Interview with Alan Benjamin

Labor’s Resurgence and the Fight for Independent Working-Class Politics Today

[Note: Following are brief excerpts from an interview published by Tribune des Travailleurs, the weekly newspaper of the Democratic Independent Workers Party of France (POID), with Alan Benjamin, member of the Editorial Board of The Organizer newspaper.]

Question: There has been considerable talk in recent months about a resurgence of the labor movement in the United States. Could you tell us about this?

Alan Benjamin: No doubt about it: Labor is rising. In February 2018, a teachers’ strike wave erupted in the “red [Republican] states” of West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona — all “right-to-work” states where public-sector strikes are illegal. Teachers walked off the job — with overwhelming parent and community support — to demand not only higher wages and improved conditions for teachers, but more funding for public education and an end to the privatization/charter school dismantling of public schools.

In most of these “red states” the teachers won their demands. The “Red State Revolt” inspired similar strikes among unions nationwide: In May, more than 50,000 workers on 10 University of California campuses went out on strike for improved wages and conditions. The nurses organized by the California Nurses Association walked off the job in a sympathy strike, in defiance of the NLRB’s ban on sympathy strikes.

The ruling-class counter-offensive was swift. On June 27, 2018, during the same time that the labor movement was being invigorated by these victories, the Supreme Court issued a ruling in the Janus v. AFSCME case that rendered fair-share fees illegal for public-sector workers, thus dealing a huge blow to the ability of unions to finance their activities through membership dues. The bosses’ goal, relayed by the court, was to smash the trade union movement once and for all.

But this ruling did not deter the teachers and other unionists from deepening their fightback. If anything, it awakened a sleeping giant. Union members learned from the example of the “red states” teachers’ strikes that when workers and their unions exert their collective power, they can prevail. 

In the fall of 2018, more than 7,000 Marriott hotel workers hit the bricks in eight cities across the United States to demand a living wage, an end to outsourcing, and improved working conditions. After a two-month heated battle against the Marriott International, now the largest hotel chain in the world, the hotel workers won most of their demands.

Labor’s resurgence took a further leap forward in the first months of 2019, when tens of thousands of educators in Los Angeles and Oakland, California — a “blue [Democratic] state” —  walked out to demand a fair contract and an end to the charter-school privatization drive imposed by the Democratic Party officials. Their determination to stay out as long as necessary compelled the school administrators and state officials to return to the bargaining table and grant the unions most, though not all, of their demands.

Another clear expression of this new fighting mood in labor was the call by Sara Nelson in January 2019 for a nationwide strike to end the 35-day federal government shutdown — the longest in U.S. history — that had forced 800,000 workers to work without pay and without recourse. Nelson is the president of the Flight Attendants’ union (AFA-CWA). Her call sent alarm signals throughout the halls of power and prompted the immediate lifting of the shutdown by the Trump administration.

This rise in labor militancy, in turn, has buoyed the union organizing efforts in the public sector and in countless other industries — from the ILWU drive to organize Anchor Steam brewery workers in San Francisco, to the BMWE-IBT drive of rail workers on the East Coast, to the Uber drivers in Silicon Valley. Union membership has not declined, as anticipated; it has increased.

In another sign of the changing times within the house of labor, one of the traditionally conservative unions — the Painters and Allied Trades union (IUPAT) — voted at its national convention in August a resolution that condemns both the ICE raids and deportation of 680 immigrant poultry workers in Mississippi and the racist killings of Latino workers and their families in El Paso, Texas. 

The IUPAT resolution states, in part: “The ICE raids and the white-supremacist attack that killed 22 people are both acts of terror against working people. In the labor movement, we know that racial solidarity and class struggle solidarity is what advances the rights of all workers in this country. We will not allow any vigilante, politician, government, or boss to divide us.”

Yet another expression of this growing resistance is the expansion within the trade union movement of the Labor Campaign for Single Payer Healthcare. Despite AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka’s failure to support Single Payer, an increasing number of unions are calling for “Single Payer Now!”, and many of the unions are organizing labor-community coalitions to build support for Single-Payer. (Trumka says that we will “ultimately” need such a plan, but in the interim, we need a “transitional approach” that protects the employer-based plans negotiated by unions and the self-funded plans of the craft unions.)

The Southern Workers Assembly, which unites trade union and community organizations across the South, is one such example. The SWA explains its campaign as follows: “The SWA believes that by building a workers-led, Southern movement for Medicare for All (Single Payer) it can help to draw non-union workers into our movement, and build union-workplace organization — through workplace-based committees — across the South.”

Question: Has this labor resurgence extended into the political arena, and if so what form has it taken?

Benjamin: Yes it has. The forms it has taken are multiple, but one of the most significant, in my opinion, is the launching by Bernie Sanders during his election campaign of the Workplace Democracy Act — “a plan aimed at doubling union membership over the next four years.” Mind you, the Democratic Party leadership will do little more than give lip service to this or that plank in the plan, if that, but trade union leaders and activists at all levels have applauded this plan loudly and are already “organizing to make sure it is implemented,” to quote a retired South Carolina union official.

Included among its 16 points, the Workplace Democracy Act calls for the following:

* Providing unions the ability to organize through a majority sign-up process, allowing the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to certify a union if it receives the consent of the majority of eligible workers. 

* Enacting “first contract” provisions to ensure that companies cannot prevent a union from forming by denying a first contract.

* Eliminating the “Right to Work for Less,” which has allowed 28 states to pass legislation that impedes drastically the efforts of unions to organize workers.

* Banning companies from ruthlessly exploiting workers by misclassifying them as independent contractors or denying them overtime by falsely calling them a “supervisor.”

* Giving federal workers the right to strike.

* Denying federal contracts to employers that pay poverty wages, outsource jobs overseas, engage in union busting, deny good benefits and pay CEOs outrageous compensation packages.

* Banning the permanent replacement of striking workers.

* Protecting workers’ pensions.

* Stopping corporations from forcing workers to attend mandatory anti-union meetings as a condition of continued employment.

* Allowing for secondary boycotts. The plan reinstates a union’s freedom of speech to take action to pressure clients and suppliers of companies opposing unions.

These demands are what the labor movement has been fighting for since the end of World War II — to no avail. No politician has lumped them all together in one plan, as Sanders has done. But this poses the $64,000 question: How will this Workplace Democracy Act see the light of day?

When Bill Clinton was in office, he enacted NAFTA, the anti-labor “free trade” agreement that accelerated the massive flight of union-scale jobs to low-wage sweatshops, or maquiladoras, south of the border. The Democrats controlled both houses of Congress at the beginning of Barack Obama’s first term in office. Obama had campaigned across the nation’s Rust Belt for the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would have given unions the ability to organize through a majority sign-up process. But Obama buckled under the pressure of the captains of industry and finance, who run and control the Democratic Party just as they control the Republican Party — and EFCA was dropped like a hot potato. 

The same fate awaits the Democratic Workplace Act under whatever candidate, Democrat or Republican, is elected. And you can be sure that Bernie Sanders will not be the Democratic Party nominee in 2020. The party’s establishment, regrouped in the Democratic National Committee, or DNC, rigged the primary against Sanders in 2016 and is already in the process of rigging the primary once again. This includes maintaining super-delegates on the second round of voting to block a Sanders nomination, promoting “progressive” Elizabeth Warren to undermine Sanders and channel his base toward mainstream Democratic Party politics, and modifying the party’s financing rules to sap Sanders’ independent funding sources.

Question: There are thousands of leaders and members of DSA — and thousands of Labor for Bernie activists — who are open to building an independent working-class party but don’t see how to get there from here.

Benjamin: Indeed. These are activists who oppose the ongoing U.S. wars and interventions worldwide and who aspire deeply to full social and economic justice, at home and abroad — goals that are incompatible with the policies of the Democrats and Republicans. The two main presidential contenders in the fall of 2020 will be candidates who ignite wars and will intensify the exploitation of the working class and communities of the oppressed; that is as certain as death and taxes.

To avoid falling prey to the perennial “lesser-evil” political blackmail — this time in the name of “Anybody But Trump” — these activists (and more generally the entire working class) need a “clean-break” perspective to win their pressing demands. And they don’t have to wait until some time in the distant future to get the ball rolling.

There is a new openness to building an independent labor-based political party. This goal was adopted at the 2017 national convention of the AFL-CIO — another expression of the profound movement from below. But it won’t become a reality without a conscious effort today to regroup the partisans of independent politics in coalitions of labor and communities of the oppressed that launch independent working class candidates for office, beginning at the local level, in the November 2020 elections. Building politically independent labor-community coalitions that incorporate Single Payer Healthcare and the Workplace Democracy Act among their primary demands and mobilize around them is the place to start. The union leaders and activists who formed the Labor and Community for an Independent Party (LCIP) are promoting these coalitions as the building blocks of an independent party of labor and the communities of the oppressed.

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