Big Labor’s Strategy to Defeat the Far-Right Resulted in the Far-Right Taking Over

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Michael Lighty of National Nurses United tells Paul Jay that labor’s mistake this election was to not support the pro-labor candidate in the primaries who could compete with Trump on economics

Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network, I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. With Donald Trump’s victory, the president elect is being met by thousands of people on the streets saying “you’re not my president.” But a lot of people at home watching TV, in fact voted and said “yeah, he is gonna be our president.” And given the American electoral system, so it is. Everyone’s trying to make some sense of it and surprised most people. Not everyone. But the big question a lot of people are trying to answer is why did sections of the working class vote for Trump, when it seems most objective sense I think, that his policies really aren’t all that good for the working class. And now helping us sort some of this out and also what some of the response of this is gonna be coming from trade unions and progressive left is joining me in the studio.

Michael Lighty, he’s the director of public policy for the National Nurse’s United, the California Nurse’s Association. He’s served on the Oakland Planning Commission on Community Education and Political Organizations Board of Directors. He was the first openly LGBTQ commissioner for the Port of Oakland. Thanks for joining us.

MICHAEL LIGHTY: Thank you, Paul.

JAY: So first of all what’s your assessment of Trump, if we understand the exit poll math correctly and who knows, it’s not a science anyway, who trusts pollsters these days anyway. But the numbers that I’ve seen is that in the income bracket from under $30,000, while Clinton won it, Trump increased the traditional Republican vote in that segment by about 16%. In the income from $30,000 to $50,000, while Clinton narrowly won it, again Trump increased Republican about 4%. So overall, about 20% increase in poor and low paid workers. So how do you explain that?

LIGHTY: I think he spoked to their issues in a visceral, very easily understandable way when it came to economic decline, specifically trade. And I think that it was very tough for the Clinton campaign to make a credible case that she was on their side.

JAY: Because?

LIGHTY: Well, because her husband and she was part of NAFTA, it was clear she was part of the Obama Administration’s free trade policy, which resulted in the TPP, which she had called the gold standard. And so ultimately what happened was she couldn’t overcome her own unfavorable and the lack of trust among those voters unless they were pretty hardcore Democrats. And I think that’s what you saw. You saw those with allegiances. This is not an ideological decision on the part of white workers. This is a visceral reaction to a huge economic and cultural decline in their communities. So they don’t look at it maybe in the way that more political people do where – here’s my set of policies and ideologies that I adhere to and I vote on the basis of – no. It’s like this guy didn’t get my job back, the plan’s still left, my kids are hooked on heroin and so I want someone else and I don’t really know exactly what that guy’s gonna do and I certainly don’t take it literally with all the crap he says. But he’s different, he’s not a politician, so why not?

JAY: I don’t understand how President Obama and Podesta, a group that seemed so politically savvy and got him elected against, in some ways, many odds, first black President and such against the Clinton machine, could be so stupid in their electoral plan, here. But its not really stupid it goes to who they are and their character. What I mean by this is instead of fighting for that working class vote and fighting for more of the dispossessed people’s vote, they were appealing to people who have done well since the crash. They wanted those Republicans to come over because whenever Obama spoke, it was this achievement, that achievement, this achievement. Things are going so great, look at how great my administration has been.

And then Hillary, more or less, is an extension of defending that legacy.

LIGHTY: That’s right.

JAY: And the truth is its been great, for people that are doing well. The upper income brackets, if you had money to put in the stock markets in the last few years, you’ve been doing great. And they went after that vote, and seated people who have been suffering. We know this number that 90% of the post ’07, ’08 income increase went to 1% of the population.

LIGHTY: Yes.

JAY: They’re going after people that are in on the gravy train and then thinking that traditional Republicans who want lower taxes, and that’s why they’re Republicans, somehow they’re gonna flip to Clinton just from crazy man Trump. I mean it goes to who their soul is about.

LIGHTY: It also goes to what you mentioned, Paul, the legacy. Because President Obama couldn’t see his legacy being carried on unless it was Hillary Clinton. And he saw Bernie Sanders as somewhat of a challenge. A challenge from the left. But Bernie wasn’t defending the Affordable Care Act. Bernie wasn’t defending the trade policy. Well he was campaigning for medicare for all.

JAY: Yeah, he said we need to go further.

LIGHTY: Yeah he said the Affordable Care Act’s fine, but what we need is medicare for all and she said we’ll never have medicare for all and it became a real debate point, a real difference. And of course chose not to do that. So I do think legacy figured into it but what’s really striking, to your point is that these voters that you just talked about who voted for Trump, voted for Obama. Because he was the agent of change.

JAY: More in the working class.

LIGHTY: The working class voters. The white working class that you mentioned earlier. They voted for Obama. More than they voted for Hillary, as you said. Because Obama was the agent of change.

JAY: And Trump is seen as such.

LIGHTY: Trump is seen as such. Let’s be clear. He wasn’t the agent of change as soon as Geitner was Treasury Secretary. That was Wall Street primary. He got all his seed money from Wall Street money carrying forward.

JAY: Even in the primaries.

LIGHTY: In the case of this issue I think it has to do primarily with Legacy. And for some reason he decided that Biden wasn’t as malleable as Secretary Clinton, Vice President Biden.

JAY: Maybe that was the deal.

LIGHTY: Yeah.

JAY: The deal when the Clintons came out and helped him get elected, the deal was quid pro quo and he was following through on the needle.

LIGHTY: But the most interesting dynamic in some ways is the one between Obama and Trump. How now, we hear President Obama is going to convince Donald Trump to do things like because he met with President Obama, he backed off on complete repeal of the Affordable Care Act. And that these 2 agents of change, perceived, have something in common.

JAY: Right. And he in fact was saying that before the meeting with Obama, Trump has been saying that he would let the people with preconditions.

LIGHTY: Yeah, preexisting conditions. And keeping kids up to 26 on their parent’s plan. You’re right but they used the occasion of Obama-Trump meeting to characterize it.

JAY: So we talked about this in the last interview we did in the last week. But we need to return to it, how profoundly weak most of the trade unions are. Never mind having influence in the non-organized sections of the working class, these are mostly who voted although not only do we know, certainly in Ohio and Michigan. If not other places, a lot of unionized workers voted for Trump. But even their own members, no political education goes on, except the kind of blind loyalty to the Democratic Party. And then when you have the Democratic Party, essentially neo-liberalism and all of harsh measures that have come and harsh effects, then the union leaders become the defenders of the status quo.

LIGHTY: And that’s exactly what happened, Paul. They were defending an untrustworthy candidate. And they were put in a situation of having to tell their members believe what she said most recently. And that, unless you’re really loyal, to the Democrats, that’s a tough sell. And so those who weren’t as loyal, they couldn’t convert and they’re used to converting. That’s what I talked about last time, they’re used to converting folks who start more skeptical of the candidate and then move them toward that candidate over the course of the campaign. And that didn’t happen this time, in large part because she couldn’t overcome her own unfavorables and the issue, lack of trust.

The Clinton campaign did not go to Wisconsin. They did not have a program, really, a set of programs they went around and said this is the most progressive platform in history and they went around and they would talk about the various social liberal aspects of it, which were important. But at the heart of the economics, it was not a progressive message. Precisely because it was, hey things are going pretty well, we’re gonna continue that and yeah we gotta fix a few problems but the core economic message was vague and uncertain. Compared to Trump’s very simple and straightforward message about a rigged system that has screwed workers and destroyed jobs in the rustbelt.

JAY: If she had said anything like that, nobody would have believed her.

LIGHTY: Exactly. So she was in a rock and a hard place. The problem and the mistake that labor made was not endorsing the pro labor candidate in the primaries who could have competed with a Trump on economics. Computed all those votes.

JAY: So we’re talking about almost all of the major unions with the exception of yours, the Nurse’s, communication, transit, and the postal workers. Is there anybody else?

LIGHTY: And the electrical workers and the IOWU.

JAY: So that’s 5 or 6. Are there any forces in those other unions that are more like the leadership of these 5 or 6 unions?

LIGHTY: Yeah.

JAY: Are we gonna see a big fight now in the unions that the leaders who kind of helped elect Trump, indirectly? Are they gonna be held accountable somehow?

LIGHTY: I don’t know about that but I think that they will be under a lot of pressure. Because there was the Labor for Bernie network that got hundreds of locals around the country, locals from internationals that had endorsed, in some cases, Secretary Clinton, to endorse Bernie Sanders at the local level. As, for example, in Seattle. Seattle is obviously a hotbed of resistance to a president Trump. So you even have locals at the IBW who endorsed Bernie.

So there’s gonna be a network to bring that labor network together and create a political force that can initiate more militant economic populist demand for justice movement within the unions and take issues like medicare for all. We don’t have to settle for the ACA anymore, we can demand a real solution and approve medicare for all. We don’t have to settle for just killing the TPP, but we can actually reorganize trade policy. We can’t just settle for a facile position on climate, we have to really talk specifically about green jobs and how you specifically transition energy industry workers to a different comparable set of jobs that one actually takes.

Those are the kinds of things the progressive or left elements that labor need to address directly.

JAY: So there’s some meetings coming up this week actually. Friday is the meetings. Talk about what’s happening cause there’s different groups of progressives getting together under different locales.

LIGHTY: That’s right so the People’s Summit Network. The folks that National Nurse’s United worked with. People’s Action, Progressive Democrats of America, other organizations Food and Water Watch, and so forth, A Million Hoodies for Justice, Boomer for Justice. A number of organizations are getting together in Washington to talk about how do we continue the program of the People’s Summit? To demand people in planet first and stand for equality and justice? And what the nurses say to that is how do we heal America because obviously our country is ripped apart. And the economic injustices have come home in a powerful way to create a very potentially reactionary government. So how do we confront all of that? So that’s what we’re gonna talk about at the People’s Summit Network, and we’re gonna move to another People’s Summit event that can bring these folks together.

We’ve also got other folks focused on the 2018 elections, specifically around Working Families Party, Move On and Democracy for America, and People’s Actions. So we’re taking very seriously. It appears that the Republicans are within one state legislature having ¾ of the state under their control to push constitutional amendments. We’re really on the precipice at the state government level. So there’s gonna be a real emphasis on that in 2018. And then we’re looking to vision 2020 and Senator Sanders. He certainly has staked out a claim to take on a president Trump in 2020. Obviously, there are other possibilities but we need to build to that point where we can organize on an offensive basis between now and 2018 and between 2018 and 2020. So we can actually turn the country around.

JAY: This issue of the state legislatures is very important, not just the constitutional amendment which is very important, but the fact that the right, the far right essentially, has taken over most of American electoral politics. The Senate, the House, the president. All or majority of state legislatures. Where the hell is the union movement in all of this? And for the Democratic Party, I mean this is –

LIGHTY: Well, its not coincidence Paul that the union movement was severely crippled by Scott Walker’s reform so called in Wisconsin in 2011. And then in 2016 a Republican wins the state with white working class votes many of whom probably were former union members or at least some of them. At least there’s a direct relationship there. And Michael Kazin has a piece in Dissent about this. That the real source of Trump’s victory is the decline of the union movement. Because there used to be union halls. There used to be not 12% or 7% in the private sector now of workers in the union, there used to be 30%. And that huge difference accounts for a lot of the mis education that has occurred among workers. So where are the unions? They’re under assault. They’re now saying they’re gonna hunker down and its wrong. Its absolutely the opposite. It has to be that we are going to mobilize on our issues. We’re gonna find those issues and we’re gonna talk to those Republican voters or those working class voters who didn’t vote for Secretary Clinton, who went to Trump, and we’re gonna engage them on their issues and we’re going to move them into our position.

JAY: But do they not also have to start being honest? And what I mean by honest, is the defense of the Obama years. All throughout the Obama years. I mean, I remember in the first couple of years, I interviewed Sweeney from the AFLCIO and he’s saying we’re gonna get EFCA, Employee Free Choice Act, we’re gonna get it. I said, really? You’re gonna get it? And I said if you don’t get it then what? He said I’ll eat my shoe, but it isn’t gonna happen and I still haven’t seem him eat the shoe. Obama and the Democratic Party leadership don’t even bring EFCA forward when they controlled both houses. And this slavish connection to the Democratic Party leadership and the defense of Obama, its all justified by, well because we have to or the far right will take over. Well how did that work for you?

LIGHTY: Their strategy to prevent the far right from taking over has resulted in the far right taking over.

JAY: That’s my point. You got Trump as a result of that. So is there – are they not aware of this? Even their own interest, even as big labor leaders, their own unions are getting decimated by this logic.

LIGHTY: Paul, their view was expressed to President Obama “if you succeed, we’ll succeed.” That was what they said to him. They have been an arm of the Democratic Party and for precisely the reason you said. Because it could be worse. But now that it is worse, the response hasn’t changed. The response is to hunker down and not to initiate. What they should be trying to figure out is how could we move workers that we represent into a militant posture that we can carry out actions to change the political dynamic of the country.

JAY: Well the next meeting of the AFLCIO

LIGHTY: They’ve already met since the election.

JAY: They have, and RoseAnn DeMoro, she’s the vice president of the AFLCIO.

LIGHTY: Yes.

JAY: I know her, she’s on the same page as you are. So does she stand up and say these things to people?

LIGHTY: She’s known for being a very straight talker in those forums. So its not that they haven’t had the opposing perspective presented. In fact the actions of RoseAnn and the other labor leaders to endorse Bernie and RoseAnn in particular to be out there and continue to work with them, is a sign that we’re not gonna just go along with that approach. But within the AFLCIO government worker unions do tend to dominate. And there’re many aspects of Trump’s program that appealed to the building trades. Particularly, they’re on that side of pro-pipelines for example, they’re certainly pro infrastructure. So you can see that there’re gonna be a lot of divisions and you can imagine a president Trump going after these sectors individually at different times, and so the unification of the labor movement and the common defense strategy is also important. I don’t wanna say that we only play offense. Because there are things he can do with executive orders and so forth in federal government. But it has to, its really a seat change, it’s a fundamentally different way of looking at politics and the world, that’s required. And whether they will actually do that, we haven’t seen that level of introspection yet.

JAY: Okay, we’re gonna continue this discussion in a part 2 so please join us for part 2 with Michael Lighty on The Real News Network. Look forward to seeing you then.

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