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

Fred Mason, head of the Maryland/DC AFL-CIO, tells Paul Jay there’s a war going on in America on workers, and that what we need are working class warriors


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Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to the Real News Network.

I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore, and we’re continuing our discussion, who now joins us again in the studio, with Fred Douglas Mason, Jr. He’s the president of the AFL-CIO Maryland State and District of Columbia. He’s held it for four terms and he’s been a member of about four or five of the major unions. Thanks for joining us again.

FRED DOUGLAS MASON, JR.: Absolutely. [crosstalk] Glad to be here.

JAY: [interceding] All right, so we were chatting off camera.

I’m just going to say it here. I think one of Sanders’ biggest contributions in terms of democratizing both the Democratic Party and American politics is the way he’s raised money, and I think it’s important in many ways, but I had a breakfast meeting a few years ago with a major union leader and his political, DC political consultant. And I said, I don’t understand why you guys, you unions have lots of money. You throw millions of dollars at these elections. You know, you have ground troops that go out and organize. I don’t think President Obama could have gotten elected if the unions had sat on their hands here, right, if they hadn’t gone out and done it.

Most of these elections are very close, and I said, why aren’t you fighting for leadership here and making real demands, and saying, if we don’t get our demands we’re walking? Why don’t you act like union leaders? And the answer from the political consultant were shaking his head was, well, you know, it’s the hedge fund guys got the money. That’s the only way to fight the Republicans. You know, you need the New York, you need Wall Street’s money.

I mean, as long as your mindset’s like that you will have union members, workers as an independent political force. You’re always going to play second fiddle to some section of Wall Street and so on, of the elites. So what Sanders has done that’s so interesting, he’s shown you can raise millions and millions of dollars if you inspire people, and imagine that it’s possible to actually have faith that people will. You know, if you jump people will save you with 27 dollars times however many people have done it. Isn’t there a real problem that union leaders just don’t think in terms of mass mobilization anymore?

MASON: It certainly is a challenge, and it’s a challenge that is recognized. Excuse me. It’s a challenge that the union movement, union leadership is coming to recognize, maybe somewhat belatedly, that we can’t make the changes that we want representing 11 percent of the workers, because it means that there are 89 percent of the workers out there that we aren’t talking to, so there is a big change process in the unions to reach out and talk with more, [crosstalk] more of the members.

JAY: [interceding] And they’re missing such a moment of opportunity. All these young people that have gotten excited about Sanders’ candidacy, many of whom are young workers, they see most of the unions as the, they’ve just joined with Hillary and the establishment. The union movement isn’t seen as, like, being on the front lines of fighting for change. The union is backing the–

MASON: –The establishment–

JAY: –Yeah, the corporate Democrats.

MASON: Yeah, that view is certainly out there, and part of the change that has to occur is, how do we change ourselves? One of the things that I suggest, and I recognize the criticisms as being valid, but what I flip it around and say, what would the world look like if there were not unions? What would America look like, even if they’re weak unions, even if the union movement is weak? What would America look like if the union wasn’t there?

Workers are under attack in the United States of America. Corporate greed is rampant. You know, we see a company like Verizon that has made, what, 22 billion dollars in profit? And they still want to gut the workers that have helped them become a great company, and I applaud the CWA and the IBW for having the courage, for having the courage to take on major battles, major companies nationwide. And we haven’t seen a lot of that.

JAY: Yeah, and then that’s, in fact, one of the, CWA, communication workers, one of the unions that has backed Sanders. And I’m not here to kind of promote Sanders, in a sense, but there’s a moment here of all this movement in young people coming up, CWA being an exception, and the unions are seen, as you said in the first segment, you’re fighting against Democratic state legislature in Maryland that wants to pass pro-corporate legislation.

MASON: Yeah. And that’s America. America was not, was not, has not been about the empowerment of workers. You know, it doesn’t want workers to have a voice at the workplace. We’ve had to fight and scratch and win that at every single step. Every time we win it on one hand, seems like we lose it on another. The Koch brothers and their buddies, they’ve managed to now pass right-to-work legislation in what, about 26 states. Their aim, their aim is to pass it in enough states where they can make right-to-work the law of the land.

JAY: And, just for people who don’t know, right-to-work, if I have it correctly, usually means you don’t have to pay union dues or a member of a union even in places that have a union. It’s a way to try to break down unionization.

MASON: Right, by draining the resources from unions. They’re the same people on one hand that want to, that engage in activity to disenfranchise voters. They come up with all kinds of schemes–birth certificate, this, that. So you have that on one hand, and then on the other hand you have Democrats that just crunch the numbers for the super voters and don’t engage in massive voter registration programs to engage more people.

JAY: And by super voters, I know you mean voters that are trustworthy, they’re going to come out and they’re going to vote with the Democratic machine more or less.

MASON: That’s right. So, a lot of people feel left out. We fought in Maryland, and unions were a part of it, to re-enfranchise formerly incarcerated people. The assembly folks didn’t care about them, and that made it possible for about 40 thousand more folks, but that was a years-long fight. I engaged that fight when Glendenning was the governor.

JAY: In a legislation that’s majority Democrats.

MASON: Yes, in a legislation that’s majority Democrat. They will find a reason to disenfranchise people. So you have the Republicans on the one hand, very open and very crass about the way that they talk about disenfranchising people, and then on the other hand it seems like the other party just does nothing and thinks that it’s okay. I think that what we are seeing, particularly with young people, particularly with young people, that they are not caught up in that, and I applaud them for that. I applaud them, I guess for their purity.

JAY: Okay, let me, let’s switch topics here. Why is Donald Trump having a significant amount of influence among a certain, fairly significant section of American workers?

MASON: George Wallace had quite a bit of influence.

JAY: In Maryland he did, one of the states he did best in, in Maryland, yeah.

MASON: Yeah. And, you know, we have all these things that are often times hidden. We call it dog whistle politics, where you learn how to speak in code, and race and sex and gender, those are code words, you know, and Trump is a master of that. You know, you pick people that are suffering, whether they’re Black or white, but in most cases the dog whistle is for white folks that do have, that for centuries have been told and educated that at least, you might be doing bad but you’re not doing as bad as, you know, you’re not the Black person.

JAY: Yeah.

MASON: You know, who was it, Nixon and Bush? You know, the welfare queens. You work hard every day and you have to eat hamburger, and they don’t work and they’re eating steak. All of that kind of stuff. It’s the Mexicans. It’s always the other.

JAY: But, let me go after unions again.

MASON: Go ahead.

JAY: While that’s all true, and we know Trump or someone like a Trump is always going to be playing those cards, why aren’t the unions doing more to educate sections of the white working class that fall for this crap?

MASON: And again–

JAY: –Now, see, because if it isn’t the unions, who? Because no one else has the resources?

MASON: And again, I am one of 51 state-fed presidents. I happen to represent 350 thousand union members in Maryland and DC, the majority of whom are white.

JAY: What’s the percentage?

MASON: It’s about, almost 60 percent white. So, I’ve been elected four times. I came in speaking the truth. I came in recognizing that race was a problem in America, and that if we talk about it we can probably make some inroads.

JAY: So, majority white unions are electing a Black president of the AFL-CIO.

MASON: Right, and I talk about the situation, I talk about the disparities and how they manifest themselves in Western Maryland, because when you look at the social and economic indicators, white folks in majority white, in Allegheny County, Garrett County, where you have about maybe five percent African American population, the socioeconomic indicators are pretty much like Baltimore City and Wilcomico County, right? That when their kids want to go to college, they can’t say, well, you know, I come from a county where the income level is such and such–

JAY: –Yeah, ironically, a lot of those places the only jobs are prison.

MASON: Yeah.

JAY: They can work as prison guards.

MASON: Right. At least they’re not them Black prisoners. Yeah,

So, a lot of folks, at least in Maryland, are having those discussions. I can talk about race. We were on the front lines, we were on the front lines in passing the DREAM Act in the state of Maryland. The unions were out there. The Maryland State and DC AFL-CIO was on the front line, took on all those folks that were saying that that is not a union issue, and the opposition and the members in Maryland supported that, because we talked about those issues. We put the issues out there. We talked about, we talk about race. We have to deal with this whole question, the Mexicans are coming in, taking jobs. Those are issues that leaders have to take head on. And so, if the enemy is not the Mexicans, who is the enemy?

And I suggest that the enemy is corporate America, that there are millions and billions of dollars that they get from raping the working class. They would do it whether you’re Black, white, brown, yellow or whatever, and the only way that we can overcome that is by building a sustainable, populist movement in this country, and it has to be more than every four years because workers get tired of that. Union members tell me sometime, I’m glad we’re talking about politics year round and not just every four years. Workers get tired of that that are not in unions.

All of a sudden, for the past four months the TV stations have made record millions of dollars because now politicians want to talk about politics, they want to talk about conditions, but they only want to do it in 10 or 15 second sound bites. They don’t want to take that money and invest it in sound educational programs, and that’s what we need. So, I can’t speak for the union movement per se. I can speak about the changes that I believe that this union movement in Maryland and District of Columbia has been a part of, and we are proud of those, and we challenge the Democratic Party on that.

We take up the hard issues within the union. I’ve, you know, been accused, folks will say, well, Fred cares too much about these social issues. Well, workers’ lives don’t begin and end at the workplace, and so I encourage members that we should have a union position on everything. Everybody may not become president of their, international president of their state, [Fred], but if you believe that workers should have a say-so in where the speed bump goes, where the stop sign goes, you can do that by organizing in your community, and I believe that that is the kind of mindset that we have to put more energy in.

I shared with you earlier, we don’t give money to politicians, have not spent a dime in 16 years, not even buying a ticket, because some people think that it’s very important to be able to rub shoulders, you know, with an elected official and call them a friend. Well, a friend, it’s good to have friends, but I believe that there’s a war going on in America on workers, and that what we need are working class warriors, so that becomes a question for me, where politicians are at.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us.

MASON: Thank you.

JAY: Thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


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