Unions, Politics, War, and Leverage
The labor movement can learn from this, if we want to.
We are three months into Israel’s war in Gaza. In Gaza, more than 22,000 people are dead—most of them women and children—more than half a million are at serious risk of famine, and Israel’s government is seriously pursuing a program of ethnic cleansing. The bulk of the international community is opposed to the war, and there is strong and growing political organizing for a ceasefire in America. I often write about the need for the labor movement to assert itself as the center of the American political world; about how our country could be fundamentally improved if we focused on building the labor movement, which could then create political change in its wake. In this vision of organized labor, where unions are democratic representatives of the mass of people and the primary tools that exercise democratic political power on their behalf, it is obvious that no vital political issues are out of bounds for unions to address. With this vision in mind, how are unions doing on Gaza?
Well… mixed. There have been some large unions that have formally called for a ceasefire: most prominently the 400,000-member UAW, but also the 450,000-member 1199 SEIU Healthcare Workers East, the 50,000-member Association of Flight Attendants, the 50,000-member UFCW Local 3000, the always radical UE, the Chicago Teachers Union, and a whole constellation of locals of other unions. You can see the union signatories at the bottom of this ceasefire petition. In general it is a list of (some of) the left wing of organized labor. Many of these are serious unions that wield serious power and have significant membership numbers, but they almost all have the sort of progressive leadership that makes it much easier to get a union to take a public stance like this.
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There are two main reasons for a union—institutions that many people still consider to be glorified HR departments, responsible for negotiating wages, humdrum groups whose only role is inside the workplace—to go to the trouble of raising their voices about non-workplace issues, even global ones. The first reason is just to send a signal that they care, that they are watching, that they think that this is important. This is primarily a symbolic gesture. It tells members that they are heard, it tells activists that the union is responsive, it tells outsiders what this union stands for, it tells elected officials where the will of the people is. It tells, in this case, the unions of Palestine that we hear their calls for solidarity. This sort of thing builds solidarity across unions and industries and nations. It helps to establish the reality of the labor movement as a global democratic grassroots institution. It is important in that it tells Palestinians that these powerful labor unions care, and it also tells the members of the unions that their union cares. These are significant things. They matter. They keep the labor movement healthy. They should not be ignored.
All of that, however, is distinct from the other reason, which is to actually win on the issue in question. To effect the change that the union wants. The reason these should be understood as more or less distinct things is that they represent two different levels of how much a union cares about something. If a union cares about something sort of, in an abstract sense, it can release a statement or sign a petition or take a formal public position. If a union really fucking cares about something, it will exercise its full power to change it. It will picket. It will strike. It will spend money. It will spend political capital. This level of caring is typically reserved for stuff that directly affects the livelihoods of union members. The UAW, for example, will endure all of the argument and wrangling and internal politicking necessary to get the whole board to take a formal position on Gaza, which is good, but they are not going to start walking out of auto factories for Gaza. Two separate levels. This is not a criticism of unions. It is perfectly rational. I am just trying to make clear the gradations in labor power that we’re talking about when we talk about getting unions to do something about something.
In this distinction, unions are the same as all democratic organizations. If you want to get people to say something nice that takes a certain amount of work, but if you want people to put their own ass on the line for a cause, that takes a lot of work. If you are an activist within a union who is distraught about the massacre in Gaza and you want your union to, for example, walk out of work to protest the war, you can’t just ask the president of the union to say that that will happen—you have to convince everyone else in the union that you all are going to do this. It is an organizing problem. It is not impossible, but it is hard work, and there are no shortcuts to it. The more democratic a union is, the more impossible it is to rule from the top with an iron fist, and the more you have to deal with all of cowards and idiots and morons who disagree with you inside your own union. Ugh!!!!!! Unions derive their power from having the workers. Each workers is a person. Each person has their own ideas about stuff. Changing people’s ideas takes time. When you understand how hard it can be to get large numbers of people in unions to do stuff—particularly stuff that is not directly related to their own paycheck—it can lend you a new appreciation for unions that do anything at all.
None of this is to say that activists should stop trying to get their unions to live up to the humane, internationalist ideals that the labor movement should have. In fact, the difficulty of whipping unions towards progressive political action points to a straightforward way for us to improve our institutions. In regular society, we have a government, so if you want to make political change you can focus on influencing the government directly rather than having to knock on one million doors to convince every one of your neighbors to agree with you. In the union world, the (very rough, inexact, and actually without power to tell individual unions what to do) equivalent of our government—or at least our United Nations—is the AFL-CIO. As it currently exists, the AFL-CIO, a coalition of 60 unions, is basically the trade organization of labor. The White House calls them to talk about labor policy. They have a good amount of political influence, especially with the Biden administration. But they could be so, so much more.
Here is a little “conundrum” about the way that the AFL-CIO does political action, and by “conundrum” I mean “fuckup.” The right way to build political power for the working class goes like this: first, labor organizing creates millions of new union members, which makes unions bigger and stronger, which makes the AFL-CIO more influential. Instead of this organizing-based model, though, the AFL-CIO (and a large part of the union world in general) has long approached politics like so: Uh oh, there is an election coming up, we will write hundreds of millions of dollars worth of checks to relatively friendlier politicians, so that our enemies do not get elected and kill us. You may notice that something is left out of this model: organizing more workers. And indeed, under this approach, union density has been declining for more than a half-century, along with the political strength of the working class.
It is very difficult for people who live and work in Washington, DC and have DC brain to break out of this mental model, though. Institutions like the AFL-CIO change slowly, if at all. They must be dragged along behind the rest of us. Let me tell you something relevant to this discussion that the AFL-CIO did: They formally endorsed Joe Biden in June of 2023, seventeen motherfucking months before the election. Their earliest endorsement ever. They wanted to get the ground game going. To them, the calculation was easy: Joe Biden is nice to us and he will be running against a Republican who is not nice to us and so we will endorse him now. The end.
As a result of this early endorsement, you will not find the AFL-CIO or any of its officials saying a single critical word about the Biden Administration. I mean seriously. Look at their statements. Look at their quotes. It is kind of creepy. There is a permanent plastic smile affixed onto the face of America’s biggest union group at all times now. They have endorsed Biden, and Biden is officially their man, and they have sentenced themselves to seventeen months as professional Biden surrogates, and they are not going to do or say anything that might cause trouble for the Biden campaign. They have formally, effectively, taken themselves off of the political playing field. They are part of the Biden campaign now.
Is this good? Is this smart? Is the best way to build power? Is this, to put a finer point on it, the best way to exercise political leverage? Unions are organizations that are supposed to be experts at negotiating. Do you get stronger or weaker by promising all of your support in advance to the person who you hope to be influencing? Hmm. Much to ponder.
Contrast the AFL-CIO’s actions to those of some of the smarter individual big unions, which have not yet offered formal endorsements, and which make candidates work to earn those endorsements. The UAW got a lot of attention this summer when Shawn Fain talked about how they weren’t endorsing anyone yet. It even made some CNBC types speculate that maybe the UAW would endorse Trump. No. That will not happen. What Fain is doing is using his leverage, which is a very basic thing that you should learn early on in your union career. He got Joe Biden to visit the UAW’s picket line, the first US president in history to do so. See, you can get stuff when you make politicians work to earn you support, whereas once you give them your support they are free to ignore you, and then you more or less work for them and not vice versa.
Then the UAW came out for a ceasefire, while the AFL-CIO has not said one fucking useful thing about the White House’s policy towards the war in Gaza. These things are not a coincidence. It seems that the AFL-CIO’s leadership failed to consider the possibility that giving Biden everything he wanted a year and a half out from the election might prove to be a problem if anything important in the world happened in that subsequent year and a half.
It is very likely that more unions will drift into the ceasefire camp as this awful war drags on, in much the same way that you see politicians in Congress slowly drifting towards supporting a ceasefire as the death toll increases. We are far, however, from really getting organized labor to use its serious political muscles to try to force the White House to change course on this. So all of us who care about this can take this as a learning opportunity, even as we keep working for a ceasefire. More international solidarity, to turn the eyes of our unions out to the entire world; more new union organizing, to make the labor movement itself stronger; more internal organizing to elect progressive union leaders; and please, some improvement inside the AFL-CIO. More enlightenment. Less DC brain. More leverage, less falling in line. While we fuss around with all this, people in Gaza die. Let’s get better, and stronger, faster.
I have mentioned that I wrote a book about the labor movement, called “The Hammer,” which talks a lot about the sort of stuff that this post is about. And more! If you are my mom, you will be happy to know that LitHub has named “The Hammer” as one of the Most Anticipated Books of 2024, an honor I share with only 229 other books. The book comes out on February 13, and you can preorder it here. I will be sharing info on my book tour soon, and I would love to see you there.
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