YouTube video

YouTube video

The second part of our May 1st discussion with union activists Bill Fletcher Jr., and Sam Gindin on the weakening of the workers movement and what needs to happen next

Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.

We are continuing our discussion in the light or context of May 1 on the state of the working-class movement in North America.

And joining us again, first of all, from Toronto is Sam Gindin. Sam is the former assistant to the president of the Canadian Auto Workers union, adjunct professor in political science at York University. He’s the co-author with real planets of The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American Empire.

And joining us from Maryland again is Bill Fletcher Jr., a columnist, activist, author, labor organizer, and executive assistant to the national vice president of the American Federation of Government Employees. And he’s the author of the book “They Are Bankrupting Us!” And 20 Other Myths about Unions.

Thanks for joining us, both.


JAY: Okay. Bill, again starting with you, it seems to me part of the issue–and let me just say to our audience, if you haven’t watched part one, you’ve really got to, because we’re just picking this up from there.

One of the issues in the United States is how wedded most of the union leadership is with the Democratic Party. Now, I know this isn’t a simple issue. If you look at what’s happening at the state levels and the federal level, particularly the state level, some of the Republican governments are passing even more draconian laws against unions than there already were. I understand that sometimes unions feel themselves a bit between a rock and a hard place, because if they don’t finance and help support the Democratic Party, they can be looking at a far, far worse situation.

That being said, they–certainly at the national level and mostly at state levels, they rarely have put enough pressure on Democratic parties when they do get elected to actually change much in their favor. Certainly with President Obama, they were promised the Employee Free Choice Act, and that never happened, and you hardly hear a word about it from any trade union leaders. And I often–when I see these millions of dollars of donations in television ads, I always wonder to myself: where is the campaign of the unions to try to persuade unorganized workers to get into unions and deal with some of the myths you dealt with in your book? And there doesn’t seem to be a heck of a lot of union money spent on that. So what do you make of why the unions, you know, keep getting caught in this same box over and over again?

FLETCHER: Desperation, pure and simple. We are getting squeezed. We’re facing annihilation. And the leadership is very desperate, and they believe that the solution actually rests in certain forms of political participation–and I say certain forms because there is a form of political participation in which they could engage that would actually be quite dramatic. You know, you could imagine the unions joining with other groups and developing a platform and forms of organization, running candidates in Democratic primaries, and turning things upside down as the Tea Party did in the Republican Party. It is absolutely doable. This is not rocket science.

The problem is that even if you go that route, that means in many cases clashing with certain leaders in the Democratic Party that much of the leadership of organized labor would like to believe are our friends, for example the Clintons. You know, you have to remember, in the primary that took place a few years ago against then senator Blanche Lincoln, there were incredible attacks against the unions for supporting an insurgency within the primary, and there were many leaders in organized labor that really were shaken by that entire experience. So desperation drives them, they are holding on tight, and they’re very reluctant to take the risks that are necessary.

JAY: Right. I once sat at a lunch with some very senior people in one of the biggest unions, and one of their sort of Washington advisers was there. And I asked this exact question: why don’t you contend for leadership within the Democratic Party? Why do you cede it, and essentially cede it to Wall Street, certainly in the case of President Obama, but not only President Obama, most of the nominees for a while? They really represent a section of the elite that has–big section of capital. I said, why don’t you contend? And the answer was immediate and simple: ’cause they’re the ones with the cash, they’re the ones who are liquid. If you want to fight the Republicans–and we do–we need their cash to fight. And that was the limit of that vision.

FLETCHER: It’s a ridiculous limit. It’s a ridiculous vision, I should say. See, Paul, we’re in a situation–they talk in military terms of asymmetrical warfare. We cannot fight the other side with the illusion that we have the same resources, under the best of circumstances, as the other side. And we’re not going to have the money. And I’m tired of hearing union people complain and cry about we don’t have the money of the Koch brothers. We’re never going to have the money of the Koch brothers. We’re not going to have those resources. We don’t have Fox News that is battering people with this right-wing propaganda. So it’s an asymmetrical situation.

The challenge for the union movement is to understand that it is asymmetrical, and therefore for us to figure out what sort of strategy corresponds to that situation. What tactical initiatives can we take that will build up strength? How do we position ourselves so the idea of relying on Democrats or anyone else to supply us with the types of resources we need in order to win elections, that is a strategy that is doomed to failure?

JAY: I get a chance to talk to a lot of union leaders, national union leaders, and with the exception of a handful, they’re out of steam, they’re out of energy. I mean, this discussion and the kind of things both of you are talking about, this isn’t going to come from them; it’s going to come from younger and other workers in the unions. And so what do you have to say to them, Sam?

SAM GINDIN, PROF. POLITICAL SCIENCE, YORK UNIVERSITY: Well, I think you’re absolutely right. I mean, obviously there’s differences within the leadership. But generally, if I was looking at what’s happening in Canada, a lot of the leaders are just overwhelmed by what’s happening. It’s difficult. They’re not sure what to do about it. Other times, they actually look to suggesting vote NDP, vote social democrat, because if they don’t have that to put forth as an alternative, they have to ask–you know, they’d have the members always asking them, well, what are you going to do? And it raises all the questions that Bill is raising. And that raises a very a lot of very uncomfortable questions, because it really does mean changing the whole structure of the unions.

And one of the depressing things to me about what’s been happening over the, you know, last three decades, but especially since the crisis, is we aren’t even having that kind of serious debate about our limits inside the trade union movement, which is so absolutely crucial to even get started.

And you’re right: this is not going to–you know, the dilemma we’re in is it isn’t going to be changed from the top. I think, you know, it’s clear enough that that can’t happen. The question is: can it happen from below? And that’s also incredibly difficult. You know, the workers have all kinds of pressures on their daily lives. They don’t have time. They’re fragmented. They don’t even have the resources that the leadership have.

And, you know, you make comparisons to the ’30s for example. The point is there was a left. There was a left that could actually bring a larger perspective to workers, give them confidence, create structures that they could work through. That’s what’s missing.

And I think the critical problem is that this isn’t going to change. And I’m speaking for Canada, but I think very much for the U.S. as well. Until we have a left that can actually show people that there are structures through which you can fight and make a difference, that can begin to link people across workplaces so they’re not so divided, that can say, look, there’s all this pressure on you to think about the short-term–that’s why you’re quickly hoping that if you vote for somebody it will change. But unless you start thinking about the long term, we’re always going to be in that short-term bind. And those are the kind of things that a left can do. And that’s absolutely critical to thinking about what can change [crosstalk]

JAY: Yeah, it seems to me the unions are to a large extent still very rooted in, you know, what they used to call Gomperism, you know, trade unions pure and simple, that workers should worry about wages and working conditions but leave politics, you know, to the essentially capitalist parties. And, like, just to build on what you’re saying, Sam, if there’s not a vision for what a different kind of society can look like, can you actually revive these trade unions?

GINDIN: I just want to add that, you know, there are trade union leaders who, you know, have learned certain things about it. They talk now more about social movement unionism, they talk more about alliances. But I think what they’re not getting is that if you really want to do this–you know, the extent to which things have been polarized. To do really really do those things isn’t just, you know, changing some marginal thing and bringing in some social movements or giving them some funds. And that’s the problem. For that to happen, that kind of profound change, I think would actually require the kind of a left that has its feet inside and outside the labor movement.

JAY: Bill, are there signs of that in the United States?

FLETCHER: Well, yeah. Let me–yes. And I just want to qualify something slightly that Sam was raising.

There are no saviors. But the transformation of the union movement is going to necessitate a combination of energy at the base, as well as good leaders. And we can’t underestimate the importance of good leaders. If you look at the Amalgamated Transit Union, for example, it makes a difference that Larry Hanley is the president and that he is calling upon people to openly engage in a transformation process. That makes a very big difference. And it makes a difference in reverse when you have unions where the leadership is silent, is complacent, etc. So I think that we’re going to need both of these things to happen.

And, yes, I continue to remain optimistic, Paul, that this can actually be turned around. But it does necessitate, in order for that to happen, fervent ferment at the base. The Chicago Teachers Union again I go back to. It’s not just the Chicago Teachers Union. You have in Milwaukee, you have in a number of cities around the country these locals that are emerging with new leaders that are posing some very, very provocative questions not only about unionism, but also about education, public education. That is the sort of direction we need. We have–I mentioned the Amalgamated Transit Union. The United Steelworkers that has been entertaining this entire idea of the pact with the Mondragon cooperatives of the Basque region of Spain. There are reasons to be excited and intrigued by various possibilities that are out there. The question is ultimately whether these things will cascade.

And that takes us directly to what Sam was saying about the critical importance of a left. Without a left, without a force that’s there that understands the need to actually transcend capitalism, ultimately, and has people dedicated to that, we won’t see a fundamental transformation of the union movement.

JAY: Okay. Thank you both for joining us.

GINDIN: Great to be here.

FLETCHER: It’s great to be on the program.

JAY: Thank you.

And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Bill Fletcher Jr. has been an activist since his teen years and previously served as a senior staff person in the national AFL-CIO; he is the former president of TransAfrica Forum, a senior scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, and the author of numerous works of fiction and non-fiction, including ‘They’re Bankrupting Us!’ And 20 Other Myths about Unions and The Man Who Fell from the Sky. Fletcher Jr. is also a member of The Real News Network Board of Directors.