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What the Revival of Socialism in America Means for the Labor Movement

Ted F

In These Times, an independent democratic socialist monthly magazine, today published a dialog between Shaun Richman and Bill Fletcher, Jr. that raises the question of how the widespread surge of interest in socialism may impact the future of the Labor Movement.

I find very interesting Shaun Richman's comment near the beginning of the article that the "entire alphabet soup of the Left, basically any socialist group that isn’t a weirdo cult, is experiencing an influx of new members and activity."

While ecosocialists debate many issues, developing a strategy for working class mobilization to fight for an ecosocialist transformation. Ecosocialists have developed a powerful analysis of the planetary emergency that capitalism has begotten, but our analysis of how to build an ecosocialist, working class movement lags behind.

In my view, the future of ecosocialism will depend on the ecosocialist Left's ability to escape ghettoization as an environmental lobby within the Left. Ecosocialism requires the reimagination of socialism, reimagining the relationship with Labor as well as incorporating the many contributions of socialist feminists, movements of people of color, and the LGBTQ community.

I am struck that Richman and Fletcher's conversation starts by asking what the revival of socialism means for the Labor Movement, but more or less gets stuck in a discussion of how to rebuild the Labor Movement in the social conditions of the 21st century which are so different from what existed in the 1930s . It doesn't reach the burning question for ecosocialists of how we do this in the context of the persistent efforts to pit Labor and the climate justice movement at each other's throats. I know Fletcher is very interested in that question and he may be a good person to invite as a guest speaker for an on-line System Change Not Climate Change webinar.

What does the revival of socialism in America mean for the ecosocialist movement? And how can the ecosocialist movement become rooted in working class America? I think we're going to have to aim higher! What do others think?

Shaun Richman is a former organizing director for the American Federation of Teachers. His Twitter handle is @Ess_Dog. Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a talk show host, writer and activist. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook and at About Bill Fletcher Jr - billfletcherjr.com.

Monday, Oct 9, 2017, 7:25 am

What the Revival of Socialism in America Means for the Labor Movement
BY Shaun Richman and Bill Fletcher, Jr.

Members of the New York City Democratic Socialists of America walk the picket line with striking B&H workers. (Photo credit: Brandon Hauer via NYC Democratic Socialists of America)

Bill Fletcher, Jr. and Shaun Richman are contributing writers to In These Times, as well as veterans of the labor and socialist movements. Both have worked for several labor unions, with Fletcher having served as a senior staffer in the national AFL-CIO and Richman as a former organizing director for the American Federation of Teachers. Both came of age during different eras of left politics. In this conversation, the two writers and organizers examine what a revived socialist movement could mean for unionsand the broader push for workers’ rights and dignity.

Shaun Richman: We’re in a political moment when tens of thousands of Americans are declaring themselves to be socialists and joining and paying dues to socialist organizations. It’s not just Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), although DSA is growing the largest and the fastest. The entire alphabet soup of the Left, basically any socialist group that isn’t a weirdo cult, is experiencing an influx of new members and activity. In the context of the “Organize or Die!” union push of the last 30 years, this is new and potentially a game-changer. There are now organized socialist groups that exist in significant numbers and are trying to figure out what their labor program should be, how they relate to a labor movement, and how they can be helpful. And it’s not obvious what they should do. Bill, what are the opportunities and pitfalls, and what does this growth mean for labor?

Bill Fletcher: It is useful to contrast this growth with what took place in the Left during the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Left, at that point, saw a project that was necessary within the working class. And so there was a whole wave of people, myself included, that went into workplaces, if we weren’t already there, as a way of organizing to rebuild a vibrant labor movement and to lay the foundation for a working-class-based radical political movement that would, hopefully, result in the construction of a new political party of the socialist Left.

That’s different from what I’m seeing right now, which is the growth in interest in socialism, broadly defined, among a large number of people, particularly younger people. That is fantastic! But it is far from clear that they are wedded to a class project, except in a very abstract sense. And that difference is fundamental. It’s not just an ideological question; it is also a strategic question. Where and how does a reborn socialist movement build a base?

One of the tendencies that we began to see in the late 1980s and early 1990s was an orientation among many younger leftists that assumed that the work they did organizing the working class had to be done via staff positions: staff for unions and staff for workers centers. So the workplace-based organizing became less and less of a priority and activity. We need to unpack this a bit.

Shaun: One challenge of organizing workers currently is that most people out there—even union members—don’t really understand what a union is. They understand them as some sort of abstraction. The way some budding left critics of unions talk, it’s like, “Well why won’t ‘the unions’ break with the Democratic party?” Or, “Why are they so loyal to the companies they represent?” This reflects a lack of understanding of how heavily regulated unions are and the structural trap that unions find themselves in.

Another problem is the one you note. I’ve been doing a lot of recruiting of new union organizers in the last decade. There are these moments that flare up when you see tremendous interest from new activists: maybe it’s Wisconsin, maybe it’s the Chicago teachers’ strike. There was definitely a big influx of new organizers coming out of the 2008 Obama campaign. People had that lightbulb moment when they wanted to get more involved in social justice, and they decided to go straight for a staff job at a union.

Almost no one paused to ask how to stand in place and fight for a union at the job they were in. And one of the pitfalls of the staff model is, obviously, there just aren’t that many staff jobs, and they’re dwindling. The opportunity of an organized socialist movement is that it provides a different way to get involved and to do something at your workplace, or find a new workplace where you have comrades and you can maybe start pushing in the right direction and laying the seeds for labor’s next uprising.

Bill: Left politics need to unite with workers—and the lives and activities of workers. And there are different ways that that’s going to happen. One aspect of that work is the building of unions.

But even when it comes to building unions—if you think back on the work that the Left did in the 1930s, whether it was the communists, the Trotskyists or whatever—the process of building those unions was a major priority of the Left. And cadres were made available to help to build unions. In addition, building a presence of the Left in the working class goes beyond the workplace and includes communities. That’s what today’s socialist left really needs to be thinking about.

Shaun: I prefer to look at the 1920s. First of all, from a power perspective, they seem very analogous to our era. But there’s also an element of optimism: If this is our era is the 1920s, what can we do to get to our 1934?

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Steve Ongerth

I'm glad Ted posted this, but I do have some quibbles with it, namely:

Shaun Richman dredges up the old sectarian anti-IWW nonsense that has been so oft repeated by Leninists, namely: "(The TUEL) also got past that earlier Wobbly thrust of just quitting the AFL to create new “perfect” organizations that would compete against and “defeat” the craft unions."

Except that this is NOT IN ANY WAY WHAT THE IWW's POSITION WAS!!! The IWW then, as now, allowed members to be "dual carders" (i.e. belonging to the IWW another union at the same time (just like TUEL!).

The argument that IWW had with the Leninists was that the Leninists kept insisting that the IWW formally abolish itself and enter the AFL craft unions en masse in order to "bore from within" (ironically following the line of William Z Foster who called this "syndicalism"--imagine THAT!)

The problem with this argument? Most of the IWW members, being immigrants of non WASP descent were not eligible for membership in most AFL unions!

That said, much of the strategies and tactics discussed within the article are useful, and the authors *DO* acknowledge the IWW, at least in a backhanded way (but still work in a gratuitous swipe at us for "lacking a support base", which is also bullshit) in our campaign at Jimmy Johns.

I've addressed these quibbles before, here: "Are you sure we're talking about Syndicalism here?"