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labor Socialists in Unions: Lessons from A Democratic Socialist’s Fifty-Year Adventure

A long-time DSA member and former local-union president, Tambor writes about how his socialist worldview played a role in more than thirty years of union work.

What is a socialist trade-unionist?

Milt Tambor sets out to answer that question in his memoir, A Democratic Socialist’s Fifty-Year Adventure (Fulton Books, 2021). A long-time DSA member and former local-union president, Tambor writes about how his socialist worldview played a role in more than thirty years of union work.

To Tambor, being a socialist and a union activist means not just negotiating higher wages, but empowering workers with the right to help decide employer policies. It means using union power for winning economic and social justice through solidarity with the broader community. And it means challenging union bureaucrats when you think they’re wrong.

Socialists call this “social-movement unionism,” and Tambor’s memoir provides several examples of how union work can be guided by a vision of “a socialist society, a sane society, and a better world.”

Tambor grew up in New York where his favorite movie as a youth was The Adventures of Robin Hood and one of his favorite books was The Grapes of Wrath.

“I identified with the underdog,” he writes –- whether it was the Brooklyn Dodgers or the poor peasants aided by Robin Hood. It was, indeed, a straight route to socialism.

After graduating with a social-work degree from Wayne State University, Tambor worked at Detroit’s Jewish Community Center, but when summarily denied a pay raise, he quit and went to work for the UAW’s Retired Workers Centers, where the staff was represented by American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 1640. The local would grow to represent more than 500 staff members at 15 social service agencies. Elected local president, Tambor led organizing drives and a citywide strike and a sit-in as the union sought control over how resources were allocated to individual agencies by umbrella funders like the United Foundation.

Although elements of elitism and professionalism may sometimes blur the vision of social-service workers to their working-class identity, Tambor writes, hundreds of staff members at Detroit-area agencies like the Boy Scouts, Catholic Social Services, Children’s Aid, and others joined Local 1640. In doing so, they joined a national union that represents a cross-section of the working class, both white-collar and blue-collar: sanitation workers, health-care workers, clerks, firefighters, and others. Tambor learned that social-service agencies can resist unionization as fiercely as private corporations, harassing union supporters and characterizing unions as outside third parties. While they may be nonprofit organizations, he writes, some of their leaders seek to hold on to power as much as do corporate CEOs.

So, drawing on the German model of codetermination, Tambor’s local regularly bargained for worker representation on agency boards, a demand that sometimes succeeded. The struggle to achieve genuine collective bargaining, he writes, became inextricably bound up with board representation. This “aspect of worker control touched my socialist core,” Tambor writes.

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“If board members represented white, middle-class, and corporate interests, how could they be expected to relate to the needs of workers and their union?” he asks. Local 1640 criticized umbrella funder United Community Services for its “failure to address the social and economic problems stemming from” the 1967 Detroit rebellion.

Many readers of his book will share the view that union bureaucracies can be too timid in their approach to controversial issues, worried that taking a strong position might alienate some political allies. Tambor takes a different stand. When AFL-CIO President George Meany was giving “unqualified support” to President Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam War policy, Tambor’s local union passed a resolution opposing the war and the Metro Detroit AFL-CIO endorsed an anti-war march in Washington, D.C. Public opposition to the war was growing, and union activists like Tambor helped persuade large parts of the labor movement to get behind the anti-war movement.

Years later, Tambor challenged the AFL-CIO’s International Affairs Department and the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD) for supporting right-wing dictatorships and CIA-backed unions in Central America. He traveled to Nicaragua and El Salvador in a show of solidarity with emerging trade unions that were out of favor with the AFL-CIO, and helped bring speakers from those countries as well as Guatemala to speak at U.S. union meetings.

One aspect of this book that will resonate with many DSAers is the question of electoral politics. Tambor describes how in 1968, after antiwar activists were attacked by Chicago police at the Democratic Party convention, he decided not to vote for Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey, who was running against Republican incumbent Richard Nixon. He ended up voting for a third party, the Peace and Freedom Party, whose candidate was Eldridge Cleaver.

“As I look back now, fifty years later, I can see how emotions clouded my judgment,” he writes. “My vote for a third-party candidate aided the candidate I most abhorred, Richard Nixon.”

And so, he argues that it was wrong in 2016 for some DSA members to write off the Democratic Party after Hillary Clinton undercut the Bernie Sanders campaign, effectively helping Trump. What’s needed, he says, is an “inside-outside” strategy, mobilizing marches, protests, and street actions, as well as engaging in electoral work both within and without the Democratic Party.

Using this strategy has helped several DSA members get elected to office in Georgia, where Tambor now lives and where he helped reorganize the Atlanta DSA chapter. He points to the success of Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, who, along with other DSA members like Rashda Tlaib in Michigan, have been elected to office.

With the surge of new, younger members who have pushed DSA membership to nearly 100,000, Tambor, now in his eighth decade, no longer feels “like a solitary long-distance runner.” Younger members are in a relay race, he says, and he remains hopeful that they’ll use their stamina and strength to cross the finish line.

A Democratic Socialist’s Fifty-Year Adventure is published by Fulton Books and costs $14.95 in paperback or $9.95 on Kindle. It is available at bookstores and on-line booksellers, including Powells Books (using the portal will direct 7.9 percent of your purchase price to the strike fund of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which represents Powells workers.) Tambor says any royalties paid to him will be donated to DSA once his publishing costs are met.