In late May, a forthcoming budget of The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) leaked into the public eye. Among the more shocking aspects of the budget was a drastic reduction in allocations for organizing, from 30% of the total budget down to a mere 10%. The report indicated this money was being shifted to lobbying, campaign contributions, and other expenditures in the electoral sphere.
The reveal shocked many labor activists in an age when union strength is at its most brittle since the birth of the labor movement. Union membership among American workers hit a record low of 10.5% in 2018 with membership among public sector workers far exceeding that of their private counterparts (33.9% compared to 6.4% according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics). Ordinary workers continue to scald in the pressure cooker as healthcare costs rise, wages remain stagnant, retirements shift from pensions to investment-based 401k plans, and health insurance companies shovel more people into high-deductible health plans that create a sea of underinsured people who can’t afford to use their coverage. What better time is there for labor organizing to launch a massive comeback tour? Why would the largest federation of unions in the country scrap its commitment to mobilizing people through direct action, a concept former Detroit mayor Coleman Young referred to as “ass power”? These questions lingered among both labor and non-labor activists.
A few months later, Labor Day weekend arrives. A day to commemorate the brutal struggle of labor resistance in the United States that brought us the weekend, safety standards, the 8-hour work day, and so many other freedoms we take for granted. They faced strikebreakers, water cannons, police blowback, and even military force, and some even sacrificed their lives in the struggle. Many people look forward to the three-day weekend, i.e. a break from capitalism, while many more must still work on the holiday for slightly better pay before it’s back to the usual grind.
But how many Americans understand what it took to get here? How many recognize the erosion of these freedoms and the gutting of the union power that brought them? For those that do recognize the trend, where is the fire that fueled the original mass labor movements and how do we find it again?
Take your mandatory half-hour lunch break and let’s dive down the hole.
The neutering of grassroots organizing in the U.S. refers less to a reduced existence of mass movements themselves and more to the mindset and rhetoric surrounding their energy. The last decade has seen plenty of notable grassroots organizing with the Occupy movement, Black Lives Matter (BLM), #MeToo, the Sunrise Movement, and others. These movements achieved varying degrees of success, with some like BLM still going strong and others like Occupy imploding through disorganized chaos.
Mass mobilization may still exist and may impact public opinion in some cases, but it’s treated as a technique of a bygone, more primitive era in American political discourse. Activists are expected to “graduate” to becoming politicians and these uprisings are treated as disruptions to the normal, more civilized process of democracy. Indeed, the whole point of dissident action is to grab the mic and force people to hear you when everyone else wants to slice your tongue. Protesting is great, the elites on top say, but its function is to release some pent-up energy so you can grow up and VOTE! We tell the youth of racial minorities and other oppressed groups not to shout too loudly about the oppression they face because of the “incivility” of it, and that instead they must VOTE!! and entrust their oppressors with their fates. Those kids in those detention centers living in their own shit and dying? We could storm the ICE concentration camps and liberate them…or we could just wait until November of next year and VOTE!!! Another year plus a few more months of drinking out of the shitter and precocious prison sex? Those kids can handle it.
Vote. Vote. Vote. The word is repeated like a cultish mantra in mainstream American political thought. The ultimate act of an advanced civilized society where any other form of direct action is reserved for barbaric societies who live under tyrants for more than 8 hours a day. This framing needs to be unacceptable to any progressive.
None of this is relegated to the labor sector. Among many American leftist circles, grassroots organizing appears to be a lost art that few new generation activists have much experience handling. The first line out of anyone’s mouth when atrocities happen is to “call your representative/Senator”, or maybe you’re encouraged to write a letter to a local paper in the hopes they would publish it. These strategies have their place, but they hold less influence over legislative actions than we believe. A 2014 study by scholars at Princeton and Northwestern universities examined almost 1,800 policy positions of elected officials and found that citizen input outside the upper income brackets held no influence over policy decisions. President Donald Trump’s numerous violations of the constitution have been on display since his inauguration, and Robert Mueller’s report handed Congress impeachment material on a diamond platter, yet the best Congressional Democrats offer is strongly worded letters and weak subpoenas that nobody enforces. The president is so unconcerned by these empty threats that he hit the re-election campaign trail within days of the subpoenas dropping while radiating the confidence of a champ with a -1000 betting line over the next contender.
Electoral institutions fail us every year. When success does come through them, it comes more as long-term legislative changes that bring diluted impacts on local communities at best. Yet we’re told by media commentators, politicians, and even our own peers that it’s the only way to effect change. The solution to urgent crises like climate change or migrant children in concentration camps at the southern border is to wait until the next election and vote.
But hold up, who did the suffragettes elect to earn women the right to vote? Who did the black civil rights leaders campaign for to eliminate overt segregation in the mid-20th century? The labor movement did had some notable politicians like Eugene Debs, but it constituted a small portion of their strategy.
Americans gaze across the pond at the Yellow Vest uprisings in France and wonder on social media where to find our own Yellow Vests. Our progressive counterparts on the other continents wonder the same thing: How is Donald Trump still in office amidst a Costco receipt’s worth of impeachable offenses? Why is Democratic leadership harsher on young women of color in their own ranks than any Republican, abandoning them to the white supremacist mobs and telling them to stuff it?
Labor activist and scholar Bill Fletcher, Jr. offers some insight on this new aversion to grassroots organizing by unpacking the recent history of the labor movement. After the tumultuous barn burner decades of the 1960s and 70s, a new generation of American politicians emerged led by conservative darling Ronald Reagan. The new wave of officials scoffed at the dirty hippies and black power radicals who dominated the airwaves in the prior decades and wanted to return to a more “civilized” era of dignity and class. The civility ethic took control of mainstream pathos throughout the 1980s until it was no longer viewed as politically viable to take staunch left-wing positions that encouraged direct action and sticking to your guns.
Even the most reliable progressive forces weren’t immune to this hip new trend. The late 1990s saw a schism in the AFL CIO between those who pushed to reinvest in labor organizing and those who saw the electoral sphere as the primary avenue for change. The former crowd won the leadership gold but discovered that most local unions wanted to handle organizing on their own. Without the collective backing of the unions in the federation, AFL CIO leadership shifted to the latter group who now controlled the distribution of finances. When local unions were busted through Right to Work laws and other legislative tricks, AFL CIO leadership had drained the bank account of resources for organizing, leaving millions of workers out to dry.
Abandoning direct action and community organizing as tools for change resulted in a whole generation of young activists never being able to learn from a group of forerunners on how to sustain long-term organizing. The knock-down drag-out labor, civil rights, and resistance movements of the past seem easy to organize while watching a five-minute Facebook history video, but young activists become overwhelmed by the practical and emotional obstacles of carrying these movements long-term, and their elders advise them to toss these pursuits in favor of the more “civilized” electoral politics. Even these electoral methods are limited in scope as the only solution seems to be to just take over the Democratic party. Minor party building is seen on par with organizing in its primitiveness and naivete.
For activists of color, another layer prevents mass movements from leaving ground zero. In a debate between writer and organizer Mark Bray and journalist Chris Hedges on the effectiveness of Antifa, Hedges pointed out the long history of armed resistance movements only succeeding when they earned the backing of the state security apparatus. The 1917 Russian revolution gained major momentum when the Cossacks refused orders from the czars to dispatch the bread riots in St. Petersburg. The paratrooper division that was sent to ice protestors in East Germany refused to defend a discredited regime. This pattern repeats in “revolution after revolution after revolution” according to Hedges, and its tough to deny the history he cites.
This same dynamic applies in the United States, but movements have little to no backing from law enforcement and security agencies, and this is especially dangerous for black, First Nation, Latinx, and other activists of color who get shoved in the crosshairs of a killer cop’s chrome when they smile funny. Add to that a long history of transferring army surplus equipment to domestic police forces throughout the 20th century and you’ve turned an ordinary law enforcement apparatus into a juiced shock trooper brigade. This is a mere consideration for white activists. We may get our skulls caved in by a night stick or meet some rubber bullet kisses, but somebody will probably be reprimanded for our injuries and we’ll be back on the field a few months later. A black activist injured or iced by police will see their murderer walk free or, as reported by investigative journalists Taya Graham and Stephen Janis, earn a lifetime pension through backroom deals with the city.
While this terror has always existed for activists of color throughout their time in what is now the United States, the recent arming of local and state law enforcement with Fittys and 40 Mike-Mikes causes many activists of color to approach organizing with more cautious fee than their predecessors. It is a testament to the resilience of Black Lives Matter and the indigenous resisters of the Dakota Access Pipeline that they continue to resist in the face of an iron fist coming their way at home.
Where do we go from here as left-leaning activists, scholars, and elected officials looking to revitalize the roots of social change? Whole books can and have been written on that subject (Fletcher has several, all worth a read), but it may be that we need to begin anew. If young activists have lost the skills needed to create and sustain these movements, then maybe we begin at ground zero. Ignore your job’s discouragement of discussing politics at work; talk to your coworkers about organizing. Compare wages across racial and gender lines. A group of Target employees in Baltimore did exactly these things last year.
Despite the pessimism above, local electoral politics can still have their place. The American Communist Party, a close ally of the labor movement, elected several hundred people to local offices in the early-mid 20th century. These people control your local school curriculum, your city policies around organizing, and many more issues that impact you and your neighbors much more than the media circus of the presidency.
We’re coming out of a coma and need to learn how to walk again, but with small steps, we’ll be back to sprinting in no time.