A Great Way To Organize a Book

By Helena Worthen
The Stansbury Forum

The first thing that is striking about the new book Labor Power and Strategy is how it is organized. It is set up in a way that should be imitated, and not just for topics like labor.  The way Labor Power and Strategy is organized would work for any field where a critical dialectical engagement would help move the discussion forward: film, music, the life sciences, for starters.   

In Labor Power and Strategy, Womack, a senior scholar, Harvard professor, and economist best known for his work on the Mexican Revolution, is interviewed twice by Peter Olney (co-editor of the Stansbury Forum), one-time organizing director for the International Longshore Workers Union (ILWU), and Glenn Perusek, who has worked on strategic research for the AFL-CIO, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT). The two interviews take up just under half the book. These interviews (edited into one document) are followed by comments by ten labor activists – “some of the best organic intellectuals of the working class” -according to Olney and Perusek. Next, Womack responds to these comments and we see how his reading of their contributions moves his own thinking forward. As a sign that the intention of the authors is to make this book widely accessible, short historical biographies of people mentioned in the interviews are included, ranging from Eugene Debs to John Dunlop, the Dunne brothers and Luca Perrone. There are also long, explanatory footnotes and bios of the contributors, plus an index.  This is all worth mentioning because it signals how many points of access there are to the conversation that is the core of this brief book. The totality actually goes beyond the scope and point of the original interviews.

Womack looks at labor power not to confirm the abstract idea that labor creates all wealth but to identify the strategic points where labor — meaning workers – can “shut it down cold, cut off the plutocrat’s revenue” (27). Speaking of an industrial work process as a network, he says: 

What you want most is that node where the heavy lines, many heavy lines, go, lines you can get to, where you can undo the system, a small network in a small system, maybe a big heavy system to undo the whole capitalist shebang.  (27)

Putting the focus on strikes in perspective

In the interviews, Womack’s focus was on stopping production in order to win concessions from employers and, beyond that, to shift the balance of power within a national capitalist economy. To put this focus in context, Olney and Perusek interviewed him in 2018, two years before the COVID pandemic provided the economy with a rehearsal for a general strike. At that time, the word “strike” invoked memories of the Flint sit-down and other 1930’s dramatic events. For at least a generation, strikes had been viewed as a desperate last-ditch measure, not part of normal strategic planning, so getting the vocabulary of strikes back into ordinary discourse was an uphill battle. Robert Schwartz at WorkRights Press had published a book on strikesin 2009 but let it go out of print (he would follow it with a new edition in 2014). In but 2011, Joe Burns had had to mount an argument in favor of strikes, dealing with them as something that had slipped out of memory for many labor people. He even titled his book Reviving the Strike (Haymarket).It was actually the strike of the Chicago Teachers Union in 2012 that put strikes back into the headlines.  

This point is worth making because of how things have changed in the last ten years. According to the Economic Policy Institute, between 2017 and 2018 the number of workers who went on strike increased from 25,300 to 485, 2000 (Feb 22 2023). The 2018 West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona teachers’ strikes (see Eric Blanc, Red States Revolt, Jacobin) surprised many – they were statewide, public-sector strikes led by the younger generation, and while they did not win everything that was needed, they did not lose. All of these are mentioned in the Womack book in Dan DiMaggio’s comment section. Womack refers to the teacher strikes in his response to the comments, noting that they happened after his 2018 interviews with Olney and Perusek. This is all to put into historical context the focus by Womack on stopping production and how to choose the strategic points (he calls them seams) where workers move the product from one stage of production to another – or not. In the context of the time, in 2018 his point was more radical than it is today. 

The way the book is organized will make many, especially public sector workers, want to go beyond the covers

So Womack’s focus on stopping production makes sense as an important starting point, as the commentaries in the book demonstrate. But once they have read this book, readers today will want to join and extend the discussion. What if what you want to do is not really stop production, but get control of it in order to transform it? This question especially arises if the industry we are looking at is not garments, trains, manufacturing or food processing, but a public service industry like higher education, one of the fundamental sites of social reproduction. 

That is a question that someone reading the book from the point of view of public sector labor – healthcare, transportation, government at all levels — will ask. 

Higher education is a good example of an industry ready for transformation. It is roiled with strikes. Within the last year there have been mass strikes at the University of California, at The New School in NYC, at Rutgers and at various museum schools. The graduate students at Temple University in Philadelphia not only went on strike but then voted down a tentative contract agreement. If we go back a couple of years we can include strikes at Harvard, Columbia, and others. This is not just about “wages and working conditions”, either. In Florida, a system-wide student walkout is planned to protest the political intervention from the state (Governor Ron DeSantis, specifically) in curriculum, tenure, and faculty-student relations. More recently, we have strikes at Chicago State, Governors State and Eastern IL, all in IL, U of MI, and the community colleges in Maine. Nor is this limited to one nation: in the UK thousands of faculty were on strike in 2023 and faculty resigned due to exactly the same types of political interference and neoliberal degradation of pay and conditions that is going on in Florida. But when faculty talk about what they would hope to achieve by exercising a labor power strategy, they do not talk about shutting “it down cold”, they talk about what comes next. If we follow the lines of thought pushed forward by the people who commented on Womack’s interviews in the book, it is Jane McAlevey who uses her comment to expand challenges to employers beyond strikes and asks questions about transformation instead of shutdown. Who would have predicted that the old UAW, with more than a quarter of its members working in higher education, would elect a new president and then turn its attention to negotiating over car batteries, organizing in the South, and a national strike in 2028?

This book is well conceived, well executed. Its dialectical and accessible format should be taken as a model. Engaged readers will use it as a place to start conversations.

About the author

Helena Worthen

Helena Worthen is a novelist, Stegner Fellow, and winner of the 2014 United Association for Labor Education (UALE) prize for best book about labor education, What Did you Learn at Work Today? from Hardball Press. She is currently on the Steering Committee of Higher Ed Labor United, a national coalition of local unions dedicated to wall-to-wall and coast-to-coast organizing in the higher education sector. View all posts by Helena Worthen →

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April 23, 2024

A Housing Assistance Council report shines new light on rural America’s housing crisis

By Kristi Eaton

This piece originally appeared in Barn Raiser

REEDLEY, CA – Fernando and Erica are farm workers, and share a plywood shack near an abandoned orchard with Fernando’s brother Vladimir. Fernando and Vladimir are immigrants from Zihuatenejo in Guerrero.  Erica was born in the U.S.  Her parents are Huichol indigenous migrants from Nayarit.  A grower allowed them to build it next to his field, in exchange for protecting it. Photo copyright: David Bacon

Rural America has nearly 29 million homes, but experts say that’s not enough to house the roughly 46 million people who live there.

A recent report by the Housing Assistance Council, a nonprofit that supports affordable housing efforts throughout rural America, found that rural America is losing affordable housing at an alarming rate, fueling a growing housing crisis.

“There’s a lack of affordable housing stock nationally,” says Lance George, director of Research and Information at the Housing Assistance Council. “But it’s even further exacerbated in rural areas [because] there’s a dearth of good quality rental housing or even rental housing of any type in many rural communities.” Over 1.4 million homes fail to meet basic standards of shelter, safety or essential services like water, sanitation and electricity, according to the report.

The report also found that rural homeowners and renters are becoming increasingly cost-burdened, as housing prices continue to rise in rural communities.

Though housing tends to cost less in rural areas, the report found that over 5.6 million people, or about a quarter of rural households, pay more than 30% of their monthly income on housing costs, and less than half of rural homeowners own their houses outright. (The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines families who pay more than 30% of their income for housing as “cost-burdened.”)

One reason there’s less affordable housing stock in rural America is due to the rise of “vacation homes,” or homes unoccupied for seasonal or recreational use.

Approximately 6 million homes, or 20%, are unoccupied in rural America, lower than the nationwide average of 11%. According, to the report, about 53% of all vacant seasonal or recreational homes nationwide are in rural areas, which account for nearly half of all rural home vacancies.

Further complicating the picture is the fact that some rural areas have seen their populations rise, as the Covid-19 pandemic helped spur migration from urban to rural areas.”

‘In the Shadows’

SANTA ROSA, CA – Juan, a Chinanteco migrant farm worker from Oaxaca, makes a fire in front of the ravine where indigenous migrants sleep under the trees in Sonoma County’s wine country. Photo copyright: David Bacon

Homelessness in rural America is also prevalent, although experts and housing advocates say it’s less visible compared to urban parts of the country.

According to the report, “Rural homelessness may be simply less visible, as rural homeless people do not usually sleep in visible spaces, and emergency shelters may not exist in rural places.” Many rural people experiencing homelessness live in their cars or campers.

George says the homelessness population often go unnoticed in rural settings, especially those with precarious employment like farmworkers, who are more susceptible to homelessness.

“[Farmworkers are] a really overlooked group,” says George. “These are people who are working [in settings where] there’s no place to stay. So, they’re living [and] sleeping under trees or in their cars. And that is truly a homeless population. I think it’s really in the shadows.”

Farmworkers with employer-provided housing may not be better off. Recent investigations by ProPublica have revealed that immigrant dairy workers often live in substandard employer-provided housing, due to the fact that some state and federal laws exclude dairy farmworkers from housing protections. ProPublica found several farms in Wisconsin where workers lived in houses that had black mold covering the walls, crumbling ceilings, exposed electrical wiring and lacked functional toilets, appliances or heating systems.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that approximately 87,000 individuals, including 6,000 veterans, are currently homeless—about 19% of the total homeless population in the U.S. An estimated 58% of the rural homeless live in shelters.  

Hsun-Ta Hsu is an associate professor of social work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His research focuses on using big data tools and artificial intelligence to study homelessness and housing solutions.

Hsu said that poverty and a lack of affordable housing are the leading causes of homelessness in rural America. Other issues include a lack of access to mental healthcare resources and temporary housing or emergency shelters.

“It’s different in many ways compared to urban homelessness,” Hsu says. Rural people experiencing homelessness are “more likely to be unsheltered, and they’re more likely to be hidden. A lot of times, they’re doubling up [living with friends or family]—they’re couch surfing,” he says.

In 2023, Hsu received a grant from the National Alliance to End Homelessness to study rural homelessness in Missouri. As part of their research, Hsu’s team convenes what they call a “community action board” made up of community leaders, policymakers and people who have experienced homelessness to understand a community’s specific needs when it comes to addressing homelessness.

One promising avenue of Hsu’s research has been the Housing First approach. Housing First is a model that connects people with stable housing without preconditions, such as sobriety requirements, and then provides wraparound services to meet an individual’s needs. In recent years, it has also come under attack by conservatives.  Sen.  J.D. Vance, (R-Ohio) claimed at a Senate hearing last year, without evidence, that Housing First has a “social contagion effect” by normalizing bad behavior such as drug use, and Donald Trump has pledged to place homeless people in “tent cities.”

Despite the skeptics, Hsu is convinced about Housing First’s results. “To address rural homelessness, we know that the Housing First model works,” Hsu says. “So now the issue is the lack of affordable housing, [where] we have a bottleneck of people who are waiting a long period of time in order to get in the queue of supportive housing.”

Rural evictions are another hidden feature of the housing crisis. More than 200,000 rural families face an eviction each year, as rural renters face a lack of affordable rental housing and insufficient income with over half of rural renter households having an annual income of less than $35,000, a situation that particularly affects Black rural Americans. With few affordable rental options, rural evictions can become a fast track to homelessness.

Mobile Home Parks Face Rising Rents and Neglected Landlord Maintenance

Jaime Izaguirre is a community organizer for Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. He works in rural areas across Iowa to address homelessness.

“I think there are three types of issues regarding housing in Iowa: cost, availability and quality,” he says. “The housing shortage is real in Iowa. There are not enough apartments or homes, especially for low- or extremely low-income families. The quality of housing stock in many places is under attack by corporate entities that see these homes as line-item investments on a spreadsheet. And in some cases, population and job growth is hard to sustain or encourage due to the lack of availability.”

He says one major issue in Iowa and across the country is mobile home investment groups that buy up trailer parks and hike rents while doing less than adequate maintenance and improvement practices.

“In some cases, these corporations are even using federal financing through Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae,” he said. “To our estimation there are at least 42 mobile home parks financed by those two enterprises in Iowa. We’re working with mobile home residents and associations across the state to help organize themselves and get much-needed repairs and improvements done in their parks.”

Izaguirre says housing is a mixture of policy, organizing and power.

“Why do we build housing? I believe the answer to that question should be as simple as because people need homes,” he says. “How we shape housing policy and planning shapes a city, a rural community, and the lives of the people living in said housing.”

About the author

Kristi Eaton

Kristi Eaton is a freelance journalist in Oklahoma, formerly with the AP in Oklahoma and South Dakota. She covers social justice issues, gender, travel and more, with a focus on solutions-based stories. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Associated Press, The Washington Post and elsewhere. Visit her website at or follow her on Twitter @KristiEaton. View all posts by Kristi Eaton →

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April 18, 2024

A Review: PRESENTE – Herb Mills – Hard Ball Press 2023

By Peter Olney

A Lesson for Today’s ILWU?

Herb Mills passed away in 2018 before he could finalize his historical novel, Presente. His wife Rebecca Mills had promised him that she would get the novel edited and published. At her request some of us took a look at what Herb had written and said that it was not suitable for publication. But Becky valiantly persisted, and talented labor historian Peter Cole joined the project. It took six years and some excellent editing by Stephanie Fay and Mathew Tallen, and Presente was issued by HardBall Press in 2023. The delay was fortuitous for the labor movement because the subject of Presente, the ILWU’s boycott of arms shipments to the murderous Salvadoran regime in December of 1980, is very relevant to labor’s stance on a ceasefire in Gaza and the US government’s arming of the murderous Israeli war machine. (On April 23rd, at 8 PM Eastern Time there will be a Zoom discussion of Presente! – links to join are at the end of this post)

Herb’s narrative is a thinly disguised autobiographical tale of his successful effort to block arms shipments to the El Salvadoran dictatorship in December of 1980. The protagonist of the novel, Steve Morrow, is Mills himself, the Secretary Treasurer at the time of San Francisco Local 10, who successfully internally organized his union and built broad national community support for longshore worker refusal to load arms. The US government, in the face of this public militant pressure, canceled the arms shipment. 

The novel also tracks the successful pressure applied by the ILWU at the same time on the government of South Korea to stop the execution of dissident democratic reformer Kim Dae Jung. I remember when I was first hired as Organizing Director of the ILWU, the President of the ILWU at the time Brian McWilliams, invited me into his office to view an invitation from Kim Dae Jung to attend his inauguration as South Korean President in 1998. The ILWU was being so honored for saving his life!

Just because a union is successful in raising the living standards of its members and protecting on the job safety and security doesn’t automatically lead to advanced political stances

Based on historical facts, Presente reads like a fast moving TV series. It has the shortest chapters of any book I have ever read, which means that it is an accessible page-turner but full of wonderful organizing lessons. Morrow is Mills with such memorable phrases as, “Hey that’s pretty good old bub” “Hey old bud what’s doing?” “I mean I was totally knackered.” And photographs in Mills /Morrow speak are “snaps”. I can hear Herb talking and I get a clear take on his style as an aggressive union representative in the days before cell phones. Remember the pager?? 

In fact many of the narratives are tales of him addressing workplace safety and compensation grievances with his San Francisco Pier based stewards. He is an aggressive and effective union rep. Part of the reason the members respond to calls to action around larger political issues is because the union wins their respect on the job.  Steve Morrow tolls the bell and makes the record!

Since this is “fiction” based on factual history it is important to point out one of the gaps in the narrative. Just because a union is successful in raising the living standards of its members and protecting on the job safety and security doesn’t automatically lead to advanced political stances like blocking arms to El Salvador. Those acts require conscious political leadership and education and training of the members. Paul Murphy the fictional International President of the ILWU is fully on board with the mission from the get go. That “Paul Murphy’” was in real life Jimmy Herman, the President of the union starting in 1977, who succeeded the legendary Harry Bridges, the founding President. Herman was a political guy who was a member of the radical Marine Cooks and Stewards Union with years of political experience on the left. The other officers of the union at the time, represented as fictional characters in Presente,were also touched and formed by left wing politics. Herb Mills himself was an amazing character with a rich history and educational background. He was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate from the University of Michigan. He was a graduate student in political science at the University of California, who participated in the 1960 protest against HUAC at San Francisco City Hall. In 1963 Herb dropped out of graduate school and became a Bay Area longshoreman. In 1968 he was granted a leave of absence for a year from Local 10, and he finished his PhD at UC Irvine.  The union rises to the occasion in defense of Kim Dae Jung and in opposition to the Salvadoran dictatorship because its leaders had a very clear internationalist political perspective.

The clear and definitive action in Presente is in stark contrast to the present day ILWU’s failure to even take a stand in favor of a ceasefire let alone act to block arms shipments. Even the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) leader Randi Weingarten has called for a cease-fire and for Benjamin Netanyahu to resign. This to the amazement of many from a union, the AFT, long a passionate supporter of Israel and a purchaser of Israeli war bonds. The ILWU has always had a strong and clear policy of support for Palestinian rights and certainly “Paul Murphy”/ Jimmy Herman would be speaking loudly and clearly in favor of a cease-fire and dramatic action where possible to support it.

Herb Mills has left us with an important and timely legacy novel based on his own true to life experiences in building international solidarity from the bottom up. Hopefully the ILWU at its forthcoming convention on June 17th in Vancouver, British Columbia will rise up once again and embrace its historic internationalism. The Dispatcher, the voice of the ILWU, on January 8 of 1981 after the historic actions described in the book, published a lengthy statement ending with the following: “Our hope is that by thus dramatizing the tragic situation in El Salvador, and by refusing to any longer be party to it, we can, in some small way, assist in ending this nightmare, and in restoring security and freedom to the Salvadoran people.”

Do not the people of Gaza deserve the same solidarity from this great union?

Herb Mills Presente! Pick up Presente from Hard Ball Press. It is 230 pages of action packed drama based on true to life history.


On April 23rd, at 8 PM Eastern Time there will be a Zoom discussion of Presente!

Join here:

Meeting ID: 848 0974 1247

Passcode: 834937

About the author

Peter Olney

Peter Olney is retired Organizing Director of the ILWU. He has been a labor organizer for 50 years working for multiple unions before landing at the ILWU in 1997. For three years he was the Associate Director of the Institute for Labor and Employment at the University of California. With co-editor Glenn Perušek they have edited Labor Power and Strategy by John Womack Jr and available now from PM Press View all posts by Peter Olney →

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April 14, 2024

Words and history: the trouble with “Genocide Joe”

By Fred Glass

“History is more or less bunk.” This quaint expression, uttered by Henry Ford in 1921, reveals that words, like history, can mean more than meets the eye. Taken out of context his comment can signify almost anything, like the classic Sam Cooke song lyric, “Don’t know much about history”. Ford’s actual remark came in reference to railroad labor struggles, with the billionaire apparently expressing his displeasure with workers remembering past battles between labor and capital. 

It’s my hope that people engaged in the righteous struggle to stop the genocidal Zionist war machine in Gaza, contra Ford, will remember some relevant context and history when they consider the coming presidential election. 

I am troubled every time I hear someone referring to Joe Biden as “Genocide Joe.” Ascribing personal responsibility to the president for the carnage in Gaza is not entirely wrong.  But it is, in fact, mostly wrong: the personalization takes our eyes off the prize, which is the structure of imperialist oppression, on the one hand, and building the broadest possible movement to fight it, on the other.

A singular focus on the international scene, shorn of accounting for the dual role of the presidency, means that the legitimate desire to stop the genocide in Palestine—if it leads to sitting out the 2024 election—can quite possibly prevent us from creating the conditions for stopping future events

The president of the United States is a two-headed beast, as noted in an earlier column.  He is the imperialist-in-chief on the international front, regardless of wearing a donkey or elephant pin. As such, his support for the Israeli apartheid regime, planted for three quarters of a century next to the largest oil fields in the world, is reflexive. Joe Biden, the person, is irrelevant to this function of the presidency. Should we pressure him to pull US aid to Israel? Of course. But we’d have to do that no matter who’s in the White House.

United States domestic policy is a different story.  For instance, the president appoints judges. We are today living with the consequences of Trump’s Supreme Court appointments in the form of the evisceration of women’s right to control their own bodies, among other tragedies. Trump’s misogynist base was fortunate he occupied the presidency when vacancies arose, and all the rest of us were unfortunate that a Democratic president wasn’t doing the appointing instead.

The president also appoints the heads of powerful federal agencies, like the National Labor Relations Board.  In an unprecedented move, on Biden’s first day in office, he fired Trump’s NLRB chair, a viciously anti-union lawyer, and replaced him with pro-labor attorney Jennifer Abruzzo. Without Abruzzo and Biden’s NLRB majority there would have been, for instance, no Starbucks Workers United successes on the scale they have occurred. Under a Trump administration the baristas’ organizing would have been greatly slowed and probably stopped dead through lengthy procedural delays and adverse Board decisions. Who is president matters for the American working class and its ability to act collectively on its own behalf. 

A singular focus on the international scene, shorn of accounting for the dual role of the presidency, means that the legitimate desire to stop the genocide in Palestine—if it leads to sitting out the 2024 election—can quite possibly prevent us from creating the conditions for stopping future events like it. Such conditions almost always require a strong, militant progressive movement, with labor playing a big role. Note that this is precisely what has occurred over the past several months, as a powerful anti-war movement has shifted public opinion and the center of gravity within the Democratic Party and organized labor. Note too, that this has transpired within the political space overseen by a Democratic administration.

Compare and contrast with the onset of the second Iraq war in 2003, where a massive but brief anti-war movement crashed and burned against the brick wall of the right-wing Bush administration.  

What the performative enunciation of “Genocide Joe” misses, in its virtue signaling, is the practical consequence that will follow a defeat of Joe Biden in November. Throughout the long reign of capitalism as world system it has assumed a number of political forms. It has demonstrated on any number of occasions that it can easily shed a democratic skin and replace it with an authoritarian one.  Trump is very clear:  this is his plan. When the next Gaza arises—and given American imperialism, it will—the space for a mass movement to oppose it will be tightly constrained and likely violently crushed by the repressive force of a police state under far-right Republican control.

Building socialism is always now

At a recent meeting of my East Bay DSA chapter the comrades narrowly defeated a resolution that sought to make opposition to Trump official DSA policy.  Since there is no chance that DSA will be endorsing Trump, the vote foreclosed the possibility of the chapter officially working on behalf of Biden.  Two of the people arguing against opposing Trump used the term “Genocide Joe.” One seemed to make the phrase itself his main argument, repeating it several times.

The derogatory “Genocide Joe” enunciation plays in the same sandbox as Trump, who loves elementary schoolyard level nicknames for his opponents. Referring to Biden this way—or anyone else—corrodes reasoned political discourse and tends to end, not engage, rational discussion of the issues.

Part of building a socialist movement is the modeling of socialist human relations, to the extent that that is possible within a capitalist culture.  In the late twentieth century we called such modeling “prefigurative politics.” It was a new twist that socialist feminists placed on the concept the Industrial Workers of the World had already promulgated a century ago when it called for “building a new society within the shell of the old”.

Words have meaning, and so does history

Is history predictive? Sometimes. Marx’s idea that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce, isn’t the way it always works, although it happened to in the situation he described. Closer might be Mark Twain’s “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme”. At the very least we might agree that while history doesn’t necessarily provide a guide to the future, we ignore it at our peril. 

It would be in this spirit of informed suggestion, rather than certainty, that we might ask:  what do events in 1933, 1968, and 2021 tell us about the coming election and its likely outcomes?

First, in reverse order, January 6, 2021 is an easy one.  Trump has repeatedly told us that he won’t accept any outcome except victory. We can expect a more organized insurrection this time around if he loses. He and his lieutenants have had four years to ponder what went wrong, to plan differently, and stoke the resentments and grievances that fueled an attempted coup once before. Although we can’t know how that will turn out—presumably public security forces have also learned from January 6—what Trump will do if he wins is not in question.  If he has his way, the democratic experiment called “the United States” will become a memory, and Trump will do his best to distort and extinguish the memory itself.

Second, for someone my age who lived through 1968 as a more or less sentient being, I find it remarkable that some people today think that installing Trump in power, with the accompanying repression of democratic liberties, will awaken the masses and hasten the coming of socialism. Consider the repetition or rhyme: a slice of the anti-war left in 1968, disgusted with Democratic presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey’s support of the Viet Nam War, tried hard to believe a Nixon presidency would bring on the revolution.  How did that work out? 

Marx’s tragedy repeating as farce? Sure, except a Trump presidency will be no joke, and Trump in power a second time will make Nixon in retrospect look like Eugene V. Debs.  

History isn’t inevitable until it has already happened. We still have time—although not much—to prevent a fascist America. But we have to make the right choices based on all the factors in play, not just one elevated above all the rest. Hitler’s rise to power depended on the split between the KPD (Communist Party) and SPD (Social Democratic Party). Together the two left parties held more seats and polled more votes than the Nazis; that numerical superiority was short-circuited by the Communists’ suicidal belief that the Social Democrats were as bad or worse than the Nazis. Calling the SPD “social-fascists”, the Communists refused any overtures to work together.  

What did this lead to?  Six million Jewish dead, which became the ideological justification for the Zionist state; fifty million World War II dead in all; and the German Communists were the first to be rounded up for the concentration camps. Divide and conquer tactics work best when enthusiastically embraced by the divided parties themselves.

“Genocide Joe” is a contemporary linguistic rhyme for “social-fascists”—an insult that divides people who need to be united and obscures the bigger picture with schadenfreude masquerading as politics. It’s tempting, I know. But please don’t. There’s too much at stake.

About the author

Fred Glass

Fred Glass is the author of From Mission to Microchip: “A History of the California Labor Movement” (University of California Press, 2016). He is a member of the state committee of California DSA, and the former communications director of the California Federation of Teachers. View all posts by Fred Glass →

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April 8, 2024

Putting Members First: Ron Carey’s Lessons For Labor Movement Reform

By Rand Wilson and Steve Early

Photo: Earl Dotter

Books about union presidents are usually penned by professional writers — either academic historians, labor journalists, or paid flacks. Past accounts of the life and work of labor organization chiefs like John L. Lewis, Walter Reuther, Jimmy Hoffa, or Cesar Chavez have run the gamut from hagiographic to constructively critical. Few have had a biographer whose view of their leadership role is rooted in first-hand experience as a blue-collar worker in the same industry and union.

Ken Reiman’s personal connection to the subject matter of Ron Carey and the Teamsters (Monthly Review Press, 2024) resulted from his own career as a UPS driver and activist in the local union that Carey led before becoming president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters in the 1990s. Reiman’s insights into the workplace culture and organizational politics of IBT Local 804 in Queens, NY, before, during, and after Carey’s presidency provide a rank-and-file perspective on the challenges of institutional change in organized labor over the past fifty years.

“late 2023, newly-elected UAW leaders were conducting a major strike against U.S. automakers, after building a membership-based contract campaign of the sort never employed by the previous leadership during national bargaining.”

Carey’s story, as told by Reiman, contains many important lessons for younger union activists, whether they are Teamsters or involved in other unions. Organized labor today is in a state of very positive ferment. A reform movement in the United Auto Workers, modeled after Teamsters for a Democratic Union, has had similar success winning direct election of top officers and using that system oust old guard officials.

By late 2023, newly-elected UAW leaders were conducting a major strike against U.S. automakers, after building a membership-based contract campaign of the sort never employed by the previous leadership during national bargaining. Earlier in the year, new leadership in the Teamsters, elected in 2022 with TDU backing, engaged many of the union’s 330,000 members at UPS in a national contract fight that drew on the experience of the UPS strike in 1997, led by Ron Carey.

In California in 2023, workers in the state university system staged the largest higher education walk-out ever and union members at Kaiser Permanente conducted the biggest healthcare industry strike in U.S. labor history. Actors and writers participated in an overlapping work stoppage in Hollywood that involved more than 170,000 workers. Meanwhile, thousands of southern California hotel workers also struck for a new contract.

Workers at Starbucks’ have conducted what now appears to be a successful first contract campaign, after engaging in nationally coordinated protest activity and mini-strikes in particular workplaces. The landscape of labor organizing in Amazon warehouses and distribution centers is replete with similar shop-floor skirmishing between labor and management, including worker-led strikes over local issues in many locations with no formal bargaining rights or union recognition.

A similar dynamic mix of union democracy and reform struggles, at the local and national level, and heightened workplace militancy in many different sectors was, of course, the context for Ron Carey’s own late 20th century career as a union dissident, who became the first democratically elected president of what was, not long ago, the nation’s most corrupt and racketeer-dominated union.

PHoto Earl’s second shot

Demonstration in Maryland. Photo: Earl Dotter

Each phase of Carey’s rise and fall, as recounted in Putting Members First, is worthy of close study by those seeking to follow in his footsteps as a shop-floor militant, an opposition candidate for local union office, and a coalition-builder with other reformers. Finally, and most impressive, was Carey’s role as a national labor leader faced with the daunting challenge of transforming a dysfunctional organization, in the face of employer hostility and the internal resistance of union officials protecting their own perks, political power, and personal fiefdoms.

Below are some of the critical components of union revitalization, as recounted in this biography, that have continuing relevance to present-day reform struggles:

·       Ousting local union incumbents.

Like many disgruntled members before and since, Carey first got involved in union politics because officials of Local 804, in the late 1950s, were so unresponsive to worker complaints and concerns. He ran for shop steward, beating a fellow driver who “didn’t want to rock the boat.” Rocking the boat became Carey’s “MO” for the rest of his career. But he understood the limitations of being a “Lone Ranger.” Reiman’s account of how Carey assembled a team of like-minded co-workers to take on the union establishment is a good primer for anyone trying to do that, at the local union level, today. 

It took Carey a decade, and several election defeats running for lesser offices, before he became 804 president on a platform of cleaning up the local, enforcing the contract, and improving pensions.  As he did 24 years later in the “Marble Palace” in Washington, Carey cut his own salary to show that he was serious about putting union resources to work for the membership.

·         Using direct action on the job.

The year Ron Carey became a Teamster steward, Local 804 had twenty wildcat strikes; not long afterwards UPS drivers in NYC struck for six weeks, over the objections of local and national union officials. Throughout his three decades in the local, Carey tapped into, rather than tried to suppress, rank-and-file unrest that took form of job actions, whether legal or not. 

When Carey became president in 1968, after campaigning for a year as part of an opposition slate, his first challenge was striking UPS again. This time, 804 members walked out for more than two months to win a first-ever “25-and-out-pension” provision with UPS, effectively using contract rejection votes at mass meetings to win a better final offer from management.

·         Challenging bureaucratic control of bargaining.

As Reiman reports, Carey quickly developed a reputation for honesty, transparency, and independence from the corrupt regional and national power structure of the IBT. But, in the Teamsters then, and in many other unions today, islands of militancy have trouble surviving in a sea of business unionism. Putting Members First shows how dissident locals like Carey’s 804 must overcome attempts, by the union hierarchy, to undermine picket-line solidarity among workers bargaining with the same employer, but in different locals or national unions. Carey’s methods of thwarting management’s “divide-and-conquer” schemes, aided and abetted by top union officials, are worthy of emulation.

·         Networking with like-minded reformers

In the 1980s, the IBT began negotiating more issues with UPS at the company-wide level – via a tightly controlled national bargaining committee – which reduced the scope and impact of local or regional bargaining. To counter this threat, Carey and Local 804 began to ally with UPS dissidents around the country, including those long active in TDU and equally opposed to a then-provision of the IBT constitution which required a two-thirds vote, rather than a simple majority, to reject any tentative agreement with an employer. Jousting with the International Union over imposition of unpopular UPS contracts—voted down by a majority of those covered by them—helped build the movement for democratizing the Teamsters, by linking bad bargaining outcomes to denial of membership rights.

·       Winning and using One Member/One Vote

Most U.S. union members have no direct say about their national union officers and executive board members. The latter are elected by smaller groups of local union delegates at national conventions that tend to be leadership controlled, particularly when incumbents are up for re-election. These delegate bodies are resistant to changing national union constitutions to allow the more democratic method used in APWU, ILWU, the NewsGuild/CWA, and a few others. 

The only major breakthroughs in direct voting on top officers have occurred, after corruption scandals and resulting judicial intervention involving the IBT, UAW, and LIUNA. Without a rank-and-file reform movement—of the type which backed Carey during his two Teamster presidential campaigns, or which developed recently in the UAW—it remains hard for opposition candidates to win any union-wide election. The lesson of this book is to be ready for that political opening when and if it occurs, while fighting for “one-member/one vote” in the meantime.

·       Tackling internal restructuring

When Carey and other members of his reform slate took over Teamster headquarters in 1992, the “Marble Palace” was not just a monument to past Teamster extravagance. It was full of poorly performing departments, with overpaid and/or incompetent staffers hostile to the goals of the new administration. Foes of reform also controlled all the Teamster joint councils, area conferences, and the boards of the many health and welfare and pension benefit funds. These powerful officials wanted Carey and his team to fall on their faces. 

Working with TDU activists around the country and a minority of reform-minded local officers, Carey put 75 troubled locals under trusteeship, cut waste, stepped up Teamster organizing, hired aggressive new staff and empowered members. As Reiman documents, the elimination of the “area conferences” was a major restructuring victory—and a blueprint worth following, as needed, in other unions saddled with unnecessary layers of bureaucracy and staff featherbedding.

·       Staying close to the members

To his credit, Carey never felt comfortable in his new inside-the-Beltway world (where a sycophantic culture of political hustling and over-paid “consulting” would, in the end, contribute to his undoing.) He liked hanging out with working Teamsters in Queens, not politicians or other high-ranking union officials in Washington. He was a work horse, not a show horse, a hands-on handler of IBT members’ daily problems, large and small. His organizational accomplishments, as Reiman shows, were always rooted in a strong personal connection with the membership, that many elected and appointed officials seem to lose as they ascend through the ranks of their respective union bureaucracies.

·       Taking on employers, with new allies

Carey’s finest hour came in 1997 when the presence of someone at the top of the union who sincerely believed in the power of the rank and file made it possible for 185,000 UPS workers to win the biggest nationwide strike in the last thirty years. The UPS contract campaign employed membership education and mobilization, labor-community coalition building, and outreach to UPS customers and the general public, via the media, that the union had never utilized before. 

Two years before, the Teamsters, under Carey, had cast 1.4 million votes in the AFL-CIO’s first contested election in 100 years, thereby helping to secure the victory of a new leadership more helpful in labor-management showdowns like the UPS strike. The IBT joined Jobs with Justice, embraced single payer health care reform, and campaigned against free trade. The union ditched its traditional ties to conservative Republicans, while maintaining some—albeit not enough—distance from Democrats who disappointed or betrayed labor. 

·       Anticipating a counter-revolution

When union reformers win, they still face pushback from entrenched internal foes. Carey’s crackdown on crooks and leadership perks alienated large sections of the Teamster officialdom. Still-powerful bureaucrats who had split their support between two “Old Guard” candidates in 1991, bankrolled a unified $4 million challenge, fronted by James Hoffa, five years later. The wealthy Detroit labor lawyer masqueraded successfully as a populist critic of a “New Teamster” establishment that was spendthrift, incompetent, and run by “outsiders.” 

As Reiman recounts, the Carey campaign fund-raising misconduct in 1996 was a self-inflicted blow to the moral authority and public reputation of his administration. It was the result of corner-cutting and top-down campaigning that was very different from the bottom up approach that propelled Carey to victory five years before. The moral of this story: if you’re going to take on union corruption and corporate America at the same time, don’t let opportunistic “outsiders,” hitch their wagon to your team. Their greed, bad judgement, and lack of any connection to union reform will lead to grifting of a new sort.

While the tragedy of Ron Carey’s criminal prosecution and eventual banning from the union makes for painful reading, Ken Reiman’s book reminds us that the Teamster reform movement survived ‘Donorgate’ in the mid-1990s and upheld his legacy of opposition to Teamster old guard politics and policies. The work of Carey and many like-minded supporters four decades ago raised the bar and set the stage for Teamster reformers to reclaim their national headquarters nearly 25 years later.

One result of that most recent national-level reform slate victory was the 2022-23 UPS contract campaign which drew on the lessons, experiences, and, in many cases, the leadership of 1997 strike veterans. In much media coverage and analysis of last year’s grassroots contract campaign and its results, Carey’s name, memory, and past strike role were often invoked.

To TDU members and the many other Teamsters whose votes made him the first directly elected national union president, Carey remains a heroic, not just tragic, figure. In a union where to this day, many local officers are wary of TDU, the pugnacious ex-Marine and former UPS-driver from Queens was a unique ally in a vibrant reform movement that has now spanned five decades. During that period, we had the privilege of working with Ron in different capacities and seeing him in action behind the scenes and in public, during several critical junctures in the union’s modern history. 

We salute Brother Ken Reiman and Monthly Review Press for bringing Ron’s story to a new generation of labor activists faced with the unfinished task of revitalizing and reforming the U.S. labor movement.  Reiman’s book will help ensure that Carey’s singular role will be remembered — and rightfully honored — long after his critics and detractors have been forgotten. 

(In the late 1970s, Steve Early was an organizer, lawyer, and newspaper editor for the Professional Drivers Council (PROD), a Teamster reform group that became part of Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU). He assisted Ron Carey’s 1989-91 campaign for the Teamster presidency and, while on loan from the Communications Workers of America, served as a member of Carey’s headquarters transition team in early 1992. A longtime labor activist, Rand Wilson worked at Teamster headquarters in the union’s communications department, under Carey. He helped plan and implement the UPS contract campaign in 1997, and handled publicity for the subsequent two-week strike. In 2022-23, he worked as a TDU organizer aiding membership education and mobilization in support of the IBT’s latest UPS contract campaign.)

This piece has also run in Jacobin and CounterPunch

About the author

Rand Wilson

Rand Wilson has worked as a union organizer and labor communicator for more than forty years, most recently as Chief of Staff for SEIU Local 888 in Boston. Wilson was the founding director of Massachusetts Jobs with Justice. In 2016 he helped to co-found Labor for Bernie and was elected as a Sanders delegate to the Democratic National Convention. He is an elected member of Somerville’s Ward 6 Democratic Committee. Wilson is board chair for the ICA Group and the Fund for Jobs Worth Owning. He also serves as a trustee for the Somerville Job Creation and Retention Trust. More biographical info about Rand is posted here. View all posts by Rand Wilson →

Steve Early

Steve Early is a NewsGuild/CWA member who supports Sara Steffens’ campaign for CWA president. He is a former CWA staff member in New England and also served as Administrative Assistant to the Vice-President of CWA District One, the union’s largest region. He is the author of five books about labor and politics, including Save Our Unions: Dispatches from a Movement in Distress (MRP, 2013) which reports on efforts to revitalize CWA and other unions. He can be reached at [email protected] View all posts by Steve Early →

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March 31, 2024

“Uncommitted” Is the antiwar movement breaking into mainstream U.S. politics?

By Joe Allen

How the anti-war movement in the US is using the Democratic Primary elections to pressure the Biden administration into withdrawing its support for Israel’s genocide.

Aaron Bushnell, an active-duty airman based in San Antonio, Texas stood outside the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C. on Sunday, February 25th, and announced to the world:

“I’m an active-duty member of the United States Air Force. And I will no longer be complicit in genocide. I’m about to engage in an extreme act of protest, but compared to what people have been experiencing in Palestine at the hands of their colonizers, it’s not extreme at all. This is what our ruling class has decided will be normal.”

His last words were, “Free Palestine!” He then doused himself with an accelerant and set himself on fire. He died soon afterwards. Aaron’s self-sacrifice was the second produced by Israel’s genocidal war in Gaza backed by the United States. On December 1, 2023, a woman, whose name has still not been released to the public, set herself on fire outside the Israeli consulate in Atlanta. She survived, but is in critical condition and remains hospitalized.

Aaron Bushnell’s sacrifice drew quick comparisons with Vietnam War era acts of immolation, most notably Thích Quảng Đức, a Buddhist Monk, who protested the repressive religious policies of the Saigon government in June 1966. Alice Herz and Norman Morrison, who immolated themselves respectively in March and November, 1965, in response to the escalation of U.S bombing and the extensive use of napalm by U.S. President Lyndon Johnson. Morrison immolated himself in the view of then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.

Those who knew Aaron Bushnell described him as a kind person who did outreach to the homeless, and had become increasingly influenced by leftwing ideas after growing up in an insular, authoritarian religious community in Massachusetts. Levi Pierpont, who knew Bushnell in basic training, and was later released by the Air Force after he was granted conscience objector status in 2023, wrote:

Aaron is by no means the only United States military member who has felt complicit in the military’s violence, powerless to change anything, and stuck waiting until the end of a four- or six-year contract. There are thousands of military members similarly distraught, having thoughts of taking extreme actions to escape something that feels inescapable.

Marine Corps Veteran and author Lyle Jeremy Rubin took the Nation magazine to argue, “When someone commits an act like this, and leaves us with words like that, I feel obligated to take the person at their word. And the words couldn’t be more instructive. Bushnell doesn’t spell out the precise nature of his complicity. But the mere mention of his branch of service suffices. The US Air Force has played a significant part in the killing spree in Gaza, assisting with intelligence and targeting. It has helped build Israeli airpower for decades now, and shares the same suppliers of aircraft, missiles, and munitions.”

The Lesser Evil?

Two days after Aaron Bushnell’s death, the Michigan presidential primaries were held on February 27. While President Joe Biden won the Democratic primary, the Listen to Michigan campaigners were asking for those opposed to Biden’s pro-Israel policies to vote “uncommitted.” The goal was to get 10,000 uncommitted votes, the margin that Trump won Michigan by in 2016. Ultimately, just over 100,000 voted uncommitted, ten times the goal for campaign organizers, and was helped by the over seventy U.S. cities that have passed ceasefire resolutions.

While some Arab-American Democratic Party officials boosted the campaign, including Abdullah Hammoud, the Mayor of Dearborn, and Michigan State Representative and Majority House leader Abraham Aiyash, it is largely driven by a younger generation of Arab-Americans. “We’re experiencing a revolution,” said Lexis Zeidan, a 31-year-old Palestinian American organizer and spokeswoman for Listen to Michigan told National Public Radio (NPR). “We’re no longer going for the lesser of two evils.”

The prospect of Biden losing Michigan in the November presidential election is openly discussed, and the prospect of Trump returning to power hasn’t, so far, swayed pro-Palestine activists from campaigning against the Biden administration. “I’m going to live under Trump, because I survived under Trump, because he’s my enemy,” Palestinian-American Nihad Awad, co-founder and the national executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), told New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow. “I cannot live under someone who pretends to be my friend.”

A hairline fracture has appeared in the traditional “lesser evil” approach taken to U.S. elections by the U.S. left in support of the Democratic Party, that has derailed, corrupted, and repressed a broad spectrum of movements of the working class and oppressed for the past century. Marcie Pedraza, a UAW activist in Chicago, whose Local union passed one of the most politically significant resolutions in favor of Gaza, expressed this sentiment circulating around pro-Palestine activism:

“One day, you’re calling for a ceasefire, the next, you endorse a candidate that’s funding the genocide. I don’t want another four years of Trump, but … there has to be another way.”

Campaigns for an “uncommitted” vote spread to “Super Tuesday” primaries on March 5th. Reuters reported.

With almost 90% of the expected votes counted in Minnesota, 19% of Democrats marked their ballots “uncommitted” to show their opposition to Biden’s backing for Israel’s attacks against Hamas in Gaza.

The “uncommitted” vote was also on the Democratic ballot in six other Super Tuesday states — Alabama, Colorado, Iowa, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Tennessee.

Support in those states ranged from 3.9% in Iowa to 12.7% in North Carolina, with more than 85% of the votes counted in each of those states, according to Edison Research.

A handful of unions have called for an “uncommitted” vote by its members, something unheard of in past presidential elections. In Washington state, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) 3000 posted on its website:

“As the largest labor union in Washington State with over 50,000 members, and the largest UFCW local union in the nation, the UFCW 3000’s member-led Executive Board decided on Wednesday February 28th to endorse the effort to have people in the Democratic primary in Washington State vote “uncommitted” on the upcoming ballot.”

But the UFCW 3000’s executive board was careful to frame their call as first and foremost about defeating Trump. “The hope is that this will strengthen the Democratic party’s ultimate nominee to defeat Trump in the General Election in November,” they wrote. Last October, UFCW 3000 and the United Electrical Workers union (UE) issued a petition calling on U.S. trade unions that called for a ceasefire, but fell far short of the Palestinian trade unions movement’s demands.

The Washington Democratic primary took place on March 12th. Almost 50,000 people cast their vote for “uncommitted”, or 7.5% of the vote after a campaign that started at the end of February and spent only $20,000.

For an older generation around the Democratic Socialist of America (DSA), many of whom are from the 1968 generation of radicals, campaigning for an “uncommitted” is a short diversion from how they will vote in November. The New York Times reported that the story of seventy-three year old Lon Herman of Detroit:

On Tuesday, he was volunteering with the Democratic Socialists to help with the “uncommitted” effort in Hamtramck. “We need to make sure the White House knows its policy is unacceptable,” he said. But, he added, he expects he’ll vote for the president again. “If it’s between him and Trump, the Palestine issue would basically be a wash, so I’d have to hold my nose and vote for the Democrat, as I usually do.”


Whether the hairline fracture will heal or widen during the rest of the presidential campaign is still too be seen. But, judging from the response to President Joe Biden’s State of the Union (SOTU) speech, many Arab-Americans and Pro-Palestine supporters appeared in Dearborn are unmoved. At an “Abandon Biden” SOTU’s watch party, Farah Khan told CBS News:

“Dropping the aid in Gaza, that’s a photo opp. That’s a desperate cry for awards, that’s a desperate cry for I’m doing good, you know. I’m a humanitarian too, even though, until today, I’m still supplying weapons to kill innocent civilians.”

Another attendee, Anthony Hall said, “All I’ve heard is a lot of what he wants to do. I haven’t really heard any plans. There’s nothing really definite from him. So far, I’m disappointed.” Yet, Dr. Nidal Jbor , of Doctors Against Genocide, noted, “His rhetoric is improving compared to what he was talking about in October to November, so the pressure from the civil society and the United States and all over the world is paying off.”

It’s not surprising that Dearborn is the center of opposition to Biden’s support for Israel’s war in Gaza. A city with a majority of residents are from Arab and North African countries, and it has also become a lightning rod for racist hysteria for many years now. Most recently the Wall Street Journal, ran a commentary piece on February 2nd by Steven Stalinsky, a professional Islamophobe and executive director of the Middle East Media Research Institute, “Welcome to Dearborn, America’s Jihad Capital, where he warned:

What’s happening in Dearborn isn’t simply a political problem for Democrats. It’s potentially a national-security issue affecting all Americans. Counterterrorism agencies at all levels should pay close attention.

Dearborn Mayor Abdullah Hammoud said that Stalinsky’s article is an example of “an alarming increase in bigoted and Islamophobic rhetoric online targeting the city of Dearborn”. Hammoud posted on X (formerly Twitter):

“Effective immediately — Dearborn police will ramp up its presence across all places of worship and major infrastructure points. This is a direct result of the inflammatory @WSJ opinion piece that has led to an alarming increase in bigoted and Islamophobic rhetoric online targeting the city of Dearborn.”

Hammoud cautioned Dearborn residents, “Stay vigilant.”

Dearborn has seen this before. While it is best known for being the world headquarters of the Ford Motor Company, Christian Evangelicals have targeted the city repeatedly over the years. For example, in 2011, according to Daniel Devir:

Pastor Terry Jones burned a Koran in Gainesville, Florida, sparking deadly clashes in Afghanistan and Pakistan. One year later, he burned a Koran again, and no one paid any attention. That same month he came to Dearborn, Michigan, to protest in front of the Islamic Center of America, the nation’s largest mosque. “Islam has one goal,” Jones told the small crowd, and a much larger group of counter-demonstrators and police, according to the Detroit Free Press. “That is world domination.”

“All-American Muslim” television series, a small effort by the TLC network to portray five Dearborn Muslim families in everyday challenges and circumstances of American life, was canceled after one season, because a hate campaign succeeded in getting major sponsors to end their support.

Dearborn’s Arab community can trace its roots back to the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, but saw a large influx of Arab and Muslim residents following the 1967 war onward. They sought employment, like many other immigrants in the past, in the region’s auto industry, and they also brought their politics with them, including Palestinian nationalism and opposition to Zionism. They were also inspired by the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, who supported Palestinian liberation on November 28, 1973.

On November 28, 1973, approximately 2,000 Detroit auto workers, led by Arab Americans, walked off their jobs at Chrysler’s Dodge Main plant, demanding that the leadership of their union, the United Auto Workers (UAW), divest from Israel. The strike, which was organized by the union’s recently formed Arab Workers Caucus, was centered around an event taking place that same day in Detroit: Leonard Woodcock, the president of UAW, was set to receive a humanitarian honor from a Zionist organization, B’nai B’rith International.

The UAW had a long history of politically supporting Israel and financially through the purchase of State Of Israel Bonds. The 1973 Arab workers strike, a long forgotten episode in the struggle against Zionism and U.S. imperialism, has been written about in many places, most recently by historian Jeff Schuhrke writing in Jacobin and available here. No wonder why the worst elements of the mainstream to crackpot far right are obsessed with Dearborn, it has and will continue to be central to the opposition to the Biden administration’s policies towards Palestine.

March on the DNC

Meanwhile, despite the hostility of the Democratic Party establish, the “Uncommitted” vote activists continued to push ahead. In Illinois, the March 19th primary revealed at that over fourteen percent of Chicago’s Democratic voters refused to vote for President Joe Biden. Illinois’ highly restrictive primary doesn’t offer an “uncommitted” option. “Uncommitted National is so proud of organizers in Chicago for mobilizing support for our anti-war movement,” says Layla Elabed, chair of the Uncommitted National campaign told In These Times. “Even without an uncommitted or equivalent option on the ballot, Chicago organizers were able to strongly refute Biden’s unrestricted funding of genocide in Gaza.”

Cook County, including Chicago and the surrounding suburbs, has one of the largest Palestinian populations in the country. The WLS, local ABC news affiliate, reported last December, “Today, the Chicagoland area is home to more Palestinians than anywhere else in America, with over 18,000 living in Cook County. The second largest population is in Wayne County, Michigan, which covers the Detroit metro area and has four times less than Cook County.” Not surprisingly, it has also been the seen of mass demonstrations in support of Palestine since Israel’s invasion of Gaza.

While the antiwar movement has certainly had an impact on mainstream politics, so far, it hasn’t had the effect of shaking up the mainstream political parties. There are no antiwar challenging Biden for the Democratic nomination, and unlikely given the short time left in the primary season. The few candidates running on third party platforms, such as Cornell West, face many hurdles due the U.S. electoral system’s hostility to third parties.

Right now, pro-Palestine activists are beginning to shift their eyes to the upcoming Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Chicago in August. Along with abortion rights activists, pro-Palestine activists are battling a worried DNC and Chicago’s “Progressive” Mayor Brandon Johnson to secure permits as close to the United Center, where the convention is to be held. Chicago passed a resolution calling for a ceasefire in January, after the city council passed a resolution supporting Israel in October.

Convention planners are clearly worried of potential protests that could disrupt the convention proceedings on the outside and on the inside from a handful of dissidents. “What makes this difficult is there’s going to be a lot of people who legitimately should be there, like credentialed, relatively high-up people who will have access to sort of exclusive areas of the convention,” said one person to WBEZ radio, who previously worked on several Democratic campaigns. “They might protest, but it’s not like you can just keep out, like, a vice chair of [a state] Democratic Party.”

A nationwide mobilization at the DNC would send a global message of solidarity to Palestine. See you in Chicago.

Checkout Joe Allen’s Medium postings for more of his writing 

About the author

Joe Allen

Joe Allen author of: “The Package King: A Rank and File History of United Parcel Service”; “Vietnam: The (Last) War the U.S. Lost”; and “People Wasn’t Made to Burn”: A True Story of Race, Murder, and Justice in Chicago” View all posts by Joe Allen →

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March 24, 2024

Dan Osborn Challenges Nebraska’s Political Establishment with a Blue-Collar Agenda

By Steve Early

Dan Osborn, an independent candidate for U.S. Senate from Nebraska, works on his car in his home garage. Omaha, Nebraska, March 4, 2024. (Joseph Saaid, Barn Raiser)

This piece is running with the kind permission of Barn Raiser

Recent studies of lawmakers in the United States have found that less than 2% of those serving on Capitol Hill held blue-collar jobs before they were elected. That percentage drops even further among the nearly 7,300 state legislators across all 50 states, according to researchers at Duke University and Loyola University Chicago, who found that only 81 of those legislators were previously employed in working-class jobs. Dan Osborn, a 48-year-old building trades worker, is a rare example of a candidate working to increase those numbers.

Osborn is running a labor-backed independent bid for U.S. Senate this year in Nebraska. His opponent, Sen. Deb Fischer, the 73-year-old Republican incumbent first elected in 2012, pledged to serve only two terms, but is now seeking a third. Fischer has built a $2.7 million re-election war chest with support from defense contractors, Senate Republican colleagues and AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee).

Osborn, a married father of three children, first rose to prominence in his home state four years ago as president of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union Local 50G, after he led a successful 11-week strike by 500 union members at an Omaha Kellogg cereal factory. Before working in that plant for 18 years, Osborn had dropped out of college and followed in his father’s footsteps by joining the Navy. He has also served in two Nebraska National Guard units and is now employed as a steamfitter for a contractor that maintains the heating system at Boys Town, an iconic institution located in Omaha.

At his campaign kick-off last fall, Osborn denounced “the monopolistic corporations… that actually run this country” and pledged to “bring together workers, farmers, ranchers and small business owners across Nebraska around bread-and-butter issues that appeal across party lines.” So far, he has raised nearly $400,000 among mostly small donors. Osborn and his volunteers have collected the 4,000 signatures needed to get him on the ballot this November (they’re still collecting signatures to have a safe buffer). His labor endorsements include the International Union of Elevator Constructors Local 28, Plumbers Local 16, Sprinkler Fitters Local 699, Steamfitters Local 664, the Office and Professional Employees International Union and Osborn’s former BCTGM Local 50G.

Osborn’s unusual effort in a Republican dominated state has drawn national publicity. In December, The Intercept reported on a poll conducted by Change Research, which found Osborn leading Fischer by a margin of 2 points (some have questioned the poll’s methodology). A January profile of Osborn in the New York Times framed his “long shot bid” as one test of whether “the rising power of an energized union movement can translate to high elective office during an election year when working class voters will decide the next president  and the direction of the country.”

In his interview with Barn Raiser, Osborn talks about why he decided to run, how his platform is different from other candidates for public office and what kind of voters he is trying to reach on the campaign trail.

You’re running for the U.S. Senate from Nebraska. You’ve served in the military, you’ve been active in the labor movement. What part of your biography most motivated you to run for office at this time?

We’re all a product of our past, the good, the bad and the ugly. So, I suppose the short answer would be all of it. But, in particular, the labor movement. The strike at Kellogg’s really opened my eyes to the fact that I could help make a difference in people’s lives. I saw politicians, on both sides of the aisle, come out and support the strikers. 

Our U.S. Senate is a country club. It’s full of millionaires, business execs and lawyers. Working-class people just aren’t represented. I think it’s time to change that. It should be “we the people” representing us, not just the country club politicians.

I imagine that one obstacle for any candidate from a blue-collar background is getting time off to build and run your campaign. If you’re not a lawyer running a big business or have family wealth, how do you take time off from a job like yours to, to run for office?

I think that’s part of the reason why people like me don’t do it, because it takes a tremendous amount of time and energy. To date, I have not taken any time off from work. I can try to sneak in a lunch meeting here or there, but most of my business is conducted during the week, after I get off from my (at minimum) eight-hour shift, and all weekend long.

I understood the sacrifice that I was going to have to make to do this, but at the end of the day, I still feel like it has to be done. And it has to be done now. This year. Like, I can’t continue to wait, or hope somebody else will run in the next cycle. 

And I feel that way because I think the majority of people are feeling that way. There’s an invisible, intangible type of gut feeling that this is one of the most important elections of all time. I imagine that every candidate who has ever run for office would call their own race the most important. But I do feel that, because I think it’s provable and tangible, given the fact that so many people are registering as independents—it’s the fastest growing demographic for registered voters in Nebraska. There’s 270,000 in Nebraska, and nearly 440,000 in Iowa. That’s because we’re seeing the divide that has been created in the polarization of politics, which makes every single issue about getting reelected and not about doing the right thing or getting things done.

People are fed up, they’re frustrated, they’re pissed off—whatever terminology you want to use. And I’m one of them. 

So, part of what influenced your decision to avoid a party label and to run as an independent was to tap into that growing electorate demographic? 

I’m an independent, and I’ve been an independent since 2016. I was a Democrat before, but I feel like both parties have stopped listening to working people and have stopped working for them. They’re all more aligned with corporate interests, especially my opponent, Deb Fischer. She takes a tremendous amount of money from the railroad industry, from pharmaceutical companies, and she votes accordingly. If people don’t already know that, then they need to be informed of it. This is why I say that Washington is broken, and we need to roll up our sleeves and fix it.

One of the things about your campaign, which was profiled recently by Jonathan Weisman in the New York Times, was your focus on labor issues. You’re somebody that’s supporting paid leave time, minimum wage increases, strengthening rail safety and you’re talking about the right to organize for people misclassified as “independent contractors.” The Times described that agenda as appealing “narrowly to blue-collar wallets.” It doesn’t sound like a narrow range of issues to me. What kind of response have you been getting about your platform?

The response is tremendous. It resonates with people because it’s about issues that we all deal with on a daily basis, not the wedge-type issues that divide us. These issues can unite us. That’s what I want to focus on, not creating more division. 

One of the things that the Times didn’t mention is that my platform calls for lowering taxation of overtime wages. In my field we try to work overtime in order to get ahead in life. But without overtime wages, a lot of people are only able to tread water financially. But with guaranteed overtime pay, if you’re willing to sacrifice the time—and, you know, we are only awarded so many minutes in this life—and choose to use that time to help your company, you should get paid accordingly. But it throws you into a higher tax bracket the more overtime you work. And that’s something I want to fight. If you’re willing to sacrifice for your family, you shouldn’t be punished for it.

Another unusual issue on your agenda is the right-to-repair.  What does it mean and why are you raising this as an issue? 

I’ve always worked in an industrial setting, but doing a lot of things that you could compare to farming jobs. One of them is wrenching on equipment.

I’ve been to many farms and have seen the tractors and equipment that farmers use. They are some of the most handy people on the planet. But when the farm equipment manufacturers take away their ability to repair their own equipment, that’s going to cut into their bottom line big-time. And it’s spilling over into other sectors as well. Subaru has fought the right-to-repair law in Massachusetts, and other companies aren’t far behind. They want to take away your ability away to repair your own car.

Last summer my car broke down on the side of the road. My alternator went out. Luckily, my wife was able to take me to work.  On my way back from work, I stopped at an AutoZone with a buddy of mine who has a truck full of tools, and we replaced the alternator on the side of the road. I was able to purchase a refurbished alternator for $150. If I would have bought the original manufacturer’s version, it would have been closer to $350. So, that takes money out of people’s pockets if you take away their ability to repair their own vehicle. You probably remember when you could take the back of your cellphone off and replace your own battery. You can’t do that anymore! Now you gotta take it to the Apple Store where you have to wait in line for two hours, and hopefully you have enough money to cover it. 

John Deere was one of the original farm equipment manufacturers to require farmers to get their equipment fixed at a licensed dealership. 

I wanted to stress the importance of the issue for those who might think it’s not  that big of a deal. Okay, so I would have had to pay $200 more dollars for an alternator. But what if I had to pay $500 more because I had to take it into a dealership to buy one? That’s just an added cost onto an already inflated economy. And it’s nickel-and-diming everybody. It all adds up. 

You’ve been critical of some meatpacking industry practices, which you believe favor the interests of Big Ag over small farmers and ranchers. What got you interested in this issue? Was it growing up in Nebraska and knowing people who try to survive as farmers?

The small family farmers that I talk to, their issues fall right in line with small businesses in both rural and urban areas. But rural areas in particular have had a tough time competing with the Walmarts and Amazons of the world. You could drive through Main Street anywhere in the USA—not just in Nebraska—and you’re likely to see a Dollar General on one end and Walmart at the other, and all the mom-and-pop stores are closed.

And many people that work at Walmart, McDonald’s or Dollar General have to be on Medicaid because they just don’t get paid enough. That’s problematic. These huge corporations are using taxpayer’s money through the federal government to subsidize their health care, while they don’t pay their employees a livable wage.

That’s the nicest way I can put it. I was going to say something worse. So, yeah, it’s frustrating to see. And the small family farms are getting choked out, because they’re forced to settle for however much they can sell their cattle to the large meat producers or they are forced into only buying Monsanto seeds—all these are practices that only benefit the huge corporate farms. 

George Norris was one of the great progressive populists who came from the Nebraska tradition of running as an independent. Does that help anybody running as an independent like you today, or is someone like him not remembered much today? 

As I understand it, populism ebbs and flows throughout history, predominantly since the Industrial Revolution. The reason for this is because the people with the money are always fighting to get more of it, and to have more power and control. And they do so by buying congressmen and senators. And then the people start to realize that the government isn’t working for them, and they start to elect more populist candidates that feel their pain and struggles. 

But the caveat is that the people with the money never give up fighting. They are relentless. That’s why this election is so important because what we’re seeing is a class struggle, if you will. 

We live in the richest nation in the world, and we want to be able to live in relative comfort. We want to be homeowners and car owners. Like myself, I’m not trying to get money so I can buy a Corvette.  I just want to live in relative peace and harmony and happiness in the richest country in the world. That’s the basis of the American dream. That’s what the American people deserve. And when 1% of the population owns 90% of the wealth, that’s problematic. 

Are there particular reforms that if you were elected you would support in terms of limiting the influence of big money in politics?

Term limits, of course. Career politicians can certainly be dangerous, but I get both sides of that issue, especially if you get somebody who’s genuine and willing to do the right thing and not sell their soul to the corporations.  But there’s always a flip side of that coin, which is why I’m supporting term limits. Two terms in the Senate is 12 years.  If you can’t do what you set out to do in 12 years, then maybe you should step aside and let somebody else come in and try to make some changes.  

I’ve been getting a lot of flack from the Times article about calling both Joe Biden and Donald Trump too old. To set the record straight, here’s where I messed up: I also called them incompetent. And saying somebody is too old and incompetent in the same sentence is not right, you know, it makes it sound like you’re being ageist, which I’m not. But I do feel that if you are running for one of the most important jobs on the planet, you can be too old for it.

If you don’t have the big independent expenditure committees, if you’re not taking PAC money, if you’re trying to raise money like you do with email blasts and other things—that’s a lot of work.  Are you getting a good response from small donors? 

I spend a few hours on the phone every day.  I get people hanging up on me, but I’ve also had some amazing conversations with people all over Nebraska. But we live in a digital age, and we’re reaching a lot of people digitally. We just surpassed $400,000, which is nowhere near dollar-for-dollar to compete with Deb Fischer in this race. But we have to spend enough money to get our message out, and then be able to defend ourselves. 

What is your relationship with the Democrats? Will they keep their ballot line open in your race? 

I don’t believe they’re actively searching to run anybody against me. I think they see the path to victory. The interesting part about this campaign is that we’re building a coalition. I also have libertarians and Republicans. I want everybody’s endorsement. My whole team is just full of a hodgepodge of people who believe that there needs to be a change in our political system.

Are there any issues or referendum questions likely to make it onto the ballot this fall that you want your campaign to draw attention to?

The right to an abortion is one of them. I believe in a woman’s decision on whether or not to have an abortion is between her and her doctor, it’s not the federal government’s place to dictate those things to people. Deb Fischer believes in a complete abortion ban. I strongly disagree with that position. 

Fischer has also signed on to the national right to work. That’s damaging to labor. Whether you’re in a union or not, if you’re in an industry where there are unions, they bring up your wages as well.

I’m also against voucher programs for private schools, which was introduced in the state legislature this year. Basically, the bill allows rich people to get tax credits and funding for their kids to go to private schools, while taking funding away from the public schools. It’s a clear case of the rich getting richer.

About the author

Steve Early

Steve Early is a NewsGuild/CWA member who supports Sara Steffens’ campaign for CWA president. He is a former CWA staff member in New England and also served as Administrative Assistant to the Vice-President of CWA District One, the union’s largest region. He is the author of five books about labor and politics, including Save Our Unions: Dispatches from a Movement in Distress (MRP, 2013) which reports on efforts to revitalize CWA and other unions. He can be reached at [email protected] View all posts by Steve Early →

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March 17, 2024

In Response to Ben Fong’s review of “Labor Power and Strategy”

By Jeffery Hermanson

In December of 2023 Ben Fong published a review of Labor Power and Strategy (PM PRess) in the online journal Catalyst. The review provoked a lot of discussion and continuing interest in the interview with John Womack on the topic of working class power. Jeff Hermanson, a long time organizer in many industries from the garment district of NYC to the Biz in Hollywood wrote a response to Fong based on his rich experience. The Forum is happy to publish his response to Ben Fong.

Ben Fong has written an interesting review of the recent book Labor Power and Strategy.  I thought his response to Womack was better than any of the ten respondents in the book with the exception of Gene Bruskin’s discussion of the Smithfield pork processing organizing experience. But I also think the approach of Brother Fong underestimates the remaining power of workplace organizing, as demonstrated by two recent struggles, that of the WGA and SAG-AFTRA, and that of the UAW.

Womack writes, “You have to wound capital to make it yield anything. And you wound it painfully, grabbing its attention, when you take direct material action to stop its production, cut its profit.” 

Graffitti on a construction site wall near 7th on Market Street Photo Robert Gumpert

In the Hollywood writers’ and actors’ strikes, we see how a well-organized and well-led small (11,000 members), independent and democratic union in a position of structural power (the WGA) can use that power to “wound capital” in a significant way, especially when supported by organized workers in the broader industry. Writers are the initiators of the process of production, so their strike takes time to take effect, as their finished scripts wind through the production pipeline. In this case, as in the previous 2007-8 strike,  the writers undertook location picketing (productions in process). Based on the experience of the 2007-8 strike, the writers began location picketing earlier in the strike (in 2007-8 there was initially some member resistance to “picketing our own productions”); and the picketing was much more effective this time because of the solidarity support of the IATSE (cinematographers and other crew) and the Teamsters, who refused to cross picket lines. Then, ten weeks into the writers’ strike, the actors also struck, completely shutting down Hollywood film and TV.

It is highly likely that there would have been no actors’ strike if the writers had not struck first. The writers demonstrated the new degree of solidarity in the industry (in 2007-8 the IATSE opposed the writers’ strike and their members crossed the picket lines) and the ability to shut down production, even productions that had finished scripts. The writers also defined the issues – compensation for streaming, protections for the use of AI – and demonstrated the degree of public support for the writers’ positions, on issues which were shared by the actors. Again, the structural power of the writers – their role as the suppliers of an essential element of the production process – was key to mobilizing the solidarity support of the other unions, and that solidarity support then gave a morale boost to the writers and helped maintain their commitment to fight to the end. “Pencils down” was shown to be an effective strategy.

In the UAW strike, the innovative “Stand Up Strike” picked strategic plants and distribution centers as their targets, while workers in other plants continued working. This preserved the strike fund, avoided putting pressure on all UAW members in the Big Three at once, and hit profit centers of the employers. The assembly plants chosen were not just the most profitable plants, they also stood at the head of long and complex supply chains, and their shutdown had immediate negative effects on the component and parts suppliers. Layoffs immediately began at parts suppliers, not only in the US but also in Mexico. Some of the first supply chain producers to be hit were the seat manufacturers, which were in a just in time (JIT) relationship with the assemblers. They had to stop right away, because there was no place to store bulky seats, and hundreds of workers were laid off from seat plants on the Mexico-US border. Industry analysts reported concerns that a long strike would damage supply chain firms, and could provoke bankruptcy of some, disrupting the ability of the Big Three to resume production when the strike ended.

Both of these examples demonstrate the vulnerability of complex production networks to targeted strikes by small groups of workers in strategic structural positions in those production networks. Defining the critical “strategic structural positions” is a key task of union leaders, and requires serious research and analysis. Often this research requires the participation of workers involved in the production process themselves.

I had an exchange with John Womack Jr. about a strike I coordinated in the 1980’s for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union in the NYC garment district. We were striking a non-union blouse manufacturer who was using around 10 to 15 Korean-owned sewing shops that employed Latino workers, mostly Mexicans and Dominicans. We had salted several of the shops with former strikers whose shops had gone out of business rather than sign a union contract. In one of the most important shops, we struck but could only pull out a minority of workers, among whom were four button-hole machine operators. I came out of the dress industry, so in this strike I learned that in a blouse shop, the button-hole machine operators were the most important (and most highly paid) workers, because operating this machine required a high degree of skill, and if the button-holes were not precisely placed, the blouse would not hang correctly. Therefore we agreed to pay the full salary of the four button-hole machine operators, while the other strikers went to look for work in the other shops in the production network, to “bore from within.” 

Another part of the importance of this particular shop was that the employer was an officer of the Korean Apparel Manufacturers Association, of which all 400 Korean-owned garment factories in NYC were members. So KAMA decided to help this owner out by asking other owners to come to the shop and help move cut fabric across the picket line. This effort resulted in the KAMA members discovering the anger and fighting spirit of the Latino workers, as they were unable to cross a very militant picket line. After this incident, the KAMA president, who owned another of the most important shops of this network, approached the union through a Korean organizer that worked with me, and asked how the Korean garment manufacturers could resolve this dispute. We told them that if they stopped working for the blouse company, we would have no reason to target them; and they agreed to stop working on the blouse company’s goods until the strike was over. This was a turning point in the strike, which we eventually won.

Thus there are several factors that need to be looked at to determine whether a particular group of workers is situated in a “strategic structural position.” First is the technical question, i.e. are their skills and function essential for the production process, are they not easily replaced? Second is the economic question, i.e. what role does their particular unit play in the profitability or economic viability of the enterprise or industry sector? What impact does stopping their unit have on other employers in the production network? Third is the social question, i.e. what impact does their action have on other groups of workers in other parts of the production system?

The third point might be considered to be part of the “associational power” equation; but in my opinion, I believe Womack’s view, which I share, is that the social impact of action by a group of workers is largely dependent on the perception by other groups of the structural power the first group can wield. In a garment production system, the cutters are widely considered to have more structural power than the sewers, since they are fewer in number, and if they stop work the sewers will have no cut fabric to sew. Therefore a strike by the cutters often convinces the sewers to join in the strike, as the expectation of victory is enhanced. This is analogous to the situation in the entertainment industry, where a strike by the writers, who are few in number but who produce the scripts that are necessary to start the production process by actors, directors and crews, encourages other industry workers to take action.    

In complex distribution systems, like Amazon, Walmart, Target, Kroger’s, US Foods, etc., the questions presented are similar but as in every inquiry can only be answered by concrete analysis of concrete conditions.

About the author

Jeffery Hermanson

Union organizer since 1976 with Teamsters, Garment Workers, Carpenters, Writers Guild, and AFL-CIO Solidarity Center in Mexico. Member of DSA, retired and living in Mexico View all posts by Jeffery Hermanson →

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March 10, 2024

Hoffa, Racism, and the Teamsters: The 1945 Detroit Mayor’s Race

By Joe Allen

Richard Frankensteen, UAW Vice President. Photo Library of Congress

As many people know by now, I’ve been looking into the historical relationship between the Teamsters and the State of Israel for a few months. Several online outlets including Counterpunch and the Stansbury Forum posted my original article The Teamster Connection: Apartheid Israel and the IBT. My interest in the subject was sparked by growing calls by many U.S. based unions for a ceasefire in Gaza. So far, neither the leadership of the Teamsters or any of its local affiliates or the longstanding reform group Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) have called for a cease fire, and have, in fact, opposed such resolutions.

One important stage in the evolution of the Teamster’s relationship with Israel was a testimonial dinner thrown for Jimmy Hoffa in April 1956. It was a major attempt to clean up Hoffa’s odious public image. The proceeds of the dinner were donated to the building of a children’s home in Israel. He was not yet the nationally known and notorious figure that he became following his appearance before the Senate Rackets Committee hearing in 1957. But, his thuggery and relationship with gangsters, however, were well-known in the labor movement, and, especially, in Detroit, his home base. 

Curious, I decided to dive deeper into Hoffa’s lesser known but important resume building activities: his role in defeating UAW-CIO leader Richard Frankensteen’s run for mayor of Detroit in 1945. The 1945 Detroit mayor’s race is a real education in the deglamorization of Jimmy Hoffa, especially on the question of fighting racism. While Detroit witnessed much rank and file opposition to the UAW’s no-strike pledge, it also saw hate strikes against black workers and racist rioting over housing. With the war over, Detroit’s 1945  municipal elections saw any parameters of “wartime unity” erased. 

According to an article in The Public Opinion Quarterly, written soon after the election, captured the brawl in its introduction:

Faced with the threat of a liberal candidacy of the UAW-CI’s Frankensteen, conservative forces in Detroit resorted to anti-Negro, anti-Semitic, and anti-“Communist” propaganda to elected their candidate, Jeffries, in one of the “most vicious, nasty campaign” in recent municipal history.

The Teamsters supported the incumbent Mayor Edward Jeffries, who ran a race-baiting campaign to defeat Frankensteen. The UAW and the Teamsters were bitter and contentious rivals in Detroit as well throughout Michigan and the Midwest. The Teamsters were prepared to use the most unsavory methods and make alliances with the most reactionary forces to defeat the UAW-CIO  But, it’s not just a story of Teamster sabotage but also Frankensteen’s self-defeating strategy, especially, his failure to squarely fight racism in Detroit. 

The Teamsters Role

According to Teamster historian Thaddeus Russell, the Detroit Teamsters in 1945, 

“maintained their policy of opposing any candidate backed by the CIO. In the 1945 mayoral election, the CIO put its full weight behind an effort to elect UAW vice president Richard Frankensteen. As the national [CIO] PAC (Political Action Committee)  and state and local CIO bodies pumped more than $200,000 into the Frankensteen campaign, the Teamsters did not hesitate to endorse the incumbent Jeffries.”

A publicly circulated letter by the Detroit Teamsters signed by Hoffa, Bert Brennan, and Joint Council President Sam Hurst endorsed Jeffries.

The Teamsters and the American Federation of Labor (AFL) were thrown into a panic after Frankensteen won the largest share of votes in an eight person non-partisan primary in August 1945. Frankensteen was projected by the UAW-CIO as a “labor candidate” since the non-partisan nature didn’t require a party affiliation, even though he had a long history of involvement in Democratic Party politics. For example, as recently as 1944, he was a delegate to the Democratic Party convention.

Again, according to Russell,

“When Frankensteen scored an impressive victory in the primary, the concerted effort of the CIO behind his candidacy caused the Wayne County Federation of Labor [WCFL] to abandon its longtime opposition to Jefferies and finally agree with the Teamsters on the threat of the CIO’s entry into politics.”

For Russell, “The WCFL’s opposition to Frankensteen along with the vigorous Teamster campaigning and Jeffries’ race-baiting proved to be a winning combination among Detroit’s white working class, who reelected the incumbent by a margin of 56,000 votes.” Vigorous campaigning, indeed. Dan Tobin, the Teamsters national president at the time, wrote in the December 1945 issue of The International Teamster magazine in December 1945, “Frankensteen was defeated by only 56,000 votes. The Teamsters supported his opponent, Mr. Jeffries, not because they were in love with Mr. Jeffries but because we could not afford to support Frankensteen.”

Apparently, the Teamsters had enough affection for Jeffries and his sordid campaign by rewarding him with a major mobilization of Teamster members, family, and friends to the polls. Tobin boasted:

“The membership of the all of the local unions of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters in Detroit is close to 25,000. Each man was expected and almost commanded to bring one other vote to the polls besides his own. That would be his wife, his sister, his brother or some friend. That would make a total of 50,000 votes, which undoubtedly were delivered against Frankensteen. Some of the other American Federation of Labor not as large in membership as the Teamsters did the same.”

A Knight in Dull Armor

Even if Tobin’s vote count is off by a few thousand votes, the Teamsters role in the re-election of such a racist demagogue as Edward Jeffries is horrendous. But, there is more to the story, including Frankensteen’s hapless campaign. Dubbed “A Knight in Dull Armor” by Time magazine, Frankensteen proved continually unable to defend himself from a hailstorm of attacks and stupidly distancing himself from his trade union background, despite a much larger turn out of voter than the last time the UAW-CIO put forward a labor slate in 1937. Over 500,000 voters turned out in 1945, significantly larger than the 400,000 in 1937.

Writing as Martin Harvey in Labor Action newspaper, Martin Glaberman focused on several critical failings of the Frankensteen campaign. First, according to Glaberman was:

“During the whole campaign the initiative was in the hands of the reactionary Jeffries. It was he who determined the issues and set the tone of the campaign. Outstanding in the issues presented by Jeffries was the race question. Jeffries organized a widespread undercover anti-Negro campaign which surpassed his vicious use of the question in the last municipal election. The central idea was white supremacy in the City Hall and the maintenance of the “purity” of the all-white neighborhoods.”

Jeffries campaigners and supporters among white homeowner associations also, according to Harvey/Glaberman:

“distributed leaflets in Negro neighborhoods charging Frankensteen and the UAW with being anti-Negro. In the same way they initiated a whispering campaign charging that Frankensteen was Jewish, yet distributed newspapers in the Jewish neighborhoods charging Frankensteen with being a friend of Father Coughlin and an anti-Semite. Even the regular daily press gave support to this campaign by featuring prominently news items on the extent of Frankensteen’s Negro support and charging repeatedly that Frankensteen represented only a minority of the population.

“The second major issue,” according to Glaberman , “in Jeffries’ campaign which was constantly combined with the first was the “red scare” and the charge that the CIO wanted to take over the city. On both of these issues Frankensteen devoted his time to denying the charges. He did not represent the Negroes, he said, but all the people. He was not a red and the CIO did not want to take over the city. He offered no program for the Negroes to put an end to the discrimination and segregation to which they are subjected and he offered no program to labor or the people as a whole on the many vital problems which exist, foremost among them being jobs and security. 

Frankensteen was reduced to “only positive statements were devoted to presenting himself as more efficient, as more concerned with improved bus service and cleaner alleys.” Glaberman summarized Frankensteen defeat:

“Without an aggressive program, for labor and the people, without calling on the middle class to support labor in this program, it was impossible for Frankensteen to answer the viciously reactionary charges of Jeffries. If his denials are valid, that is, if he does not represent labor but “all the people,” then why should anyone support him rather than Jeffries, who claims the same thing? If his denials are not true, that is, if he does represent labor, then why should the middle class, the storekeepers, the professionals, etc., support Frankensteen when they see no difference between “labor’s” program and Jeffries’ program?”

The 1945 Detroit municipal elections have fallen down the memory hole for the U.S. Left. It deserves a more extensive research and writing. 

Richard Frankensteen 

Profile: Detroit News profile, 1997.

Backed by UAW President Homer Martin, Frankensteen won the vice-presidency of the international union in 1937. But in 1939 Martin was ousted as president by R.J. Thomas, and Frankensteen lost as well.

During World War II he was appointed to the National War Labor Board and the National War Production Board by President Franklin Roosevelt. He was appointed by Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) President Philip Murray in 1941 as national director of efforts to organize workers in the expanding aviation industry during the war years. He retained the post when the UAW was given jurisdiction over the industry in 1942.

The power struggle turned ugly at the UAW’s convention in 1943 in Buffalo when Reuther delegates attacked Frankensteen and George F. Addes, secretary-treasurer of the UAW, for their support of piecework and incentive pay in auto plants. The Reuther faction circulated a campaign ditty to the tune of an old ballad, “Reuben and Rachel,” that suggested Frankensteen and Addes were taking orders from Joseph Stalin.

The verse went:
      “Who are the boys who take their orders
      Straight from the office of Joe Sta-leen?
      No one else but the gruesome twosome,
      George F. Addes and Frankensteen.
      Who are the boys who fight for piecework,
      To make the worker a machine?
      No one else but the gruesome twosome,
      George F. Addes and Frankensteen.”

      Other verses, some unprintable, added spice to the doggerel.

      In the end, the convention endorsed a Reuther resolution opposing piecework and incentive pay and Reuther defeated Frankensteen in a race for first vice-president. Addes narrowly kept his office.

At the 1943 UAW convention in Buffalo, Frankensteen was elected first vice-president of the UAW.

Frankensteen was a Wallace supporter at the 1944 Democratic convention.

From Tom Sugrue, The Origin of the Urban crisis, page 80:

“Several Detroit politicians used the housing issue to their advantage in the reelection bids later that year [1945], incumbent Mayor Edward Jeffries, in a campaign laden with racial innuendo, attacked UAW-backed mayoral candidate Richard Frankensteen, flooding Northwest and Northeast Side neighborhoods with literature warning of his opponent’s support for public housing and ties to black organizations.”

“Jeffries and his supporters combined anti-black and anticommunist sentiments into a potent political brew. Frankensteen, warned Jeffries and his supporters, was a “red” who would encourage “racial invasions” of white neighborhoods. Unlike Franksteen, Jeffries would uphold community interests. “Mayor Jeffries is Against Mixed Housing,” proclaimed a boldly printed campaign poster. It quoted Jeffries: “I have tried to safeguard your neighborhoods in the character in which you, their residents, have developed them.” The Home Gazette, a Northwest Side newspaper, editorialized that “There is no question where Edward J. Jeffries’ administration stands on mixed housing.” It praised the Detroit Housing Commission for “declaring that a majority of the people of the city of Detroit do not want the racial character of their neighborhoods changed, and for reiterating “its previous stand against attempts of Community-inspired Negroes to penetrate white residential sections.”

Black observers of the election and union supporters of Frankentseen were appalled by the blatant racial claims of Jeffries’s campaign, and at attempted to use economic populist and anti-Nazi rhetoric to deflate Jeffries’s charges. Henry Lee Moon, writing in the NAACP’s monthly, Crisis, accused Jeffries of appealing “to our more refined fascists, the big money interests, the precarious middle class whose sole inalienable possession is a white skin.” Jeffries’s racial appeals were remarkably successful. They bolstered his flagging campaign, and gave him a comfortable margin in November against UAW-backed candidate in a solidly union city. On the local level, the link between black and red was a clever for attracting white Democrats, suspicious of liberalism and its capacity for egalitarian political and social rhetoric.  

Public housing is “Negro housing.”

Lichtenstein, page 235:

“Most significantly, the fault lines that had long divided autoworkers according to race, ethnicity, skill, and politics were now deeply buried within a larger commitment to the union and its cause. These divisions had not disappeared, of course: Richard Frankensteen’s unexpected defeat in November’s [1945] mayoral election had demonstrated the capacity of those forces backing Mayor Edward Jeffries to use racist and anti-Semitic innuendo and outright slander to pry Polish and Italian voters from the CIO, even in solidly working-class neighborhoods.”

Halpern, UAW Politics, 42-43:

“In the municipal elections, Frankensteen won 44 percent of the total ballot, somewhat more than the labor slate won in 1937. He took 61 percent in Polish working-class neighborhoods and 75 percent in Italian precincts. But the relative decline in their loyalty proved the margin of defeat for the CIO, which had never won more than half of the votes of those who lived in Irish or southern white sectors of the city.”

Time magazine, October 29, 1945

POLITICAL NOTES: Knight in Dull Armor

Monday, Oct. 29, 1945

When hulking Richard Truman Frankensteen was nominated for mayor of Detroit, many a U.S. left-winger got excited. Frankensteen was a founder and vice president of the vast United Automobile Workers, C.I.O. He had bled at the hands of Ford “service men” at the famed Battle of the Underpass in 1937. He also seemed to have some political sex appeal: he was a college man (University of Dayton ’32), a ready speaker, young (38) and did not mind admitting that he wrote operettas, collected dolls as a hobby. If U.S. labor was to produce, not merely influence poli. ticians. perhaps Frankensteen would lead the way.

But last week, as Detroit’s final election drew near, Dick Frankensteen looked less like a trail blazer than a man just feeling his way around in a lot of trees. He had spoken as few ringing words about labor as possible. The reason: even his enemies in the union wanted him to be mayor (and thus out of union officialdom) so there was little point in it. Instead, to woo the public, he harangued audiences about Detroit’s dirty alleys, its street-railway fares, tried hard to be everyman’s friend.

Target Elusive. None of this was very exciting. As every city boss knows, candidates should make great promises, roar for reform or sail into their opponents, particularly incumbent opponents. Frankensteen found that attacking his opponent, Mayor Edward J. Jeffries, was disconcertingly like shadow boxing. In six years as mayor, Jeffries had done little, had made few bad mistakes.

But the mayor found 206-pound Dick Frankensteen a target hard to miss. He charged that U.A.W.’s man was suppported by Communists and rabble-rousers, would run the city for a little group of labor chieftains. Smear pamphlets appeared on Detroit’s streets. Hecklers asked Frankensteen embarrassing questions about housing for Negroes, his plans for non-union city employes.

Losing ground, Frankensteen made dramatic attempts to settle the crucial Kelsey-Hayes strike. He failed to produce any dramatic results. Meanwhile the muddled state of Detroit’s labor affairs did nothing to improve his standing in the public eye. Last week Detroit politicos guessed his chances were no better than 50-50 (though he had drawn 82,936 primary votes to Jeffries’ 68,754), that he would win only if Detroit had a strong, last-minute impulse to throw out his opponent.

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Joe Allen

Joe Allen author of: “The Package King: A Rank and File History of United Parcel Service”; “Vietnam: The (Last) War the U.S. Lost”; and “People Wasn’t Made to Burn”: A True Story of Race, Murder, and Justice in Chicago” View all posts by Joe Allen →

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March 3, 2024

Trump Courts the Teamsters

By Peter Olney

Trump and the mainstream media have been playing up his courting of the Teamsters. But will the powerful union really endorse him? Don’t bet on it.

Sean O’Brien has been driving the Teamsters in a new direction since he led a coalition campaign that included Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) to topple the union’s old guard in 2021.

Last year, O’Brien and TDU teamed up in a grassroots contract campaign at UPS that eliminated two-tier for delivery drivers, ended forced six-day work weeks, increased part-time wages from $15.50 to $23 an hour, and forced UPS to create thousands of more full-time jobs for part-time workers.

Under his leadership, the Teamsters have brought back the strike weapon, used it to win strong contracts, and organize the unorganized – including at DHL, Sysco, and US Foods.

O’Brien hit the stump with Senator Bernie Sanders and Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants, to denounce white-collar crime syndicates like Amazon. He’s spoken at the TDU Convention and Labor Notes, the biennial conference of the grassroots, troublemaking wing of the labor movement. 

So more than a few progressives were left scratching their heads when Trump hosted O’Brien in Mar-a-Lago January 4. Alarm grew when Trump met with Teamster leaders and members at IBT headquarters three weeks later.

Now, headlines are breaking that the union contributed $45,000 to the Republican National Committee. What the hell is going on?

Engaging with Members and the Issues

It’s understandable why Trump is courting the Teamsters. Fake populist, fake friend of the working stiff, is the would-be dictator’s whole brand. Trump landing the endorsement of the 1.2 million Teamsters would be a major coup, and a disaster for Biden who needs labor’s support to win in the Midwest and other swing states.

Could it really be that the Teamsters, who have not backed a Republican for President since mobbed-up leaders endorsed Ronald Reagan and George Bush in the 1980s, are capitulating to MAGA? 

Don’t bet on it.  But the Teamsters face the harsh reality that approximately half of their members support Trump. And they are not alone among unions in facing this problem. The union I worked for, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), faces a similar challenge of doing politics with a membership where Trump support is surprisingly strong in many locals. 

Under the headline, “Biden stakes his reputation on blue-collar workers, turns out they’re Trump voters”, a Bloomberg report using small-donor data documents that, “Mechanics and truck drivers give to Trump, while professors and scientists support Biden.”

This fact is a crisis not just for Biden, but for the entire labor movement. It defies an easy response if the goal is to engage and move more union members away from Trump in a highly polarized and toxic political environment. 

Trump and other right-wing populists have been exceptionally effective at using wedge issues to win over white working class voters. Union voters are more likely to vote against Trump than their nonunion counterparts, but union leaders have largely struggled to persuade their members to break with Trump. 

In the Teamsters, many members resented the rubber-stamp endorsement of Democratic presidential candidates by former Teamster President James Hoffa, O’Brien’s predecessor and the son of Jimmy Hoffa. 

O’Brien is trying something different. The Teamsters are meeting with all presidential candidates. They even sat down with Cornel West, Marianne Williamson, and Robert Kennedy, Jr. Rank-and-file members have been part of each roundtable and Q&A. 

Next month, members and Teamster leaders are scheduled to host President Biden.

The IBT donated $45,000 to both the Republican and Democratic convention funds and pledges to have members “on the ground and active in both Conventions.”

In the meantime, members will be polled about their views on union issues like organizing rights, the NLRB, and right to work as well as on more general issues – their responses will be compared with the candidates’ stances. 

A more open process could leave some Trump supporters and undecideds in the union’s ranks more open to listening to the Teamsters Union’s statements and endorsements. 

Will it work? Who knows?

The Fallout

“Trump’s visit to the IBT was a circus,” one attendee told me. “He didn’t answer a single question or address a single concern. Everything was just a rant about immigration. It was disgusting.”

In the short term, there have been real downsides. Trump, the master pitchman, has effectively played up his Teamster appearances for publicity, leaving some union allies and members bewildered and alienated.

Many Teamsters want no part of Trump and resent their union being part of anything that could further validate or legitimize him.

“Trump’s visit to the IBT was a circus,” one attendee told me. “He didn’t answer a single question or address a single concern. Everything was just a rant about immigration. It was disgusting.” 

While the media has played up Trump’s courtship of the Teamsters, Trump himself hardly sounds confident. 

Asked at the press conference at the IBT what odds he would put on getting the Teamsters endorsement, Trump stammered, “Well, I don’t know, they never do that, they never give it but I felt, I felt, yeah, we have a good shot, I think.” 

Later Trump added: “I don’t know if the top people are going to support me, but within the union I have tremendous support.” 

Sadly, Trump’s  not entirely wrong about his support in the members and that fact goes a long way toward explaining not just the Teamsters endorsement process but the challenge confronting many union leaders.

Can the Teamsters  Help Defeat Trump?

Engineering Biden endorsements is not front of mind for many on the left.  In Michigan, progressive and Arab-Americans called for a people to vote “no preference” in the Democratic primary to protest Biden’s capitulation to Israel’s genocidal war in Gaza. 

No one in their right mind wants a Trump victory in November. If and when the Teamsters endorse Biden, it will surprise no one. But what will it take for it to make a meaningful contribution to defeating Trump?

First, the Teamsters endorsement needs to persuade at least some Biden skeptics or soft-Trump supporters in their ranks.

Even more importantly, the union will have to put real money and boots on the ground to work in critical swing states: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, Georgia, and Nevada.  

The Teamsters intervened heavily in the Georgia senate race to help elect Raphael Warnock and Jon Osoff to give Democrats the Senate majority in 2021. That new Senate majority passed the Butch Lewis Act. Named for a Teamster and TDU leader, the act saved the pensions of over 400,000 Teamsters and millions of other workers and their families. 

Today, the principal sponsor of the pension relief bill, Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown, will need the support of at least some Trump supporters to win reelection in Ohio, a state that will likely go for Trump in November. The Teamsters will be stumping for Brown. Already an ad aimed at working class voters features Teamster retiree leader Mike Walden crediting Brown for saving truck drivers’ pensions. 

Last summer, Democrats were bewildered and furious at Shawn Fain for critical remarks aimed at Biden that they said risked boosting Trump among UAW members. Those concerns are now long-forgotten in the wake of the UAW’s Biden endorsement. Now, it’s the Teamsters turn in the headlines.

Trump has milked his appearances with the Teamsters for photo ops and publicity. That’s unfortunate and unseemly. But don’t miss the signal for the noise. 

At the IBT three weeks later, O’Brien followed Trump at the podium and told reporters:

“There’s no question that the Biden administration has been great for unions.”

“Whatever candidate supports our issues is going to get our endorsement,” O’Brien added.. 

The challenge for the Teamsters and the whole labor movement is to make such endorsements, and the GOTV programs that follow, effective in actually defeating Trump. 

This piece originally ran in Portside

About the author

Peter Olney

Peter Olney is retired Organizing Director of the ILWU. He has been a labor organizer for 50 years working for multiple unions before landing at the ILWU in 1997. For three years he was the Associate Director of the Institute for Labor and Employment at the University of California. With co-editor Glenn Perušek they have edited Labor Power and Strategy by John Womack Jr and available now from PM Press View all posts by Peter Olney →