“Bring people together to struggle against exploitation”

The third session of YDSA’s Rank-and-File School covered the history and current state of the labor movement. We were joined by Ellen David Friedman, a long-time socialist and union organizer. Friedman now chairs the board of Labor Notes and volunteers full-time with union members who are building up the rank-and-file pole of the labor movement. The following assessment and advice was her speech to YDSAers. The transcript has been edited for readability.

I don’t know any of you in this room. But I know that you found your way into YDSA. And, if you found your way from YDSA into this room, then I’m going to assume that you’re reasonably serious about the idea that your life should have meaning going forward. You hope for your life to be a vector for transforming history, during a moment of seemingly overwhelming odds against the forces of liberation. You have an idea that what we do actually makes a difference. And it does. 

I hope that many of you are studying your classic Marxist texts at this moment. To paraphrase Marx: “You get to make history, but not under conditions of your own choosing.” Everything about labor history from the last century to the present moment is conditions that we didn’t choose. 

Here are some of the things we didn’t choose: We didn’t really want a labor movement that was so weak that it only represents 6% of all private-sector workers. We didn’t want a labor movement that was so frigging bureaucratic, self-referential, isolated, hierarchical, and conservative that you all will find that you have to fight your way into it. We didn’t want that.

Have any of you ever tried to work in a unionized setting? I know you’re all students and most of you are not yet in the work world. But, if you have, I’m going to guess that people with your politics may show up at a union meeting and find others looking at you like you’re from another planet.

Our labor movement is a conservative force. We have got to face this reality. It’s extremely painful, but it’s the reality I’ve lived with for the last 50 years that I’ve been in the labor movement. At best, its dominant practices and its dominant leadership see themselves as co-managing the economy with their employers. They do not see unions as a space for liberation and they do not see the labor movement as a counterforce to the culture of domination. 

Perhaps most importantly, they do not see the labor movement as a beloved community.

A beloved community

Sometimes I remind myself of the preachers from the earlier periods of my political work. I worked with Jesse Jackson in the 1980s. I hear this phrase “beloved community” and part of me wants to step back — that’s a little too New Age, a little too soft for me. But it’s not. If you’re going to do this work, let me say first and foremost: you make your space into a beloved community. It’s the only way you’re going to survive.

You do that by looking around to your co-workers — wherever you end up — for anyone that can be an ally. And I don’t mean just people that are already left-wing like us. I mean people that have integrity, who hate authoritarianism, and who don’t want to sell their labor to the boss but know they must to survive. Those are the kind of people you want to look for.

That community that you build is how you transform the labor movement.

This period of my entire adult career in the labor movement since the late 1960s has been one of decline and weakness. It’s been a little grim. But I had Labor Notes as a guide in the labor movement — and it’s just a publication that could only do so much — but I knew that if I was going to get the magazine in the mail every month, I could make it another month.

That period of time was characterized by the hegemonic ideas of free-market capitalism and deregulated capital flow, so dominant that they couldn’t be questioned. Fortunately, we saw the beginning of the end of that in 2008 with the financial crisis. Resistance began to show up in the form of Occupy movements all over the world.

Those of us who have been watching these trends for a long time realized, particularly in the Labor Notes networks, that the time is returning when the labor movement can begin to reclaim these two incredibly important poles of its responsibility under capitalism. 

Organize workers and fight bigotry

These responsibilities are as follows: one, to organize workers into democratic militant spaces for class struggle. Sometimes, we hope, it will be in unions — but it won’t always be in unions, because most of the unions around today will not be able to figure out how to organize the new workforce. Many of you may end up in jobs that unions will not know how to organize.

Doesn’t matter — if you can make a workplace organization, it functions like a union.

For those of you who are able to form unions or enter into workplaces that have unions, the first task, and one which you are all equipping yourself to take on, is to bring people together to demand democratic processes for the purpose of building militant, inclusive, class-struggle unionism. That means not being fooled by the idea that we are in any kind of partnership with our employers. That’s a false notion that has dominated the labor movement for a long time.

We’re not entering this work in order to be good people and commit ourselves to a lifetime of service as a teacher or social service worker or a healthcare provider. You will be lucky if you can do those things as well. But, in your role as a socialist, in your role as an organizer, in your role as a union activist, your first task is to bring people together in sufficient numbers to struggle against exploitation. 

The second task is doing this to build enough power to struggle against the social inequities that capitalism creates and forces upon us: racism, homophobia, sexism, misogyny, nationalism, and all the inequities of inequality that come with capitalism.

We cannot do that without a powerful, democratic labor movement. It’s not possible. Having been on the labor Left for 50 years, I believe that we can only challenge capitalism by organizing as workers with workers.

On new terrain

Now the good news is that some of you — particularly if you work in education — will find yourselves at an incredibly potent, fertile, and generative moment in our labor history. For the first time since the 1970s, we are seeing the reappearance of caucus politics. Within a union, a group of members is committed to either a progressive social justice agenda, union democracy, or figuring out how to struggle militantly. They find each other, develop a program, and then work within the union as an independent group to move the union in a better direction.

This is, for many of us on the labor Left, both a sign that things are changing and that the “movement” is coming back into the labor movement. It is also an absolutely necessary tool that we learn how to use and to apply to make our unions equipped for their struggles with the bosses.

There are caucuses now in probably 30 to 40 major teachers unions around the country. Some of them are city unions like Los Angeles which has UP (Union Power), the Chicago Teachers Union which has CORE (Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators), the Baltimore Teachers Union that has BMORE (Baltimore Movement of Rank-and-File Educators), or United Federation of Teachers in New York City which has MORE (Movement of Rank-and-File Educators). We have a network of these caucuses around the country that I helped to facilitate called UCORE (the United Caucuses of Rank-and-File Educators). 

I can tell you from experience that I have never felt this strongly a sense of the beloved community around me all the time. It has the least ego, the least tendency for narcissistic, know-it-all movement types to come in and attempt to order other people around. It is a very egalitarian, very respectful, very loving space in which we ask each other, “What are you doing in your union to make it more militant and more democratic and more inclusive? How are you doing it? Did it work? How do you think we could adapt that in our city or in our state?” We just bring people together all the time to talk about that and learn how to do it with each other. 

This is also an impulse starting up now in nurses and healthcare unions, a sector where it’s a little more complicated for all kinds of reasons. There are caucuses developing in IATSE, which is the stagehand, theater, and entertainment technical union. Caucuses are developing among postal workers. Of course, the longest enduring one is TDU (Teamsters for a Democratic Union) which has been around for years and has made history in the Teamsters Union.

I think I’ll just leave you with this idea: You’ve made a hard choice, or are in the process of possibly making a hard choice. Pursue this and — regardless of setbacks, regardless of a sometimes sense of hopelessness, and many, many failures along the way — you will have chosen a life of unbearably beautiful meaning. You will have entered into a community that is very broad, that is very deep, and that is growing day by day. There are historical reasons and conditions that bring this about for us, but we have to take advantage of it. It will not happen without us. 

We have to grasp this opportunity. We grab it by being together with one another, and these kinds of spaces help us to grab it. We learn with tremendous humility and respect for one another and we build a counterforce to this monstrous, diseased form of political and economic system that has the world in its grip. And we keep fighting.

And, as we say at Labor Notes: when we fight, we win!

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