Last Friday, Amazon workers at the JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island shocked the world by pulling off one of the great labor victories in US history, becoming the first Amazon workforce in the country to vote to unionize. A thousand miles away, in the rural setting of Brookwood, Alabama, 1,100 coal miners on strike at Warrior Met Coal have just passed the one-year anniversary of the day they hit the picket line. Around the country, workers are rising up, demanding more, and winning important victories, even though the deck is stacked against them. The question is: Where will the reinforcements come from? How can the fight that workers are waging on the shop floor be supported and empowered by a broad progressive movement that is united around the cause of economic, political, and social justice?
In a recent piece published on CommonDreams, Professor Harvey J. Kaye, an expert on the New Deal and FDR, and Alan Minsky, the executive director of Progressive Democrats of America, call for progressives to rally behind the proposal for a “21st Century Economic Bill of Rights.” In this interview, TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez speaks with Professor Kaye and labor leader Sara Nelson about the state of the labor movement today and what it would mean if progressive forces within and beyond the labor movement united around a shared vision for “a platform of economic policies designed to enable Americans, all Americans, to secure the nation’s promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Sara Nelson is the International President of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO, representing around 50,000 flight attendants at 17 airlines. Harvey J. Kaye is Professor Emeritus of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the author of many books, including: The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great; FDR on Democracy; and Take Hold of Our History: Make America Radical Again.
Pre-Production/Studio/Post-Production: Cameron Granadino
Maximillian Alvarez: Welcome, everyone, to The Real News Network. My name is Maximillian Alvarez. I’m the editor-in-chief here at The Real News, and it’s so great to have you all with us. Last Friday, Amazon workers at the JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island shocked the world by pulling off one of the great labor victories in US history: becoming the first Amazon workforce in the country to vote to unionize. A true David and Goliath story, the independent Amazon Labor Union, its president Christian Smalls, Vice President Derek Palmer, and a scrappy, motivated, worker-led organizing committee succeeded in counteracting Amazon’s well-funded union busting efforts and in organizing their coworkers at the truly massive facility, bringing more rank and file workers into the fight for a union and for a more democratic, just, fair, and humane workplace.
1,000 miles away in the far more rural setting of Brookwood, Alabama, 1,100 coal miners on strike at Warrior Met Coal have just passed the one-year anniversary of the day that they first hit the picket line. These workers and their families have been on strike now for over a year, holding the line at great cost, demanding that the company overturn the concessions workers were forced to take at the last contract negotiation after the previous owners of the mine went bankrupt.
Now, these workers’ struggles and many others happening around the country are deeply important, obviously for the workers involved and their families, but also for all of us. Even though American workers have only gotten more productive over the years, many are feeling the squeeze after decades of stagnating wages, rising costs of living, the continued assault on organized labor, and the siphoning of worker-generated profits into the pockets of owners and shareholders. Right now as we speak, a population battered by COVID, which momentarily saw a historic drop in poverty as a result, in large part, of emergency government aid, is now seeing the ruling class claw it all back by jacking up prices in rents, cutting aid, restarting student loan payments, et cetera, et cetera. Workers banding together, whether in a union or not, are truly one of the last backstops and forces fighting to prevent the whole of the working class from sliding farther downhill in what Bernie Sanders famously called the race to the bottom.
So the question is, where will the reinforcements come from? How can the fight that workers are waging on the shop floor be supported and empowered by a broad progressive movement that is united around the causes of economic, political, and social justice? In a recent piece published on Common Dreams, Professor Harvey J. Kaye, who’s an expert on the New Deal and FDR, and Alan Minsky, the executive director of Progressive Democrats of America, call for progressives to rally behind the proposal for a new Economic Bill of Rights. In the piece, Kaye and Minsky write, “Progressive Democrats, in decided contrast to both ‘moderate’ or ‘corporate’ Democrats and conservative or reactionary Republicans, support a platform of economic policies designed to enable Americans, all Americans, to secure the nation’s promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and make America progressively better in the process. Indeed, we reject both the cynicism that says we can do little to remedy the endemic social ills that have caused so many to lose faith in our national project and the arguments of those who favor retreat or the status quo.”
To talk about the proposal for a new Economic Bill of Rights and what it would mean for today’s labor movement and our larger political and economic struggles, I’m honored to be joined today by Professor Harvey J. Kaye himself, who is professor emeritus of Democracy and Social Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the author of many essential books, including The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great, FDR on Democracy, and Take Hold of our History: Make America Radical Again. I’m also honored to be joined by the one and only Sara Nelson, who is the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, CWA AFL-CIO, representing around 50,000 flight attendants at 17 airlines. Harvey, Sara, thank you so much for joining me today.
Sara Nelson: Happy to be here.
Harvey J. Kaye: Absolutely, with two of my favorite people.
Maximillian Alvarez: I feel like a kid on Christmas because I’ve been wanting to have this conversation with y’all for, I mean, since the piece that you co-wrote came out, Harvey. And what a week to be having this conversation, just days after the tremendous victory of the Amazon Labor Union in Staten Island and on the very week that 1100 coal miners and their families at Warrior Met Coal passed the one-year threshold of being on strike. And I believe Sara is actually going to be down there in Alabama this very week, so –
Sara Nelson: You betcha.
Maximillian Alvarez: Hell yeah. So let’s start there. I guess before we dig into this concept and proposal of an Economic Bill of Rights and the history behind that, I wanted to start by talking about the moment that we’re in. The Amazon union victory, the Warrior Met Coal strike. So for viewers and listeners, why don’t we just start by centering ourselves and addressing why these struggles are so important and what they each say about the situation that workers are facing today on the job and in their efforts to organize and exert their power in society writ large. So, Sara, why don’t we start with you?
Sara Nelson: Sure, Max, and as you were doing your lead in, I couldn’t… I have so much that I want to say, so I’m going to try to be succinct right now. But you talked about the fact that we had this infusion of relief during COVID, and people had an opportunity actually to see what that could look like. That you called it an emergency, but actually, what we want to talk about here is that this is not emergency status. This should be the status quo. And so I think about democracy, and I know I have learned so much about democracy by being a union leader and being a union member. And the reality is that anywhere that democracy exists, if people don’t participate, democracy dies. And so we have to make sure that people are able to participate. Right before COVID, we had a strike wave. Remember? Teachers, grocery workers. We had walkouts at Google. We had the most strikes in 2018 that we had had in decades. And so people were starting to express the fact that our country has become something that is not reflective of the promise that we’ve all been given through our Constitution and what was laid out by our founding fathers and by everyone who participated in making this great American experience.
But we have a lot more to do to make it work for us. And so people are out there protesting right where they are, in their workplaces, and that is a place where democracy exists too. See, capital, unchecked, has led us to a place where fewer and fewer people are participating. I think about the 2016 election when I was out there talking with workers, and there were workers who said, I don’t have time to go to the polls. I’m working two and three jobs. So think about that. The more that people have security, the more that people can take care of their families, the more likely that they are to participate. Part of what capital has done is tried to make it very, very difficult, try to make the bar very, very high for anyone to be able to participate, and try to make people believe that they don’t call the shots, that they can’t make a difference with their vote, that they can’t make a difference by getting engaged. And as collective bargaining has been on the decline with the decline of union membership, we have no concept that the individual worker can actually stand up and meet the boss in the eye when they’re standing with the rest of their coworkers. We have no concept of the fact that we can actually come together and solve problems through collective bargaining. There’s been a complete breakdown of democracy.
Then, you have the pandemic on top of that, and now workers have a shared experience, and they see we’ve been stretched so far. Across the board, in every single industry, we’re more productive than ever. What does that mean? It means we’re working longer hours and we’re working with fewer people to do the same job. Where has all of that productivity gone? It’s gone into the hands of Wall Street. It’s gone into the pockets of billionaires. And that continued to happen throughout the pandemic with the exception of the airline industry, where we’re 80% unionized, and where we made management have to negotiate with us before we went through the political process. So I always say, start in the workplace and the politics will follow. What we got was a workers-first relief program of payroll support. And we had to do this because, in this country, without healthcare provided, if you don’t have a paycheck, you also don’t have healthcare.
And so our proposal was to keep everyone where they are, pass that money directly through to the workers where they continue to pay their taxes, which lifts up the local communities. They continue to pay into social security and hold up our social programs, into our programs like unemployment with so many people out on the unemployment line. And you keep people in place and ready to meet the demand when the crisis is over. But there’s another really important thing that we did. We capped stock buybacks and executive compensation, and they acted differently. They fought against us, but they had to agree because without us, they were not going to get the relief and the airline industry was going to collapse altogether. And so we put our demands out there. They had to meet them, and they act differently when they know that they can’t enrich themselves. They get to the business of running the business.
So this is just one small example of what’s possible. And workers saw the example of what’s possible during COVID, but they also saw that not only have we been squeezed, we have been treated as disposable because we were sent into the workplace as essential workers, and it was only about that cost item. Essential workers, that title that capital has been so used to giving people to make them feel pride in what they’re doing and have people feel like they’d be willing to accept anything just for a little praise. The fact of the matter is when people die, when they see their coworkers dying, when they see them in unsafe conditions, that changes. So here we are in this moment where workers are actually waking up to the idea that maybe there’s another answer. Maybe there’s another way to go about this. And Chris Smalls, man, I can’t give him enough credit, and the people who stood with him.
Let’s just talk about that win in New York for just a minute. He was a worker who wanted to move up in the company, who was working hard, actually at Amazon, wanted to take pride in where he was. And when his company abused him so badly, not only pushing them into unsafe conditions, but when he stood up and said something about it to try to make it a better workplace, they fired him instead of listening to him. And then they targeted him. And this has been what capital has done forever. They think they have all the control because they have all the money. But he kept at it and organized and did something that other people don’t think is possible because they can’t even believe that workers can wake up to the power that we have right now. And that is the moment that we’re in. So I don’t think this is about what’s possible.
A lot of people are saying, this shows what’s possible. Bullshit. Workers have this power right now. It exists right now. All we have to do is wake up to it and then join together and look at the worker-led movement that was led in that warehouse. It was diverse. It engaged everyone. It did all the right things in organizing without using the organizing terms or having someone else tell them what to do. They had fun together because they were taking on the boss. They were taking on what some people would say is the most power, but the truth is that the people in charge right now, the billionaires, they don’t have power. They don’t. They have money and they have control. Workers have power, because nothing moves without us.
Maximillian Alvarez: So, Harvey, I know it’s not easy to follow Sara [laughs], but I’m going to toss it to you and maybe flesh out that just spot-on fire that Sara was spitting by, I guess, trying to bridge us from now to the earlier period in the 20th century when the Economic Bill of Rights was proposed by FDR. I want to ask you to help us fill in the historical context there. But I guess why don’t we stay where we are right now and flesh that out, what workers are going through, and how it compares to that period?
Harvey J. Kaye: Yeah. Well, let’s start off with a fact that goes before either one of you would ever have been conscious of it. And that it is, for 45 – In fact, I should say 50 years, capital has declared… They have always been in conflict with labor, but for the past 45 to 50 years, there has been a class war against working people in the United States. Conservatism was always eager to pursue that class war. But then in the ’70s, there emerged something known as neoliberalism, which in one sense is a classic form of reduced wages, break up unions, lower taxes, empower business, et cetera. But we should understand that the word actually signified something very significant in the ’70s. It meant a new form of liberalism. That is, the neoliberals, that included Jimmy Carter and others, were determined to take the Democratic Party and turn it away from the Roosevelt tradition.
And when they declared war on capital by way of the Trilateral Commission of corporate and political leaders, by way of the famous Lewis Powell memorandum to the Chamber of Commerce – And people can read those. It’s available online. The fact is that as much as it seemed a political move, it actually was the political vanguard of the class war on labor. And it was powerful in the ’70s. They used to say, don’t know if it’s true or not, that in the ’70s, the fastest-growing enterprise was union busting law firms. And it came to a head in 1978 when Doug Fraser left the Dunlop Commission and wrote an open letter, I believe it was open, to Jimmy Carter saying, I cannot serve on a labor management commission when they have declared class war on us. Well, the fact is the Democrats turned their back on working people, on the labor movement, and decidedly on the FDR tradition. And the class war extended not only from the workplace. It extended out into a war on the rights of women, the rights of people of color.
And we have seen for these decades – And I want to make it very clear, Max, you know, you came out to Wisconsin to look back on this story. For decades, we public employees… Well, specifically, professors and academics in Wisconsin, pursued collective bargaining rights. This was the first state to grant collective bargaining rights to public employees back in 1959. And in 2010 when Scott Walker and the Republicans took control of the legislature and the governor’s mansion, they immediately pursued what? The disfranchisement, I’ll call it that, the disempowering. They stripped public employees of their collective bargaining rights. What’s going on now, and I’ll just sum it up now, what’s going on now is we’ve seen workers go out on strike. We’ve seen them walk out of jobs. And those workers include everyone from teachers to Kellogg’s Corn Flakes makers, basically. And we see it down in Alabama now. And what we’ve seen in the Amazon strike is this breakthrough moment. Starbucks workers are doing it. Everyone who has a job recognizes, even if they’re not old enough to know how long this has been going on, that they are literally the targets of class war. And the billionaires, as Bernie would say, are becoming, soon enough, trillionaires.
Sara Nelson: Yeah. I think about where we are, and I’m just thinking also about Chris. And I think about Chris Smalls getting fired in 2020 and Amazon having a 150% attrition rate. See, there hasn’t been a desire to fix anything where it is. It’s all been about if you don’t like it, go somewhere else. And the most common phrase that workers heard for decades was if you don’t like it here, get a job somewhere else. Go find another one. It’s your fault if you don’t like it. And what Chris said and what needs to be said is, no, you’re not going to chase me away. I’m going to make it better right here. I’m going to stick it to you. And I’m going to stick with it as long as it takes to do that.
And really, I mean, that’s the moment that we’re in here. Are we going to stay and fight, or are we just going to continue to let them demoralize us? I always talk about the four Ds of union busting. There’s divide, they find every single way to divide us. And, more recently, it has been along identifying with a political party, too. They find ways to delay, so they’ll delay any improvements, any resolution. That makes people give up. And they find ways to demoralize us and bring us to that demoralization. I’m sorry, the third is distract. So they’ll distract us with all kinds of things that get us moving in a different direction.
For flight attendants, it’s almost a joke. Every single time we go into contract, the company says, oh, we’re going to do a new uniform. But I mean, there’s a lot of ways to distract. But ultimately, moving to the place, the union busters’ holy grail is demoralization, because when you get to that place, you’re under a rock. You’re not even trying anymore. There’s not even anger. There’s not even any emotion that allows you to propel yourself forward. So right now, we’re fighting through all of that. I mean, when we talk about being free, that has to include economic freedom. And in this country, we have not been willing to say that. We haven’t been willing to say that for a very long time, if fully ever. Because even the New Deal, of course, left certain people out, so it still was buying into those four Ds of union busting. But we really have an opportunity right now to have people connect together.
I mean, I’m down on the picket line in Alabama and I can’t tell you the number of times that I have to stop somebody with a snarky comment about oh, those coal miners just have to get over it and get on with it. We’re not going to use coal anymore. They are mining metallurgical coal that is essential to making steel. Guess what? It’s going over to China. They’re turning it into steel. It’s coming back as windmills, as a different source of energy. But beyond that, it’s never the worker’s fault, never ever. Who were the first environmentalists? It was the United Mine Workers of America, when they were fighting the coal companies to make sure that they weren’t poisoning the towns that they were living in and poisoning the water of their children. They were fighting back on those issues. They were fighting for those safety provisions in the workplace. And so I think it’s really important that anytime that we’re looking at another worker and thinking that we’re in competition with them, that we have to check ourselves and understand that’s the union buster at work. We got to come together.
Women. Women have been… Well, I think about the textile workers in New York. Women who were fighting because they had lost their husband, they had lost the breadwinner, they had to still provide for their children, were willing to take jobs at a lower rate than men because they had to work. Out of desperation, they had to try to provide for their families. And so they were exploited in that way. But then also, the unions that existed at the time hated the women for undercutting the wages of the men, but it’s really the boss who’s setting up the system. So that’s what we have to understand, is all of these things have been set up for us to fail. Cab drivers are not against Uber drivers, they’re against the system that Uber created to undercut the cab driver’s work, and to undercut all of us, and to try to create an Uberization of our entire economy so that if we need a nurse, maybe we’ll just call for them on an app. And they’re not really an employee of anyone, so they can’t have any employment rights.
I mean, that’s where we’re getting to if we don’t understand that all of these tactics across the board are the same, and we have to join together as workers, have each other’s backs, be in solidarity. And so being down there, going to Alabama, for me… It’s spiritual. The mine workers were the ones who led the fight for the eight-hour day. And here we are fighting for it once again. Ask any worker out there, do you work an eight-hour day? It’s gone. They’re either enforced overtime or the company is not scheduling you enough to meet your benefits.
Either way, they’re undercutting that. The eight-hour day is gone. We’re fighting for the same things that we fought for before: sick leave, vacation, rights on the job, the right to collectively bargain. This, Warrior Met never should have let this strike happen. They’re not even meeting at the table because they understand that they have the state of Alabama on their side, and they can order the Alabama troopers to usher the scabs into the mine in order to get by the strikers and even maybe hit them on the way. So we’re in the same fight that we were in 100 years ago. That’s what we have to understand. This can no longer be about labor built the weekend, labor built the eight-hour day, labor got us sick leave, all these things. True, but if we don’t understand that it’s always a struggle, we lose our muscle, and that’s what has happened. We’ve gone to a place where unions are the HR solution for management, with relationships behind closed doors, as opposed to understanding our fundamental purpose, which is to join working people together in the workplace, take capital on where it is.
If we think that we can form another political party and solve this, we don’t understand how this works. Because if workers form unions and make these demands on the boss, at some point the boss is going to break and want everyone else to have to provide the same benefits. That’s how we move forward. And we need to move forward and finalize what Walter Reuther tried to get done, which was a pension and healthcare for every single worker in this country no matter who you are. That promise, that coming for a full day’s work, and decent work for your lifetime of working ages, we’ll provide you healthcare and a secure retirement. That’s really simple.
But when he went to the auto workers and said, let’s go together and get this done so that you don’t have to be responsible for that, they said, no, it sounds too much like socialism. And it didn’t happen. So he said, instead, I’m going to take it from you. And that is what started to form what people now call the union card, and they’ll try to sell the union label. The fact of the matter is that we are failing the 13 million union members who exist today if we’re not organizing in the millions right now, because all it is a backwards slide.
Now, there is no distinction between the non-union worker and the union worker who has a union card. And in fact, there are workers in my union who do not have the healthcare that they should have. They’re recently organized and the management is saying it’s a non-starter. There are other union members who are in that same position. So we have to understand… And then the union members who do have healthcare, guess what, the hedge funds are controlling that. They’re closing the hospitals, they’re cutting back on nurses and janitors and everyone else to make the healthcare system work. They’re squeezing everyone from everywhere. You can’t get healthcare even if you do have health insurance.
So the big issues that we need to take on in this country that we need to move forward are only going to happen if we start in the workplace. That’s the only way it’s going to happen because the only person that Jeff Bezos has to answer to right now is Chris Smalls. And he doesn’t have to listen to any politician, doesn’t have to listen to the voters, but he’s got to listen to Chris Smalls. And so that’s what people have to fundamentally take in, is that if we’re going to have a society that works for all of us we got to take on capital right in our workplace. We got to make sure that we’re setting our demands straight, that we’re joining together, that we’re supporting each other in these issues. Because I promise you, The Business Roundtable, the Chamber, they’re all coordinating on all the tactics that they can use to take more from us every single time. And if we’re not struggling forward, we’re going to lose that muscle to make it work, and we’re also never going to set the demands that Harvey has set out.
By the way, it’s really important to set those demands, but you also have to be realistic about the politics of getting there. And the only way we change the politics is by organizing in our workplaces, because then people register to vote, they’re demanding those things of their employer, and all of a sudden the employer doesn’t want to be the only one who has to pay. That’s the reality. That’s the special sauce. That’s what’s going to get us to an actual Economic Bill of Rights. And if we don’t do it, then we are not actually Americans, because this is what it says to be American. And so it’s on us. It’s on each one of us to make that work. By the way, United Mine Workers, we are one and we are everywhere. Let’s make that real again.
Harvey J. Kaye: Can I just footnote that?
Maximillian Alvarez: Go for it.
Harvey J. Kaye: This is to bolster Sara’s argument, but also to make something clear. We haven’t talked yet about the Economic Bill of Rights. When FDR proposed the Economic Bill of Rights originally in 1944, he garnered massive support from labor, both the AFL and the CIO. In fact, the CIO went truly all out to make sure that FDR was president in order to secure that Economic Bill of Rights. And we can talk more about that. But here’s the thing, when FDR passed away and Truman took the presidency, what happened was labor was absolutely committed to not bargain for rights. They were committed to secure the rights for all. And capital knew what was going to happen. What they did, and this is how it happened, capital decided they would start offering certain sectors of labor the rights that were in the Economic Bill of Rights, but they were going to negotiate contracts with selected unions. That is, don’t make it a national Economic Bill of Rights, make it a contract.
And thus, we end up in 1950 with the so-called Treaty of Detroit. And we end up with the famous private and public welfare system. And that’s why they’ve effectively divided work. They divided workers in the late 1940s, those who were organized effectively and those who were not. And thus, thereafter, it was that kind of division. Later, it was the division between the public sector work… Well, the private sector workers and the public sector workers, which they pushed hard on in the 1970s. So the fact is the question of solidarity is fundamental. And by the way, the reason I’ve proposed with Alan and others an Economic Bill of Rights is to create the grounds and the vision for that kind of solidarity.
Sara Nelson: Absolutely.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, let’s talk about that, because I was going to actually shuttle us from Sara’s response to talking more explicitly about the Economic Bill of Rights and the political and economic context in which FDR first proposed it in the mid 20th century, because there’s a lot of connective tissue here. As Sara was saying, Harvey, I’ve been thinking about you a lot over this past week because I think one of the really beautiful things about the Amazon union victory, but we’re hearing it more and more from workers at Starbucks who are unionizing in stores across the country and in other workplaces. People are doing what you’ve been calling for, which is taking hold of our history. I mean there are folks who are involved in the Amazon labor union campaign who explicitly said, when we wanted to look for models to replicate and learn from, we went to the ’30s. We passed around William Foster’s manual on organizing the steel industry.
And so there are precedents to what we’re seeing now. They just don’t necessarily exist in recent memory, but they do, in a lot of ways, exist in that important crucible in the ’30s and ’40s when labor really did learn the things that Sara was encouraging us to learn now. And that, as you pointed out, was an essential part of the political force behind FDR. It’s not like FDR just decided to give people the New Deal. There was a lot of political force behind it. So by way of, I guess, talking about what the proposal for a new Economic Bill of Rights would mean now and the larger political force that needs to be rallied around that from labor and the beyond labor, I was wondering what we could learn from that period in the ’30s and ’40s, both how we avoid the same pitfalls that we fell into in that time, but also what victories from that time and smart things that happened that labor did in that time that we can replicate now?
Harvey J. Kaye: Okay, well, first I want to say that an Economic Bill of Rights, I believe, and I can create a great narrative for you, emanates from the labor movement. The whole idea of eight hours of work, eight hours of rest, eight hours for what we will is the heart of the Economic Bill of Rights. And I’ll also add that FDR learned a great deal about what workers needed and wanted not only from his time as assistant secretary of the Navy in World War I, but from Eleanor Roosevelt bringing home East European immigrant Jewish socialist labor organizers, women organizers, to Hyde Park for them to educate FDR as to what working people needed. Now, FDR went into the presidency firmly committed to the question of economic security. And he made a deep impression on two of the most significant labor leaders of that moment. Lewis of the mine workers and Hillman of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, who one was a Republican and the other was a socialist. They both turned into FDR Democrats.
Now, what they knew, however, is what FDR all along the way hinted at and often called for: If you want to make things happen, you have to push to make things happen. So when FDR came under pressure from capital, as he did, I mean, fierce attacks from capital. They were prepared to overthrow him if they could in 1935. FDR was moved to sign the National Labor Relations Act, which at the time seemed to be the guarantee that government would not serve as a mediator, but government would stand behind workers’ right to organize. They would go in and make sure that as workers went out, they would go in and they would get those workers back in with full collective bargaining rights. Let’s make it clear, the law exists, and it itself has been under siege ever since 1947 and the Taft-Hartley Act.
Now, the Economic Bill of Rights was always part of FDR’s thinking, and I won’t take you through the whole story of his first three terms. In the 1940s… Sara’s laughing because I’m going to tell her the whole story sometime, I guarantee you. In the 1940s, this is ’42, ’43, ’44, FDR was ever more determined to find out were Americans prepared to go social democratic after the war? To take the New Deal, and turn it into a social democratic America. And he ran polls, surveys of Americans and asked… These were, by the way, private polls out of the White House. These were not openly done. And he found out –
Sara Nelson: They were done by GSG. Just kidding.
Harvey J. Kaye: These kinds of things… Leave it in for… Sorry. Let me laugh a moment. 85% of Americans wanted, essentially, guaranteed healthcare, a guaranteed job at a living wage, and guaranteed education as far as they were able, young people, as far as they were able to pursue it. What that showed FDR was that the time had come, that he could go before Congress and the American people and call for an Economic Bill of Rights for all Americans. He made it clear: for all Americans. The New Deal would’ve been fully inclusive had it not been for the white supremacist Southern Democrats of the day. And by the way, soon after he said this, he also called for voting rights for all Americans. So here’s the thing he proposes. That’s when labor mobilizes. And it’s interesting, the CIO created a political action committee headed by, guess who, Sidney Hillman. And they spent as much as they could. I was going to do a show and tell and show you guys the kinds of things they produced. They were prepared and they went all out.
They mobilized farmers, they mobilized ordinary citizens, and let’s face it, this was a campaign for a fourth term. To my surprise, though, [inaudible] the AF of L did not join that effort. They ran their own effort. And people should know the AF of L was the more conservative of the labor federations. The CIO was the decidedly progressive labor federation at the time. Now, FDR won the presidency having called for exactly what he knew Americans wanted. He was empowered. And by the way, he warned Americans. He warned them that, as they pursued this, they should expect rightist reaction. And when he said rightist, he meant right-wing capital would come after them and after this proposal. And they did. They did, and they figured out how to maneuver it.
Now, he won the fourth term as president with, to that moment, probably the greatest electoral college vote. And what that tells us is, even if it wasn’t the same popular vote he had won before, he won all across the country because Americans made clear what they wanted. He called for it. The Democrats backed it. Labor backed it. And by the way, it did not die as a concept. Labor held onto it. And by the way, in 1960, the Democratic Party laid out their entire platform in terms of an Economic Bill of Rights for all Americans. In the 1960s, A. Philip Randolph, the head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, prepared and presented a Freedom Budget for all Americans, which was modeled after the Economic Bill of Rights and the Four Freedoms of 1941.
In 1968, Martin Luther King Jr., not long before the tragedy of his assassination called openly, I believe it might have been in Look Magazine, for an Economic Bill of Rights. It remained in the American memory. Then, it tends to fade. Bernie Sanders brought it back in 2020. We’re bringing it back now for this reason: The Democrats have been losing and losing and losing. And for 45 and more years, we in labor have been losing and losing and losing. As Sara said, they’ve divided us. They’ve demoralized us. What we’ve seen recently, however, is workers have come to the point of saying, enough is enough. Do they know that history? Not necessarily. Edit this out. I talked a lot to Chris Smalls about that history that you referred to. And I didn’t know that they had said, history mattered. That thrills me. The point is, now if workers are rising in every which way, the task is not only to make sure we sustain the fight. We also have to create a unifying vision. And I want to add one more thing. We need not only new political leadership, we need new labor leadership at the AFL-CIO. I’m clear about that.
Maximillian Alvarez: So, Sara, I know we got to let you guys go, but I guess any final thoughts on what we can learn from the ’30s and ’40s and how we can expand this push that involves labor and the other progressive forces pushing for that vision that Harvey is talking about?
Sara Nelson: Well, first of all, what Harvey is talking about is critically important because we have to have clear demands that unite people, that people can understand we’re in this fight together. Because as you saw, the way to win that organizing campaign was to be very specific in the workplace. Back to the old notion that all politics are local. Yes, it’s from the people. So you’ve got to relate to individual people. You cannot just talk about big ideas that don’t relate to what people are feeling in their everyday life. So you got to take that Economic Bill of Rights and you have to break it down for people. You bring it into the workplace. You can identify where it is and you can pivot to that message, but you’ve got to start with what people are facing. You got to ask them first. So this is an opportunity for us to organize in the millions.
And I just want to note, Harvey said we need new leadership. We are way behind the workers. The workers are ready to organize in massive numbers. We got to run to catch up with them, or we have to get out of the way and let them lead. Because when I look at… Everybody’s been talking about Chris, and good, they should. But there were leaders in that workplace all over the place. Angelika Maldonado, she was incredible, and she’s given this incredible interview to Eric Blanc that people should read because it is the textbook for organizing any workplace.
And so these leaders exist. I mean, we could all name 10 to 15 workers whose names we’ve heard coming out of JFK 8. There’s even more. They were there 24/7 in a presence because they had an organizing committee that was much bigger than that. These are leaders in every single warehouse, every single factory, every single concessionary, every single poultry plant, every single hospital. They exist right now. All we have to do is help them understand that we’re behind them to build their union in their workplace. We’re behind them to lead. The labor movement grew in the 1930s because it was young people who took over, the Reuther brothers in their late 20s and early 30s, members of the CIO, and the founders of the CIO even younger than that. And so it’s that vision for people who are not encumbered by all the pressures of life, who have not been beaten down, been demoralized. More likely, it is the younger generation that is going to believe the reality that they have the power to succeed. So we got to get out of the way, and we have to make every effort to lift up those leaders and not call the labor movement a handful of labor leaders who are getting ready to retire. That is not the labor movement.
So let’s be really clear, the labor movement is intersectional. It is immigrant workers. It is women. It is people of color. And more likely than not, it is going to be immigrants, just like it was in the 1930s. It is going to be women. It is going to be people of color who lead this labor movement of today, because the labor movement has to be led with that solid foundation of solidarity around those common demands and those common interests and understanding that bargaining and organizing are not at odds with each other. Union members and non-union members are not at odds with each other. In fact, they’re part of one massive labor movement that’s going to set the agenda, that’s going to make sure that our democracy stays intact, because everyone is engaged in it.
This is the answer to everything, and it’s not Democrats or Republicans. I do not look to them for leadership. But I do look to the workplaces and the people who can rise up and understand what it means to say, it is not right that my coworker standing next to me is making 45% less because they call that person a contractor. It is not right that my coworker is put into freezing conditions and this company doesn’t give them a hat or gloves to be able to work in that refrigerator, to be able to create the catering that is needed for the airplanes. It is not right that the wheelchair pusher in the airport has another job at one of the concession stands, because once they get that security airport badge they can actually work in different places. And sleep in the gates because they have no time to even go home and get a good night’s sleep with their family. None of that is okay, but those are the leaders who are going to lead this labor movement forward.
And they may not have a union card today, but if we think that’s what the labor movement is, then we’ve already failed. But if we understand that it’s all of us, it’s all workers together, and any attempt to divide us is just the efforts of the union busters, then we can actually achieve the Economic Bill of Rights. Because every single worker will be behind that political movement to get it done and push, just like FDR said had to happen in order for him to sign that before his fourth term.
Maximillian Alvarez: Hell yeah. Well, for decades, the forces of neoliberalism that have destroyed our society have been saying over and over again, we need to unleash the brilliance and genius of the free market. And we say, to save society we need to unleash the brilliance, genius, and power of the rank and file. So that is Sara Nelson, the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, CWA, AFL-CIO, representing around 50,000 flight attendants, 17 airlines. And of course, Harvey J. Kaye, professor emeritus of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, author of many essential books including The Fight for the Four Freedoms, FDR on Democracy, and Take Hold of our History: Make America Radical Again. Sara, Harvey, thank you so much for joining me today.
Harvey J. Kaye: Thank you.
Sara Nelson: Thank you. Thank you, Max.
Harvey J. Kaye: This was great. Good to see you.
Sara Nelson: Solidarity forever.
Harvey J. Kaye: Absolutely
Maximillian Alvarez: Solidarity forever. And to all of you watching, this is Maximillian Alvarez for The Real News Network. Before you go, please head on over to therealnews.com/support. Become a monthly sustainer of our work so we can keep bringing you important coverage and conversations just like this. And also, please do not forget about the 1100 coal miners who have been on strike for over a year. Go look at our coverage that we’ve done on this strike. Make sure that you are following it, voice your support. Do not forget about them. Thank you so much for watching.