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Union and third party leaders not fighting, not present


Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

On Monday workers from the Port of Oakland Truckers Association went on strike to demand better pay and working conditions. They were joined by members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), and their action closed one of the terminals. Their demands are fairly modest: an end to stagnant wages and the right to basic needs like bathroom breaks without being fined. Tuesday the strike seemed to lose steam, with at least one report that ILWU leadership crossed picket lines Monday and encouraged their members to stop supporting it.

Maybe there is some kind of behind-the-scenes intrigue going on between the truckers and the ILWU. O’Brien’s article hints at animosity towards the truckers for resisting previous organizing efforts, and also notes ILWU management was concerned about being fined if they supported the protest (make what you will of that profile in courage), so there could be more going on beneath the surface.

Still, it’s an effort by a group of workers to organize, and whatever the local politics or clash of personalities, one would think the truckers’ efforts would be worthy of support by national union leaders. Certainly someone like AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, who said last month the decline of union membership was a crisis and called for a big tent labor movement, might reasonably be supposed to think no effort to organize is too small.

Yet instead he has been blowing hot air at Washington. At a time when his union can’t prevent a deeply unpopular policy change and is doing everything it can to just put it off for a year, it would seem he is not in much of a position to dictate terms. Perhaps if the union aggressively increased its membership there wouldn’t be a need to issue empty threats at all.

As the face of his union, Trumka could lend great support and encouragement to organizing efforts by showing up, yet he can’t be bothered to do that even for the ones his own union is sponsoring. We are well outside of election season now. If this isn’t the time to focus on building up membership, when will be? Trumka seems content to talk tough in the capitol. Then next year will roll around, union numbers will have declined further, and their leaders will once again (despite all the tough talk) stand behind the neoliberal Democratic establishment because they have no place to go. That’s not a strategy, it’s a death spiral.

Speaking of having no place to go, a third party sure would be a nice alternative. Before last year’s election I wrote about the failure of the Greens to do the kind of work that makes a political party viable. Parties don’t spring full grown from some uber-politician’s skull – they get built from the ground up. My running complaint with the national Green party is that it seems to disdain such unglamorous grunt work.

I focused on Ralph Nader as my example because the Green’s 2012 candidate, Dr. Jill Stein, hadn’t had a post-election period to show (or not) her commitment to party building. The Greens don’t have anyone in Congress or state governorships. As with unions, one would think no effort is too small. And it so happens there is a Green candidate for mayor of Syracuse (Kevin Bott) and another running for 4th District Councilor there (Howie Hawkins).

Yet the party web site doesn’t feature either on its Current News (though one of its five rotating banners mentions Bott). Stein, meanwhile, is giving interviews about the Green New Deal and meeting with Green leaders from Ireland. For a party that has zero national presence outside of quixotic presidential runs, why isn’t every effort being made to elect actual candidates in an upcoming election? Over the next couple weeks, going door to door in upstate New York would seem to be a much better way for the party to spend its time than bitching about capitalism.

The reluctance of leadership in the Greens and the AFL-CIO to engage on the ground in local and regional battles speaks to an institutional aversion to taking on smaller, winnable, and low-profile efforts in favor of larger, futile, and vainglorious ones. It also makes it easier to write them off as egotistical, out of touch losers who are unworthy of the movements they represent. And when they plead their case to the public down the line, it will be easy to dismiss them: Were you in Oakland? Were you in Syracuse? Or did you spend your time issuing statements and going to conferences at the expense of those who were desperate for your support?

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