What the Revival of Socialism in America Means for the Labor Movement

Shaun Richman and Bill Fletcher, Jr.

Members of the New York City Democratic Socialists of America walk the picket line with striking B&H workers. (Photo credit: Brandon Hauer via NYC Democratic Socialists of America)

Bill Fletch­er, Jr. and Shaun Rich­man are con­tribut­ing writ­ers to In These Times, as well as vet­er­ans of the labor and social­ist move­ments. Both have worked for sev­er­al labor unions, with Fletch­er hav­ing served as a senior staffer in the nation­al AFL-CIO and Rich­man as a for­mer orga­niz­ing direc­tor for the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers. Both came of age dur­ing dif­fer­ent eras of left pol­i­tics. In this con­ver­sa­tion, the two writ­ers and orga­niz­ers exam­ine what a revived social­ist move­ment could mean for unionsand the broad­er push for work­ers’ rights and dignity.

Shaun Rich­man: We’re in a polit­i­cal moment when tens of thou­sands of Amer­i­cans are declar­ing them­selves to be social­ists and join­ing and pay­ing dues to social­ist orga­ni­za­tions. It’s not just Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca (DSA), although DSA is grow­ing the largest and the fastest. The entire alpha­bet soup of the Left, basi­cal­ly any social­ist group that isn’t a weirdo cult, is expe­ri­enc­ing an influx of new mem­bers and activ­i­ty. In the con­text of the Orga­nize or Die!” union push of the last 30 years, this is new and poten­tial­ly a game-chang­er. There are now orga­nized social­ist groups that exist in sig­nif­i­cant num­bers and are try­ing to fig­ure out what their labor pro­gram should be, how they relate to a labor move­ment, and how they can be help­ful. And it’s not obvi­ous what they should do. Bill, what are the oppor­tu­ni­ties and pit­falls, and what does this growth mean for labor?

Bill Fletch­er: It is use­ful to con­trast this growth with what took place in the Left dur­ing the late 1960s and ear­ly 1970s. The Left, at that point, saw a project that was nec­es­sary with­in the work­ing class. And so there was a whole wave of peo­ple, myself includ­ed, that went into work­places, if we weren’t already there, as a way of orga­niz­ing to rebuild a vibrant labor move­ment and to lay the foun­da­tion for a work­ing-class-based rad­i­cal polit­i­cal move­ment that would, hope­ful­ly, result in the con­struc­tion of a new polit­i­cal par­ty of the social­ist Left.

That’s dif­fer­ent from what I’m see­ing right now, which is the growth in inter­est in social­ism, broad­ly defined, among a large num­ber of peo­ple, par­tic­u­lar­ly younger peo­ple. That is fan­tas­tic! But it is far from clear that they are wed­ded to a class project, except in a very abstract sense. And that dif­fer­ence is fun­da­men­tal. It’s not just an ide­o­log­i­cal ques­tion; it is also a strate­gic ques­tion. Where and how does a reborn social­ist move­ment build a base?

One of the ten­den­cies that we began to see in the late 1980s and ear­ly 1990s was an ori­en­ta­tion among many younger left­ists that assumed that the work they did orga­niz­ing the work­ing class had to be done via staff posi­tions: staff for unions and staff for work­ers cen­ters. So the work­place-based orga­niz­ing became less and less of a pri­or­i­ty and activ­i­ty. We need to unpack this a bit.

Shaun: One chal­lenge of orga­niz­ing work­ers cur­rent­ly is that most peo­ple out there — even union mem­bers — don’t real­ly under­stand what a union is. They under­stand them as some sort of abstrac­tion. The way some bud­ding left crit­ics of unions talk, it’s like, Well why won’t the unions’ break with the Demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ty?” Or, Why are they so loy­al to the com­pa­nies they rep­re­sent?” This reflects a lack of under­stand­ing of how heav­i­ly reg­u­lat­ed unions are and the struc­tur­al trap that unions find them­selves in.

Anoth­er prob­lem is the one you note. I’ve been doing a lot of recruit­ing of new union orga­niz­ers in the last decade. There are these moments that flare up when you see tremen­dous inter­est from new activists: maybe it’s Wis­con­sin, maybe it’s the Chica­go teach­ers’ strike. There was def­i­nite­ly a big influx of new orga­niz­ers com­ing out of the 2008 Oba­ma cam­paign. Peo­ple had that light­bulb moment when they want­ed to get more involved in social jus­tice, and they decid­ed to go straight for a staff job at a union.

Almost no one paused to ask how to stand in place and fight for a union at the job they were in. And one of the pit­falls of the staff mod­el is, obvi­ous­ly, there just aren’t that many staff jobs, and they’re dwin­dling. The oppor­tu­ni­ty of an orga­nized social­ist move­ment is that it pro­vides a dif­fer­ent way to get involved and to do some­thing at your work­place, or find a new work­place where you have com­rades and you can maybe start push­ing in the right direc­tion and lay­ing the seeds for labor’s next upris­ing.

Bill: Left pol­i­tics need to unite with work­ers — and the lives and activ­i­ties of work­ers. And there are dif­fer­ent ways that that’s going to hap­pen. One aspect of that work is the build­ing of unions.

But even when it comes to build­ing unions — if you think back on the work that the Left did in the 1930s, whether it was the com­mu­nists, the Trot­sky­ists or what­ev­er — the process of build­ing those unions was a major pri­or­i­ty of the Left. And cadres were made avail­able to help to build unions. In addi­tion, build­ing a pres­ence of the Left in the work­ing class goes beyond the work­place and includes com­mu­ni­ties. That’s what today’s social­ist left real­ly needs to be think­ing about.

Shaun: I pre­fer to look at the 1920s. First of all, from a pow­er per­spec­tive, they seem very anal­o­gous to our era. But there’s also an ele­ment of opti­mism: If this is our era is the 1920s, what can we do to get to our 1934

There were real­ly inter­est­ing projects dur­ing the 1920s social­ist Left that helped change the envi­ron­ment and made the 1930’s upris­ing pos­si­ble. One is the Trade Union Edu­ca­tion League (TUEL). They devel­oped a smart way of address­ing the prob­lems of union struc­ture — how the craft mod­el some­times got in the way of sol­i­dar­i­ty. They also got past that ear­li­er Wob­bly thrust of just quit­ting the AFL to cre­ate new per­fect” orga­ni­za­tions that would com­pete against and defeat” the craft unions.

Amal­ga­ma­tion” was the watch­word, and the prin­ci­ple was that we can put struc­tur­al rigid­i­ty aside while we fig­ure out a mod­el where every union that claims juris­dic­tion gets those mem­bers, as long as all mem­bers are fight­ing with­in the same col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing frame­work. But the impor­tant thing is to go into the unions where the work­ers are, instead of being the per­fect union hang­ing off to the side. Go where the work­ers are,” seems to be a pret­ty good and long-stand­ing rule of social­ist organizing.

They still wound up get­ting accused of being dual union­ists” by exist­ing lead­er­ship, which felt threat­ened by these folks who were orga­niz­ing as cau­cus­es. Many were expelled from those unions. The per­il of that sort of mod­el— which mod­ern-day social­ists fall into a bit too eas­i­ly– is suc­cumb­ing to knee jerk oppo­si­tion­al­ism. With­out a real analy­sis of the struc­tur­al, legal and orga­niz­ing chal­lenges to unions, you fall into the mind­set of, If only this per­son was in charge instead of that per­son,” or, If only these peo­ple weren’t the ones on staff but these oth­er peo­ple were.” Then you’re just the opposition.”

First of all, we’ve got at least 30 years of expe­ri­ence here, where just replac­ing folks at the top, or just replac­ing the staff with more ded­i­cat­ed” peo­ple, is clear­ly not the break­through strat­e­gy. But more strate­gi­cal­ly, if DSA or if any of these groups are able to be paint­ed as knee-jerk oppo­si­tion cau­cus join­ers, you could very quick­ly find your­self black­list­ed or mar­gin­al­ized, and that would be a waste of this oppor­tu­ni­ty. Which is not to say don’t ever engage in oppo­si­tion (if you can win). But, it’s telling how much peo­ple point to the Chica­go Teach­ers Union (CTU), because it’s the best exam­ple of where new lead­er­ship was need­ed. That new lead­er­ship orga­nized the mem­ber­ship in a real and mean­ing­ful way and has improved the state of the union. But the fact that that’s the exam­ple every­one talks about should tell you that it’s the excep­tion that proves the rule.

Bill: There’s an assump­tion implic­it in what you were say­ing that I would chal­lenge. Based on my own expe­ri­ence, I can tell you that one does not have to be in direct oppo­si­tion in order for the tra­di­tion­al­ists or the prag­ma­tists in the lead­er­ship of orga­nized labor to red-bait or oth­er­wise mar­gin­al­ize you. We have had seg­ments of the Left that decid­ed to tail the union lead­er­ship in order to — in their own view — build alliances. In oth­er cas­es, they may have hoped that, through build­ing such a rela­tion­ship, they would increase the oppor­tu­ni­ty to be in a posi­tion of influ­ence and power.

On the one hand, you have the oppo­si­tion cau­cus­es. As you note, they can be very sec­tar­i­an and unpro­duc­tive. Although in cas­es like Team­sters for a Demo­c­ra­t­ic Union (TDU) and the reform move­ment that took over the CTU, they can be real­ly impor­tant. The chal­lenge for left­ists is that even in the absence of a reform cau­cus, to the extent that you’re try­ing to push the enve­lope, even when you have absolute dis­plays of loy­al­ty, you still can be per­ceived as a threat. So peo­ple should not think, Well I’m not going to be a sec­tar­i­an ass, and there­fore peo­ple will lis­ten to me, I’ll be able to serve a pro­duc­tive role.” I wish it worked that easily.

I have argued for a long time that peo­ple on the Left can’t treat the labor move­ment as a panacea nor as some sort of hideous crea­ture. It’s com­pli­cat­ed. It is also a strong argu­ment for why we need Left orga­ni­za­tions rather than left­ists rely­ing only upon them­selves as indi­vid­u­als.

Shaun: Work­ing for unions as staff is not for every­body and shouldn’t be the default posi­tion. If you can do it, the pay and ben­e­fits will be good, you’ll learn some stuff, but you also might hit a lim­it of what you can learn. The role of move­ment is to help you to fig­ure out where the next smart place to go is.

Back to the TUEL, one thing they did is that they didn’t just focus on where unions already exist­ed, which — like today — was in only a hand­ful of indus­tries that they were able to hold onto. It was clear there were growth indus­tries where work­ers had to be orga­nized, but there weren’t any unions that were seri­ous­ly try­ing to orga­nize — the auto fac­to­ries being the best exam­ple. So TUEL activists took jobs in those auto fac­to­ries and focused on just get­ting the job, mak­ing friends, becom­ing trust­ed co-work­ers and show­ing shop floor lead­er­ship. All the while, they were puz­zling out with each oth­er what seri­ous union orga­niz­ing would look like in mass pro­duc­tion fac­to­ries. And they wound up being a very cru­cial base of cadre when the UAW came along in the 1930’s.

So one of the excit­ing things about there being orga­nized social­ist groups is the idea of salt­ing. When I was run­ning the AFT’s char­ter schools orga­niz­ing pro­gram, I prob­a­bly had a dif­fer­ent take on this. Back then, I need­ed folks who were ide­o­log­i­cal­ly com­mit­ted and will­ing to go work at a non-union char­ter school and help us orga­nize it. An inside orga­niz­er makes a mas­sive difference.

My wife salt­ed a char­ter school, and she man­aged to orga­nize the place in three weeks. But now that I’m not cur­rent­ly run­ning any union orga­niz­ing divi­sion, what I see more is that the mem­bers of these social­ist orga­ni­za­tions already have jobs in the indus­tries that we know we need to orga­nize but nobody cur­rent­ly knows how.

I’m sure there are a ton of IT work­ers and free­lancers who are now card-car­ry­ing social­ists. I think salt­ing looks more like tap­ping into social­ist mem­ber­ship net­works on the job. Find each oth­er, and get a book club togeth­er, start read­ing togeth­er, start meet­ing togeth­er, and start think­ing what would work­place action look like. Don’t mod­el this on what the cur­rent unions look like, because how­ev­er we’re going to orga­nize IT, it’s nev­er going to look like the UAW. The indus­try is just vast­ly more com­pli­cat­ed by design.

Bill: The same mod­el was imple­ment­ed in var­i­ous forms and on a dif­fer­ent scale in the 1970s, but the Left as a whole was small­er then. Let’s dis­sect this word salt­ing” a lit­tle bit fur­ther. There’s salt­ing that refers to send­ing peo­ple into work­places in order to lay the foun­da­tion for new orga­niz­ing of a union, and then there’s salt­ing in the sense of in-shop orga­niz­ing that aims at play­ing a trans­for­ma­tive role with­in exist­ing unions.

When I went to work at a ship­yard in the 1970s, there was already a union, but it was a very con­ser­v­a­tive union. With oth­er peo­ple on the Left, we built a reform move­ment that aimed to change the pow­er sit­u­a­tion with­in that local. We need peo­ple who are pre­pared to go into work­places where there’s already orga­ni­za­tion. But we also need peo­ple who are going to be going into new places.

Here’s where it gets more com­pli­cat­ed. Much of what needs to be orga­nized is very low-paid work. The entry-lev­el rate at the ship­yard was low, but it was still some­thing that I could live on. Many peo­ple shy away from salt­ing pre­cise­ly because of this. It’s not an obsta­cle, but it is a challenge.

Shaun: Much of this depends on who is will­ing and able. If you’re a foot­loose col­lege senior who has that free­dom and isn’t tied down by a fam­i­ly or a mort­gage, who can take a front-desk job at a non-union hotel, that’s a spe­cial kind of help you can pro­vide. But giv­en just how much of the econ­o­my is cur­rent­ly unor­ga­nized, I think a lot of peo­ple are already in jobs that need to be orga­nized. Again, I’m sure that there are tons of card-car­ry­ing social­ists who work in IT. They shouldn’t leave that job. They should stay and fight, and they can con­tribute tremen­dous­ly by find­ing each oth­er and by think­ing about what are the actions, the con­cert­ed activ­i­ty, that we could take togeth­er that can demon­strate some pow­er and inspire more cowork­ers to join.

I became a teenage social­ist in the 1990s. I only heard about that 1970s push to go into indus­try” as a cau­tion­ary tale. What I heard was the Social­ist Work­ers Par­ty told all their mem­bers who had built careers as aca­d­e­mics or as writ­ers to go into indus­try — basi­cal­ly upend your pro­fes­sion­al life. It kind of tore the par­ty apart and left it as a tiny sect after what had been a fair­ly rich his­to­ry of move­ment building.

And, yes, sac­ri­fices will have to be made, but I do think that we have an oppor­tu­ni­ty just because of how dis­or­ga­nized the econ­o­my cur­rent­ly is. Many peo­ple are already in a job that needs to be orga­nized, and just by talk­ing, read­ing, think­ing and plan­ning small actions with com­rades, they move the nee­dle.

Bill: The role of orga­ni­za­tion becomes very impor­tant here — specif­i­cal­ly, the type of orga­ni­za­tion. One of the things about the Com­mu­nist Par­ty in the 1920s and 1930s was that they had an analy­sis of strate­gic sec­tors of the econ­o­my — min­ing, steel and auto — that need­ed to be organized.

One of the cen­tral tasks of orga­nized social­ists, as opposed to indi­vid­u­als, is to real­ly exam­ine the econ­o­my and think about where we need to be, includ­ing orga­niz­ing the unem­ployed and infor­mal sec­tor. Not just orga­niz­ing unions, but how do you build a left pres­ence in these sec­tors? Do we have to do it in a dif­fer­ent way? Is this one of the rea­sons or one of the ways that we need to be think­ing about work­ers cen­ters, for exam­ple, or oth­er orga­ni­za­tion­al vehi­cles, as ways of pen­e­trat­ing sec­tions of the work­place that we haven’t been oth­er­wise able to pen­e­trate?

Shaun: That takes us to one of the oth­er left projects of the 1920s that we need a 21st cen­tu­ry mod­el for: the labor col­leges that sprang up. I’m think­ing of places like Brook­wood Labor Col­lege in upstate New York, Work Peo­ple’s Col­lege in the Mid­west and Com­mon­wealth Col­lege down south. The mod­el of the schools was, first of all, every­one was in the room: peo­ple from dif­fer­ent indus­tries, dif­fer­ent unions, or non-union work­ers, peo­ple with dif­fer­ent edu­ca­tion­al attain­ments. The point was to step back from the dai­ly work and to eval­u­ate — with no sacred cows — the law, the union struc­ture and the industries.

Our cur­rent labor col­leges are great. I’m a big fan of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mass­a­chu­setts Union Lead­er­ship and Activism (ULA) pro­gram for doing some of this, but it’s a mas­ters pro­gram so it’s sort of inher­ent­ly elit­ist. We need PhDs in the room with high school dropouts as equals, elec­tri­cians in the room with non-union IT work­ers, teach­ers in the room as stu­dents. It shouldn’t be tied to col­lege cred­its, although if you can find a way to incor­po­rate that, that’s always helpful.

The way labor edu­ca­tion is fund­ed now makes it hard to not have sacred cows. The 1920s labor col­lege lead­ers, like A.J. Muste and Kate Richards O’Hare, real­ly drove a process of nev­er sim­ply accept­ing it is what it is” as an answer to any­thing. They were cru­cial for get­ting past the abstrac­tion of craft union struc­ture ver­sus pure indus­tri­al union, and com­ing up with new­er mod­els of work­er rep­re­sen­ta­tion and protest. They exam­ined crit­i­cal ques­tions: How do we not let our pick­et lines get smashed? What if we locked our­selves in instead of let­ting our­selves get locked out?

As you not­ed, these con­ver­sa­tions can be threat­en­ing to union lead­er­ship, but it’s not like some­one made a mis­take. It’s not like William Green and John L Lewis and Sid­ney Hill­man all sat down at a table and took a vote on the best frame­work for col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing. The com­bi­na­tion of exclu­sive rep­re­sen­ta­tion, the duty of fair rep­re­sen­ta­tion, agency fee, and enter­prise-lev­el bar­gain­ing is the prod­uct of a series of his­tor­i­cal acci­dents. We need to under­stand how this came about by acci­dent, how this sys­tem worked, when and why it worked, and start to devel­op ideas about how to replace it. Increas­ing­ly, it’s not work­ing for us. Cer­tain­ly it’s not work­ing for the non-union seg­ment of the econ­o­my, which is most of it now.

Bill: The AFL-CIO went through a process of build­ing a Nation­al Labor Col­lege (NLC), when John Sweeney took over as pres­i­dent of the AFL-CIO in 1995. It was a con­tro­ver­sial deci­sion, because there were many labor aca­d­e­mics and labor stud­ies pro­grams that felt threat­ened by the idea of what the NLC might mean for their respec­tive pro­grams. It was very unfor­tu­nate. That even­tu­al­ly calmed down.

There was the ques­tion of whether edu­ca­tion was main­ly going to be found at brick-and-mor­tar insti­tu­tions that labor unions set up, like the NLC or the Unit­ed Auto Work­ers’ icon­ic site at Black Lake Michi­gan. Alter­na­tive­ly, there was the ques­tion of whether the edu­ca­tion offered by unions would be through pro­grams and ini­tia­tives that were get­ting out into the field and devel­op­ing pro­grams where the mem­bers were. Anoth­er ques­tion was whether it should be a BA and Mas­ters, ver­sus devel­op­ing our own West Point where we would be train­ing the upcom­ing gen­er­als’ and colonels’ of the move­ment. That dis­cus­sion nev­er came to fruition. 

Through cost over­runs and sev­er­al oth­er prob­lems — includ­ing the split in the AFL-CIO, which led some unions that had split off to stop using the Labor Col­lege (appar­ent­ly because they want­ed it to col­lapse) — the Labor Col­lege found itself in a crisis.

But there was also a lack of con­sen­sus at the lead­er­ship lev­el as to what pri­or­i­ty it should be and whether it was worth the expense. Lead­ers of affil­i­at­ed unions, by and large, went along with Sweeney’s pro­pos­al, but I’m not even sure that Trum­ka was all that enthu­si­as­tic about it. This lack of con­sen­sus, I have con­clud­ed, was the ulti­mate demise of the NLC.

All of the edu­ca­tion­al efforts that you’re point­ing to dur­ing the ear­ly part of the 20th cen­tu­ry — and to which I would add the High­lander Cen­ter — were cen­tral in terms of offer­ing advanced edu­ca­tion for labor intel­lec­tu­als. I use that term very broad­ly and do not mean just labor aca­d­e­mics. These insti­tu­tions helped to train and shape the think­ing of peo­ple who would play major lead­er­ship roles in the new labor move­ment. At this point we need to look at the form and con­tent that work­er-cen­tered, move­ment-build­ing edu­ca­tion should pos­sess.

Shaun: Cer­tain­ly, in the year 2017 it’s fol­ly to try to run labor edu­ca­tion out of the unions. They’re fac­ing an exis­ten­tial threat from Janus. Nobody has an appetite to fund it. So it has to be inde­pen­dent. Is it done at the uni­ver­si­ties — at UMass, Mur­phy, Rut­gers and the rest? Yes, obvi­ous­ly, and all of those insti­tu­tions are doing good work. Some are find­ing ways to grow in this moment and to bring in new rev­enue to do inter­est­ing pro­grams. But there is still a need to build an insti­tu­tion of labor edu­ca­tion that is inde­pen­dent and not based on a tra­di­tion­al tuition and cred­it mod­el. Book clubs, like the Jacobin read­ing groups, seem like a real­ly smart thing to do right now. All you have to do is find a library read­ing room, or somebody’s liv­ing room, and buy or bor­row the books. So it’s fair­ly low invest­ment to get started.

But those have to start get­ting con­nect­ed to each oth­er, so that the con­ver­sa­tion that’s hap­pen­ing in the Bronx gets con­nect­ed to the con­ver­sa­tion that’s hap­pen­ing in Chica­go and in Raleigh-Durham. But if you have maybe 100,000 card-car­ry­ing social­ists putting mon­ey into a pot, you start to be able to devel­op some­thing that pos­si­bly looks like the Social­ist Party’s Rand School, to go even fur­ther back in time.

Back to the 1920s, the third inter­est­ing project to me that cries out for a 21st cen­tu­ry ana­logue is the Inter­na­tion­al Labor Defense orga­ni­za­tion that was led by James P. Can­non. Back then, union lead­ers would get jailed on trumped-up charges of con­spir­a­cy, like incit­ing riots on pick­et lines. The infra­struc­ture to raise mon­ey for bail and defense lawyers was a lit­er­al life saver. We’re not yet fac­ing those kinds of fights, thank­ful­ly, but folks lose their jobs in orga­niz­ing all the time. And there’s a lot of mon­ey that needs to be raised. The inter­est­ing ques­tion is what does an Inter­na­tion­al Labor Defense look like in the GoFundMe era? The Sil­i­con Val­ley cap­i­tal­ists have cre­at­ed the tech­no­log­i­cal infra­struc­ture that we can either use or steal. 

I’ve put out this report, Labor’s Bill of Rights, which argues that we should be using more con­sti­tu­tion­al chal­lenges to the laws that real­ly restrict work­ers’ activ­i­ties, which will involve break­ing the law. Look at the Jim­my Johns work­ers in the Twin Cities area who got fired for hand-billing about the fact that they could not take a sick day unless they found a cowork­er to replace them. The company’s rule was come into work sick if you can’t find some­one to fill in for your shift. They put out leaflets mak­ing com­mon cause with the cus­tomers. I would want to know if the peo­ple mak­ing my sand­wich were pos­si­bly con­ta­gious. The activists got fired, and now we have a Cir­cuit Court deci­sion that says that they deserved to be fired because they were being dis­loy­al to their employer.

There is a major black hole in free speech law around work­ers. We’re going to need more fights like this, and I would point out that was an Indus­tri­al Work­ers of the World orga­niz­ing effort, which sug­gests the val­ue of out­sider activist strate­gies and rel­a­tive­ly small orga­ni­za­tions that think dif­fer­ent­ly and are nim­ble. But you can’t ask some­body to take a risk like that unless you can offer them some sort of sup­port, and again that’s where fundrais­ing for work­ers’ defense as a social­ist project would be huge. Folks are already doing this, but there’s an oppor­tu­ni­ty to do it in a more orga­nized man­ner, tap into social media and make it more vis­i­ble.

Bill: There are actu­al­ly two issues here. There’s the ques­tion of orga­niz­ing legal defense and the broad­er mat­ter of strat­e­gy in the work­place around author­i­tar­i­an­ism. It’s con­ceiv­able that a 21st cen­tu­ry ver­sion of Inter­na­tion­al Labor Defense could be con­sti­tut­ed. There are orga­ni­za­tions that take on some cas­es, par­tic­u­lar­ly around union democ­ra­cy issues, like the Asso­ci­a­tion for Union Democ­ra­cy. The prob­lem is that you will quick­ly encounter donor fatigue.” This is some­thing that we see par­tic­u­lar­ly in respons­es to dis­as­ters. Peo­ple can be affect­ed in the begin­ning, and then after a while they start get­ting tired. And so you have to be very care­ful about how you move such efforts. One should not assume that each and every injus­tice will result in a mass cam­paign. It’s going to have to be very strate­gic. And that will mean that some peo­ple will get help, and oth­er peo­ple won’t.

But the deep­er strate­gic and pro­gram­mat­ic issue is some­thing that I think that orga­nized labor and much of the left have large­ly aban­doned. That is what Bar­bara Ehren­re­ich talked about back in 2000 and what Rand Wil­son have been rais­ing since the 1980s: the author­i­tar­i­an nature of the non-union work­place. The fact is that work­ers give up their rights when they’re walk­ing into non-union work­places. I am con­vinced that tak­ing on that strug­gle would be elec­tri­fy­ing for sev­er­al rea­sons. One is the idea of being pro­tect­ed against wrong­ful ter­mi­na­tion means more than the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion in the Unit­ed States, where if one gets fired in a non-union work­place, one has few options oth­er than try­ing to get unem­ploy­ment compensation. 

Just cause” dis­missal means devel­op­ing insti­tu­tions, such as labor courts, as you have in much of the rest of the world. Now at the lev­el of strat­e­gy, it’s seemed to me for a long time that this is some­thing that should be pur­sued, par­tic­u­lar­ly in so-called right to work” states. We should be advo­cates of rights at work and use that to flip the script.

Shaun: I agree, and we’re in a moment when these notions are bub­bling up — at elite lev­els, at least. First of all, for any social­ist book clubs that are start­ing out there, I would high­ly rec­om­mend Eliz­a­beth Anderson’s new book Pri­vate Gov­ern­ment. It makes a real­ly clear and fair­ly deep argu­ment about why we don’t even see how we give up our rights when we walk through the boss’ door and why that needs to change. There was a write-up in The New York­er this week­end, and she had a piece in Vox: It’s get­ting out there. I includ­ed Just Cause as one of the ten parts of Labor’s Bill of Rights, and I’m get­ting some inter­est­ing feed­back about that.

Bill: Like what?

Shaun: I had a con­ver­sa­tion with the staff of a well-respect­ed pro­gres­sive in Con­gress, where they expressed inter­est in doing some­thing as bold as intro­duc­ing a Just Cause bill, par­tic­u­lar­ly if it would spark state-lev­el efforts. I heard that some of the alt-labor groups in Cal­i­for­nia were think­ing about it as a poten­tial bal­lot ini­tia­tive after we saw in Novem­ber that pro­gres­sive bal­lot ini­tia­tives win even when right-wing politi­cians win. When you put work­ers’ rights and work­ers’ pay on the bal­lot, work­ers are going to vote for that.

There are two bits of push­back that I get on this. One is folks say, peo­ple actu­al­ly assume that they can’t be fired for just about any rea­son, and they only find out after they lose the job. I’m not sure that that’s the case. First of all we’re see­ing a lot of Nazis get­ting fired after they had their pic­tures tak­en at Char­lottesville. We see peo­ple get fired for things they say on social media. But there’s still that push­back that work­ers don’t under­stand they don’t have these rights. Well that seems like a project of pop­u­lar left edu­ca­tion, to make sure work­ers under­stand what their rights are (and aren’t).

The oth­er push­back is a feel­ing among a lot of union peo­ple that if every work­er had job pro­tec­tions, why would work­ers form unions? And that’s just a lack of imag­i­na­tion. If every work­er in a state had just cause pro­tec­tion, and there was some sort of recourse to a labor court, or arbi­tra­tion, then you have lots of work­ers who would under­stand the good sense of pay­ing for rep­re­sen­ta­tion. You have right now mil­lions and mil­lions of work­ers who would like to join a union tomor­row but can’t, because they need to con­vince a major­i­ty of their cowork­ers to vote for it. But if there were just cause pro­tec­tions, I think there are tons of unions that could go out there and say, join us and we’ll be there for you.

And then there are all these oth­er things you get by being a part of the union, includ­ing, one would hope, some more pop­u­lar edu­ca­tion around eco­nom­ics and work­ers pow­er. So it seems like a poten­tial path­way back not only to work­er pow­er but to union pow­er. And again we’re in a moment when peo­ple are just start­ing to talk about it. So we should push on it, so yeah it’s time that we joined Europe on this.

Bill: Exact­ly. Not just Europe – oth­er parts of the world. The objec­tion that you heard, I’ve been hear­ing since the 1980s, when I first got involved in the issue of wrong­ful ter­mi­na­tion. Trade union­ists were say­ing, why would peo­ple join unions? As if that’s the major obsta­cle that we face now. I mean, it’s so absurd, so small-mind­ed, that it almost doesn’t deserve a response. But I think that your response is a very good one.

Shaun: It gets back to hav­ing a struc­tur­al cri­tique. We should be look­ing at what is keep­ing us from grow­ing into areas of the econ­o­my where we need to be, what is dimin­ish­ing union pow­er, and we need to think about break­throughs. A lot of the break­throughs have to come through chang­ing the law, and break­ing out of this mod­el of NLRB-cer­ti­fied, enter­prise-lev­el bar­gain­ing. I’m not say­ing get rid of it, but it can’t be our mod­el for growth. We’re not going to grow back to 33 per­cent union den­si­ty through that mod­el — not with card check, not even with repeal­ing Taft-Hart­ley. We’re just not going to grow to the high-water mark of union den­si­ty under a mod­el col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing cen­tered around atom­ized workplaces.

We need some­thing that gets us to have a voice in indus­try, and in entire sec­tors, all at once. And sec­toral bar­gain­ing — or sec­toral rule-mak­ing, even — is anoth­er idea I see bub­bling up, also at more elite lev­els, in think tanks and labor col­leges. But it is some­thing that work­ers and mem­bers of social­ist book clubs should be talk­ing about too.

The push­back is that it’s pie-in-the-sky when we had a triple-crown Demo­c­ra­t­ic gov­ern­ment and couldn’t even get card check passed. But oppor­tu­ni­ties for change some­times come at you faster than you expect. God for­bid 20 mil­lion work­ers sat down at the job tomor­row and cre­at­ed the cri­sis that would actu­al­ly get Con­gress to change our labor laws. What would we win? Card check, because that’s the last idea we put on the table? We should be dis­cussing ideas that are big, that are utopi­an, that seem hope­less. Oth­er­wise, when the moment aris­es to actu­al­ly make a gain, we’re going to be caught flat-foot­ed.

Bill: Absolute­ly. You know we have to be advanc­ing new and excit­ing ideas. And one of the ideas that is impor­tant for orga­niz­ers to appre­ci­ate and cer­tain­ly for the left to appre­ci­ate, is that when peo­ple are actu­al­ly inspired by vision­ary notions, they are capa­ble of extra­or­di­nary accom­plish­ments. When there is a lack of inspi­ra­tion, some­thing dif­fer­ent hap­pens, and that is that peo­ple tend to fall back into their every­day lives, and their every­day prob­lems, and get held down, smoth­ered by them. If we’re attempt­ing to build a new move­ment and going on the counter-offen­sive, we must ensure some lev­el of inspi­ra­tion. And that doesn’t mean pro­vid­ing all the answers, it doesn’t mean detail­ing the ulti­mate utopia. It means that we’re lay­ing out an idea about how change can hap­pen and the dif­fer­ence that it actu­al­ly can make.

Shaun: I agree, and that might be a good note to end on. This moment presents an oppor­tu­ni­ty to gain some new ambi­tion and to think a hell of a lot big­ger than we’ve been think­ing for decades now.

Shaun Rich­man is a for­mer orga­niz­ing direc­tor for the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers. His Twit­ter han­dle is @Ess_Dog.Bill Fletch­er, Jr. is a talk show host, writer and activist. You can fol­low him on Twit­ter, Face­book and at http://​www​.bill​fletcher​jr​.com.
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