Last Monday, a friend who’s a retired union leader wrote to express concern about an Aug. 14 article in Politico New York detailing a memo the city branch of Democratic Socialists of America had disseminated discussing how to engineer a quiet takeover of a half-dozen city unions, among them District Council 37, the United Federation of Teachers and Transport Workers Union Local 100.
The rationale behind this master plan shimmies and shakes.
DC 37 is targeted both because Executive Director Henry Garrido “is more politically and organizationally ambitious” than his predecessors dating back to the 1990s and due to the “general disengagement of members & a layer of leaders and staff who appear unable or unwilling to do the organizing needed to regain our power.”
TWU Local 100 is seen as a prime target for a takeover because of its “history of militancy, internal democracy, and rank-and-file activism,” notwithstanding the fact that it represents people whose “jobs are generally well-paid with excellent benefits,” which would seemingly make members less-susceptible to radicalization, especially since the union’s 2005 strike ended badly for both its leadership and its rank and file.
UFT as Gateway to ‘Working-Class Solidarity’
The memo speaks of the “social/political leverage” of better infiltrating the UFT, stating, “With public schools located in every borough, neighborhood, and district, education workers’ social and political leverage is also potentially enormous. Teachers and other education workers see everything students and their families go through, and we can highlight issues of homelessness, economic insecurity, racism, and inadequate healthcare and educational resources. Teachers and other education workers have access to communities beyond our worksites that can build solidarity across the working class.”
On the other hand, it stated that the UFT “is tremendously influential politically, but fails to exercise the full potential of its power. Its strategy rests on electing fairly centrist/conservative Democrats and holding them to commitments on maintaining basic standards in treatment of educators.”
Rooted as this analysis is in pie-in-the-sky perspective, it makes the assumption that bringing in more-militant leadership would bring the city to the feet of the union and increase its power, rather than leading it to be marginalized. And, as long as the DSA is playing fantasy political football, convince the great majority of UFT members who have repeatedly voted for the established leadership group by wide margins over dissident groups like the Movement of Rank and File Educators—which the memo states includes “many DSA members”—that it’s time to go way left.
Mr. Garrido did not respond to a request for comment on the DSA analysis, but he questioned the memo’s thrust in an interview for the Politico piece in which he said, “The union movement, for the most part, has been one of the few that has pushed the progressive policies that the left is pushing for right now, before they became popular. It’s only going to divide a movement that seems to be really taking momentum,” citing the major increase in New York’s minimum wage and pension divestment from fossil-fuel manufacturing firms.
He then noted that DC 37 members’ political views were hardly monolithic saying, “I have people who lean left—most of them—people who lean right and people who are in the middle. If you try to push one organization in any direction, you’re going to end up alienating and splitting a very large number of people who believe in labor but may not agree with the tactics the DSA is pursuing right now.”
That was precisely the point our retired union leader friend was making in his e-mail, which described Mr. Garrido’s assessment as “dead-on accurate” and noted that DC 37 was at the more-liberal end of the labor spectrum. “Other unions,” he wrote, “have a different mix (more conservative or middle-of-the-road-leaning members), which exacerbates the problem.”
‘Not Striving for Socialism’
He continued, “The vast majority of union members pay dues to help ensure a better economic life for themselves and their families, not to strive for socialism. If this movement (Democratic Socialists of America) gains traction within the community of labor, the AFL-CIO alliance may very well shatter.”
Another retired union official, former Communications Workers of America Local 1180 Vice President Bill Henning, took a more-optimistic view while noting that DSA, “being the broad-based group it is,” started with an advantage when it came to organizing within some progressive unions.
And, he said in an Aug. 27 phone interview, “We could use a little more openness, a little more debate. It’s not like we have this enormously powerful labor movement that is in danger of being fractured. We have a crippled labor movement that is desperately in need of new blood, new ideas. I’m really more concerned with having an open exchange of ideas within the labor movement than that the exchange is going to scare people off.”
Mr. Henning continued, “Wage stagnation is a horrible problem. The idea that we can rejuvenate that fighting spirit in organized labor is not something to be feared but to be embraced.”
But Vinny Alvarez, president of the AFL-CIO New York City Central Labor Council, contended in the Politico piece that “it makes no sense that at a time when solidarity is needed to fight for real gains in economic opportunity and social justice for working families that the DSA would sow the seeds of disunity by targeting some of the most progressive unions in our city with plans for infiltration and disruption.”
An official from one of the targeted unions, speaking conditioned on anonymity, questioned whether those like Mr. Alvarez who were critiquing the thinking behind the DSA manifesto were taking it too seriously, saying, “This is an eight-month-old memo which no one’s taken ownership of.”
The memo had no names attached to it, aside from a reference at its beginning stating, “NYC-DSA Labor Branch will pick five industries to target for our rank and file work laid out at our last city convention.”
Oddly Capitalist Tools
It also repeatedly described the path to power in the unions it focused on as likely to be a lengthy battle, and in several cases dwelt on the good pay and benefits of the jobs represented by those unions, as if that would offer insurance that large numbers of volunteers could be conscripted into the infiltration plans and then stay the course. In taking such a long view, the memo was reminiscent of many of the major changes sought by Mayor de Blasio, except that he will be gone from office well before Rikers Island will supposedly close or a serious evaluation can be done of his plans to desegregate the school system, assuming he implements any of them.
One reason Politico may have taken the memo seriously is that the DSA is the group behind Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning upset of Congressman Joe Crowley last year and the near-upset victory of Tiffany Caban in the Queens District Attorney’s race despite her having no background as a prosecutor and policy positions that included favoring the closing of Rikers but opposing the transfer of any of its inmates to a revived Queens House of Detention.
Upon closer examination, however, neither of those contests makes a compelling case that the DSA is brimming with political masterminds.
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez benefitted from being charismatic, photogenic and passionate, placing her in stark contrast with Mr. Crowley, who took the race for granted and sounded clumsy during their one televised debate when he tried to respond to her question about why, representing a district that straddled Queens and The Bronx, he and his family were living in a Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C. to give him an easy commute to the Capitol. She also won with fewer than 17,000 votes.
Ms. Caban took advantage of the Queens Democratic Party’s choice for DA, Melinda Katz, splitting the votes of moderate and conservative residents with Gregory Lasak, a longtime prosecutor who was endorsed by most police unions.
And the DSA Labor Branch’s memo as it pertains to Local 100 suggests a name-change to Democratic Nihilists of America might be in order.
It began its analysis by stating, “Public transportation is the lifeblood of New York City, without which it cannot properly function. The 3-day 2005 transit strike, for example, is estimated to have cost the city approximately $1 billion. The 3 citywide transit strikes since private transit companies were brought under the purview of the state—1966, 1980 and 2005—all created major political crises in the city.”
A Skewed Analysis
That’s all true. It’s also labor history from the Neo-Insane School of Political Thought. While the 12-day 1966 walkout is widely considered to have been a smashing victory for Local 100, even if you deduct points for Local 100 founder and President Michael J. Quill dying shortly after helping to negotiate the settlement from an oxygen tent at Bellevue Hospital, where he had been taken after suffering a heart attack in jail. By way of comparison with the DSA memo chortling over the cost to the city of the 2005 walkout, the 1966 strike took a $1.2-billion toll, back when that was serious money.
In contrast, both the 1980 and 2005 strikes, however much some diehards claim they were union victories, were major failures if the reaction of the affected workers was any gauge.
The 1966 strike was largely responsible for the passage of the state Taylor Law, which replaced the draconian penalties of the Condon-Wadlin Act, including the firing of all participants and a three-year ban on their being rehired, with the far-more-realistic punishment (how was the city going to find and train 30,000 new transit workers on short notice?) of fines for strikers equal to two days’ pay for every day away from their jobs.
While the 1980 strike resulted in Local 100 being fined $900,000, it was actually the loss of dues-check-off rights that forced it to petition the judge who assessed that penalty for relief from potential bankruptcy by restoring the right to collect dues via payroll deduction. The loss by members’ of 22 days worth of salary for the 11-day strike gave them a ready excuse for not going into their pockets when union shop stewards resorted to the old method of collecting dues by hand.
The 2005 strike produced only a six-day fine for individual strikers, but left enough bitterness that the contract terms that ended the walkout were narrowly voted down, and roughly 25 percent of the rank and file later fell into bad standing as union members for failing to stay current on their dues payments. The union got more coal in its stocking when Mayor Michael Bloomberg convinced a Brooklyn judge to continue suspension of automatic dues-collection even after the Metropolitan Transportation Authority supported Local 100 President Roger Toussaint’s request that it be restored.
Started Toussaint’s Downfall
Mr. Toussaint, who had won his first re-election bid with 60 percent of the vote, got just 45 percent in winning a three-way race a year after the strike, and his hand-picked successor lost a bid to gain a full term three years after that.
And so anyone putting stock in the DSA’s wisdom based on its plan for seizing power in city unions might fairly be accused of a Trump-like disregard for reality. Except that the DSA, like the Justice Democrats who gave AOC her Chief of Staff until his intemperate tweets first ignited a feud with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and then drew the President into the controversy with predictably sulfuric results, seems intent on providing fodder for Mr. Trump and his supporters to use against whoever emerges as the Democratic nominee for the White House next year. (Actually, the DSA analysis of unions ripe for takeover features the same kind of cluelessness that undercut the Green New Deal, with its first draft stating that a guaranteed income would be provided even to those “unwilling to work.”)
From the Trump 2020 standpoint, why pitch your campaign against a mainstream party choice to unseat the incumbent when you can get more mileage out of convincing undecided voters that there are forces behind that nominee who should repulse them even more than The Stable Genius at his most obnoxious?
That is the underlying message in Mr. Garrido’s warning against dividing “a movement that seems to be really taking momentum,” and behind Mr. Alvarez’s words about “a time when solidarity is needed to fight for real gains in economic opportunity and social justice for working families.”
No doubt Mr. Trump has seemed unhinged in recent weeks, with polls reflecting the growing national disillusionment. The real significance of a Quinnipiac University poll released Aug. 28 showing Joe Biden with a 16-point lead over the President and three other Democrats leading him by double digits was that South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg would beat Mr. Trump by nine points at a time when he was the top choice in the Democratic primary of just 5 percent of those who responded.
It’s possible the incumbent will continue to self-destruct to the point where not only will he be certain to lose but the unions can send Mitch McConnell back to his old Kentucky home, or at least get him demoted to Minority Leader as Democrats take over the Senate. But the 2016 results, and the specter of Vladimir Putin and his operatives looming over the 2020 vote, offer two large reasons why neither the party nor the unions that have growingly looked to it as their savior will take anything for granted this time.
Eye on Swing Voters
They know that a key element of Mr. Trump’s win three years ago was his support among white blue-collar voters in battleground states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio. They also know that the President’s failure to live up to promises he made to those voters, whether they involved protecting jobs in struggling industries, securing a meaningful infrastructure bill that could create tens of thousands of jobs for which they’re qualified, or looking out for their interests rather than those of the wealthy and corporations, gives them a serious chance of winning them back.
And while the Trump re-election machine will try to paint his opponent as a dangerous radical no matter who the candidate is and how mainstream his or her positions are, any signs that fringe groups on the left are shaping the party platform will be used against that Democrat, and might create enough doubt in the minds of those voters to bring them back to Mr. Trump or convince them to stay home.
Our retired union friend recently offered an anecdote about heading off a potential rebellion in his ranks early in the decade when same-sex marriage was still a hot-button issue, even in a liberal bastion like New York. When one of his members asked during a union meeting whether he believed it should be allowed, he said, his response was, “No, I don’t think it should be allowed—I think they should be forced to get married, too.”
The laughter that followed defused the issue, subtly making the point that this labor leader’s members had more-important issues that directly affected them to worry about. At a time when a half-baked proposal regarding long-range union takeovers can send a ripple through labor circles, it’s a reminder to avoid being consumed by the kind of thinking from the left that once got Richard Nixon elected over Hubert Humphrey because that was expected to trigger the revolution that would topple the power structure for good.
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