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Does the progressive movement have its leadership today?

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Richard Trumka, President of AFL-CIO

Leadership is everywhere – popping out of our computer screens every time we look! The problem is that they are nearly all self-appointed, untested, and mostly unqualified.

The most popular leaders – Senator Sanders, Senator Warren, Mrs Clinton, etc – all suffer from tunnel vision — a single-minded determination that we will win at the ballot box, while the truth is that democracy keeps shifting away like sand in an hourglass.

Not that elections aren’t critical – but they’re not the only form of struggle. The best leadership available today is the American Federation of Labor/Congress of Industrial Organizations, the AFL-CIO.

Not That Labor Leadership Is Perfect

What we really need is a mass workers’ political party beholden only to working families. We don’t have one, and I don’t see one on the immediate horizon. But when it does come, it is most likely to come out of the AFL-CIO.

Here are some of the positive arguments for AFL-CIO leadership of the progressive movement:

  1. Unions have more money than all the tiny little organizations that are begging for contributions every day.
  2. They have physical buildings, meeting places that are long-established in communities. Here where I live, nearly all the progressive groups try to get into the Communications’ Workers Hall, and the AFL-CIO encourages them.
  3. Say what you might against the better-paid union members, they are solidly working class. If you think about it, most of the progressive groups vying for leadership are actually led by preachers and professionals – people in the ideologically uncertain “in between” class.
  4. While the AFL-CIO works hard on elections, they also work hard year-round on lobbying, organizing workers, participating in protests, economic struggle, and organizing mass demonstrations
  5. Since the leadership turnover of 1995, AFL-CIO leadership has affirmatively tried to end its old policy of isolation. For example, they no longer call for deportation of all undocumented immigrants – they call for organizing them. They have active Constituency Groups trying to organize working people as interest groups such as women, Latinos, gays, etc. Some of the better labor leaders are also coming out strong for public presence and improved communications. They also established Working America to incorporate, politically, all American workers whether or not they work under union contracts.
  6. Many unions maintain a relationship with their vast numbers of retirees and, consequently, greatly increase the union’s political clout. Non-union retirees, like non-union workers, are pretty much on their own, and largely helpless, as political entities.
  7. Increasingly, unions are partnering across national lines. It’s not there yet, but it’s on its way to becoming a world movement.
  8. The basic idea of unionization is cooperation of all workers in a workplace, consequently today’s unions tend to be anti-racist, anti-sexist etc. Women in unions, for example, have already largely achieved the American dream of equal pay for equal work.

OK, There’s a Downside

The reasons that union movement leadership isn’t as good as a mass Workers Party could also be listed:

  1. Individual unions, which make up the AFL-CIO and provide its revenue, are defensive organizations with one dominating purpose – to defend their members against their particular employer. Broader social concerns aren’t the main business of union locals nor of their national leaderships. This constraint has less of an influence on labor’s federation, the AFL-CIO, but it is fundamental to understanding the union movement.
  2. As mentioned above, union members tend to make more money than non-union members; consequently, they don’t share exactly the same viewpoints. While many workers dream of making $15/hour someday, some union members are already making $35!
  3. Union contracts are based on seniority. That means that older longer-term workers tend to displace the younger workers. There is almost no other way to keep bosses from applying work rules unfairly, so seniority rules in union contracts. The aging of the union membership is a harmful consequence. “Who has the youth has the future,” goes the saying, and some of America’s unions try hard to cultivate younger leaders, but seniority keeps pushing them out the door!
  4. While the unions fight hard against losing jobs to outsourcing, they have virtually no defense against losing jobs to automation. This was not always true – the CIO (pre-1955) always fought for shorter working hours – but it seems to be true now. The reason may be that workers, including union workers, are also consumers. As consumers, they are debt-ridden and addicted to overtime pay. They may be averse to discussing shorter working hours as a social solution.
  5. To someone outside the unions, it may seem strange, but some union leaders tend to want to keep things the way they are rather than embrace change. The reason, believe it or not, is fundamental democracy within the labor movement! The present corps of union leaders were democratically elected by their members just the way things are. Any change, especially change that involves mobilizing the membership, is change that will “rock the boat” before the next union elections. If the membership undergoes change, how will the next union elections turn out? This has to be on the minds of local union and national union leaders, but is less of a problem for the AFL-CIO federation.
  6. The AFL-CIO, I think intentionally, has no real sense of history. Without an honest history, they tend to ask people to believe the self-serving union histories that exist. In those histories, all labor leaders of the past were heroes who never actually made a mistake.
  7. Unions aren’t intentionally revolutionary. Their revolutionary potential comes from their consistent advocacy for workers’ rights. The AFL-CIO’s anti-capitalism doesn’t come by intentional design, but from the nature of things. Bosses continually accuse union organizers of trying to destroy their own workplaces, but it isn’t true. Unions simply want a better deal for workers within existing workplaces, not a revolutionary overturn. The union struggle, then, might be seen as eternal, with unions always fighting bosses and always wanting to win in the immediate sense, but never wanting a decisive victory.

Summing Up: Stick With the Unions!

AFL-CIO leadership is today the best option for the progressive movement. An actual Workers Party that seeks power would be better, but a true mass Workers Party is more likely to come out of the AFL-CIO than from the imaginations of radical activists, the Democratic Party, or anywhere else. Consequently, those of us seeking progressive leadership should look to join a union, organize a union, join Working America, and/or, at the least, consult with the AFL-CIO for leadership in the progressive movement.

I just can’t get away from these cow metaphors. I grew up in the country and worked, for a while, in a dairy. You can learn a lot from cows.

stampede-cows

But what I’m actually trying to wrap my mind and yours around is how to deal with the difficult political situation we’re in. The question came up because of one of my earlier posts. It drew a comment, more or less, to the effect that one of the major tasks confronting progressives is re-educating or replacing our union leadership.

I Used To Be a Lot More Intelligent Than I Am Now

Long ago, I was a member of an organization that didn’t like the union leadership. In fact, I don’t think we liked any leaderships. Not in the women’s movement, not in the civil rights movement, not in the anti-war movement, not in any of the progressive movements. It’s not that we were anti-leadership anarchists, it’s just that we thought we alone knew best. We only liked one leadership, ourselves. Everybody else, everybody in leadership of any organization, was just wrong. We were the smart ones!

The result was that we almost always got into squabbles with the leadership of any organization we tried to relate to. We had a reputation for it, and knowledgeable activists didn’t look forward to our company.

Build Up Our Side, Don’t Tear it Down

I don’t think that we need, at this time, arguments with the leaders of the unions or of any progressive organization as a way for the progressive movement to go forward. I can’t say that I actually agree, point-by-point, with the leaders of any of the organizations that are doing so much and moving so many people into action right now. But I’m sure glad they are building the movement!

We should be deliriously happy to see so many people starting to get active, and we should encourage it in every way possible. When it’s appropriate, we can make our suggestions on program, on tactics, on strategy, or even on broad ideology. But we should do it in a friendly helpful cooperative way, not an argumentative or confrontational way.

Arguing and confronting are what we do to our enemies, not our friends.

How to Get Cows to the Right Place

Cows tend to meander along. It’s kind of hard to figure out why they go where they go, what influences them, who they look to for leadership, what they try to avoid. We’ve all seen the stampedes in the western movies, where some poor old cowboy gets killed while trying to “turn the herd.” Death by stomping.

It’s mighty hard for a cowboy to do it. But it’s even harder for a single cow. And in this metaphor, we aren’t cowboys. We’re cows, stampeding right along with everybody else. It would be inadvisable to get in front of a mad stampede and try to argue. We’d get stomped and maybe hurt some of the other cows, too.

We’ll be more effective if we go along with the herd and do our best to nudge one here, poke one there, moo loudly when appropriate, moo softly if it will work better, and try to get the herd over where we all need to be. That’s leadership in a cow stampede. Also in a mass movement.

–Gene Lantz

I’m on KNON.org and 89.3FM in Dallas every Saturday at 9AM central time. If you want to know what I really think, click here.