We Need More of Bernie's Spirit in Our Unions

Senator Bernie Sanders received the endorsement of the United Electrical Workers at their 2019 convention. Photo: Alan Hart/UE.

There’s only one living member of Congress who’s ever been invited to speak at a Labor Notes Conference (or for that matter, subscribed to this magazine), and he’s currently leading the polls for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Then-Congressman Bernie Sanders opened the 1993 Labor Notes Conference with his proposed “Workers’ Bill of Rights” to raise the minimum wage, shorten working hours with no loss in pay, divert military spending to create civilian jobs, facilitate union organizing, and create a single-payer health care system.

Sanders has been hammering home the same message for a half-century: wealth is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a small group of billionaires, while life for workers gets tougher.

This message has a long history in labor. “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common” is how the Industrial Workers of the World put it in the 1905 preamble to their constitution. That document was signed by Sanders’s hero, railroad union leader and socialist Eugene Debs.

But while Bernie kept playing this theme, too many labor leaders abandoned or never held this conviction. They chased “innovative” ways to collaborate with management, or to do anything except build a movement rooted in worker power.

By promoting “partnership” with the boss, embracing merit pay, or painting union membership as a consumer product that “adds value,” they accepted the role of management’s junior partner. Now some are hinting they would even back a billionaire for president.

RADICAL FRONTRUNNER

It’s been thrilling to watch as Bernie’s message gains momentum. His millions of supporters include unions of Los Angeles teachers, New Hampshire public employees, Texas hotel workers, and Iowa meatpackers, not to mention the youth-led climate activist Sunrise Movement and the criminal justice group Dream Defenders. Even those in labor who back other candidates have to acknowledge that Sanders's pro-worker campaign has elevated union issues.

Throughout his career, Sanders advanced because he was willing to challenge the establishment, which always dismissed him (like Trump says, “Crazy Bernie”). As an independent he got elected as a mayor, then a member of Congress, then a senator.

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He wasn’t always successful. He spent the ’70s getting 2 percent of the vote as the Liberty Union candidate for Senate. But he never abandoned his convictions.

BE LIKE BERNIE

Consistency. Weathering storms without compromising our principles. Sticking around for the long haul. We need more of that spirit in our unions. We’re not going to rebuild the labor movement without it.

Union activists should draw inspiration from Bernie’s challenge to the establishment. In many cases, we have to do the same thing inside our own unions.

Maybe you’ve been told: “Wait your turn—someone else is entitled to that leadership position.” Or: “Stay in your lane—the smartest people have a plan figured out.” Or: “We have to play it safe—we can’t take risks.”

But the labor movement was built because people took risks. The rank and file may have a better plan than headquarters does. And the leader your union needs might not be the heir apparent.

No matter who your choice for president is, I’m looking forward to seeing you at the Labor Notes Conference—along with thousands of other activists who are organizing necessary revolutions inside their unions.

“Slingshot” is an opinion column where Labor Notes staffers take aim at issues of the day. As a 501(c)3 organization, Labor Notes does not endorse candidates for political office. We welcome alternative viewpoints. Write to editors[at]labornotes[dot]org.