Unions and the Sanders/Clinton Split (1/2)

Fred Mason, head of the Maryland/DC AFL-CIO, says unions struggle against anti-worker legislation in Annapolis despite its overwhelmingly Democratic Senate and House of Delegates

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

As Bernie Sanders picks up a few more small states, he’s intent on waging a real struggle at the Democratic Party convention. The forces of Hillary Clinton seem determined, or have made up their mind they’ve already won this battle, and have turned their guns on Donald Trump, but the Sanders campaign says there’s still a major issue ahead. One, he still thinks he has some kind of chance of winning, although, I think, more or less acknowledges that that’s not very likely. But, they plan to wage a big fight to democratize, as he says, the Democratic Party.

Well, in that, where will the unions be? The unions divided very interestingly on the Sanders-Clinton split. Most of the big unions endorsed Hillary Clinton very early on, certainly long before Bernie Sanders was such a force. Some of the unions, the nurses, communication workers, the postal workers and I think a couple of others endorsed Sanders, so there were some significant unions that were in the Sanders camp. How is that all going to play out at the convention? What was the thinking of the unions in endorsing the way they did, and what does this tell us about the divide within the union movement?

So now about to talk to us, joining us in the studio, is Fred Douglas Mason, Jr. He is the president of the AFL-CIO Maryland State and District of Columbia. He’s held this position for four terms, since October 2011. Mason is a member of the American Federation of Teachers Local 8018, but he’s also been a member of the steelworkers and the autoworkers and, what did I miss? SEIU?

FRED DOUGLAS MASON, JR.: That’s it. [audible laughter]

JAY: You’ve work with most of the main leadership of some of the biggest unions.

MASON: Yes.

JAY: Now, let me just give a caveat here. Fred is a official of the AFL-CIO. The AFL-CIO has not endorsed either Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton, and they have also told their officials to be careful not to endorse either of the candidates, which means I can’t ask Fred where he’s at in this. So, he’s going to talk sort of analytically, I hope, as I ask him questions, and obviously you’re going to say what you think about your views and, anyway, it’s your problem how you deal with this issue.

[audible laughter]

JAY: Hillary Clinton and the Clinton, you know, if you start with Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton, they were no great friends to labor. If you look at the achievements of the Clinton presidency, Bill Clinton, he’s the one that ushers in deregulation on Wall Street, you know, welfare reform, the crime act, I mean, some really, legislation that was very bad for most ordinary workers. He did preside over a time there was a bit of bubble in the economy, and I say bubble. Sometimes you talk about growth, but it turned out a lot of the growth under Clinton was actually a bubble.

So yeah, employment went up a bit, wages went up a hair, but when you put Clinton next to what Sanders was articulating, it seems to me it’s night and day, that Sanders’ record and policy proposals he was putting forward were certainly more in line with the kind of things unions are normally demanding. I mean, take even on health care. Most unions in many hundreds of union locals across North America have endorsed single payer health care, so why did so many big unions support Hillary and not even give this thing a chance to play out?

MASON: Well, I mean, I think that [still in] America, I think that politics and connections matter. The Clintons certainly have more of a history in this country than Bernie Sanders does, and media plays a major part. One of the things that I often challenge folks on is, okay, how do I explain to an 11th grader, a person that’s 17 years old, on the verge of entering this political process, how do I explain to them, in terms of party principles, the difference between the Republican Party and the Democratic Party without going to personalities?

Because I think that you run into a funny kind of situation when you try to define something that broadly based on a personality, how somebody looks, how somebody comes across in a 10 or 15 minute soundbite? I think that the American people are certainly deserving of more than that, and so, what we have seen in this campaign season on the Democratic side is a lot of accusations about, is somebody telling the truth about this little small piece, because all of a sudden truth and veracity matters, and we are talking about, really, a whole world.

We are talking about, how do we deal structurally with some of the big problems in this country, big, persistent problems in this country? And I’m talking about problems of race, gender, ethnicity, and these are not new problems. These are not problems that have only surfaced as a result of Black Lives Matter, as a result of Michael Brown. The statistics are already out there. They have been out there while both Sanders and Clinton have been, were in the Congress, so these are persistent problems, and they need to be addressed, I think, before we can move to a place where America can really be the country that we want it to be.

It certainly is not a question of going back, as Donald Trump would indicate. You know, he wants to make America great again. Well, that great again was not very kind to a whole lot of people in this country. It was not, was super unkind to African Americans, certainly until, what, 1965. And part of what you suggest about the discord, if you will, in the unions, is probably a reflection of what’s going on in the larger society. It’s no accident, particularly that the majority of white males have not supported the Democratic Party since 1964.

JAY: We said, you said this a little off camera, and I was saying, majority of voting white males, because we know 40 percent [crosstalk] of the population don’t vote.

MASON: [interceding] Right. Doesn’t vote.

And that’s a problem, so that’s the other problem. I have not witnessed a serious attempt to engage more people in what we call the democratic process, in this governance process, and I’m talking about registering more people to vote.

JAY: Well, before we get into that, and I want to, let me ask you. We’ll step back a bit. The Democratic Party is sort of like a united front, if you look at it from the point of view of classes, of class, and so is the Republican Party. So, you have this kind of, one of the main sources of funding for the Democratic Party is Wall Street. A whole section of hedge fund guys, and they have big pools of money, and they throw the money into the super PACs. Same thing on the Republican side.

The difference between the Republican Party and the Democratic Party is that in the Democratic Party there is another force that’s organized and has money and organizing power, and that’s the unions. Who has leadership, you could say, of this united front called the Democratic Party? It’s primarily the hedge fund guys, the Wall Street guys. They have far more power in the party than the union does, the union movement does, yet the union movement does have some leverage, and they don’t use it.

So, like, for example, when President Obama was elected one of his great pledges was the Employee Free Choice Act. I kept hearing it over and over again. He would make in his speeches, and you would talk to union guys and they’d say, yeah, we know there’s limits to how he views health care and this and that, but at least we’ll get something concrete out of this. We’re going to get, break down some of these anti-union organizing laws and get this Employee Free Choice Act.

And, of course, nothing happened, and I would talk to some of these union guys that would come back, leaders that would come back from the White House, you know, stars in their eyes, oh, I got to be at the White House and they actually asked me what I thought. And, like, that became enough, and the fact that they never got the Employee Free Choice Act, what do you make of that? Like, I’m not suggesting that the unions could go out and start some other party, but they don’t really fight for position and leadership within the Democratic Party.

MASON: I mean, I think that touches on what I referenced earlier about personalities. I mean, I am very proud of President Obama. As a person, as the symbol that he represents, but I was never under any conception that he was a worker warrior. I was never under any misconception that he was this leader for Black people. You know, he had to be the president of all America, and being the president of all America, to me, in this construct, in this life period that I live in, has meant that you have to first serve the interests, you have to pay the piper, the people that are paying, live by the golden rule, and that that’s how American politics–

JAY: –Yeah, Wall Street.

MASON: Yeah. Unions–

JAY: –But all, majority of America are working people, so if you’re going to serve all Americans, in theory you’re starting from there, but we know that’s not how it works.

MASON: Yeah, but we also know that American capitalists have pretty much historically been against the right of workers to organize, against the right of workers to have a voice in their communities, against of the right of workers to have a voice in their government, We’ve encountered some situations where there are more favorable conditions of struggle, i.e., were conditions more favorable for unions under Obama than, say, under Nixon and Reagan? The answer is yes.

JAY: Probably in small ways, not insignificant, but when it comes to something as important as the Employee Free Choice Act, which was a piece of legislation that would make it easier to organize unorganized workers, and some other things, but that was, I think, the heart of it. You know, Obama has the Senate and the House in the first two years. They could have moved it to the top of the agenda and fulfilled the promise. They could have passed that thing, and why aren’t the unions saying, either you pass this thing or you won’t be there when you need us? They don’t threaten, you know, there are still stars in their eyes that they got to go see President Obama.

MASON: I can’t answer that for the unions. I can speak to that for the Maryland, in the context of the Maryland State and District of Columbia AFL-CIO. I was elected to my position in 2001, and I am proud to say that since I’ve been elected we have not given a dime. We have not given a dime to any elected official, to any candidate with this caveat, unless they were a first time union member running for office.

What I said in my inaugural speech, and I believe it now, that our challenge for ourselves is to stop thinking like a drunken man, to believe that somebody that doesn’t come from us is going to be responsible to us, so we have to be about he business of growing our own. And I believe that that is a long, very tedious process. You make some advances and you experience setbacks, This democracy that we call America is still relatively young, in terms of allowing some kind of opportunity for the majority of the people to engage that process, still relatively young, You know, it took the Voting Rights Act of ’65, ’64.

JAY: Right.

MASON: You know the–

JAY: –Well, let me, with the voting act, let me pick up on what you were talking about earlier on registering unregistered, potential voters. The Democratic Party, one would think, should be out there massively, year after year for the last decades, registering unregistered voters, but we know most of those unregistered voters are poor, are poor workers, and I actually think the Democratic Party is as afraid of those people, maybe not as, but are also afraid of those people as the Republicans are. They’re not sure how that would affect the outcome of elections. And we know that the kind of more progressive, insurgent-type candidacies, whether it’s a Sanders or something like that, they’ll do better amongst poor, working people.

I know on this Sanders equation there’s this specific thing happening with the Black vote, but I think in general the more progressive candidates do better, But why aren’t the unions doing more to register unregistered voters? Why aren’t the unions getting, strengthening their position within the Democratic Party by going to these swing states, registering unregistered voters and then helping to educate in order to elect or nominate in the primaries candidates that are more closer to the kind of goals that unions and workers have?

MASON: Unions are, the union movement is actually having those discussions about how to grow the union movement, because if you look over the past several decades, past three decades, there hasn’t been any real growth in union density in this country under a whole slew of–

JAY: –It’s been shrinking.

MASON: Yeah. Under a whole slew of presidents, you know, including President Clinton, then we had, I forget what Reagan was called, the great something, you know, but we’ve had a whole slew of presidents that talked about America, that make good speeches, but we haven’t seen that manifest itself in the enhancement [inaud.] of workers’ rights. Contrary to that, what we have seen, anti-worker organizations, anti-union organizations.

JAY: But I’m pushing you on, why aren’t the unions fighting, not to register people just in the abstract, oh, let’s register people because voting is so lovely. Why aren’t they doing it with the strategy to force union objectives on the Democratic Party? And one way to do that would be to control primaries, and if unions were to register more voters and register and educate and so on, so that they support candidates that are really pro-worker, you start to change who has power in the Democratic Party, at least to some extent.

MASON: Well, I mean, if you go back to, one the basic and stated missions of unions, broadly defined, is to fight for better wages, hours and working conditions, so it’s pretty much that unions are workplace-based. Recent discussions are talking about how to grow unions in the context of strengthening relationships with the broader community, very novel idea, because what we have been suffering from is, a large percentage of the public view unions as another special interest group that they only are concerned about their membership, and maybe some of that is true. Maybe some of that is demonstrated, has been true in a real kind of way, and we have to overcome that.

We have to overcome that by being honest with ourselves. You know, it’s not like the union movement is some monolithic movement. You know, we have to come to grips with how the union movement looks. The people most likely to join a union in today’s world are African American women.

JAY: And African American women more or less decide the votes in Baltimore, too.

MASON: Yes.

JAY: Can you see, in a state like Maryland where there, it’s a really a Democratic Party state, certainly Baltimore. You get occasionally, like now, you get a Republican governor, but on the whole it’s a very Democratic Party state, and very much controlled by the machine, the Democratic Party machine and the corporate Democrats have tremendous power. Can you see a third party? And here it’d almost be in some elections a second party because, like, in Baltimore the Republicans don’t even exist. Can you see a role for a third party that challenges this Democratic Party establishment?

MASON: I can see, I can see that, but I am a registered Democrat and, yeah, I’m proud to be a member of the Democratic Party. The questions that you’ve raised are questions that I raise. They don’t always get traction because many of the Democratic Party operatives, they go by the data. They look at the numbers and they go where the big numbers are. It’s more about winning, much more about winning than educating, so if you can win with 25 to 40 percent of the electorate participating, so be it. You win.

JAY: They actually, I think, prefer it.

MASON: Yeah. Then you don’t have as many people to deal with. I believe that there may be an opportunity for the Democratic Party, if they are concerned about really making changes in America, then the change has to come a lot of the times from within, and if it doesn’t come from within you will find probably greater alienation, and the question of a third party becomes much more real, but then that question also becomes, what kind of third party? Not just something different to be different. What are the principles that it’s going to be founded on?

I serve on the executive committee of the Maryland Democratic Party, and I oftentimes say, all anti-worker companies are not Republicans, right? So the Democratic Party has to take a clear principle in Maryland on the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively. We have fights in Annapolis, overwhelming Democratic Senate, House of Delegates, and every year we have to fight back anti-right-to-work laws, anti-prevailing wage laws, and these are Democrats, so just because people carry the title doesn’t make it so.

JAY: Okay, we’re going to continue this discussion. In fact, we’re going to do another, second part here, where we’ll talk a bit about this, but we’re also going to really talk about why Donald Trump seems to have so much influence amongst American workers, certainly sections of American workers, anyway.

Please join us on the Real News Network, and we’ll see you soon.

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