Interviews for Resistance: On Treating Trump Like a Bad Boss

Sarah Jaffe

As Republicans introduce legislation that would make labor law for the entire country like it is in the deep South, who better to talk about making unions relevant than an organizer with lots of experience organizing in a so-called “right-to-work” state? Ben Speight is the organizing director of Teamsters Local 728 in Georgia. (Fred Nye/ IBT photographer)

Wel­come to Inter­views for Resis­tance. In this series we’ll be talk­ing with orga­niz­ers, trou­ble­mak­ers, and thinkers who are work­ing both to chal­lenge the Trump admin­is­tra­tion and the cir­cum­stances that cre­at­ed it. It can be easy to despair, to feel like trends toward inequal­i­ty are impos­si­ble to stop, to give in to fear over increased racist, sex­ist and xeno­pho­bic vio­lence. But around the coun­try, peo­ple are doing the hard work of fight­ing back and com­ing togeth­er to plan for what comes next. This series will intro­duce you to some of them.

As Repub­li­cans intro­duce leg­is­la­tion that would make labor law for the entire coun­try like it is in the deep South, who bet­ter to talk about mak­ing unions rel­e­vant than an orga­niz­er with lots of expe­ri­ence orga­niz­ing in a so-called right-to-work” state? Con­trary to pop­u­lar belief, right-to-work laws don’t ban unions, they just allow work­ers to opt out of pay­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tion fees to the union while still requir­ing the union to rep­re­sent all work­ers in a work­place. But it is still pos­si­ble to fight for work­ers under a right-to-work régime — as long as unions remem­ber to fight. 

Ben Speight: My name is Ben Speight. I am the orga­niz­ing direc­tor of Team­sters Local 728 in Georgia.

Sarah Jaffe: Last week we heard that dif­fer­ent labor lead­ers met with now-Pres­i­dent Trump. Would you talk about your reaction?

Ben: Trump is the cor­po­rate bul­ly-in-chief. For us, in labor, in look­ing at him as a boss, he’s one that has shown his incli­na­tion to align with some of the most reac­tionary forces in the 1% and folks that are rabid­ly anti-union.

His dem­a­gog­ic appeal to work­ing peo­ple has been extreme­ly suc­cess­ful. His form of eco­nom­ic nation­al­ism has cut against our abil­i­ty to build broad sol­i­dar­i­ty amongst white work­ing peo­ple, black work­ing peo­ple, brown work­ing peo­ple, and to have a work­ing-class per­spec­tive that is opposed to the right wing. His eco­nom­ic pop­ulism is very appeal­ing to some in the labor lead­er­ship who are very risk-averse and want to try to main­tain their posi­tions and the insti­tu­tions that we have as they exist over the short term. Trump’s promis­es of big infra­struc­ture projects going to the con­struc­tion trades, his sym­bol­ic with­draw­al from the Trans-Pacif­ic Part­ner­ship, his pro­nounce­ments of bring­ing man­u­fac­tur­ing back to the Unit­ed States appeal to tra­di­tion­al­ly con­ser­v­a­tive, most­ly white-male-dom­i­nat­ed small­er build­ing trades and con­struc­tion unions. Those were prin­ci­pal­ly the ones that he met with ear­li­er last week.

It is not ter­ri­bly sur­pris­ing that they would be the first to meet with him and give a full-throat­ed endorse­ment of his ini­tial actions. But the dev­il is in the details — what are we going to get out of it? When you go to some­body like Trump, like you would go to an intran­si­gent employ­er, if you go from a posi­tion of weak­ness where you are hap­py just to be at the table — I think Trump viewed the labor lead­ers that came to the White House as pushovers. They came and spoke after­wards, clear­ly excit­ed just to be there, not for what we could get out of it.

It has come out recent­ly in a New York Times arti­cle that [when Trump met with] the con­struc­tion trades, whose entire exis­tence, in part, relies on their abil­i­ty to enforce the Davis-Bacon Act, which sets pre­vail­ing wages for pub­lic infra­struc­ture projects and oth­er large-scale con­struc­tion projects, and requires con­trac­tors to pay a fam­i­ly-sus­tain­ing pre­vail­ing wage — Trump was non-com­mit­tal that the infra­struc­ture projects that he is endors­ing would require that wage. We have got a lot of work to do in order to under­stand the threat that he pos­es to work­ing-class sol­i­dar­i­ty and abil­i­ty to grow a labor move­ment today.

Sarah: I want to talk about how this, We have got to go make a deal with the boss” mind­set, in terms of deal­ing with Trump, is reflect­ed in how a lot of unions have dealt with the more direct boss in recent years.

Ben: We are at an all-time low in strikes in this coun­try. In the labor move­ment, because we are big enough to have pow­er and we are big enough to get sued and to want to pro­tect the insti­tu­tion­al cap­i­tal that we have left, we are extreme­ly risk averse. The lead­er­ship that we have through­out labor has been burned so many times by every lev­el of gov­ern­ment, we have almost aban­doned the strike as a weapon. We have aban­doned any kind of inno­v­a­tive strate­gies that would end up max­i­miz­ing our lever­age when we get to the table. We have become over­ly reliant on the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board and oth­er legal tac­tics. Our insti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion has caused us not to be as for­ward-think­ing and vision­ary in being will­ing to use widescale col­lec­tive action to put pres­sure on employ­ers the way that we could and need to. Over time, we have become very, very conservative.

As a result of that, the stan­dards that we have been able to achieve through col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing have declined and our pow­er polit­i­cal­ly has declined. What labor showed in 2016 is that even when we boast about our abil­i­ty to mobi­lize our mem­bers in elec­tions, we are not even suc­cess­ful at doing that. Our orga­ni­za­tions have not, for years, talked to our mem­ber­ship, asked our mem­ber­ship what they want to see in their next con­tract, asked our mem­ber­ship to get involved in fight­ing for tan­gi­ble changes in the next con­tract or, in the inter­im, fight­ing around issues col­lec­tive­ly, build­ing sol­i­dar­i­ty in the work­place, and apply­ing it to com­mu­ni­ty strug­gles and oth­ers that are fight­ing for expand­ed democ­ra­cy. We sim­ply have not learned, inter­nal­ly, how to fight.

When it comes to orga­niz­ing in exist­ing union work sites for improved con­di­tions, orga­niz­ing in non-union indus­tries, mobi­liz­ing our mem­ber­ship to fight polit­i­cal bat­tles, show­ing sol­i­dar­i­ty with oth­ers that are try­ing to expand and defend demo­c­ra­t­ic rights, we have aban­doned those basic tasks for so long that, in many ways, our orga­ni­za­tions are paper tigers. So when we go and we are invit­ed by some­body that has just tak­en pow­er, we are not bar­gain­ing from a posi­tion of strength, because we know inter­nal­ly how weak we are.

I don’t blame labor lead­ers for going to meet with Trump, but I think we should have had a much more delib­er­ate plan for mak­ing sure that those that went to meet with Trump were rep­re­sen­ta­tives of a broad­er work­ing-class con­tin­gent that front-loaded issues that were of con­cern to our mem­bers. The fact is, many of our mem­bers, mem­bers of col­or, women and our union sis­ters, our union mem­bers that come from immi­grant fam­i­lies, union mem­bers that have the con­cern that their rights are going to be stripped, that their access to work­ers’ rights on the job is going to be erod­ed. Our mem­bers want to see us take a posi­tion where we are will­ing to fight for those basic human rights in the work­place and elsewhere.

I think going there with­out any com­mit­ments to hon­or that was real­ly a mis­take. It sent the wrong sig­nals and it made the labor move­ment at large, look like a nar­row spe­cial inter­est of most­ly white con­ser­v­a­tive men. That is not the labor move­ment that we actu­al­ly are and it is cer­tain­ly not the labor move­ment that we need to be.

We have to speak for more than just a few mil­lion mem­bers that hap­pen to be dues-pay­ing work­ers in our orga­ni­za­tions. We have to speak to a broad­er, mul­ti-racial, mul­ti-gen­der, mul­ti-nation­al work­ing class. We appre­ci­ate you for­mal­ly with­draw­ing from the TPP, but this isn’t your vic­to­ry. This is the vic­to­ry of work­ing peo­ple and pro­gres­sive­ly mind­ed peo­ple that want fair trade all over the world that strug­gled against this mul­ti-nation­al trade deal for years. You sign­ing this is a reflec­tion of our pow­er and you invit­ing us here is a reflec­tion of our pow­er.” We are very hes­i­tant to uti­lize that now.

My goal as an orga­niz­er with­in the Team­sters union is to bring more work­ers into a move­ment that fights for jus­tice on and off the job. If that means chal­leng­ing the direc­tion of some of our labor lead­er­ship in coop­er­at­ing with Trump, I think that is an impor­tant task these days. I am going to con­tin­ue to voice my oppo­si­tion to any kind of accom­mo­da­tion with Trump with­out justice.

Sarah: I want to talk a lit­tle bit more about this idea of the labor move­ment as an iden­ti­ty move­ment of white men who do cer­tain jobs rather than, as you said, of a mul­ti-eth­nic, mul­ti-gen­der mass of peo­ple who are all work­ing for a liv­ing. Talk about this per­cep­tion of who the work­ing class is ver­sus the real­i­ty and what it means to actu­al­ly fight for work­ing people.

Ben: We often think about our iden­ti­ty being defined by gen­der and race and that is par­tic­u­lar­ly true for white men. When you go and talk to our mem­ber­ship, if you ask them, What are the most impor­tant issues in our soci­ety?” many of them will start from not their per­spec­tive as a work­ing per­son, but their per­spec­tive as a white man or as a per­son of col­or or as a woman. I think that lib­er­als have been as guilty in evad­ing and try­ing to ignore any kind of class analy­sis about what has got­ten us to this point in our soci­ety and how build­ing work­ing-class uni­ty and hav­ing a work­ing-class pol­i­tics is the way to get us out of this eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal crisis.

We don’t talk about class and because we don’t, we haven’t cre­at­ed this idea that we are all in this boat togeth­er. One of the things that has come out in real­ly the past few years is this analy­sis around the 1% and the 99%, which has been help­ful, but hasn’t been as inte­grat­ed into all of our work as much as it should be. I think that is the real chal­lenge for the left, for the labor move­ment at large, pro­gres­sives, you name it, is although we have an oblig­a­tion to fight against all forms of oppres­sion, in par­tic­u­lar mur­ders of black men and women, the destruc­tion of repro­duc­tive rights, and the ram­pant sex­ism and homo­pho­bia that we have in our cul­ture, if we don’t have a class pol­i­tics, we are miss­ing the abil­i­ty to have a uni­ver­sal vision for what comes next. Eco­nom­ic inse­cu­ri­ty fuels the fear, that fuels the prej­u­dice, that fuels the hatred that peo­ple like Trump, who rep­re­sents the most reac­tionary wing of the 1%, feed off of.

This is real­ly noth­ing new. Folks on the left and any­body that has com­mit­ted their lives to build­ing an alter­na­tive to this cur­rent eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal mod­el, we have been study­ing the cri­sis of cap­i­tal­ism for years. It was real­ly only a mat­ter of time before we swung back to a reac­tionary régime that under­stood the neces­si­ty of appeal­ing to work­ing-class inter­ests, because they know bet­ter than we do that work­ing-class uni­ty across all lines is where the most latent polit­i­cal pow­er lies.

The chal­lenge that we have work­ing in the labor move­ment, is are we going to just sim­ply try to hope and wait out the Trump régime for four years think­ing that it will get bet­ter on its own, that he will fall on his own sword, or are we going to view this for what it may be and that is the deci­sive break from a neolib­er­al cap­i­tal­ist pol­i­tics that accept­ed labor on the mar­gins, didn’t try to elim­i­nate us entire­ly? Because what I expect from the pol­i­tics and the cor­po­rate clique that has set Trump up, is that it is real­ly only a mat­ter of time, that they are going to come after labor in a big, delib­er­ate, con­cert­ed way.

Sarah: We have seen already that cer­tain unions and cer­tain parts of the labor move­ment are left out of the invi­ta­tions to these meet­ings. Talk about this kind of divide and con­quer even with­in the unions envi­sioned as stereo­typ­i­cal white-work­ing class?

Ben: The Steel­work­ers, the Team­sters, the Unit­ed Auto Work­ers, the AFL-CIO all issued state­ments com­mend­ing Trump for with­draw­ing from the TPP. I real­ly thought that was counter-pro­duc­tive and a waste of the paper that the press release was print­ed on. I think that what labor should do is look at what has been achieved by the social move­ments just in recent years.

The immi­grants’ rights move­ment, led by most­ly Latino/​Latina com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions through­out the coun­try, orga­nized a mass base of resis­tance 10 years ago or so. I remem­ber mass demon­stra­tions in the spring of 2006 that cre­at­ed the lever­age to oppose the most reac­tionary anti-immi­grant leg­is­la­tion that was being pro­posed at the time, by mobi­liz­ing and orga­niz­ing nation­wide in urban and rur­al areas. That scale, that bold­ness to take on who­ev­er was in office and to uti­lize eco­nom­ic tac­tics like a boy­cott and work stop­pages, was real­ly what made the immi­grants’ rights move­ment the kind of force that it is in our soci­ety now.

This past week­end with the Women’s March, they did­n’t wait until he start­ed to sign exec­u­tive orders to call for a mass his­toric glob­al mobi­liza­tion of women and all of those that are con­cerned with social jus­tice. That has cre­at­ed the lever­age for not just future orga­niz­ing, but the kind of real pow­er that has to be shown to the bully-in-chief. 

We have not mobi­lized a nation­al move­ment of work­ers in recent mem­o­ry. If we pro­pose a Nation­al Worker’s March on Wash­ing­ton or a Nation­al Work­ers Day of Protest, that would cre­ate the cir­cum­stances for us to real­ly have the pow­er to demand a halt to reforms that strip us of our rights and to demand expan­sion of basic work­ers’ rights on the job. We have the capac­i­ty to call for such actions and sus­tain such actions, because of our resources, to hit the cor­po­rate régime where they are the most sen­si­tive, which is in the work­place. Over­all we have to shift, both inside the labor move­ment and out­side of it, and see the work­place as a vital polit­i­cal bat­tle­field. Not just a place to post anti-Trump stick­ers or fly­ers in the break room, but to actu­al­ly see it as a place that we are chal­leng­ing the pre­rog­a­tives of those who set Trump up. They would rather us pri­or­i­tize some nation­al iden­ti­ty, some sense of eco­nom­ic growth despite the con­se­quences, think is what is good for Wall Street is good for work­ing peo­ple, this sort of trick­le­down eco­nom­ics on steroids.

The same sen­ti­ment that fuelled Trump’s anti-estab­lish­ment pol­i­tics is the same sen­ti­ment that we can build on to say, Work­ing class peo­ple first.” That will allow us to also fight the crit­i­cal strug­gles against racism and sex­ism in our soci­ety by say­ing, We need to have peo­ple from all dif­fer­ent back­grounds that are deal­ing with all dif­fer­ent kinds of con­di­tions to work col­lab­o­ra­tive­ly for our eco­nom­ic inter­est.” Trump is very shrewd at try­ing to dri­ve a wedge between us. If we are going to ignore that and not counter that, it is going to be at our own expense.

I think this is a huge oppor­tu­ni­ty. I am not in a deep depres­sion about where we are at right now. I think we have been prepar­ing for this moment and train­ing for the cri­sis of cap­i­tal­ism for a long time. Trump is a reflec­tion of that. We should not be throw­ing our hands up in des­per­a­tion. Under­stand­ing his­to­ry and the strug­gles of work­ing peo­ple over the past hun­dred or so years will be very infor­ma­tive to us. Unions have done this before — our union has done this before — I think of the Min­neapo­lis Team­sters in 1934 and oth­ers that have engaged in not just eco­nom­ic fights, but hav­ing polit­i­cal demands in our eco­nom­ic struggle.

Sarah: For those peo­ple read­ing and lis­ten­ing to this who don’t know what hap­pened in Min­neapo­lis, can you tell us briefly?

Ben: In 1934 in Min­neapo­lis, there was a strike involv­ing thou­sands of truck dri­vers and oth­ers in the ware­house indus­try that includ­ed thou­sands of unem­ployed work­ers who refused to cross a city­wide pick­et line set up by the Min­neapo­lis Team­ster local. At the time that local was head­ed by Far­rell Dobbs, who was a his­toric Team­ster orga­niz­er that lat­er men­tored Jim­my Hof­fa and orga­nized over-the-road truck dri­vers, a group of work­ers that for­mer­ly were thought nev­er to be able to orga­nize because of how tran­sient they were and how low the pay was.

The series of strikes that began in the late win­ter and spring, but last­ed into the sum­mer, brought employ­ers togeth­er with the city gov­ern­ment to vio­lent­ly attack the work­ers who were on strike. Offi­cial­ly, that repres­sion failed and many of the truck­ing com­pa­nies signed with the Team­sters, rais­ing stan­dards for truck dri­vers and work­ers in that city across the board.

We don’t talk a lot about that. Nei­ther do we talk about the fail­ures to orga­nize in the South. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the most recent of those efforts was in 1946 with Oper­a­tion Dix­ie. Labor has had a lot of big visions, most­ly pro­posed by labor rad­i­cals, open social­ists, and oth­ers that want­ed to align labor with broad­er social move­ments over the years. Those visions have been coun­tered by the con­ser­v­a­tive voic­es amongst the lead­er­ship in our unions that said, We are as big as we need to be right now. Don’t risk what you have got. Don’t get us sued or put in jail,” and have held back on chal­leng­ing the broad­er eco­nom­ic sta­tus quo in exchange for access to power.

It is impor­tant for us to go back to our roots and remem­ber that none of our employ­ers that sit with us like us. None of the employ­ers that are com­pelled to respect our mem­bers on the job want to do that. They do that because we have made them. They do that because we have forced them to sit down at the table and hon­or our inter­ests as work­ing peo­ple. I think that work­ing peo­ple are going to call Trump’s bluff. I hope that labor lead­ers get ahead of that and view this as an oppor­tu­ni­ty for us to regain our legit­i­ma­cy as the cen­tral pro­gres­sive force in our soci­ety, but if we fail to lead we will just become more iso­lat­ed and alien­ate our­selves even more from the mul­ti-racial, mul­ti-gen­der work­ing class in this country.

When the right that is behind Trump comes after us in state hous­es across the coun­try and in the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, if they try to pass nation­al right-to-work, if we do not ally our­selves with a broad­er demo­c­ra­t­ic social move­ment in this coun­try, we are going to be left on our own. I think we are woe­ful­ly unpre­pared to fight those fights. Even in places like what we saw in Wis­con­sin under Scott Walk­er, we lost that fight, in part, because we allowed it to be iso­lat­ed to just a state bat­tle in Wis­con­sin. We didn’t have any will­ing­ness to counter-attack, to mobi­lize mem­bers nation­al­ly. The fail­ure of the Employ­ee Free Choice Act under the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion was due to the same rea­sons. We did not build lever­age to force the pas­sage of that act.

I am hop­ing that some of the lessons are learned and we look back at bright points in labor’s his­to­ry as a place for us to remem­ber that we got into this fight­ing, we have got every­thing that we have got because we fought, and the only way that we are going to get any more and to sur­vive into this cen­tu­ry is to con­tin­ue to fight big­ger, broad­er, and include as many of our mem­bers and work­ing peo­ple in that process as possible.

Sarah: Final­ly, you are an orga­niz­er in Geor­gia. What does this work look like on a local lev­el? What are you doing on the ground, talk­ing to mem­bers, orga­niz­ing new members?

Ben: We did as much as we could to engage in the Women’s March here in Atlanta, where we had over 60,000 peo­ple demon­strate. We are try­ing to ensure that not only is labor present for that, but that issues of eco­nom­ic jus­tice are inte­grat­ed into all the work that we are doing.

We are going through the process of hav­ing some tough con­ver­sa­tions with our mem­ber­ship about what is at stake. This year we are going to be doing a series of edu­ca­tion­al pro­grams, train­ings about how to engage in col­lec­tive action on and off the job through an inter­nal orga­niz­ing edu­ca­tion­al pro­gram that we are real­ly build­ing from pre­vi­ous years.

We also rep­re­sent work­ers in the pub­lic sec­tor in Geor­gia that don’t have col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights. Those cam­paigns pro­vide us a unique oppor­tu­ni­ty to raise issues of fun­da­men­tal rights under the law for work­ers. It is not a coin­ci­dence that when work­ers have col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights stripped away from them, they are major­i­ty women and peo­ple of col­or. In Geor­gia, it’s major­i­ty African-Amer­i­can work­ers that are being denied basic rights on the job.

Beyond that, we are look­ing at all of our employ­ers in a much more aggres­sive way, instead of sim­ply wait­ing until the con­tract expires for us to sit down and bar­gain with them. Employ­ers that we are work­ing for are sure­ly embold­ened by the approach of the Trump admin­is­tra­tion, they think that they are not going to be held account­able for vio­la­tions of the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Act, that they can be as aggres­sive as they want to be with impuni­ty. We expect employ­ers, whether they are union or not, to real­ly be encour­aged by the aggres­sive­ness of the Trump admin­is­tra­tion and not want to bar­gain in the man­ner that they have maybe in the past. We are look­ing at that say­ing, We have to increase our capac­i­ty with­in our own union.”

Our local union is 9,000 mem­bers in Geor­gia and most­ly UPS, work­ers in the freight and trans­porta­tion indus­try, so every con­tract that we have over the next four years, we are look­ing at expi­ra­tion dates, we are look­ing at our mem­ber­ship lev­els, we are look­ing at con­crete issues that work­ers want to pri­or­i­tize, so that we can orga­nize around them and teach peo­ple how to engage in col­lec­tive action again. We are going back to the basics and we are doing that in a very delib­er­ate way.

Beyond that, we have to take some of those lessons and help oth­er labor orga­ni­za­tions do some of the same pro­grams. We can draw strength in the social move­ments that we are see­ing all around us. We should seek oppor­tu­ni­ties to not just show up and get the backs of oth­ers that are stand­ing up against the Trump régime, but we should actu­al­ly think and try to under­stand, What are some of the prac­tices that they are using that we can learn from, how are mem­bers engaged in those fights out­side of our union?” I know many of our mem­bers in Local 728 in Atlanta and in Geor­gia iden­ti­fy with and are encour­aged by the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment and many of our mem­bers on their own and with some encour­age­ment attend­ed the Women’s March on Sat­ur­day and want to con­tin­ue to work around broad­er social jus­tice issues out­side the work­place. How can we get them to see their union activ­i­ty as part of that com­mit­ment to social justice?

We have got our work cut out for us, but I view this as a his­toric oppor­tu­ni­ty for labor and peo­ple with work­ing class pol­i­tics to lead. We should be encour­aged by people’s will­ing­ness to learn and get involved right now. Peo­ple that call activist or orga­niz­ing meet­ings are get­ting blown away with turnout these days. We should see that as a great chance for us to grow our movement.

Sarah: How can peo­ple keep up with you and your union?

Ben: You can find Team­sters Local 728 and some of the work that we are doing online, but hope­ful­ly you will see us in the streets. That is where we want to be most engaged, is fight­ing around these demo­c­ra­t­ic and the social jus­tice strug­gles more broadly.

Inter­views for Resis­tance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assis­tance from Lau­ra Feuille­bois and sup­port from the Nation Insti­tute. It is also avail­able as a podcast. 

Sarah Jaffe is a for­mer staff writer at In These Times and author of Nec­es­sary Trou­ble: Amer­i­cans in Revolt , which Robin D.G. Kel­ley called The most com­pelling social and polit­i­cal por­trait of our age.” You can fol­low her on Twit­ter @sarahljaffe.
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