Which Side Are You Democrats On?

Even the friendliest Democratic officials are cowards. The labor movement needs to save itself.

Hamilton Nolan

We're all friends here. (Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

We are told that Joe Biden is the most pro-labor president in decades. That statement seems to be true. It is also a good demonstration of the fact that looking to the Democratic Party for salvation is a surefire way for the labor movement to continue getting nowhere. Take a moment to reflect on what our Democratic friends have done for us lately. 

People who view the world through the lens of electoral politics don’t tend to like the phrase Which side are you on?” It is seen as unsophisticated, simplistic — a black-and-white view of a political reality in which compromise is the path to getting anything done. But the phrase has great utility. It acknowledges that there are sides, and that you have to be on one of them. Organized labor is about power. Power concedes nothing without a fight. Compromise is fine, as long as everyone can tell — without looking too hard — which side you are working for. 

A year into full Democratic control of the federal government, and a year out from the likely end of that happy arrangement, is a useful time to consider what the labor movement has gotten out of this ostensibly ideal situation. Have we gotten the PRO Act, the number one thing that labor wants and needs? No. Nor will we, until the filibuster is gone. In fairness, only a minority of Congressional Democrats are holding this legislation back, a result of the fact that the Democratic Party is not one unified thing, but a very loose collection of many disparate things united only by our nation’s poor two-party design. It is fair, however, to look at what the Democrats are doing from the very top — where the agenda is set, and where symbolism matters. 

The reason the PRO Act is so important is that it is not an easy time for unions in America. The law is tilted against them. Major victories are rare. Inspiration is at a premium. Democrats claim to understand this. During the pandemic-wracked year of 2020, there was no more important or inspiring union story than the effort to unionize an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. It represented an attempt to crack the most influential and powerful (and anti-union) company in the nation, where the battle to organize workers will have ripple effects on what the future of work looks like across the country in decades to come. Though the union lost that election, the company cheated, and another election will be held. In the fight to unionize Amazon, everyone must be on a side. 

Last week, we learned that former President Barack Obama’s foundation has accepted a $100 million donation from Amazon boss Jeff Bezos. It is a trifling sum for Bezos, who has made more than $100 billion while doing everything possible to ensure that his hundreds of thousands of workers are unable to organize to improve their own lives. The donation was reportedly arranged by Jay Carney, Obama’s former press secretary, who is now Amazon’s spokesman, and who spoke out against the union drive in Alabama. Bezos specifically asked that the donation be earmarked to build a plaza in honor of recently deceased Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis. 

John Lewis was a strong and active supporter of unions. Imagine how meaningful it would have been if Barack Obama had publicly supported the Amazon union drive in Alabama. He didn’t, though. But he will have a plaza” paid for by the guy who has become richer than Rockefeller by crushing Amazon workers. I hope that plaza will be spacious enough for John Lewis to roll over in his grave. Thank you for your leadership, Obama. 

There is another inspiring union drive now happening at Starbucks, which began in Buffalo and is spreading across the country. The billionaire founder of Starbucks — stop me if this sounds familiar — is leading a ruthless anti-union campaign to try to stop his workers from organizing. That billionaire founder is named Howard Schultz, and if Hillary Clinton had been elected president in 2016, she was reportedly going to name him as her Labor Secretary. 

What a fine choice! Thank you for your allyship, Hillary Clinton. 

Joe Biden didn’t do quite so bad. He picked as his own Labor Secretary former Boston mayor and union guy Marty Walsh — an establishment pick, certainly, but one broadly endorsed by major union leaders. Walsh has had the good fortune to be the government’s top labor official during a months-long wave of strikes that has garnered much attention, and helped to energize public excitement around the potential offered by labor organizing. There have been many inspirational strikes this year, none more hard-fought than that of the United Mine Workers members in Brookwood, Alabama, who have been striking against Warrior Met Coal for nearly eight months now. Theirs is a tough battle. It is the exact sort of strike that has historically been won when the government helped the union, and lost when the government didn’t.

Last week, Marty Walsh went to Birmingham. He was there to hold a news conference announcing the implementation of an executive order increasing the minimum wage of federal contractors. It would have been a perfect time for him to stop by the picket line at Brookwood, which is right down the road. But he didn’t. In fact, he has not stopped by any picket lines. I suppose that would just be a bit too radical, for the Secretary of Labor of the Most Pro-Union President Of Our Lifetimes during the Great Strike Wave of 2021

Thank you, Joe Biden, for… whatever it is your administration is supposed to be doing for us. 

Does the labor movement benefit more from tenuous and disloyal Democratic politicians than from openly hostile and vindictive Republican politicians? Sure. But what beaten-down workers really need is not a president who will smile and shake hands with both them and the boss who is beating them down. They need a president who will shake hands with them and then tell their boss, Fuck you. I’m with the union.” 

We aren’t likely to see a Democratic president like that any time soon. So we better build labor power, which does not ask permission. Stop looking for politicians to save us. Go organize some workers so that we can save ourselves.

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Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. More of his work is on Substack.

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