When I first read Jill Dunson’s opinion piece in Newsweek, “Blue-Collar Workers Are Under Attack by an Intellectual-Industrial Complex,” it sounded to me like the rantings of a far-right weirdo. Her column lumped together Tom Hall of the World Socialist Website (WSWS) and Barry Eidlin, a regular contributor to Jacobin magazine—individuals who have nothing in common—and appeared to confirm she was some kind of myopic anti-communist.
She may be all of these things, but Dunson is also a UPS part-time pre-loader in Texas and a member of the Teamsters’ UPS National Bargaining Committee. The Teamsters have a tightly controlled media operation run by Teamster General President Sean O’Brien’s chief of staff, Brian Rainville, so it is very unlikely that Dunson went rogue. Her column was very likely cleared by the union’s staff before publication.
What incensed Dunson were Hall and Eidlin’s criticisms of the Tentative Agreement (TA) reached on July 25 between UPS and the Teamsters. Let’s be clear: Hall made quite extensive criticisms of the TA, while Eidlin, an assistant professor at McGill University in Montreal, has been largely supportive of both the TA and the O’Brien-Zuckerman leadership. Dunson wrote:
As a part-timer, I make less than $20 per hour. But when this agreement is ratified on August 22, my pay will shoot up immediately to more than $24 per hour. This will make a huge difference in my family’s finances and peace-of-mind.
This is why it drives me crazy to know there are people who do not work at UPS but who falsely claim to champion our fight. Today’s labor movement is filled with armchair “activists” interfering in real wins that give real money to people who badly need it. I have a serious problem with that. These individuals don’t do my job, yet they stand in the way of 340,000 Teamsters trying to improve our lives at work.
How Holland and Eidlin can possibly “stand in the way of 340,000 Teamsters trying to improve [their] lives at work” is just baffling. Hall was able to respond to Dunson in a follow-up column soon afterwards. I thought he did a good job, despite how much I abhor the WSWS’s politics and despite myself being the target of their vitriol. Hall hit the nail head, when he wrote:
The reason that many workers are opposed to the deal between the world’s largest shipping company and the 330,000 employees the contract covers is not that they are supposedly being manipulated by “armchair activists.” It’s because the new contract falls short of their demands.
How many UPS Teamsters ultimately vote “no” on the TA, we will see in a few days. The deadline for voting is Tuesday, August 22. The widespread criticism of the Teamster leadership and the TA on social media platforms has clearly frustrated the union’s leadership. The widespread circulation of criticism, especially the WSWS, and other alternative news outlets, like Teamsterlink, has caused them headaches, despite the union’s own extensive social media campaigning.
This is not a new situation in the Teamsters. Last Fall, Sean O’Brien faced widespread criticism for his role in the national railroad negotiations. O’Brien welcomed the presidential intervention of Joe Biden and told Teamster rail members to accept the unpopular contract. Speaking to the convention delegates of the Teamster-affiliated Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (BLET), he told them to stop whining and stop talking to outsiders—just falling a hair’s breadth of the red-baiting tactics traditionally employed against dissidents.
But why are rank and file Teamsters reading, circulating, and finding answers at the WSWS? Unfortunately, the WSWS has been one of the few websites that has consistently focused on the struggles of industrial workers in the United States with its vitriolic attacks on unions, union leaderships, and calls for independent rank-and-file committees. It has clearly struck a chord with many, though none have heeded the WSWS’s call to abandon their unions in some fit of self-destruction.
The seeming appeal of the WSWS reminds me of a story that the radical labor newspaper editor Len De Caux told about the appeal of the U.S. Communist Party during its most destructive, ultra-left phase in the early 1930a. De Caux wrote:
The communists brought misery out of hiding in the workers’ neighborhoods. They paraded it with angry demands through the main streets….and on to City Hall…. Sometimes, I’d hear a communist speaker say something so bitter and extreme, I’d feel embarrassed. Then I’d look around at the unemployed audience—shabby clothes, expressions worried and sour. Faces would start to glow, heads to nod, hands to clap.
This is not a perfect analogy, but I think it helps explain some of the appeal of the WSWS, and it may also explain efforts by the far right to reach out to industrial workers. There’s an audience there for them.
It should be noted that, despite Dunson’s claim about the “Intellectual-Industrial Complex” (if she means by that the broad left and mainstream), it has been overwhelmingly supportive of the TA and published many enthusiastic portraits of Sean O’Brien. Much of the U.S. Left—with few exceptions, among them Tempest—have echoed the Teamster leadership’s claims that this is a big victory.
Lastly, the role of the far right in this episode is worrisome. Newsweek is not the weekly print magazine of yesteryear. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) reported in the Fall of 2020, “Newsweek positioned political activist Josh Hammer to run their opinion pages during the run-up to the 2020 presidential election, and since that time, the publication has taken a marked radical right turn by buoying extremists and promoting authoritarian leaders.”
Whether Josh Hammer approached the Teamsters or they approached him, we may never know, but Hammer, like many U.S. far-right activists, is in love with Hungary’s semi-fascist government of Viktor Orban. The Teamsters have had episodic relations with the far right over the years. Such far-right invitations or platforms, especially to attack critics of the Teamsters politics should be rejected.
Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons; modified by Tempest.
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Joe Allen is a long-time labor activist and writer. His latest book is The Package King: A Rank and File History of UPS.