Is the trade union movement a force to combat right-wing authoritarianism? That’s the question I posed in mid-October to University of Florida history professor Paul Ortiz. While the union Ortiz then led, United Faculty of Florida, has been at the vanguard of fighting Gov. Ron DeSantis’ reactionary rule, the national picture is a mixed bag.
Our present labor movement is poorly equipped to be an energized, anti-fascist force. It suffered terrible hemorrhaging in the late 1940s and early ’50s. After the purge of some of its best and brightest leaders, activists and unions, the movement lost the political will not only to engage in strategic organizing and growth, but to challenge the systems and ideologies that pit the working class against itself. Discussions about race, gender, class and U.S. foreign policy were widely treated as forbidden subjects until the 1990s.
Today, the luxury of silence and denial does not exist. The threats to constitutional democracy are not just evident, but growing. The question is, what will the movement do?
BILL FLETCHER JR.: Over the past several years, the country has watched Florida descend into a political version of Dante’s Inferno. Tell us about that context.
PAUL ORTIZ: Make no mistake about it: We are moving decisively toward fascism in Florida. The Trump and DeSantis movements are virulently anti-union, anti-Black Lives Matter, anti-intellectual freedom. A lot of the normal organizations we would have expected to step up during this crisis have folded. And I’m very sorry to say that the state Democratic Party is still recovering after allowing DeSantis to have a landslide victory in the 2022 gubernatorial election.
But in ways I could not have anticipated, it’s been the union movement, especially the United Faculty of Florida and our parent union, the Florida Education Association, that has become the last statewide organized group standing against DeSantis’ fascist movement.BILL: What do you make of the narrative we began hearing after the 2020 election, defining the Republican Party as a workers’ party?
PAUL: I come from the working class. I grew up in a shipyard town, Bremerton, Wash., and was a first-generation college student. I came up through the labor movement as an organizer. And what working-class people say is they don’t care about the “woke” debate. There’s a lot of things they’re concerned about, and it’s not gender studies or Black studies. But I’ve talked to affluent people who, when you mention those terms, go red in their faces.
If you look at DeSantis’ and Trump’s base of support — who funds them, who allows their party machinery to move forward — it’s folks in Palm Beach, Fla., in those gated communities in South Florida. They’re the leaders of this movement. They come to Florida because they see the state as low-hanging fruit. Because, on a statewide level, we’re so poorly organized.
BILL: Nationally, one of the things that became very apparent after 2016 is that there are MAGA forces within the trade union movement and certainly within the working class. It’s not Trump’s main base, but it’s an important one. How do we manage those contradictions?
PAUL: That’s a critical question. There are people in the union movement I knew as a younger labor organizer who had such reactionary viewpoints on some issues. But when it came time to defend people’s rights on the job and even in the broader community, you could count on some of those people, too.
How do we move people in a progressive direction? Well, we get them organized.
Several years ago, United Faculty of Florida came together as a chapter to fight [alt-right leader] Richard Spencer. After he and his followers had caused all that chaos in Charlottesville, Va., he announced he was coming to Gainesville, Fla. And we started organizing. The union sponsored teach-ins about the Holocaust, about homophobia. That coalition had members of Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish student organizations. We had a whole range of people come together as a united front. We were told by our university leadership, city leadership and state leadership to stand down, to just let the man come in with his fascist thugs. We didn’t do that. And by God, we retired his ass.
That’s the way that we negotiate our differences — get people active on a campaign that we can work on in unity.
BILL: I frequently tell people we have to distinguish zombies from humans. We have a majority of people who are basically rational, but there’s this very strong core that is moving more toward fascism, and has an armed wing. And there are rabid right-wing populists who will seize onto some of our progressive economic language and use it, so we’ve got to think about doing something differently.
PAUL: In my union chapter, one thing we’ve tried to follow is this principle of being there for other people and other causes. If there’s an affordable housing struggle, an environmental justice struggle, a refugee crisis in Florida — and there always is — we need to step up and be there as best as we can.
The Right has captured places like Texas and Florida because they’ve discovered you don’t have to be a majority to seize control of the state legislature in Tallahassee — which has always been a reactionary place, from time immemorial. To me, that leads us to think through coalition-building tactics. As a labor organizer, everything comes down to recruitment. It’s that constant outreach that we’ve been lacking, and the global pandemic put a big hurt on us. We’ve got to get that kickstarted again.
We do have some positive examples. A few years ago, we passed restoration of felony voting rights. My wife Sheila, through the Alachua County Labor Coalition, led that campaign in our part of the state. We got nearly a million signatures. And some of the people who signed told us very pointedly that they were Trumpers. It took listening, getting out of our comfort zones. I mean, we went to University of Florida football games to get signatures.
BILL: In 2021, I met with about a dozen national union leaders. I was making a pitch for a particular kind of labor education — I called it a “war college” — to train up-and-coming leaders and staff in strategy, tactics, campaigns, finance. The response I got was, “That’s kind of redundant because we have labor education programs with unions or universities like Harvard and Rutgers.” I said, “OK. But what did those labor education programs prepare your leaders to do had January 6 succeeded?” It was dead silence.
Then I said, “How many of those programs are preparing your leaders for what to do when it happens again? When there is right-wing terror, when there is legislative obstruction?” And they got silent again.
PAUL: These union organizing schools and centers are doing great work. I’m very excited the University of California system is creating new labor centers. But how can that match the fact that every major college in this country has a business school and most of those teach virulently anti-labor doctrine from day one?
On the most important point, about January 6 succeeding, I don’t think they would have done anything except be completely confused. I don’t think they have any idea of the historical roles unions have played in fighting fascism. Most of the U.S. labor movement of the 1930s was antifascist. Notable examples were the Tampa-based Tobacco Workers Industrial Union and Paul Robeson’s work with the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers. Fascists saw the labor movement as such a threat that when fascists took power in Italy in the 1920s, for example, the first thing they did was crush the unions.
You’ve given me a nightmare scenario, Bill. I can just imagine our unions falling like dominoes.
BILL: What do you do when you hear leftist or non-leftist union members say some variation of “Our job is to fight for wages, hours, working conditions”? Or, “You coming in here talking all this stuff about race and sex and fascism — it’s divisive”?
PAUL: When we look at the long-running success of unions like the District 65 in New York [a cross-industry union of low-wage workers organized in 1933] and the packinghouse workers’ union [a left-leaning meatpacking union that grew out of the CIO’s 1937 Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee], they had their weak points, but they held together by not just advocating for their members, but trying to be advocates for the entire working class. To me, that’s what we need to do.
The United Faculty of Florida has never defined academic freedom as just about faculty’s right to teach a class, or tenure as just about economic security for pampered professors. We’ve always connected those things to the good of our students and the broader community. To me, those are examples we can build on in every union, in different occupations, in different parts of the country.
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Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a talk show host, writer, activist, and trade unionist. The Man Who Changed Colors is his latest novel. His first novel is The Man Who Fell From the Sky. He is also co-author (with Fernando Gapasin) of Solitary Divided, and the author of “They’re Bankrupting Us” — Twenty Other Myths about Unions. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook and at www.billfletcherjr.com.