In the summer of 1964 SNCC’s (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Council’s) Robert Moses put out a call for college students to come to Mississippi to register African Americans to vote. Known as Freedom Summer, this was one of the major struggles of the Civil Rights movement and it marked a turning point in African Americans’ campaign for the right to vote. This movement also helped energize idealistic college students across the country, and was, in no small way, the basis of the activism of the 1960’s. I believe the labor movement should put out a similar call for next summer to once again defend the kind of rights those college students fought and died for in 1964.
The recent attacks on the labor movement have been coupled with an assault on the voting rights of poor people and racial minorities. The right to join a union and bargain collectively has been rolled back in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, etc. at the same time those states have enacted voter ID measures that are the modern equivalent of the “Jim Crow” laws fought in 1964. While public sector workers have lost their union rights, poor and minority voters have lost their right to vote. We must connect these events and energize a new generation of young people to take action. I believe a call to a “Solidarity Summer” would do that. This move must involve an unprecedented commitment of resources by the labor union movement not merely to fight anti-union laws, but to expand unionization and protect the right to vote for poor people and minorities.
Lessons from Wisconsin
The recent Supreme Court election in Wisconsin is a cautionary tale about what happens when sufficient resources are not committed and when cross racial coalitions are not created. David Prosser, the conservative candidate, won the race after a recount gave him a narrow 7K vote lead over the liberal Jo Anne Kloppenburg. Eighty per cent of the spending in the race came from outside sources, with the vast majority of it ($2.7 million vs $1.8 million) going to Prosser. The right wing money came from the usual sources–business associations, the Koch brothers, etc. The key for that election, however, was not just this money, but what happened in Milwaukee, or more accurately, what didn’t happen there. According to an analysis in Daily KOS (April 16, 2011) the lack of turn out among minority voters in that city doomed the chances of the liberal justice. Had minority voting been close to what it had been in 2008, Kloppenburg would have won easily.
We must be clear about the significance of this vote. Even if all the future recall efforts in Wisconsin are successful, the anti-union laws will stand until Walker (the governor of the state) can be recalled or voted out of office. Yet a victory in the Supreme Court race would have stopped the assault on labor in Wisconsin dead in its tracks: within days of the election, the Wisconsin Supreme Court declared the anti-union laws passed by Walker acceptable by a margin of only one vote—Prosser’s. If Kloppenburg had replaced him, the anti-labor laws would have been history.
This Supreme Court election might have been won if there had been more of an effort by labor to reach out to the minority community. A Google search that I conducted showed no evidence of a labor initiated campaign to turn out minority voters in Milwaukee. Walker and the state legislature enacted not merely anti-union laws, but a series of laws making it more difficult for minorities to vote. Supposedly designed to protect against voter fraud (none of which has ever been proved), these laws required the presentation of expensive picture ids in order to vote (what some have labeled a latter day “poll tax”), reduced the ability of citizens to register to vote, and made it more difficult to vote from home. These measures were thinly camouflaged attempts to disenfranchise poor people and minorities, which makes these groups ripe for mobilizing. A serious Get-Out-the-Vote” campaign among minority voters in Milwaukee that focused on the “New Jim Crow Laws” might have been able to increase minority turnout, short-circuiting the right-wing assault on unions and minority rights in that state.
The lessons here are two-fold: first there was a failure of resources on the part of labor, and second, that energizing a labor/minority coalition will be a key component of any effective struggle to protect labor and democratic rights. Yes, what labor did in Wisconsin was unprecedented, but it wasn’t enough judged by the outcome. This failure was all the more disappointing because it was so close—7K votes out of over 1.5million. As they say, however, close only counts in horse shoes and hand grenades.
This is a microcosm for the situation of the country as a whole. Polls show an evenly divided nation, with a significant number of voters swinging back and forth depending on events and how issues are framed. Most Americans support the right of workers, and even public sector workers, to unionize, but they think labor has too much power. They think the rich should be taxed, but they also believe you can cut government spending by half without impacting services. They blame Wall Street for the economic meltdown, but they think Republicans would do a better job of making them pay. They want something done about unemployment and the economy, but they are attracted to easy answers and scapegoating. As Jim Hightower has said, “If ignorance is bliss, Americans are ecstatic.”
Loot and Boots
In this confusion a campaign to give a progressive alternative is desperately needed. The union movement needs to commitment both “loot and boots”. That is, unions need to make a serious commitment of money to this effort, but this money should be used to employ young people as “boots on the ground” to organize around issues connected to labor and democracy.
The model I have in mind is what my union, AFT-1931, has done here in San Diego. Over the last year we have employed nearly a dozen students to act as organizers not just around our issues, but around progressive causes in general. We used them in the election last fall, but we also put them to work organizing for a “March for California’s Future” that brought thousands to Sacramento to protect education. In addition, our union has prioritized a list of progressive efforts that includes tax reforms (taxing Amazon sales, enacting an oil extraction fee, initiating a surtax on the top 1% of income earners, etc.), instituting card-check for farm workers, supporting a Single –Payer healthcare campaign, and creating a law that all employees must earn at least 2% of the highest paid officer in a company.
These are the efforts possible when a union commits itself to social justice organizing and puts significant resources in back of this effort. If the entire union movement made a similar commitment, we could multiply this effort a thousand fold.
This move for a Solidarity Summer would have a secondary benefit. Next summer we will be in the middle of an election cycle. Labor unions will be holding their noses and organizing to re-elect Obama. The perennial contradiction will reemerge: should we support a Democratic candidate who has done little FOR us or do nothing and help elect a Republican who will do much TO us. Solidarity summer would help avoid this choice by organizing in a way that would solidify Obama’s chances of being re-elected, but also build our own movement at the same time. Putting union members and young people in the street to register voters, circulate petitions about labor struggles, and organize to protect voters’ rights would mobilize the kind of people likely to vote Democratic, but it would do so in a way that would not submerge our efforts into the Democratic party.
This will only happen, however, if the union movement commits serious resources to this effort. This is no ordinary time, and the effort required is no ordinary one. The time for half measures is over. The survival of not just the union movement, but many of the gains that came out the civil rights movement hang in the balance. We can do no less than everything we can. Anything less is a betrayal of our ideals.