Labor leaders say only 'full-throated economic populism' can defeat corporate elites

"We don't need more centrism. We don't need more half-baked economic ideas. We need to make sure that we grow the American labor movement."

Photo Credit: www.senate.gov/floor/

With the American labor movement under relentless assault by the right-wing Supreme Court, the Republican Party at both the state and federal level, and President Donald Trump's plutocratic administration, prominent union leaders convened during the final day of The Sanders Institute Gathering on Saturday to confront the existential threat facing the working class and emphasize the urgency of organizing at the grassroots level to fight back and build political power.

"Unions and the working class need to be political as hell. Last time I checked, the Koch brothers are political as hell, Wall Street is political is hell."
—Mark Dimondstein, American Postal Workers Union

"The working class is hurting, and they're done with business as usual," Mark Dimondstein, president of the American Postal Workers Union, declared during a panel discussion titled, "The Labor Movement: Essential to Democracy."

Moderated by RoseAnn DeMoro—former executive director of National Nurses United (NNU)—the panel of progressive union leaders attributed Trump's presidential victory to the Democratic Party's decades-long corporate turn and abandonment of the working class, which left a gaping void that the billionaire real estate mogul exploited in his rise to power.

The result, Dimondstein argued, was "a lesser of two evils duopoly"—two dominant political parties that side with the interests of business over those of the working class.

"Political parties have failed, absolutely failed, the working class," Dimondstein said.

To begin rebuilding the labor movement in the face of the ceaseless assault from right-wing politians and their billionaire benefactors, Good Jobs Nation Joseph Geevarghese argued that the tepid centrism and incremental solutions offered by the Democratic establishment will not cut it.

"We don't need more centrism. We don't need more half-baked economic ideas," Geevarghese said during the panel discussion, which also included Peter Knowlton, general president of United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America.

"We need more full-throated economic populism," Geevarghese continued. "We need to make sure that we grow the American labor movement."

As the panelists readily acknowledged, the present state of organized labor is grim, particularly after the Supreme Court's Janus ruling, which dealt a major blow to public-sector unions. According to the most recent government data, just over 10 percent of American workers are union members—an all-time low.

"The labor movement isn't just people who are in unions, it's all of us."
—RoseAnn DeMoro

But there are plenty of bright spots, such as radicalized teachers unions striking to combat budget cuts and demanding fair pay nationwide, nurses leading the grassroots fight for Medicare for All, and workers throughout the country organizing for a $15 minimum wage.

"Working people are the most powerful force on Earth," said DeMoro, who retired this year as executive director of NNU, the largest nurses union in the United States. "The labor movement isn't just people who are in unions, it's all of us."

In order to defeat the corporate forces hellbent on completely eliminating workers' right to organize and bargain collectively for better wages and conditions, Dimondstein of the Postal Workers Union argued the working class must become as organized and political as the business elites it is combating.

"Unions and the working class need to be political as hell," Dimondstein concluded. "Last time I checked, the Koch brothers are political as hell, Wall Street is political is hell... We have to be political."

Watch the full panel discussion, which closed with a rousing group performance of Solidarity Forever, the union anthem by Ralph Chaplin, the iconic labor activist:

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Jake Johnson is a staff writer for Common Dreams. Follow him on Twitter: @wordsofdissent