Labor After Bernie
An organizer with Labor for Bernie argues that the gains won within the Democratic Party must be defended and expanded.
- Interview by
- Dan DiMaggio
The 2016 elections saw the labor movement behave largely as it usually does, backing the presumably most electable Democratic Party candidate in an effort to ensure a Democratic victory and win influence in a future administration. National unions like the Service Employees International Union, National Education Association, and American Federation of Teachers went all-in for Hillary Clinton’s doomed campaign early on, despite her cozy relationship with Wall Street and checkered record on pro-corporate trade deals like NAFTA and the TPP.
Can the US labor movement ever move beyond its one-sided adherence to transactional politics? The 2016 election did provide some hope on this question, as the all-volunteer Labor for Bernie campaign built a network of hundreds of local unions and tens of thousands of rank-and-file union members to push for endorsements of Sen. Bernie Sanders and his unapologetically pro-worker campaign.
Ultimately, six national unions — the Communications Workers of America, the Amalgamate Transit Union, National Nurses United, United Electrical Workers, International Longshore and Warehouse Union, and the American Postal Workers Union — backed Sanders in the primaries.
In the most recent issue of Jacobin, Seth Ackerman argues that if there’s any hope to build an independent left-wing party rooted in the working class, it will require the involvement of significant sections of the labor movement. “On the Left only unions have the scale, experience, resources, and connections with millions of workers needed to mount a permanent, nationwide electoral project.”
To get a sense of some labor activists’ thoughts on the path forward following the elections, Dan DiMaggio, assistant editor at Labor Notes, spoke with Rand Wilson, a volunteer coordinator of Labor for Bernie, in the wake of the election. Wilson works for SEIU Local 888 in Boston and is now working to build the state-level structure of Sanders’ political organization Our Revolution in Massachusetts.
During the 1990s and early 2000s, Wilson was an activist in the Labor Party, the last major attempt by a sector of the labor movement to build an independent, working-class party. But he switched his affiliation to Democrat for the first time once Sanders declared he was running in the primaries last year.
Much ink has been spilled on the pitfalls of such a strategy, and many on the Left argue that the Democratic Party remains unreformable. But Wilson argues that in the wake of the Sanders campaign, activists should be participating in its structures, as well as building Our Revolution.
Were you surprised at the election results?
I think there was an instinct among Sanders’ supporters about Hillary’s vulnerability and her weaknesses as a candidate. Why do you think tens of thousands of people worked their asses off for Bernie Sanders?
Here’s the timeline. Sanders steps up to challenge Clinton in the primaries, feeling that there needed to be some dialogue about the nominee and his or her politics before Hillary’s coronation. But once you get into the campaign, you realize that she’s very flawed, she’s not a good candidate, she’s got so much baggage, and that Sanders is getting this traction with white, working-class voters in particular.
That was such a contrast to her. And that he polled well in a matchup with Trump and continued to poll well. We can only conjecture [about whether Sanders would have won in a general election against Trump], but come on — it would’ve been a very different campaign and probably a very different outcome.
When Sanders endorsed Hillary, hundreds of delegates walked out of the convention, in “DemExit.” That certainly indicated that Sanders’s endorsement of Hillary wouldn’t necessarily translate into votes for her from his supporters. A number of friends of mine who were big Bernie people went to Trump. They loved Bernie, but they were never gonna vote for Hillary.
But I think it’s a mistake just to demonize Hillary Clinton. It shouldn’t be individualized. It’s more that the people who run the Democratic Party had the fix in for her early on, and there was a consensus among elites about her as the candidate. Some of the blame for the incredible slide and defection from the Democrats by working class people also has to be laid on Obama. This is a Democratic Party screw up, and now there needs to be some housecleaning.
Results seem to indicate Clinton did poorly among union households when compared to Obama and other recent Democratic candidates. What do you make of that?
I think it’s pretty obviously related to the distrust of her commitment to fair trade and the legacy of her husband’s support for NAFTA.
How do you think labor should respond to Trump’s victory?
First of all, there is no room for tolerating Trump’s racism, bigotry, misogyny, and xenophobia. Whenever and wherever that occurs, union leaders, stewards, activists need to call it out, name it for what it is, and if possible discuss it. As Bernie says, “We’ve come so far; we can’t allow Trump to take us backwards.”
Secondly, we have to shift from name calling to saying, “Alright, Trump is saying this, and this is what that would mean for our members. Is that good or bad?” And respond accordingly. I’d be one to say, “You said you were gonna make America great again. You said you were gonna renegotiate NAFTA. You said you were gonna bring jobs home. You said you were gonna stop the TPP. Let’s see it.”
We have to stay issue-focused, because remember, something like 40 percent of our members — in some cases higher than that — voted for Trump. Of course we need to be talking to those members a lot more, but even more importantly we need to start listening to them.
We don’t want to isolate ourselves from those Trump supporters. They obviously did not “get the memo” from labor leadership. Why not? We should be really concerned about that. Rather than blaming them, we need to get closer to them and bring them closer to us. Clearly what we’ve been doing isn’t working so well. So let’s be sensitive to that and try some new approaches. I think it starts with deeper, one-on-one conversations.
Unions are not like other organizations. The beauty of the union is its diversity — and that’s also its power. We have to be building that class-based unity inside of our own organizations. It’s not something we can take for granted.
It takes a lot of work — there’s nothing in society or in their education that leads working people to a class perspective except their unions. And our unions don’t do a very good job of it because so many leaders are constantly talking about the “middle class” and obscuring the basis of our power. It’s so important to organize in the workplace to build unity around our class interests.
Labor is very much in the crosshairs of this new administration, whether it’s Friedrichs or a national right-to-work bill or an attack on the Railway Labor Act. So we better get battle ready. A lot more solidarity will be needed. And we should anticipate stepped-up attacks on immigrants, people of color, women, and other vulnerable workers. We have to fight back.
Unions will attract members if we are a port in the storm for workers. With the labor market tightening, this will be a good time for union organizing efforts — because where else are workers going to turn to? Who else are they going to call?
You joined the Democratic Party for the first time during these elections. What has the experience been like?
I joined the Democratic Party the day after Bernie announced, because I knew I wanted to go to the convention. You’ve got to be a member of the party to participate in its activities. So I joined, at sixty-two years old, for the first time.
I’ve always known that the party had a lot of influence from business and corporations, but it was eye-opening to see it up close and personal at the convention in Philadelphia. There were corporate logos on everything—the sponsorships, the parties, the materials, the bootie bags, gift things.
And why wouldn’t there be? The Democrats have been delivering on their agenda.
You were heavily involved in the Labor Party effort during the 1990s. But now you’re advocating a different political strategy. Why is that?
I was Labor Party Advocates #9, meaning I was the ninth member to join Labor Party Advocates, the predecessor to the party. And I was an early and ardent advocate, working to build the Massachusetts chapter from the start. Tony Mazzocchi, the former leader of the Labor Party and president of Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union, was my mentor.
He’s probably rolling over in his grave right now. But we achieved more through the Sanders campaign, within the Democratic Party, than in thirty years of my calling for a Labor Party.
I think getting to a genuine working-class party is a lot harder than we thought. In particular, when you come up against the reality of municipal and state-level politics, there’s the daily necessity for union leaders to work with politicians, primarily from the Democratic Party (though sometimes from the Republican Party as well) to get things done, to get your appropriations, to win a contract on some particular building trades job, to pass legislation for safe staffing.
In the day-to-day life of the union, you’re expected to deliver for your members, and to do that, you’re going to have work with incumbent politicians, with Democratic Party politicians. Naturally they will expect you in turn to support them. So what are you supposed to do? Go off and support some third-party candidate who’s going to wreck their chances of winning? Supporting a minor party candidate because they’re perfect and inadvertently electing your worst enemy will certainly piss off your friends.
I think we had that experience in the Labor Party — that once you get down to the grassroots level, real politics is a lot thornier, and a lot more complicated, particularly in the winner-take-all tyranny that we have with our two-party system. Third-party activity is really difficult.
We tried to get around this dilemma by building the Labor Party without doing electoral politics — without nominating or supporting Labor Party candidates, and instead focusing on organizing around issues like single-payer health care and free college tuition. But it was too complicated. People understand politics to be of an electoral nature. That idea of a party without candidates was too confusing for people.
That’s why I’m “Dem-enter.” Bernie’s campaign showed some possibilities in the Democratic Party that frankly I hadn’t envisioned. Part of that has to do with the time we’re in. The party has drifted so far to the right, and become so neoliberal and corporatist that it actually created this opportunity for insurgency. I want to be a part of that insurgency.
Our objective should still be to have a working-class party. The issue is how do you get there? Look at how the Greens did in this election — they maybe picked up ten seats out of 275 races, and Jill Stein didn’t even get close to the 5 percent threshold needed for federal matching funds. I think it shows you how difficult it is to get taken seriously as a third party in a deeply divided country where people don’t want to waste their vote or have their vote help elect their worst nightmare.
It doesn’t look like the Stein vote had much of an impact because it was so pathetically small, but again, people use their votes wisely. If she’d gotten two million votes, or three million votes, everybody would be saying, “You just elected Donald Trump!” And for many well-meaning, progressive people who allied themselves with her politics, some people would probably stop speaking to you. It’d be very divisive in the real world.
The Green Party is so disconnected from movements. I bet if you look at her vote, it wasn’t a vote of feminists or Black Lives Matter or labor or even environmentalists who supported her. It’s not indicative of those movements — it’s disconnected — it’s this every-four-years phenomena. That’s not the way you’re going to build an alternative.
So with all of the problems of building a third party, we might be better off with trying to pursue a party within a party. It’s a strategy that’s been tried and abandoned before. It’s not like it’s an original idea.
I’ve never been a Democrat in the past so I’ve never been a part of it. But look at what was accomplished by Bernie’s campaign in this moment, where the social, economic, and political factors aligned so that issues of inequality and the corruption of politics by Wall Street special interests are at the forefront. Maybe now is a good time to challenge the Democratic Party to be either the party of Wall Street or the party of the people. Let’s see if we can call the question. I’m up for that.
But I know many people are disgusted with the party. I have a friend who’s worked at GE for many years, up in Lynn, Massachusetts, and before that, at a GE plant in Fitchburg. He’s a lifelong union guy, a working-class, gun-toting factory worker. He lives in a little town in Massachusetts called Westminster, and he’s the chair of the Democratic Party there. He was a big Bernie guy.
But after the primary, he was so disgusted with what happened to Bernie that I had to talk him off the cliff of quitting the Democratic Party. I said, “Don’t quit now! I’m just getting into it.” A few months later, he says, “Okay, now I want to be part of taking over the Democratic Party. How are we going to do that?” I said, “Join Our Revolution.”
What about the argument that people make that you can’t reform the Democratic Party, and that this election shows that?
You have to see the incredible progress that we made in the course of the Sanders campaign. Just because we lost doesn’t mean you take your marbles and go play elsewhere. It showed the viability of that strategy.
Yeah, the things that the DNC leadership did were not right and perhaps unethical. But first of all, they got caught. And second of all, while we came close, we have to acknowledge that we lost by 3 million votes. A lot more work is going to be needed to build majority support, especially in communities of color.
Bernie’s inside-the-Democratic Party strategy brought him to the national stage articulating a strong working-class program. I believe his candidacy helped changed the national dialogue in the country for a year. How can you argue with that? I don’t see that as a failure.
One of my favorite things to say is: “every day that Bernie was running, we were winning!” Meaning working people were winning. You get up in the morning — there’s Bernie on the radio. There he is on the debate stage. There he is being quoted. With a very disciplined message, always informed by a strong class perspective on politics. It was so refreshing! So whether he was addressing race, foreign policy, health, or education, he brought a working-class perspective to all the issues.
If you believe that the labor movement, as flawed as it is, and the working class need to be at the center of any progressive initiative, you’re not going to find that constituency anywhere else but in the Democratic Party. The same is true if you believe that people of color, immigrants, gay and lesbian and transgender people, any marginalized people, need to be at the center of the political initiative — that’s where they are. They’re not in the Green Party.
I know a number of labor leaders were mentioned in the emails released by Wikileaks from Clinton campaign chair John Podesta. What did you learn from reading those emails?
The labor movement leadership was so invested in the status quo of the Democratic Party that they didn’t understand the moment we were in. And as the Sanders campaign began to manifest itself in a very robust way, they had to circle their ranks, and try to hold the ground for Hillary.
I thought the emails were very revealing, but there were no real surprises. The only thing is how wrong they were, and how much they missed about the current moment! Getting it so wrong because they are a part of an inside-the-beltway insularity that’s removed from what is really happening in America. To some extent they’ve been seduced to keep making the same excuses that the Democratic Party itself has been making for the devastation — from job loss and declining incomes — in urban and rural America, which made it so that the Democratic Party and Clinton have no credibility because people are so pissed off.
Clearly, if you listen to Trump and Hillary, you come away thinking, “She’s got a program, she’s more intelligent, better qualified,” but a lot of people in this country just didn’t hear it that way. She had no credibility. One would hope that labor leaders would be more in touch, but they’re so bought into the system, and they get so caught up in this inside-the-beltway culture. Part of the problem is that the lack of democracy in many unions means that we get stuck with people in office for decades getting six-figure salaries and comfortable perks. Maybe that’s what leads to losing touch with what’s happening with members on the ground.
What program are you going to fight for in the Democratic Party?
The Democratic Party needs to align itself with a populist, working-class base, rather than with corporate liberals.
The two issues that I see as paramount — and they’re totally linked — are campaign finance and inequality. I think that Bernie really took the inequality issue (thanks to Occupy), and ran with it. He took it into the electoral realm, and he did it with a principled rejection of special interests and corporate money and SuperPACs. I think we need to be looking for Democrats who will do the same thing down-ballot. The $27 average contribution should be a new standard. Candidates, at least within the primary process, should not accept special-interest money.
Second, we need to ask, “How is this particular issue going to contribute to balancing our economy in the interests of working people?” Every policy position, every vote, needs to be judged through the lens of how it addresses inequality. Does it shift power and wealth from the rich to the poor or not?
I would keep those two issues as the focus. I don’t think we’re going to get candidates that want to tax the rich or force developers to create affordable housing unless they’re untethered from corporate funding.
Labor for Bernie built up a significant network during the primaries. What’s the future for the organization?
Labor for Bernie is transitioning to Labor for Our Revolution. We’re working with the six national unions — CWA, ATU, APWU, NNU, ILWU, and UE — that supported Bernie and with Our Revolution to keep that coalition together. It’s hard to imagine being able to sustain something without the support and leadership of some of these unions.
The challenge for Our Revolution is to be something different than MoveOn or Democracy for America, or all the other email-based groups, which focus on sending emails and raising money. Bernie’s got a phenomenal email list, but to make an enduring contribution, we need to build strong grassroots state structures. And for Our Revolution to succeed, labor needs to be a part of those structures, which need to be about something different than just sending emails to people or creating clever websites.
What’s amazing from this last election is that Trump didn’t have much of a ground game, and yet our ground game, which we thought was pretty good, couldn’t match the enthusiasm for Trump. Those people who were “feeling the Trump” came out of the woodwork and surprised everybody. It speaks to the fact that the Internet mailing lists are just insufficient.
So Our Revolution will succeed if we’re able to build state structures that fuse a strong movement base with electoral politics, that turns politics around so that it’s movement-centered rather than candidate-centered. That’s been hard to do in the past because the 501(c)3 structure of so many of movement groups keeps them intentionally siloed and non-electoral. So the challenge for Our Revolution is to express the aspirations of those movements in the electoral arena.
Returning to the primary campaign, I wanted to ask you: did you expect Bernie to do so well?
I don’t think Bernie himself expected to do so well. I remember Bernie doing his listening tour and thinking about running. I was really hoping he would run, because I knew we didn’t want to miss the opportunity to debate issues in the primary process, and I dreaded the idea that Hillary would run unopposed or run only against another centrist Democrat.
From my vantage point in Labor for Bernie and as an activist in Massachusetts, the exponential growth, the huge rallies, the grassroots enthusiasm, the self-organization that occurred, inside of unions and inside of communities — was way more than I ever expected. But then you say to yourself, “Of course, this is what people have been crying out for!” That’s why I say every day Bernie was running, we were winning — because finally our issues were being debated, and people were organizing to make Bernie and these politics viable.
Bernie Sanders was a phenomenon not because he was a brilliant speaker or charismatic leader, but because his message resonated so well with our everyday concerns. What was happening at the grassroots level made his campaign a serious one. So that’s why I get frustrated when people say, “Obviously we shouldn’t do that again — let’s start a new party!” We shouldn’t squander what we’ve just accomplished in the Democratic Party.
There are some real leadership issues in the Democratic Party. Sixteen people competed in the Republican primaries, and you can name a number of them. But you can’t really name that many Democrats who are prepared to lead in the way that Bernie did — Elizabeth Warren, and maybe the Congresspeople who supported his campaign, like Jeff Merkley, the Senator from Oregon), Keith Ellison, the Representative from Minnesota who’s being discussed as a potential DNC chair, and a few others, but they aren’t household names yet. We need a lot more leaders at every level, both organizing and running for office.
We’re definitely going to be challenged now. What was exciting about the Sanders’ moment was the sense of aspiration — of going on offense — of redefining our politics so that we could be achieving things and setting markers for what could be done. I think people were hoping our movement would help set the agenda for Clinton. It’s a bit of a stretch to think we will be setting the agenda for Trump.
It is going to be very tough to sustain that in a Trump world where undoubtedly attacking unions is going to be high on the agenda. And it isn’t pretty for a whole host of issues — everything from NLRB decisions to appointments to the Department of Labor, including their Wage and House people, OSHA, all down the line. And if they can change the Senate rules to do away with the filibuster, then, with a majority in the House and the Senate, and a president ready to sign that stuff, it doesn’t even have to come from Trump.
It feels like a period where we’re gonna have to play defense — and that’s really regrettable. But you know, we passed OSHA under Nixon. It’s a lot about the degree to which we can stand up and fight back.