Most years begin (or end) with the usual hand wringing and angst over the existential future of organized labor – “Is there any hope for labor to survive?” “Are unions still relevant?” But not this year. 2019 began with the bold strike of Los Angeles teachers, who changed the discourse on public education by mounting a challenge to the increasing tide of charter schools. Many more strikes and labor actions have continued throughout the year, notably Stop and Shop workers in Connecticut and Massachusetts, UE locomotive constructors in Erie, PA, and Lyft and Uber drivers across the country.
In each case, workers benefited from this “movement moment” where politicians of every Democratic stripe scurried to offer their support. Democrats who in the past had kept their distance from strikes, now seek to emulate Bernie Sanders by embracing labor’s cause.
Labor’s resurgent militancy gives unions — even as density in the private sector reaches a low of 6.4 percent — an opportunity to play an important role in the nomination of a presidential candidate in the Democratic Party’s primaries and the November 2020 election. The stakes couldn’t be higher, not only for the future of the labor movement but also for the entire U.S. working class.
The 2018 midterm elections spotlighted the incredible grassroots commitment to put the brakes on Trump by flipping the House of Representatives to a Democratic majority. The subsequent flourishing of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other progressives and their ability to drive political discourse to the left could only have occurred because the Democrats won. Otherwise their ideas would be those of insignificant backbenchers in a minority party.
Emboldened by our collective experience in 2018, in 2020 our task will be to finally rid the country — and the world — of Donald Trump. As in the 2018 midterms, victory will only be achieved by building broad unity of purpose to throw the bum out. Nearly every union is committed to getting Trump out in 2020. The Trump presidency has sought to weaken labor rights in every agency: the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Department of Labor (DOL) etc. The recent decision by the NLRB that “gig” drivers are independent contractors is just one example of the damage. But as we saw in 2016, uniting labor is not easy if you have a corporate Democrat ala’ Clinton/Biden atop the ticket.
Managing the conflicting currents of the need for a united front against Trump with the opportunity to use presidential politics to advance a strong labor program is one of the delicate balancing acts that must be finessed in 2019-2020. Of necessity, labor will be an essential cornerstone of keeping that united front together. Yet, in a Democratic Party dominated by corporate interests that’s no easy task. The painful irony of former VP Joe Biden rallying in Pittsburgh with Steelworkers and Teamsters to make his formal candidate announcement, the night after he was feted at a corporate fundraiser hosted by a union busting law firm, is the perfect metaphor for the party’s contradictory “allegiances.”
Since his announcement, Biden is polling well, not only because the corporate media is pushing him (which they certainly are – especially the New York Times) but because he has been painted as the best choice to do so.
With the Democratic primaries only months away, speculation regarding the final selection of a Democratic candidate is at a high level. Some union leaders motivated by the real imperative to defeat Trump have abandoned a class perspective on the candidates and any process for member involvement in the endorsement decision. Firefighters president Harold Schaitberger and Steelworkers president Leo Gerard have already announced their support for Biden – a committed corporate Democrat.
Fortunately, some other unions are already taking a more sober approach. Chastened by membership reaction to their undemocratic (and premature) 2016 endorsement of Hillary Clinton, the International Association of Machinists (IAM) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) have each announced a new endorsement process for the 2020 presidential race.
Bernie Sanders’ campaign in 2016 for the nomination boldly challenged the Democratic corporate consensus and captured the hearts and minds of millions of union members. Labor for Bernie, a grassroots movement to secure the nomination for the Vermont Senator saw six national unions and over 100 locals endorse Sanders. It is also worth repeating that many union members who supported Sanders in the primary went over to supporting Trump in the final. The Cooperative Congressional Election Study at Harvard pegs the number at 12 percent — not an insignificant figure when one considers the thin margins in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin that gave Trump a victory in the Electoral College. These voters on the margins can be won in 2020 and millions of new and infrequent voters can also be won with a program that focuses clearly on the billionaire class that is ruining the country and the lives of millions of Americans.
Sanders’s candidacy is once again shaping the debate and forcing other candidates to weigh in on his signature issues: economic inequality, Medicare for All, free student tuition and an end to corporate welfare. Naming the enemy – the billionaire class – has been Bernie’s beat, and he has been joined in that perspective to some degree by Elizabeth Warren with her detailed programs for corporate regulation and reform.
Labor for Bernie has re-emerged to not only support Bernie, but to promote a strategic approach to the 2020 political process – and to use the primary as an arena of struggle against the corporate Democrats. In an April 29 letter to Labor for Bernie supporters Chuck Jones, former President of United Steelworkers Local 1999 said, “The challenge now for union members and labor activists is to take the campaign into our workplaces and union halls and win union support for Bernie, his platform, and to build a powerful movement for workers.” Jones was the union leader who defied Trump’s lies about stopping the closure of the Carrier plant in Indiana that his union represented. He has since won election as Wayne Township Trustee.
Does going all in for Bernie and his platform preclude building the unity necessary to beat Trump in 2020? We argue that it does not if certain parameters are respected. Just as early endorsement of Clinton was a problem in 2016 because there was little or no debate and discussion in the ranks, so too an early endorsement of Bernie from “on high” would be problematic for building unity in the ranks of any labor organization. A credible process must be established (like in the Machinists union) so that members can discuss and decide their choice. Open candidate forums, online issue comparisons and direct votes can be utilized to ascertain member preferences and educate on the issues.
With resurgent labor militancy, one important “litmus test” for all candidates should be if they respond to the call when the battle is joined. Bernie walked the Verizon picket lines in 2016 despite the ridicule heaped on him by Verizon CEO Lowell McAdams, as though it was not appropriate for a politician to cast his lot squarely with labor. This round he has rallied with striking University of California staff, led the charge for workers at Wal-Mart’s annual meeting and marched with McDonalds workers fighting for $15 an hour and a union.
Regardless of who the Democrats pick, the primaries should be viewed as an opportunity for the labor movement to gain strength. It is imperative for labor to define and advance working-class values and priorities well before making any union endorsements. Labor for Bernie will help like-minded Sanders supporters unite in their unions and provide workers the tools to highlight working class issues during the upcoming state primary campaigns and caucuses. Interviewed by Domenico Montanaro for an NPR story on May 24, former Communications Workers of America President Larry Cohen, now the chair of Our Revolution, responded to Biden’s call for a restoration of bygone values: “It’s a political revolution that’s needed. Restoration in this country — what period are we going to go back to? The period of Jim Crow? State militias? We are moving forward, not restoration. To build democracy here, it has to be inclusive — in a meaningful way.”
Labor for Bernie will also stress the importance of beating Trump as Bernie himself did in 2016 when he endorsed Clinton. The same ecumenical and united front vision must be part and parcel of the vigorous defense of a working-class program. Again, Larry Cohen from the same NPR program on a Biden nomination: “If he’s the nominee,” his group “will support him enthusiastically. At the end of the day, elections are binary. It’s like a light switch, I want the light on. It’s not a close call. There’s a huge difference between Vice President Biden and Donald Trump.” That said, he added, “Now is the time to talk about what kind of nation we can be, and what can we get done — and let’s aim higher.”
The primaries will be characterized by intense debate. If union leaders (and members) play their cards right, it will lead to a well-articulated program that can advance working class interests. By supporting Sanders, whomever eventually wins the nomination should be compelled to support a strong labor platform. In the end though, there must be unity to defeat Trump for the sake of the working class and the future of the world. America’s nightmare experience with Trump’s neofascism must be ended in 2020.