Justice Is Indivisible

Dianne Feeley

Professor Rabab Abdulhadi gave this presentation on the situation in Palestine and the growth of the global solidarity movement to a webinar on Tuesday, August 25, 2020 sponsored by the Detroit branch of Solidarity, Jewish Voice for Peace – Detroit, U.S. Palestinian Community Network (USPCN) – Detroit and Palestinian Youth Movement – Detroit. Dr. Abdulhadi emphasized the importance at this critical time of movements coming together to oppose racism and colonialism everywhere, from the USA to Palestine. She particularly noted the solidarity and mutual support shown by #Black Lives Matter and Palestinian struggling under Israeli occupation, and the growing support for Palestine in the progressive sectors of the Jewish community, among organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace as well as Queer Jewish activists.

The brutal treatment of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, made even worse by the Covid-19 pandemic, is a point of special concern as are conditions in U.S. prisons and the horrific situations in immigrant detention centers.

The presentation was preceded by brief welcoming remarks from the sponsoring groups, and followed by a question and discussion period. Dr. Rabab Abdulhadi directs the center at San Francisco State University that she organized, AMED (Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diaspora Studies).

On the Attack on Robert Cuffy at the Mass March to Defund the NYPD

Solidarity National Committee

Statement of Solidarity, 
Call for Information Accountability and Action 

Foley Square, New York, NY, 8:55 pm –

While leading Monday June 29th’s  Mass March to Defund the NYPD & Abolish the Police from Washington Square to Foley Square Robert Cuffy was filming the march, when he was blindsided and tackled by an unidentified man who then slammed Robert into another car, dislocating his shoulder. Prior to this moment Robert was straining his voice by calling out to marchers “We’re going to City Hall!” but he was not able to continue due to the severity of his injuries.

Police nearby observed the assault, and joked with the attacker before walking him to the Foley Square subway station, where they released the attacker without charges. NYPD  didn’t even document the attacker’s identifying information. 

Robert is a well-known revolutionary socialist in NYC, and an effective organizer for Black Liberation. He is a member of the DSA Afrosocialist Caucus, a leader of the NYC Fight for Our Lives Coalition (which is part of People’s Strike, a National coalition organized by Cooperation Jackson), and a founder of the Socialist Workers Alliance of Guyana. He is also a leader of the DSA Labor Branch. This made him a target. 

Robert was put into an ambulance, and was told that he would be taken to New York Presbyterian. Instead, he was driven a few blocks away where Robert waited over an hour inside the ambulance, which did not budge from its location at Spruce and Nassau Streets. Fearing for his own safety, Robert texted marchers to gather at the intersection for support and to enforce transparency. Robert was provided no pain control for his injury. This punitive and callous treatment of Black patients, especially of movement fighters, is all too common. 

Robert had every reason to be afraid that medical neglect or overt violence at the hands of police could be life-threatening; from Ferguson to Baltimore to here in New York, incidents like this have ended with the deaths of far too many Black Liberation activists and of other working class people of color. Even when treatment is provided, individual EMTs who are aligned with police will often take activists and other Black patients past the closest hospitals, going out of their way to drop them off at the most overcrowded, underfunded, and dangerous facilities, as a particularly isolating and potentially lethal form of racist abuse and punishment. Robert was lucky to have a caring EMT named Nancy who kept him safe and even got Robert a blanket upon his request after arriving at the hospital 

On the short ride to the hospital, his fear, horrifyingly, began to come true; he had been left without a seatbelt and was nearly subjected to a “rough ride” of the kind that notoriously ended the life of Freddie Gray in the back of an ambulance in 2015. Without the use of his arm, Robert (just as Gray, handcuffed) wouldn’t be able to physically protect himself from being slammed into hard, sharp metal surfaces inside the vehicle. 

By responding quickly and collectively, activists can protect ourselves and each other from this treatment by disrupting that isolation. When dozens of  supporters mobilized and gathered outside the ambulance, the police were forced to take a statement from Robert, rather than ignore the attack, or worse—spuriously charge Robert, potentially making good on the continued threats spewed by his attacker immediately after the assault. That collective support gave force to Robert’s demand that his seatbelt be buckled.

Too often, and for too long, Black victims of violence have been routinely subjected to exactly this sort of revictimization by cops and vigilantes, even in death. It is impossible to forget that Trayvon Martin was branded a “thug” by his killer, or that Mike Brown, described there as “no angel,” was blamed for his own murder in the press.

The ambulance eventually transported him around the block to the hospital where his partner, mother, and other comrades were waiting for him. NYC Fight For Our Lives Coalition, Peoples Strike, and the DSA are SEEKING FOOTAGE AND DOCUMENTATION of the attack, the attacker, the license plate of his car, cars parked in that location, the ambulance, and its driver/EMT, as well as badge numbers and identification of the police involved. Any information, including witness statements, may be useful

The attack on Robert Cuffy was not an isolated incident. Police and far-right vigilantes are threatening coordinated attacks on protestors, particularly as the calendar nears July 4. As the #GeorgeFloyd Uprising continues to flourish, and as protests and rallies nationwide call to defund, dismantle, and disarm police, law enforcement and their backers have been stoking the fascist fire, encouraging lone-wolf attacks to terrorize supporters of the fight against police brutality. 

This is a reminder that the movement will need to increase security measures and step up our game. We have to collectively prevent further attacks and protect ourselves as the movement grows, continues to win reforms, and pick up steam. Go out into the streets with your friends and comrades, use the buddy system, and coordinate security to protect the movement’s leaders as we continue this rebellion. Remember that we are all leaders in the fight to get free.

We call on the NYPD to identify and to immediately fire and hold accountable the officers who not only ignored this attack, but aided the attacker. 

If you have any relevant information, or to connect with and support the work that Robert has dedicated himself to, contact NYC Fight For Our Lives Coalition at: 

Phone: (347) 433-8652

Email: GeneralStrikeNYC2020@gmail.com

Twitter: @fight_nyc

Instagram: @fightforourlivesnyc

Hashtags: 

#FireAndThunder
#DefundNYPD
#DefundDisbandDisarm
#AbolishNYPD
#WeKeepUsSafe
#FireFranciscoGarcia
#ChargeVincentD’Andraia
#WeCantBreathe
#NoWorkNoRent
#BlackLivesMatter
#BlackLiberation 
#BlackPower 
#FightForOurLives
#PeoplesStrike
#GeneralStrike
#FreeThemAll
#StrikeForOurLives

Join Us, July 4th: 
Fire and Thunder: Movement for Liberation Broadway Junction, Brooklyn, July 4th @ 4pm

Event Intention:
Inspired by Frederick Douglass’ famous speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”, the NYC Fight for Our Lives Coalition is calling a march for freedom on the 4th of July. It will begin with a meditation and community grounding in recognition of the history of the U.S. as a nation founded on the systematic murder abuse and exploitation of Black people.  

Reimagining Schools Post-Covid

Ann Finkel

I am a 7th grade teacher in Boston Public Schools, a member of the fledgling BTU Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), a member of the PUEBLO neighborhood coalition of East Boston, a DSA member, and a member of Solidarity. 

The Covid crisis has upended the lives of students and their families across the country and world, and has forced teachers to reinvent curricula and teaching methods within days. On top of that, schools are going to enormous efforts to provide food, rental support, cleaning supplies, health supports, and critical information in a family’s native language to not only students but families as well. To the outside observer it may appear as if schools are taking on entirely new roles, but in fact these are roles that schools have always been expected to fill. But now, the need is higher, the resources are fewer, and the methods of support are more challenging than ever. And as in all crises, the inequities between low-income and high-income cities are being laid bare and exacerbated, and the inequitable impact on students’ access to education is tremendous.. Although the education system is more broken than ever, and morale is especially low (anecdotally, we rarely have any kind of staff meeting without at least several people winding up in tears), this situation presents a somewhat unprecedented chance to rethink what schools could, and should, look like in the long run. It is important that teachers, students, families, and unions  determine what the new normal in education will be, before corporate reformers do it for us.

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School’s Role in Mutual Aid Efforts

To my knowledge, none of my 105 students have parents who are “working from home.” They are either laid off and running out of money, or working, highly exposed, and in many cases, getting sick. Further, due to immigration status, many were ineligible for a $1,200 stimulus check. 

As a touchstone for many families, particularly among the largely Spanish-speaking population of East Boston, my school is situated to provide an important information-sharing and coordinating role in the East Boston Mutual Aid network (EBMA). EBMA is coordinated by various community groups and neighborhood leaders. There are two sides to the network: the food and resources side, and a substantial educational component. In order to provide for our school’s families, the Family Support Team has been working with EBMA, as well as tapping into our own staff’s resources. For the last several months, we’ve coordinated the efforts of 50 staff who have volunteered to buy and deliver groceries to the 100 families that we know of (there may be many more) who are facing food insecurity. We have also partnered with EBMA and particularly an urban farm in East Boston who, for about six weeks, provided us with 50 hot meals each week, which teachers spend hours delivering. (It should be noted that BPS does have meal sites set up for students to pick up food daily. However, these BPS meals are pre-packaged, small portions, not particularly nutritious or appetizing, and impossible for quarantined kids to pick up).

As staff have been providing grocery support to families, it has also been important to us to empower the neighborhood organizing as best we can. One way we are doing this is by connecting families to the educational and informational side of the mutual aid. There have been various teach-ins and webinars about tenant rights and other topics run by the neighborhood groups in East Boston and Greater Boston, including City Life/Vida Urbana. As teachers it is easy to contact families quickly to connect them to these resources – I can text 105 parents in 30 seconds – so that is a power we are trying to make good use of. While some (probably less than half) of these resources are sent in emails to BPS, this is grossly inadequate communication. The vast majority of our families are more comfortable communicating via phone calls and text messages in Spanish, which is how teachers communicate most effectively with parents throughout the year.

Reimagining Schools: A Return to Normalcy is Not the Goal

Where do we go from here? How do we harness this collective energy and organizing capacity to create more radical demands and actions? It is important to keep in mind that many people were living and learning in horribly stressful, inadequate, and unstable conditions before the COVID crisis hit. 

Right out of the COVID gate, our Boston Teachers Union created a Common Goods platform. This included calls to cancel MCAS – our high-stakes end of year test – and to put a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures. Both of these demands did pass at the state level, and soon thereafter our CORE group successfully pushed BTU to sign the Housing Guarantee petition that would cancel rent outright for those unable to pay. But these are just some first steps.

We (several like-minded teachers and I who are coordinating the Family Support Team) are also trying to use this moment to push thus far well-meaning but politically disengaged teachers to take the next step beyond just donating money. These teachers are willing and eager to help students that they know. The question is how to get them to see the larger systemic injustices facing BPS students (fight for someone they don’t know, if you will), and understand the underlying problems that are creating these financial crises for our families. How do we turn this often well intentioned charity into an organized resistance aimed at the root of the problem? As a small part of this effort, I plan next week to host a zoom-action-party where staff can come and work together as we sign the Housing Guarantee Petition, call our State Representatives to push for a bill that would give stimulus checks to people regardless of immigration status, etc. I believe this is also where CORE becomes especially important, as a body of teachers dedicated to pushing our union to the left. 

This is a chance for educators and parents and students to rethink schools and what our priorities are. Some concrete initial ideas are as follows:

  • Educators pushed to get MCAS canceled, and we were successful in that. Year after year, we have always been told that cancelling MCAS is impossible, and yet here we are. Permanently cancelling (or significantly restructuring/reducing) MCAS is no longer a pipe-dream. 
  • Parents are getting a chance to homeschool their kids, and largely determine the curriculum for themselves. We are seeing parents spending more time outside, gardening with their kids, talking about culturally relevant ethnic studies, allowing more play time for kids of all ages. When we return to school buildings, it will be important for educators to gather this data from parents, and ask parents and students what they want emphasized in our curricula. We should also go a step further by inviting family members in to school as guest speakers, particularly when it comes to teaching students the history of their own countries, cultures, and immigration stories.
  • Within two weeks of school closure, BPS ordered 20,000 chromebooks and many internet hotspots (let it be noted that we spent days driving around and delivering these chromebooks and hotspots, while teachers and students in wealthier and whiter districts spent that time starting their online learning routines). Chromebooks and internet access are incredibly important learning tools for students, especially high schoolers applying to jobs and colleges (not to mention their parents needing to apply to receive gift cards from the soup kitchen, apply to the Rental Relief Fund, etc.) If Boston was able to get computers and internet access to all students within a couple of weeks, it should have happened a long time ago. And at the end of the COVID crisis, these resources should not be taken away. 
  • When we return to school buildings, it is likely that there will be significantly reduced class sizes. This could revolutionize teaching strategies and community building within a classroom, and we may need to fight for class sizes to remain small (with increased numbers of school buildings and school staff, of course).
  • Although online platforms have been important in these last several months, it has become clear to any parent, student, and teacher in doubt that online school is a wholly inadequate replacement for the real thing. Many teachers are worried about corporate online schooling, and all kinds of ed-tech companies swooping in and chomping at the bit to turn a profit and take advantage of this crisis. It will require concerted organizing to keep the corporations at bay. 

Closing Thoughts

Teachers, counselors, administrators, and nurses are working around the clock to not only educate our students, but to make sure they are healthy, housed, and fed. While these efforts have reached incredible new heights as more and more students are in crisis, it is a job that school staff are well-versed in even in the best of times. With physical schools closed, the extent of services that teachers and other school staff normally provide has become increasingly clear to the public. As we re-open, schools need to be properly funded as the social service catch-alls that they are, school communities need to continue to be integrated with neighborhood organizing efforts, and teachers need to organize and fight for the re-imagined schools we know our students deserve.

Mutual Aid and Labor Organizing in New Orleans

Michael Esealuka transcription

I’m going to talk about mutual aid and labor organizing, out of my experience with unemployment workshops and tax clinics that New Orleans DSA has been doing as a part of our Fair Fund campaign.

DSA New Orleans launched the first Brake Light Clinic project which got taken up by other DSA chapters. We basically fix brake lights for free in an agitational way of raising awareness about police violence and state violence.

At first, we got a lot of criticism and a lot of blow-back that said our project was a form of charity and this led us to do some internal struggling and political development. We’ve come out of that with an understanding that mutual aid is a tactic and as a tactic, it can only really be evaluated within the framework of a larger campaign–how effective it is in advancing your campaign’s goals.

As socialists, you know, we’re fighting for more working-class power, we’re fighting to capture the state, and services can be a way of building trust with the communities of people that we’re trying to bring into our fight. But we can’t evaluate whether mutual aid is good or bad on its own. That’s like saying is canvassing good or bad; are petitions good or bad.

I’ll just talk a little bit about our campaign right now. In New Orleans, we were really, really hard-hit by the Covid crisis. For a while we had the highest per capita rate of cases in the country. Our neighboring parish, St. John the Baptist, has the highest per capita rates of death from COVID-19 in the country. And, of course, our economy is very heavily reliant on service and tourism. We estimate there are between 85,000 and 100,000 restaurant workers in the greater New Orleans metropolitan area, so they constitute a massive section of our workforce.

Justice Is Indivisible Solidarity Radio

The New Orleans convention center oversees a reserve fund that is made from hotel and tourism taxes. They have an annual revenue of at least $30 million a year and right now they are sitting on $186 million of unrestricted funds, like a rainy day fund.

Community organizers in our city have been trying to get our hands on this money for a long time; that money is made from the work that restaurant workers do in our city. So, DSA did some research to figure out who is our target and we came up with a demand that we wanted $100 million of that relief fund to be allocated evenly, with no means testing and no restrictions, to every single restaurant worker in the city. That sounds like a lot of money, but it’s actually only $1,000 per worker.

We teamed up with UNITE HERE and other local unions, working class community groups and labor organizations to build a coalition around a campaign for $100 million in relief that now includes around 37 organizations. Our coalition included sex workers’ organizations and immigrants’ rights organizations.

In the first phase of the campaign we used unemployment trainings and tax clinics as a way of bringing people in. Tourism involves not only restaurant workers and hotel workers but also taxicab drivers, Uber drivers and gig workers like dancers, sex workers, psychics, musicians, all sorts of things. These are people who fall through the cracks. Separate from this campaign, we also set up a mutual aid Facebook group that our members bottom line. There are about 6,800 people in that mutual aid group. We also organized a petition drive and got about 1,800 signatures—most of them (about 1,200) unemployed hospitality workers, so we had a base of about 8,000 people for our campaign.

We began the campaign by hosting regular tax clinics for independent contractors to teach them how they could file a simple tax form so that they could qualify for the $1200 relief check. And then we also were setting up unemployment workshops. We partnered with a local, nonprofit organization called the Southeastern Louisiana Legal Services, so they were able to provide expertise and we provided access to workers. These workshops were organized by laid off restaurant workers teaching other hospitality workers how to file for benefits. And we pulled participants from those workshops into helping us set up future workshops. And all of these people became part of the mutual aid Facebook group.

And we used these trainings as an agitational tool. We said, you know, why is it that the people who need this money most are always the people who fall through the cracks? How is it that we are the people that keep this city running and we know that the city of New Orleans runs because of the work we do and yet we’re getting left in the gutter by the people who’ve gotten rich off of our work?

Our coalition did win $1 million from the reserve fund to be given to workers in the city, and we also won an additional $1.5 million in grant funding that our coalition is going to be distributing to members of our organizations however we see fit. So, we won $2.5 million; though we didn’t get all the way to the $100 million we demanded.

Our tax clinics were really effective in the first stage of the campaign. Now, most people have filed for unemployment and so we have shifted to partnering with the many mutual aid organizations that have sprung up in the city, organizations that just provide services without political education. For example, the Greater New Orleans Caring Collective started around March 15th and they’ve really quickly established this incredible infrastructure. They’ve been able to distribute fresh food and other services to a thousand working class families across the greater New Orleans area, and they have this desperate need for volunteers. So, rather than set up our own mutual aid system, we partner with them. They get access to our volunteers and we get access to working class families that we can work with around political education.

Just to reiterate, mutual aid is a tactic; it has to be understood within a framework of a broader campaign around demands. It is a way to bring working class people into your struggle and to build trust; but it’s not enough on its own.

Michael E. was a restaurant worker for eleven years and is now an environmental organizer. She is a member of the New Orleans DSA chapter and on the steering committee of the DSA labor commission.

Webinar: Workers’ Self-organization, Mutual Aid and Socialist Politics—Audio

Solidarity Education Committee

(Pictured from top going clockwise) Ann Finkel, Kali Akuno, Micheal Esealuka, and Ted McTaggart

On April 30th we hosted a webinar discussing how acts of solidarity, workers’ self-organization, and mutual aid can be building blocks of social power and pre-figure the human relationships of a democratic socialist society. In our discussion among panelists and questions from those attending we sought to answer: How do we connect organizing mutual aid to building the power to challenge the capitalist state’s neo-liberal austerity policies? How do we connect workers’ self-organization to a movement for revolutionary change? 

Featured speakers included Solidarity comrades Ann Finkel, a Boston school teacher, and Ted McTaggart, a Michigan nurse, who were joined by Michael Eskeula, restaurant worker and DSA member from New Orleans and Cooperation Jackson co-founder Kali Akuno from Jackson, Mississippi. 

Back to basics: A critical balance sheet of the Bernie Sanders campaign

Peter Solenberger

Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders have formed a Democratic Party “Unity Task Force.” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and John Kerry, Barack Obama’s Secretary of State. will co-chair the climate change group. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

Like Stephen Mahood and Promise Li, authors of Socialism from below after Bernie: Local organizing and rank-and-file militancy, I’m a member of Solidarity and the Democratic Socialists of America. I helped found Huron Valley DSA (HVDSA) and Northern Michigan DSA (NMDSA).

Most Solidarity and DSA members would agree with the article’s proposal to encourage Sanders supporters to turn from his now-ended campaign to local organizing and rank-and-file militancy. Other points in the article are subjects of debate in both Solidarity and DSA. My goal in this article is to address some of the points of debate and to draw a critical balance sheet of the campaign.

The 2020 Bernie Sanders campaign

The 2020 Sanders campaign was once again an electoral campaign in the Democratic Party. Its platform was the New Deal, the old-time religion of the party, updated to the 21st century on matters of race, gender and the environment.

Articles in DSA publications and Jacobin describe the campaign as “socialist.” For example, the April 9 DSA leadership statement Socialism is the Best Path Forward, issued immediately after Sanders dropped out and endorsed Joe Biden, describes it as “the most successful socialist electoral campaign in U.S. history.”

But the campaign wasn’t socialist. It wasn’t anticapitalist. It wasn’t anti-imperialist. It was New Deal. On the Sanders campaign website the only reference to socialism by Sanders himself is a June 12, 2019 speech, Sanders Calls For 21st Century Bill of Rights. In it he equates his brand of socialism with the New Deal. Here’s its most developed passage:

In a famous 1936 campaign speech Roosevelt stated, “We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace — business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.

“They had begun to consider the government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that government by organized money is just as dangerous as government by organized mob.

“Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred.”

Despite that opposition, by rallying the American people, FDR and his progressive coalition created the New Deal, won four terms, and created an economy that worked for all and not just the few. 

Today, New Deal initiatives like Social Security, unemployment compensation, the right to form a union, the minimum wage, protection for farmers, regulation of Wall Street and massive infrastructure improvements are considered pillars of American society.

But, while he stood up for the working families of our country, we can never forget that President Roosevelt was reviled by the oligarchs of his time, who berated these extremely popular programs as “socialism.”

To his credit, Sanders never renounced the socialism of his youth. He redefined it as the New Deal, but he didn’t renounce it. This encouraged many of his supporters to go beyond the inspiring but vague slogans of the global justice movement (“Another world is possible”) and Occupy (“We are the 99%”) to speak directly of capitalism and socialism.

After forty years of Democratic Party capitulation to neoliberalism, putting the New Deal on the party’s agenda again and making socialism a topic of conversation among activists were big accomplishments. There’s no need to exaggerate. The campaign wasn’t socialist.

Us, not him

Articles in DSA publications and Jacobin confuse cause and effect in their enthusiasm for the Sanders campaign. A prominent campaign slogan was, “Not me, us.” The slogan should be inverted, viewed from the bottom up. “Us, not him” more accurately describes the dynamic.

For 25 years Sanders did his thing in Congress and got little hearing in the Democratic Party or anywhere else. In the 2016 Democratic presidential primary he caught a wave of worker and youth enthusiasm for New Deal policies. He rode the wave skillfully, but he didn’t create it.

Waves of rebellion had been rising and falling since the mid-1990s, when “There is no alternative” began to give way to “Another world is possible” among activists.

Some of its pre-2016 highlights in the U.S. were the 1997 UPS strike, the 1999 Battle of Seattle, the 2000-2002 global justice movement, the huge rallies against the 2003 Iraq war, the 2004 March for Women’s Lives, the 2005 Katrina solidarity, the 2006 marches and strikes for immigrant rights, rejection of austerity during the 2007-09 Great Recession, Barack Obama’s 2008 election, the Dreamers, Wisconsin 2011, Occupy 2011, the 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike, the 2013-14 Black Lives Matter movement, the 2014 calling out of campus rape, the campaign for same-sex marriage culminating in the 2015 Supreme Court decision, and Fight for Fifteen.

The rebellious sentiment found an electoral expression in the 2016 Sanders campaign. To the surprise of almost everyone, including Sanders, his campaign attracted tens of thousands of activists and millions of voters, transforming it from a marginal protest into a challenge to the Democratic Party establishment.

The 2020 Sanders campaign was a reprise of 2016. Not as inspiring, because it wasn’t new and its more clear-eyed supporters knew it would end with Sanders defeated, endorsing the establishment candidate. But it showed that support for New Deal politics had become endemic in the ranks of the Democratic Party.

Articles in DSA publications and Jacobin credit the 2016 Sanders campaign with resurrecting DSA. Again, more credit should go to ranks, the youth and workers who flooded into DSA. Many of them had campaigned for Sanders, and some joined during the campaign. But more were inspired to join by the defeat of the campaign and then the election of Donald Trump. If the campaign had won, they’d have joined the Democratic Party, not DSA.

Again this year, the Sander campaign and, even more, its defeat seem to be leading to an influx of new DSA members.

The Democratic Party

Historically, DSA and its predecessor organizations have located themselves in the left wing of the Democratic Party. Historically, Solidarity has refused to locate there. Here’s a passage from the 1986 Solidarity Founding Statement.

The necessity for autonomous class action is at the root of our conception of independent political action. Class independence is at the heart of revolutionary socialist working-class politics, which emphasizes workers’ self-organization, self-activity and reliance on their own strength — including building their own alliances with the oppressed. In the electoral arena, the principle of working-class self-organization requires an independent party.

Lacking such a party, the working class and other progressive movements are reduced to pressure groups on bourgeois politics, no matter how militant their activity. This is the trap from which labor in the U.S. has yet to escape.

Just as we believe that workers, through their class institutions (the unions) should have a policy of challenging the employers rather than of accepting collaboration, we believe the same principle should apply in the arena of politics. Unlike reformists, we do not see ourselves as “critics” of the bourgeois parties, the Democratic and Republican parties, but as opponents. Indeed, in the U.S. the question of the Democratic Party is the most important principled and practical divide between the politics of reformism and revolutionary socialism…

In fact, the Democratic Party is the graveyard of movements for social and political change. It is a party controlled by and thoroughly tied to corporate capital, and for that reason is irrevocably committed to the maintenance of the world U.S. economic empire…

No matter how often the quest to capture the Democratic Party for progressive politics fails — as it always does and always will — the argument for “giving it another try” constantly revives in the wake of each defeat…

It is therefore essential that socialists continue to make the case for an independent party based on the labor movement.

The specific form of DSA’s current attempt to “give it another try” is to support left candidates running in Democratic Party primaries and, if they’re nominated, running as Democrats in the general election. Some in DSA still seek to reform the Democratic Party. Others see the party as just a “ballot line” that they can use.

The Sanders experience shows why the 1986 Solidarity position remains correct. The point isn’t to criticize Sanders. He’s a New Deal Democrat. His strategy flowed from his politics:

  1. Run as a Democrat, because that’s the only way to get millions of votes.
  2. Play by the Democratic Party rules, because that’s the only way to run as a Democrat.
  3. Play nicely, because that’s the only way to be listened to.
  4. Support the Democratic nominee, because that’s the only way to beat Trump.
  5. Within that framework, campaign as well as possible.

With a higher level of class struggle, Sanders might have won. The ruling class might have decided that they had to make concessions to the working class to contain the upsurge, as they did with Roosevelt and the original New Deal. But not with the current level of class struggle.

Sanders is out, but the wheel is still in spin with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) and Rashida Tlaib, the two open DSA members in Congress. AOC won her 2018 Democratic Party primary because she faced a self-satisfied, lazy, white male opponent who misjudged the voters. Tlaib won hers because the Black community and Democratic Party establishment failed to narrow the field to a single candidate to represent them.

AOC and Tlaib face a dilemma. If they cause too much trouble, the Democratic Party machine will primary them out, as it did Cynthia McKinney, first in 2002 and then definitively in 2006. If they don’t cause trouble, why are they there?

Under such pressure, not surprisingly, they’ve voted upwards of 95% with their party, including on bills to approve the imperial budget. They’ve proposed few measures of their own, and the few they’ve proposed have gone nowhere. In particular, AOC’s February 2019 resolution “Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal” generated public discussion but went nowhere.

The two-party system

The Democratic Party can’t be understood in isolation. It’s a component of the two-party system. It works together with the Republican Party to make sure that the government does only what a consensus of the ruling class wants. This is true, whatever self-conception its politicians may have.

The two parties are funded by large donors and circumscribed by the media. Their politicians pass through the revolving door between government and business, including NGOs. The less scrupulous enrich themselves, and nearly all prosper.

The two parties agree on the fundamentals of capitalist property, state power and empire. That’s why the military budget passes almost unanimously every time. But they’re not exactly the same. Historically, the Democrats have presented themselves as more caring, while the Republicans have presented themselves as more realistic.

Half the voting-age population generally doesn’t vote, seeing no point to it. The other half is divided between Democrats and Republicans, with somewhat more Democrats than Republicans. Workers, women, people of color, and youth tend to vote Democratic, if they vote at all. The affluent, men, whites and older folk tend to vote Republican.

The levels of support for the two parties are close enough to lead to an alternation between them at the federal level. The Democrats win, fail to deliver, disappoint their base, and energize the Republicans. The Republicans win, fail to deliver, disappoint their base, and energize the Democrats. In the post-World War II period the presidential alternation has been Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy/Johnson, Nixon/Ford, Carter, Reagan/Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, Obama, Trump.

The base might not like the party’s candidate, but they’re herded to the polls to vote for the lesser evil. This year, Democrats are told, “If you don’t vote for Biden, you’ll get Trump.” Republicans are told, “If you don’t vote for Trump, you’ll get Biden.”

The capitalists prefer a situation of divided power like the present one, in which the Republicans have the presidency and a majority in the Senate, and the Democrats have a majority in the House. Most politicians of both parties prefer divided power too, whatever their protestations, so they can blame each other for the gridlock.

The outcome isn’t always gridlock. The military budget always passes. Wars are approved. In the past six weeks the federal government has allocated nearly $3 trillion to prevent economic and social collapse. The legislation included assistance to workers, but only what the ruling class thought was necessary.

At the state and local level the two-party system may not involve an alternation of administrations, but the party machines, donors, media, and “lesser evil” manipulation — plus the requirement that states and municipalities balance their budgets — limit what even the best-intentioned elected officials can do.

In 2020 the two-party system has worked quite well. A majority of Democratic Party voters favor New Deal measures, but a majority still voted for neoliberal Biden as best able to beat Trump. Forty percent wanted Sanders, but most of them will vote for Biden as the lesser evil.

DSA probably won’t endorse Biden, since it’s bound by a 2019 convention resolution made back in the heady days when many DSAers thought Sanders might win. But most DSAers, especially in “battleground states,” will probably vote for Biden as the lesser evil to Trump.

Even Solidarity is divided, with some members favoring the Green Party and our comrade Howie Hawkins, some planning to hold their noses and vote for Biden, and some wanting to forget the whole mess.

Class struggle and electoral politics

In the 1990s Labor Party Advocates (LPA) had a great slogan, “The bosses have two parties. We need at least one.” LPA attempted to launch a Labor Party in 1996. The party had backing from several leftwing unions, many movement activists, and most of the socialist left.

The AFL-CIO leadership tolerated the Labor Party on one condition: The party would not run candidates against Democrats. Not running candidates made the Labor Party ineffective and superfluous. It held another convention in 1998 and expired.

The Labor Party was a good idea whose time had not yet come. The recovery of working-class consciousness and activity had just begun. The class struggle was still at a very low level. If the Labor Party had decided to run candidates against Democrats — impossible with its governing structure — the unions would have left, and the party would have collapsed by a different route. The Labor Party was damned if it did, and damned if it didn’t.

DSA is in a somewhat similar situation today. The class struggle and working-class consciousness are not at a high enough level to allow DSA to split the Democratic Party and build a mass alternative. It could only take steps in that direction. But which steps?

Most DSA members see the need for a working-class party independent of the Democrats. But few are ready to make the break. They see winning office as “power” and running as a Democrat as the way to win office. They want to use the Democratic Party ballot line to get elected and carry out their own policies.

That’s not how the game works. To run as a Democrat you have to follow the rules of the party. You have to support whoever wins nomination. If you’re elected, you have to work with your colleagues. Hence, Sanders endorses Biden, and Sanders, AOC and Tlaib mostly vote with their party.

An alternative is the third-party route, that of the Greens. The Greens have a program much superior to that of Bernie Sanders, on a par with DSA. The Greens are explicitly ecosocialist and anticapitalist. Sanders proposes reforming capitalism. The Greens propose doing away with it.

By running a presidential candidate, the Greens popularize their ideas far more than they could if they held back. They keep ballot status in many states by running statewide candidates who lose but get large numbers of votes doing so. For example, a socialist who wants to run for office in Michigan can do it as a Green, no problem, at least for now.

The price of running as a Green, rather than as a Democrat, is that you’re unlikely to win above the local level, and often not even there. Green campaigns are mostly educational campaigns. Green votes are mostly protest votes.

Another alternative is to run as an independent. Kshama Sawant in Seattle and  Rossana Rodríguez-Sanchez in Chicago show that at the local level it’s possible to win as an independent. But these victories are exceptional and bring no real power. Again, they’re mainly educational.

The Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) showed that it’s possible to run a slate of independent candidates and win. The 2013 election of Chokwe Lumumba as mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, was more complicated. He ran as a Democrat but described himself as a Mississippi Freedom Democrat. He had the backing of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and community organizations, which gave his campaign exceptional independence.

The Richmond and Jackson efforts made some important gains and then fractured under the pressures of governing, the Jackson effort after the premature death of Lumumba in 2014.

Where to go from here

With the current level of class struggle, electoral activity can have only limited and ambiguous success. It’s great that Sanders did as well as he did in the Democratic Party presidential primaries. I hope that Biden beats Trump in November. But Sanders’s success and Biden’s, if he succeeds, strengthen the Democratic Party and reinforce the two-party system.

That’s not a reason to deny the advantage of their success or to wish for their failure. But it is a reason to consider whether electoral campaigns in the Democratic Party are what revolutionary socialists should be doing.

I agree with the 1986 Solidarity view, held by many other revolutionary socialists, that we should try to relate positively to the ranks of progressive Democratic Party campaigns. We should sympathize with their aims and acknowledge the superiority of their candidate’s platform and practice.

We should say that we’d support the candidate running as an independent, but not running as a Democrat. We should explain that our principal concern is to promote working-class political independence, and supporting a Democrat, even a Jesse Jackson or a Bernie Sanders, would undercut that goal.

That leaves plenty of space for supporting socialists and other leftists running as Greens or independents. Revolutionary socialists should do so where we can. But we should understand that electoral campaigns are mainly educational at this point, auxiliary to class struggle. They’re not power.

The way forward is to raise the level of class struggle, beginning with local organizing and rank-and-file militancy. Draw lessons about the Democratic Party and the two-party system from the Sanders experience, and then move on.

Thanks, Bernie!

Joanna Misnik

Photo: Gage Skidmore

Since Bernie Sanders suspended his presidential campaign, there has been a steady stream of articles assessing it. They range from more mainstream progressive political analysis citing his inability to compromise and soften his message, problems within the staff, etc. to some on the socialist left decrying Bernie’s contesting in the Democratic Party as a breach of principle and misleadership of the working class.

This discussion will continue for a time. Meanwhile, I suggest closing your eyes and visualizing what U.S. politics, electoral and social movement, would have looked like if Bernie Sanders, democratic socialist, had not launched his campaigns for President.

At the outset of the primary season, Bernie Sanders’ ratings and his substantial wins in Iowa, Nevada and New Hampshire made his nomination seemed like a surprising, but distinct, possibility. His popularity had moved other progressive candidates to adopt some form of support or lip service for Medicare for all, fixing student debt, a fair tax system which makes the billionaires pay their fair share, an end to corporate and oligarchic campaign financing, ending the immoral income gap between rich and poor, raising the minimum wage to $15, immigration and criminal justice reform, and more.

Bernie revolutionized funding for campaigns, refused to take billionaire donations or money from corporate super-PACs. He raised over 100 million from millions of small donations at an average $18.50 per donation. This was unprecedented in big-dollar presidential campaigning. Message received: working people are in this and will band together to finance their political message. The wealthy do not monopolize our elections. Candidates will now forever be judged on how they are financed and by whom.

Centrist alarm

The popularity of Bernie’s platform alarmed corporate centrist Democratic Party leaders, who launched a campaign known as ABB – anybody but Bernie. Senator Elizabeth Warren was their first weapon – a radical progressive often allied with Sanders and a woman to appease the loss of Hillary Clinton felt so keenly among upper middle class suburban women, the sought after base of the Party. But Warren failed to attract voters away from Bernie. The back-up plan was flooding the contest with a clown car full of candidates, something for everybody, so as to take votes away from Bernie in the primaries.

And then there was Joe Biden, Obama’s Vice President who had traction among the Party’s Black voters that could deliver victories for a return to life before Trump, the Obama days. The appeal played on the abject fear that Donald Trump might be re-elected and the Democratic candidate had to be someone who could vanquish him. The Democratic leadership insisted the idea that Bernie’s democratic socialist program made him a long shot. That worked, and Bernie’s lead was pushed back, never to return, after a stunning Biden victory in South Carolina. Other candidates dropped out one by one, sheepishly endorsing Joe Biden, knowing that there was a real issue about his diminished capacities.

Medicare for All

One attack that backfired was the constant question during the debates and in interviews about Medicare for All: Sanders was accused of not having a plan to pay for Medicare for All. Workers really love the health coverage they get from their employers and they do not want to give it up; the government should not force them.

Again and again, Bernie explained how Medicare for All would save money, be more efficient and fulfil what is a human right for all. But it never stopped – until Covid 19. The life-threatening chaos of the botched response to this pandemic has made the case for Medicare for All. With 17 million and rising suddenly unemployed, the virtues of employer furnished health care have evaporated. As one author put it; “Reality Has Endorsed Bernie Sanders.” Even before the pandemic, Medicare for All enjoyed majority support in most polling.

Bernie Is Not Just Running for President

Bernie ran for President to jumpstart and focus much-needed resistance in this country to the inhumane plunder by billionaires, the oligarchs that create obscene income inequality and exploitation. He railed against corporate greed, the seizure of our government by the corporations, the destruction of anything like a humane society that cares for everyone.

He gave hope to people ground down by the extreme individualism of neoliberalism, called out the profit system as the cause of this deep inequality and urged a political revolution, a movement to take back our society. To emphasize that he was not a savior candidate, Sanders popularized the phrases ‘Not Me, Us!’ and ‘A Movement, Not a Moment!’

He explained that even if he were elected, it would take this mass movement to bring about needed change. And it would take time, nothing overnight. This message was heard by millions of young people, anxious to fight for a vision of a just society on a planet that can sustain life.

Socialism was back in the U.S. lexicon, running ahead of capitalism in poll after poll – even if this was the socialism of post-war Europe, of catch-up with social measures in other capitalist societies, our working class had been denied. The special urgency was the need to defeat the most dangerous President in the history of our country – Donald Trump had to go.

From the beginning, Sanders pledged to support the Democratic nominee and help beat Trump. The pandemic, social distancing and uncertainty about the election calendar, combined with Trump’ s utter inability to lead the  response or even assemble the facts at hand must have been a factor in suspending his campaign and closing the Democratic Party ranks.

A Democratic Election in the Time of Pandemic?

April 7 was primary election day for Democrats in the state of Wisconsin. The voting took place the day that a record 1,200 Covid19 deaths occurred in a 24 hour period and 97% of the US population is officially under what is imaginatively called social distancing, or lockdown. The Democratic Governor of Wisconsin tried to postpone the primary but was overruled by Republican-dominated state legislature as well as a US Supreme Court ruling (strict partisan vote of 5 to 4) that will not allow any mail in ballots to be counted if postmarked after April 7.

The city of Milwaukee managed to open only five of its 180 polling places as poll workers, many elderly, opted not to risk it. Lines were intolerably and undemocratically long and severely dangerous.

More than 20 states and territories have yet to hold primary elections. Fifteen have already postponed them. And the Democratic Party has optimistically pushed its national nominating convention to mid-August from mid-July. In addition, social distancing severely restricts face to face campaigning, door to door neighborhood canvassing, and the mass rallies that gave the Sanders political revolution its reality and energy as a movement.

The recently-passed Congressional $2.2 trillion relief package number 3 contains a hard fought for $400 million for states to implement balloting by mail as opposed to in-person voting. But the United States is a federated system, not a federal one. And Republicans control a majority of state legislatures that have the power to accept or reject the “suggestion” of reliance on mail-in balloting. Prior to the pandemic, some Republican-controlled states had removed around one million voters from eligibility under various pretexts to damp down the Democratic voting base. Donald Trump tweeted his opposition to a national mail-in ballot because it would advantage a Democratic victory

From the beginning, Bernie Sanders has emphasized that in order to beat Trump there must be record-breaking voter turnout. This did not happen in the early primary contests; a disappointing 20 percent of young voters came out. The fight for mail-in balloting and funding to implement it continues in Congress. In the end, the pace and depth of the Covid 19 crisis and the economic collapse are decisive factors in the democratic conduct and timing of the US presidential election and its outcome.

The Cycle of Rebellion From Within

The Democratic Party leadership is adept at pushing renegade leftist nomination-seekers off a path to victory. The cycle of these attempts is about every 15 to 20 years, as social unrest rises to a pitch seeking “political”: power but does not look to the near unthinkable strategy of a third political party in an anti-parliamentary system. Thus far, the ruling class has been able to contain deep divisions within the duopoly.

Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 campaign, under the slogan ‘Clean for Gene’ reflected deep opposition to the war in Vietnam and a general radicalization against the “system.” McCarthy’s nomination was defeated as thousands of young people demonstrating outside the Chicago convention were attacked in a police riot.

The next defiance came in 1984-88, when the Rev. Jesse Jackson, an aide to Martin Luther King at his side when King was assassinated, twice sought the nomination. Jackson surfaced the deep anger within the working class suffering from the recession of the 1980s, stagnant wages, and unemployment – the full reality of the end of the American dream.

Jackson ran in the social democratic spirit of Martin Luther King. Broad scale support to his campaign was multiracial and working class. In 1988 he came in second to Michael Dukakis, winning 13 primaries and 7 million votes. This was probably the final offensive struggle the Black civil rights movement waged within the national Democratic Party for equality and political inclusion of an MLK trajectory.

Jackson’s campaign vehicle, the Rainbow Coalition, basically disappeared after 1988. And the near unanimous loyalty of the Black vote since to the Democratic Party is a defensive one as neoliberalism ravages large sections of Black America.

The New Socialist Movement

Unlike the previous radical rebellions in Democratic presidential politics, the Bernie candidacy inspired the growth of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). This organization now has some 56,000 members in 170 chapters spread all over the country. They were a boots on the ground army for Bernie, knocking on over one half million doors and making untold phone calls. Over the past several years, DSA has been studying Marxism, history of socialism, and has adopted a firm commitment to a rank and file strategy of building a working class movement from below.  The group is a big tent, open to all radical points of view operating within a democratic framework.

DSA is overwhelmingly young. At the time of the last rebellion in the national Democratic Party in 1988 some were not yet born and others were in grade school. It was not surprising that many believed Bernie would win, underestimating the obstacles to his campaign not just in the corporate centrist Party leadership but the actual level of class consciousness and readiness for struggle, particularly with the acute weakening of the organized labor movement in the U.S and its inability to lead resistance as a national movement. Lesson learned.

A plurality, if not a majority, of the DSA holds a position of opposition to taking over the Democratic Party and supports an eventual building of an independent workers’ party. Various tactics attempt to cope with the failure of any left force to build a durable mass working class third party in this country. Propaganda for such a party combined with abstention from elections or running strictly symbolic campaigns is not an attractive strategy for most new socialists born of the Bernie effort.

Involvement in local struggles, building coalitions with other organizations fighting for a minimum wage, against police brutality, housing for all, rent control, decarceration, immigrant rights and strike support have deepened the ability of the DSA to play a role in real time in the real world. Close to 100 DSA endorsed candidates, most members of the group, have won election to become tribunes of the people. In Chicago, DSA elected six members of the City Council, the first socialists in that body for over 100 years.

The eruption of the new socialist DSA and Bernie’s campaign has placed pressures on the small groups that remain from the deep decline of the 20th Century revolutionary left. Even DSA, which voted as its convention not to endorse any Democratic nominee but Bernie, has some further thinking and discussion to conduct.  Everyone understands the need to rid this country and the world stage of Donald Trump, the “most dangerous President ever”: as Bernie repeatedly said. (For the flavor, rent the 1990s film “The Madness of King George.”) The discussion of left strategy toward that end in the time of pandemic and looming economic depression is continuing – electronically of course.

Joanna Misnik is a member of Solidarity, affiliate of the Fourth International in the U.S. and the oldest member of the Chicago DSA chapter. This article appeared on April 15, 2020 on the Socialist Resistance website here.

From Invisible to Essential: Worker Struggle in the COVID Pandemic

Al Bradbury, Editor of Labor Notes, Interviewed by Bill Resnick

Al, today we’ll be discussing worker challenges to their employers during the COVID epidemic – about health and safety and pay, and also of worker challenges to what the corporations like to call management prerogatives. In winning the right to collective bargaining, trade unions in the U.S. accepted a limitation, that management had prerogatives – the right to make unilateral decisions about products, investments, Board appointments, advertising, political contributions, the equipment and organization of production. These could not be bargained or be the reason for a strike. Still workers, union and no union, had their own ideas about the company and in daily struggles challenged these so-called prerogatives in one way or another. And over the last several months these worker challenges to management prerogatives came loud and clear, and in some places successful, sometimes under the banner, “from invisible to essential.”

First Al, let’s get to the bread and butter issues, particularly health and safety. I just interviewed Travis Watkins who I learned about through the Labor Notes website. Travis’ story is just one of many now occurring in this country. Give us a sense worker struggles today.

Autoworkers are one of many sectors where one of the first things workers did was organize to demand to close down nonessential work—auto plants and many other kinds of plants and workplaces. The employers were slow to close down, wanting to squeeze as much profit out as they could, even as workers discovered that their coworkers or supervisors were getting sick and experienced the reality of not being able to socially distance at work, not having the protective gear they need. Autoworkers had walkouts and demanded to shut their plants down—which they did, although the auto companies almost immediately began making rumblings about wanting to reopen those as soon as possible.

Grocery workers on the front line / Joe Raedle/Getty Images

There are also less-organized, large-scale sickouts in many sectors. Meat and poultry plant workers, for instance, many of them immigrants, were not going in to work in large numbers and sometimes effectively closing down plants. The Trump administration lashed back, invoking the Defense Production Act to keep the plants open and insulate the companies from liability when workers get sick. These plants were already death traps for workers, and now even more so. To make them safer, a necessary step would be to slow the lines—but instead the administration is using the crisis as cover to grant waivers to speed them up even more.

But it’s inspiring to see how many of the workers who are considered essential, in all kinds of sectors, are organizing to demand the protective gear they need, or extra compensation for the risks that they’re taking, or to rearrange their work to make it safer.

One example that I found really heartening early in the crisis was a wildcat strike by bus drivers in Detroit, who didn’t wait for the employer to decide; they shut down the buses and said before we go back to work, we have some demands about how the buses need to operate differently to be safer during this crisis. They won all of their demands. One of them was no collection of bus fares for the duration of the crisis, which certainly makes drivers safer during the pandemic because they don’t have such close contact with people. The enforcement of the fare is also one of the sites of conflict and violence that puts drivers at risk of workplace violence every day. And in this recession, a free commute is a great boon to the public. So, that kind of change, where workers got together and said we see how we could improve the situation at our work and demanded it and won it, that spirit is something I hope we can keep even after the crisis is over.

Another issue with profound implications, service workers are now rallying under the banner from invisible to essential. Those delivery truck drivers and homecare workers and cleaners and grocery workers and health workers, many at the lowest level, cooks and restaurant workers, they’re now being seen and seeing themselves as essential, as skilled and necessary, which we on the left always knew and tried to argue. This crisis is an unforgettable wakeup call, for workers and for the society, that fuels demands for respect and a decent wage.

Absolutely. I think there’s both the public awareness of the importance of so many workers who are often overlooked, and the workers’ own awareness of the power that they have, that society really can’t continue without them. It’s long overdue that we should celebrate sanitation workers, transit workers, postal and delivery workers, grocery and warehouse workers, healthcare workers. So often their voices are ignored and suppressed, and their concerns are pushed down by management. This is a moment of tremendous opportunity for workers to build connections with the public, because all of us are seeing every day the risks workers are taking, and their centrality to our lives. When the CEOs all work from home or take time off, it doesn’t really have any impact on you and me. But all of these regular and often underpaid workers are tremendously important.

Photos by Taya Gray and Vickie Connor

So it’s a great time to make the point about why we need to support and pay well and sustain our public services—why for instance we shouldn’t privatize the post office as corporate interests want to do, or allow them to contract out to the lowest bidder things like transit and sanitation. But, it’s also a moment when workers can realize the leverage that they have, because a company like Amazon has been forced to admit that as high-tech as it is, all of its work depends on human labor. You’ve seen protests and walkouts, and Amazon was forced to give a $2.00-an-hour raise during this period. Amazon has also retaliated; they see that workers are getting a sense of their power, and they want to try to suppress that. They’ve fired several workers, both tech and warehouse workers. But the crisis shows that there are all of these choke points where labor is essential to producing profits and to keeping the public going. It shows why workers have the power to organize. I think that’s part of why we’re seeing this real ferment, both in union workplaces, where rank and filers are getting organized and making demands without necessarily waiting for their union leaders to take the lead, and among nonunion workers too. And it’s a great time for unions to make connections with nonunion workers and organize them.

And for me, just as significant, is workers making demands on the company to meet employee needs and serve the people of this country in this epidemic emergency

Yes, one more thing that’s been inspiring me is to see workers taking this moment to think bigger about what kinds of changes could be made to their work in the public interest. General Electric workers held pickets around the country to demand that their plants, where usually they make jet engines, be converted to make ventilators. And in Oshawa, Canada, there’s a GM plant that’s in the process of being closed down. A group of auto workers there has been saying for a year, we should convert our plant to green vehicle production. When the crisis came along they said, well, let’s also use it to make masks and medical equipment that’s immediately needed. And GM agreed to do it. I believe that plant is now making 1 million masks a month.

In a moment of crisis, employers and privatizers will seize on it and try to use it as a chance to accelerate their agenda, but it’s also a chance for workers to say, when things come to a halt, let’s take the opportunity to come up with our agenda. Let’s reopen on our terms, and take this as a moment to pivot towards the needs of workers and the needs of the community, and reimagine how our jobs could be when we come back to them.

Al Bradbury, really good talking to you. You’re an essential worker, from my point of view.

Thanks, Bill.

Editors Note: This interview is an edited version of an interview of Al Bradbury by Bill Resnick of The Old Mole Variety Hour on KBOO radio, 90.7fm Portland, OR, that’s live streamed to the universe. It played immediately after an interview with Travis Watkins, a UAW mechanic and bargaining unit representative in a parts plant, who is fighting his dismissal for alerting plant workers of health and safety violations after discovery of two COVID infected workers. The Watkins interview can also be found on this website. Both audios are available on the KBOO website using the search feature. And if you want to learn more about Labor notes, see the box below.

Here’s Al Bradbury describing Labor Notes to KBOO radio listeners:

Labor Notes has always existed to create a forum for rank-and-file union members as well as non-union workers to connect with one another, to learn from one another, and as you said, to tell their stories, which often go untold. We’ve published a monthly magazine for more than 40 years, which often carries stories written by workers describing how we organized this strike, how we won this demand, how we’re fighting this issue in our workplace, written for other workers to read and learn from.

We also organize conferences. We do a big international conference every two years (although we had to postpone it this year due to the pandemic), and we organize local events: Troublemakers Schools, Secrets of a Successful Organizer trainings. Portland has hosted many of these events where local union and nonunion workplace activists learn from one another and develop strategies to build a more militant, fighting, and winning labor movement.

During the pandemic, we’ve been doing tons of organizing to support people who are fighting to make their jobs safer, in some cases to shut their workplaces down for safety or to win the rights and protections they need. We’ve been doing webinars and conference calls and publishing four times as many articles as usual, because there’s so much going on, so much workplace activity.

Travis Watkins: Fighting General Motors Amid the COVID Pandemic

Travis Watkins
Interviewed by Bill Resnick

Travis Watkins, union leader at a GM subsidiary plant in Michigan, was fired for telling his members that coworkers had suspected COVID-19 symptoms.

Travis Watkins was and hopefully will be again a mechanic at a General Motors plant in Wyoming, Michigan. He was recently fired for warning his fellow workers that two other workers were suspected of having the Coronavirus and had been removed from the factory. Watkins was employed by Caravan Facility Management, on contract to GM for plant maintenance. The 30 some unit workers were a mix of plant cleaners and skilled trades workers. The Caravan group was one of the units in the plant organized by Local 167 of the United Auto Workers. The unit elected Travis Watkins as their representative to the Local’s E-Board and bargaining committee.   

Travis, tell us what happened.

On March 16th, I received a few phone calls from inside the plant. Some workers were telling me that a couple of members had been driven out on a medical cart by security wearing facemasks and that they were being removed from the plant for suspected Covid-19 symptoms. I reached out to my local leadership to try to organize to protect us all. I did not hear back from our local leadership and the very next morning when I came in to work, I was told by a supervisor that I was immediately being put on suspension pending an investigation. When I inquired as to what the suspension was for, he said he didn’t know. I had him call labor management at my company, Caravan, and they weren’t able to provide me with any information.   

The following day, I was called to a meeting with plant management; I had an international representative with me. I was told I was being terminated. As the reason, they quoted a Shop Rule Violation 2, which is assaulting, fighting, threatening, coercing or interference with employees or management. And they provided a Facebook post that I had made inside of a private Facebook group that deals with on-the-job site conditions and union member concerns. All the post said was it had been reported to me that some people had been walked out of GM with suspected Covid-19 symptoms and I had reported it to local leadership. That was the reason they used to terminate me. 

In your discussions with both union leadership and GM, to the extent you could talk to them, you raised health and safety concerns. 

Yes.  On March 16th, I saw a General Motors high level manager passing out bottles of cleaner to a worker in the bargaining unit I represented and also to a worker in the GM bargaining unit. And I stopped him and asked him what was going on and what they were doing. And he said, well, we’re beginning some cleanup of work station areas to disinfect for Covid-19.  

And I noticed there was no personal protection equipment, that these employees hadn’t been trained on the proper ways to mitigate and clean up for Covid-19. And I said, you know, unless you guys can provide the proper protective equipment as listed by CDC or OSHA, like facemasks and gloves and in some cases hazmat suits and so forth to do this cleanup, we weren’t going to do it and it was a health and safety issue and he needed to address that. He got frustrated and angry because he had to stop what he was doing.  But, again, the following morning, I was terminated.  

You’ve been really active in the union, co-founding United Auto Workers for Democracy, you have been elected to the local’s executive board, and you were thinking of running for president. It seems pretty likely that someone in the union, someone not interested in having you challenging local leadership gave management the information about your Facebook page post. 

That absolutely did happen in my case. It was reported to me and verified from another very good source. And when GM recently answered a formal whistleblower complaint I made, they acknowledged that the Facebook post had come from the President of our Local. He was complicit with them to initiate my termination. That is a fact. 

One thing puzzles me. Why is GM so insistent on keeping the factory operating when demand is going down and they have a stockpile of new cars ready for sale?

First they are only reopening one of the three shifts. Before COVID, since the September-October 40 day strike, the plant was operating 24 hours a day 6 days a week, and for some continuously for weeks, paying lots of overtime. They were pumping out product. Today’s reopening is just partial. Second, even in just-in-time production, they try to keep a considerable supply of parts because they want to be able to weather a strike. Even the recent UAW national 40 day strike seemed to me not a serious strike, called to let workers blow off steam. If you want to threaten GM nowadays, you have to prepare for a long, long strike.

Let’s switch gears. How did workers feel about being forced to work during the pandemic?  

People are fearful of getting the virus. But they don’t want to lose their jobs.  As you may know, the companies and the international union have set up another joint task force with this health and safety issue. It’s a lot of people’s belief that this has left members at risk. Instead of the international union addressing issues on a local level—providing information, education and support, health and safety in the plants–they again partnered with the company in this joint task force and it just delayed shutting down these plants. Which were only closed when the governor ordered a full shut down of non-essential work. Now the joint task force is working on an agreement about reopening the plant, and not conferring with local leadership.  And they are not using any leadership at the local level to address the issue. It seems to me and many other members that they’re putting the company first—mitigating the company’s loss of profits by compromising the health and safety of workers.

So, people are afraid. They don’t want to lose their job. They’re afraid to speak out for the reasons that I find myself in now. But as a local leader, that’s my responsibility to stand up for the membership and to make sure that they’re safe on the job. That’s just what we’re trained to do; that’s what we’re supposed to do; and it’s the right thing to do.

How are you fighting to reverse your firing?

My grievance has now moved to the 3rd Step. It now takes the grievance process out of local representatives’ hands and moves it into the hands of my International (UAW) Regional Servicing Rep. Dan Kosheba (UAW Region 1-D) and my company’s (Caravan Facility Management) operation manager Mark Stillman. My opinion is that the company, rather than admit any wrong doing, will stall this process and force this issue in front of a referee at arbitration. This process is known to take quite some time.

I have also filed NLRB charges against the company for three separate violations.  In my opinion, the grievance process cannot be handled appropriately or with proper representation due to the company refusing my representative’s legal request for information. If the NLRB agrees, instead of deferring my case until the grievance process is handled, which is normal protocol, they may be able to take my case earlier.

In addition to the NLRB charge, I also filed a whistle blower complaint with OSHA and Caravan answered. Besides acknowledging that the Local President has given them my private Facebook post to union members, Caravan’s answer just used boilerplate language to the effect that the termination was proper and had nothing to do with my effort to warn fellow workers.

What kind of support are you getting from other union members?

On the day of my termination the 30 some workers in my unit sent a petition to Caravan to have me reinstated. On May Day UAW members and labor activists held a peaceful and safe protest at the GM factory in Wyoming MI. The protest took place with a car caravan around the facility with signage and horns going. I was humbled to see so many people, many of them UAW retirees, coming together in solidarity to protest my unjust discharge. I should note that Local 167 took no part in the protest and Local 167 President Willie Holmes denied many requests to gather in the hall parking lot as a place to meet before the protest. This was not for any safety related issues (again, no one left their vehicles), but because they did not agree to protest. Finally, Frank Hammer, a former UAW local president and bargaining chair and IUAW rep has started a change.org petition to demand my reinstatement. It currently has about 1500 signatures.

How are GM and Caravan doing about safety issues in order to re-open?

Businessmen everywhere are pushing for early reopening and Michigan’s Governor Whitmer is complying. While extending Michigan’s stay at home order to May 28th and implementing testing and tracking programs, she has allowed manufactures including the big 3 automakers to open on May 18th with an understanding that the manufacturers will meet high standards of health and safety.

The plants have made some health and safety changes, not enough in my opinion. In fact I have yet to see a “set” protocol in “Black and White” from either the International or the companies. There was an initial push to return workers on May 4th, but as you know that’s been pushed back because these plants were not ready and the health and safety of our citizens in this COVID-19 crisis did not make this date viable or reasonable.

While the tentative date for the return of the day shift is May 18th, the workers in my unit were called in to work on May 11th to do disinfecting as well as install hand sanitizers. I am told the companies will be providing 2 face masks per day as well as gloves, will require social distancing and allow time for clean up between shifts. But no one will be tested for COVID. Instead, workers entering the plant will be thermal scanned for high temperatures which is ineffective in my opinion because a great deal of COVID-19 carriers are asymptomatic. And they will be given a questionnaire. This appears to me as a way of forcing workers to answer yes to all the questions, and many of the questions seem designed to give GM grounds for contesting legal liability, if the worker gets COVID. All decisions as to required health and safety provision are still being made by the UAW-Company “safety task force”.

I’m worried, obviously, there’s pressure to get the economy running, but worker health and safety must take precedence over profit. Many experts agree that opening the economy now risks devastating consequences in this crisis.

Travis, you have a GoFundMe campaign going. Tell us about it.

Right. I started a GoFundMe page because myself and my family are—obviously with this attack from the company on my livelihood — I’m now without employment. And I have not yet been able to get unemployment benefits. Because the company terminated me, I had to file under misconduct which subjects me to additional delays and loopholes to get my claim settled. As of today, I have yet to receive any determination or money from unemployment and my family is still without income or health insurance.

Also, I have high prescription costs for my family. They have—some of my children have medical needs, and I’m without insurance. So, that’s the reason I started a GoFundMe page–to kind of get caught up on some bills and some of these prescription costs that I have for my family. And I’ve had some great contributions, people have been very generous, and I very much appreciate it and my family appreciates it very much.

Travis, thanks for talking and your work. As we discussed in preparing for the interview, if GM/Caravan manages to get away with firing you, then others in the plant will hesitate to report health and safety violations. Keep up the struggle.

Thanks, Bill. I really appreciate the time and the interest that you’ve taken and giving me the opportunity to speak out on this health and safety issue to keep the membership safe.

This interview is an edited version of an interview of Travis Watkins by Bill Resnick of The Old Mole Variety Hour on KBOO radio, 90.7fm Portland, OR.

Socially Necessary Work

Dianne Feeley

“You can’t thrive if you’re not alive” — National Nurses United rally, Oakland, California

As the pandemic rages we realize that “necessary work” is not Wall Street and its stock market or the manufacturing of cars but the health and well-being of society. That is, the work that is central to society turns out to be what socialist feminists call “social reproduction.” These are the functions necessary to sustain human life, whether performed inside or outside the home, whether paid or unpaid. For the most part this has been considered “women’s work,” and if paid work, generally poorly paid.

In the midst of the pandemic, women are over-represented among workers deemed “essential” — 52% compared to 47% in the workforce as a whole. Of the 19 million U.S. health care workers, four out of five are women. At the lower end of the pay scale of the industry are 5.8 million who are working for less than $30,000 a year, with few benefits. Of those, half are people of color, 83% of the total are women. Shockingly, the Centers for Disease Control found that 73% of the health care workers who have been infected with the novel coronavirus are women.

With the governors of most states announcing “stay at home” orders, we see how vulnerable these “frontline” workers are. Whether grocery stores, nursing homes or hospitals, none of these workplaces are designed for emergencies. Rather capitalism’s latest and most vicious form, neoliberalism, has stripped these spaces of excess capacity. There is no extra stock in their pantries or warehouses and no excess staff if someone falls ill. Instead, the staff is expected to work harder and make up the difference. In fact, this just-in-time model was invented to find where slack existed and force its elimination.

Even now, at the height of the pandemic, as hospitals struggle to receive those who are too sick to stay at home with the virus, management is laying off hundreds of health care workers. As Trump remarked, when asked why he abolished the research team that was anticipating the next pandemic, as a businessman he didn’t like the idea of people just standing around.

Hospitals are unprepared for emergencies, because that is not where they earn their profits. John Fox, the CEO of the largest hospital complex in Metro Detroit — Beaumont Health — announced, at the height of the epidemic, that it is losing $100 million a month. This is primarily the result of having to reschedule lucrative surgeries and other outpatient procedures. Profitability, not the community’s health, is the bottom line!

Lack of preparation leads to severe complications. That’s why nurses throughout the country have organized innovative protests — from gown-making parties, press conferences, socially distanced rallies to car caravans — against the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE). With a quarter to a third of the hospital staff quarantined with the suspected virus, these actions insist on mandatory safe staffing and that hospitals coordinate resources rather than compete.

Wildfire in Nursing Homes

In the case of the country’s 15,000 nursing homes with 1.5 million residents, the staff is 88% women, many of whom are African Americans or immigrants. Because the majority earn less than $30,000 a year, many pick up extra hours at more than one facility. Since they generally have neither sick pay nor adequate health insurance, when sick they are put in a position of staying home and losing their pay or going to work and possibly infecting already vulnerable patients. With even less access to PPEs than hospital workers, when they return home, they are less likely than hospital workers to have the space to isolate themselves.

Since lean production dictates understaffing, management generally urges them to come in. Although local governments regulate these facilities, under neoliberalism the regulations have been relaxed. This occurs through fewer on-site inspections; when inspections do occur, management is often informed beforehand.

In Detroit, where all nursing home residents and staff were tested, 25% tested positive, with half being asymptomatic. By April 20th, there were 124 recorded deaths. Particularly in New York City and New Jersey nursing homes have been so overwhelmed that bodies have been stacked up in garages. Reports are concluding that at least 20% of all Covid-19 deaths are nursing home patients and staff.

Perhaps now that the families of patients have raised the issue of how little nursing home staff is paid there will be greater awareness that the overwhelmingly female work force needs not only better pay, but safe working conditions and an extensive sick leave policy for starters.

Difficulties of “Stay in Place”

Eight out of ten homecare workers are women. Many have been laid off but do not qualify for unemployment. Many single women with children face not only financial insecurity but increased burdens of care in the home.

In addition to the usual household tasks, this includes working with their children on schoolwork. With schools closed and most day care reduced, mothers take on the bulk of childcare at a time when children have lost access to their friends and teachers. This is particularly difficult for women with disabilities or women whose children have one form of disability or another. It is also a problem for women when classroom learning is taking place online but there is no internet within the home.

Clearly, the pressure on women to care physically and emotionally for household members has increased.

Safety at Home?

Women have never been “safe” within their homes. Rather this space has always been a site of abuse, for women and often for their children. According to The Guardian (March 28). domestic abuse in Hubei province tripled in February and, as the virus spread to various European countries, rose there by 20-50%.

Every member of the household is suffering from the trauma of a pandemic: the isolation from one’s friends and relatives, from one’s daily schedule, from the requirement of continuously sharing one’s space, and fear of the unknown future. Under stress, a certain portion of men lash out at their women partners. With schools closed, violence against children, particularly children under five, is also likely to rise. At the same time, women and children have less opportunity to move away from the outburst or to tell someone what is happening.

Knowing that abusive behavior rises in moments of emergency, domestic abuse hotlines have publicized their willingness to help. They have found there are fewer phone calls but more text messages and use of email. However, some women’s access to cell phones have ended because cell phone plans are disconnected when household expenses have to be cut. Finally, the shelters’ ability to provide women and children with an alternative home is reduced in this moment.

The solutions to the pandemic cannot be a return to “normal” but a rebuilding of social solidarity. It not only means Medicare for All but viewing housing and education as rights. It means developing social networks that decrease the loneliness individuals face and increase their ability to make appropriate choices. It means prioritizing the reproductive work of society, placing greater importance on meeting people’s needs than on producing commodities.