“While our candidate, John Kerry, did not win, we are proud that the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, along with the entire family of labor, united in an historic effort to fight for the interests of working families. … November 2 was not the end of our fight to take back this country for working families. It was the beginning. This effort was never about one candidate, one political party, or a single election. It is about moving forward a pro-worker agenda at the national level.”
–Statement by Teamsters President Jim Hoffa and Secretary-Treasurer Tom Keegel on the 2004 elections.
Labor was at the heart of an incredible people’s coalition to defeat George Bush and the ultra-right wing of the Republican Party. And labor remains at the heart of keeping that coalition together and fighting back against the Bush agenda.
Not in my lifetime has labor been more energized and more mobilized as it was in this election fight against Bush. Local unions, central labor councils, regional and national offices of unions became “campaign central” for vast coalition efforts. Phone banking, labor walks, mailings, forums, plant gate distributions, concerts, rallies and demonstrations were organized out of these union halls.
Labor put more than 5,500 union members and full-time staff to work in the battleground states. More than 225,000 union volunteers participated in the Labor 2004 program. The AFL-CIO estimates that volunteers made more than 100 million phone calls and passed out more than 32 million leaflets at workplaces and in union neighborhoods. Hundreds of union members got on buses to travel to battleground states to help campaign in a first-of-its-kind effort. In short, labor spent millions in its own independent efforts and mobilized a mighty labor union army for change.
Then we suffered a terrible defeat. There is no other way to describe four more years of a Bush administration. Most expect a renewed and vicious assault on labor — national right-to-work-for-less legislation, outlawing card-check union recognition, further weakening health and safety labor law, and a new round of rotten trade agreements that further hasten the race to the bottom, just to name a few.
Yet in the face of defeat and attack, the dominant mood in labor is well described in the quote from the Teamsters above. As John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, said, we emerge “bruised but unbowed.”
Labor comes out of this battle with broad new ties, influence and coalitions, and with hundreds of new and experienced union activists who have new skills and methods of organizing.
Still, it is inevitable and good that a spirited debate will open up on how best to move forward. The great experience of this heroic election effort, and the defeat, will both add new energy to the debate that has already begun in labor about how best to change and grow the labor movement.
For me, there are three important principles that have to inform these discussions and debates.
• Unity and maximizing the strength of labor and strengthening the broad, labor centered coalitions must be front and center. Debate that leads to splits or structural divisions in the labor movement from either the left or the right will only get us killed.
• Debate and discussion have to be centered in the rank and file, in the union halls, workplaces, and central labor councils. This is not a question of top-down or bottom-up. It is a question of basic union strength. Only when the best ideas for change are the mass property of the big majority of union members will real, constructive change move us forward.
• And lastly, the debate and discussion must take place in action. Changes have to be worked out in the process of fighting back against four more years of an anti-union and anti-working class administration bent on labor’s destruction. Some in labor have suggested that the fight for universal and comprehensive national health care is an overriding fight that can unify all of labor as we debate change. Surely experience building such a broad, labor-led, social movement would serve as a concrete test bed for change. Thousands of working families lose their health care every month. And, as they say, sometimes the best defense is a good offense.
Scott Marshall is a vice chair of the Communist Party USA and chair of its Labor Department. He can be reached at email@example.com.