Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Was Naomi Klein Wrong In Attacking Backward-Looking Union Leaders?

Naomi Klein's op-ed piece in yesterday's New York Times attacked some labor leaders who seem most inclined to back Trump. She said:

For a long time, these different approaches were papered over under the banner of solidarity. But now some union heads are creating a rift by showing so little solidarity with their fellow union members, particularly immigrants and public sector workers who find themselves under assault by Mr. Trump.

Today labor leaders face a clear choice. They can join the diverse and growing movement that is confronting Mr. Trump’s agenda on every front and attempt to lead America’s workers to a clean and safe future.

Or they can be the fist-pumping construction crew for a Trump dystopia — muscle for a menace.

Readers can find the entire piece here. Klein didn't name many names, but it's fair to say that the list of bad guys she's attacking are Sean McGarvey, president of the Building Trades, Tom Flynn, United Brotherhood of Carpenters, Terry O’Sullivan, general president, Laborers’ International Union, Mark McManus, president United Association, Donald Mullins, Steamfitters Local 602, Frank Spencer, Carpenters; Doug McCarron, president United Brotherhood of Carpenters; Mark Coles, Ironworkers Local 5; Joseph Sellers, Jr., president of Sheet Metal Workers Union/SMART Union; Thelma Matta, Heat and Frost Insulators Union Local 24; Mark Urkowski, United Association Local 5; Steven Dodd, Gary Macino, Sheet Metal Workers’ Union/SMART. That list is getting passed around the internet; I got my copy from Michael Munk and I apologize if we left anyone off.

These people hold their positions and power in some part because they are doing what they were elected or appointed to do: represent their members, negotiate the best deals possible and minimize conflict. A shift in consciousness and roles will not come because Naomi Klein criticizes their environmental record and friendship with Trump. It will come because conflict and worker organizing is unavoidable and necessary, the deals are insufficient and the nature and means of representing workers' interests changes.

The labor movement has never responded well to attacks and criticism, and especially so when they come from beyond the ranks of organized labor and don't look at all of the complexities of the labor movement and appear in The New York Times. And labor radicals are often put on the spot in these situations; the labor leaders associate us with forces outside of labor and use that to change the subject and isolate us. The subject becomes union democracy, parliamentary procedure, outside funding and the next contract fight, not a contest over the big picture items which give these basic items some meaning, We have to ask if Klein's criticisms are helpful or not as we try to build bottom-up change in the labor movement.

There is a labor march to oppose Trump scheduled for April 30 in D.C. It would have been helpful had Klein mentioned this and focused more on what's right in the House of Labor while criticizing labor. It would have been still more helpful had the critique come from active union members and if it had appeared in a pro-labor paper. Klein won't be there at the union meeting or in the workplace when her ideas are debated, if they make it to the floor of a union meeting at all. These ideas need to be put forward and debated in the labor movement, and people need to be won over to radical positions, so our aim and direction need to be accurate. We don't get many second chances in labor.
A few quotes and points come to mind from other sources which bear mention here.

David Fields' article Global Crisis, NeoLiberalism, and Left Alternatives contains the following helpful section:

Just as disorganised social groups are vulnerable to political capture by the elite, the array of losers under neoliberalism is prone to capture by the political right. The losers lack a sense of collectivity drawing upon shared material circumstances and distrust the political dysfunctionality of neoliberalism, while supporting the deployment of political tools to attack selected rival groups at the bottom of society. They project their hopes and fears onto a universalist (classless) ethics and onto reactionary programmes drawing on “common sense”, which tend to be framed in the language of rights, respect, taking back control and preserving ancient privileges, and are fronted by “strong” leaders who can “get things done”.

These choices reflect the losers’ desperate search for ways to short-circuit a log-jammed political system and secure gains for those who have grown tired of losing out and lack a sense of security grounded on merit, citizenship, or anything else. They also express revulsion at slick politicians delivering, time and again, convolute excuses for inaction while the living conditions of the majority keep deteriorating. The collapse of postwar social democracy can be directly related to these neoliberal pressures.

And Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor got it right here:

There will be no effective movement against Trump that doesn't directly confront the issue of racism. It has to be front and center, and it seemed to me that the march organizers took that question seriously and made genuine efforts to shift shortcomings in their original approach.

The organized turnout of unions for the Washington demonstration was much smaller than it should have been. But at least some sections of the labor movement did feel the pressure from its own membership to devote greater resources to mobilization in the final weeks, and plenty of union members got themselves to the march as individuals and with rank-and-file members. That's something for the left to build on in making labor central to the anti-Trump resistance.

Mike Davis was helpful in saying:

The Sanders movement, in contrast, has shown that heartland discontent can be brought under the canopy of a “democratic socialism” that reignites New Deal hopes for fundamental economic rights and the Civil Rights Movement’s goals of equality and social justice. The real opportunity for transformational political change (“critical realignment” in a now-archaic vocabulary) belongs to the Sanderistas but only to the extent that they remain rebels against the neoliberal Democratic establishment and support the resistance in the streets.

Another split in labor seems almost inevitable. I would rather see unity behind a progressive agenda than a split. Davis and Taylor understand better what unity means and how it might form than Klein does. Fields gets how and why we have come to this moment. Let's be positive and look at this moment as a time for winning over the union rank and file even if we can't get the union leadership on our side.

Klein's contribution in keeping socialism front and center in the environmental movement and during the Sanders campaign was major. We have to respect her work and recognize that she has a large following and the ear of young people and many activists. Her willingness to engage at a local level with people distinguishes her from so many other liberal "stars." But she made a mistake in the way she took on one backward-looking section of the labor movement.

1 comment:

  1. "There will be no effective movement against Trump that doesn't directly confront the issue of racism. It has to be front and center..."

    That's exactly right, but I know white liberals who resist that notion.

    I've been listening to The New Jim Crow on my long drives. Michelle Alexander writes, "It may be impossible to overstate the significance of race in defining the basic structure of American society." She goes on to point out that the original US Constitution was "based largely on the effort to preserve a racial caste system."

    Getting more people to recognize that and organize around that is the challenge of our time.