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The Labor Movement We Need

A Conversation with Ben Speight
ben speight

We are pleased to share a new, syndicated series of interviews by Sarah Jaffe. INTERVIEWS FOR RESISTANCE will introduce you to some of the key figures in the growing movement(s) against our reactionary new federal government. We hope you will find comfort in knowing the crucial work of fighting back has already begun in many (sometimes unexpected) places, and find tools in these conversations for your own part in the struggle.

Sarah Jaffe with Ben Speight:


Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. In this series we’ll be talking with organizers, troublemakers and thinkers who are working both to challenge the Trump administration and the circumstances that created it. It can be easy to despair, to feel like trends toward inequallity are impossible to stop, to give in to fear over increased racist, sexist, and xenophobic violence. But around the country, people are doing the hard work of fighting back and coming together to plan for what comes next. This series will introduce you to some of them.

As Republicans introduce legislation that would make labor law for the entire country like it is in the deep South, who better to talk about making unions relevant than an organizer with lots of experience organizing in a so-called “right-to-work” state? Contrary to popular belief, RTW laws don’t ban unions, they just allow workers to opt out of paying representation fees to the union while still requiring the union to represent all workers in a workplace. But it is possible to fight for workers under an RTW regime—as long as unions remember to fight.

Ben Speight: My name is Ben Speight. I am the Organizing Director of Teamsters Local 728 in Georgia.

Sarah Jaffe: Last week we heard that different labor leaders met with now-President Trump. Would you talk about your reaction?

BS: Trump is the corporate bully-in-chief. For us, in labor, in looking at him as a boss, he’s one that has shown his inclination to align with some of the most reactionary forces in the 1% and folks that are rabidly anti-union.

His demagogic appeal to working people has been extremely successful. His form of economic nationalism has cut against our ability to build broad solidarity amongst white working people, black working people, brown working people, and to have a working-class perspective that is opposed to the right wing. His economic populism is very appealing to some in the labor leadership who are very risk-averse and want to try to maintain their positions and the institutions that we have as they exist over the short term. Trump’s promises of big infrastructure projects going to the construction trades, his symbolic withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, his pronouncements of bringing manufacturing back to the United States appeal to traditionally conservative, mostly white-male-dominated smaller building trades and construction unions. Those were principally the ones that he met with earlier last week.

It is not terribly surprising that they would be the first to meet with him and give a full-throated endorsement of his initial actions. But the devil is in the details—what are we going to get out of it? When you go to somebody like Trump, like you would go to an intransigent employer, if you go from a position of weakness where you are happy just to be at the table—I think Trump viewed the labor leaders that came earlier this week to the White House as pushovers. They came and spoke afterwards, clearly excited just to be there, not for what we could get out of it.

It has come out recently in a New York Times article that [when Trump met with] the construction trades, whose entire existence, in part, relies on their ability to enforce the Davis-Bacon Act, which sets prevailing wages for public infrastructure projects and other large-scale construction projects, and requires contractors to pay a family-sustaining prevailing wage—Trump was non-committal that the infrastructure projects that he is endorsing would require that wage. We have got a lot of work to do in order to understand the threat that he poses to working-class solidarity and ability to grow a labor movement today.

SJ: I want to talk about how this, “We have got to go make a deal with the boss” mindset, in terms of dealing with Trump, is reflected in how a lot of unions have dealt with the more direct boss in recent years.

BS: We are at an all-time low in strikes in this country. In the labor movement, because we are big enough to have power and we are big enough to get sued and to want to protect the institutional capital that we have left, we are extremely risk averse. The leadership that we have throughout labor has been burned so many times by every level of government, we have almost abandoned the strike as a weapon. We have abandoned any kind of innovative strategies that would end up maximizing our leverage when we get to the table. We have become overly reliant on the National Labor Relations Board and other legal tactics. Our institutionalization has caused us not to be as forward-thinking and visionary in being willing to use wide-scale collective action to put pressure on employers the way that we could and need to. Over time, we have become very, very conservative.

As a result of that, the standards that we have been able to achieve through collective bargaining have declined and our power politically has declined. What labor showed in 2016 is that even when we boast about our ability to mobilize our members in elections, we are not even successful at doing that. Our organizations have not, for years, talked to our membership, asked our membership what they want to see in their next contract, asked our membership to get involved in fighting for tangible changes in the next contract or, in the interim, fighting around issues collectively, building solidarity in the workplace, and applying it to community struggles and others that are fighting for expanded democracy. We simply have not learned, internally, how to fight.

When it comes to organizing in existing union work sites for improved conditions, organizing in non-union industries, mobilizing our membership to fight political battles, showing solidarity with others that are trying to expand and defend democratic rights, we have abandoned those basic tasks for so long that, in many ways, our organizations are paper tigers. So when we go and we are invited by somebody that has just taken power, we are not bargaining from a position of strength, because we know internally how weak we are.

I don’t blame labor leaders for going to meet with Trump, but I think we should have had a much more deliberate plan for making sure that those that went to meet with Trump were representatives of a broader working class contingent that front-loaded issues that were of concern to our members. The fact is, many of our members, members of color, women and our union sisters, our union members that come from immigrant families, union members that have the concern that their rights are going to be stripped, that their access to workers’ rights on the job is going to be eroded. Our members want to see us take a position where we are willing to fight for those basic human rights in the workplace and elsewhere.

I think going there without any commitments to honor that was really a mistake. It sent the wrong signals and it made the labor movement at large, look like a narrow special interest of mostly white conservative men. That is not the labor movement that we actually are and it is certainly not the labor movement that we need to be.

We have to speak for more than just a few million members that happen to be dues-paying workers in our organizations. We have to speak to a broader, multi-racial, multi-gender, multi-national working class. “We appreciate you formally withdrawing from the TPP, but this isn’t your victory. This is the victory of working people and progressively minded people that want fair trade all over the world that struggled against this multi-national trade deal for years. You signing this is a reflection of our power and you inviting us here is a reflection of our power.” We are very hesitant to utilize that now.

My goal as an organizer within the Teamsters Union is to bring more workers into a movement that fights for justice on and off the job. If that means challenging the direction of some of our labor leadership in cooperating with Trump, I think that is an important task these days. I am going to continue to voice my opposition to any kind of accommodation with Trump without justice.

SJ: I want to talk a little bit more about this idea of the labor movement as an identity movement of white men who do certain jobs rather than, as you said, of a multi-ethnic, multi-gender mass of people who are all working for a living. Talk about this perception of who the working class is versus the reality and what it means to actually fight for working people.

BS: We often think about our identity being defined by gender and race and that is particularly true for white men. When you go and talk to our membership, if you ask them, “What are the most important issues in our society?” many of them will start from not their perspective as a working person, but their perspective as a white man or as a person of color or as a woman. I think that liberals have been as guilty in evading and trying to ignore any kind of class analysis about what has gotten us to this point in our society and how building working-class unity and having a working-class politics is the way to get us out of this economic and political crisis.

We don’t talk about class and because we don’t, we haven’t created this idea that we are all in this boat together. One of the things that has come out in really the past few years is this analysis around the 1 percent and the 99 percent, which has been helpful, but hasn’t been as integrated into all of our work as much as it should be. I think that is the real challenge for the left, for the labor movement at large, progressives, you name it, is although we have an obligation to fight against all forms of oppression, in particular murders of black men and women, the destruction of reproductive rights, and the rampant sexism and homophobia that we have in our culture, if we don’t have a class politics, we are missing the ability to have a universal vision for what comes next. Economic insecurity fuels the fear, that fuels the prejudice, that fuels the hatred, that people like Trump, who represents the most reactionary wing of the 1 percent, feed off of.

This is really nothing new. Folks on the left and anybody that has committed their lives to building an alternative to this current economic and political model, we have been studying the crisis of capitalism for years. It was really only a matter of time before we swung back to a reactionary regime that understood the necessity of appealing to working class interests, because they know better than we do that working class unity across all lines is where the most latent political power lies.

Economic insecurity fuels the fear, that fuels the prejudice, that fuels the hatred, that people like Trump, who represents the most reactionary wing of the 1 percent, feed off of.

The challenge that we have working in the labor movement, is are we going to just simply try to hope and wait out the Trump regime for four years thinking that it will get better on its own, that he will fall on his own sword, or are we going to view this for what it may be and that is the decisive break from a neoliberal capitalist politics that accepted labor on the margins, didn’t try to eliminate us entirely? Because what I expect from the politics and the corporate clique that has set Trump up, is that it is really only a matter of time, that they are going to come after labor in a big, deliberate, concerted way.

SJ: We have seen already that certain unions and certain parts of the labor movement are left out of the invitations to these meetings. Talk about this kind of divide and conquer even within the unions envisioned as stereotypical white working class?

BS: The Steelworkers, the Teamsters, the United Auto Workers, the AFL-CIO all issued statements commending Trump for withdrawing from the TPP. I really thought that was counter-productive and a waste of the paper that the press release was printed on. I think that what labor should do is look at what has been achieved by the social movements just in recent years.

The immigrants’ rights movement led by mostly Latino/Latina community organizations throughout the country, organized a mass base of resistance ten years ago or so. I remember mass demonstrations in the spring of 2006 that created the leverage to oppose the most reactionary anti-immigrant legislation that was being proposed at the time, by mobilizing and organizing nationwide in urban and rural areas. That scale, that boldness to take on whoever was in office and to utilize economic tactics like a boycott and work stoppages, was really what made the immigrants’ rights movement the kind of force that it is in our society now.

This past weekend with the Women’s March, they didn’t wait until he started to sign executive orders to call for a mass historic global mobilization of women and all of those that are concerned with social justice. That has created the leverage for not just future organizing, but the kind of real power that has to be shown to the bully-in-chief.

We have not mobilized a national movement of workers in recent memory. If we propose a National Worker’s March on Washington or a National Workers Day of Protest, that would create the circumstances for us to really have the power to demand a halt to reforms that strip us of our rights and to demand expansion of basic workers’ rights on the job. We have the capacity to call for such actions and sustain such actions, because of our resources, to hit the corporate regime where they are the most sensitive, which is in the workplace. Overall we have to shift, both inside the labor movement and outside of it, and see the workplace as a vital political battlefield. Not just a place to post anti-Trump stickers or flyers in the break room, but to actually see it as a place that we are challenging the prerogatives of those who set Trump up. They would rather us prioritize some national identity, some sense of economic growth despite the consequences, think is what is good for Wall Street is good for working people, this sort of trickledown economics on steroids.

The same sentiment that fuelled Trump’s anti-establishment politics is the same sentiment that we can build on to say, “Working class people first.” That will allow us to also fight the critical struggles against racism and sexism in our society by saying, “We need to have people from all different backgrounds that are dealing with all different kinds of conditions to work collaboratively for our economic interest.” Trump is very shrewd at trying to drive a wedge between us. If we are going to ignore that and not counter that, it is going to be at our own expense.

I think this is a huge opportunity. I am not in a deep depression about where we are at right now. I think we have been preparing for this moment and training for the crisis of capitalism for a long time. Trump is a reflection of that. We should not be throwing our hands up in desperation. Understanding history and the struggles of working people over the past hundred or so years will be very informative to us. Unions have done this before – our union has done this before – I think of the Minneapolis Teamsters in 1934 and others that have engaged in not just economic fights, but having political demands in our economic struggle.

SJ: For those people reading and listening to this who don’t know what happened in Minneapolis, can you tell us briefly?

BS: In 1934 in Minneapolis, there was a strike involving thousands of truck drivers and others in the warehouse industry that included thousands of unemployed workers who refused to cross a citywide picket line set up by the Minneapolis Teamster local. At the time that local was headed by Farrell Dobbs, who was a historic Teamster organizer that later mentored Jimmy Hoffa and organized over-the-road truck drivers, a group of workers that formerly were thought never to be able to organize because of how transient they were and how low the pay was.

The series of strikes that began in the late winter and spring, but lasted into the summer, brought employers together with the city government to violently attack the workers who were on strike. Officially, that repression failed and many of the trucking companies signed with the Teamsters, raising standards for truck drivers and workers in that city across the board.

We don’t talk a lot about that. Neither do we talk about the failures to organize in the South. Unfortunately, the most recent of those efforts was in 1946 with Operation Dixie. Labor has had a lot of big visions, mostly proposed by labor radicals, open socialists, and others that wanted to align labor with broader social movements over the years. Those visions have been countered by the conservative voices amongst the leadership in our unions that said, “We are as big as we need to be right now. Don’t risk what you have got. Don’t get us sued or put in jail,” and have held back on challenging the broader economic status quo in exchange for access to power.

It is important for us to go back to our roots and remember that none of our employers that sit with us like us. None of the employers that are compelled to respect our members on the job want to do that. They do that because we have made them. They do that because we have forced them to sit down at the table and honor our interests as working people. I think that working people are going to call Trump’s bluff. I hope that labor leaders get ahead of that and view this as an opportunity for us to regain our legitimacy as the central progressive force in our society, but if we fail to lead we will just become more isolated and alienate ourselves even more from the multi-racial, multi-gender working class in this country.

When the Right that is behind Trump comes after us in state houses across the country and in the federal government, if they try to pass national right-to-work, if we do not ally ourselves with a broader democratic social movement in this country, we are going to be left on our own. I think we are woefully unprepared to fight those fights. Even in places like what we saw in Wisconsin under Scott Walker, we lost that fight, in part, because we allowed it to be isolated to just a state battle in Wisconsin. We didn’t have any willingness to counter-attack, to mobilize members nationally. The failure of the Employee Free Choice Act under the Obama administration was due to the same reasons. We did not build leverage to force the passage of that act.

I am hoping that some of the lessons are learned and we look back at bright points in labor’s history as a place for us to remember that we got into this fighting, we have got everything that we have got because we fought, and the only way that we are going to get any more and to survive into this century is to continue to fight bigger, broader, and include as many of our members and working people in that process as possible.

SJ: Finally, you are an organizer in Georgia. What does this work look like on a local level? What are you doing on the ground, talking to members, organizing new members?

BS: We did as much as we could to engage in the Women’s March here in Atlanta, where we had over 60,000 people demonstrate. We are trying to ensure that not only is labor present for that, but that issues of economic justice are integrated into all the work that we are doing.

We are going through the process of having some tough conversations with our membership about what is at stake. This year we are going to be doing a series of educational programs, trainings about how to engage in collective action on and off the job through an internal organizing educational program that we are really building from previous years.

We also represent workers in the public sector in Georgia that don’t have collective bargaining rights. Those campaigns provide us a unique opportunity to raise issues of fundamental rights under the law for workers. It is not a coincidence that when workers have collective bargaining rights stripped away from them, they are majority women and people of color. In Georgia it’s majority African American workers that are being denied basic rights on the job.

Beyond that, we are looking at all of our employers in a much more aggressive way, instead of simply waiting until the contract expires for us to sit down and bargain with them. Employers that we are working for are surely emboldened by the approach of the Trump administration, they think that they are not going to be held accountable for violations of the National Labor Relations Act, that they can be as aggressive as they want to be with impunity. We expect employers, whether they are union or not, to really be encouraged by the aggressiveness of the Trump administration and not want to bargain in the manner that they have maybe in the past. We are looking at that saying, “We have to increase our capacity within our own union.”

Our local union is nine thousand members in Georgia and mostly UPS, workers in the freight and transportation industry, so every contract that we have over the next four years, we are looking at expiration dates, we are looking at our membership levels, we are looking at concrete issues that workers want to prioritize, so that we can organize around them and teach people how to engage in collective action again. We are going back to the basics and we are doing that in a very deliberate way.

Beyond that, we have to take some of those lessons and help other labor organizations do some of the same programs. We can draw strength in the social movements that we are seeing all around us. We should seek opportunities to not just show up and get the backs of others that are standing up against the Trump regime, but we should actually think and try to understand ‘What are some of the practices that they are using that we can learn from, how are members engaged in those fights outside of our union?’ I know many of our members in Local 728 in Atlanta and in Georgia identify with and are encouraged by the BlackLivesMatter movement and many of our members on their own and with some encouragement attended the Women’s March on Saturday and want to continue to work around broader social justice issues outside the workplace. How can we get them to see their union activity as part of that commitment to social justice?

We have got our work cut out for us, but I view this as a historic opportunity for labor and people with working class politics to lead. We should be encouraged by people’s willingness to learn and get involved right now. People that call activist or organizing meetings are getting blown away with turnout these days. We should see that as a great chance for us to grow our movement.

SJ: How can people keep up with you and your union?

BS: You can find Teamsters Local 728 and some of the work that we are doing online, but hopefully you will see us in the streets. That is where we want to be most engaged, is fighting around these democratic and the social justice struggles more broadly.

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast.