The North American Solidarity Project, a joint project of UE and Unifor, Canada’s largest private-sector union, held a high-level study group meeting on union political action in March. Leaders and staff from both unions discussed the challenges of independent, working-class political action in an age of rising right-wing populism and abandonment of workers by the parties that claim to represent working-class interests. They were joined by representatives of National Nurses United, the American Postal Workers Union, Our Revolution and Momentum, the campaign group within the British Labour Party pushing it in a more progressive, democratic and inclusive direction.
Participants in the study group set out to explore the questions, “Where do electoral politics, campaigns and long-term political strategies generally fit into a project to renew and redefine solidarity and worker power? How important and central is a new political strategy to reviving and rebuilding the labor movement?” They started with the agreement that what the way that the labor movement has been doing political action — namely, outsourcing it to political parties — has not been working, and also aimed to identify what was similar and what was different in the U.S., U.K. and Canadian contexts.
Professor Gordon Lafer of the Labor Education and Resource Center at the University of Oregon began the meeting with a presentation about the current political and economic context. He noted that, although many people tend to explain the rise of right-wing populism in their own country as a product of political tendencies unique to that country (for example, explaining the rise of Trump as a consequence of enduring racist attitudes among many in the U.S.), the fact that similar political leaders have gained prominence throughout the world in recent decades strongly suggests that something else is going on. Lafer argued that what we are seeing is an international change in corporate interests.
He explained that the rise in right-wing populism is a response to the exhaustion of “neoliberalism,” the policies of austerity and union-busting unleashed by figures such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1970s and 80s, and consolidated by centrists like Democrat Bill Clinton in the U.S. and “New Labour” leader Tony Blair in the United Kingdom. Working people survived the cuts in real wages and social services by working more hours at more jobs (and with more people in the family working), and by taking on huge amounts of personal debt. These survival strategies are no longer sustainable, resulting in growing inequality across the globe and undermining the legitimacy of governments and elites.
Lafer used the example of the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, as a detailed case study of how corporations write our laws. One quarter of all state legislators are members of ALEC, where they meet three to four times a year with corporate lobbyists to write boilerplate bills to reshape state economies in the interests of corporations. ALEC introduces one thousand bills into state legislatures every year, and on average 200 of them are adopted. ALEC also funds state-level “think tanks” to promote their agenda in state capitols and local media markets.
ALEC’s agenda, Lafer argued, is a corporate agenda, not an ideological one. Talking about the billionaire Koch brothers, he pointed out that their money “is entirely spent on things that promote their business interests. They have never taken a position that conflicted with their business interests.” He also pointed out that the most powerful U.S.-based corporations are now so globalized that they no longer rely on U.S. workers or U.S. consumers, and so what little commitment they might have had to supporting the education or purchasing power of working people in the U.S. has evaporated.
Different National Contexts
In the U.S., labor has always been faced with the dilemma of working with a Democratic Party that has been, at best, a fair-weather friend for working people — a dilemma that led UE and many other unions to invest significant time and energy in the ultimately unsuccessful attempt to build a Labor Party in the 1990s, under the banner “the bosses have two parties, working people need one of our own.”
In Canada and the U.K., by contrast, the labor movement was successful in building social-democratic parties in the 20th century that were able to compete for power, and govern. In the U.K., the Labour party became one of two major parties after World War II, and governed the country alternately with the Conservatives. In Canada, the New Democratic Party (NDP) has been a serious player in Canada’s complex multi-party system, has won elections in many provinces, and is widely credited with the creation of Canada’s single-payer healthcare system, first initiated by a NDP government in the province of Saskatchewan and eventually implemented nationally by a centrist Liberal government.
However, both Labour and the NDP have in recent decades embraced the corporate agenda as enthusiastically as the Democratic Party in the U.S. As a result, in all three countries, parties that are supposed to represent workers are not standing up for working-class interests, and working people are either not voting or settling for right-wing populism, resulting in the election of anti-worker governments.
Study group participants heard direct testimony of what this looks like in the specific context of a Midwestern U.S. state. UE Local 893/IUP Vice President David Betsworth reported how the Republican takeover of all three branches of the Iowa state government in the 2016 elections led to a law that completely eviscerated collective bargaining in the public sector. Local 893, which represents social workers, income maintenance workers and scientists who work for the state, has bargained with both Republican and Democratic administrations for decades, and Betsworth stated that “Democratic governors aren't always our friends either,” noting that the union had had to go to arbitration when Democrat Tom Vilsack was governor, and that Vilsack’s Democratic successor Chet Culver vetoed “fair-share” legislation which would have overturned Iowa’s “right to work” law and strengthened unions.
However, after Wisconsin’s Republican governor Scott Walker led an attack on public-sector unions in that state in 2011, it emboldened Iowa’s Republican governor Terry Branstad, who had been a vocal opponent of Iowa’s public-sector collective bargaining law when it was first passed in 1974. Iowa’s labor movement was able to thwart his plans by holding on to a slim majority in the state senate until the 2016 election.
Unifor’s Area Director for British Columbia, Gavin McGarrigle, described how the right-wing Liberal government in British Columbia, in power since 2001, had initially provoked massive resistance from the labor movement, who put 50,000 people in the streets to oppose Liberal attacks on collective bargaining and healthcare. However, he said, “as the NDP got more seats [in subsequent elections], the labor movement called off the mobilization.” Four years ago, the NDP, running on an uninspiring platform, lost again.
Momentum activist Jo Beardsmore described how, after almost two decades of being governed by Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives, Tony Blair’s “New Labour,” modeled intentionally on the Clinton-era “New Democrats” in the U.S., swept into power. However, they “never tried to win the arguments that had been lost under Thatcherism.
The New Labour government intentionally cut its ties with trade unions and social movements.” The abandonment of the working class culminated in 2003 when the British Labour government joined the Bush government in the disastrous decision to invade Iraq. In 2009, the Conservatives capitalized on the 2008 economic crash, and Labour’s tepid response to it, to narrowly win an election, after which they imposed crushing austerity measures, including devastating cuts to public services, health care and education. The Conservatives have been in power ever since.
Structural Differences Require Different Approaches
Larry Cohen, the Board Chair of Our Revolution and retired president of the Communication Workers of America, emphasized in his presentation on Our Revolution that “structural things are important, and we tend to skip over them” in our discussions of political strategy. The structural differences between the electoral and party systems in the U.S., U.K. and Canada were very much present in the different approaches of Momentum in the U.K., Unifor in Canada, and the U.S. unions and organizations.
Momentum was originally organized to support Jeremy Corbyn, the U.K.’s Bernie Sanders, who was elected party leader in 2015 and has aggressively pushed the party in a more pro-worker direction. Since then, hundreds of thousands of people — especially young people who felt alienated from the political process — have joined the Labour Party, making it the largest mass party in Europe, with over half a million dues-paying members. Momentum’s slogan, “Transform the Labour Party to Transform the World,” nicely summarizes their strategy: turn the Labour Party itself back into a political voice for the working class.
This is possible, in large part, because the British Labour Party is structured as a mass, democratic institution, with direct elections among party members for leadership positions — so young people, activists and trade unionists can actually have a voice within the organization. It is also the second major political party in the country, so has a realistic potential to win a majority and govern.
In Canada, Unifor is rethinking the labor movement’s unquestioning allegiance to the NDP, and instead encouraging its member to engage in “strategic voting.” Shauna Wilcox, the Healthcare Sector Representative on Unifor’s national leadership, described how in her province of Nova Scotia, the Liberal government had passed seven pieces of anti-worker legislation. Unifor’s focus in the recent provincial elections was therefore, “Don't vote for the Liberals.”
Although the Liberals did retain a slim majority, Wilcox said “At the end of the day, we considered it a success. Their majority is very narrow, and the premier has told his party only one person is allowed out of town at a time. We will pick the weakest link and make their lives living hell.”
In British Columbia, Unifor successfully supported the NDP against the Liberals in the most recent provincial elections — but from an independent perspective. Unifor members did campaign work as Unifor members, not as NDP members. “This time,” McGarrigle said, “we wanted to make sure that if the NDP wins, that they win on a class basis.”
And in the most recent national elections, as well as provincial elections in Ontario, Unifor supported the Liberals — who on a national level, and in Ontario, came out as stronger supporters of the working class and trade unions than the NDP. As a result, Canada’s national Liberal government has reversed the anti-worker legislation of the previous Conservative government and pushed to raise labor standards for workers in the U.S., Mexico and Canada during the recent renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Ontario’s Liberal government has enacted a $15/hour minimum wage and the most progressive, pro-worker labor legislation in North America.
On the U.S. side of the border, the presentations from NNU and Our Revolution explored the difficulties and contradictions of working inside the Democratic Party. Cohen described how “Candidates have become the entire political strategy for labor. Candidate-driven political strategy has been a disaster, and we have an addiction; it's like heroin.” However, we cannot just will our way out of the two-party system. “Why are we trapped with two parties? It's structural, not emotional,” and effective labor political action needs to look at the structures that confront us, such as the electoral college, money in politics, and voting rights.
Our Revolution, he said, is “talking very explicitly about building sustainable political organizing within geographic areas, and we need to measure whether we are building power inside and outside the Democratic Party.”
NNU organizers pointed out that, unfortunately, the only “viable” opposition party in the U.S. at this moment is the Democratic Party, so NNU has adopted an “inside-outside strategy.” They noted that campaigns such as the Sanders campaign and campaigns for Medicare For All have brought lots of people into contact with trade unions for the first time. It's often the first time people have experienced collective struggle.
“People aren't alienated from politics, they are alienated from parties and institutions,” said Holly Miller, NNU’s National Director of Public and Community Advocacy. She described how in the Sanders campaign, “All these people who had never been part of a union were turning out to union phone banks. People who were alienated from institutions finally had an institution to turn to.” Sanders delegates didn't go away after the convention, they “had a burning desire to continue to engage in politics” and many people decided to take on the establishment Democratic Party. However, she cautioned that, “electoral politics can smother movements” and “if we would have stuck to an electoral frame in the Bernie campaign we wouldn't be here.”
Similarities and Conclusions
Common to all three presentation was the importance of what Cohen described as “permanent political organization” — the idea that workers need to build ongoing organizations to advance their interests in the political realm. In the U.K., Momentum is working to turn the Labour Party into that kind of permanent political organization by making its structures more welcoming, participatory and democratic. In Canada, Unifor is making a working-class politics, driven by workers’ issues, central to the functioning of their union. And in the U.S., NNU and Our Revolution are using issues like Medicare for All to both change the politics of the Democratic Party but also engage people in organizations, such as Our Revolution groups, that are independent of the Democratic Party.
All presenters also emphasized the importance of having a vision of a different society. Cohen noted that “working-class people have a love for each other that when we find it, we have a sense that it could be our world.” He suggested that independent political action needs to “start with principles that are tied to that” and express those principles through issues, like Medicare for All, that embody working-class solidarity in concrete policies.
Linking issues and campaigns to a broad, transformative vision also generates far more excitement and engagement from the rank and file. Becky Bond, a senior advisor to the Sanders campaign who has also spent time studying Momentum, noted that “people are more likely to do something big to win something big than do something small to win something small.” She also suggested that “people new to politics are key. We are going to have to overwhelm the system, because it is rigged. There is no way to do that without bringing in massive numbers of people.”
Numerous participants also made the point that collective bargaining must remain a central goal and focus of labor political action. Cohen reminded the group that, although the right to bargain has been destroyed for many workers, “We have to teach each other that without rights in the workplace we will have nothing, we will be chasing issues [such as minimum wage increases] for generations and generations.” He also suggested that labor should put sectoral bargaining — where unions in a given economic sector bargain over conditions in that whole sector, as happens in many Western European countries — on its agenda.
Lafer also underscored the importance of organizing and fighting in the workplace. “It's the scariest thing to do personally,” he said, “so for people who are centrally involved, it is transformative in a deep and lasting way.”