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Monday, February 18, 2019

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet. 

One of the first things Hitler did after his electoral victory in 1933 was ban the trade unions. He understood power dynamics and saw that unions were a threat to his influence over the working masses. Workers with good unions have good jobs and good lives; people with good lives don’t listen to demagogues. The same insight informs the 2016 post-election tweets of key right-wing strategist Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform:

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The right’s obsession with union busting is nothing new; sadly, neither is the Democratic Party’s indifference to it. For 35 years, Democrats have ignored, acquiesced in, even supported the dismantling of the American labor movement. Believing that demography is destiny, big data is strategy, and framing is persuasion, the liberal elite cast off the working class. As a result, our nation and the world now face an era of unprecedented danger. Never before has a single party had as much decision-making power: control of the executive, legislative, and, soon, judicial branches of government at the federal and local level. And that single party is not mainstream: It is extremist.

Twentieth-century century fascism and Donald J. Trump attained power as false populists, their “populism” anti-union in the literal sense, for while decrying the elite, they actually turned the rank-and-file not against bosses and bankers but against one another. Of course, like democracy itself, unions are complicated and flawed. Yet we’ve found no better system for running a country than democracy, and no better mechanism for ensuring good lives for its working class than unions. It’s time we finally learned the two are inseparable. Without basic economic justice to underpin it, democracy cannot thrive, or survive.

Union organizers and the millions of workers who have fought to unionize have long experience with the kind of campaign that just put Donald J. Trump in the White House. Today, an employer who wants to stop employees organizing to better their lives hires an outside firm from a sector called the union avoidance industry. The tactics of Steve Bannon, Breitbart News mastermind, Trump campaign CEO, and now White House chief strategist, are taken from union avoidance professionals: sow division, fear, and futility. Racism, misogyny, appeals to competitive individualism, and bold lies are the chosen weapons. For 30 years, those tactics have helped union busters win most fights. Yet against that post-Reagan tide and very stiff odds, some unions have pulled off true victories. Understanding how is key to rebuilding a strong working class and political movement, and getting out of the mess we’re in now.

Two things need to be done in the workplace fight and our national fight to build successful labor and progressive political movements. Workers and voters who have been divided must unite. And they must unite under their own organic leadership.

The original division among the U.S. working class—between paid laborers and slaves—has left the deepest, most powerful imprint on relations between workers today. When I am helping workers win family-supporting wages, good health care, and the right to retire, I make one thing crystal clear to all of them: The employer doesn’t need any of you, but he does need all of you, and the sooner you make a plan to unite, the faster you will win the changes you seek. While helping workers organize, I have had to spend plenty of time defusing racism, in real live fights, in the heat of the moment. When white workers complain of colleagues, “Why don’t they just talk English?” I ask, “When’s the last time you pulled up a chair in the breakroom at lunch and asked them about where they came from and why they came to the U.S.?” When Latino workers say, “Blacks steal when you aren’t looking,” I say, “Funny, the employer says that about you, and do you steal?” For my book, No Shortcuts, Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age, I studied a dozen recent campaigns, mostly union but not just union. In one, in 2008, 5,000 Southern factory workers overcame employer-cultivated hatred between black, Latino, and white workers and formed a union. As it always does, that took deliberate solidarity-building exercises that confronted racism day in and day out to build a broad, populist, working-class movement.

To prevail in a tough fight against union busters who preach Breitbart’s individualist “populism,” experienced organizers practice true populism: identifying natural leaders among the workers themselves, and coaching them to reach out to coworkers who are fearful or skeptical of unions. These “undecideds” won’t converse with just anyone, particularly not with “activists”, who tend to do all of the talking and none of the listening. In each workplace, as in each community, there are natural or organic leaders—ordinary, not elite, people of high intelligence who have the trust of their peers—who seek them out for help, advice, and more.

These natural, organic leaders can be trained to engage undecided coworkers and help them see that their problems at work must be solved by collective, not individual, action. No professional organizer or activist, no matter how passionate, can match these leaders’ power to persuade and lead in a hard fight—because their co-workers already look to them for leadership–and yet most organizing campaigns use the professionals and leave the rank-and-file leaders on the sidelines.

Like the labor movement, progressive politics in the U.S. is driven by hired activists, not organic leaders. And so we’ve lost. Trump’s working-class votes were mobilized not just by his rhetoric but also through deliberate base expansion by the Christian right, the Tea Party, National Rifle Association, and other groups who organized the masses—the base that the unions and the Democrats had written off and allowed to wither.

When I was a young organizer, back in the late 1980s, pollsters were a distant, obscure bunch. By the late 90s, they’d become the chief strategists, with unfettered access to the decision makers in most unions and in the Democratic Party. Frames and messages directed at people quickly replaced face-to-face engagement and one-on-one conversations with people. I sat through sessions where well-known national pollsters instructed union leaders to replace the words “working class” with “middle class,” “workers” with “working families,” and “union” with “associations.” Worker agents were replaced by an army of professional staff trained to “work the message” with a handful of telegenic, carefully selected pro-union worker activists, in turn trained by pollsters to present the narrative.

This rebranding has been a colossal disaster. It can be reversed, but only by returning to back-to-basics classic organizing. The movement doesn’t need advice from pollsters. Organic leaders, trained by skilled organizers, and the rank and file those leaders spring from provide far more accurate information, and have proven over and over they can change the actual facts on the ground, not just the “message”.

Demography is not destiny, and destroying the one institution through which the working class understood and dealt with the world—unions—led us to this moment. There are no shortcuts to rebuilding our base, yet we can take the long road very fast, in a few years, if we choose to do it right.

Jane McAlevey has been an organizer for 25 years spanning union, community, and environmental movements. She is currently a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program. She’s also still actively coaching workers (organizing). Her first book, Raising Expectations and Raising Hell (Verso, 2012) was chosen by The Nation as the “most valuable book of 2012.” Her second book No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age (Oxford University Press) was published last September.

IMAGE: A protester has his sign covered by Trump supporters as GOP candidate Donald Trump spoke at a campaign rally at the Sunset Cove Amphitheater in Boca Raton, Florida, March 13, 2016. REUTERS/Joe Skipper

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7 responses to “We’ve Got Some Big Lessons To Learn From The 2016 Election”

  1. jmprint says:

    The republicans bust the unions, where wages are cushioned and make for a better living, and they, like Romney, close functional businesses and ship the work overseas, so their profit is larger. We get the shaft, have to contend with low wage jobs, and have to take on part time jobs just to survive with basic needs. And then we reward (those that took away our nice wages and retirements) them by giving them the presidency and all on a promise that will not be fulfilled. Trump will give us illusions like pretending that he is bringing jobs back, jobs that never really left or weren’t going anywhere. The only outcome of this republican administration is the rich will become richer, the poor will be slaves and our education system will only educate those with money. Our children will fight his wars, some might make it back, some not totally in tact, when Trumpf is not happy with foreign leaders, that they are not giving him and his businesses what he is demanding. I want my country back, where it prospered when we ALL worked together, for the advancement of ALL, and unfortunately that’s not the republican way.

    • Jon says:

      I have never understood the thinking of non-union workers who support the republican party which consistently acts against their interest. Facts don’t seem to matter to them.

      • jmprint says:

        Funny thing is I know a lot of Union workers that voted for Trump, I don’t understand why?

        • Maybe its because some unions have become as corrupt as the government. People voted for Trump because they wanted to end the power monopolies. Unions are necessary, but when a union can represent all the employees in a class – even though they work for different companies – they have overstepped their purpose, which is to negotiate between ONE employer and its employees.

          • jmprint says:

            “People voted for Trump because they wanted to end the power monopolies.” The irony is that the power monopolies are responsible for Trump being elected. The presidency was bought and paid in full by the Mercers, they were the turning wheels in the Trump win. The Kochs bought and paid in full for the senate and the house, the biggest monoplier, in the US, they own almost everything. Look at the poor Indians, “white man still taking away rights”

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