A List of Demands? Why “making it plain” is key for movement success.

In the course of my duties as a PhD student here at the University of Alabama, I have had to teach Public Administration. It is not a fun class; the books on the subject are often reactionary in ideology, the material itself is dry, and the specificities of government infrastructure is a bit much for my 200-level students to handle. As most undergrad political science majors do, they want to talk about elections. They want to talk about social movements. They want to talk about the exciting stuff that they see all the powerful people do on MSNBC or FOX or House of Cards.

In that sense, they are no different from their older counterparts. After all, no one is talking about the state legislative races that will determine most of the policies that affect American lives daily; rather we get 24-7 coverage of a presidential race that does not have its first primary contest for another nine months. Yet both groups of people should realize that activism and frontline politics is but one side of the coin; policy and administration is the other.

The Occupy movement took off right as I was entering my PhD program. It was a sight to behold, and the way in which it transformed American political dialogue is something that we will be grappling with for a long time. It used to be that poverty and inequality were framed as personal failings, things that only a hard work ethic can fix. Now you have elected officials like U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) releasing plans for combatting poverty (horrible as they might be) and the same Barack Obama who chastised parents on the campaign trail in 2008 for “getting that cold Popeyes out for breakfast” to feed their children would introduce a program six years later (flawed as that was also) that would dedicate resources to young Black men in urban areas for education.

Yet amidst all the plans and the discussion, we have seen very little in the way of concrete measures aimed at redistributing wealth and closing inequalities. And if you peruse the website of the NYC General Assembly, the organization that kicked off the Occupy movement, it is hard to find anything in the realm of concrete demands. The closest that you will come is their Principles of Solidarity, which is less a list of demands than it is a loose statement of ideologies that underpin the movement. And good luck wading through the fifty documents under the Demands tag, which appear to be little more than minutes from a committee meeting.

As easy as it may be to pin this solely on Occupy, it is not limited to just them. The most concrete proposals to come out of the police slayings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner last summer are to fit every police officer with a body camera. That seems like a good idea until you remember that Eric Garner’s murder was captured on film, in addition to the fact that he was killed in broad daylight on a busy street corner in Staten Island. The rest of the demands from assorted groups are no less ephemeral than Occupy: truth and reconciliation commissions (typically done after any hope for justice is lost, since no one who has been involved in police brutality would ever forgo their right against self-incrimination), Congressional hearings into police abuse (to what end, no one is particularly sure), and more effective community oversight (with a civilian review board? a streamlined complaint system?). One list of demands even calls for President Obama’s administration to “develop, legislate, and enact” a “National Plan For Racial Justice”. Aside from the fact that the President cannot legislate anything, the details of such a plan are largely left to the imagination.

Given all this, it is little wonder why we have not seen any movement on these issues legislatively or administratively.

The opposite side of that coin, of course, is the Fight For 15 movement. What are the demands of this movement? Well, it is right there in the title: fast-food workers are fighting for a minimum wage of $15 per hour, which would bring some of America’s most vulnerable members of the working class to a living wage in most areas of the country. While fast-food workers demanding such a wage would have been thought laughable just a few years ago, the movement has scored successes in Seattle and San Francisco, and Portland, OR has raised its minimum wage for city employees to $15 an hour. Even by those standards, the movement would have been considered one of the more successful ones initiated by the working class and their allied organizations (labor unions such as SEIU have greatly assisted in the Fight For 15 effort) in the last generation.

But it did not stop there. The 2014 elections saw minimum wage increases on the ballots in several states, and some of the ones that voted Yes may surprise you: Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota are on no one’s list of most labor-friendly political environments, and yet those states all voted to increase the minimum wage by substantial margins. In fact, the victories in these states were probably the only highlight in an election that saw Republicans win eleven more state legislative chambers and take back the U.S. Senate. The issue also featured prominently in the last dash to the polls in Chicago’s just-concluded mayoral election, where challenger and Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia has come out in favor of a $15 minimum wage for employees of the city’s public school system, which has been decimated by budget cuts and closings under Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

And as the movement’s day of national action on April 15th draws closer, it has become clear that this is a fight that will endure for quite some time.

There are many factors that go into organizing on different issues, and I am not trying to make the case that there are tight parallels between organizing around law enforcement issues and doing the same with regards to the economy. But Occupy and the protests of police violence have failed to “make it plain” and give people something that they can take into their communities and begin mobilizing for social change. That has to change if we are to see the working class build enough power to dismantle the structures that holds progress back.

American federalism and the case for reevaluating labor’s priorities.

On March 8th, Wisconsin became the 25th state to legalize the open shop. The provision commonly referred to as “right-to-work” by the corporations and right-wing politicians who back it has very little to do with economic freedom and liberty for workers, and everything to do with the destruction of a movement that has given the American economy a tiny measure of democracy. Ever since the 2010 elections that swept Republicans to power across the country, the push to make America an open shop nation has been stronger than at any time since the policy’s genesis in the Jim Crow South. Nineteen state legislatures have seen right-to-work proposals during the 2015 session, a clip similar to the period between 2011-2014, and there is no reason to believe that the pace will be slowing down anytime soon.

In Local Elections and the Politics of Small-Scale Democracy, J. Eric Oliver notes that the people who are most likely to vote in local elections are those who own homes. This makes sense in a way; the homeowner is more directly affected by changes in their land values than those who rent, and are thus more likely to be in tune with the ways in which local government engages in land management. Oliver notes that as land management is the most important function that most local governments provide (since many communities contract their emergency services and utilities to county or regional authorities), it will be the concerns of the homeowner that dominate election issues at the local level.

But another thing that drives the disparity between homeowner turnout and renter turnout in local elections is the gap in outreach to the two groups of people. According to data the author pulled from the National Elections Studies in 2008, homeowners were reported to be 60 percent more likely to have been contacted by a political campaign than renters. Combine that with educational disparities (renters are twice as likely to not have a high school degree), and homeowners are engaged with at a rate at least double that of renters. While Oliver makes the case that low turnout in local elections should not be automatically seen as a delegitimizing force in our democracy, the fact that there are some who are being engaged in the political process and others who are not is something that is deeply troubling. This goes double when you consider that renters are three-and-a-half times more likely to earn under $15,000 a year (the rough estimate of the federal poverty line for a family of two) than homeowners. These stats underline a long-standing contention by political scientists and leftist organizers alike that American democracy is regressing in its responsiveness to working-class concerns.

But the question becomes: how do we change this for the better?

A disengagement from federal politics….

The labor movement has given generously to federal politicians, particularly the Democratic Party. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, well over 90 percent of all donations go to Democratic candidates. In addition to the money spent directly on campaigning, labor unions have spent nearly $428.6 million on lobbying members of Congress on their top issues. What does labor have to show for it? Not the Employee Free Choice Act, despite having the largest Congressional majority in over four decades. Not a public option for Obamacare. Not any kind of deal that will prevent the so-called “Cadillac plan tax” under Obamacare from hitting the health benefits that labor has won through negotiation and struggle. And all the money spent on ensuring that a Democrat remained in the White House did not keep the President from appointing judges and cabinet members who have worked against the working class throughout their careers.

If we could not get decent labor policy during a Democratic bonanza at the federal level, what are we honestly to expect when the party of Scott Walker controls Congress? Maybe we get another Democratic president, but Hillary Clinton ain’t exactly Norma Rae. It is clear that both parties have failed unions and the working class at the national level and that a reassessment of priorities for movement resources is required.

….and a rededication of resources to the local level.

Recent years have brought with them some very encouraging news for the working class in local politics and policymaking. In 2010, local labor unions in New Haven, Connecticut backed city council candidates and defeated candidates backed by the long-serving Mayor (and failed 2006 Democratic gubernatorial candidate) John DeStefano. The year 2013 would be even better: in addition to the election of socialist Kshama Sawant to the Seattle City Council, a slate of independent labor candidates stormed the city council elections in Lorain County, Ohio; in that election, nearly two dozen candidates defeated people backed by the long-dominant Democratic machine in the union-dense county.

But winning the election was not enough; these candidates had to produce once they were in office. And produce they have:

  1. While the Fight For 15 was a movement that predated Sawant’s ascension to the city council, her dogged determination on the issue pushed the council and mayor to an agreement that will bring in a $15 minimum wage for Seattle workers in the next few years
  2. The New Haven councillors crafted an agreement that allowed a charter school into the city, but mandated them to allow the unionization of its employees and the acceptance of disadvantaged children who were not already in one of their schools elsewhere

And in Lorain County, the councillors have simply given an ear to the working class that had not been there before, when the former mayor took it upon himself to break a picket line and do sanitation work for a day. That work can be just as valuable as a concrete policy outcome. Increasing the political efficacy of the working class is what spurs the development of social movements and efforts at an independent political voice in a landscape where common concerns can fall on deaf ears. The capital class knows this all too well, and has seemingly cleared the floor for the advancement of anti-worker policies.

I thought I read that the New Haven effort began as some sort of worker center?

You read correctly.

That is the last plank of this community engagement plan. It has nothing to do with labor unions, of course, as worker centers are barred from engaging in activities that could be seen as preparing workers to join a union. Doing so would bring them under the administrative clutches of the Landrum-Griffin Act, which has odious reporting requirements that often hamstring union organizing budgets. But they should be more than just a means of entry into traditional labor unions, anyway: they should independently act as a means of mobilizing the working class around issues of democracy and economic justice, as well as educating communities about the ways in which capitalism continues to fail them on a regular basis.

Local and state governments are often referred to as the “Laboratory of American Democracy”, and it is not hard to see why: the pilot projects that begin in a neighborhood, city, or county can become national policy under the right circumstances. The dismantling of our national welfare system did not begin with President Clinton in 1996; it began over a decade earlier with Gov. Tommy Thompson’s (R-WI) efforts to change the federal matching system for funding to a block grant system that would severely curb the flexibility of state governments in managing their welfare systems. After a reduction in welfare rolls (but, notably, not a reduction in relative poverty), the program was greenlighted for other governors who wanted to do the same. Eventually, it became federal statute with the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, which is the welfare reform bill that President Clinton signed into law. So it was with this thing that its proponents called “right-to-work” in Florida during the early 1940s. After its passage in a statewide referendum, the policy spread like wildfire across the South and the Great Plains, eventually finding federal backing in the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947, better known to opponents and allies as Taft-Hartley.

With an increased focus on communities and local politics, the labor movement can begin to turn the tide against the right-wing onslaught of the last couple of years. Otherwise we are just waiting for the next catastrophe to take hold.

Whither the Works Council? A critique.

Labor is, God willing, at a turning point in this country. New campaigns have started to infuse fresh energy into a moribund and declining movement, and new models of collective action are being proposed in the course of these ongoing efforts. While the existing NLRB/NMB certification election-contractual bargaining system still functions on paper, in practice it has broken down. Employers do not hesitate when flouting the law while trying to head off a union vote going against them. Even when they lose, bosses are willing to sandbag their workers by refusing to even bother to negotiate, and striking has been gelded as a tactic through injunction and wrongly decided precedent about permanently replacing strikers. While corporate campaigns, which focus on pressuring shareholders and embarrassing companies into acting humanely, have met with some success they have not delivered the kind of widespread worker empowerment that the postwar period did. There’s absolutely no doubt that if workers are going to ultimately make their own destiny that a new model or approach is needed for unions. One that has been proposed, separately by the UAW and by Benjamin Sachs, is the implementation of works councils in the United States.

The works council model is one that is used across Europe, with the most prominent examples being in Germany, although works councils also exist in the United Kingdom, France, and Belgium. There, employees are elected to four-year terms on the works council, where they negotiate the terms of employment and workplace conditions with the employer. In Germany this is enabled through the Works Constitution Act, which was first passed through the Bundestag in 1952 and allows the formation of works councils in any private workplace of at least five people. While the employees who serve on the works council are not required to be in a union, over 77 percent of them are. As such, the works council functions as a strong facilitator of union power in German labor relations, especially in the large auto plants there.

(It should be noted that the works council system is different from a worker cooperative. The chief distinction is that workers in a cooperative have full control over the means of production, while a works council is, essentially, what we would consider to be a labor union bargaining unit in the United States.)

It is imagined in the United States as an unprecedented form of economic democracy. Our conception of a Board of Directors has very little to do with a company’s employees or their demands; rather it is an oligarchy of investors and corporate officers who run our nation’s business apparatus. So the thought of workers getting a say in the dealings of two of our nation’s largest industries, automotive and fast food, is one that is understandably exhilarating for those supportive of the labor movement.

There’s a couple of problems with implementing such a model in the US, though. Firstly, the National Labor Relations Act explicitly bans company unions in Section 8(a)(2). Sachs makes that clear in his piece, saying that implementing a works council model at McDonalds would require significant legal wrangling to avoid being proscribed by Section 8(a)(2), though far more optimistically than we would.

Another big concern is that the works council model could mollify working-class radicalism at a time where it is on the upswing. Few could have predicted that fast-food workers would be engaging in waves of walk-outs with the demand of a $15 an hour minimum wage. Combined with the recent demonstrations against state violence in major cities across the country and the connections between these two movements, working-class organizing might be in a stronger position now than in any other time since mass deindustrialization began in the 1970s.

Furthermore, story after story is raising awareness of how other countries have paid their fast-food workers a living wage and still managed to turn a profit. To turn all of this potential for a paradigm-shifting movement and steer it towards a highly formal and bureaucratic process before any real gains have been secured would seem to be an error. In fact, it could be argued that the bureaucratization of the labor movement is a key part of why it is in such dire straits in modern times. Why voluntarily repeat the errors that got us where we are today for a system that we are not even sure will work in the United States?

Finally, is winning a process that, from its beginning, privileges the interests of management at the same level as the interests of the workers really worth it? Given all of the effort, energy, and time that would get put into organizing works councils, is it a big enough win? Make no mistake, the purpose of works councils is for smooth functioning of commerce at a given employer by addressing the collective concerns of its workers. Whether the emphasis falls on the front half of that statement or the back half in an American implementation of works councils remains up in the air. At a time when labor is frequently discussing things in terms of labor-management partnerships and jointness, will workers’ interests be better served by a system where the union is not even an independent body but rather an organ inside the corporate structure?

Works councils have significant power in Europe and are able to redress major issues for the workers who participate in them. However, they gained this power in the shadow of the Cold War, at a time when capitalism had to show it gave a damn about Western workers lest they fall “victim” to Communism. That threat does not exist now. There is no indication that the works councils that are being proposed would be able to address the larger problems that the working class faces on a day-to-day basis. While alternatives to a dysfunctional NLRA-focused process should be considered, the notion of labor-management partnership can only function when labor has sufficient power to make everything stop.

We will only rebuild power through advancing the interests of the working class as a whole. Investing more in organizing, training, mobilization, and educating union workers about their rights is a part of this equation, but only by fundamentally aligning the labor movement with the communities it represents will we start to recover.

Solidarity, the AFL-CIO, and Ferguson.

The protests in Ferguson, Missouri have been, if nothing else, a working-class struggle. The people who are flooding into the streets to make their voices heard are not simply protesting the decision by a grand jury not to indict Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown, they are railing against social, political, and economic systems that seem to put more distance between their machinations and the protestors’ humanity every single day. They are condemning a neoliberal state that appears to give license to murder so long as it is under the guise of “law and order”. And they are telling the world that they have had enough.

The most obvious facilitator of working-class power in these current systems is the labor union, and Richard Trumka has been amazing in his role as AFL-CIO President on this issue. Whether it was his speech to the Missouri AFL-CIO in the immediate aftermath of Brown’s death, or his brief remarks following the grand jury’s decision last night, Trumka has never wavered in his (accurate) assertions that the problems underlying Ferguson are rooted in classism and racism. He says that we will be hearing a lot from the labor federation in the future, which begs the question:

Why not now?

When I was interviewed by Colorlines a couple of months ago, I told Carla Murphy that the power of Trumka’s words were amplified because of the large numbers of law enforcement and correctional officers who belong to unions that are within his labor federation, particularly within the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE). In the wake of news stories detailing the ways in which the local police union raised money for Wilson (a police union that included a sitting Democratic state representative on its fundraising board), hearing Trumka’s words were a direct challenge to anyone within the labor movement who did not express 100 percent solidarity with those in the streets throughout Ferguson.

But now it is time to transition from statements into actions, and the labor movement should be at the fore.

Polls since time immemorial have shown that Black workers support unions at a much higher rate than their white counterparts, and research by Roland Zullo found that Black women were the group most likely to be involved in a union until retirement, layoff, or termination. As the labor movement expands its organizing efforts into the South, it will be dependent upon Black workers for its success here, much as it depended on Black workers in the organizing campaigns of previous generations, such as Operation Dixie. But much as the Democratic Party found out in the recent midterms to their chagrin, Black support for labor is not written in stone, a permanence to passed on from generation to generation. It requires attention to be paid and work to be done on the issues that affect their communities on the day-to-day. And if there is an issue that looms over Black communities like a malevolent cloud, it is the specter of state violence and brutality.

When I was a teenager, I would fly to Chicago and spend the summer with my father, who was a labor educator for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW). We would travel throughout the Midwest as he gave stewards’ trainings and, in many cases, we would encounter workers walking a picket line in some sort of boycott or strike action. Whenever we came across these workers, we made it a policy to go to the nearest bakery or coffee shop and order donuts and coffee for the workers. Sometimes we would even walk the line with them for a little bit. It was the least we could do to show solidarity to people pushing for economic justice and equality.

The AFL-CIO must make it a policy to put the full force of solidarity behind oppressed people wherever they are. That means more than speeches; it means raising bail money, allowing protestors to use labor halls as staging areas for direct action, and many other actions to show that the labor movement has their back. Simply put, it means being there.

Recap of the Supreme Court’s decision in Harris v. Quinn.

Case: Harris v. Quinn

Question being answered by decision: Are the First Amendment rights of public employees who do not wish to join a union violated when those workers have to pay a representation fee to their union?

Prior to the decision: In 1947, the Michigan Legislature passed, and Gov. Kim Sigler (R) signed, the Hutchison Act. This Act established the rules under which Michigan’s government employees at the state and municipal levels would be able to form labor unions and collectively bargain. It was designed to regularize labor-management relations in the public sector and locate workers’ rights under one statute, rather than having a patchwork of state laws governing the workplace. But the law was also quite harsh in its treatment of public employees engaging in collective action: Any employee that engaged in strike action was to be terminated from their employment forthwith. The Michigan Legislature would eventually return to the table and drastically alter Hutchison with Public Act 379, which would become known as the Public Employment Relations Act (PERA). This new law brought the Michigan statutes in line with the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and granted public employees the right to form unions. Amongst many other things, PERA created a mechanism by which workers could elect a particular union to represent them at the bargaining table and required that all public employees pay an agency fee to the union that represented them. Agency fees are important because the NLRA requires that a union represent all those who are in the bargaining unit equally, regardless of their membership status; mandating the paying of representation fees gets a union over the free-rider problem that plagues unions in so-called “right-to-work” states.

This fee was too much for some Detroit teachers, who felt that they were being forced to pay into an organization whose political goals they disagreed with. Detroit educator D. Louis Abood filed a lawsuit against the Detroit Board of Education in 1969, two years after the Detroit Federation of Teachers became the bargaining agent for the city’s K-12 teachers. While the case wound its way towards the U.S. Supreme Court, the Michigan Supreme Court found in another case that state law prohibited the agency shop; this discrepancy was resolved through a 1973 statute legalizing the agency fee. When Abood hit the state’s highest court again, they found the 1973 statute constitutional with the caveat that the fees had to go towards non-political activities. The U.S. Supreme Court would find no differently in May 1977, rejecting the plaintiffs’ arguments that collective bargaining was “inherently political” and that the Hanson and Street decisions which prior courts had relied on for their rulings were limited to the private sector only.

Abood provided a way for public sector unions to virtually eliminate their free-rider problem, provided they did not operate in a state with “right-to-work” laws.

The lead-up to today’s decision: The Illinois General Assembly passed a bill in 2003 that designated home care workers as state employees with the purpose of allowing them the right to collectively bargain with the state. After Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) signed the legislation, a majority of workers voted to affiliate with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), making them the workers’ bargaining representative. Patricia Harris and seven other home care workers filed suit against the state of Illinois, arguing essentially the same case that D. Louis Abood had argued nearly 40 years ago: that joining the union was an infringement on their First Amendment rights. Judging from the oral arguments and the justices’ reactions to them, as well as the decision in Knox v. SEIU that declared the protections laid out in Abood to be “an anomaly”, most seemed to be expecting that the Court would find for the plaintiffs. This became even less shocking when Justice Samuel Alito, who authored Knox, was revealed to have also written Harris. We were largely waiting on the scope of the ruling, and whether it would end the precedent set forth in Abood.

Decision: The 5-4 decision in favor of the appellants did not overturn Abood, but it essentially limited the precedent to full-time public employees. As Benjamin Sachs points out in a great roundup of his own over at On Labor, the language of the decision spoke loud and clear: Alito wanted to completely overturn Abood. He devotes all of Part II, Section D (pgs. 17-20) to pointing out the reasons why Abood should not be allowed to stand: the 1977 court misunderstood the rulings, the differences between public and private sector employees should have been given more weight, the line between representation costs and political activity is blurred in public sector unionism, and that exclusive representation does not depend on classification as an agency shop. My guess is that Justice Antonin Scalia, who recognized the free rider problem faced by labor unions in his partial affirmation in Lehnert v. Ferris Faculty Association, did not see a need to strike down Abood for these reasons. In any case, the framing of the decision practically begs for a full challenge to Abood from organizations like the National Right to Work Committee, representing someone who would be considered a “full-fledged” public employee. Justice Alito also argues that because Illinois law dramatically limits the role of the state in dealings between a patient and their home care worker, the Abood precedent did not apply here.

Implications: This deals a big blow to those unions who organize in the home care industry, as the decision essentially makes the industry “right-to-work”. As Prof. Sachs points out, the unions will find a way to get around this; I agree with that sentiment, having written about the struggles of building unions in right-to-work states previously. It also has a gendered component as well, as Sarah Jaffe points out in her piece for In These Times. The only home care workers I have ever known, not just in my personal life but also in my very brief time organizing for the Missouri Home Care Union, were Black women. And as Roland Zullo points out in his 2012 article for Labor Studies Journal, this particular group of employees is the most likely to enter unionized employment from either unemployment or non-union employment. For a Supreme Court that seems willing to reverse the few labor rights that workers have in their corner, it is obvious that they would seek to halt the drive to organize a large group of underpaid care workers. Others have noted that this increases the importance of voting for a Democrat in the next presidential election but, considering the union-busters in President Obama’s cabinet and some of his nominees for the lower courts, to say nothing of the likely Republican filibuster of any decent nominee that would switch the Court’s composition, that seems like a bit of a stretch. The best line of defense against a ruling like this will come from the organizers and field representatives on the ground, engaging in quality service of their membership and negotiating contracts that will bring workers into the fold.

Kagan’s dissent: In a dissent joined by Justices Sotomayor, Ginsburg, and Breyer, Justice Elena Kagan laid out the case for why Abood is sufficient for a finding in favor of the state of Illinois. She points out that while the person receiving care sets the terms of employment in that particular context, the state sets parameters for the industry’s operation as a whole. That gives the state more than the small interest that Alito’s decision limits it to, and undermines a key argument for said decision. Kagan also gets into an area that Alito’s decision misses, presumably because it is close to the bottom of his priority list: The working conditions experienced by those who provide home care. In addition to feeding, clothing, bathing, and cleaning, sometimes they have to deal with the attitudes of those they serve; the home care worker that worked with my Uncle Junior after his stroke had to deal with his abuse as much as we did. Because of this, the industry is notorious for having high amounts of turnover, which can be destabilizing for patients at a time when a familiar face can make all the difference. Kagan also hit out at Alito’s notion that because workers are all paid the same according to state law, that there was no need for an agency agreement. This sounds ridiculous on its face and Kagan hammers him on it, pointing out the benefits that all workers have accrued because of the SEIU’s bargaining on their behalf. This is the important part, however, and signals what Alito is trying to accomplish with his opinion: “The idea that Abood applies only if a union can bargain with the State over every issue comes from nowhere and relates to nothing in that decision—and would revolutionize public labor law.”

Additional reading: Matthew Heron, Public Employment Law in Michigan and the Unfair Labor Practice Strike (2002).

Occupying the 21st Century: The Rise of Leftism in American Youth Organizing

In 2010, the Pew Research Poll did a survey measuring people’s reactions to different political philosophies. They found that even though all age groups in America were opposed to socialism, the highest proportion of support, 43 percent, came in the 18-29-year old bracket. When they repeated the survey 18 months later, they found that young people now favored socialism more than they did capitalism in addition to giving socialism a plus-six favorability margin.

That finding made national news. After all, it had been 87 years since a leftist candidate carried a state in a presidential election (Robert M. LaFollette carried his home of Wisconsin in 1924) and 72 years since the last socialist governor in America stepped down (Gov. Elmer Austin Benson from Minnesota’s Farmer-Labor Party, who left office in 1939). Sewer socialism had long since gone out of style, with Milwaukee’s Frank Zeidler serving as the last socialist mayor of a major city until he left office in 1960. In that period, we have experienced: an embargo against Cuba, the ramping up (and eventual defeat) of American forces in Vietnam, the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the 1972 humiliation of George McGovern, Reaganism, and the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 2010, we watched as Republicans successfully painted President Obama, who is a DLC-style centrist at best, as a socialist on their way to a 63-seat gain in the House.

But some things have happened since that dark day in November of 2010 that has given rise to a leftist tendency in America’s youth.

With the recession lifting the slowest for young people across the world and normally sympathetic governments introducing punishing austerity measures, young people started taking to the streets across the world in 2010. The most well known of these were the Indignados movements that gripped both Spain and Greece. The sometimes deadly protests against government’s acquiescence to unrestrained capital unleashed realignments in both countries politics: Spain’s center-left Socialists suffered a historic defeat while the United Left and Podemos have risen on the scene, and Greece’s long-dominant party of the center-left, PASOK, suffered a similar humiliation at the same time the left-wing SYRIZA party sextupled their vote between 2009 and 2012.

Much like that critically-acclaimed Japanese horror movie that finally makes its way to America, so too did these movements come from abroad in the form of Occupy Wall Street and its governing body, the New York City General Assembly. Their occupation of Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park became a lightning rod in a nation where mass protests of rapacious capitalism had not been en vogue since the Johnson administration. The rallying cry of “We Are The 99%” rung out from Lower Manhattan and touched disaffected youth across America, and the Occupy movement itself would eventually extend its reach just as much. Cities as diverse as Chicago, Minneapolis, Atlanta; Biloxi, Mississippi; and Columbia, Missouri. Hell, there was even an Occupy Tuscaloosa group that organized out of the University Presbyterian Church not far from campus. Many, if not all, of these Occupy groups were led by young people.

But as many have pointed out, Occupy Wall Street did not lead to a concrete gain in support for one political agenda or another. You did not see new political parties sweep out of nowhere on a national scale, and the electoral successes that leftists have had are on a very local scale. President Obama was re-elected, in part, by co-opting the message of the “99 percent” during the 2012 campaign; of course, many of his moves since then have been in the service of, well, anyone but the working class. But you did see folks like Harvard Law Professor Elizabeth Warren, who famously referred to herself as laying the “intellectual foundation” for Occupy Wall Street, sweep to the United States Senate that same year. And were it not for Occupy Wall Street’s message of reducing inequalities, would we be talking about a self-described democratic socialist from Vermont as a legitimate threat to the Democrats’ chances of winning a third consecutive presidential election? And while the victory of Kshama Sawant in Seattle might have been functionally been a drop in the bucket, the fact that she won in a city that young people have flocked to (and stayed put) during the recession should give naysayers a bit of pause.

One organization that came out of the Occupy movement was the Ohio Student Association (OSA). This youth-led organization began in the winter of 2012 when Will Klatt, Stuart McIntyre, and other youth from across Ohio came together in Columbus to form a group that would advocate for Ohio’s youth on the issue of student debt, which is higher today than it has ever been. They got to work in fairly short order, helping to put together a national organizing conference for student leftists in Columbus that summer. The National Student Power Convergence featured seminars, breakout sessions, keynotes from people like Naomi Klein and organizers of the Quebec student protests ongoing at the time, and a march to the Obama for America office near Ohio State University to protest all the ways in which the Obama administration has left young people behind.

After the 2012 elections, they faced the challenge that all youth-based organizations face at some point: How do we keep youth interested and involved? The “moments of intensity” that power student organizations, as McIntyre described them to me, were self-evident in 2012 with a presidential election dumping millions into the Buckeye State and a hotly-contested U.S. Senate race, both won by Democrats. But moving into 2013, how were they going to continue the momentum that they had built up? The answer was to shift the focus from college campuses and the issues those students face to a broader focus on community-building and organizing around issues that affect all youth. According to McIntyre, “Many of us went to urban public schools in Ohio, and so we built a base that looks like the schools we went to. And while many of the students involved were still college students, many of their friends and families chose not to attend college due to financial concerns. We have never wavered in our commitment to educational justice.” As a part of that shift, the OSA organized around issues that affect a broader cross-section of young people like Stand Your Ground and the school-to-prison pipeline. They also participated in the celebrations surrounding the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Summer, where racial justice activists from all over the country gathered in Mississippi to register Black voters in 1964; it was also a movement that paralleled today’s progressive organizing in the large numbers of youth that were involved.

With all of their successes, it was natural that I would ask Klatt and McIntyre what they would suggest to leftist youth in places like Alabama who seek to form their groups committed to social justice and educational equality. Their answer was clear: long-term planning.

Klatt’s assertion that 90 percent of organizing groups like the OSA is dependent on ground conditions is an important one; the desire for instant gratification is strong for organizers of all ages in areas where progressivism and leftism feels relegated to a kind of permanent minority status. We often look for the perfect leader, candidate, or philosophy that will lead us to organizational or policy gains, and we are disappointed just as frequently. The forces aligned against the young, poor, and workers were not assembled in a day or an election cycle, and so it will go for the entities that organize to defeat such reactionary forces. This is why groups like The Dream Defenders are so important to the future of youth activism: they are able to clearly define the issues that affect our communities and execute actions that will highlight just how destructive our political system can be towards them.

The future is bright for those who wish for a more inclusive and just vision for American society.

Organizing An App For That: Labor’s Absence from the App Store

The first phone I ever owned was a Nokia 3285, which my parents acquired for me through Alltel. It was a pretty basic phone: contacts and a short menu that offered a limited variety of ringtones (including this legendary one). Most people around me had cellphones that were similar; in fact, it was rare to see anyone besides white collar workers and their children with cellphones that had a color screen or web capabilities.

This was in 2001.

Thirteen years on from my introduction to cellular communication, the medium’s technology seems to have advanced at the speed of light. The BlackBerry, released in 2003 with its unprecedented access to email and that irresistible light notifying its owner of new messages, introduced America to the addictive power of the cellphone. In fact, the nickname for the BlackBerry became such a part of popular culture that was named the 2006 New Word of the Year by Webster’s New World Dictionary. That oh-so-appropriate nickname? The Crackberry.

And with the release of the iPhone, society has never looked back: 91 percent of humans owned a cellphone as of 2013, with 62 percent of them owning a smartphone. The smartphone has allowed us to do more than simply communicate directly with people via phone call or text message, but they have also become powerful tools for engaging the world in myriad other ways as well: social media, gaming and entertainment, shopping, and keeping ourselves informed. They have changed the way we communicate with one another, and they have used one primary means of doing it:

The application.

While there were programs for downloading applications onto computer and cellphone devices stretching back to the 1990s, the application really began to take off with Apple’s introduction of its App Store in 2008. Billions of downloads later and with the average cellphone user spending 80 percent of their mobile time using them, the app has become an integral part of the way we live. But has it become an integral part of the way we organize workers?

The labor movement has utilized the app, but they have not done so in a very productive way.

I downloaded iPhone apps from several organizations, including the Communications Workers of America (CWA), the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW), and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). When I dug into the apps, I found that they contained some beneficial functions that could be of use to working folks:

  • The CWA app had a dashboard where they detailed their actions and events. They also featured a sidebar which contained news updates from headquarters, some photos from events, and social media updates from their Twitter profile.
  • The IAMAW app is more comprehensive, with channels to updates from every territory and constituent industry group, a calendar for events, and a legislative action ticker that allows you to find local elected officials and get info into key votes and issues that the IAMAW is currently advocating for on the Hill. The best feature for the potential member, however, is a function that allows you to send information about organizing leads about your workplace to the union for further followup.
  • The AFT app has many of the benefits that the other apps do, with an additional channel where you can incorporate certain teachings into your lesson plan. The two that stood out for me was a discussion of the minimum wage for middle school students and a lesson plan built around Cesar Chavez for high school students.

As someone who lives and works in the Deep South, which is a veritable desert of movement visibility outside of election season, I look for a labor-oriented app to provide me with two things: access to information about nearby labor unions and providing me a list of businesses that are already organized or are union-friendly. Having these two pieces of information would allow me to show my co-workers that, yes, organizing ourselves into a bargaining unit is a possibility down here, and it allows me to use my hard-earned dollars at businesses that support workers.

Yet none of the apps from national labor organizations gave me information on either of these things. When I looked for apps from other labor organizations, I found that they were either from district and local labor unions or they were severely outdated (the app that pops up for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees is from their national conference in 2012); some of these outdated apps are no longer operable (like the one for the IAM Journal). Many that did exist from national unions were laden with technical problems: The AFT app, for example, shut down every time I clicked on the channel to find out where their locals were in each state. If there is one part of the app that should work as advertised, it has to be the part that tells potential union members where they can find you. I did find one app, by an outfit called PhillyLabor.com, that gave you listings of union-friendly businesses. But the vast majority of businesses that were listed in their database were banks, investment firms, lawyers, and insurance companies. No grocery stores, no retail outlets, and only one car dealership. I mean, how often is the average working person in southeastern Pennsylvania going to be in need of wealth management and consulting?

One app that the labor movement can take its cues from is the app provided by a coalition of worker centers called Restaurant Opportunity Centers United (ROC). Their app rates restaurants on four different criteria: membership in the ROC’s Restaurant Industry Roundtable, wages, paid sick days, and the opportunity for employee advancement. The app also lets you know whether a workplace is engaged in any direct action to improve conditions on the job. Another good thing about this app is that it exhorts the consumer to action, encouraging them to inquire about working conditions at local restaurants and encouraging them to let management know that they will not be patronizing businesses that treat their workers unfairly. They also encourage consumers to call Congress and lobby for a raise in employee wages, but the priority on calling for community action is one that is fantastic to see.

The biggest drawback of this particular app is that the restaurants are heavily concentrated in the ten metropolitan areas that have Restaurant Opportunity Center local offices: Chicago, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Miami, Philadelphia, San Francisco, New Orleans, and Washington, D.C. Despite the fact that they apparently contacted fast-food restaurants in Alabama and South Carolina to establish what the floor is for hourly pay within the restaurant chains that were profiled, there were no restaurants listed for either state. Hopefully the ROC will expand its reach in the South, since Southern workers have shown that they are willing to join the fight for better pay and working conditions in the fast-food industry.

I bring this piece back to where we began: cellphone users spend 80 percent of their device time using apps.

Apps are used for entertainment, no doubt, but they are also used to inform, educate, connect, and organize. With all of this advanced technological capability at our fingertips, why would the labor movement continually miss an opportunity to put its best app forward? For all the millions of dollars that the labor movement spends on politics to little avail, sparing $200,000 on a quality app seems like a cheap investment to push the movement into the 21st century. The rise of alt-labor and organizing in non-traditional employment sectors makes this investment all the more necessary.

Forgive me the closing pun, but it is time for the labor movement to step app.

School Is In Session: How one history professor is modeling the future of labor education

Sometimes, the greatest ideas and innovations begin unintentionally. So it was with #SaturdaySchool, the weekly Twitter social justice teach-in hosted by Rhonda Ragsdale, a Ph.D. candidate at Rice and Associate Professor of history at Lone Star College:

“On Saturday mornings, my children would be asleep and I decided to make that space a time for myself. But I didn’t want to really get out of bed or do any work, and seeing as I always had a technological device in my hand, I would always do these teaching rants on some article I had read. And some of my followers started calling this ‘Saturday School’, and tweeting ‘Hey look, @profragsdale is doing Saturday School again.’”

#SaturdaySchool has become a weekly get-together for progressive and leftist activists on Twitter to share information and gain a greater understanding of the issues that affect our communities. It is a fun way to engage those who work both in and out of various progressive causes. But as Ragsdale pointed out in my interview with her, she is simply following a long-held tradition in American social movement activism.

Teach-ins are large forums where people can gain understanding about sociopolitical issues. They are mixtures of education and activism where the participants are expected to take the information they learn and use it to engage in direct action. Though teach-ins on topics like lynching had been occurring since the early 20th century, this social movement tactic first entered the public consciousness this week in 1965. At the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, a majority of the faculty had agreed to go on a one-day strike against the war, which earned them the opposition of the Governor (George Romney, not ironically), the Chancellor, and their fellow faculty, who threatened to censure those who refused to teach their classes. At a meeting designed to come up with alternative actions that professors could still use to show their disapproval with the war, a professor in the Anthropology department came up with an idea: the faculty would teach their classes. But instead of letting students out at the normal time, they would continue teaching. All night. And so it was: the teach-ins of March 24-25 drew over 200 faculty and 3,000 students. The teach-in swept through college campuses in 1965, with a teach-in at the University of California at Berkeley being the largest. That one attracted 30,000 students from May 21-23.

Teach-ins, Ragsdale says, are effective because “they have a high potential to mobilize, and you create group solidarity and consciousness through hashtags and linking community groups to one another.” As any organizer can tell you, this is important: so often we see organizations seeking to reinvent the wheel, especially when it is a national progressive organization that is entering a battle that local activists have already been fighting in for a while. When a forum like #SaturdaySchool addresses a topic that gets people discussing the struggles that they have faced in organizing around a particular issue in a particular place, it can act as a signpost to make folks aware of ongoing activism in a particular community. This small bit of information makes movements stronger and builds the sort of intramovemental trust that we see precious little of nowadays. Ragsdale has connected with folks through #SaturdaySchool who have engaged in offline research projects with her; not only is this great for movement-building, it is also beneficial for the research that undergirds progressive activism.

The power of social media as a teaching tool is not limited to hashtags on Twitter, according to Ragsdale. She also singles out Pinterest (yes, that Pinterest) as a medium that social justice-minded folks can use to inform and teach people, discussing how one of the participants in Saturday School has a great social justice collection on the medium. “It’s another digital archive that could be used in classrooms….Sociological Images is another one that has just great collections on Pinterest.”

The effectiveness of digital teach-ins like #SaturdaySchool are so apparent, it is a wonder why the labor movement has not sought to engage in a similar kind of activity. Outside of the AFL-CIO Digital Training Series that took place last summer, I have not seen many efforts to engage the labor community on Twitter in labor education. That is a mistake: Twitter users are likely to be younger and highly educated on the whole, and they are also more mobile. And given that those demographics are more likely to support the labor movement, engaging in accessible labor education with Twitter denizens seems like a no-brainer.

The great thing about utilizing the progressive and social justice networks on Twitter to do digital teach-ins is that there are a lot of people out there with all kinds of specializations in research and praxis. It is no different within the labor community: we have amazing journalists, academics, organizers, strategists, and engaged leadership that are one click away. Ragsdale advises labor to utilize those assets, stating that “…most are willing to participate in online teach-ins for free or little more than a thank you tweet.” Social media gives us unprecedented access to the folks who shape the way the labor movement; we must use that proximity to educate the public about the challenges and struggles workers face on the workplace, as well as what individuals can do about it

Growing up in the South, moving to the Midwest, and then moving back South again has given me a lot of perspective on the ways in which the labor movement is simply invisible down here. That invisibility has consequences. There are people who are genuinely opposed to the labor movement on ideological or personal grounds in places like Alabama; that much is obvious. You will never reach those folks no matter how good your organizing plan or labor education apparatus is.

But there are also a lot of folks who are simply following the prevailing opinion in their community, and have little information on the impact of a labor union. There are also folks who are aware that unions are needed, but not necessarily up on the why or how. It is these groups of people that are most affected when the battle between labor and management is constantly framed from the latter’s point of view, and they can make the difference between a unionized workplace and a company victory.

For them, teach-ins on labor are needed, both offline and on Twitter. Rhonda Ragsdale is modeling the future of labor education for us all to see; we would do well to heed her example.