Trade Unions and the Fate of the American Left
Adolph Reed Jr. tells Paul Jay that the labor movement is the only institution with the capacity that can amount to anything on the left of center in American politics
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.
One of the very interesting things, I think, so far in the U.S. elections, and I’m talking more about the Democratic Party primary, is the role of the trade unions in the Democratic Party, and where various unions stood and what difference they made. I’m particularly interested in how a few unions, one of which, particularly the nurses that were behind Bernie Sanders, what a significant difference it made to the Sanders campaign having a union behind it, with the resources and money that a union has. And I think that doesn’t get discussed very much, and now we are going to talk about it.
And joining me now from Pennsylvania, from just outside Philadelphia, is Adolph Reed, Jr. He’s a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. He specializes in race and American politics. Thanks very much for joining me.
ADOLPH REED, JR.: It’s always a pleasure, Paul. Thanks for having me.
JAY: So you know, we constantly hear about how low unionization rates are, and the unions aren’t the same force they were in the past. And I had a very interesting conversation once, I mentioned this before on the Real News, I was with one of the major industrial union’s presidents, having breakfast in DC with one of his political consultants. And I asked both of them, you know, I said, the Democratic Party, if you want, is kind of like a united front between the sections of the elites, and particularly a lot of the money coming from hedge fund types in New York, and the working class, to a large extent represented by the unions. Except you guys, meaning you unions, you always play second fiddle to the corporate Democrats. You fight with them a little bit, but you wind up working for them, electing them almost unconditionally.
I said, well, why don’t you actually fight and contend for the leadership of the Democratic Party? And the answer from the consultant guy was, well, they’re the only ones with the money to fight the Republicans. And in the end, that’s what this is about, no matter what. And I thought that was an interesting comment, because there was simply no vision of that ever changing.
But we saw something interesting with Sanders. With just a few small unions, and particularly the nurses getting behind the Sanders candidacy, they did challenge the corporate Democrats, and they came bloody close to winning with just a few small unions. So what do you think of this, first of all, the sort of state of where the unions are at vis-a-vis the Democratic Party, but also what happened with the nurses and communication workers, I guess the transit workers and the [posties] who did support Sanders, and what that might suggest for the future?
REED: Well yeah, it’s an important question. I mean, it’s kind of funny. Some of my friends and I have been joking over the years about how best to characterize the relationship between the labor movement and the Democrats, and analogies like battered, abused child, or battered spouse come up, but we kind of settled on 3:00 AM booty call, because they’ll call when they need the money, won’t do anything otherwise.
JAY: Can I just quickly interject, that’s such a good metaphor. Because when they go to the White House and get to sit in the room and have tea with the Chief of Staff, or maybe they even get to see the President once in a while, they come back like they just had one of the better booty calls.
REED: Yeah, totally. Totally. Well, and, and I mean, you understand how it’s, how it’s happened, right? I mean, first, the demands, the concerted attack to demand concessions from the industrial sector, or from industrial unions, and to break trade unionism in the industrial sector kind of caught people blindsided in the ’70s and ’80s. And then the same things happened, has moved on now. Obviously public sector unions are in the sights of this right-wing juggernaut. And it’s, and I have to say, it’s kind of striking to see how quickly schoolteachers became the equivalent of welfare mothers. So it just shows the power of the ideology.
So you can understand the defensive position. And most often–I mean, I’ve written about this before, too–I mean, that the answer or the response to call for doing anything independent or offensive is, well, but the other guy’s worse, the other guy’s worse, the other guy’s worse. And that’s usually the case, to be sure. Certainly it’s the case this year. And I would just kind of take this opportunity, I’ve been trying to take every one I’ve had, to suggest to progressives that the thing for us to do now is just bite the bullet, hold our noses, vote for Clinton, but keep the eye focused on the larger movement-building project that doesn’t necessarily overlap the Democratic Party, but certainly overlaps the labor movement. So that gets me back to the point. Yeah, I mean–.
JAY: We’ll take up that issue a little further in the interview. Let’s keep going.
REED: Yeah. So yeah, I mean, I hear the same thing you hear, that people talk about how small a percentage of workers are actually represented by the unions at this point, to which my response is always, yeah, but compared to what? So what else you got? Because it is true that the labor movement is the only institution with any sort of political capacity that can amount to anything on the left of center in American politics. So building the movement, building the labor movement, rebuilding the labor movement, and building the left are all parts of the same project, I think.
But speaking specifically to the campaign, you’re right. I mean, you write about the influence that you had and the CWA and those other unions, and even in places where the labor movement was very weak, and the Sanders campaign was in a deep hole, labor helped to, you know, make the hole a little more shallow, I suppose would be a way to put it. But also, the campaign helped mainly union-based activists get together, and we get to think about next steps and further concerted action. I mean, the–.
JAY: Sorry, go ahead.
REED: I was going to say, like in South Carolina, for instance, where [it] worked a fair amount for the campaign and it worked for. Yeah, the core activist base of the Sanders campaign was the core activist base in the state before that, around the trade union movement. But we were also able to draw in several other of progressive black elected officials, and of unions to become part of that base, which I hope people will continue to build on going forward. And yeah, that’s an experience that’s been replicated a lot of other places.
JAY: The other side of the issue, if you have a few unions that supported Sanders and were able to break from that Democratic Party machine, certainly the majority of the big unions did not, and endorsed Clinton very early on, worked very hard for her, brought the memberships out for her, and had a lot to do with Sanders not doing better. And the, and–. The kind of weddedness they have, that marriage to corporate Democrats, what the hell is the basis of it, and how much opposition is there to it developing inside those unions?
For example, I interviewed Sweeney, he used to be the head of the AFL-CIO before, just before he retired. And I asked him about EFCA. This is when Obama was in the first couple of years of the presidency. They controlled both houses. They, Obama had promised the labor movement the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier to organize unions. We’re getting near the end of that two years before the next, the midterm elections, when they lose control.
And I said to him, I said, well, what are you going to do if you don’t get EFCA out of Obama? What are you going to say then? Because he was defending Obama. He says, there’s no way that’s going to happen. He’s promised us EFCA. We’re going to get this legislation. And he says, I’m not even going to consider that it wouldn’t happen. He promised, he promised.
Well, of course they didn’t get it. And Obama never moved it ahead on the legislative agenda. And here they are again back in bed with exactly the same people, in a moment where they actually didn’t have to have this equation, oh, if we don’t vote for the Democrat we’ll get the Republican. In the primary they could have fought it out. And none of them do.
REED: Oh, I know. Well, look. I mean, a pattern that–well, I’ll say one thing about Sweeney and that conversation that you had. I noticed that pretty early in 2009, both he and Andy Stern, who at that point was the head of–.
JAY: Of SEIU.
REED: Well, not just SEIU, but the extra-crispy version of the AFL-CIO, Change to Win, where Sweeney was head of the original recipe version.
But both of them, beginning pretty early after the inauguration, began to walk away from the centrality of EFCA, and especially of [inaud.]. Because it turns out the issue that they’d both touted as the new Wagner Act, but back in the summer to get everybody to vote for Obama, a month or two after he was in office they already read the handwriting on the wall and were beginning to say, oh, well, it’s not the biggest thing in the world. Forget this.
But the other point I want to make about that is that the same thing happened when they elected Clinton in ’92. He promised labor law reform to kind of tilt the playing field back in our direction. [Inaud.] congressional majority for the first two years, just like Obama. Frittered it away, lost it, and then for the next six years said wow, Congress can’t do anything about this.
But that wasn’t the first time it happened, either. Same thing happened with Carter. So that’s three Democratic presidents in a row. I definitely take your point about the primaries. Yeah, like in ’04, when Kucinich ran, and ran against one of the weakest of the Democratic Party candidates in recent memory, whose claim to fame was that he could raise money and that he had been a war hero, and therefore could, could attack the war in Iraq effectively. None of which turned out to be true. But you know, unions wouldn’t back Kucinich in the primaries, even, when you think you could use a candidacy like that to get some leverage. It speaks to the case with Sanders.
But now I think it’s just a deeply-ingrained reflex, right. And they’ve gone back and forth since, you know, ’84, when the AFL-CIO jumped out very early behind Mondale, and then got smacked, and then got more cautious, like in ’88, and again in ’92, and I guess they’re back at another–the pendulum has swung back the other way, now. Partly for understandable reasons, because you can see how much worse the right wing has gotten.
But the really–one really striking thing about the pattern this time is that both teachers’ unions jumped in behind Clinton early, and the food and commercial workers jumped in behind Clinton early. And [irate] member tendencies or member insurgent grousing, I don’t know how best to describe it, in those unions pointed out that Clinton, Obama, Clinton, all are implicated in propagating this so-called education of, education reform stuff, which is really privatization and outsourcing for billionaires. Now, the food and commercial workers pointed out that, you know, when they were trying to organize Walmart, Clinton was on their board of directors and didn’t do anything.
So I don’t know. I mean–.
JAY: I was going to say that I think there’s an interesting thing that’s going to happen over some time here. You know, the basis for this, you know, has been, you know, the term trade union aristocracy. The capital the elites were willing to share, some of the plunder of the world, and some of the American wealth, with an upper tier of the American working class in the auto industry, transport, and some other key strategic sectors. And the union leaders in those sectors were getting paid hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, and had expense accounts. They were living like they were CEOs of companies.
The thing that’s changing now is the union leaders are still living like that, except most of the members in what used to be privileged sectors aren’t so privileged anymore. You got auto workers starting at $14 an hour. That’s not even the $15 people are claiming should be minimum wage. So this divergence between even in the stronger industrial unions and all the various unions, where the ordinary members are now being pushed into a far lower wage category, but that the trade union leaders are still living high on the hog.
REED: Well, I’ll tell you, I mean, I’d suggest one caveat, though, which is that capital is never really that willing, right? They always had to be forced, forced into it, right? I mean–.
JAY: The Democratic Party, I think, represented a section that understood you needed to maintain this level of trade union collaboration, I guess you could say.
REED: Well, yeah. Yeah. Yeah. But I mean, at the same time, like, you know, the period that’s often idealized as the moment of greatest trade union peace, basically, [was] the mid-1950s. It’s also the period of most intense strike activity in American history. So there was always a back and forth.
But yeah. I mean, and you know, I think the main thing is, well, yeah. I think in a number of ways what we’re facing now is a series of compromises made in the past that were born principally out of defeat. I think it’s important to keep that in mind, too. [The codes] to our collective bargaining system was forged out of the defeat of the trade union movement in the late ’40s, right. I mean, the defeat of the full employment bill, the defeat of the Murray-Wagner-Dingell Bill that would have made national healthcare. The passage of Taft-Hartley, that as [inaud.], Lichtenstein puts it so nicely, kind of throws the labor movement into a series of occupational and geographical archipelagos that define more and more of the occupational categories that were expanding after World War II as outside the reach of collective bargaining.
So it’s understandable, right, without resort to a demonization, to see how this from a standpoint, from the amenable standpoint of trying to maintain the duty of fair representation of members, to accept the next-best deal, to put it in a summary way, that employer class has on offer. But then you’re right. That becomes institutionalized. And the fighting edge of labor gets increasingly blunted.
And then you line it up by the mid-’70s. Well, I mean, and there’s fights, don’t forget, through the late ’50s and all through the ’60s over psychological displacement, or as it was called at the time, automation, which was another part of the class attack on the social safety net that even the privileged, the so-called privileged sector of the labor movement, had won. So in that sense, from the moment that labor won this concession, the employers had already gone about trying to undermine it.
JAY: And I’ll just return to the point early on, that when you see what just a small handful of unions, what a difference it could make in the Democratic primary campaign, you can see how significant this whole fight within the union movement is. And I think a lot of progressive politics in this country doesn’t take it seriously enough. On the other hand, a lot of progressive politics in this country are so detached from what’s going on amongst workers and unions that that’s not where the solutions are going to come from.
On the other hand, just finally, let me ask you: what’s the state of the fight in some of these big unions? Because I know you mentioned a lot of the big union locals–a lot of the union locals actually did not go along with the endorsement of Clinton, and endorsed Sanders on their own, in spite of international leadership, which suggests this split between ordinary workers and the leadership is fairly serious. How organized is it in some of the unions?
REED: Well, I mean, I’ll put it this way: I think one of the most significant institutional developments associated with the Sanders campaign was the creation of the Labor for Bernie initiative. There are more than 45,000 trade union activists who have signed up for that, and it’s an important source for discussions about, I mean, next steps. And those are beginning now. And I mean, they began earlier, frankly. And a lot of those people are people who are members and activists in national unions that didn’t endorse the campaign.
So the key going forward–.
JAY: Who didn’t endorse the Clinton campaign.
REED: Sorry. No. No, they did endorse the Clinton campaign.
JAY: The unions did, yeah.
REED: Right. Right. But so, so one of the homes that activists, the pro-Sanders activists, would, and unions that endorse Clinton, found for themselves was the Labor for Bernie network. And that’s important. It’s going to be an important force going forward, right, as we talk about next steps in the way of movement-building, both inside the union sector and more broadly in communities. So that’s the key thing.
JAY: I know the nurses are already having a serious conversation about making Hillary a one-term president. And we can imagine that fight in the primaries in 2020 will ignite this whole fight in all the unions, again. And it could be, if you have somebody like a Nina Turner or somebody, especially if they’re African-American, as is Nina Turner, that really changes the whole dynamic of a primary. Hillary’s not going to easily win the black vote in the South.
REED: Yeah, I guess that’s right. I mean, it’s, yeah, I guess that’s right. I think the black vote thing is a pretty complicated issue. And I mean, but no matter what, the key has got to be what happens on the ground between now and 2020, right. And as you know, Paul, one of the problems with the American left is we tended to notice electoral politics around a campaign season, get frustrated when none of the frontrunning options on offer seems attractive enough, and then we’ll try to do something at the last minute, or boycott.
And I don’t think that electoral politics is the end-all and be-all, certainly. I think that, as we often pointed out in the labor party, our interests actually got more from Richard Nixon than we got from any of the Democratic presidents since then. And it wasn’t because Nixon liked us. It’s because our movements, all of the movements, had social capacity and power to shape the decision-making context in ways that it made more sense for Nixon to give in on things like OSHA and the EPA and [inaud.] price controls than to fight them, like in the conventional terms.
So I’m less concerned about what the fight within the Democratic Party’s going to look like in 2020 than what we as progressives can do to change the balance of forces in the left-of-center of American politics between now and then.
JAY: Okay. I said we would pick up this question, whether people should hold their nose and vote for Clinton or not, but we’re going to do that in another time in another interview, because we’re running out of time now.
REED: Okay, all right.
JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Adolph.
REED: Yeah, my pleasure, Paul. Take care, man.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
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