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Not All Labor Actions Aid the Working Class

There can be no successful left project without a rebuilt and revitalized labor movement at its heart. But that doesn’t mean that union militancy serves the interests of the larger working class in every possible context.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders joins striking United Auto Workers union members as they picket at the General Motors Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Plant on September 25, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan. (Bill Pugliano / Getty Images)

Dianne Morales’s mayoral campaign has blown up in the last few weeks over a labor dispute with campaign staff. That’s no great loss for progressive politics in New York City: Morales talked a good progressive game and even snagged the endorsement of the Working Families Party, but her record is wildly inconsistent with what she currently claims to stand for. As Ross Barkan put it, it’s at best an open question which Dianne Morales the city would get if her long-shot campaign succeeded: the one who supported charter schools and said she “probably” supported Andrew Cuomo against Cynthia Nixon in the state gubernatorial primary in 2018, or the one who now claims to stand for an “unapologetically progressive vision for the city.”

But let’s assume her politics are as good as the staffers and volunteers who back her think. If the Morales campaign really had been the best vehicle for achieving desperately needed reforms, would shutting that campaign down a few weeks before the primary have been a good idea? It’s hard to make sense of the views of the staffers who apparently believed both of those things.

Staffers staged a work stoppage weeks before the June 22 New York primary. Morales, whose ham-fisted intransigence surely exacerbated the situation, responded by firing dozens of staffers. She claims that some of their demands violated campaign finance laws.

The most surreal episode in the drama involved a teenager who volunteered with the campaign after school. The shifts the campaign assigned her sometimes ended at 8 p.m. She now says this got her home too late on school nights.

But her open letter on the subject makes it clear that she would have still been allowed to volunteer if she’d declined those shifts — she just worried that she would have risked “not being valued or seen as productive” by the campaign. Her letter claims that Morales should end her campaign on the grounds that, given this treatment of both paid staff and volunteers like herself, a Morales mayoralty would be “nothing short of violence towards marginalized and vulnerable beings.”

All high schoolers can be given a pass for saying and writing ridiculous things — I certainly did at that age. But adult Morales staffers spread the letter and called it a “powerful statement.”

There’s no point in belaboring the absurdity of all of this, and the progressive bona fides of the Morales campaign might be so dubious that none of this mattered very much in the first place. But it is worth stepping back and thinking about a bigger issue. Without denying that campaign workers have legitimate grievances and deserve protection, we can and should acknowledge the obvious truth that working on left electoral campaigns, or any other form of movement organizing, isn’t like working to enrich a capitalist. Tactics that are entirely appropriate in the context of ordinary capitalist workplaces are much harder to justify in contexts like a leftist electoral campaign.

There can be no successful left project without a rebuilt and revitalized labor movement at its heart. But that doesn’t mean that union militancy serves the interests of the larger working class in every possible context.

The Bullet Bernie Dodged in Iowa

On a recent segment for the Hill’s Rising, Ryan Grim reported that something very similar nearly happened within the most important left electoral campaign in recent American history.

In the weeks leading up to the Iowa caucuses in 2020, Bernie Sanders staffers hired for the final push started complaining about the long hours, modest wages, and — crucially — the lack of days off during the all-out effort to convince every possible Bernie supporter to caucus for him. Grim reports that open letters by the staffers were written to campaign management but not sent, plans were discussed to stop entering door-knocking data into databases as a pressure tactic, and a work stoppage was nearly called. Organizers within the campaign argued that they needed to take advantage of their moment of “maximum leverage” by diverting time from organizing Iowans to caucus to organizing campaign staffers to demand days off.

Fortunately for the Sanders campaign, they already had a union. It had been formed early in the campaign, so there was a process set up to handle these disputes. A bargaining unit call was scheduled for a week before the caucus to hash out their strategy. The state’s regional field directors were also part of the union, and so they knew about the brewing uprising. They got organized, too, and came to the call prepared with all of the arguments against a work stoppage and against a public statement denouncing the campaign. A vote was held, and a majority sided with backing down and not making the fight public. A week later, in a scandal-plagued caucus, Sanders won slightly more votes than Buttigieg, but Pete Buttigieg was deemed to have won slightly more delegates. Had a few more people shown up in a few more precincts, even with all the shenanigans, Sanders would have won both the popular vote and the delegate race.

There’s a larger point in Grim’s example. Being a campaign staffer on an insurgent leftist campaign just isn’t an ordinary job. The purpose of the campaigning isn’t to make more money for a corporate overlord — it’s to elect someone like Bernie Sanders who has pledged to fight those corporate overlords.

Most such jobs are over in months or even weeks. When insurgent electoral campaigns and other forms of social movement organizing have the potential to improve the conditions of the working class as a whole, it’s hard to justify a political calculus that subordinates these efforts’ success to staff making demands of the campaign like any group of workers would against a capitalist boss.

None of this to deny that campaign workers have bills to pay or that they deserve protection from abusive bosses, of course. Every worker deserves that. And it’s worth remembering that the Sanders campaign was able to avoid disaster in Iowa because the staffers were unionized, so there was a structure for democratic deliberation about whether to blow up the campaign with a strike. Thankfully, the staffers chose not to after having their complaints heard and addressed.

Workers from the meatpacking plant in Ottumwa came out to cast their votes for Bernie Sanders at a satellite caucus located in their union local’s hall on February 3, 2020. (Daniel Marans / Twitter)

As Grim rightly suggests in the segment, a form of ongoing labor organization for campaign workers more like the Screen Actors Guild (which provides steady representation for actors rather than requiring them to organize a new union for every new movie they work on) could substantially advance these legitimate interests, making campaign work less grindingly brutal, without having to throw a bomb into every left electoral campaign in order to organize a one-off union that will only last for a few months by definition.

But dilemmas are created when militant efforts to advance those limited interests could have real costs for broader working-class interests. If the fig leaf of Mayor Pete’s lead in “state delegate equivalents” hadn’t been available to the media as a way of declaring him the winner of the caucus, would this extra bit of momentum have made a difference later in the campaign? Maybe not. Perhaps Sanders would have been decisively defeated in South Carolina no matter what happened in the earlier states, and in this alternate timeline, Joe Biden still would have won. We’ll never know.

What we can be almost certain of is that, if there had been a strike in Iowa, or if the staffers had even made the contemplated public denunciation a week before the caucus, the Sanders campaign would have ended long before it did in our timeline. That would have also meant an earlier and more decisive end to any prospect for a Sanders presidency, and hence the best possible short-term boost for the movements for Medicare for All, a national living wage, a Green New Deal that would have created many millions of good union jobs, and more pro-worker labor laws throughout American society.

To those leftists who were angered by Grim’s commentary, the calculation seems to be very simple. As democratic socialists, we support militant worker organizing. In fact, we see that as the primary engine for positive social change. Therefore, the application of these tactics in every situation is a good thing, full stop.

The premise is right. But the conclusion is flawed.

“The KKK and Other Grassroots Movements”

I don’t believe unionism is instrumentally valuable if and only if it happens to serve other progressive goals. Working people gaining more power at the workplace is innately progressive. But it doesn’t follow that every conceivable use of militant labor tactics serves the goal of increasing working-class power throughout society.

Police unions are an obvious example. If police brutality sends a striking coal miner to the hospital, do we want it to be easier or harder to fire the cops who did it? Which outcome better serves broader working-class interests?

Similar points could be made about the twenty-six-day trucking strike in 1972 Chile. Cop unions are one thing, you might think, but what would ever justify not supporting a strike by truck drivers? Well, as Seymour Hersh reported two years later in the New York Times, the CIA “heavily subsidized” the organizers of the strike as part of an effort to destabilize Salvador Allende’s democratic socialist government.

Or take a family story about a wildcat strike in an auto factory that I tell in my new book:

My great-grandfather Morris Field was part of the founding leadership of the United Auto Workers (UAW) in the 1930s. He was also a member of Jay Lovestone’s anti-Stalinist splinter faction of the American Communist movement (the Independent Communist Labor League), so great-grandpa’s star had declined in the UAW for predictable reasons by the time the McCarthyite 1950s rolled around . . . In June 1942, a small group of black workers were promoted to jobs previously only held by whites at a Detroit-area Dodge Truck plant. This sparked a racist walkout. The union “at once sent in Morris Field, Assistant Director of the UAW’s Chrysler Division, who bluntly announced that ‘the local will have to accept the negroes.’” Not exactly the St Crispin’s Day Speech, but I still found that line heart-warming to read.

The reason Morris was on the right side of history is that racial prejudice and discrimination are both deeply wrong in their own right and undermine workers’ interests throughout society. Countering such racism is more important to the overall advancement of those interests than honoring the preferences of most of the workforce at one particular job site — especially since those preferences were morally abhorrent.

Similarly, the interests of Chile’s working class (and probably even those particular truck drivers) were hardly well-served by the downfall of Allende and the empowerment of the murderously anti-labor Augusto Pinochet regime. And in the case of police unions, we can make an obvious calculation about the overall impact on other kinds of workers of empowering militaristic and unaccountable police forces.

The point of these examples isn’t to compare the political content of even the most shortsighted action by campaign staffers to these instances of egregiously reactionary labor organizing, of course. They’re not the same. But we can draw out a broader principle about balancing sectional interests with the interests of the whole class.

Bhaskar Sunkara wrote a 2014 essay called “The KKK and Other Grassroots Movements,” in which he pointed out that right-wing movements in places like Venezuela and the Ukraine were combining militant street tactics with social media savvy reminiscent of the Arab Spring. His sober conclusion was that “progressives should be less concerned with how people are organizing and more concerned about who is mobilizing and what they’re fighting for.” The examples we’re considering show that a limited form of this point applies even when the “where” is the workplace.

Labor militancy is intrinsically valuable and progressive. As a general rule, we no more need to evaluate which side to take in every individual strike or union organizing campaign à la carte than nineteenth-century abolitionists would have to agonize about which side to support in every individual battle of the Civil War.

But there are exceptions, however rare, in which prioritizing the sectional interests of some particular group of workers undermines the overall interests of the working class — and the actions should be opposed by fellow workers who rightly prioritize those bigger issues. In these instances, the question posed by the old miners’ song — “Which side are you on?” — can be answered in three syllables: “Not Me. Us.”