Excitement Stirring Over a Mass-Based Party’s Potential

Members and friends gather for Edinburgh screening

Edinburgh      Unison is the 2nd largest union in the United Kingdom with a giant membership throughout the country in a wide variety of workplaces.  The screening of The Organizer and a chance to meet members of ACORN’s affiliate, Living Rent, and ACORN Scotland, brought people together in one of Unison’s meeting rooms in the top floor of their building, reached by an amazing spiral staircase running the length of the building.

Talking to members before and after the showing there was a consistent and surprising subcurrent of plain old optimism, rare in my visits.  Sniffing the wind, one person after another was excited about what they felt was brewing politically in the country, and it was coming from a remarkable and unexpected source, the much maligned Labour Party.  In the dismal political scene most of the case rested on the fact that the party in recent years under leader, Jeremy Corbin, had become a mass-based party soaring in membership from 100,000 to 400,000 strong, and, perhaps even more shocking, many felt the leadership was listening to the membership and that might really mean something special could happen.  All of this is an amazing turnaround largely in the last year, particularly in Scotland, where the Scottish National Party, which had led the independence vote several years ago is still the dominant party, and threatens to have another go at it, if Brexit is allowed to come in soon.

Jon Black and Emma Sanders setting up the room

Much of the energy for Labour is coming from younger people, but as one activist argued to me, the fact that there was still some leadership from “old Labour” and its hard fights and clear positions as opposed to the “new Labour” of Tony Blair and others meant that there might be a melding of the two strains into a hybrid of rare strength.  The backstory over the last year came from the surprising strength of Labour in the elections, even though the Conservatives maintained the majority, Prime Minister Teresa May was crippled, even while she keeps hanging on.  Corbin had been universally derided by the establishment and the mainstream press but had navigated the election and his own part in it brilliantly and had been strengthened in his own leadership.  His background has been solidly to the left making his success even more startling.

Recently Labour had put out a call to hire ten community organizers, largely to work in swing districts to prepare for the next round of elections.  There was skepticism here that this was any more than window dressing for a GOTV effort when the time comes, but still the signs of change were positive.

Everyone was hedging their bets, but as one told me, having a “real” Labour Party means that the debate and chance for change on a number of fronts could open the country for more opportunity for peoples’ empowerment.

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Building Trades Unions Playing Role of Roaring Mouse

AFL-CIO_Headquarters,_Washington,_D.CDenver   Hey, give ‘em a break, the Democrats can’t stand to have the Republicans getting all of the attention for their splits, factions, and divisions, so it was only a matter of time before they got in the act. Perhaps not surprisingly it’s a family fight that starts with an argument about money and the company other parts of the family are keeping, and then ends up with demands about getting a job and working for a living. The difference is that the family is the fractious house of labor, which is pretty much always a house divided among itself, the bad company are billionaires and environmentalists, and the jobs are a spat over work now on such controversial projects as the Keystone pipeline coupled with a devil may care view of any future consequences.

All of this was so predictable. Once there was a big announcement that the two big teachers unions, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA) had joined with the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the three big, almost exclusively public worker unions, along with billionaire, environmental funder, West Coast political aspirant, and former hedge fund operator, Tom Steyer, to create a get-out-the-vote bankroll for certain battleground states in November, you could just smell trouble. The Service Employees had reportedly considered joining and then opted out, which was another sign of dark clouds building, since they had frequently been in alliance with Steyer on other projects and a comfortable part of the Democracy Alliance, a prominent political player among rich liberals. The ante to get in the game was one million dollars for each player, and Steyer was going to throw in five million to match it up to more than ten million.

Stopping for a second, what did any of the labor unions have to gain? The big union political players would have ponied up anyway, along with the AFL-CIO unions, big and small, to try and put $60 to $100 million into the election one way or another. SEIU certainly will spend a pile regardless. In recent years, Steyer has leveraged his money more and more around climate issues, so his interest in pledging to move more money with his own is clear, and his interest in publicity for a possible race in California is a matter of wide speculation. I suspect that’s part of why SEIU bowed out, but that’s just a guess.

Now we have a mess. The building trades unions not only have their own federation within the larger AFL-CIO federation through the Building Trades Council, that works as a world unto itself, but really should be in a federation of their own since most of the unions operate in a night to day different fashion compared to the industrial, service, and public unions. Nonetheless, the trades couldn’t seem to stop themselves from bringing their sense of permanent grievance to the table. They are only truly happy when they are the small tail wagging the dog. So, they joined behind the largest of their number, the Laborers, to pen a couple of protest letters to Richard Trumka, the head of the AFL-CIO, complaining about billionaires, hedge funders, job killers, and the enviros. Not that Trumka seems to have had much to do with this from what anyone can tell. The point was to get to pout in the press at the public unions and the company they keep.

What they seemed to have achieved was simply a widespread, public notice of the accelerating weakness of labor even in the political arena which, until recently, had been one of the last bright spots for unions. So, sure none of this GOTV PAC money deal makes any real sense, but that still doesn’t justify the trades’ tactics. With little ability to relieve themselves outside of the tent, they seem more than happy making a mess inside it.

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