Want to celebrate May Day? Fight for antifascist unions.
by Brendan O’Connor
Late last summer, ahead of the first anniversary of Heather Heyer's killing in Charlottesville, Kooper Caraway wrote a blog post for the website of the Sioux Falls AFL-CIO, a labor council representing mostly immigrants, refugees, and workers of color in an overwhelmingly white state that is historically hostile to unions. Just months before, the council had passed an amendment to its constitution banning fascists and white supremacists from holding elected office. "It is our duty to let our fellow workers know that Fascism, White Supremacy, and its organizations have only ever existed to divide us as workers and do the dirty work of the Boss Class," he wrote. "The White Nationalists have always been bought and paid for by those in power, they exist not to fight for any ideal, but to destroy the progress made by us as working class people."
Three days later, the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan dropped propaganda all around the city, proclaiming that "White Lives Do Matter" and demanding that residents "Save Our Land; Join the Klan." "But after that," Caraway told me, "a lot of what people were talking about was that the KKK's out here trying to divide the working class. We see that as a win. We're trying to shift and adjust the messaging as much as we can so that when folks think of working class—it's not Trump supporters, it's not these far-right reactionary folks, it's regular folks who believe in solidarity over racism."
Caraway is part of a generation of young labor activists who came of age in the era of Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and immigration raids. At 27 years old when he was elected president of the Sioux Falls AFL-CIO in January—on a slate of candidates who were mostly immigrants and people of color—he was the youngest person to hold such an office in the labor federation's history. (A few months later, a 26 year old usurped him.) The labor movement that Caraway, whose mother is Native American, and others like him envision is radically different than that of the last few decades: beholden to the Democratic Party, more concerned with filing grievances than disrupting the flow of production, and obsessed with preserving what past generations achieved to the exclusion of ever demanding more. Instead, they seek to build a labor movement that is not only militantly anticapitalist, but also engaged in struggle against all forms of oppression. "There's a lot of folks my age—they've seen what capitalism has to offer, and they're not impressed," Caraway said. "We've lived through capitalism. We don't think it's for us."
Since the 2016 election, Americans have responded to some of President Trump's most draconian policies with massive, popular mobilizations to impede their implementation and in some cases derail them entirely; likewise, leftist groups of various tendencies have organized mass demonstrations against white supremacists, white nationalists, and the so-called “alt-right,” in many instances building broad coalitions. Organized labor has played a relatively small but important role in all of this: in New York City, drivers with the Taxi Workers Alliance went on strike in protest of the Muslim ban; dockworkers with ILWU Local 10 shut down Patriot Prayer rallies in San Francisco immediately following Heyer's death; transit workers in Washington, D.C., attempted to disrupt an "alt-right" demonstration a year later and rallied alongside thousands of others when their organizing efforts failed; following the deportation of one of its members, Teamsters Joint Council 16 declared itself a "sanctuary union," joining the Chicago Teachers Union, the American Federation of Teachers, and the National Union of Healthcare Workers. An iconic image emerged from Occupy ICE Portland, in which a white, bearded IBEW Local 48 electrical worker in his hard hat stared down a line of Homeland Security cops in riot gear; elsewhere, a union carpenter tried to convince ICE agents to quit their jobs by offering them a spot in the union. Last August, ironworkers invoked women's rights, black rights, and trans rights as they chanted, "Same struggle, same fight, workers of the world unite," even as police ordered protestors, who had mobilized against the Proud Boys, to disperse.
Recent victories notwithstanding, both the antifascist and labor movements in the United States find themselves reacting to the far right's agenda rather than being able to set their own; consequently, frustration and disappointment abound. "When fascists have a parade, even if there are a dozen or 20 folks out there, they're on the offensive in regards to the battle of ideas," Caraway told me. "They're on the offensive because they're out promoting a vision that they have for how things should be, how the world and this country should work. At antifascist demonstrations, we're out in defensive postures. We're saying 'No, we don't want this to be here and we don't even want you out parading like this.'" The fascists decide they're going to show up; antifascists organize a response; sometimes there's a clash and police keep the sides separate—usually by cracking down on the antifascists—and the process repeats itself.
"We get caught up in the same thing in the labor movement. We're steadily on the defensive," Caraway said. Fighting the same fight over and over again is not a sustainable proposition, however. "Folks get burned out and they get frustrated," he continued. "I think what both movements need a little bit more of is going on the offensive, as much as possible working together, going out and instead of always combating folks—and fascists need to be combated—but instead of always doing that, or waiting around to do that, share our own vision for how the world should work and how this country should work, share our own vision for what a regular worker's life should be like, what kind of rights, what guarantees, all these things."
Antifascist and antiracist organizers in today's labor movement regale each other with stories of the militancy of old: how the Wobblies ran the KKK out of Greenville, Maine, in 1924, telling the Portland Press Herald, "We are going to stick… and if the Klan starts anything, the I.W.W. will finish it"; how the Klan murdered union organizers and workers across the American south and how black sharecroppers in Depression-era Alabama, organizing with the Communist Party USA—which identified lynching as a weapon of not only racial but also class warfare—fought back; and how communist labor organizers and workers gave their lives standing up to neo-Nazis in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1979.
"All the evidence I have of how the labor movement used to deal with fascist and semi-fascist elements are from things I've read, stories I've heard," Caraway said. "I'm 27 years old, I've been in the labor movement since I was a teenager, but I've never seen really the things I've mentioned, the things we hear about, I've never seen them. But I've always heard that's how things should be."
Over the course of the early 20th century, American capitalists have learned patience: instead of smashing working class institutions the way the Pinkertons, Klan, or Blackshirts had, they have hollowed them out. Red scare tactics and McCarthyism eroded militant unionism generally and anti-racist work specifically, burying the history of organized labor's struggle against white supremacy beneath chauvinistic nationalism and a more accommodating, compromising attitude towards bosses and management. So-called "right-to-work" legislation of the sort legitimated by the Supreme Court in Janus v AFSCME has its roots in a white supremacist, anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, popularized in the 30s and 40s by a lobbyist named Vance Muse, about "Jewish Marxists" threatening to undermine American liberty—and dismantle Jim Crow laws. Southern planters and Northern industrialists alike were happy to support such ideas.
Having won the Janus decision, the forces of capital are opening new fronts in their judicial assault on labor; as Caraway sees it, it is not simply the right to bargain collectively that is at stake. "Fascism spreads more easily in places where there are no unions—or when all the union does is negotiate a contract every 3-4 years," he said. "Folks pay their dues out of their check, maybe some people attend meetings, maybe they don't, but mostly they just do their contract and go home."
"What makes people vulnerable to being influenced by fascism and white supremacy is if they lack a clear identity, or if they feel like they lack a clear identity. Fascists show up and are willing to give them an identity," Caraway continued. "But if you have consistent and active and militant labor organizing on the shop floor, then people don't lack identities. They have an identity: they're a worker. They're part of a class that has been the vanguard of every major movement for social change in the history of the world."
Of course, this is easier said than done. Last year, in an article for Labor Notes, April Sims, political and strategic campaigns director for the Washington State Labor Council, remarked on a national survey conducted by a large public sector union ahead of the Janus decision that found union favorability was highest among African-American workers; it also found that African-American workers would be most likely to leave their union, given the chance. Such a paradox "reinforces the need to be mindful that economic justice is social justice," Sims told me. "If we're not a labor movement that every worker wants to be a part of, we're failing."
In 2015, following a slew of police killings, union leaders in Washington state began reaching out to black community groups and asking how organized labor could better participate in the struggle for racial justice. Lynne Dodson, Secretary Treasurer of the WSLC—which includes some 500 locals and affiliates comprising half a million workers—told me that the response was "pretty humbling."
"We were told to look inside," Dodson said, "at leadership that was pretty white, and pretty male." That summer, delegates to the WSLC's statewide convention unanimously passed a resolution prioritizing an interrogation of institutional racism in the labor movement; the necessity of such an interrogation was underscored just weeks later when Black Lives Matter demonstrators disrupted a union-organized Sanders campaign rally one day before the anniversary of Michael Brown's death. The crowd responded with ambivalence and, in some cases, outright hostility. "Washington state is very diverse—ideologically, geographically, and demographically," Sims told me. "But the streets are not paved with progressive gold."
Nor is the history of the American labor movement one of unalloyed commitment to universal liberation. In the late 1800s, Samuel Gompers's AFL supported American imperialism abroad and the immigration restrictions which continue to shape nativist politics today; nearly a century later, the Teamsters broke United Farm Workers' strikes on behalf of farm owners. "The failure of the labor movement to become a civil rights movement," Mike Davis argues in Prisoners of the American Dream, "was the Achilles heel of American unionism."
Thus, Sims, Caraway, and labor organizers around the country have undertaken an enormous task: educating white workers in the United States on the history, structure, and mechanics of racism. "We have a more bold and militant stance when it comes to fascists and white supremacists that are organized outside the labor movement," Caraway told me. "But when it comes to our members who maybe they just have some bad ideas or they heard the wrong thing, it's not as bold. It's not as militant. We're not knocking out our own members if they say something dumb, or if they say Donald Trump has a point about something."
Now the Central Labor Council in Sioux Falls even has an International Solidarity Committee, comprised primarily of African and South American immigrants and refugees. "Their goal is twofold: number one, to educate incoming immigrants and refugees on their rights as workers and organize them into unions, and, two, to educate the American-born union members on labor issues going on around the world," Caraway said. Members are invited to participate in political and cultural education sessions on the history of racism, how to recognize right-wing, anti-worker talking points, and the like. "We've had a couple times when some folks get too uncomfortable, get up, and walk out," he said. "But they always come back after 15-20 minutes."
In themselves, unions are not a solution to white supremacy and fascism, but a weapon in the fight against them. Their efficacy is contingent on how they're used, who their members and organizers decide they're for, and precisely how much solidarity—that lodestar of the labor movement—demands. "There's nothing about this that's comfortable or easy," Sims said. "If there were, we'd have done it a long time ago."
Brendan O'Connor is a freelance journalist, a rank-and-file member of WGA East, and a member of the Strikewave cooperative. His views are his own.