Labor Fightback Conference

Report to the Saturday Morning Plenary Session, July 22, 2017

by Thomas Bias, National Secretary, Labor Fightback Network

Good morning, sisters and brothers. I suspect that there are a lot of people here who don’t know me. My name is Tom Bias; I’m from the New Jersey State Industrial Union Council, and for the past year I have been National Secretary of the Labor Fightback Network, attempting to fill the very big shoes of one of the great leaders of the labor, peace, and social justice struggles, Jerry Gordon. Jerry made the decision about a year ago to retire from the active role he had been playing for so many years, and he asked me to step into his assignment, about three months before he departed from our midst. The Steering Committee agreed to Jerry’s recommendation. I have taken on the position of National Secretary, but filling Jerry’s shoes is something I will never be able to do. I am reconciled to that, and the Labor Fightback Network is moving forward in new and different ways, which we as a network are thinking and discussing through as we face the new and somewhat unprecedented challenges facing the organized labor movement and the entire working class here in the United States.

For those who are attending their first Labor Fightback Conference, I just want to explain what the Labor Fightback Network is. We are not a union federation, nor are we a political party. We are not really even a coalition. We are activists involved with what I like to call the social-justice wing of the labor movement. That forms the fundamental basis of our unity: we recognize that the labor movement has to be about more than providing jobs for dues-paying members and looking out for their wages, health, and retirement benefits, as important as those things are. We understand that questions regarding the poisoning of our air and water and the warming of our climate are issues which the labor movement must address. So is war. So is racism and police brutality—including the murder of unarmed African-Americans which has with few exceptions gone unpunished. So is sexism and the denial of equal pay to women and even the denial of their right to make their own decision regarding pregnancy. Homophobia and transphobia are sexist attitudes as well, and as such need to be opposed and rejected. I could go on. The best example of the difference between social-justice trade unionism and business unionism is the business unionist AFL-CIO leadership’s shameful decision to give its support to the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline because it provides jobs to some union members. For social-justice trade unionists, such as ourselves in this room, the harm that the pipeline has already done and the catastrophic harm that the pipeline could potentially do to the water supply of the predominantly Native American population near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation is of far greater consequence than the jobs provided to a few members in the construction trades.

As social-justice trade unionists, we reach out to the constituency-based and issue-oriented coalitions outside of organized labor and welcome them here as family, as sisters and brothers in the struggle. The Black, Latino and Latina, Native, and Asian fighters, the feminists, the environmentalists, those fighting for equality and freedom for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer communities, those working for peace and demanding that the United States stop killing people all over the world while trying to make other countries knuckle under to Wall Street’s domination, are part of the same struggle. Your demands are our demands; your struggle is our struggle, and you are a part of the conversation that we will be having today and tomorrow and after we adjourn this conference.
So, during the rest of today and the first half of tomorrow we will be continuing the conversation that we began last night. To the extent that we have resolutions to present, they will be about doing what we can to help working people in different struggles in our own country and other parts of the world, and I doubt if there will be any controversy about them.

We’re not going to pass grand resolutions about the state of the world and debate fine points of theory. There’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s not what we want to do here in Cleveland this weekend. I have to tell you, in my experience, when you get a several dozen people in a room they will agree to almost anything. I could propose a motion for immediate nationalization of the banks under workers’ control, and people would vote overwhelmingly in favor and then cheer when the motion is passed. And of course, it wouldn’t mean a damned thing!

This Labor Fightback Network has got a lot of serious and dedicated people in it, people with genuine leadership authority in the organized labor movement, but we are not in a position to make decisions that will be put into action just on our say-so. We are, however, in a position to have thoroughgoing discussions among ourselves, to share ideas and experiences, and to take new ideas back to our unions, to our community organizations, to whatever groups in which we work. And that is what we intend to do this weekend.

So, I am going to begin the process of discussion which will continue during the workshops and which we will try to tie together on Sunday morning.

I am going to begin with a sober assessment. The election of 2016 should make it very clear that the strategies that we—the social-justice wing of the labor movement—have been using for the past years have not been working. Labor is falling further and further behind; class war is raging, but only the employing class is fighting to win. And make no mistake: they are winning and have been for quite a while. For the labor movement, for working people as a whole, business as usual is no longer an option. If we continue to plug along doing the same thing that we’ve been doing and then applaud ourselves for how well we’re doing it, working families are going to fall further and further behind; Washington’s war machine will continue to wreak havoc throughout the world, and our planet will become increasingly inhospitable to life, including human life.

The election of Donald John Trump as President does not qualitatively change the status of the class war that is being waged against us. Most of us understand quite well that Hillary Rodham Clinton would have been carrying out the same pro–Big Business agenda that the government has been following for decades, had she been elected President. Trump himself is not the issue so much as the up-front, in-your-face, racism, sexism, and xenophobia that he represents. And the problem for us is that a lot of our sister and brother workers bought his bill of goods.

Yes, I have read the analyses that show that the income levels of the Trump voters were higher than those of Clinton voters. I have also seen the statistics that show that a majority of working-class people, both organized and unorganized, did not vote for “the Donald.” People, come on! You know it, and I know it—we all have neighbors, co-workers, and family members who voted for him. I know that it’s not so much the case in the Communities of Color, where people are in the direct line of fire from the racism and xenophobia that Trump has encouraged. But whether a majority of workers did or did not vote for Trump, whether or not working-class people tipped the balance for Trump in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and other states, one thing is indisputable: way more working people voted for Trump than should have, and that’s on us.

The reasons that some working people voted for Trump vary widely. A great many, possibly a majority, voted for him for the same reason that many others voted for Clinton: they considered him a “lesser evil.” Among people whom I know and with whom I have talked, I would say that the majority of Trump voters fall into that category. They dislike Trump, but they disliked Clinton more. And, of course, a great many chose not to vote at all. The labor movement did not offer an alternative to these obviously pro–Big Business candidates, and furthermore, we cannot expect the business unionist officials who wear thousand-dollar suits and play golf with CEOs to provide that alternative. No, this is something that we have to do.

Now I’m going to give you another sober assessment: I don’t have the answer, at least not the whole answer. Forty-five years ago, when I was a very young activist and working for the first time with, among other people, Jerry Gordon, I had all the answers. The problem is that a great many of them were wrong. But there were two answers that I had right, and it was when I was working with Jerry those many years ago that I learned them. They still apply today.

The first is that the only social force that has both the power and the interest to change the world in a positive way, that is to win economic, social, racial, and gender justice, to bring about peace, and to stop the destruction of the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the soil in which our food grows, is the working class. Though other social forces may have the desire and the will to fight for justice and peace, it is only the working class that has the power to do so. I remember so well hearing the words of a Teamster leader from Los Angeles named John T. Williams when I was barely twenty-one years old. He said to us, “When students stand up they arouse the conscience of the nation. When workers sit down, they stop production.”

The other answer, which is related to the first, is that the change that our planet and our human species require can only be brought about by the working people in their massive numbers. The overwhelming numbers of working people need to be brought into united action. We simply have to enter into the field of battle in the class war that has been raging around us, with the strength in our numbers that can change the complexion of the conflict. We can all look about us and see how far we are from being able to do that. The strategy for which Jerry argued for as long as I knew him was mass action, and both the “mass” part and the “action” part are critical.
As I said, I can’t give you a whole grand strategy, but there are two strategic issues that need our attention, and I’m going to use the rest of my time to talk about them. Furthermore, I hope that we all take some time to talk about them in the workshop discussions coming up.

The first is that there is a serious disconnect between the organized labor movement and its elected leadership on the one hand and the great mass of working people on the other. That great mass of working people includes the dues-paying members of our unions. Now, I know that many of you have heard denunciations of the “corrupt labor bureaucracy,” and some of us, including myself, have even done some of that denouncing. I’m not going to do that now. A great many of our elected labor officials are people who are working hard in their positions of responsibility to improve the lives of their members and additionally to change the world for the better. Some of them are in this room. They are working in an often difficult environment, but they are working hard for us and for all working people. But far too often the people they represent don’t even know which union to which they are paying dues, let alone the things for which their union stands. I have seen far too often—and so have you—good union officials speaking at demonstrations for peace, for the environment, for racial justice, or whatever good cause you can name, and very few, if any, of their union’s members are present. You can be sure that the disconnect of which I speak was a serious factor in the working-class vote for Trump in the last election.
Let’s understand something: the power of labor is in precisely that massive membership. We make the country run: we drive the buses and subway trains; we stock the supermarket shelves; we refine crude oil into gasoline and heating oil; some of us even convert information to ink on paper to tell you what your medicine is doing to you or where your retirement money is invested. If we stop working, the whole country shuts down. But that isn’t going to happen because organized labor leaders call for it. The AFL-CIO could pass a resolution for a massive general strike, and that is no guarantee that it would happen, not the way things are now. That disconnect has to be overcome if we are going to progress and be in a position to dare to use the power that we have been sitting on for years.

I am not the first to call attention to this problem: Michael Moore has done so eloquently for over twenty years. So has Jim Hightower. Others have done so as well. But the solution remains out of reach, and this, also, is on us. We have to think this out and suggest ways—and there will be many ways—to address the disconnect and overcome it. As activists, we need to think out how we can be involved with the non-activist working people and begin to have an influence on their thought and action. We have to be there, and it may mean stepping out of our comfort zones. One of the things that Jim Hightower and Michael Moore have talked about is involvement in the religious institutions of our communities. We have scheduled a workshop here on reaching out to the faith communities, and I hope a lot of you will choose to attend that one. It’s a complex question, with a lot of challenges, and no simple answers, so let’s sit down and talk about it. Another very simple thing: we all have extended families. I’m sure that a lot of you here have found, as I have, that some of our cousins, brothers- or sisters-in-law—or even brothers or sisters and of course that crazy uncle who drinks too much—voted for Trump. Some others of them may be strongly against Trump, but don’t have an idea of what to do. In both cases, rather than walk away or keep quiet—or, worse, get upset and get into a shouting match with them—think about how to listen to them, hear exactly what they are saying and not saying, and give a respectful response to which they might listen and consider.

Some of us have even in strike solidarity situations run into working people who buy into Trump’s nonsense. The challenge we face is how to respond in a way that builds a united struggle, a winning struggle. If we face the challenge successfully, we will earn respect and serious consideration of the alternatives that we offer. We need to talk about that this weekend.

The second thing I want to raise here is the question of political alternatives to the rather hopeless choice we were given in the 2016 elections. I have heard it said that if Senator Bernie Sanders had won the Democratic party’s nomination that he would have been elected President, and it might not even have been close. That may very well be true. Clearly, the American voters, including working-class voters, were sick to death of business as usual and were looking for a change. The one thing that Hillary Clinton did not offer was any kind of change, and she pretty much said so. Sanders and Trump, much more so than his Republican rivals, understood the people’s desire for change, and they attempted to capitalize on it. Sanders failed. Trump succeeded.

I don’t have time for a full-scale analysis of the positives and negatives of the Sanders campaign, except to say that it took place within the framework of big business–dominated politics, which limited the extent to which he could raise the issues which resonate with working people. Worse than that, however, is that the Democratic party is not democratic, and Sanders ran smack into the Democratic Leadership Council patronage machine, which had stacked the deck against him, as Hillary Clinton’s, John Podesta’s, and Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s leaked e-mails so dramatically prove. People, this is nothing new! I worked extensively in the Democratic party when I was a high-school student and in my freshman year of college, when I went to New Hampshire to campaign for Eugene McCarthy. I saw with my own eyes what the Democratic party is and how its decisions are made, and in 1968 I walked away from it. From that day to this I have not looked back.

What alternative to the perpetual lesser-evil choices can we build? That’s another thing we need to talk about. We have people at this conference who are not just talking about it, but are doing it. We have brothers and sisters from the Green party and from an independent initiative in the Black community of Baltimore, Maryland—where I lived when I was learning my lessons about the Democratic party a half century ago. We heard some of their ideas and experiences last evening, and we’ll continue to talk about them today.

Just speaking for myself, I have voted for the Green party in every election for twenty years. I plan to vote Green in this year’s election for Governor of New Jersey, for Seth Kaper-Dale, who is a church pastor and a fighter for justice here on this earth. His campaign slogan is “The last shall be first,” and you’re going to be hearing a lot more about him in the months ahead. So welcome, Green party sisters and brothers. I will just take the Greens as an example, but it could be applied to many other electoral initiatives, including the successful campaign to elect Socialist Alternative’s Kshama Sawant as a city councilwoman in Seattle, Washington.

These political initiatives—by necessity—are self-appointed: that is, people who have ideas on public policy about things like healthcare, economic justice, peace, the environment, get together and talk about an election campaign for a particular office or offices. They have no other choice: the labor movement is at this time completely committed to electing Democrats. People can go to the Socialist Party USA, which has elected Pat Noble to the school board in Red Bank, New Jersey; to Socialist Alternative, as I mentioned, to the Greens, or to different local initiatives. And frankly, that is all to the good. Those are steps along the way. But we need an electoral alternative that working people in their massive numbers will identify as “ours,” that is, a labor party coming out of the organized labor movement that also includes those community-based coalitions which are fighting against racism and police brutality, against environmental destruction, against denial of women’s and LGBTQ people’s rights.

In short, we need a social-justice labor party. We don’t have one, and it will take the hard work of all of us to build one. And let me be as clear as I can be: the Greens, the socialists, the independent local political activists, are all part of the process, part of the conversation. We can’t prejudge how the process will unfold, and how we will go from where we are now to where we want to be, but I do know that building the alternative political force that we need will require addressing the big disconnect of which I spoke earlier. In order for us to build the labor-community political alternative that is required, we absolutely must overcome the gap between the activists in the labor and social-justice movements and the great mass of people in whose interests we are working. So in the next two and a half hours or so, let’s share our ideas and experiences. Let’s listen to one another in a smaller-group setting. Let’s keep in mind that we are all in this together, and that our only hope is that we respect each other, learn from each other, teach each other, and continue working together after we sing “Solidarity Forever” and go home tomorrow afternoon. We’ll get together to for a plenary session before dinner to report on our conversations. Thank you, and let’s go to our designated rooms and have those conversations.