Why the Labor Movement Needs the Left

Bob Master

A longtime union organizer explains why socialists have a critical role to play in building the labor movement. We should pursue three tasks in unions: encouraging rank-and-file militancy, building an independent political infrastructure, and developing workers’ consciousness.

Hundreds of Verizon workers with the Communications Workers of America (CWA) strike outside of the telecommunications company's Brooklyn offices on April 13, 2016 in New York City. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

Interview by
Dan DiMaggio

Bob Master is the Legislative and Political Director of Communications Workers of America District 1, which represents more than 140,000 workers in New York, New Jersey, and New England — including the Verizon workers who waged a successful forty-nine-day strike in 2016. Bob was also a founder of the New York Working Families Party (WFP) and serves on the executive committee of the national WFP.

Dan DiMaggio, assistant editor at Labor Notes, interviewed Master about his thoughts on the role of the Left in rebuilding the labor movement, based on a talk on a similar topic he gave at a day school organized by the New York City local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).

Dan DiMaggio

I’ve heard you say before that we need to think of the labor movement as a political and ideological project. Could you explain what you mean by that? And, given that fact, what are the tasks of socialists in the labor movement?

Bob Master

My reading of history is that militancy, on its own, has been insufficient to grow the labor movement and to make it a powerful force in American society. The moments when the labor movement really gained economic as well as social and political power were moments when it addressed fundamental political and even moral issues that existed in society.

There was a huge amount of workplace militancy from the 1870s all the way through the early 1920s. For the most part, those uprisings were defeated at the hands of the armed forces of the state — whether it was the local, state, or federal government. In the ’30s, you have an economic crisis that demands that the so-called “labor question” and the issue of mass consumption be addressed on a societal basis. So you have shifts among elite opinion, and you have a shift in the posture of government, so that, for example, the National Guard and federal troops are not available to evict the sit-down strikers in Flint because the New Deal is going in a different direction.

This creates the conditions in which the labor movement can really expand on an explosive scale.

There’s no question that economic uprisings like what took place in the early years of the Depression — especially the movements of the unemployed, the textile strike of 1934, and the general strikes that occurred in Toledo, Minneapolis, and San Francisco that same year — create the conditions that force the passage of the Wagner Act. But without the Act and without the political and ideological changes engendered to some extent by Roosevelt’s second presidential campaign, it’s not clear that we arrive at the exact conditions that were necessary to build the CIO.

My point is that people on the Left need to be attuned to both sides of the equation: to organizing workers to fight the boss, which is the foundation, but also to position the labor movement to be the vehicle through which the broad needs of the working class are expressed, and help to create the kind of ideological, political, even moral conditions that demand a new labor movement.

It’s at least arguable that we are on the verge of a period where that might be happening. The intense focus on economic inequality in the eight years since Occupy, and the success of the Sanders campaign three years ago — and its translation now into the elections of people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and so on — has created a sense that only an organized working class can truly address the rampant inequality that has characterized the neoliberal era.

I also think this is why the efforts of unions like the Chicago Teachers Union and the United Teachers of Los Angeles to frame their bargaining demands as being not just about the needs of their members, but about the interests of students and parents, is so critical. The whole project of “bargaining for the common good” is about attempting to align the labor movement with the interests of the working class as a whole, rather than just negotiating over the short-term interests of dues-paying members.

Dan DiMaggio

Could you elaborate on the importance of having a left in the labor movement? I’m not sure that many people who are newly radicalized really understand the internal politics of the labor movement or the contradictions — and, given these, why the Left is so important.

Bob Master

The place to start is by unpacking some of the contradictions that, in my experience, lie at the heart of the of the labor movement.

On the one hand, building unions can be an incredibly radical, liberatory experience for workers. In Ron Schatz’s book The Electrical Workers, there’s a passage where he describes how workers at Westinghouse or GE in the 1930s experienced the coming of the grievance procedure. Before the union was established the foremen treated the workers with utter contempt: forced them to shovel their snow in the winter, arbitrarily handed out shifts based on favoritism, even demanded dates with the workers’ daughters as the price of not abusing people on the job.

Essentially, what Schatz reports is that once they had a union, the workers said, “We could finally tell the foreman to go fuck himself — we were no longer being treated like shit.”

In terms of people’s day-to-day experience, that’s an incredible transformation. Not to mention the fact that unions have lifted tens of millions of people out of abject poverty and created safer workplaces — although at many times those benefits were distributed unequally, based on race and ethnic divisions.

But once collective bargaining is institutionalized, the imperatives of negotiating a new contract every three years focuses labor leaders on just that side of the equation. You get to the point where you want — and actually in some ways need — a stable, working relationship with management that enables you to continue to secure the benefits of the contract for the people that you represent.

The people that you represent become your day-to-day preoccupation. And this produces a kind of narrow sectoral mentality. If the rank and file or the leadership have no ideological awareness that, at the end of the day, workers will always be screwed under capitalism, and that the workers you represent are part of a larger class — and if that class is being driven down into the dust, you cannot continue to effectively represent your members — then narrowness has a tendency to win. Without an ideological framework, the tendency of the labor leader is to essentially focus on their own narrow section of membership that they are going to get reelected by, to be perfectly blunt.

When I gave the talk, I had just read this fifty-year-old essay by Perry Anderson, called “The Limits and Possibilities of Trade Union Action.” The point that he makes very clearly is that unions are not revolutionary organizations. Unions are the indispensable organizations of the working class under capitalism, and represent the interests of workers in the capitalist system. But they are not set up to challenge the fundamental features of capitalism.

The question is: How do workers and labor leaders maximize the role of the labor movement and the current trade union membership in fighting for social justice in society? That is not a question that necessarily occurs to trade union leaders. Without a left analysis, the connection between making the world a better place and getting your own members good jobs is broken.

Dan DiMaggio

Can you talk about some of the achievements of left-led unions, and how that distinguishes them from other unions?

Bob Master

After the DSA talk, I did a bunch of reading about whether the left-led unions in the ’30s and ’40s had a record of work that distinguished them from the rest of the CIO. Particularly on questions of racism and social and economic  planning, unions like the Food and Tobacco Workers, the UE, and the Packinghouse Workers did behave differently because they had progressive leadership.

At that point, the question of whether the labor movement was going to accept Jim Crow in the South and racial discrimination across the country, or fight it, was of paramount importance. As of the mid-1930s, there were still something like forty AFL unions that limited membership to whites only.

So when the CIO comes and says, with all its limitations, “We can’t win unless we organize everybody in the shop, regardless of their skin color,” this is an incredible breakthrough.

Then you look at the record of unions like the Food and Tobacco Workers at the tobacco factories in Winston-Salem and the Packinghouse Workers in places like Iowa, which adopted proactive, educational programs to take on racism inside the ranks and to foster involvement in the civil rights movement. The CIO was not a panacea; blacks often remained confined to the dirtiest, most dangerous, and lowest-paying jobs in many industries. But industrial unionism, with its necessarily multiracial character, was a major step forward.

There is a similar dynamic right now on the question of climate. If you are a progressive trade unionist, you have to start grappling with how the labor movement is going to address the climate crisis, because you have a view that capitalism is in the process of destroying the habitability of the planet. It’s super hard, because we’ve got an agenda as long as our arms on issues of more immediate concern to the day-to-day lives of our members right now. Most of the labor movement just kind of wishes that the issue would go away, or, at its worst, just focuses on the way any kind of transition would deprive their members of jobs.

So I think to be an effective trade unionist requires a political perspective.

Dan DiMaggio

In your talk to the DSA, you focused on three tasks for socialists in the labor movement: encouraging rank-and-file militancy, building an independent political infrastructure, and developing workers’ consciousness. What’s so important about these tasks for socialists in labor?

Bob Master

The bedrock of effective unionism is a willingness and a capacity to fight the boss. That’s what makes the union relevant to members. That’s what makes them value the union. And of course, this willingness to fight must extend to organizing the unorganized as well. Expanding collective bargaining rights is central to any agenda of the Left.

We have certainly seen unions which simply go through the motions and don’t really have a militant approach at the bargaining table. Workers end up feeling like, “Why the hell am I paying dues to these people? What good is it for me?”

The flip side of that is — and I’m very proud of this tradition in the CWA — that when you are willing to go on strike every three years or every six years or every nine years, or whatever it is, and you are willing to challenge the boss, people’s appreciation for and love for the union and the role it plays in their lives is much, much deeper. Not to mention the fact that if you’re effective, you win things and people look at their contract and say, “I wouldn’t have any of this if it weren’t for the union.”

You cannot have an effective labor movement that just rolls over.

From 1950 to 1980, there were an average of 350 large strikes a year. Then after PATCO, it just falls off the cliff — there was a 96 percent drop in the number of large strikes from 1980 to 2017 — until last year, when we had the most workers on strike since 1986. This undermines our ability to win for our members and undermines the likelihood of engendering militant trade union consciousness.

So one critical task for leftists or socialists in the labor movement is to help their unions develop the capacity to wage effective fights, whether as a rank and filer or staffer or in leadership. In this regard, the Left really does have a particular role to play. We bring expertise and commitment that isn’t automatically present.

Dan DiMaggio

Can you talk more about what it means to build unions that are capable of fighting the boss, including building strike capacity? Can you talk more about what CWA has done?

Bob Master

It starts with a commitment to the kind of systematic one-on-one organizing that is required to build workplace organization. We saw this in CWA in the AT&T Mobility battle that took place in 2017. We went from a situation where we had 10 or 15 percent of members’ names on an email and cell phone list to where we had 70 or 80 percent of the members on those lists, which meant we could communicate with them. And we eventually built the capacity to pull off a three-day strike in the spring of 2017.

This is not that different from the role played by the Left in organizing the CIO (and that the Left must play today in new organizing). There were tens of thousands of militant workers who weren’t necessarily leftists who helped to build the CIO, but there’s no question that the commitment of communists, socialists, Trotskyists, Musteites, you name them, was key. Whether it was in the Minneapolis general strike or the Toledo general strike or the San Francisco general strike, the Left played a significant role in the basic job of organizing the working class.

Dan DiMaggio

The second task of socialists that you emphasized is helping develop independent political infrastructure. Can you say a little more about that?

Bob Master

The reality is that we do political action within a very deeply entrenched two-party system with a non-parliamentary, non-proportional representation form of government. Finding ways for workers to express their interests independently and to build independent political power is a central challenge. The role of the Left is to grapple with that because, again, are you creating a political, moral, and social climate in which the values of the labor movement are central to the society?

For CWA, both nationally and at the state level, trying to build organizations like the Working Families Party has been a critical part of our strategy. We believe we need to build our own capacity and develop a clear independent agenda that can be distinguished from the Democrats’ agenda, as a way of building workers’ voices and power in the society.

Unless you are committed to building a progressive workers’ movement, the question of independent politics is not necessarily a question that you’re going to take on. Or it’s not necessarily a question that you’re going to answer by saying, “Yeah, we need something independent of the Democratic Party.” It’s much easier to just say we’re going to do our best in the existing two-party framework.

Dan DiMaggio

It’s interesting that Ocasio-Cortez and these other socialists and progressives in Congress emerged themselves, right? It wasn’t like the labor movement said, “We found somebody to run!”

Should the labor movement be on the lookout more often for people like Ocasio-Cortez or Rashida Tlaib? And should the Left in labor unions be trying to push for endorsements of people like her or Bernie Sanders?

Bob Master

CWA endorsed Bernie Sanders in late 2015 because our members believed very strongly  that this was someone who had spent his whole life fighting for working people and was articulating an agenda that said we need to put workers first and we need to curtail the power of big corporations and wealthy people in our society.

He basically took the message of Occupy Wall Street, which had been his own message in different terms. And our members were like, “We talk about being loyal to the people who are loyal to us, we gotta be with this guy.”

In the primary that year, we saw an opportunity to take a risk and advance a workers’ agenda. And in fact, the Sanders campaign played a major role in transforming the terms of political debate in this country. Those are the kinds of things that the labor movement needs to do more often.

We didn’t endorse Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. There wasn’t a union in New York City that did. You’re constantly making pragmatic decisions about the relationships that you need to have if you’re a union that relies on the government to assist with some of the things that you need for your members — which you do. So you need to have insider relationships. Young radicals need to understand this — the labor movement is more encumbered in terms of preserving those relationships than independent activists who are not answerable to a particular constituency, and there are going to be tensions there.

The labor movement needs to look for those opportunities to advance an independent anti-corporate, pro-worker agenda. And we need to develop that agenda among our members.

Dan DiMaggio

The third role of the Left that you outlined was developing workers’ consciousness. Can you say more about why that falls to the Left?

Bob Master

We live in a society that has been inundated with a right-wing ideology in which so much of the discourse, especially over the last thirty to forty years, has been dominated by an ethos of individualism and entrepreneurialism, and the notion that the market is the only way to solve all the problems of society. These ideas permeate workers’ consciousness very deeply. Under Trump, we’ve also seen the stoking of intense racial and ethnic divisions, and of racism, white nationalism, and xenophobia. A working class that is permeated by that ideology is ill-equipped to build unity and to fight the boss.

We need grassroots worker-education programs. In the case of CWA, these are often led by workers themselves. We’ve developed the “Runaway Inequality” training program that helps members understand the way in which the economy has been financialized over the last thirty years and how Wall Street has become a dominant power in the economy.

We also explicitly address the ways in which race and ethnicity have been used to divide the working class and the tenacity of racism and xenophobia throughout American history. And we take on racism directly in our national  “Fight Forward” training program. There are a number of other unions which are also developing participatory education programs that give people an opportunity to address these questions.

Members are incredibly responsive to these kinds of trainings. We’ve got a group of deeply committed rank-and-file trainers, who believe in the importance of conducting these trainings at the rank-and-file level, of giving people a better sense of how the system has been rigged against workers and why and how, and how race and xenophobia play into reinforcing the power of the boss.

There was a time, in the pre-CIO period, when the Brookwood Labor College and the Highlander School conducted programs like this to develop workers — not just their skills, but also their ideological perspective, to create a cadre of leadership who would go on to organize workers in the ’30s. When the labor movement became more established, especially as the Cold War took hold in the ’50s, labor education became almost entirely focused on skills — not on organizing skills so much as on contract administration, collective bargaining, the grievance procedure, how to conduct an arbitration, and so on. The notion that there ought to be an ideological component to worker education was set aside.

We’ve gotten to the point of crisis in the labor movement where people are beginning to recognize that if we don’t have a cadre of workers who really understand the origins of the crisis and the dynamics of the economy and the dynamics of how power is structured in the society, then we won’t have the resources that we need to make real change.

Dan DiMaggio

What can the actually existing labor movement do to be ready for a potential moment of upsurge?

Bob Master

The question is, how do you train people to take more risks? I say that with a high degree of self-criticism because I feel like — even for someone like me who has tried to pursue a radical path in the labor movement — the longer you hang around, the more you become embedded in a set of relationships that are institutionalized, and there’s a lot of pressure not to rock the boat. Maybe to some extent it’s a generational shift. Younger people are more willing to take risks than older people and more optimistic because they’ve seen less in the way of setbacks.

I do think there’s something to learn from the hard-earned experiences that we in the older generations have, and to remember that there was a late ’60s, early ’70s upsurge of militancy that is almost unimaginable for young people today — hundreds of major strikes, millions of workers in motion — that within ten years was transformed into the Reagan backlash and the so called Reagan Democrats, the white working class abandons the Democratic Party and so on. On the other hand, youthful optimism is critical to rebuilding any social movement. So I think that people like me need to start getting out of the way and helping to develop a new generation of young leaders.

Dan DiMaggio

What advice would you have for young people who are interested in getting involved in labor movement or helping workers organize?

Bob Master

The best advice I ever got was from a guy that I became friends with in the ’80s, who had been the chairman of the Michigan Communist Party and fought in the Spanish Civil War.   He said to me, “Go somewhere and stay there.” Get a job and stay and build roots, because it’s about the relationships and capacity you build from a long-term commitment. He said take a job in a workplace or take a job as a staffer, but make a long-term commitment. That advice proved very prescient for me.

People need to dig in and study the experiences of people who went before. There was a whole generation of people who went into the labor movement as leftists and had some impact. We didn’t have the impact that we hoped to have forty years ago. And we couldn’t have predicted the powerful forces of globalization, deindustrialization, and financialization that reshaped the landscape in which we were working.

Another thing young people have to be aware of is that none of these questions are new. Go back and look at Marx’s writing, either in resolutions or letters he wrote when he was involved with the International Working Men’s Association. Over 150 years ago, he was saying that trade unionists have to have a broad view supporting the interests of all the workers and not have a narrow view of trade unionism. You can look at What Is to Be Done?, where Lenin says that any run-of-the-mill English trade union bureaucrat will be concerned with wages and working conditions — it’s the awareness of socialists that they have to fight against tyranny in all of its forms, meaning we have to be political, and that has to come from the radicals.

It’s worth looking at those debates and understanding them and trying to see what do we understand that’s new or different, and what can we contribute? Rather than thinking that we’ve discovered the trade union bureaucracy, or we’ve discovered economism, or we’ve discovered that trade union consciousness is different than socialist consciousness. There’s a tradition that’s very rich and very instructive, and the younger generation needs to really engage with that.

Dan DiMaggio

You’ve been in the labor movement for forty years now, and obviously there have been tremendous economic and political changes since then, leaving us with a much smaller and weaker movement today. What do the changes in the economy or the weakening of the labor movement mean for us today? Do they change the role of the left fundamentally in any way?

Bob Master

My career has essentially spanned the collapse of the New Deal and the triumph of neoliberalism. It was a bad period to be a labor activist. My career started with the defeat of labor law reform in 1978 and it’s been all downhill ever since.

In spite of all that, I have maintained a belief that, in some way, shape, or form, workers inevitably resist the destruction of their livelihoods and wages and working conditions. It’s a blind faith — although, when you watch things like the red-state teachers’ strikes, you realize that workers still have an enormous capacity to fight in creative ways that, essentially, are unpredictable. I mean, who would have expected those things? I’m certainly not predicting that we’re on the verge of another upsurge. I’ve seen too much evidence to contradict that. But I do believe that workers need unions and that at some point we’ll see a turnaround. That’s what the Left needs to build toward.