Tag: Workers

Alabama, the Socialist: A brief vision for giving Dixie its Heart back.

I have done enough complaining about the politics of Alabama. To be sure, there is much to complain about: the Legislature is an oversized clown car, the state supreme court has apparently decided that nullification is a thing, elections are a joke, and the opposition to Republican rule in this state is decimated to the point that Alabama is probably the closest thing you will find in America to a one-party state. If you are someone who cares about the dignity and worth of other human beings, it is a tough place to live and engage in politics.

I hope to make a small dent in Republican hegemony in this state by reviving the Tuscaloosa organizing committee of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). It sounds ridiculous, I know; how can I expect a state to embrace socialism when it will not even embrace the tepid centrism on offer from the Alabama Democratic Party?

The truth of the matter is that any organizing on the left in Alabama, or anywhere else in the South for that matter, is going to be a decades-long proposition. Democratic party units at the state and local level have atrophied to the point that they have taken on some of the characteristics of third parties: struggling in fundraising, being overly dependent on a big name to revive the party, and simply not competing in many districts and elections. Those structural issues tank the party long before we get to talking about ideology, an arena in which the Democratic Party in the South is nothing short of atrocious. This sets the political paradigm firmly on the right end of the political spectrum and ensures that progressive and leftist ideas are not only ignored, but openly derided. Changing the discussion and dislodging this accepted political filter is not something that can be done in an election cycle. It would be folly to even suggest it.

That is why I am going to begin the process towards changing the debate now. My vision is just that: mine. Being a socialist means that you are always strategizing around the formation of coalitions and thinking about how to include as many voices as possible in political decision making. The vision that I lay out here may not be the one that guides the DSA in Tuscaloosa. But I think that it is important to start discussing what a socialist vision for Alabama looks like and how we might put it into action.

Know Your History: Lessons in organizing from the leftists and labor organizers of yore.

Ever heard of the Mississippi Freedom Labor Union? You could be forgiven for answering in the negative.

Ever heard of J.P. Mooney and his organizing exploits in Avondale, Alabama? Nope?

Did you know that the largest political rally ever held in Alabama was put on by the Communist Party during the Depression? Nah?

The South has earned its reputation as the region most hostile to leftism and union organizing in the United States. After all, Gov. Nikki Haley, who is cruising towards re-election in South Carolina, declared that any auto companies that had unionized workforces should refrain from relocating in South Carolina. In Tennessee, state legislators made plain their opposition to the United Auto Workers gaining a foothold in Chattanooga by stating that they would revoke any tax incentives that Volkswagen received in the event of a yes vote. Aside from those anecdotal examples, the South is home to some of the lowest unionization rates in the country — North Carolina’s union density, at only three percent of workers organized, is the lowest in the country. Arkansas is not far behind at 3.5 percent, nor is Mississippi and South Carolina at 3.7 percent. One does not think “citadel of unionism” when they think of Alabama, but at 10.7 percent, they far outpace any other state in the region for union density.

But there was a time when radical politics and organizing found its home in the rural South.

Rest In Power: A Remembrance of Chokwe Lumumba

When it comes to politics and policy, I would not consider myself to be a particularly cynical person. Far from it actually; my faith in the power of social movements and grassroots change would not be as strong as it is if I did not hold to the notion that we will see an ultimate victory over the inequalities and oppressions that plague our society. I believe in people, and I believe in communities.

However, it would be accurate to assume that I do not have much faith in politicians or the political parties from which they emanate. I am, after all, old enough to remember a Barack Obama who said that he would walk a picket line as President and repeatedly affirmed his support for a public healthcare option. The breadth of politics today has become a game of Team Blue vs. Team Red, and opposition is based less on ideas than the jersey you wear when you take the court. After all, if it were a Republican Congress and President that had signed a bill that slashed food assistance for low-income families, funded the government on the backs of government employees, and ended unemployment benefits that are still necessary in a sluggish economy, many of the Democratic cheerleaders for “bipartisanship” and “compromise” would be a bit more muted in their praise.

So suffice it to say that when a city councilman named Chokwe Lumumba announced that he was running to be the mayor of Mississippi’s capital city, I was skeptical. Having met Chokwe through her work at the ACLU of Mississippi, my wife told me that he was a legit radical. As I looked him up, that much became evident: student radical who once occupied buildings at Western Michigan University in protest of the paucity of Black faculty; former second Vice President of the Republic of New Afrika; founder of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement; and the lawyer for the Scott Sisters. There was no doubt that this was a person who went the extra mile for his community. Yet as I observed his campaign, I came to the same conclusion that I am sure a lot of other people came to:

He won’t win.

How The UAW Lost Chattanooga.

(This was a joint post, written with Cato Uticensis, which is the pseudonym of a union organizer working in the South. He likes barbecue, bourbon, cigars, and labor politics. He can be found on Twitter at @Cato_of_Utica.)

“Neutrality should mean ‘we’re not going to fuck with your shit’ not ‘we’re not going to fuck with your shit as long as you use the outhouse’” –Brett Banditelli

There is no question that the United Auto Workers’ (UAW) failure to organize at the Volkswagen (VW) plant in Chattanooga, TN is significant. It is the first time UAW has brought a strategic campaign targeting the so-called “transplant” automakers to a National Labor Relations Board ballot since it lost to Nissan in 2001.* Secondly, it is the UAW’s first new campaign in the South since that crushing loss. Thirdly, this election was touted as a new model by both VW executives and UAW leadership, seeking to create a “works council” at the plant in Tennessee similar to ones in existence at every other VW plant. More on that last point later.

A Bundle Worth Keeping: Critiquing “The Unbundled Union”

In recent years, we have seen an explosion in activism around the issue of economic inequality. The frustrations that many low-income people feel at a slow economic recovery and a continued assault on the American welfare state have culminated in a slew of direct action by individuals, labor unions, and other progressive organizations. While the policy outcomes generated from these actions have been mixed, it is undeniable that the issue of poverty and income inequality commands a place in the economic policy discussion that has not been seen since the end of Lyndon B. Johnson’s Presidency.

In addition to the concerns about economic inequality, the lack of representational equity for low- to middle-income workers has also been a rallying point. The failure to pass a farm bill has led to the reduction in food assistance that working families receive from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) while the companies that they work for continue to rake in record-setting profits. The same gridlock that has delayed the farm bill’s passage would likely delay any policy proposal that could ameliorate the problem of stagnating wages as well. And through all of this, the conversation about revving up the American economy has focused less on solutions that would impact low- and middle-income families and more on things like more tax cuts, which would disproportionately benefit the wealthiest Americans. Attempts by Congress to ameliorate this representational inequality through policies such as campaign finance restrictions have largely been ineffective, as the wealthy and their advocates were able to circumvent the procedure through myriad loopholes (the infamous “social welfare organization” loophole being one of them), culminating in the Citizens United ruling that effectively gutted America’s campaign finance regulations.

Benjamin Sachs, a labor law professor at Harvard, correctly attributes representational inequality to the decline of the labor union in America. Labor unions were strongest as arbiters of economic and representational equality, he states, when they had the ability to pressure lawmakers into supporting progressive legislation that leveled the economic playing field. This was done through an organizing apparatus that was able to mobilize workers for direct action on Capitol Hill and turning out on Election Day, as well as building a lobbying apparatus that could effectively push labor’s priorities in Congress. Sachs’ central argument is that this political power has always been tied up in the collective bargaining of wages and benefits by workers at their respective workplaces. He calls this “a highly contested form of economic organization”, meaning that the opposition to a labor union’s entry and continued operation at a workplace is always under attack, usually from both external political forces and company management. As anti-union forces became more successful at reducing the ranks of the unionized rank-and-file, the political machine that churned out policy victories for working people slowly began to wither.

Sachs’ solution to this problem, and the larger issue of representational inequality, is to decouple the political and economic functions of a labor union, and change labor law to allow employees at a particular workplace to form “political unions”. These unions would enjoy the same advantages that have traditional unions have enjoyed in the workplace, namely:

  1. The ability to use the shop floor as a locus for organizational activity,
  2. the ability to use the employer’s payroll function as a means of funding union activity,
  3. the ability to use the company’s information that has been gathered about their employees, and
  4. the protection of workers against retaliation by their employer for engaging in union activity.

Sachs makes it clear that he proposes the political union not as a replacement for collective bargaining efforts, but rather as a complement. But as I will point out through the course of this piece, the birth of the political union could end up doing just that: replacing hard-won gains in collective bargaining with a toothless form of worker activism.

How to Win Elections and Fix Bad Policies: A Leftist Blueprint for Remaking the Democratic Party

(This was a joint post, written with Cato Uticensis, which is the pseudonym of a union organizer working in the South. He likes barbecue, bourbon, cigars, and labor politics. He can be found on Twitter at @Cato_of_Utica.)

The status quo in the Democratic party is an unholy mess. This is true at all levels of the party, but especially so in the South, where most state parties are in an unacceptable state of disarray. Our nation is at a juncture where leftist politics and policy have started to re-enter the realm of the feasible. Certain progressive dream policies like Medicare for All and raising the minimum wage are now actively debated and discussed after the failures of pro-corporate policies have become manifest. And yet, the dysfunctional nature of the Democratic state parties in the South risks the best chance since the demise of the postwar consensus and the rise of neoliberalism to fundamentally move this country’s politics to the left.