wing origins of neoliberalism is widely known. Though less acknowledged, the global socialist and social democratic left was also key in its spread. As Sader showed, in Latin America socialists, former Marxist guerrillas, and progressive helped neoliberalism sweep the Americas.7 Mudge similarly drew out the intellectual roots and left support for the neoliberal attacks on Europe’s social programs.8 Workers, having placed their faith in the hands of political parties, were betrayed across the political spectrum. This pattern appears poised to repeat as the working class in the United States is yet to carve out an independent path from the political classes that exploit them.

Unions, particularly in the United States, remained a loyal opposition and stood as watchmen while their members were attacked, their organizations shrunk, and the populace without access to the benefits of union membership grew. Total collapse was staved off by the gains made largely in public sector as a result of the illegal wildcat strike wave in the 1970s, wherein such organizing was legalized. Before the wildcat strikes of the postal workers and other public employees, public sector unions had no right to collective bargaining and strikes were largely illegal. The new influx of public sector unions would swell the ranks but not fundamentally change the dynamic. The Reagan years broke the fighting capacity of the unions and relegated them to a defensive role perhaps up to the present.

With the fall out from the Reagan “revolution”, with it’s attacks on the power of unions, public and service sector unions in particular shifted strategy towards mobilizing as vote-getting machines for the Democratic party. The leadership of these unions wrote a blank check without any serious attempt for policy demands, and keep on writing it come what may in the face of false promises (such as the abandonment of the Employee Free Choice Act when Democrats controlled the House and Senate in Obama’s first term)9, neoliberal attacks on health care, immigration, and trade agreements.

The broader working class was left out of this picture with many unions resorting to parochially defending it’s shrinking membership while the country became worse and worse off. Since the seventies many construction unions receive more money from profits off their pension funds than from membership dues. This creates a financial disincentive to organize for those lucky enough to benefit from the union acting as an investor (and sometimes in anti-worker non-union construction projects). The less members, the bigger the pile of money for those left standing. The isolation of the labor movement is a danger easily exploited by employers. Whenever the ILWU and TWA go on strike for example the media attempts to exploit resentment from nonunion workers inconvenienced by transportation disruptions. Our shared issues as workers and the dangerous work environments are downplayed and while hammering in the idea that these workers are spoiled while the rest of us toil. This will not go away until there are unions willing to fight for all workers and regain the trust of the public.

Laudable attempts to advocate for broader social conditions beyond union’s narrow membership such as Fight for 15$ have not yet taken hold. Likewise campaigns like Our Walmart, Fight for 15$, and Raise the Wage have been missing the worker participation, direct organizing, and popular democracy that has made the workers movement a powerful force throughout its history. You may get your foot in the door with a promise of a raise, but what keeps people in the movement is a bigger ethical commitment and the feeling of gaining power over the destiny for them, their families, and community. Certainly UFCW and SEIU are infamous for their top-down command hierarchy of staff-led organizing, yet likewise there hasn’t been an autonomous working class movement to oppose it except in some limited areas of the country such as in places with IWW organizing in fast food.10

Looking to the wolf for protection

At the same time as the labor movement’s decline, there is new hope amongst some activists for the state to step in and save workers. Progressive pushes inside establishment parties and electoral socialism has gained a new lease on life. This is particularly true in light of Kshama Sawant’s victory, the candidacy of Bernie Sanders on a social democratic platform, and struggles within the Democratic Party as we speak.

This is strange as it comes on the heels of the global discrediting of social democratic movements, having only recently ushered in neoliberalism, led failing governments across Europe and Latin America, and been increasingly out maneuvered by the insurgent right. Syriza and Podemos promised workers to reverse the attacks only to reverse course in power. Brazil and Argentina’s electoral left dynasties were defeated amidst stagnation and a failure to realize their parties promises for workers in an atmosphere of increased tension with the official unions of their respective countries. Why then is now the time to revisit this doomed strategy?

We are living in a time where the most important reforms have never looked less likely despite its new found popularity. There is unprecedented pressure on the world’s governments to keep in line due to challenges specific to our time: climate change, a rapidly destabilizing global order, the rise of organized violent conservative forces, a new dawn of mechanization through robotics and artificial intelligence that threatens millions if not billions of jobs, and a world economic order that vastly constrains the ability of governments to act in isolation. The challenges that the US economy faces are global and go to the core of how our industries have functioned. Those in power are struggling to maintain popular support while at the same time staving off ecological, political, and economic crises as interstate conflicts, climate change, and mass immiseration threaten. Both in terms of resources and political space, the State has less options today than in any recent memory.

The turn to social democracy and faith in the state to save us from this terrifying situation arises on some level from desperation and feeling powerless. We shouldn’t underestimate the role fear plays when things are so uncertain and people’s situations are tenuous. Moreover the left and labor have no provided any real workable alternative people can point to as an alternative. Still, the opposite conclusion should be drawn. The people attacking the working class in the past three decades are vulnerable. Now truly is the time to get organized.

It is up to us to show the power of working people themselves to construct an alternative. Such a self-organized movement can give a new form of hope that doesn’t rely on the same force that is responsible for maintaining the power of the wealthy increasingly against the world. In reality we are the only real chance for a lasting peace and prosperity. Today the labor movement needs to find ways to assert it’s aspirations and speak to the populations disenfranchised by the society of the ruling class. Our only consistent power as workers is that of our labor in the workplace and our ability to take direct action in our communities to disrupt and re-organize society in our own interests. If we continue to place our faith in the state and the powerful to intervene for us, we will continue to perpetuate new tragedies like the one this year, and do so in an environment where those dreams are more and more certain to guaranty nightmares.

We need an alternative to the subservient unionism of labor-management partnership that act as the drive belt for the machinery of various political parties. Apolitical militant unionism likewise will not do. The challenges we face are of global dimensions, potential dire consequence, and require the investment of workers willing to organize and take on issues for the class as a whole. The various national states will act as barriers to the necessary changes that must come in facing climate, the destruction of many jobs as we’ve known them, and destabilization of the balance of military power. It is naive to think that the state can transform itself from the guardian of the capitalists at present to a guardian of the people in spite of the multi-factorial pressures bearing down on and weakening it’s independence in an era of global capital. The state is a direct obstacle to a labor movement that fights for meaningful work and lives, ecological balance, and global solidarity. Unions are being challenged to be more political in a divisive era where there is no way of avoiding drawing lines. A pro-working class labor movement must be internationalist, ecologically motivated, and in opposition to capitalism and the state itself. The challenges we face are products of capitalism itself, and the state is the center that allowed capitalism to be born and sustain itself.

This unique time is giving us a gift, at least while there is still space to organize an alternative. The state-aligned socialist and union movements have unfortunately contributed to this rise of dangerous forces, and it’s about time to redirect our energy from waiting for elites towards solving the problems ourselves together directly. We should advocate for self-government by workers and communities organized in direct democracies aimed at providing the fullest development of all by each. Unions can be one force in this direction. Revolutionary unionism or anarchosyndicalism works to replace the dictatorship in the workplace with the self-government of work by workers as well as the replacement of the state organized by the capitalists with a collective self-organization of the community.11 Support and experiments grow each year for such radical egalitarian approaches to social problems such that even the most dire hard defends of hierarchical bureaucracies find the need to pay lip service to direct participation. The resonance of these ideas give us an opportunity to build off of that is unique to our time.

Indeed there’s good reason to think we’re living a time of unparalleled potential for the best of the labor movement. For one, the worst of the movement is going to have less resources to repress worker self-activity, negotiate back room deals with employers, and get the backing of politicians seeking to manipulate the situation to their advantage. Union bureaucracies will have to fight or die, and members may feel less willing to support the stagnation they’ve bank rolled previously.

The ruling class is also in a unstable position. Social movements often develop when people have a sense of having lost what was rightly theirs. If workers begin to take workplace action aimed at broader social issues there’s a potential of providing needed energy to other issues and movements. An alternative is the only path open when union elections are rigged in favor of the bosses, contracts ham-strung by a booby trapped process, and passive approaches to in-shop organizing financially undermined by Right-to-Work legislation. The answer is unionism based on internationalism, opposing institutionalized oppressions within the class, direct action, politicized solidarity, and syndicalist democratic structures.

The failures of the state can be countered by a workers movement that is based on members, organized within the daily life of working class existence, and built upon the direct democracy of people solving their own problems. Such a movement is a model to progressives as a whole who increasingly are dependent on outside funded organizations, top-down command organizations paralleling the business world, and single-issue campaigns without connection to the daily life of the exploited. Our challenges are clearly immense with failure a good possibility. The costs of complacency are too great however.

On the horizon perhaps we see glimpses of such a future. Across Asia militant workers movements demonstrate their ability to organize vast horizontal organizations while under repressive anti-labor regimes. In the United States recent events such as the immigration strikes in May Day 2006, Wisconsin’s occupation of the state capital, and renewed willingness to consider strikes amongst the AFL-CIO unions show the potential for broad movements of workers to contest the direction of the state and economy even if only partially successful thus far. Recent struggles seem to point to mass solidarity, political antagonism to the attacks of the state, and organizing independently and against all the dominant political forces. In the coming years the workers movement will be challenged to see if we can answer these calls.

American labor isn’t dead, but definitely needs to wake up

The mood and discussions of late have largely been doom and gloom. Our series has tried to shine a light on some hope for workers resistance to counter the demobilize barrage of social and anti-social media. Our final piece in the Labor under Trump series comes from Ideas and Action the online publication of the Workers Solidarity Alliance. David Fernández-Barrial argues that there is an untapped potential within workplaces to defeat the threats looming, and take us closer to a just and equitable society.

At the dawn of the Trump era, Labor is a sleeping giant with the ability to unite diverse swaths of American society and ultimately transform it.

For many years now, a widespread cry has been raised of the imminent death of American Labor; of the end of working people as a living force in the life of the United States. We hear that the workers’ movement is currently is in its last painful death throes – irrelevant, dying, lonely and forgotten by a technologically rapacious consumerist society that has moved past Labor as a social force and relegated it to a long forgotten past.

This cry has come from many different quarters1, including from parts of the labor movement itself, where there still lingers a strange nostalgia for a time of now- mythologized struggles. It also comes from many activist circles, who for many reasons, have fractionalized into specific issues and have removed themselves from the day-to-day concerns of regular working people, of what motivates people in our society. In adopting vanguardist positions, many have left the mass of people behind, looking at the plight of the oppressed and the real desires of working people with a sneer – as a means to an end – in a similar vein to Evangelical Christians who embrace Jewish culture, not as worthy in itself, but as a means to initiating the “End of Days”.

And it comes from within many unions themselves, where anti-democratic tendencies have taken root on one hand, and where members do not actively engage and work to solve problems on the other.

Most pervasively of all, this death cry comes from our so-called mainstream media, where working people are constantly bombarded with messages of the futility of any sort of identity or action that is not tied to their role as active consumers in a capitalist order. Working people are not encouraged to see the basic unity of their circumstances – whether they be in the workplace, unemployed, or even retired – and instead are drawn into any number of subcultures which ultimately drain energy and purpose, and which mask the nature of our social relationship.

And now with the improbable ascent of Donald Trump to the Presidency of the United States, the prediction of the death of Labor is being hammered in, to the delight of conservatives and anti-worker rights advocates – that his “Republican-on-Steroids” administration will deal the final death blow to organized labor. The signs are all there; from a new House labor committee chair who openly questions the need for unions2 to the use of legislative maneuvering to erase rights of public sector workers3 – further dividing working people with the expressed intention of establishing a (doublespeak) “Right-to-Work” regime across America, rolling back basic worker protections.4

Donald Trump – the cry continues today – is the death knell for unions and the rights of working people.

Unions are dead, they say; the American Labor Movement is dead.

And despite this now widespread sentiment, there ironically has never been a time that unions were more needed. And not just as some calculated method to keep the “Middle Class” afloat, as some Democrats tout it – but because of the intrinsic social and economic bonds and unity of purpose that unions contain and which transform not just labor relations, but our society a whole.

That American Labor – and the Labor Movement in the United States – has in various ways been lulled into an extended torpor of complacency and division is not in doubt. But as a force, it has never really ceased to exist; it can never really cease to exist as long as we live on the planet. In fact, it isn’t terminally ill so much as dormant – asleep to its own strength as well as to its own necessity. Of the need for people to produce, create, develop, and evolve through endeavor; as contrasted with mindlessly buying, consuming, ingesting, throwing away and buying some more that characterizes where we currently are.

Across our land, most people work; they have jobs and are meaningfully employed – and more importantly needjobs to earn a living and to survive. Working people – those that rely on an exchange of labor – that is, the vast majority of people in this country, need a way to have their real needs addressed and not be bullied, cajoled and threatened into unfair situations that hierarchical relationships engender. The very context that unions of workers provide – and will always provide.

Nevertheless, our unions have entered a deep sleep. To label this sleep a result of pure apathy on the part of working people is too simplistic and gives the lie to the people who would destroy unions and who benefit from that destruction. Many factors have led Labor to this crossroads, and it is not all rooted in the past, but in the very way unions are understood.

One factor is the pernicious illusion among people in a workplace that a union is somehow “The Union” – namely, that it is an organization outside of each member, an institution where people turn their troubles over to someone else and where they are solved. An external workplace office that deals with services and disputes in a workplace. In many places, this is self-fulfilling consciousness. In reality, unions are a direct expression of the concerns of the workforce because they are the workforce itself. The union is the collective voice of the workforce, which gains its strength through that combination. Whether it be health and safety concerns, grievances, creating a real communication among members, unions gain their power by the fact that people band together – that individuals unite – work together to find solutions and have a voice and a strength through participation. The most successful unions are those where each member understands and exercises their autonomous power, instead of a place where people “turn their problems over to Jesus.” Salvation comes from each, not from on high.

A second factor which evolves from the first – and one which gets constant play from anti-union activists – is the petrification of many union structures. With less active participation in the union, there arises slowed responses to management threats and a lack of democratic and transparent processes by union leaders. With their own hierarchies, self-censorship takes hold, and the workers in an organization begin to the mirror the very approaches of management, which only builds distrust among the rank-and-file.

People in many workplaces notice and complain about these two facets of the union challenge; conspicuously, though, they do not get involved. Members and non-members alike complain, and very few actually, actively get involved to further the conversation in each workplace around the country. The work of the union is perceived as something other than the work of the members and of the organizations in which they exist, and few are willing to engage in what becomes thankless work.

With the lack of participation and through petrification, the union conversation in America quickly turns into one of abstractions and platitudes, instead of specific work contexts.

In this crisis of engagement and action for organized unions, people – especially in the labor activist circles – talk of harnessing radical ideas and methods of Labor’s past, of infusing new blood. But, in effect, this infusion doesn’t end the torpor and raise the sleeping giant. It comes across as hollow and insincere. Like that of the Republicans in the United States, who starting, in 2008, who talked about reaching out to people of color, Gay and Lesbians, and Hispanic immigrants and who want to develop a strategy to make black people feel more comfortable in their political party5; but nowhere did they actually support policies or initiatives that people of color actually care about or believe in. Ideas are living actions, not medicines to be administered.

In fact, the very principles that American Labor needs right now – of federalism, of decentralization, of autogestion – that singularly beautiful Spanish word for workers’ self-management – of truly horizontal communication and decision making, these are living ideas that matter in the workplace and in our society and whose time has come, ironically enough, when pundits are calling for the end of organized labor. They are also ideas born in our collective history of American Labor and international Labor struggles and are not new – but they were ideas that we once so futuristic that people died so that those in positions of authority could ensure that they never lost their positions of privilege and power.

In the past, labor unions and federations once imported and exported ideas, the way we now export movies, computer software and soda and imports cheap manufactured goods created by exploited labor in China6. This is one thing that many disillusioned activists are right about: America used to export powerful ideals and examples of labor advocacy; now it’s pop music, militarism, fast food, and soda.

Anyone who seriously considers workplaces in our country can see that American Labor is quite alive – breathing, heart pumping, feeling – but in its deep sleep, a world of dreams and fantasies, from which it needs to emerge for the good not just of American society, but of the world. In order to rouse itself – to rouse those parts of ourselves, that have been so long asleep all we need is engagement.

If each person in every workplace reached out to their peers and communicated about work, this would change. From the most micro level, a social consciousness needs to return; a consciousness of union in its broadest sense. The relegation of work to something superficial or painful (“it’s just a job”) ignores how much of our life-breath is expended in day-to-day work and hides the relations that make work necessary in the first place. The accompanying silence about work – and the vast dearth of local work histories – helps fuel the ignorance and apathy across America.

But this isn’t limited to a workplace context alone. Many of the critical societal issues that we are facing – inequality, racism, violence, hatred – have been somehow, somewhere carefully removed from the larger contexts where to comprehensively address them and resolve them. It’s not to say that this understanding is not recognized, simply that it does not exist in as many places as it should, becoming a source of division and weakness.

The unity of purpose among working people, the union context as properly realized, is the one area that unites broad swaths of our American Society. Despite the oft-cited divisions that this past election laid bare for many, the one factor that can bring people together is work. Not “the work of” but simply, work.

In many ways, the context which is pro-immigrant, pro-LGBTQ rights, pro-inclusivity, and at the same time anti-racist, anti-bigotry – already exists, lying dormant because the so many ignore the organic linkages that Labor provides. All one needs to do is look around, and the links to groups and camaraderie and solidarity are there, already in existence. But the consciousness of American Labor it has been lulled into a dangerous complacency that ultimately facilitates statism, authoritarianism, and despotism which has now given rise to a celebrity “culture” and a “Make America Great Again” fascism.

People who work, within various trades and as a mass of people that share a basic circumstance – of having to earn a living and be meaningfully employed or even be engaged with the economic world in retirement – and that is a facet that helps the process of rousing the sleeping giant. Not to be awakened to be used to some political end by desperate politicians or manipulated into some American Ponzi scheme – but to shake off the sleep, cast aside the lethargy and the bad dreams, and to begin to construct again, to build again, and to take pride in action.

And, yes, there is also that exceedingly rich legacy of the past, of hard-won battles which is lost to the mass of people; where people banded together in solidarity as sisters and brothers. CNN, Fox News, MSNBC would have us believe that the distant past is the Civil Rights Movement or the “Greatest Generation” of World War II – the last times of unity that mattered. When the reality is, the American Labor journey goes back a lot longer than those and continues to this day.

Besides engagement at the local level – at the workplace level, another piece that is needed is an ongoing reporting of events around the working world – including in the U.S. – to help create an awareness among working people – something which exists, but in precious few outlets.7 This helps working people build a consciousness of their own strength, across artificial national and ethnic boundaries.

Branching out from local workplaces, broad-based labor coalitions and federations of worker assemblies of all orientations need to come together that put aside organizational differences, so that ideas can again be the common currency. Whether based around specific issues before us in the Trump era – protection of immigrant communities, respect for different belief – local unions and their members need to reach out to sisters and brothers in their communities, in other unions, too. This is not to put aside all historical and ideological concerns – merely to invest energy in the structures that work: horizontal, non-hierarchial, truly democratic structures and relationships. To set aside all exclusory models, and to return to creating alliances to achieve a popular mass movement to defeat the Trump agenda – or whatever form the immediate and systematic attacks against self-determination and autonomy assume. Despite the superficial differences and varieties of responses – that is, apart from those that are not authoritarian, statist, or oppressive – there is room for conversations, dialogue, and joint actions.

At crucial moments, the American Labor movement of our distant past was a popular mass movement, where a huge variety of labor unions with logical affinities banded together under common banners8. Those varied voices of the past still call out, trying to drown out the siren call that would lead working people to setbacks and disasters by not reaching out to each other.

It’s a matter of shaking off the sleep, some cold water in the face, of moving the limbs, and stepping away from the bed into the world of activity. Unions can only be handed setbacks in sleep. But Labor – the concerns of working people as manifested in union activity and solidarity – will never really die. It may be handed some serious societal and global setbacks, but there has been a general march throughout human history that will not come to an end here or anywhere on the planet, as long as there are people determined to be free and who believe in equality and justice. The names and terms will change perhaps, but the great constructive work of strengthening bonds, communicating, effecting positive change is ours to complete, We just need to wake up and see that we were already all right here, right next to each other all along,

David Fernández-Barrial is a federal librarian and union steward.