Last week, the women’s movement succeeded in its goal of re-igniting progressive mobilization. Beyond the obvious, and rather empty critiques of the march, the massive size of the turnout shows that there is a lot of room for progressive organizing to happen. This week also saw the quick responses to Trump’s racist refugee laws.
Much has been made by the press of the “spontaneity” of these events. Presumably, it was an attempt to try to give a grassroots credibility to a mass movement of progressive women who question the idea they have too many rights. Although, one might question why the liberal media think such a massive movement needs extra credibility?
However, the truth is that spontaneity needs a foundation – both in concrete resource terms, but also in a base level of consciousness.
The issue with the framing being provided by the press is that many who are watching from the sidelines tend to think that these kinds of mass movements are organized without institutional support. They are lead to believe that somehow mass organizing actually happens organically and spontaneously – perhaps through social media. Unsurprisingly, this analysis questions the necessity of belonging to “old” structures like unions, political parties, campaign committees of faith groups or identity-based associations.
The reinforcement of this Utopian liberal attitude by the press undermines the real-world historical movements driving progressive change. Democracy requires masses of people agreeing on a direction to go and moving in unison, it is not a random walk of individuals acting alone.
While it is true that ideas come from individuals, and unaffiliated individuals will show-up to protests and rallies, what gives the movement weight are the institutions that pool resources from many like-minded people. Historically, those institutions of the left are the unions and social justice organizations. The same is the case for the mass rallies happening around the world today. They were organized by independent groups of women, but the knowledge and teeth of a march – with its marshals, megaphones, buttons, stickers, swag, sound systems, permits, liaisons, and buses – come from their institutions. And, this is the real reason the right-wing’s first targets are unions and their resources.
It is why the oncoming collapse of the US labour movement’s institutions is a real tragedy. The AFL-CIO unions have announced that, in response to the expansion of so-called Right-To-Work legislation at the state level and the attack on union members at the national level, they will be drastically scaling-down budgets. In some cases laying-off staff and selling property. SEIU has already publicly announced these cuts, but more announcements are on their way.
Just at a time when the left’s institutions need to be strong and support on-the-ground organizing, they seem to be disappearing. It is not a coincidence.
Unions are democratic organizations. They provide space for working people to engage and debate important issues. The majority of those issues have to do with the economics of working people – not surprising for a class whose existence is dependent on work. In the US, unions are what fund movements that promote working-class interests inside and outside of work – specifically because they are funded, as they must be, only by those whose interest they fight for.
Many workers see their unions as an insurance policy against bad bosses and market capitalism’s precariousness. You join and pay “unions” because you need them there, not every day, but when things go wrong. This is a simplistic view, of course. Unions are the vehicle to democratize workplaces, not just when things go wrong, but every day.
Now, this is not to say that unions started or even lead these mass movements we see mobilizing today. In most case they do not. However, these movements cannot usually become politically and historically important without union support. The reason for this should be obvious, but the liberal media do not like reminding people of this as it undermines the fantasy of individual action.
There is a natural connection between fighting for work and broader issues of social and economic politics. It is this natural connection that gives unions their conscious-raising quality. No one can come out of a union meeting filled with broad-based discussions without having an opinion – often different than the one they had entering the meeting.
That right wing’s attack on unions is based on this analysis. Like many of the attacks from the far-right, their disingenuous narrative is wrapped in the language of individualist rights – all the while forgetting to tell people they can only be “individuals” if there is a group to which they belong.
The “far-right” is really just the politics of division. The liberal press call it “populism”, but in reality it is the opposite of that. Trump is an expression of power of the elite social minority. In many ways, in the US and other countries where the far-right has won, we are witnessing the replacement of the liberal elite minority with the other historically elite minority: those who are unconstrained in their use of social aggression and violence.
It is the only way an elitist movement can come to power. Indeed, the far-right share this fundamental characteristic with the liberal elite with which they battle for power.
In this context it is easier to understand why the far-right are anti-union. The structures that the union provides for debate undermine the power of social aggression and violence. Indeed, all are considered equal on the floor of a progressive union hall – one need only listen to the membership oath or listen to the equality statement that opens union meetings.
The ideology of socialism is based on the understanding that there is strength in unity and solidarity across groups of minorities – of which everyone is a member in one way or another. Socialists know the power of unity, solidarity, and struggle to expand those ideals. Through the growth of the labour movement, lasting conditions for progressive change can be realized.
It is for this reason that socialists are the ones who will be leading the battle against the rise of the far-right. And, while moments of spontaneous mass mobilization against Trump will arise, the capacity, infrastructure, and people power that makes those mobilizations politically relevant will be through unions as well as local and municipal political party formations.
Socialists must re-establish organizing institutions and start from the ground up. It is a call to action not to defend, but to build.