We've Got Some Big Lessons to Learn from Recent Political Victories

One of the first things Adolf Hitler did after his electoral victory in 1933 was ban the trade unions. He understood power dynamics and saw that unions were a threat to his influence over the working masses. Workers with good unions have good jobs and good lives; people with good lives don’t listen to demagogues.

The same insight informs the 2016 post-election tweets of key right-wing strategist Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform:

The right’s obsession with union-busting is nothing new; sadly, neither is the Democratic Party’s indifference to it. For 35 years, Democrats have ignored, acquiesced in and even supported the dismantling of the American labor movement. Believing that demography is destiny, big data is strategy and framing is persuasion, the liberal elite cast off the working class. As a result, our nation and the world now face an era of unprecedented danger. Never before has a single party had as much decision-making power: control of the executive, legislative, and soon, judicial branches of government at the federal and local level. And that single party is not mainstream, it is extremist.

Twentieth-century fascism and Donald J. Trump attained power as false populists, their “populism” anti-union in the literal sense, for while decrying the elite, they actually turned the rank-and-file not against bosses and bankers but against one another. Of course, like democracy itself, unions are complicated and flawed. Yet we’ve found no better system for running a country than democracy, and no better mechanism for ensuring good lives for its working class than unions. It’s time we finally learned the two are inseparable. Without basic economic justice to underpin it, democracy cannot thrive, or survive.

Union organizers and the millions of workers who have fought to unionize have long experience with the kind of campaign that just put Donald J. Trump in the White House. Today, an employer who wants to stop employees organizing to better their lives hires an outside firm from a sector called the union avoidance industry. The tactics of Steve Bannon, Breitbart News mastermind, Trump campaign CEO and now White House chief strategist, are taken from union avoidance professionals: sow division, fear and futility. Racism, misogyny, appeals to competitive individualism, and bold lies are the chosen weapons. For 30 years, those tactics have helped union busters win most fights. Yet against that post-Reagan tide and very stiff odds, some unions have pulled off true victories. Understanding how is key to rebuilding a strong working class and political movement, and getting out of the mess we’re in now.

Working-Class Populism Begins by Confronting Racism

Two things need to be done in the workplace fight and our national fight to build successful labor and progressive political movements. Workers and voters who have been divided must unite. And they must unite under their own organic leadership.

The original division among the U.S. working class—between paid laborers and slaves—has left the deepest, most powerful imprint on relations between workers today. When I am helping workers win family-supporting wages, good health care and the right to retire, I make one thing crystal clear to all of them: the employer doesn’t need any of you, but he does need all of you, and the sooner you make a plan to unite, the faster you will win the changes you seek. While helping workers organize, I have had to spend plenty of time defusing racism, in real live fights, in the heat of the moment. When white workers complain of colleagues, “Why don’t they just talk English?” I ask, “When’s the last time you pulled up a chair in the breakroom at lunch and asked them about where they came from and why they came to the U.S.?” When Latino workers say, “Blacks steal when you aren’t looking,” I say, “Funny, the employer says that about you, and do you steal?” For my book, No Shortcuts, Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age, I studied a dozen recent campaigns, mostly union but not just union. In one, in 2008, 5,000 Southern factory workers overcame employer-cultivated hatred between black, Latino and white workers and formed a union. As it always does, that took deliberate solidarity-building exercises that confronted racism day in and day out to build a broad, populist, working-class movement.

Movement Expansion Focuses on the Undecided, Not the Already Committed

To prevail in a tough fight against union busters who preach Breitbart’s individualist “populism,” experienced organizers practice true populism: identifying natural leaders among the workers themselves, and coaching them to reach out to coworkers who are fearful or skeptical of unions. These “undecideds” won’t converse with just anyone, particularly not with “activists”, who tend to do all of the talking and none of the listening. In each workplace, as in each community, there are natural or organic leaders—ordinary, not elite, people of high intelligence who have the trust of their peers—who seek them out for help, advice, and more.

These natural, organic leaders can be trained to engage undecided coworkers and help them see that their problems at work must be solved by collective, not individual, action. No professional organizer or activist, no matter how passionate, can match these leaders’ power to persuade and lead in a hard fight—because their co-workers already look to them for leadership--and yet most organizing campaigns use the professionals and leave the rank-and-file leaders on the sidelines.

 Like the labor movement, progressive politics in the U.S. is driven by hired activists, not organic leaders. And so we’ve lost. Trump’s working-class votes were mobilized not just by his rhetoric but also through deliberate base expansion by the Christian right, the Tea Party, National Rifle Association, and other groups who organized the masses—the base that the unions and the Democrats had written off and allowed to wither.

Don’t Poll, Organize!

When I was a young organizer, back in the late 1980s, pollsters were a distant, obscure bunch. By the late 90s, they’d become the chief strategists, with unfettered access to the decision makers in most unions and in the Democratic Party. Frames and messages directed at people quickly replaced face-to-face engagement and one-on-one conversations with people. I sat through sessions where well-known national pollsters instructed union leaders to replace the words “working class” with “middle class,” “workers” with “working families,” and “union” with “associations.” Worker agents were replaced by an army of professional staff trained to “work the message” with a handful of telegenic, carefully selected pro-union worker activists, in turn trained by pollsters to present the narrative.

This rebranding has been a colossal disaster. It can be reversed, but only by returning to back-to-basics classic organizing. The movement doesn’t need advice from pollsters. Organic leaders, trained by skilled organizers, and the rank and file those leaders spring from provide far more accurate information, and have proven over and over they can change the actual facts on the ground, not just the “message”.

Demography is not destiny, and destroying the one institution through which the working class understood and dealt with the world—unions—led us to this moment. There are no shortcuts to rebuilding our base, yet we can take the long road very fast, in a few years, if we choose to do it right.

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