Labor, the Left, and the After-Bern


Bob Master talks with Joseph M. Schwartz 

Bob Master is legislative and political director of District One of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and special adviser to the CWA national president on national politics. He also serves as co-chair of the New York State Working Families Party. At 700,000 members, CWA was the largest international union to endorse Senator Bernie Sanders for president in the Democratic presidential primary. Master played a leading role in defining CWA’s electoral strategy and is a leader in discussions among labor, electoral, and community activists as to how to build out of the Sanders campaign a long-term, more multiracial left trend in mainstream U.S. politics. DSA Vice-Chair Joseph Schwartz interviewed Master shortly after he addressed DSA’s Socialist Caucus (attended by more than 300 people, including more than 100 Sanders delegates) at the Democratic National Convention in July.

JS: How would you summarize the gains for the left and U.S. politics from the Sanders campaign?

RM: Bernie Sanders took the sweeping social, political, and especially economic critique that emerged from Occupy Wall Street in 2011; injected it into mainstream political discourse; and demonstrated that the hunger for transformative change extends far beyond a scruffy band of mostly white, mostly college-educated millennials burdened by a crushing load of student debt. He called the question on nearly four decades of neoliberal assault on working people, and a clear verdict was returned—the country needs a new direction—even “a political revolution.” If we build on the achievements of the Sanders campaign—and the critical gains of social movements like Black Lives Matter and the Dreamers in recent years—the potential for significant social progress may be greater than at any time in decades.

A few caveats. First, Sanders failed to build a sufficiently multiracial coalition, which is requisite to building a movement powerful enough to achieve the sweeping transformation to which the campaign aspired. The next phase of the movement must make racial and gender justice central to its agenda. Second, the meaning of the phrase “political revolution,” while stirring to millions, is also potentially disorienting to the left. The idea of revolution connotes sudden, radical, sweeping change—a rapid, fundamental restructuring of government and politics. But the actual meaning of Sanders’s political revolution is surely less the storming of the Winter Palace—or even the mass popular uprisings that erupted across Eastern Europe in 1989 or the Middle East in 2011—than it is 1866-1870, 1933-38 or 1964-66 in the halls of Congress. Those were moments of profound legal, social, and economic non-revolutionary change within the system. And the advances achieved in those remarkable moments required huge governing majorities as well as mass movements capable of bringing irresistible pressure to bear on legislators. Talk of “revolution” runs the risk of creating impatience or overreach, and our movement needs to understand that we’ve got a huge amount of work to do—both at the ballot box and in the streets—to create the conditions for the kind of change envisioned by the Sanders movement.

JS: Now that Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, what approach to the 2016 elections, including the presidential, do you think the left should adopt?

RM: I am 100% clear that the main task for labor and the left between now and November 8 is to defeat Donald Trump, who is the most dangerous figure in mainstream American politics since George Wallace. A Trump victory would not only put an unqualified, know-nothing, narcissistic, authoritarian jerk in the White House, it would empower and invigorate the most malign tendencies in U.S. society. It would close off space for social reform and put us on defense for four years. Not to mention what it would do to the Supreme Court. In contrast, the election of Hillary Clinton, while no panacea, will enable us to build on the electoral and social-movement gains that have taken place since 2011 and keep building pressure for more fundamental change. This is truly a no-brainer.

At the same time, we need to be laying the groundwork now for the movement-building work that will be necessary to pressure a new Democratic administration on issues like reining in Wall Street, creating a health care public option, ending mass incarceration, criminal justice reform, restoration of the Voting Rights Act, and citizenship for 11 million undocumented U.S. residents. None of this will happen without mass pressure and electoral mobilization, and we need to start planning for that even as we mobilize to defeat Trump.

JS: How can a post-Bernie progressive political trend best be built?

RM: I am a proponent of the “Inside-Outside Strategy” articulated by Dan Cantor, Working Families Party national director, and Jodeen Olguín-Taylor, vice president of Demos Action, in the Nation magazine’s August symposium on “How to Build the Political Revolution.” Cantor and Olguín-Taylor advocate mounting a handful of ambitious national issue campaigns—taxing Wall Street to fund free public higher education, getting Big Money out of politics, restoring the Voting Rights Act are possibilities—at the scale of the 2009-2010 Health Care for America Now campaign in support of the Affordable Care Act. In this vision, a broad coalition of community, labor, netroots, racial justice, youth, immigrant, and labor organizations, including whatever new formations might emerge from the Bernie 2016 campaign, would come together around an agenda designed to sustain and advance the issues that drove the excitement of the Sanders campaign. We would work with progressive allies in Congress to make 2018 a referendum on racial and economic justice in the same way that the Tea Party made 2010 a referendum on socialized medicine, big government, and the first black president. The challenge is to nationalize an anticorporate, antiracist agenda.

JS: Labor is always a key part of any progressive movement. What hopeful signs do you see for a revival of the U.S. labor movement and what are the main barriers to that revival?

RM:The past 30 years have been among the most challenging in the history of the U.S. labor movement. I do not see any magic bullets for revival. But I share the analysis put forward by historians such as Nelson Lichtenstein and Steve Fraser, who have argued that the key to working-class upsurge is not primarily new organizing techniques or strategies but ideological shifts that seed the soil for working people to reconceptualize their role in society. As Lichtenstein has written, “Trade unionism requires a compelling set of ideas and institutions, both self-made and governmental, to give labor’s cause power and legitimacy.” The Sanders campaign, with its emphasis on fighting inequality and building greater working-class political power, has been very important in that regard. I think the social movements that have gripped the nation since 2011 also contribute to an environment in which increased working-class mobilization is possible. The “Fight for $15 and a Union” has re-introduced the relevance of unions to millions of Americans who knew almost nothing about unionism or picket lines, and SEIU (Service Employees International Union) deserves enormous credit for its commitment to this campaign. And I am encouraged by polling that shows that young people are decidedly more pro-union than older Americans, something we see reflected in a spurt of organizing among workers at digital media outlets such as the Guardian online and Al-Jazeera, where CWA overwhelmingly won union elections last year. All of these are positive signs, but the legal system remains stacked in favor of employers, and a climate of fear still pervades most organizing efforts. If progressive social and economic movements continue to grow, there is reason to hope that they will spread to workplaces as well.

JS: Your own political origins come out of the mid-late 1970s student labor solidarity movement and the New American Movement (one of DSA’s predecessor organizations). So your own politics has socialist roots. But for the past 30 years you’ve not publicly identified as a socialist. Yet in your New Labor Forum article (“Bernie Sanders, Labor, Ideology, and the Future of American Politics,” June 12, 2016) you argue that the revival of a socialist presence in U.S. politics is necessary for imagining radical alternatives to the status quo. Why might this be the moment to rebuild a strong socialist presence in mainstream progressive politics?

RM: I didn’t publicly identify as a socialist, but I did privately. Inside the labor movement, the Sanders campaign made it much easier to “come out,” so to speak, as a socialist. In fact, openness to more radical ideas among working people has grown enormously since the 2008 crash and especially since Occupy Wall Street. I have always felt that there was a need for a socialist current within the labor movement, because socialists bring a particular analysis and a particular energy to the work, which is often missing otherwise. It is an analysis that emphasizes the systemic nature of the problems we face and the fundamental opposition of class interests in society. It is hard to make sense of the crisis in which we find ourselves without understanding these underlying dynamics. I’m not sure whether socialism exists as the description of an actual alternative organization of society or as a compelling critique of the failures of capitalism, but I am sure that socialism provides the language to express our moral and practical outrage at the vicious brutalities of the current system. It gives us the language to imagine a more humane and just alternative society. And socialist organization is essential to accomplish these aims. I can’t put it better than Steve Fraser did in a recent article he wrote about the importance of the Sanders campaign in an online publication called the Brooklyn Rail:

Politics is always about something more than program. It is a deeply emotional arena, full of fears, prohibitions, stigmata, dreams, exaltations, utopias and dystopias, about empathy and solidarity, domination and acquiescence (along with the meat and potatoes). The Sanders campaign (together with its helpmates outside the electoral world) has made it possible again to say the unsayable, to break taboos, to reverse generations of linguistic cleansing and impoverishment of the imagination, to call the system by its right name. That is its liberation, its opening to a future.

That’s something to celebrate this Labor Day.

This article originally appeared in the Labor Day 2016 issue of the Democratic Left magazine.

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