Hard Truths and Good Signs for Labor’s Role in Defending Democracy

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Author: Bob Master
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Midterm wins bought organizing time for pro-democracy forces, but MAGA authoritarianism still menaces US politics. In “Pro-democracy Organizing Against Autocracy in the United States,” scholar/activists Erica Chenoweth and Zoe Marks map the threat and steps that could help defeat it. Convergence interviewed the two and will be publishing reflections and responses to the report. Bill Fletcher Jr. got the responses rolling. Here, Bob Master takes a close look at labor’s role in defending democracy. 

In “Pro-democracy Organizing Against Autocracy in the United States,” Erica Chenoweth and Zoe Marks issue a clarion call to progressive and social movement leaders to begin strategizing about how to defeat the authoritarian regime the ascendant faction of the Republican Party seems intent on imposing in this country. The two professors warn that the US is not immune from what they call a global “third wave of autocratization,” and identify key pillars of an effective pro-democracy, anti-authoritarian strategy. The centerpiece of this strategy is the construction of a broad, multiracial, cross-class united front, comprised of a wide range of state, local and national progressive, constituency and movement organizations, which could begin planning a multi-faceted resistance to authoritarianism. 

The authors argue that the labor movement has a crucial role to play in this alliance, including organizing strikes and slow-downs to build “coercive” pressure on an anti-democratic government, should one come to power. But interviews with half a dozen high-ranking current and former union staffers suggest that the US labor movement is largely unprepared for—if not downright skittish about—taking up the question of how to contest a fundamental assault on democracy. Only in states like Texas—where far-right assaults on voting rights, local government autonomy, and educational free speech pose an existential threat to workers’ rights—has the labor movement fully engaged in the struggle to safeguard democracy.  

The reasons for this hesitancy are both structural and ideological.On the structural side, US federalism limits labor’s capacity to mount a national campaign against autocracy. Over the last 40 years, the labor movement has become an increasingly regional institution. Nearly 43% of its 14 million members live in just six incontestably blue states: New York, California, Massachusetts, Illinois, Washington and New Jersey. Another 12.5% live in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Minnesota. As Mike Podhorzer, recently retired as the national AFL-CIO political director, puts it:

“In states with significant union density, with just a few exceptions, MAGA authoritarianism is simply not a problem. In places where unions have always been, and where there are still strong unions, it’s a substantively different nation living under different law. This poses a real spatial problem for the fight against authoritarianism.” 

The consequence of this membership concentration is that there are only a handful of states in which labor is well positioned to play a major role in the fightback against MAGA autocrats. These include Texas, Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin and Georgia, where the labor movement still has hundreds of thousands of members, even if density within each of those state workforces is modest. Among those states, only Ohio has density over 8%, with 12.5% of its workforce still unionized. Texas, Florida and George have density of 5% or less. Labor is significantly stronger in Pennsylvania and Michigan, places where Democrats now exercise considerable power in statehouses but have been battlegrounds in the recent past, and could easily be critical sites of resistance again in the future.  

Ideological and legal obstacles

A combination of ideological and legal factors poses the second hurdle to labor movement participation in the pro-democracy movement. The Taft-Hartley Act criminalized sympathy strikes and secondary boycotts, outlawing key tactics historically utilized by workers to express solidarity across industries and struggles. Further, the New Deal regime of firm-based collective bargaining, battered as it may be after 40 years of employer attacks, still compels most union leaders to prioritize the short-term bread and butter needs of the members who elect them. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of union members don’t see their unions as a vehicle for political action to change the world; instead, they rely on them to deliver job security, higher wages, more generous benefits, better working conditions and a measure of democracy on the job. 

The polarization of members around Trump has compounded this internal tension between politics and representation. In workplaces across the country, the belligerence of MAGA-supporting members has discouraged both rank-and-file union activists and local leaders from engaging with members about legislative and political action. And where they continue to engage, many unions have focused recent political organizing efforts on issues of immediate concern to members’ jobs, rather than taking up broader issues like democracy or climate change. 

Unions defending democracy

Notwithstanding these structural constraints, a number of unions have mounted significant efforts to defend democracy in a variety of contexts. The most important was the organizing coordinated by Podhorzer and the national AFL-CIO beginning in the spring of 2020 to prepare for Trump’s inevitable attack on the legitimacy of the election. The federation and a far-reaching array of allies put in place rapid response capacity to rebuff Election Day poll site intimidation, assembled the legal resources to challenge attacks on mail balloting and the use of drop boxes, as well as attacks on the vote tabulation process, and directed funding to election protection groups at the state and local level. The AFL-CIO and several major affiliates quietly reached out to major employers and the US Chamber of Commerce to amplify elite voices, in a bipartisan fashion, who would speak out to defend the democratic process against MAGA manipulation. 

And as Election Day neared, a union coalition led by UNITE-HERE, SEIU and the AFT organized major “count every vote” demonstrations for the Saturday after Election Day; when the news media declared Biden the victor that morning, those demonstrations erupted into victory celebrations. In Philadelphia, the focal point of labor’s activity because of Pennsylvania’s key role in the electoral vote count, thousands of union members marched in the streets to defend the vote. In addition, unions in some key states mobilized on short notice to both counteract polling place intimidation efforts and post-election efforts to interfere with the vote count. 

“When MAGA goons were showing up in Arizona and Michigan to intimidate voters, the UAW and the State Fed in Michigan recruited members to protect voters,” Podhorzer recalled. “We did the same thing in Arizona.” When Trumpers tried to intimidate the Michigan State Board of Canvassers from routine certification of the election results, labor joined the mobilization to flood the online meeting of the Board and successfully pressure Republican members to accept the outcome. But this coalition never reassembled or regrouped after 2020.

In Texas, the labor movement can’t avoid the ongoing battle to defend democracy.  According to Texas State AFL-CIO President Rick Levy, the far-right leadership of the Texas State Legislature is making a renewed, multi-faceted push to shrink popular democratic rights in the state. Voting rights are under continual attack. MAGA Republicans have escalated their campaign to pre-empt any local authority over employment standards, environmental issues or financial regulation held by Democrat-controlled cities like Houston, Dallas and Austin, thus stripping millions of urban Texans—especially people of color—of fundamental rights to local self-governance. And attacks on tenure, African-American studies, and the rights of transgender students threaten to “strip truth and factual teaching from the class room and reinforce racist and white supremacy teaching on every student in the state,” Levy explained. 

“I don’t know that we frame it as an anti-authoritarian package,” he said. “But it’s what we fight every day.  You look at the things we’re engaged around politically, a vast bucket of it is what I call the fight against autocracy.” And he warns, “This is not a state-by-state process. It’s very nationally coordinated.  People don’t come up with this stuff in Texas. It’s ALEC, and it’s the right wing think tanks, and there has been a national strategy on this for decades, and the Left has not ever figured it out. The form is state but the substance is national.”

Several national unions have a history of engaging around issues of structural democracy. The Communications Workers began mobilizing members against what it calls “democracy blocks” over a decade ago, after seeing overwhelmingly popular issues like taxing the rich and strengthening workers’ rights repeatedly blocked in a Congress paralyzed by a combination of the filibuster, gerrymandering, an overwhelming flood of corporate political donations, and the fundamentally undemocratic structure of the U.S. Senate.

“Ten years ago, we were the only union talking about this, but now it seems like everyone recognizes that our democracy is broken and that the labor movement should be a major part of the coalition for democracy reform,” said Shane Larson, Assistant to the President of CWA. Larson said that CWA is committed to educating its rank and file about the perils of a failing democracy. “Our experience has been that what we’re seeing with the populist backlash, with large segments of the white working class shifting to Trump, it‘s because they don’t understand that the system is broken and they’re lashing out by voting for these authoritarians, who say, ‘elect me I’ll fix it.’ We are trying to give our members the road map and explain that the system is rigged and that’s why we’re not making progress, and that it’s powerful corporate interests which are doing the rigging.”

Teachers’ unions have also been engaged in democracy-related issues for years, because public schools have been in the crosshairs of right-wing attacks on free speech, gender freedom of expression, and the politics of race and history. “It may not be that evident but a lot of the same people who are carrying out the attacks on critical race theory and trans students are also attacking civic education more broadly,” said Leo Casey, assistant to the president of the AFT for democracy issues. 

“We’ve been dealing with a wave of laws in red states directed at academic freedom, dealing with issues of race and targeting trans kids. We’ve been providing support to our state organizations, and to state federations, particularly in Florida and Texas, where teachers could be targeted by the “Don’t Say Gay” laws.” Even so, much like the other unions mentioned here, the AFT is not directly engaged in mobilizing members to confront the broader threat of authoritarianism. In part, that is because aside from states like Texas and Florida, the AFT, like the labor movement as a whole, “tends to be a union of urban areas and blue states,” as Casey put it.

Anti-democratic candidates = bad bosses

My discussions with union staffers turned up a single example of a union which was directly addressing the question of the threat of anti-democratic autocrats with members (though of course there may be others). In the political education program that Los Angeles-based UNITE-HERE Local 11 conducted for its lead activists as part of its ambitious Arizona midterm election canvassing program, the union’s affiliated “Worker Power” c-4 unpacked the anti-democratic politics of election-denying candidates like Kari Lake, Blake Masters and Mark Finchem. For most of the workers who went through the training, many of whom were immigrants from countries ruled by dictators of various stripes, the threat of autocracy in the apparently democratic US seemed remote, recalled Daniel Judt, a Worker Power staffer who coordinated the training. It was an issue most simply hadn’t considered before—after all, they were freely knocking on doors to talk about political candidates, a life-threatening activity in many of their home countries. 

But as the training exposed the anti-democratic views of the Arizona Republican candidates, the picture quickly came into focus for the worker-activists. “The response was ‘oh, these guys are not that hard for us to understand, they just want to be the boss,’” Judt explained:

“The identification between authoritarian political structures and a non-union workplace seemed to be the most effective way to communicate the threat. Instead of bringing democracy into the workplace, these [election-deniers] want to bring an authoritarian workplace structure into the political arena. That was the way we found it most effective to teach, constantly relating the electoral threat and the political threat to a dynamic that they were familiar with in their workplaces.” 

Labor’s limited engagement with the issue of authoritarian political threats suggests that it will take some time and a lot of work before Chenoweth and Marks’ call for “strike actions, go-slows and union organizing” will become “the beating heart of effective coercive resistance” to domestic fascism. In contrast to Europe and Asia, American workers have rarely waged political strikes, especially over the last 75 years. On the other hand, Local 11’s experience with member political training suggests an important next step for labor to undertake–one that is consistent with Chenoweth and Marks’s outline of “immediate infrastructure investments for an anti-authoritarian United Front.” That is, the development and dissemination of a “large-scale popular education and training apparatus with a shared curriculum” that labor and other social movement organizations could use to raise awareness of threats to democracy among their members. All of the labor staffers I spoke to agreed that popular education on this issue is perhaps the most achievable, and most important, first step for labor to take in this fight. 

Labor unions remain the one institution in society where people of widely varying political viewpoints associate for a common purpose that frequently transcends those differences. It is the one institution that has a progressive tradition, mixed though it may be, that includes among its members a sizable contingent of political conservatives. And internal polling continues to show that members see their unions as a trusted source of important information about legislation and politics. MAGA belligerence has undoubtedly shrunk the worker constituency open to their own unions’ political message and has certainly made many of the workplace political discussions that were routine in the past far more unpleasant. Nevertheless, progressives in the labor movement have an obligation to figure out ways of deepening the awareness of members that the threats to American democracy are real. At the same time, labor’s experience in places like Texas suggests that national unions must maximize the resources focused on the fight for democracy in critical battleground states, even if membership numbers in those places are relatively modest. 

Blue states and the Democratic Party

A few changes could help the Chenoweth-Marks report more effectively stimulate discussion within the labor movement on the importance of building a movement against authoritarianism. As a practical matter, a shorter, less dense, less academic version of the report would increase the likelihood of attracting a labor readership. Further, the report raises several issues of importance to labor that invite further strategic investigation. For example, the authors acknowledge that the unique US federal system, in which control over election rules and administration is decentralized to the states, “may mitigate against the consolidation of fascist or authoritarian power in the short term.” 

But the challenges and opportunities opened up by populous blue outposts controlled by (large D and small d) democrats—the very states where labor’s membership is concentrated—go largely unaddressed in the sections of the paper enumerating key tasks of the pro-democracy movement. The existence of pro-democracy state governments in places like New York, California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Washington must become a powerful resource for the movement, and will also distinguish the character of American authoritarianism from the centralized totalitarian control exercised in previous fascist regimes. Labor’s role in the development of blue state resistance must be further explored.

Likewise, the report touches on the “extremely ambivalent relationship” between progressive leaders and the Democratic Party and acknowledges the skepticism of many on the left about creating a “center-left” antifascist coalition. But again, nothing on this critical issue comes up in the section on strategic recommendations. For institutional forces like the labor movement, this is a significant gap. Clearly, at the very least, major national progressive leaders like Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Jeff Merkley, as well as US House leaders from “the Squad” to the Congressional Progressive Caucus, could potentially play a major role in galvanizing millions of ordinary citizens to mobilize against any assault on democracy. 

Bernie’s role in inspiring hundreds of thousands of young people across two presidential campaigns attests to that potential. The labor movement, for better or for worse, has often taken its strategic cues from progressive (and occasionally not so progressive) Democratic Party leaders. Even setting aside the question of how center forces in the Democratic Party might respond to a direct attack on democratic norms, a comprehensive anti-authoritarian strategy requires some level of early engagement with key figures inside the Democratic Party.

Despite these gaps, the Chenoweth-Marks report on the fight for democracy represents an important intervention in a vitally necessary debate, and labor activists, from the rank and file to the leadership level, should engage with it. The prospects for immediate movement-building may be somewhat less promising than they project—though I believe if the right leaders issued a call to convene the kind of “united front’ the authors describe, many major labor leaders would respond positively. Regardless of whether such a call is forthcoming, the authors have opened up a critical debate, and labor must take it seriously.

[Bob Master retired last year after 45 years in the labor movement, the last 36 years with the northeast region of the Communications Workers of America.  At CWA, he served as Assistant to the District One Vice President, with responsibility for overseeing the union's legislative, political and contract mobilization activities from New Jersey to New England. He served as a founding co-chair of the New York State Working Families Party for 20 years, and remains a member of the WFP National Executive Committee.  He is currently an adjunct professor at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies.] 

Source URL: https://portside.org/2023-02-13/hard-truths-and-good-signs-labors-role-defending-democracy