We Need To Restore the Frayed Alliance Between Unions and Progressives

Cynthia Phinney, Peter Kellman and Julius Getman March 30, 2017

Only when liberals recognize the importance of labor, and when a progressive labor movement returns to its historic roots, will the battle against right-wing demagogues and zealots be won. (Maine AFL-CIO/ Facebook)

Pro­gres­sives are final­ly ener­gized. Mil­lions of young peo­ple became polit­i­cal­ly active through the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign of Bernie Sanders and sev­er­al mil­lion more joined the women-led sol­i­dar­i­ty march­es of the inau­gur­al week­end. Many of the recent­ly acti­vat­ed are seek­ing to chan­nel their enthu­si­asm into effec­tive polit­i­cal resis­tance. These are heart­en­ing devel­op­ments. But it is far too ear­ly to declare vic­to­ry over those who seek to make Amer­i­ca great by return­ing it to a less tol­er­ant, less pro­gres­sive past.

A dis­may­ing­ly large share of the white work­ing class, includ­ing union mem­bers that once sup­port­ed lib­er­al can­di­dates and caus­es, remains sup­port­ive of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and his agen­da. Only when lib­er­als rec­og­nize the impor­tance of labor, and when a pro­gres­sive labor move­ment returns to its his­toric roots, will the bat­tle against right-wing dem­a­gogues and zealots be won.

What we are call­ing for is an active alliance between pro­gres­sives and orga­nized labor. For pro­gres­sives and intel­lec­tu­als, orga­nized labor has much to offer: a rich his­to­ry, sea­soned lead­ers and, most sig­nif­i­cant­ly, an imme­di­ate con­nec­tion to work­ers. For orga­nized labor, the poten­tial of such an alliance is equal­ly sig­nif­i­cant. It can renew the com­mit­ment to social and polit­i­cal change, remind­ing work­ers and their lead­ers that unions are far more than just vehi­cles for eco­nom­ic gain. 

His­tor­i­cal­ly, alliances between work­ers and intel­lec­tu­als have proven enor­mous­ly pow­er­ful. They were cen­tral to the New Deal in the 1930s and were at the heart of Poland’s Sol­i­dar­i­ty move­ment in the 1970s. The ear­ly days of the Sol­i­dar­i­ty move­ment are an inspir­ing illus­tra­tion of the pow­er for change that can be har­nessed when work­ers and intel­lec­tu­als com­bine. The move­ment, led by work­ers, was sparked by intel­lec­tu­als who risked prison to cir­cu­late in fac­to­ries and ship­yards a pam­phlet set­ting forth the need for a work­ers bill of rights.” And when the work­ers at the Gdan­sk ship­yards rose up in a strike that shook the Sovi­et empire and inspired work­ers through­out the world, their demands went well beyond their own eco­nom­ic inter­ests to include broad demands for free speech, reli­gious free­dom and the free­ing of polit­i­cal prisoners.

How could such an alliance come about in this moment and how would it func­tion? Pro­gres­sives must make clear their will­ing­ness to active­ly sup­port strikes and orga­niz­ing dri­ves, to take part in labor edu­ca­tion pro­grams, to show up at ral­lies and to help orga­nize coali­tion groups for polit­i­cal action. Labor, in turn, must wel­come new ideas and broad alliances. Its lead­ers must see activists from oth­er orga­ni­za­tions not as intrud­ers but as key to labor’s future. Labor unions must also become clear, con­sis­tent and com­mit­ted in its sup­port for racial jus­tice and immi­grant rights.

The first steps to a broad­er move­ment are already being devel­oped through con­crete actions in spe­cif­ic loca­tions. For exam­ple, the Maine AFL-CIO (a fed­er­a­tion of 160 local labor orga­ni­za­tions rep­re­sent­ing approx­i­mate­ly 40,000 work­ers) and the Maine People’s Alliance (a cit­i­zen-action orga­ni­za­tion with 32,000 mem­bers) have come togeth­er to pro­mote pro­gres­sive caus­es. Last year, they spear­head­ed a coali­tion that uti­lized the cit­i­zen ini­tia­tive process to raise the min­i­mum wage to $9 an hour in 2017 and then by a dol­lar a year until it reach­es $12 in 2020. The ini­tia­tive, which also links future increas­es to the cost of liv­ing after 2020 and brings restau­rant tipped work­ers up to the same min­i­mum wage over a longer peri­od, passed by a wide mar­gin. Inter­est­ing­ly, it passed even in coun­ties and com­mu­ni­ties where Trump won.

The bat­tle for Maine’s polit­i­cal future con­tin­ues. Maine has its own Rust Belt” although in Maine it is a Paper Mill Belt.” The paper mill towns were union towns that gen­er­al­ly vot­ed for Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­dates, at least until the mills closed. Start­ing in 2014, they moved to the Repub­li­can col­umn and vot­ed for the sit­ting gov­er­nor, Maine’s ver­sion of Trump, Paul LeP­age. The Maine sto­ry is sim­i­lar to what has hap­pened in Michi­gan, Wis­con­sin and Ohio, where once thriv­ing union towns are now waste­lands and where des­per­ate cit­i­zens feel let down, ignored by the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty elite and have switched their polit­i­cal alle­giance in des­per­a­tion. They can be won back by can­di­dates who demon­strate con­cern about the state of work­ers in Amer­i­ca. Dur­ing the pri­ma­ry cam­paign, union activists reg­u­lar­ly encoun­tered con­ser­v­a­tive union mem­bers who were sup­port­ing Sanders but who said that if Sanders lost they would go for Trump. 

Also last year, lead­ers of the Maine Labor Fed­er­a­tion decid­ed to make their annu­al sum­mer insti­tute more than a one-off event. Through the insti­tute, they were able to con­tact and acti­vate many mem­bers whose con­nec­tion to the labor move­ment had become dor­mant and to deep­en the process of form­ing coali­tions with oth­er pro­gres­sive groups. New com­mit­tees were formed that active­ly seek to focus the work of the state fed­er­a­tion on issues such as eco­nom­ic equal­i­ty, basic human rights and uni­ver­sal health­care — issues that are of broad inter­est to work­ers and pro­gres­sives across the state.

This new focus has rich poten­tial for the union move­ment. It will pro­vide oppor­tu­ni­ties for work­ers to learn how spe­cif­ic issues are relat­ed to labor his­to­ry, and to their fun­da­men­tal eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal con­cerns. Such work will also pro­vide oppor­tu­ni­ties for union lead­ers to iden­ti­fy new lead­ers and activists both in unions and in the oth­er orga­ni­za­tions mem­bers belong to. The results of the new approach, thus far, include a grow­ing sense of opti­mism and a feel­ing that labor and the broad­er com­mu­ni­ty will face the future tri­als of the Trump pres­i­den­cy and the LeP­age gov­er­nor­ship in sol­i­dar­i­ty with each other.

We believe that as labor becomes more active and more open, its appeal will spread and a broad­er coali­tion, polit­i­cal­ly attrac­tive to work­ers, will arise. This is a les­son not only for Maine, but for pro­gres­sive activists and work­ers nationwide.

Cyn­thia Phin­ney is pres­i­dent of the Maine State AFL-CIO. Peter Kell­man is past pres­i­dent of the South­ern Maine Labor Coun­cil. Julius Get­man is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas School of Law and author of the recent book, The Supreme Court on Unions: Why Labor Law is Fail­ing Amer­i­can Workers.”
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