Transcript of a public discussion hosted by the Tempest Collective on January 24. Haley Pessin is a socialist activist based in New York. She is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America Afrosocialist Caucus and the Tempest Collective. David McNally is the Cullen Distinguished Professor of History & Business at the University of Houston and Editor-in-Chief of Spectre magazine. Jeb Purucker is a co-chair of the Santa Cruz chapter of Democratic Socialists of America. Justin Akers Chacón is an educator, activist, and writer in the San Diego-Tijuana border region. He is a member of the Punto Rojo editorial collective, and author of No One is Illegal, Radicals in the Barrio, and the forthcoming The Border Crossed Us: The case for opening the U.S.-Mexico border. Elizabeth Lalasz is a registered nurse and steward with National Nurses United. She is a member of the Chicago Democratic Socialists of America Labor Branch and the Tempest Collective.
Haley Pessin: Welcome, everybody. This event is sponsored by the Tempest Collective, and is called Fight the far right in the Biden era. My name is Haley Pessin, and I am with the Tempest Collective, and also part of DSA Afrosocialists.
We already have some 230 people joining us, and much more interest in this event, which we’re very excited about. People have been saying in the chat that they’re tuning in from all over the country. And we’re very excited to have this forum to start to discuss how we can build a response and really send the Right into the dustbin of history, where they belong.
I also want to thank our co-sponsors: Socialist Alternative, the Boston Revolutionary Socialists, High Peaks chapter of Democratic Socialists of America, the DSA Afrosocialists and Socialists of Color Caucus. Madison chapter of DSA, New Politics, Punto Rojo, and United Against Racism.
With that I’m going to go ahead and introduce our first speaker, David McNally. David is the Cullen Distinguished Professor of History and Business at the University of Houston, and Editor-in-Chief of Spectre magazine.
David McNally: Thank you, Haley; and thank you to everybody joining us today. I would also like to thank Tempest and my co-speakers. I must say that Tempest has been a real breath of fresh air at a challenging and important time for the Left; not only in the U.S. but internationally.
I wanted to start my comments by situating the rise of the Right and the challenges for the Left in relationship to two cycles. One of those is an economic cycle with respect to accumulation in the world capitalist economy. And the second is a set of political cycles having to do with the composition and decomposition of the Right and the Left.
Let me start with the economic cycle. Everything we’re talking about right now is massively colored by the global slump of 2008-2009. It was a transformative moment in the world economy and world politics because it represented the end of the neoliberal economic boom. It was an inflection point, when 25 years of economic expansion coming out of the recession of 1980-1981, came to a glaring, grinding, and crashing halt. And since then, for the decade that’s ensued, we have essentially been stumbling through a succession of crises within the world economy, leading to all kinds of political ruptures and transformations. Since the Great Recession of 2008-2009, we’ve seen an insurgence of social movements on the Left: Occupy, the Movement of the Squares, that swept so much of Europe, particularly countries like Spain and Turkey; the Arab Spring, Black Lives Matter (BLM), the International Women’s Strikes, Chicago teachers’ strikes, and what I refer to in the first issue of Spectre as the return of the mass strike, particularly in countries like Chile, Colombia, France, India, and so on.
Of course, there’s also been thunder on the Right. In the U.S., this has most clearly manifested in the rise of the Tea Party and Trumpism. In Europe, the Alternative for Germany (AFD) has pushed politics hard to the right, the so-called UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party), which transformed into the Brexit Party, Golden Dawn in Greece, and so on.
So, we’re really dealing with an inflection point in this cycle of capitalist accumulation; a turning point in which we’ve seen certain kinds of resurgences on both the Right and the Left. Both sides of that political equation are also facing really significant challenges.
I believe that in the U.S., none of this can be separated from what Michael Goldfield has called the “Southern key.” Goldfield argues that everything in terms of politics in the U.S. is entirely shaped by the defeat of militant multiracial unionism and socialism, particularly during the Cold War period. His book, The Southern Key, beautifully articulates this. Goldfield demonstrates that from the 1920s-1940s, there was a militant, interracial unionism that fought and beat back the KKK, registered Black people for the vote, defeated white supremacist politicians, integrated jobs, stores, and restaurants, fought racial discrimination in housing, busing, and employment, and built dynamic multi-racial fighting unions. This was a moment in which white supremacist politics could have been decisively broken. The failure of those campaigns, which have to do both with the Cold War, and frankly, the failings of bureaucratic business unionism, has shaped U.S. politics ever since. I emphasize that because the Southern Strategy has been so important to the Republican Party. If you look at the majority of congressional votes against recognizing the results of the recent presidential election, the majority came from the South.
This is something that shapes U.S. politics. It’s why I have a friendly disagreement with the statement from Salvage magazine on the elections, which to me, downplays the ways in which the nature of the far right in the U.S. pivots on white supremacy, a glorification of the Confederacy, and so on.
With that in mind, let me say something about confronting the Right and the cycles, in the political sense, that I’m talking about. When working class movements go through processes of decomposition, organizations are defeated, movements are pushed back, and class consciousness declines. Neoliberalism centrally involved a decomposition of working class formations; not only in the U.S. but around the world.
But at different points, these cycles will open up possibilities of recomposition. I believe that since around 2011, there has been a succession of halting movements towards recomposing working class struggle in the U.S. Of course, there’s no guarantee that this will produce an upsurge in struggle. And this will be decisive. Because defeating the Right is also about consciousness, momentum, and political morale.
Let me put this very concretely. The Left had rising morale from May 25th through August of last year. In other words, the Left seized the political initiative in the BLM uprising across the U.S. following the police execution of George Floyd in Minneapolis. We know that at least 15 million people took to the streets, and maybe 26 million, or more. We know that it happened in 1500 cities and towns across the U.S. In Texas, where I live and work, there were former Klan-dominated towns that had demonstrations of 200-300 people. There were multiracial marches. 60,000 assembled in Houston, where I live, which was the largest demonstration of the Left there in decades.
But that insurgency was deliberately and consciously demobilized for electoral reasons—to shift towards the presidential campaign. At the same time, the Right was re-mobilized through that campaign because of Trumpism, and the fact that it had street-based mobilizations.
So task number one for the Left in this regard is to take the streets, workplaces, and communities away from the Right with militant, confrontational, mobilization; not with small squads that go out to fight Nazis and white supremacists, but with mass organization through community groups, unions, the socialist Left, and so on.
The speaker’s notes asked us to say something about personal experiences. I will simply tell you that I was actively involved in a movement in the early 1980s that defeated an organizing drive by the KKK in Toronto, and a right-wing split from the Conservative Party called the Reform Party in the early 1990s.
I’m happy to talk about that, but I want to take my last minute to say something about the supplementary fronts of fighting the Right. Yes, we need to defeat them in the streets, workplaces, and communities. But we also need to have an overall anti-capitalist organizing strategy that shifts the ground politically. Our huge asset is that we actually have politics that can stop evictions, and that can build strike action in workplaces around the COVID-19 pandemic and safety at work. We have a vision of multiracial trade union and socialist organizing. I think for all of us on the Left now, we cannot take our eyes off the Amazon union organizing drive in Bessemer, Alabama. This is going back into a historic working class and civil rights stronghold where up to 6,000 workers may win union rights. If that happens, the Left needs to mobilize in solidarity in a huge campaign that could be another victory for multiracial unionism.
Haley Pessin: That was really an incredible framing for us to continue with. I’m going to move on to our next speaker. Jeb Purucker is a co-chair of Santa Cruz DSA.
Jeb Purucker: Thanks, Haley; and thanks to the organizers of the panel. I’m really excited about events like this happening. I think we need to get a strategic conversation going as soon as possible on this stuff.
Something that I’m really shaken by, with the events at the Capitol a few weeks ago, is the lack of an organized and concerted response from the Left. This has me really worried as we are lurching into the Biden years. There have been some really good pieces of analysis, but there were no real mass counter-demonstrations like David was talking about. And it isn’t entirely clear to me that we’re even buckling down in our own organizations yet for the hard conversations we need to have about strategy and organization as we move into this new conjuncture.
When the events of the Capitol happened, our DSA chapter in Santa Cruz put out a series of these meant as interventions into some of the responses that we were seeing nationally; both from mainstream media and from fellow socialists alike. I think that there was a general sense that the way the events in Washington were being framed, invoked narratives and easy historical analogies that could block the Left’s ability to put together a coherent, strategic analysis of the actual balance of forces, and could ultimately channel our actions in a direction that could undermine an independent Left, and strengthen the center of the Democratic Party.
This is precisely the opposite of what is needed to combat a rising far-right both inside and outside of the institutions of power. That can only be done by an organized Left galvanized around a project of advancing the self-organization and empowerment of the working class. I’m really hoping that our conversation later today can actually get into some of the nitty-gritty details of what that project looks like, and how socialist organizations need to orient themselves to accommodate this in the coming months and years.
First, I want to say a few things about the kind of analytical and narrative interventions that I think are necessary to ground that conversation. Some of this is related to our theses, and some kind of goes beyond it.
One of the starting points has to really be taking seriously the fluid situation that the contemporary Right finds itself in. Reasoning by historical analogy is not of particular use here. If the events in the capital can be seen as an important punctuation mark on the Trump years, I would say it has to be something like a semicolon; bringing an end to certain alliances, but not a full break with what went before; a remodulation into something worse. The split on the Right that may result from this event is likely not one that generally orients national politics leftward, at least not automatically.
We can imagine an emboldened and anti-institutional far right divided from their previous allies in the mainstream of the Republican Party. This breakup may provide cover for the continued rightward movement of the Republicans, who will be able to hold to the policies of Trump’s administration, while more easily distancing themselves from the more riotous elements connected to Trump himself.
Meanwhile, the Democrats will be eager to reach across the aisle to form a coalition with any Republican whose politics don’t quite rise to the level of armed skirmishes in the rotunda. The result of this could very easily be a rightward movement of both parties, as well as a massive growth of an extra-parliamentary far right still loyal to Trump, though this isn’t guaranteed by any means. In this shifting political landscape, calls for symbolic acts of condemnation, whether from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) or Mitch McConnell, are going to ring hollow, and the legislative path forward for progressive policy would be decidedly narrowed.
As for the question of organizing against the Right, this is where I think how we frame our understanding of the events at the Capitol becomes crucial. The first place that I think we need to push back pretty hard is on framing this event as a coup. The importance here is not to engage in pedantic or definitional squabbling, but rather to recognize that the categories we use to describe events like this have embedded within them both assumptions about the nature of the danger we face and prescriptions for how to get out of it. The coup framing is something that has been a leitmotif of liberal and establishment discourse from the very beginning. And it’s meant to ground a return to the politics of “normalcy” that we’re seeing now.
Thinking in terms of a coup has the effect of short-circuiting our strategic thinking in a number of ways. First, it leads to an emphasis on the exceptionalism of Trump, and on the discontinuity between the Trumpian Right and the Republican Party. We miss the mycelial connections that have developed between different strands of far right organizing and state power, mostly at local and state levels. In short, describing these events as a coup focuses our gaze upward on national figures, and we miss seeing the contemporary Right in its messy complexity, as a movement that straddles the line between institutional power and extra-institutional spaces. When it comes to how we should respond, we’re similarly led to imagine that holding powerful figures responsible is somehow adequate, and once we have done so, the danger is more or less past us. It’s not that I’m against congressional efforts to hold people accountable, but we shouldn’t confuse this with an actual strategy to confront the Right and avert future danger.
Instead, we must conceive of this danger in terms of how the meaning of this moment will be woven into future Right organizing, and how it will embolden and inspire future mobilizations and violence. Worse yet, I think that there’s a very real possibility that many of the forces that failed to cohere around the disastrous Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville, might actually find a way to ground themselves around narratives of a “lost cause” at the Capitol. Whether this happens is a pretty open question. But this is the sort of thing that we need to be organizing against.
Another element that we need to grapple with is the way in which narratives about the relationship between the Right and the state is rather simplistically handled in a lot of the discourse. There’s a tendency to vacillate between either calling for greater state repression or else pointing to the state’s complicity like the cops let events at the Capitol happen. I think that both of these frames get things wrong in crucial ways when we think about the question of what is to be done. The fact that the demonstrators made it into the Capitol was a result of a complex set of political choices in different parts of the state. Our thinking about this needs to make room for this complexity without reducing it to simple statements about police complicity. We need to recognize that the police are relatively autonomous from the extra-state elements of white supremacy. As such, they always have one eye on maintaining their own legitimacy. Understanding these distinctions and divisions is going to be crucial if we’re going to have a strategic relationship to the state, and a correct understanding of the Right. We need to incorporate all of this into the discussions that we’re having in our organizing spaces. We need to always recognize that our enemy is not monolithic, but is riven with contradictions to be exploited.
One way that we should absolutely not take this is to enthusiastically get on board with calls for the state to increase its powers in order to decisively deal with the Right. The impulse to condemn the Capitol events on the basis of “law and order,” a phrase that both Trump and Biden invoked that day, needs to be resisted. We have to recognize that “law and order” will sooner or later be used against us. We should also oppose the language of “treason,” “sedition,” “patriotism,” and “terrorism,” in the discussion of these events. These are what Frederic Jameson might call “ideologemes” of the Right, or concepts that will ultimately serve to justify the expansion of the repressive power of the state.
The theses that we put out ended with some calls for action within the DSA, and I want to put some of those out here for conversation, too. First, I think that as the largest and most organized force on the Left in a generation, the DSA has a special role to play. And I think that so far we’ve been somewhat derelict in our duty.
The Trump years saw an enormous growth of the DSA to almost 100,000 members. Much of this was due, in part, to high-profile, and generally successful, electoral campaigns. But this explosive growth has allowed us to hold in suspension some important questions about strategy for building socialism in the 21st century. As the new conjuncture clicks into view I think we need to pose these questions very directly.
We remain an organization overwhelmingly oriented at the national level towards elections, in which, for the time being, we will remain a minor partner. As the response to events at the Capitol indicates, I worry about tailing the Democrats, or worse, becoming something like a permanent loyal opposition within the Democratic Party that is committed to building alliances to its right.
Meanwhile, everyone’s lives are getting markedly worse, and the wreckage of history continues to pile up. This is fertile recruiting ground for the far right, which is able to offer a totalizing, if paranoiac, view of what’s wrong and who’s to blame.
The thing that reverses this isn’t going to be just getting the word out about how much better this or that piece of socialist or progressive legislation will be for working folks. It isn’t even going to be winning some of the policy priorities recently sent out by the national DSA in their statement on how to fight the Right. This isn’t a dogmatic rejection of electoral work. But I have real concerns that when we address its strategic value, we’re trading in assumptions that raising awareness about our program gets us closer to actually having power. It’s as though the problem is just that people haven’t heard about how cool Medicare For All would be.
I worry that we’re asking the wrong questions when it comes to assessing power in the present strategic landscape. If our goal is to provide a compelling alternative to the growth of the Right, then every strategic decision needs to be calibrated to a single question which needs to be a mantra in our organizing spaces: How does this increase the self-organization of the working class? This means that sooner or later groups like the DSA will have to confront the question of what a socialist organization is for in the first place. Is the primary task of our organization conceived in terms of advancing socialist policies, through either electoral work or not, and then mobilizing to accomplish these goals? Or is the primary task one of advancing the militant self-organization of the working class?
So far, we’ve deferred this question with a thoughtful “both-and”, but I think as we move into the Biden years, something’s going to have to give and we’ll have to sort this out sooner rather than later.
Haley Pessin: Thank you so much. Our next speaker is going to be Justin Akers Chacón, an educator and union activist in the San Diego-Tijuana border region. He is a member of the Punto Rojo editorial collective, and author of No One is Illegal, Radicals in the Barrio, and the forthcoming The Border Crossed Us: The case for opening the U.S.-Mexico border.
Justin Akers Chacón: Thank you, Haley; and thanks to the Tempest Collective for inviting me to participate in this important forum. I want to talk a little bit about the far-right in the context of the U.S.-Mexico border. I’ll start by saying that the issue of immigration, and immigrant workers, has been a central issue for U.S. capitalism and the two capitalist parties, throughout the country’s history. This has been especially true since the 1980s. Since then, U.S. capital—operating through the state—has radically restructured Mexico’s economy through so-called free trade agreements. This led, at the time, to the largest episode of capital export from the U.S. to Mexico, and resulted in the largest out-migration and displacement of a people not at war, from Mexico to the U.S., in modern history.
In the context of this neoliberal restructuring, U.S. capital has increased its reliance upon the exploitation of migrants and workers. Much of Mexico’s economy today is controlled directly or indirectly by the U.S. and other foreign capital and therefore the border serves the function of keeping labor contained and maintaining wage differentials. And, of course, when migrants cross the border they’re super-exploited as disenfranchised labor in the U.S.
Since the 1986 passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which produced both legalization and criminalization, both mainstream parties in the U.S. have converged around the same narrative, which involves the political construction of the ‘external threat’, and the need to protect the border. Both parties have played a significant role in crafting this narrative, and really trying to out-compete each other for who can build up the border militarization complex and criminalize immigrants more effectively. In the international context, this has mirrored the expansion of the U.S. military and its projection of power into different parts of Latin America, the Middle East, East Asia, and Africa, during this same period of time.
Since the early 1990s we’ve seen both political parties play this role of supporting criminalization. Whether it’s Clinton and the Democrats building the wall through Operation Gatekeeper in 1994, or expanding the deportation machine with Republican support in the mid-1990s, and also eliminating welfare for immigrants in most cases; or Bush and the Republicans creating the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) after 9/11; or Obama and Biden starting the process of caging families, expanding ICE into all fifty states, and creating the largest sort of deportation apparatus that we’ve seen in U.S. history. You know, this has been the process.
The building up of this apparatus of migrant repression, what I refer to as the “Migra state,” is directly tied to the most recent rise of the Right. This began with the formation of hundreds of anti-immigrant groups, specifically in the period of 2004-2006.
The most prominent of the anti-immigrant organizations that developed in this period was called the Minutemen. In 2004, George Bush was running for reelection and in the context of the War on Terror, he made the criminalization of immigration one of the campaign’s focal points. Democrat John Kerry actually ran to the right on the question of immigration and said that the Bush administration had not done enough to protect so-called ports of entry at the border. Upon reelection, Bush expanded the physical border wall from 100-to-600 miles. This culminated with the 2005 passage of the Sensenbrenner-King Bill, which would have made it a felony to be undocumented in the U.S.
The Minutemen were like a pre-Proud Boy formation of largely petty bourgeois professionals, small and mid-sized business owners, especially those crushed by capitalist globalization and the outsourcing of jobs. These forces—using the platform of national politics—began to organize quickly around the country. And in the context of where I’m at in the San Diego-Tijuana region, they began to organize staged forays with guns to hunt migrants, particularly in the eastern part of San Diego County. This was all done apparently to show the need for the border wall to be built.
We began to organize against them in 2005, using the capacity we had built through organizations like the International Socialist Organization (ISO) in San Diego and Los Angeles but united with a number of other organizations to build regional mobilizations to the border to actually disrupt these armed hunts. We confronted the Minutemen to disrupt their actions right at the border at a place called Campo, which is about an hour east of San Diego. We had about 150 people, and they had about 40. We went everywhere they went. At one point we surrounded them inside a Veterans of Foreign Wars hall and wouldn’t let them leave for over an hour. The police had to come and rescue them. At night they would try to sneak out and go on these hunts, and we would organize squads to go out and follow them. We had different tactics, from yelling to playing loud music on boom boxes; anything we could do to thwart their efforts. In the end, they left very angrily without having any success in the media, which was there to give them a platform. Instead, they reported on how frustrated they were and how successful we were.
Shortly after, the Minutemen tried to organize another regional March calling for a border wall. They sort of copied our tactic, and brought people from different cities into another border town, called Calexico, about an hour and a half east of San Diego. We did the same, and we out-organized them. We brought about 200-250 people. We went into the town prior to their staged march. We organized in the community and met with local organizations, building a lot of solidarity and support for our side. As a result, there was so much opposition to the planned Minutemen march that the mayor felt compelled to come out and say, “we don’t want [them] here,” and refused to allow the Minutemen to march. We didn’t trust the mayor’s word, so we organized anyway, and showed up with about 250 people. The Minutemen left before we got there, and we marched through the town.
I’m sharing these examples because these were key efforts that we organized to ensure that they would not have a platform, not be able to recruit, or have the ability to harm any migrant people they happened to come into contact within their efforts to create these hunts. But they didn’t go away. Instead, they changed tactics. They started to attack farm worker sites in north San Diego, tearing up their tents and personal belongings. Because many of them were poor and underpaid, they lived in canyons around the farmlands in north San Diego County. We would organize worker defense committees to go counter-protest and confront the Minutemen doing this. We would also send worker defense committees to Home Depots because Minutemen would go there and try to intimidate day-laborers.
The conclusion of our efforts was that we played a role in demobilizing and out-organizing the Minutemen, and that had an effect in pushing local politics to the left. For example, there’s a small town south of San Diego that’s predominantly Mexican called National City, and we were able to meet with the mayor. As a result of our ongoing organizing efforts, and in collaboration with the immigrant rights movement that was developing at the time, the mayor established National City as a sanctuary city.
Most important was the mass movement of immigrant workers themselves, in 2006. This was one of the most important labor uprisings in modern U.S. history, that effectively killed the Sensenbrenner Bill. Like the BLM movement, it pushed politics to the left. The Minutemen fell off the map, and their organizing was severely weakened. Many people felt that because the Democrats won control of the House in 2006, and then won both houses of Congress in 2008, along with the presidency, legalization was on the table. Of course, it wasn’t. The mass movement of 2006, however, just completely marginalized the far right.
The last thing I want to discuss is how things have changed since Trump. During the Trump administration, the traditional anti-immigrant Right regrouped, but now with neo-Nazis, Proud Boys, and with the direct support of elements of the San Diego Sheriff’s Department. The local San Diego sheriff and the district attorney were pro-Trump. In December 2017, they tried to organize a series of pro-wall rallies. Even though the police had publicly announced that they would create safe protest zones between those who were pro-wall and anti-wall, they actually played a direct role in allowing a group of neo-Nazis to attack pro-immigrant, anti-wall protesters.
We had about 30 people that came out to protest a local, far right, pro-Trump politician, who was calling for the wall expansion. In the middle of the counter-protest, a line of sheriffs actually allowed neo-Nazis to cross their lines onto our side and violently attack and injure several people. The sheriffs waited about three minutes and then began to separate people and allow the neo-Nazis to move directly past their lines. We were on the verge of being arrested and were literally chased out by the police, who followed us out of the area for about three miles in a caravan of about a dozen police cars. Despite video evidence of the attack and police complicity, the Sheriff’s Office (investigating themselves), basically concluded that nothing illegal happened, and the local district attorney—who was openly aligned with the sheriff—refused to press any charges.
The far right has become bigger, is more organized, and has support within local police departments in San Diego County. Organized mobilization and confrontation is going to continue to be urgently needed, especially in the months to come, as we see immigration becoming a central issue again.
Haley Pessin: Thank you so much, Justin, especially for the inspiring examples of fighting back. Our final speaker is Elizabeth Lalasz, a registered nurse and steward with National Nurses United. She is a member of Chicago DSA Labor Branch and the Tempest Collective.
Elizabeth Lalasz: Thank you so much, Haley; and thanks to the Tempest Collective, all the co-sponsors, and everyone who’s here today to participate in this critical discussion.
I’m going to talk about the role of the labor movement. Obviously, this is a period of recomposition, as Dave McNally talked about. I want to sketch out some of its dynamics, and the potential that’s out there, especially after a year of a pandemic, and what that’s actually done to workers’ consciousness in the labor movement. I’ll talk about that briefly, and then conclude with what struggle might look like in the Biden era.
Unions are one of the only effective working class institutions in this country that can engage workers to both build power on their jobs, but also in society at large. That’s what we’re really pushing for. That’s something that the union movement hasn’t done a whole lot of, but I feel like the summer showed what the potential was like, with unions taking up the BLM issues and really trying to amplify them. I’ll get to that in a little bit, but another issue where unions can play a critical role, is pushing back on the Right in the streets, and also within our workplaces.
This last year has been extremely difficult for working people in this country. I’m a nurse, and what they call an essential worker. I’ve been in my workplace for the last 11-12 months, organizing alongside a lot of essential workers, and we’ve seen firsthand what the pandemic has done. We’ve seen firsthand what the economy has done to people. We’ve seen firsthand what the inaction of a national government run by Trump and all his cronies has done. A lot of people have gotten sick, and a lot of people have died. A lot of people have become unemployed, and there was really no plan to deal with any of it.
Yet workers themselves, both union and non-union, have also fought for safety, against layoffs, and for hazard pay. Some have won some really fantastic victories. I won’t say it’s wholesale, but I really think these victories are important; and it’s not just about the unionization rate or the number of strikes, which are low. I’m being honest with you. It has been that way for a while. What’s important is what the pandemic has revealed to working people. Like I said, it’s not just about Trump, but also about the capitalist system that we live under. For myself, and other essential workers, we found out that the reality is that our employers don’t care about our lives. You can see that with the reopening of schools. School districts and their employers just don’t care about teachers, and are mostly concerned with maintaining the economy and their profits. So, that’s sort of the bigger picture on one side of what’s been going on during the pandemic.
On the other side is another factor in the labor movement, which is that about 40 percent of union members actually voted for Trump in the last election. While thankfully Trump has left the White House, it’s pretty alarming that so many workers are unaware of their class interests. Our class interests are actually aligned with the things I just described: fighting for better workplaces, and relying on, and fighting for, each other. Part of that is understanding that the Democrats don’t present an alternative, and haven’t for the last couple of presidential elections. They’re more concerned about bipartisanship than actually accomplishing what people want, and what aligns with their real interests: healthcare for all, funding for schools, cutting the military budget, and other things like that.
Of course, the vote is also likely a reflection of Trump’s supporters, but also shows who is part of the far right. However, it also undoubtedly reflects a section of the labor movement, likely concentrated among people within the police unions, firefighter unions, the skilled trades, Teamsters, Auto Workers, Steel Workers, and others who are sympathetic to the far right ideology which was on display during the “riot” in Washington, D.C. But it is pretty obvious that it’s antithetical to the union movement and its politics, which are one of solidarity: “An injury to one is an injury to all”. It’s the politics of racism, misogyny, anti-LGBTQIA, anti-Left, and is really something that the labor movement needs to take on as a battleground, as it’s re-composing and rebuilding itself during what is a politically and economically volatile time. The economy is the worst it has been in a century. Therefore, what we’ll need to do to get what we need, is to fight a pitched battle. Unions will have to become a major arena for anti-fascist organizing, not only to push back the far right forces within our own ranks, but also to organize openly in opposition to them when they organize in the streets, try to intimidate people, go into Black neighborhoods, or anywhere else to try to actually take them on. I feel like the labor movement and unionized workers are an effective force against that.
Even if it’s a little bit quieter now, I believe that the Right in Congress, on social media, and elsewhere, will use racism and play on the economic fears over the coming months, and the shortcomings of the Biden administration, to build their base. We have to be ready to take them on in the labor movement.
The real inequality, and how people were treated during the summer in the BLM movement, versus how the protesters in the Capitol were treated, stood out to people. I have coworkers in the public hospital who are women of color, who say that they “would have been shot dead” if they “had actually gone into the Capitol,” yet these guys basically got carte blanche, and weren’t moved for hours. The head of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) here in Chicago, John Catanzara, defended the Capitol “rioters.” Now there’s actually a move to get him fired. My co-workers, many of whom are women of color, were torn over whether they should support the police or the looters in the early days of the BLM uprisings after George Floyd was murdered by police. Initially, they were for the police moving in and stopping looters. But events changed many of their minds. Many now support John Catanzara being fired, because they identify him with the far right, and they have come to realize the police treat us very differently.
This also puts more urgency on the call by unions to get rid of the police in the labor movement. That call needs to be brought back again. I’m not saying that there aren’t contradictions. I appreciate what Jeb from Santa Cruz said about having to think through the dynamics of the police. But I also think that we need to build on the actions that some unions carried out during the summer around the BLM movement: bus drivers refusing to transport police in Minneapolis; bus drivers refusing to transport arrested protesters for the police in NYC; the International Longshore and Warehouse Union shutting down docks along the West Coast on Juneteenth; professional sports teams refusing to play, such as the Milwaukee Bucks after Jakob Blake’s murder by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, which set off a ripple effect.
I think it’s important for us to open up discussions within our unions, with coworkers, at membership meetings, as we did in some unions around BLM. These are the places to argue for why we need to mobilize union members to oppose the far right. I also agree with others who believe it’s important to have discussions about why we can’t look to the Biden administration to deal with the far right, to punish them, or enact legislation against them. Any expansion of state repression can be used back against us. This past week we had a city-wide union meeting of nurses across Chicago, where we discussed this. We said that if Biden enacts a Patriot Act Two, or something similar to repress the far right, we know it will be used against us. We already saw what happened at Hunts Point Produce Market in New York, where the police came out to the picket line and arrested striking Teamsters. That’s outrageous. And it’s just the beginning. With an economy as bad as it is, we know there are going to be more fight backs, and more strikes.
We also have to build resistance that’s independent of the Biden administration and the Democrats. I understand that people have a lot of hope. After four years of Trump, including complete mis-leadership during a pandemic, people want something different. And there’s a lot of hope being placed in Biden, who overturned a lot of Trump’s executive orders, and got rid of the anti-worker personnel assigned to the National Labor Relations Board. But I don’t think that we should have any illusions about what that actually means. The only way we’re going to be able to win things as working people is if we actually organize ourselves. There are a lot of contract expirations that are coming up over the next year, covering hundreds of thousands of workers: healthcare workers, municipal workers, state workers, school employees and others. Labor Notes has a good article on this. Those are going to be the pressure points for collective fight back on the part of union workers. Our employers are going to claim poverty. They don’t want to give us anything. And it’s not only about budgets and money, it’s about power. It’s crucial that we connect the fight against the far right to the fight for what we need to survive in this pandemic.
We have a big fight on our hands that people should know about with the reopening of schools in the Chicago Teachers Union. The mayor, Lori Lightfoot, is a neoliberal Democrat. Lightfoot is a Black lesbian mayor who ran on a progressive platform, and then reneged on most of it. The teachers union, who won a strike in 2019, is the biggest group of workers in the city who oppose her. Now Lightfoot is trying to force the schools back open, but the teachers’ union, led by the rank and file, actually have been refusing to go inside the buildings. They have tried to continue remote learning, but have been cut off and locked out. They just took a vote over the weekend to have the entire union actually remain remote, and if they are retaliated against, they have declared they will go on strike in the old fashioned way with picket lines. In response, Lightfoot and Chicago Public Schools backed off and delayed the opening of schools. That’s the kind of power we talked about. The role of socialists and socialist politics has been absolutely essential in that fight back. There were socialists within the union who actually argued about the power of rank and file confrontation, in the sense of actually organizing ourselves to take this on, and not be forced back into unsafe buildings.
I know that might not seem connected to the far right, but I think these things are connected with how we have to see the world. Fighting the far right, the Democrats, and the capitalist system, which will be pushing back hard against us, is what we will need to do to survive and build a better world.
We want to hear what you think. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you've enjoyed what you've read, please consider donating to support our work: