We Need To Restore the Frayed Alliance Between Unions and Progressives

Cynthia Phinney, Peter Kellman and Julius Getman

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.

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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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