Members of UNITE HERE Philadelphia at a post-election rally, November 2020. Photo from UNITE HERE Philly.
In “The White Republic and The Struggle for Racial Justice,” Bob Wing contended that the U.S. state is racist to the core, and this has specific implications for our movements’ work going forward, especially the need to replace this racist state with an anti-racist state. In this response, Peter Olney and Rand Wilson look at the role that labor unions can play in building the cross-class front against what Wing calls “the re-entrenchment of the white republic.” From their long experience as union organizers, they draw the lesson “that unity and awareness of our shared enemy is built among trade unionists and allies in the trenches of common struggle.” OrgUp has published a number of other responses to Bob Wing’s article as well; we encourage readers to add your voice, and to check out the contributions from Bill Fletcher, Jr., Gerald Horne, Erin Heaney, Van Gosse, and Barry Eidlin. This discussion then wraps up with some concluding thoughts by Bob Wing.
Labor Must ‘Block and Build’ to Defend Democracy
By Peter Olney & Rand Wilson
Bob Wing argues in “The White Republic” that American capitalism is firmly rooted in the appropriation of the lands and labor of native peoples and African slaves. Throughout U.S. history this system has been one of white supremacy and racial oppression, not only of Native peoples and Blacks, but also of other exploited peoples like Asian Pacific Islanders and Latinos.
The 2020 Presidential election, the battle for the Senate in Georgia, and the January 6 Capitol insurrection illustrated the white supremacist forces at play. Democracy and majority rule are in the cross-hairs. Republicans are moving in lockstep to suppress and oppress the votes of people of color to preserve minority rule. The recent spate of state legislative initiatives to restrict voting is the closest thing to the “Jim Crow” era since before the Civil Rights Act of 1965.
We accept the veracity of Wing’s analysis, and the need for a “united front” to defeat and destroy the white supremacist forces in the long term. Our challenge in trying to bring the labor movement into that front is to operationalize a perspective that builds antiracist practice, tackles white supremacy and fights capitalism – and to do that among a membership that is not rooted in a shared identity or philosophy.
It’s no easy matter. Demographics are not destiny – at least not fast enough. The country remains 62 percent non-Hispanic white. And as we saw in the last election, Trump’s racist, proto-fascist appeals garnered 73 million votes, and his vote totals increased in both Latinx and Black communities.
As lifelong trade unionists, we embrace the challenge of building the broad united front between labor and communities of color to defeat white supremacy. But how best is that elusive unity built? Imagine going to a union meeting and denouncing the “white republic” when many cars and trucks in the parking lot sport “Blue Lives Matter” bumper stickers. It’s a recipe for a very heated exchange, or worse, a brawl! What’s really needed are ways to open discussions with members that don’t condescend or polarize, and do involve deep listening and identifying common values.
Many union leaders have begun this process by centering racial justice in membership education programs, organizing campaigns and bargaining. “Labor organizations are taking up the fight for racial justice in many ways,” wrote Stephanie Luce in a profile of contemporary efforts by union leaders. “They’re developing in-depth member education on racial capitalism. They are using bargaining to address structural racism and developing new leaders.” Luce also cites SEIU 1199 in New England which has used Bargaining for the Common Good to build relationships and common demands with racial justice organizations. This is one approach.
BONDING THROUGH COMMON WORK
Experience tells us that unity and awareness of our shared enemy is built among trade unionists and allies in the trenches of common struggle. We are inspired by the work of UNITE HERE and other unions in battleground states like Arizona, Nevada, Pennsylvania and later the Senate race in Georgia in 2020-21. The bold decision by a few union leaders to recruit and support their members to canvass on the doors during the pandemic built lasting relationships and respect with the organizations of Blacks, Latinos and Asian Americans already deeply engaged in those battleground situations.
The union banners, T-shirts, and buttons (we do bling well!) were welcomed in action, as was the experience and courage of these able trade unionists of all colors. Nothing bonds people better than working together in 95-degree heat, with a mask, a visor, and the determination to knock on every door. That joint work is worth a thousand educational sessions.
The great Italian Marxist philosopher and organizer Antonio Gramsci points to the limits of education and intellectual argument in this passage on “Philosophy, Common Sense, Language and Folklore” from his famous Prison Notebooks:
“Imagine the intellectual position of the man of the people: he has formed his own opinions, convictions, criteria of discrimination, standards of conduct. Anyone with a superior intellectual formation with a point of view opposed to his can put forward arguments better than he and really tear him to pieces logically and so on. But should the man of the people change his opinions just because of this? Just because he cannot impose himself in a bout of argument? In that case he might find himself having to change every day, or every time he meets an ideological adversary who is his intellectual superior. On what elements, therefore, can his philosophy be founded? And in particular his philosophy in the form which has the greatest importance for his standards of conduct?”
The 2022 midterm elections offer an excellent opportunity for the “men [and women] of the people” to forge new convictions and standards of conduct.
2022: NEXT BATTLEGROUND, FOUNDATION FOR CHANGE
Maintaining the momentum to win progressive legislation and beat back the far right and the “big lie” of election theft requires a broad commitment to win seats in the 2022 midterm elections on November 8 – and win big. It’s no easy task. The political system is rigged against Democrats who got five million more votes in their 2020 races for the U.S. House of Representatives yet lost 11 seats in Congress.
Can we defy history and increase Democratic margins in the House and Senate? Can we afford not to? The 1934 midterms during Roosevelt’s first term in the midst of the Great Depression are inspiring. Gains were made in both the House and Senate that enabled the passage of key legislation like the National Labor Relations Act, which encouraged millions of workers to fight for and form new unions.
The 2022 midterms are perhaps more monumental. The Trump forces will be determined to recapture both houses of Congress and stymie any positive Biden initiatives in the second two years of his presidency. They will have all the advantages of their voter suppression laws and gerrymandered districts. But the ground forces on the front lines in the last election will not be deterred. They will be out again, and with even more gusto.
LUCHA in Arizona will fight to keep Democrat Mark Kelly in the Senate. The New Georgia Project and Stacey Abrams will be rolling up their sleeves to defend the Senate seat of Rev. Raphael Warnock. All the battleground locations will see healthy mobilizations of activists from all over the country eager to defeat the right. These are the battles that labor must join, and these are the flashpoints where multi-racial unity will be forged in the common struggle to preserve the forward march of the pro-labor Biden agenda and stem the racist right.
TIME IS RUNNING SHORT
Prior to the midterms, there will be important primary challenges by progressive Democrats running to win against corporate Democrats. Nina Turner’s primary campaign for the recently vacated seat in Ohio’s 11th congressional district is a great example. These pro-labor/pro-racial justice candidates need support, especially where Democrats have safe seats. But once the 2022 primaries are over, labor must focus on competitive races where congressional seats need to be defended or where seats can be gained. In addition to the seats held by Senators Kelly and Warnock, there are six more Senate seats where Republicans are resigning or are vulnerable, in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Florida, and Missouri.
The labor movement can draw much inspiration from the experience and energy of 2020 combined with the surprisingly good performance of President Biden. The new administration’s taming of the pandemic and its robust stimulus and infrastructure bills should create the foundation to peel away many of the estimated forty percent of trade unionists who voted for Trump. Particularly in the more conservative building trades, funding for infrastructure is something to fight to preserve and extend. Biden’s shutdown of the Keystone XL pipeline, a big issue that many building trades leaders railed against under Obama, is being overshadowed by the massive infrastructure proposals.
After detailing the billions of dollars of infrastructure spending that Biden is proposing in an editorial to the membership, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) President Lonnie R. Stephenson wrote, “This is enough work to last from apprenticeship to retirement not just for you, but for tens of thousands of new union members in our brotherhood alone…This bill means hundreds of thousands of jobs for construction members, but also for our members in utility, telecom, railroad and broadcasting.”
Stephenson knows “A Lifetime of Work” is what will motivate IBEW members to support the plan regardless of how they voted. And that is what will motivate the IBEW and other unions to recruit and send members to preserve the possibility of anti-austerity measures like the infrastructure bills that have a direct benefit to working people. Few IBEW members will ever embrace the notion of a “white republic” or “racial capitalism,” but when those members are in the trenches (or on the doors) with Blacks, Latinos and Asian Americans with a common purpose, they will come much closer to supporting Wing’s call for “a powerful antiracist movement of people of color and whites” to “defeat the white supremacist right, transform or replace the racist institutions that dominate the country, and to reconstruct society based on peace, sustainability, and justice.”
We can think of our strategy going forward as “Blocking and Building,” as laid out by Tarso Ramos of Political Research Associates. “We need to block the Right Wing…and build relationships, strategies, and campaigns of deep solidarity and shared power across the communities that together will build real multi-racial democracy,” Ramos said. For us in the labor movement, this looks like blocking white supremacy, preserving a pro-labor agenda, and building our power. Funding and supporting union members for the ballot brigades in the key 2022 election races will be the most concrete way to dovetail labor and race in the trenches.
In the run-up to the November 2020 election, Labor Action to Defend Democracy (LADD) was formed to protect the election from being stolen. It was an exciting and relatively broad formation supported by many union leaders. Combined with the energy and resources of other progressive labor initiatives, LADD could be reassembled in some form to support activist union members in the key battleground states to work alongside local organizations battling the Trumpista white supremacists.
Bob Wing’s work is theoretically sound. The Block and Build labor brigades are one example of how to put that vision into concrete strategic practice. It is time to get cracking, as we are only 17 months out from our day of reckoning: November 8, 2022.
This article is being published simultaneously by Organizing Upgrade and The Stansbury Forum.