Micah Uetricht, co-author of “Bigger Than Bernie: How We Go from the Sanders Campaign to Democratic Socialism,” discusses recent socialist victories in New York and Chicago, and lessons from a failed bid in the East Bay.
This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.
Jaisal Noor: Welcome to the Real News. I’m Jaisal Noor. This is part two of our conversation with Micah Uetricht about his new book Bigger Than Bernie: How We Go From The Sanders Campaign To Democratic Socialism, which you coauthored with Megan Day. And we’re joined again by Micah Utrecht. He’s the Managing Editor of Jacobin, host to the Jacobin radio podcast, The Vast Majority, and a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. I wanted to in this second part talk about the lessons from local struggles. We know that local politics are the politics that affect us the most, that can have most impact in our day to day lives, and that’s some of the places where socialists, where the DSA, have been most active helping vault people like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, not only into elected office, but in a position to change national discourse. Micah, you wrote about what happened in New York and Chicago, two places where socialists have had more success perhaps than anywhere else. Let’s start with New York and what you found, what the main lessons of New York are. And they’re ongoing. There’s more Socialists running for office this year as well.
Micah Utrecht: Obviously, the Bernie campaign was principally about electing Bernie as President of the United States, but it’s worth remembering that just four years ago, before Bernie’s first campaign, there were almost no Socialist elected officials anywhere in the United States. And then we had Kshama Sawant on Seattle’s City Council and maybe a few others here and there. But there has been a pretty impressive number of victories that Socialists have had ranging from the local to the national level. And we write about New York as a case study in the book, not just to say, “Oh look, some Socialists won in New York,” but to actually describe how Socialists can play an important role as part of a bigger working class coalition in the electoral realm as well as in social movements.
And so in New York, the only two Socialists who have so far been elected to any kind of office in the state are of course Alexandra Ocasio Cortez in the House, but also State Senator Julia Salazar. And those victories were important. They’re there two self identified Socialists. There was also a broader, a progressive surge in electoral politics that took place in 2018 that’s shifted the balance of the New York State Senate and got rid of what was called the IDC, which was a block of Democrats in the State Senate who caucus with Republicans and effectively serve to block progressive legislation in the state. And so Julia Salazar’s election was part of that wave of displacing the IDC.
And the two of them in office along with the surge in Socialism, a Socialist activism around things like affordable housing in the state of New York, in New York City helped lead to, again as part of a broader progressive surge from people who do not consider them as Socialists, the fight back against things like Amazon attempting to move into Long Island city in Queens, which was a huge battle that would have displaced huge numbers of working class New Yorkers and also would have given billions in public dollars to Amazon, one of the wealthiest corporations in the world, of course, it really does not need billions in public money. And AOC and Julia Salazar and New York City DSA were all key players in this fight that was, just to reiterate, not solely carried out by Socialists, but Socialists as part of a broader working class movement were able to successfully stop Amazon from moving to Queens.
Amazon is moving to New York anyway, but not into Long Island City. They’re moving to Manhattan and they’re not taking the multi-billion dollar aid package that that was prepared to be given to them. And so that’s a real victory. That’s a significant win that Socialists played a key role in, in New York City. And that’s just with a small minority of Socialists elected officials in the house and in their State Senate. So, I mean, the important issue is that they were there organizing as part of a broader coalition. There was not just Socialists, it was other progressive working class institutions. But Socialists in New York City DSA beyond just their elected representatives really played a key role in effecting the sea change around the discourse around affordable housing in New York City.
Obviously, we know that there’s a real housing crisis in New York City and DSA helped play the role of demanding that something be done about that, which culminated in some pretty historic rent control and other provisions protecting renters in the city of New York, far from what is needed of course in New York City, but the strongest affordable housing protections that we’ve seen introduced in New York for a long time. So Socialists played a key role in that and it’s something that can point to, to show the kind of tangible victories that Socialists, along with a broader wave of progressive activism, have actually won.
Jaisal Noor: And you’ve been reporting in Chicago for a long time, a place of intense class struggle in the years of Rahm Emanuel. You had multiple teachers strikes there. Now, same with New York, you have Amazon workers going on strike. You have them protesting extreme exploitation and dangerous conditions they’re being put in. Talk about some of the lessons from Chicago and especially you just talked about the role Socialists played in a broader coalition the impact they’re having. Something like 10% of the of the City Council are now Socialists.
Micah Utrecht: Yeah, so there are half a dozen members of the Democratic Socialists of America who were elected to Chicago City Council but the way that we got to that point starts way back in 2010 when the Chicago Teachers Union had its leadership taken over by a [inaudible 00:06:34] called the Caucus Of Rank And File Educators, which were a group of teachers and other kinds of educators who we’re committed to democratic militant unionism that was struggling alongside communities that were fighting austerity in the public education system in Chicago, but also across the board. And I bring this up because, for one, there were Socialists who before the Bernie Sanders campaign were key players in that effort. They weren’t the only ones who were involved in taking over the union but they played this really critical role alongside other people who had a similar vision of what unionism should look like.
They went on strike in 2012 and have gone on strike several times since then and over the course of that past decades since they took over the union, the CTU has emerged as the anchor of a left wing politics in this city. And I bring that up just to emphasize how that kind of activism within a union like a teacher’s union or another municipal union or in a private sector union can play a role in transforming the politics of a city as a whole. Because that strike and the way that it changed Chicago politics opened up the space for last year a half a dozen Socialists to get elected to the Chicago City Council as well as other progressives who are not members of DSA but who are part of that broader left-wing block that has emerged in Chicago politics.
So the case study of Chicago is important to emphasize the interplay between organizing outside of the electoral realm, organizing within a union, in a specific kind of unionism that’s a militant and democratic unionism that’s fighting for the entire working class, a kind of unionism, which by the way, it’s not a mistake that there were Socialists involved pushing that kind of unionism because that is the kind of unionism that Socialists have long argued for and have been the strongest proponents of within the labor movement. So Socialists helped play that role in transforming the city through that kind of unionism and then opened the space for half a dozen DSA members to now be fighting for things like a robust response to a COVID-19, one that includes a new social democratic measures that actually tend to work in class people’s needs in Chicago who are talking about the problems with not having a rent freeze in the city, who are pushing for a whole slew of measures in the city, left-wing measures, that would not exist without this new left wing block.
And, again, as I mentioned with New York, it did so as part of a broader coalition, a coalition that by the way, it’s important to mention, it is willing to work with Socialists, that is not scared off by the Socialists label that those DSA members have it fixed to themselves. So the Chicago example is an example of all of these multiple things coming together to play a role in creating a left wing block that is for the first time in recent memory actually creating a left wing pull in Chicago local politics.
Jaisal Noor: And Micah, isn’t it true that you talked about CORE, the Caucus Of Rank And File Educators, didn’t that start as a reading group around Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein’s book, which is especially relevant now. I mean, it’s been relevant but especially under the Rahm Emanuel years where the teachers went on strike during an election year for Barack Obama, which put a lot of pressure on him as well, but just having that class consciousness and having that historical consciousness and applying that to the classroom conditions and waging these strikes and winning some real victories for the Black and Brown students that are the majority of students in the third biggest school district in the country.
Micah Utrecht: Yeah, all of that is correct. It’s a testament to the power. I mean, as you mentioned, the fact that this group of people just came together around Naomi Klein and her book shows the power of left wing ideas when they’re put in the hands of rank and file militants of the union that can take the lessons from that book and really run with them and figure out how to push back against exactly the kind of thing that Naomi Klein discusses in that book, which is the use of crises by the right wing or by elites to shove austerity down people’s throats in a neo-Liberal agenda down people’s throats. So they took that and they ran with the lessons from that book about how to not just identify that was happening to the city of Chicago and its a public education system, but also how to fight back against it.
Jaisal Noor: So you also talk about East Bay where I believe Megan Day, your coauthor chronicled the failed progressive campaign of Jovanka Beckels, an organizer, a council person in Richmond, which is a fascinating city. They had a Green Party mayor. They waged a war against Chevron for polluting its communities and it’s been a host of other progressive reforms we’ve covered here on the Real News, including paying at risk potential offenders money, sort of like a stipend to help them stay out of trouble. But she ran against Buffy Wicks called the Bernie Slayer, which was a failed campaign, and obviously a lot of these Socialist campaigns aren’t going to be victorious, even on the left, challenging the Democratic machine, which is how power for decades. But talk about the lessons from that, again, a campaign that was based on a widespread coalition of working people unions and the lessons learned from that.
Micah Utrecht: The Jovanka Beckels campaign, I don’t live in the East Bay, but I got to see it in motion when I visited once and the East Bay DSA really threw themselves into this State Assembly race for this candidate Jovanka. And we detail in the book, I mean, the campaign, DSA was the principal player in this campaign, which is different from some of the campaigns like AOC’s or some of the Socialist elected officials in Chicago who were DSA members but also came out of unions or community groups or whatever. Jovanka Beckels’ campaign was principally an East Bay DSA effort along with folks, like you mentioned, the Richmond Progressive Alliance and it was incredible just to see that this group, DSA, that had just come together after Bernie’s 2016 campaign all of a sudden I was figuring out how to do the nuts and bolts of electoral politics, run a real credible campaign.
And they really went all out for this campaign. You could see it when you were in East Bay at the time, Jovanka Beckels signs were all over Oakland and then in parts of the district she would have covered. She lost to Buffy Wicks, who was the State Director in California for Hillary Clinton in 2016, and yes, she did earn that nickname Buffy the Bernie Slayer. And she lost, it was crushing to people who had thrown their whole lives into that campaign of course. But the infrastructure that was built from that campaign was then used by East Bay DSA to engage in other kinds of campaigns that were not electorally related. The most immediate one was support of the Oakland teacher’s strike that happened shortly after Jovanka’s campaign. And, again, DSA, East Bay DSA, played this key role in mobilizing support for that teachers’ strike as well as some members were actually members of the Oakland Education Association, and so they were rank and file organizers for the strike.
And so it’s an example of, and in the book it features all kinds of fun and inspiring details about DSA members getting up at six in the morning and being in these flying squadrons that would be driving all around Oakland, figuring out where reinforcement on picket lines were needed the most, engaging in our making the signs, the big mass marches that would happen. I was also there right before the strike and going a restaurant to restaurant, putting up signs that said that we support Oakland teachers at local businesses and restaurants and stuff. So it’s incredible. Again, just as they built this enormous apparatus basically from nothing, very few people in East Bay DSA had any experience in electoral politics but they built up this entire electoral campaign to support Jovanka Beckels. They lost in that campaign, but they then used that infrastructure to support this teacher strike that was part of the teachers’ strike wave that kicked off in 2018 with the red states like West Virginia and Arizona that we heard so much about, but it also spread to cities like Oakland in I believe January, 2019.
So it’s an example of how electoral politics can be used, not just to try to elect good left wing and Socialist elected officials, but it can also be used to take all of that infrastructure and then support other kinds of grassroots struggles like a union fight, like a teachers’ strike. And that kind of interplay between an electoral campaign that talks about class struggle, that talks about fighting the capitalist class. You can use that infrastructure and sort of seamlessly put it into that kind of worker led a struggle on the job. That’s crucial and we need to be able to do both.
The Socialist movement that’s emerging in the United States has been focused on doing both, engaging on both of those tracks, both the electoral realm and the grassroots organizing realm, which is important to talk about because grassroots organizing, bottom up union militancy and and other kinds of of bottom up organizing are often held in contrast somehow to electoral organizing, that you can choose to do one or the other. And the example of DSA in places like East Bay over the last few years shows that you can actually do both if you go about your organism the right way.
Jaisal Noor: Well that wraps up part two of our conversation. We’ve still got one more part to go. Thank you so much for joining us Micah Uetricht.
Micah Utrecht: Thank you.
Jaisal Noor: And thank you for joining us at the Real News Network. We’ll post all three parts of this interview at therealnews.com. We know that everyone’s quarantined at home and you need some good book recommendations so we’re going to start interviewing some authors of some great books that’ll give you something helpful and hopeful to read while we’re all locked down. Thank you for joining us at the Real News Network.
Micah Uetricht is an associate editor of Jacobin magazine. He is the author of Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity.