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Militancy—and Beyond

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“At a moment when the political climate for workers is far less hospitable than it was at the height of the New Deal, when right-wing ethnonationalism is competing for the loyalty of the working class, sustaining and expanding the gains of recent years of militancy will require careful strategizing and deep political engagement.”

Pod and print pairing! Hear Bob Master go deep on this article 
in Ep. 3 of our Block & Build podcast.

A remarkable wave of militancy surged across the US working class in 2023. In schools and universities, health care institutions and Hollywood, in the hospitality industry and local government, and most dramatically, at the Big Three auto manufacturers, a series of high-profile strikes captured the nation’s imagination and reminded corporate elites, elected officials and the public alike that when workers unite with creativity and determination, they still have the power to win substantial improvements in their wages, working conditions and living standards.

The labor left has heralded the return of the strike before, most notably during the “Red State” teachers’ strikes in 2018 and 2019, and during the “Striketober” mini-strike wave of 2021. But 2023 was different. The raw number of strikes was not huge—33 large strikes involving 1,000 workers or more, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Compare that to the average of 304 large strikes each year from 1950 to 1980, the year before President Reagan’s firing of over 11,000 striking air traffic controllers set off a downward slide in industrial militancy that virtually eliminated the strike from labor’s tactical arsenal. But last year’s strikes cost employers just under 17 million days of lost work time, the most in any year since 1980, and about 80% of the average annual total in the decade prior to the destruction of PATCO (Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization).

More importantly, the strikes of 2023 were high-profile and tactically daring; they commanded overwhelming public support and delivered huge gains to the workers involved. Taken as a whole, they demonstrated that even within the constricted framework of conventional post-World War II collective bargaining, organized workers can achieve huge gains that are out of the reach of non-union workers.

It’s likely that millions of non-union workers took notice. But moving from a year of high-profile strikes to building working class political power, let alone transforming US politics, will not happen automatically.

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2023: A turning point?

The 2023 strike wave crested in September and October, when the newly elected leadership of the United Auto Workers (UAW) organized a rolling wave of targeted strikes at all three of the major US legacy auto manufacturers. Eventually, nearly 54,000 workers at GM, Ford and Stellantis–about one-third of the total UAW membership at the three companies– joined the picket lines. Dubbing the strategy the “stand-up strike”–as in members being prepared to “stand up” in solidarity on a moment’s notice whenever bargaining teams decided to expand the strike–the UAW sought both to evoke its greatest historical moment, the transformational 44-day “sit-down” Flint occupation of 1937, and to keep the employers guessing about where the rolling strike would land next. The strategy had the added benefit of conserving the union’s nearly $1 billion strike fund, which would have been depleted in a matter of months if workers at all three employers went out simultaneously.

Shawn Fain, the newly elected UAW President, emerged as an authentic tribune of working-class anger and aspiration during the confrontation with the Big Three, much as Walter Reuther did during the post-World War II decades. The union’s public rationale for the strike drew directly upon the left-populist discourse that emerged from the Occupy Wall Street movement over a decade ago, and that has been elevated by Bernie Sanders and other progressive forces within the Democratic Party since 2015. The UAW strike would not be a simple fight for contract improvements for the 150,000 union members at the Big Three. Rather, it would be a fight against persistent economic inequality and corporate greed, on behalf of all working people.

“This is our generation’s defining moment,” Fain explained in the first of a series of videos explaining the “stand-up strike” strategy to members and to the public. “Let’s stand up for ourselves, and for the working class. Let’s stand up for future generations. Let’s stand up for economic and social justice. Let’s stand up and once again make history together.”

 The strike was extremely effective. The leadership boldly demanded that the Big Three roll back the legacy of decades of concessionary bargaining, raise wages in line with the outsized pay hikes awarded to CEOs in recent years, and even, in the case of Stellantis, reverse its decision to close a major manufacturing plant in Illinois. The union triumphed on most of these demands, winning wage increases of nearly 30% across the board over the 4½ year contract, and virtually eliminating the two-tier treatment of tens of thousands of workers hired since the 2009 industry bailout–with some of these workers guaranteed as much as 150% in wage increases over the life of the agreement. The union successfully restored cost-of-living allowances eliminated 15 years ago.

Stellantis agreed to reverse the shutdown of a plant in Belvidere, IL; along with GM, it also committed to bringing thousands of battery plant workers under the master agreement. Ford announced billions in new investments in plants that will manufacture all-electric and hybrid cars, as did General Motors.

This contract “is a turning point in the class war that has been raging in this country for the past 40 years,” Fain said in a video posted after the Ford settlement was announced. The UAW’s 2023 strike so completely captured the anti-corporate populist zeitgeist that the President of the United States himself agreed to walk the picket line, an unprecedented event that seemed almost shocking to those of us accustomed to decades of Democratic Party equivocation whenever labor has demanded, “Which side are you on?”

But Fain’s assertion that the UAW’s strike represents a “turning point in the class war” also raises the question of what follows this year of extraordinary labor militancy. More militancy? A wave of mass organizing? The spread of “class consciousness”? The emergence of a progressive political movement rooted in the working class?

Certainly, for the labor left, the labor movement has always been about more than just putting bigger paychecks in the pockets of organized workers, about more than enhanced pensions or safer working conditions—even if those objectives preoccupy us day-to-day. In contrast to the “pure and simple unionism” of the tradition of AFL leader Samuel Gompers, labor progressives aspire to build a movement strong enough to reorder the societal balance of power, to make possible a society in which the working class and its allies can exercise “governing power,” to borrow a phrase that folks at the Grassroots Power Project have been using to name what ought to be the Left’s political aspiration.

 GPP defines “governing power” as “the ability to win and sustain power within multiple arenas of decision-making so as to shift the power structure of governance and establish a new common sense of governing.” That means much more than simply electing a handful of pro-union elected officials. It requires building a working-class social and political movement capable of contesting for power not only in the legislative arena, but within the administrative agencies of the state, in the judiciary, and in the arena of ideology—and in the process, constructing a new, widely-held “common sense” that prioritizes the needs of the many over the interests of the few.

What, then, is the relationship of workplace militancy to that ambitious, long-term project? How can the upsurge in strikes in 2023 contribute to building a more powerful workers’ social and political movement?

From labor militancy to political militancy–or not

It has long been a left-wing article of faith that strikes radicalize workers politically, and are therefore a precursor to the rise of progressive working-class-led political movements. The classic Marxian statement on this question comes in Friedrich Engels’ 1844 Condition of the Working Class in England. “Strikes are the military schools of the working-men,” Engels wrote, “in which they prepare themselves for the great struggle which cannot be avoided…[A]s schools of war, the Unions are unexcelled.”

The problem is that nearly two centuries of working-class history have demonstrated that there is nothing automatic about the progression from industrial militancy to the construction of durable, progressive political movements rooted in the working class.

There are multiple reasons for this. For starters, workers have often exhibited enormous hostility to their bosses without embracing a broader progressive, let alone radical, worldview. Workers’ political identities are not formed solely, or even primarily, in the workplace; they may see themselves as Catholic, Evangelical, Jewish, white, Latino, Black, Asian, gun-owner, Irish, Italian, homeowner, or taxpayer, at the same time as, or even before, they identify as militant workers.

Further, militancy does not play out in a vacuum. The impact of strikes on society—and their political meaning–are determined by the socio-economic and political context— the state of the economy, the influence of left and progressive movements and organizations, public sympathy, levels of backlash or repression.

The tenuous connection between industrial militancy and progressive politics came home to me on a granular level in 2016, when the very same Verizon workers who rallied with Bernie Sanders and mounted militant picket lines and demonstrations while on strike for seven weeks in April and May, voted for Donald Trump in significant numbers that November. Exit polls conducted by the Communications Workers of America (CWA) showed that nationally, 54% of its members who were white men over 50–the exact demographic from which the local union and shop floor leadership of the Verizon bargaining unit is drawn–voted for Trump that year.

As John Dempsey, former President of the Brooklyn Verizon local and now an official with CWA (and a veteran of five strikes at the New York phone company between 1989 and 2016), explained it to me:

I don’t think that the strikes I’ve experienced, I don’t think it transformed anyone, or inspired anyone to get into [social] movements and stuff like that. I think there’s probably that selfish, ‘I’ll go do this, because at the end of the day, it’s going to help me.’ Either you’re real progressive, you’re out on the streets for other people’s causes, or you won’t, I don’t think a strike pushes you to go do that. My opinion, I’m not saying it didn’t change ones and twos here or there, but I didn’t see a change in the overall membership of being more progressive as a result of striking, any strike I’ve been on.

The formation of workers’ political consciousness is, of course, extremely complex. A substantial body of recent research documents that unions do influence their members’ political views in a progressive direction, that union members tend to be more politically engaged than non-union workers, and that they tend to exhibit lower levels of racial resentment. Nor is it that difficult to understand Trump’s appeal, especially in 2016. His angry right-wing populism, complete with the trashing of “job-killing” free-trade agreements promoted by neoliberal Democrats and his studied silence on any proposed cuts to Social Security and Medicare, appealed to union members fed up with Democrats who often seemed to take their votes for granted.

Still, the limits of union influence, and of the experience of militancy, on members’ political worldview, are real. As Dempsey adds, workers’ political perspectives are often determined long before they arrive on the job, let alone participate in a strike: 

If you ask me, home is probably the number one thing that shapes people’s political views. I don’t pretend to be any political expert or analyst, but people vote for their own self-interests, more than they vote for a cause or a group or a movement. If people thought putting Trump in there was going to make their 401(k) double, they didn’t give a shit if immigrants were getting abused, if the labor board’s filled with people that eventually are going to make rulings that are going to fucking hurt them, but they’re not sophisticated to know that. Again, I’m no expert, but I think your political views… are established very early in your life, or your affiliation, or what you identify with.

Further evidence of the contingent connection between industrial militancy and the development of progressive political movements may be found in some of the largest strike waves of the past. Massive numbers of workers walked picket lines in the aftermath of both twentieth-century world wars, but in each instance, the shifting postwar political conjuncture soon left the labor movement in retreat.

In 1919, at the peak of a global wave of radical insurgency and industrial unrest spurred by the catastrophe of World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, fully 22.5% of all US workers went on strike. That was about 4.1 million workers at the time; today 22.5% of the workforce would translate into nearly 38 million workers –about 80 times the number of workers who struck in the US in 2023. And yet despite that almost inconceivable upsurge, just three years later a combination of intense anti-radical and anti-labor repression, and a sharp post-war recession, stripped the labor movement of its wartime gains, and rendered it a spent and marginalized force for another 15 years.

As David Montgomery summarized the state of the labor movement in the 1920s, “American workers’ militancy …[was] … deflated, trade unionism [was] largely excluded from larger corporate enterprises, and the left wing of the workers’ movement [was] isolated from effective mass influence.”

A similar story can be told about the great post-World War II strike wave in 1945 and 1946, which also involved over four million workers, and nearly 43 million lost workdays in January and February 1946 alone. At its height that winter, fully 25% of all members of the unions in the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) were on strike. At General Motors, the UAW cast its 113-day strike as a fight on behalf of all American working people, demanding that GM “open the books” to prove that management could afford a 30% wage hike without any price increases.

But Walter Reuther’s social-democratic aspirations were thwarted by both management intransigence and internal CIO divisions, and the strike wave fed an anti-labor backlash that led to the election of a Republican Congress in 1946. In 1947, that Congress enacted the Taft-Hartley Act over President Truman’s veto, and an internal campaign to rid the CIO of Communist-affiliated union leaders gathered increasing momentum.

With social reform stymied by the sharp rightward shift of US politics, the stage was set for the consolidation of the modern, firm-based system of collective bargaining, under which the industrial labor movement largely abandoned its fight for class-wide social benefits like universal health care, and focused on winning a private welfare state for unionized workers. The UAW’s “Treaty of Detroit” in 1950, with its breakthrough gains in pension and health care benefits, was a critical turning point.

The connection between shop-floor militancy and progressive politics is, if anything, even more fragile 75 years after the consolidation of the current system of collective bargaining. Here, understanding the dual, contradictory character of collective bargaining is critical.

On the one hand, collective bargaining is profoundly democratic, giving workers, especially those who belong to strong and militant unions, a remarkable amount of input over their everyday conditions at work, in stark contrast to those who labor under conditions unilaterally dictated by bosses in non-union workplaces. On the other hand, firm-based collective bargaining promotes a narrow, sectoral, self-interested conception of the union’s objectives, in which the immediate terms and conditions of union members’ employment become the primary, if not the sole, concern of both members and union leaders alike.

Absent leadership that can articulate an alternative, class-oriented vision, that narrow perspective tends to eclipse a broader progressive vision of working-class societal empowerment, and can alienate the tiny organized fraction of the working class from the vast majority who are unorganized

Learning from the CIO’s political practice

If the link between militancy and progressive politics is not automatic, what can leaders and activists do to maximize the likelihood that the strikes of 2023 help energize a social and political movement for working-class empowerment? The precedents of 1919 and 1946 may not be terribly promising, but hope–and strategic insight–might be found in the experiences of 1936 and 1937, when the sit-down strike wave gave birth to the CIO and contributed to restructuring American politics for two generations.

As historian Steve Fraser argues in an insightful recent interview in Jacobin, “the CIO [was] in some sense … a political phenomenon. That is to say, it emerges and consolidates itself within a wider political context, the context of the New Deal.”

Indeed, the CIO established itself as both an organizing campaign and a social-Keynesian political movement more or less simultaneously in 1936. Led by Sidney Hillman of the Clothing Workers and John L. Lewis of the Mineworkers, the CIO launched Labor’s Non-Partisan League (LNPL) in May 1936 (with a handful of AFL unions involved), just months after the first major outbreak of sit-down strikes won union recognition for rubber workers in Akron, OH. LNPL represented a sharp break from the AFL’s reluctance to engage in partisan politics; it had historically chosen to “reward its friends and punish its enemies” on a case-by-case basis, and avoided institutional electoral alliances.

The LPNL raised $600,000 from the United Mineworkers of America alone–over $13 million in today’s dollars–and devoted enormous resources directly to Roosevelt’s re-election campaign and to a grassroots member communications program that contributed to a massive working class vote for the President across the nation’s industrial centers. According to political scientist Eric Schickler, over 34,000 “active precinct, county and state workers” were recruited by LPNL during the ’36 campaign, and special committees were formed to mobilize women, youth, Black and foreign language voters.

Further, Schickler writes, from its inception, the CIO promulgated “a bold[ ] vision that would reorder social, economic, and political institutions” and redefine “the outer reaches of New Deal liberalism.” The CIO’s program of class-wide legislative reform included demands for universal health care coverage, expanding Social Security to cover domestic and agricultural workers, increasing investment in public housing and the Works Progress Administration, and wage and hours legislation.

Crucially for the prospects of the New Deal political realignment, the CIO also embraced an unprecedented civil rights agenda, decrying racial divisions within the working class, advocating inclusive multi-racial industrial unionism, and including anti-lynching and anti-poll tax bills on the legislative scorecard by which the new federation evaluated members of Congress. Contrast that stance to the “whites-only” provisions that still prevailed in the constitutions of many AFL affiliates well into the post-war era.

“In late 1930s America, the CIO far surpassed other white-led organizations in its support for civil rights,” writes Schickler, and became “the lead player in cementing the Democrats’ identity as an urban, liberal party … and broadening the liberal program to include civil rights.”

In short, the CIO’s transformational industrial militancy was coupled with a parallel, conscious effort to forge a new national political alignment. The labor movement would anchor a new progressive bloc composed of organized industrial workers, small farmers, Blacks, immigrants, and urban middle-class progressives against an outnumbered alliance of big business and southern racists.

At the Labor Nonpartisan League’s convention in 1936, Chairperson George Berry, an official from the AFL-affiliated Printing Pressman’s Union, declared: “There will be a new political alignment before the 1940 election. I conceive it important that we who are opposed to the return of reaction [should] … participate in a feast that has to do with the permanent establishment of a liberal party, if necessary, in the United States in 1940.”

Everything seemed possible in those turbulent years. Economic catastrophe, the rise of mass grassroots radical movements, massive upsurges in communities and workplaces, and a robust governmental response opened the space for a new political culture in which the concerns of working people were, for a time, preeminent. It was, as historian Michael Denning has written, “the age of the CIO,” when “the culture of the CIO working class was marked by a sustained sense of class consciousness and a new rhetoric of class, by a new moral economy, and by the emergence of a working-class ethnic Americanism.”

Ultimately, the political realignment initiated by the CIO during the late 1930s was at best only partially realized, took decades to unfold fully, and played out within the limitations of the Democratic Party. But the New Deal order endured until the 1970s, established the modern US welfare state—Social Security, wage and hours regulation, Medicare and Medicaid, among many other achievements—and institutionalized collective bargaining and a permanent labor movement, all significant victories for the working class.

Building the labor movement is a political project

My argument here is not that today’s leaders of insurgent labor should seek to reproduce the program and strategy of the Depression-era CIO leadership. New conditions naturally require new approaches. My point is that building the labor movement is fundamentally “a political project,” as historian Nelson Lichtenstein has written, which “requires a compelling set of ideas and institutions, both self-made and governmental, to give labor’s cause power and legitimacy.” Industrial militancy is indispensable, but not sufficient, to this project.

Massive organizing of the unorganized is also critical, creating the potential to restore the social and political clout wielded by a much larger labor movement during the four decades of the New Deal order. But at a moment when the political climate for workers is far less hospitable than it was at the height of the New Deal, when right-wing ethnonationalism is competing for the loyalty of the working class, sustaining and expanding the gains of recent years of militancy will require careful strategizing and deep political engagement.

We are living in a dangerous, highly contested, transitional political moment. Attacks from both the right and the left have cracked the foundations of the bipartisan, 40-year neoliberal ascendancy. Trump wooed the white working class (and now, it appears, segments of both the Black and Brown working classes) by deploying an authoritarian populism that rejects free trade, avoids attacks on popular social benefits like Social Security and Medicare, and whips up ethnonationalist hatred in order to consolidate his increasingly enraged, culturally nostalgic followers.

From the left, the neoliberal consensus was explicitly challenged by the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Once a top priority of the neoliberal Democratic Presidents, Clinton and Obama, “free trade” seems to have quietly disappeared from the agenda of the current Administration. Further, Biden and his economic policy team have taken concrete steps to advance a US industrial policy rooted in the transition to a carbon-free economy, complete with extensive labor protections and substantial subsidies for domestic supply chain development. Its even more ambitious, New Deal-esque program of social investment, including major expansions of child care subsidies, paid leave time, and upgrading the care economy, was thwarted by the narrowness of the Democratic legislative majorities and the retrograde role played by right-wing Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.

But with the country narrowly and deeply divided, with virtually no agreement on even a common set of facts, the contest for ascendancy between a social order rooted in greater generosity and inclusivity, and one rooted in resentment, exclusion, and violence, seems, for now, beyond resolution. A rising tide of political ugliness, disillusionment, and demoralization fills the vacuum. Here Antonio Gramsci’s synopsis of the global political disorder in 1930 seems particularly apt: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” What symptoms could be more “morbid” than Trump and Trumpism?

The path to a humane outcome of this crisis lies first in thwarting the triumph of proto-fascism in November, and then, as in the 1930s, building a workers’ movement capable of radically redefining and expanding “the outer reaches of … liberalism.” The labor left must push through the openings created by the new directions of Biden’s economic program and work to construct a post-neoliberal political order premised on addressing the needs of, and empowering, the multiracial working class.

The battle to win ‘governing power’ will require the architects of last year’s workplace insurgency to link that militancy to this broader working-class political project.

And just as a handful of progressive unions coalesced in the 1930s to finance and lead the organizational and political renovation of the labor movement, the current project will require collective strategizing and investment from at least a handful of visionary unions.

Pressure from below will also be critical. In the 1930s, left-wing activists of various stripes, from the shop floor to the headquarters of the CIO, pushed the labor movement to take a leading role in the fight against racism and for an expansive social democratic vision. Today’s radicals should be pushing their organizations to embrace a broad, class-wide, anti-racist political agenda that transcends any particular bargaining struggle.

In some ways, the circumstances under which this history will be made are less favorable now than they were when American society was being fundamentally reconstructed in the 1930s. Seventy-five years ago, the industrial labor movement was a militant, disruptive insurgency; today it must recover that spirit after decades of institutionalization.  Nevertheless, the militancy of the last few years gives us reason to be optimistic about a variety of new political, organizing and bargaining initiatives that are harbingers of a reinvigorated and more politicized labor movement. Deliberately cultivating these developments must be part of any new labor politics.

Foundations for a new labor politics

A comprehensive review of the potential building blocks of a new progressive labor political program, one aimed at achieving “governing power,” would require a separate article. These include efforts by organizations like the Climate Jobs National Resource Center and the BlueGreen Alliance to shift labor’s focus away from a knee-jerk defense of fossil fuel jobs to ensuring that the green jobs of the future are good union jobs—and to accelerate the transition to decarbonization. It will involve efforts to reimagine traditional collective bargaining by aligning it with the broader needs of the working class, as advocated by the Bargaining for the Common Good coalition (and demonstrated in practice in the recent round of coordinated Twin Cities job actions), and winning new forms of sectoral bargaining, as exemplified by SEIU’s campaign to create a Fast Food Industry Council in California.

It will also involve fights to democratize our political system, by eliminating the filibuster, ending political gerrymandering, and winning a system of public campaign financing. It will involve experimenting with new political strategies, like the mass member canvassing program pioneered by UNITE-HERE Local 11 in Los Angeles beginning in 2020. We need to invest as well in efforts like InUnion, a program initiated by former AFL-CIO political director Steve Rosenthal, to expand labor’s political communication to an enlarged universe of former union members and modeled pro-union working-class voters.

A progressive labor movement will collaborate with like-minded local, state and federal elected officials, through networks such as Local Progress, the State Information Exchange and the Congressional Political Caucus. We will wage primaries against anti-labor incumbents and campaign to unseat right-wing Republicans. And evidence of the cumulative potential of all these developments, as well as of the rank and file energy coursing through many parts of the labor movement, can be found at Labor Notes’ biennial conventions, now regularly attended by thousands of grassroots labor militants.

Critical tasks: defeat MAGA

Here, though, I want to focus briefly on just three of the most critical political tasks facing the architects of militancy in the aftermath of 2023. First and foremost is the necessity of a mass mobilization to defeat ethnonationalist authoritarianism.

The MAGA danger cannot be overstated, both in terms of the threat it poses to democratic institutions (flawed as they may be), and, in terms of the certain foreclosure of the openings for union growth that have emerged during the Biden presidency. The dangers of Trump and Trumpism have been well-documented elsewhere. But the labor movement has particular reason to be terrified.

What’s at stake goes well beyond Biden’s willingness to walk on picket lines or send out pro-union videos. With Trump’s election, all of the space opened up by the Biden Administration for labor’s growth will be shut down. The aggressively pro-labor NLRB and staff will vanish overnight, and the pro-labor provisions of the infrastructure and climate legislation will be gutted. The judiciary will resume its rightward, anti-labor march. The climate for mass organizing will be chilled. Favorable political conditions have always been the key to labor’s growth and it is no coincidence that the strike wave of 2023 erupted when it did.

Of course, many on the left (not to mention in the broader electorate) are disillusioned with Biden, troubled by his apparent frailty, and especially among young people, justifiably enraged by his hideous refusal to take decisive action to force Israel to stop the massacre in Gaza. But a Trump victory will validate and embolden the most destructive forces in society. 

We have no choice but to gear up for this fight in 2024. Our mobilization must include a deliberate program to educate rank and file activists about the magnitude of the unprecedented threat to democracy. Too many union members, safely ensconced in strongly blue states (43% of all US union members live in NY, CA, NJ, MA, WA and IL, another 12.5% in MI, PA and MN), simply can’t wrap their minds around the reality of the threat. We must work hard to raise the alarm, and to mobilize everyone we can in a crusade to re-elect Biden and defend democracy and the labor movement.

Critical tasks: provide political education

Labor progressives must also prioritize a program of systematic member political education within their unions. Deepening membership awareness of the role unions must play in resisting authoritarianism is one element of such a program. This political education needs to both deepen activists’ historical and political analysis and develop their mobilizing skills in order to create a cadre of activists who can think strategically and lead both issue and electoral campaigns, and who see themselves as politically conscious leaders in their unions.

A number of major unions, including the Communications Workers of America (where I worked for 36 years), have made political education a central component of member political mobilization programs. CWA’s training programs familiarize members with issues like political economy and financialization, the history of institutional racism and its role in dividing the working class, the role of social movements, the dimensions of the bosses’ “40-year class war,” and more recently, the necessity of defending the “pillars of democracy.” This ideological training shapes the development of a cadre of political activists capable of driving the key political goals of the union.

Other progressive unions have adopted similar approaches. As Joe Tarulli, a member of CWA Local 1106 in Queens and one of the union’s rank-and-file training leaders, puts it:

Especially now, [union political education] is super-important because people get information from all sorts of crazy places, and most of it is not true. And the way we do our program we’re not indoctrinating, we’re giving them the information. We do adult education, where it’s pop ed, where they’re coming to the conclusions themselves. They’re coming to the right conclusions, because we’re treating them like adults and we’re giving them the information from real sources, not just this name-throwing craziness… They’re getting this information from everywhere else, but if the one place that they trust, and they deal with every day of their lives, their union, it’s a big part of their lives, could give them this information, what would they do with it? Would things be much different? I think they would be if every union did this.

Critical tasks: build independent politics

Third, progressive labor must grapple directly with the challenge of building independent politics, a problem that has bedeviled the US labor movement since it began to take modern shape in the aftermath of the Civil War. The labor movement has periodically experimented with independent labor parties–Henry George’s United Labor Party in New York City in 1886, a handful of Farmer-Labor parties and New York’s American Labor Party in the 30s, Henry Wallace’s ill-fated Progressive Party in 1948, and the non-electoral Labor Party founded by Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers leader Tony Mazzocchi to counter the Democratic Party’s embrace of neoliberalism in the mid-1990s.

But the entrenched US two-party system, with its non-parliamentary legislatures, and single-member, first-past-the-post, legislative districts, ensured that none of these efforts achieved significant or lasting success.

Over the last 25 years, the Working Families Party, founded in New York in 1998 with the support of the CWA (I was one of the founding co-chairs), the UAW, the Laborers, and the Amalgamated Transit Union, as well as ACORN and Citizen Action, has attempted to build a permanent, party-type organization that recruits and trains candidates and campaign workers, runs issue campaigns, challenges conservative Democratic Party incumbents, and campaigns to defeat right-wing Republicans in general elections, on a year-round basis.

Since its founding in New York, the Party has built a large national staff, developed institutional relationships with progressive members of Congress (some of whom the party played a leading role in electing), and now has functioning affiliates in a dozen states, with organizing committees active in half a dozen more. Its October 2023 national convention featured speeches by CWA President Claude Cummings, SEIU Secretary-Treasurer April Verrett, and Chicago Teachers Union President Stacy Davis Gates.. And recent wins in citywide elections in Philadelphia and Chicago speak to the potential of the approach to independent political action being developed nationally by WFP and partner organizations like United Working Families in Chicago.

Charting the course of independent politics in the US is no easy matter, and tensions between the party and labor have arisen in some states over how to relate to institutional elected leaders upon whom the labor movement depends for its legislative agenda. But the reality remains that labor cannot allow itself to function simply as an extension of the Democratic Party.

Labor needs independent capacity to pressure Democratic Party electeds on issues and to defeat Democratic Party electeds who waffle on its agenda.

It also needs to enter into permanent coalition relationships with allied organizations who share its commitment to building working-class power in the US At the moment, the WFP offers the best opportunity to advance the strategy of independent politics, and building the party should be one of the objectives of the new insurgent labor movement.

Defeating Trumpism and winning “governing power” are ambitious, long-term objectives. Historian Gary Gerstle, in his recent history of “The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order,” explains that constructing a hegemonic new political order–like The New Deal or Neoliberal eras–“demands far more than winning an election or two.”

It requires deep-pocketed donors (and political action committees) to invest in promising candidates over the long term; the establishment of think tanks and policy networks to turn political ideas into actionable programs; a rising political party able to consistently win over multiple political constituencies; a capacity to shape political opinion both at the highest levels (the Supreme Court) and across popular print and broadcast media; and a moral perspective able to inspire voters with visions of the good life. Political orders, in other words, are complex projects that require advances across a broad front.

Gerstle surely would acknowledge that new political orders also require the stimulus of mass popular movements. The CIO buoyed the New Deal from below, and the Christian conservative movement paved the way for the rise of neoliberalism by resisting the cultural transformations of the 1960s and providing business conservatives with a mass base devoted to low taxes and limited government. Now the question is whether labor can reprise the role played by the CIO nearly 90 years ago.

The upsurge of labor militancy in 2023 provided a thrilling reminder of the potential of the working class in motion, as well as a testament to the impact of the shifts in political discourse over the previous decade that opened up the space for that upsurge. Especially encouraging in the aftermath of the 2023 strikes has been the emergence of the UAW as a revitalized voice articulating a clear set of anti-corporate values and politics. The union’s pivot to a massive organizing campaign in the non-union auto sector is a bold gamble to grow the ranks of labor on a large scale. The UAW’s endorsement of Biden made clear what is at stake in the 2024 election. And Shawn Fain’s willingness to go toe-to-toe rhetorically with Donald Trump, labeling him a “scab” who “has a history of serving himself and standing for the billionaire class,” offers a refreshing rank-and-file bluntness to the labor movement’s political dialogue.

But more is needed, and the UAW can’t lead the long and complex struggle to construct a new political order on its own. It will take a collective recognition, at many levels of the labor movement, that building working-class power in the US is a multi-faceted project that requires collective coordination, strategic organizing and investment, and a sustained willingness to engage members and allies. It will require breaking free of the least-common-denominator politics of the AFL-CIO and advancing a bold, aspirational agenda rooted in struggles for racial and economic justice, political independence, and addressing the climate crisis.

It will require recognition, too, that shop floor militancy is a necessary condition of such a campaign, but not a sufficient one. Only if these tasks are undertaken will the promise of the militancy of 2023 be fully realized.

Convergence is pleased to be co-publishing this article with Jacobin.

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