Labor Under Fire

a review by Bob Roman

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Labor Under Fire: A History of the AFL-CIO Since 1979 by Timothy J. Minchin. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2017. 414 pages $39.95

There’s a major problem with the subject of this book and Timothy Minchin runs slam bang into it: The topic is too damned big for a book of a mere 414 pages. Oh yes, Minchin does try to narrow the topic, pointing out and so excluding bodies of other work that deal with various historical aspects, such as the AFL-CIO’s foreign policy, and many of the externalities that affect organizing. In fact, Minchin himself has written extensively about Labor’s campaigns to organize in the South. Even so, he still ends up beginning this account not in 1979 but at the beginning, at the 1955 merger of the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations. And sensibly so as it is impossible to discuss the organization’s history post-Meany without some idea how its origins set the stage for that subsequent history.

But what promises to be a history of the AFL-CIO ends up with a primary focus on the leaders of the labor federation: George Meany, Lane Kirkland, Thomas Donahue, John Sweeney and Richard Trumka. Maybe there’s no other way to compress the subject into the space available, but it’s a limited window on to a very big subject.

History’s judgement on the AFL-CIO leadership is one Minchin’s main interests anyway. He feels that the labor federation’s presidents have gotten something of an unfair reputation as being backward looking and unreceptive to new strategies, particularly in the case of Lane Kirkland. He makes an good case for it. Unfortunately the main reason so many scholars and historians have it in for union leadership is that those leaders make such convenient stones upon which ideological axes can be sharpened. Under those circumstances, counterfactuals drift like ticker tape and no broom will contain them. Nonetheless, Minchin brings considerable research to this account, including numerous interviews with the players and access to the AFL-CIO’s own archives.

As the title, Labor Under Fire, implies, the book intends to be a history of the AFL-CIO’s attempts to deal with the labor movement’s decline. The second half of the Twentieth Century has not been kind to unions anywhere in the world; the United States is not unique in seeing a decline in membership and in union density. Here in the States, Minchin feels there were two especially rough patches: the Ronald Reagan administration / PATCO strike and the George W. Bush administration / 9-11 attacks.

The PATCO air traffic controllers’ strike has long been identified as a turning point in U.S. labor history, but Minchin’s account provided me with useful context. The Reagan administration was something almost unprecedented in Twentieth Century politics: The near total exclusion of organized labor from any contact with the White House, at least at the beginning of the Reagan Administration. As far as the Reaganistas were concerned, unions had nothing to say that they were at all interested in even pretending to hear. This, as much as any of the details of the strike itself and Lane Kirkland’s responses to it, is important.

Likewise, the turn of the millennium found an optimistic Labor movement in the process of building powerful coalitions outside the union movement. The infamous attacks on 9-11 in 2001 took place during the presidency of George W. Bush, an administration every bit as hostile to unions as the Reagan Administration. A malevolent Federal government and a public stampeded by fear and war is not an advantageous environment for organizing or for progressive public policy.

With respect to the Reagan administration, unions took a while to figure out that they were dealing with something new. They were not unique. In 1981, Chicago DSA (DSOC/NAM) was a part of the Illinois Coalition Against Reagan Economics and we found that part of our task was convincing liberals and unions they were facing an existential threat. It took a while. It took years for some liberals.

In comparison, unions did respond and relatively quickly. One of the AFL-CIO’s responses under Kirkland was the September, 1981, Solidarity Day march on Washington. Minchin goes for the reasonably conservative crowd size estimate of 400,000, but it may have been twice that. (I was there.) The march also wasn’t a one-off event but was followed by a series of similarly branded local events including, ultimately, a tenth anniversary march on Washington in 1991. Minchin reports that the original 1981 event did make the political atmosphere in Congress more favorable to union priorities yet it certainly did not halt the erosion of union organizations. At best (it seems to me, as Minchin doesn’t argue this) Solidarity Day made conservatives a bit more cautious about directly confronting the union movement… until George W. Bush.

This speaks to a problem I had with the book generally. Minchin describes any number of interesting and innovative AFL-CIO responses to the crisis in union organization. Sometimes he will judge the initiative to be successful (for example the Strategic Approaches Committee established in 1989), but there’s never enough information to allow the reader to come to their own conclusion. I strongly suspect most unions, including the AFL-CIO federation, are not strong on metrics with which to judge political and educational projects. This allows leaders and staff to make their own, sometimes self-serving judgements. For example, how many of the “follow-ups” to the Solidarity Day march were simply rebrandings of activities local unions were going to do anyway? I remember a follow-up rally here in Chicago that was attended by dozens — hardly a turnout to encourage Labor’s friends or to worry Labor’s enemies. My prejudice (and unfortunately nothing in the book argues against this) is: If a union program does not contribute immediately to that union’s ability to serve and expand its membership then that program is optional and expendable, even if it might pay off in the long run. Marxists may regard that as a symptom of false consciousness, but unions survive, sorta, and marxists not so much.

Minchin ends his account just before the end of the Obama administration. I don’t feel he deals with the AFL-CIO in the Twenty-First Century in as much detail as he does its history in the Twentieth nor with John Sweeney and Richard Trumka as much as he does with Lane Kirkland. This may be prejudice on my part; I’m not so much interested in bettering Kirkland’s place in history. Or it may be how material was triaged for space.

As a small example, Minchin does not mention that John Sweeney was a member of my organization, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), but he does mention that Lane Kirkland was not a member of the old Social Democrats USA (SDUSA). SDUSA membership is an odd sort of issue to simply mention in passing; very few people have even heard of SDUSA. Thus it seems to me to be a truncated thread in Minchin’s narrative. Street gossip in 1995 was that Sweeney had joined DSA specifically to irritate Kirkland and his supporters; SDUSA and DSA, for many years, did not much get along: If you were known as a DSA member (aka “a friend of Harrington”), you’d have no luck being hired at the AFL-CIO HQ. Kirkland also did his best to sabotage Michael Harrington’s “Eurosocialism in America” conference held in Washington in the early 1980s. Until 1989, Kirkland’s assistant was Tom Kahn, a leading member of SDUSA. While one of Kahn’s main tasks, even in the early 1980s, was foreign policy (one of Kirkland’s pet priorities), it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Kahn was one of the early promoters of the 1981 Solidarity Day march idea within the AFL-CIO. Kahn had been deeply involved in organizing the 1963 March on Washington so for all that I know, Solidarity Day may even have been Kahn’s idea. There is a story to tell but arguably tangential to the main narrative and the SDUSA observation looks like a stub that may have been intended to lead toward it.

A maybe more important thing that Minchin does not deal with at all is the role of contract negotiations in forming the political culture within unions. Full disclosure: I am not now nor have I ever been a member of a union. (My Dad, however, was a member of NAGE, currently a part of SEIU.) That’s the way it is here in the States. But as a member and (for a time) a leader in Chicago DSA, I’ve spent a good bit of time with union staff and officials. The war stories unionists share focus on the adversarial and transactional process of bargaining, whether for a formal contract or for an individual grievance or even for candidates for public office. It seems to me that this experience has informed much of their behavior with respect to other organizations, other unions, and even other players within their own union. In some circumstances, this confrontational behavior and game playing is productive but other times not so much — it can be a handicap. It may very well be a partial explanation of why some of Labor’s efforts have yielded less than optimal harvests. But this criticism speaks more to my questions about labor history generally than it does regarding what Minchin intended to accomplish in this book.

So is Labor Under Fire a significant contribution to the historiography of Labor in the United States? Go ask someone else; I’m not an academic. Yeah, that’s a cop-out answer. But here is what I’m comfortable saying. If Timothy Minchin wanted to set the record a bit straighter for Kirkland, he makes a good but probably futile argument. On the other hand, for most people with a layman’s interest in the union movement, this is a useful introduction to the AFL-CIO’s history even if the focus ends up on the top leadership. In particular, I think it is useful in illustrating the nature of the AFL-CIO as a federation of independent unions. During the Meany years and during much of the Kirkland years, this awareness of being a federation was as much a part of the organization’s ideology as it was a political fact. It informed what Kirkland was willing to undertake and had a similarly big impact on the success and failure of various programs in the Sweeney years. You might nod your head when told that the AFL-CIO is not a union but a federation of unions, but Minchin’s account makes it real. In a federation, “solidarity” is often only the title to a song no one remembers the lyrics to.

For people with an interest in unions, it’s certainly worth your time to read and, depending upon your wallet, your money too.

A Small Battle in a Larger War

Originally published in New Ground 159, March — April, 2015.

Mujica Money

by Bob Roman

The usual practice for lefties defeated in electoral politics is to claim victory, victory in the sense of having spread the word, victory in the sense of building an organization, victory in the sense of whatever plausible argument comes to hand. In the case of Jorge Mujica’s campaign for 25th Ward Alderman, we can safely assert it was a successful proof of concept: The “socialist” label, in some neighborhoods, is not a handicap even if it is not an asset. Begging your pardon but I’ve been saying as much for years. Through our participation, Chicago DSA did earn a reputation as an organization that delivers on its commitments. But the campaign intended to establish a socialist presence in Chicago government and that requires victory.

Chicago's 25th Ward, 2015
Chicago’s 25th Ward: Darker Areas = Greater % Votes for Mujica. Graphic by Roman

Chicago’s 25th Ward is a gerrymandered district that was drawn for the benefit of the incumbent, Danny Solis. Solis is an erstwhile community organizer of the Alinsky school gone over to the dark side. The ward is located just southwest of Chicago’s downtown, forming an upside down “U” wrapped around the University of Illinois at Chicago campus. The west wing includes parts of the largely Mexican Pilsen neighborhood. The apogee includes parts of Chicago’s well-to-do, professional near west side then swoops down through the Union Station rail yards to include much of the south side’s Chinatown. The previous ward boundaries made a district heavily Latino. The current ward has a bare majority of Latinos, Mexican mostly, with some Puerto Ricans and other Latino nationalities.

The ward ended up with three other candidates in addition to Solis and Mujica. Roberto Montano is a businessman and, in the past, Solis’ Chief of Staff. It’s hard to say why he was running though it may have had something to do with Mayoral candidate Willie Wilson. Byron Sigcho was the other credible left of center candidate. An immigrant from Ecuador, a doctoral candidate in Education at UIC and very much a student politician, he had done some significant research into charter schools. Sigcho had the endorsement of Reclaim Chicago, the electoral coalition backed by National Nurses United. And finally there was Ed Hershey, a member of a small obscure Trotskyist sect. Was that redundant? In any case, Hershey seemed to feel the campaign needed a real socialist.

Mujica’s campaign grew out of the Chicago Socialist Campaign (CSC). The CSC was organized in response to Kshama Sawant’s victory as a socialist in Seattle. Initially there was interest from several possible candidates for alderman. Ultimately, three ran for office. One won. Only Jorge Mujica decided to run as a socialist.

Meetings of the CSC sometimes were as large as a hundred people, many of whom were not members of any socialist organization. Unfortunately this did not translate into election workers. Those who did volunteer were often totally without experience in election campaigns and most did not live in the district. It’s easy to be snide about this, and people have commented about leftists who like to sit and complain about Democrats. But Mujica pointed out that the CSC drew people from across the city. If he had been running for a citywide office, as Sawant did in Seattle, there would have been opportunities to be involved near at hand for everyone. Instead, there were often important contests closer to home.

And it’s not as if Mujica himself was able to put in the time a campaign requires. He’s not a rich man and had to work most of the campaign season. Otherwise, Mujica himself is reasonably credible as a candidate for city council. He was one of the organizers of Chicago’s huge May Day immigrant rights marches several years ago, and that’s just the most visible of the organizing he’s done. He’s been involved in Mexican electoral politics, and the aldermanic campaign was his second campaign in the U.S. Mujica is a personable fellow with a lively personality, articulate in both Spanish and English, and easy to look at even if he is rather more shaggy than the bourgeois image of an official. Well this is a socialist campaign, yes?

Money was a problem for the campaign. It did have a paid campaign manager. The campaign did manage two bulk mail drops targeted at voters in the Pilsen neighborhood. And the campaign did have a good social media campaign directed at that same constituency. AFSCME Council 31 endorsed Mujica, as did a council of Chicago area CWA locals, bringing some mainstream credibility and money to the campaign. Chicago DSA raised over $1600 in early money and not all of it from DSA members.

The mayoral contest also was a problem for the campaign. The Mujica campaign made no endorsement for Mayor. But many election activists in the ward were committed to working for Jesus Garcia’s campaign for Mayor. An endorsement of Garcia by Mujica might have attracted some of those campaign workers but then again maybe not because it was clear that Garcia’s campaign was not likely to endorse Mujica. The 25th Ward is in the backyard of Bob Fioretti, another a liberal candidate for Mayor, and neutrality left open the possibility of some support from his people. Ultimately though, the CSC, with its commitment to independent electoral politics, mostly felt Garcia was too much of a “Democrat.”

A great deal has been said about voter turnout. It was considerably less than the municipal election four years ago, but it was actually not much different than the municipal elections eight and twelve years ago. The 25th Ward was near the median for this election. The Board of Election did have its thumb on the scale, though. It set up the Ward’s early voting site in Chinatown. Solis escaped a run-off election by only several dozen votes, prompting the Sigcho campaign to file for a recount of several precincts. A few of the items listed in the complaint may have plausibly been voter fraud but most of it sounded like sloppy inattention to procedure. Whatever the case, it made no difference. The official results put Solis at 3811 (51.07%), Sigcho at 1383 (18.53%), Mujica at 907 (12.15%), Montano at 748 (10.02%), and Hershey at 614 (8.23%).

Of the groups participating in the CSC, the International Socialist Organization, Solidarity, and Chicago DSA came through. DSA raised money, provided opposition research, did issues research, provided mailing services, and had a dedicated handful of members who gathered petition signatures, canvassed voters, blitzed precincts, leafleted L stations, and did election day work. I think we could have done better, particularly with recruiting more people to work, but it’s also true that Chicago DSA has no members in the 25th Ward. Will this coalition effort be duplicated in future elections? It would be a good thing if it were, but I’m inclined to be skeptical. Chicago DSA is open to the possibility. We’ll see.

Socialist International Meets

This was originally published in New Ground 144, September — October, 2012.

by Bob Roman

The Socialist International (SI) met in Cape Town, South Africa, August 30 through September 1. This 24th Congress was the first to be held in Africa and the location seems to have attracted some attention and participation that it would not have had otherwise. The meeting was hosted by South Africa’s African National Congress. Over 400 people, representing more than 100 political parties and organizations, participated.

DSA is somewhat incongruously a full member of the SI; the SI is an organization of political parties and DSA is not a political party. DSA was represented at this Congress by Maria Svart, Skip Roberts, Gerry Hudson, and Mark Levinson: a heavily SEIU delegation and, therefore, maybe taken somewhat more seriously than many past DSA delegations. (“There goes the ghost of Michael Harrington.”) Possibly because it is an election year, the National Democratic Institute (an associated organization) was not represented, but then, not many other associated organizations were represented either.

While George Papandreou was re-elected President, there actually was a contested leadership election. Incumbent Secretary General Luis Ayala (Chile) was opposed by Mona Sahlin from Sweden. Ayala was re-elected.

The SI Congress adopted three resolutions.

“The Struggle for Rights and Freedoms” was an examination of the current upsurge in demands for democratic rights. In principle, there’s nothing difficult for the SI about it except that in far too many cases (the former member parties from Egypt and Tunisia, for example) SI parties have been an embarrassing part of the problem.

One might suppose “The Need to Secure Multilateralism” resolution would be aimed at the United States. But there are far too many other countries also willing to take matters into their own hands, and the resolution wisely recognizes this. Given the SI’s inability to enforce anything, it does end up having a well-meaning, hand-wringing affect to it. For example:

“With regard to Syria, the SI is following with deep concern the massacres that take place on a daily basis, as the Assad regime refuses to accept that change is inevitable. We stand firmly on the side of the Syrian people in their fight for democracy and human rights and condemn the brutal actions of the regime. We call for all sides to end hostilities and enter into negotiations without any preconditions. We are not in favour of foreign military intervention, which can lead to further human suffering and instability in the whole region. We strongly support a Syrian-led process of transition to democracy.”

One should not be totally dismissive of this, however, as the SI seems to serve as a diplomatic back channel for “progressive” elements in governments.

The economics resolution calls for a progressive fiscal policy:

“a bank levy or increased income tax on high earners, redistributing wealth from the top to the bottom; the introduction of a Financial Transaction Tax; a new global reserves system that could provide developing countries with access to financing, giving them purchasing power and helping to drive demand by using resources that would otherwise be idle; and by establishing new financial institutions such as development banks and green banks that could create new credit mechanisms, enabling credit to flow once more and provide more liquidity to ensure the resources meet public needs.”

The resolution goes on to condemn austerity as a solution to the fiscal crisis and calls for

“a bold approach based on a new culture of solidarity, solidarity that works separately and simultaneously at different levels: economic, political and social. Otherwise, any government that acts alone risks being crushed by markets and ratings agencies. Common action and creative initiatives are needed to bring about a paradigm shift from the failed austerity policies; that is the only way to a sustained recovery.”

Previous meetings suggest that the SI is evolving in ways that may or may not be encouraging, and the accounts of this meeting suggest the process is slowly ongoing. For more details about the 24th Congress, see http://www.socialistinternational.org .

Post Script: I think this was the last SI meeting at which DSA was represented. The 2017 DSA National Convention voted to terminate DSA’s membership in the organization. In my humble opinion it was a brainlessly symbolic decision, but it does have the advantage of saving several thousand dollars in dues. Since DSA hasn’t had an international political agenda that I know of, this is money wisely not spent.

When the Democratic Party Lost Its Soul

A version of this was originally published in New Ground 132, September — October, 2010.

by Bob Roman

Kennedy vs. Carter: The 1980 Battle for the Democratic Party’s Soul by Timothy Stanley (University of Kansas Press, 2010)

Kennedy vs. Carter is an historical narrative covering 1976 through 1980, a time when liberalism, left-wing radicalism, and labor were in retreat. Its author, Timothy Stanley, is a fresh British historian (Leverhulme Research Fellow at Royal Holloway College, University of London) and a left of center Labour Party activist. Because these years are considered a turning point in American political history, it’s a subject worth reading about. Obama in particular seems vulnerable to comparisons to Jimmy Carter though Marx would probably furiously scribble a two or three page tirade against such superficial foolishness, as he did in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. But DSA members have an additional reason to read Stanley’s book as it’s one of just a few histories of mainstream politics that spends any time discussing the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC), a predecessor to DSA.

Stanley is very much a traditional historian, for whom the past is a foreign country and for whom history is as much story telling as social science. This makes for a very readable text with a wealth of details, each contributing to the narrative. If you lived through the Carter Administration, you’ll find much to be reminded of but also some that’s new. If you are too young for that, you’ll learn much about the period, though the book’s focus is pretty tight on the years in question and the conflict between Ted Kennedy and Jimmy Carter in particular. Some context will be lacking.

For context, you might pick up Judith Stein’s recent (Yale University Press, 2010) Pivotal Decade. While there is some overlap with Stanley’s work, Stein’s concern is just how the United States economy traded industry for finance. As this had (and has) profound consequences for the union movement, it drives many of the events described in Stanley’s book. Also worth referring to: William Greider’s book on the Federal Reserve, The Secrets of the Temple (Simon and Schuster, 1989) and Michael Harrington’s presentation on the crisis of economic theory (http://www.chicagodsa.org/audarch4.html [deleted]).

Kennedy vs. Carter is a polemical book. The conventional argument concerning this transitional decade is, in Stanley’s words, “that while President Jimmy Carter had been a moderate, decent man, his base had failed to appreciate the changing dynamics of the era. The American public rediscovered its innate conservatism. [I]n an act of extreme and arrogant opportunism, Edward Kennedy agreed to lead [liberals] in an ill-considered, futile charge against the president. His defeat in the 1980 Democratic presidential primaries suggested that liberalism was on the decline even among Democrats.” Stanley hopes to demonstrate that liberalism and the left were still a very potent force during the later 1970s, and that Kennedy was actually a stronger general election candidate than Carter; among other things, despite his liberalism, Kennedy also drew support from conservatives. “The American public in the 1970s,” Stanley writes, “was neither liberal nor conservative, but instead anxious, angry, and desperate for leadership from any direction.”

Stanley supports his argument in detail, including a fair amount of polling data. It’s helpful that Stanley’s “revisionist” version of the late 1970s is largely common sense; he mostly needs to demonstrate Kennedy’s potential strength as a candidate against Reagan and Anderson. I think he does that. It’s more difficult to imagine Kennedy overcoming the advantage that came with Carter’s incumbency to win the Democratic nomination, but the case Stanley makes does serve to demonstrate the strength of liberals and the left in the late 1970s.

The book has a number of weaknesses and problems. In discussing conflicts within what he calls liberalism, Stanley draws a distinction between “older New Deal liberals” and what he refers to as the “New Politics.” He never adequately defines these terms, though he does deal with it briefly in the introduction. Mostly, you are left to pick up what is meant from the context of its usage. New Politics are Democrats who are “liberal” on social, environmental, civil rights, or foreign policy issues, but “conservative” on economic issues, particularly those related to labor. Typically, these are politicians who represent constituencies where the labor movement was weak if not absent: suburban or rural districts, states in the Great Plains, the south, or the Rocky Mountain west.

It also would have been helpful to discuss just where the term “New Politics” came from. I vaguely recall it being in the vocabulary of insults used by George Meany / Max Shachtman social democrats, evoking the disastrous National Conference for New Politics held here in Chicago in 1967 (a big to-do: some 5,000 attended, few left unscathed). You can get a better sense of Stanley’s thinking from an essay he posted at The Utopian about the U.S. Anti-Vietnam War movement: “The Long Haired Conservatives: the Children of ’68 Reconsidered” at http://www.the-utopian.org/2008/05/000026.html [deleted; it can be found (2017) at Attack the System]. There are also relevant references included in the book’s notes, but these are sources inconvenient to the average reader.

While Stanley does use a considerable amount of polling data, this is all integrated into the text. This is where well done tables and graphs could have made his argument much more compelling. The same data could be used to game possible alternate outcomes of a Kennedy – Reagan – Anderson 1980 election, but that would likely have made for a dry and technical book.

Being British, and a lefty, Stanley takes organizations more seriously than most academics and political observers in the United States. Consequently, one gets an account of the doings of not just political leaders but various political organizations as well. Given the multitude of national organizations, Stanley inevitably must be selective. The New Democratic Coalition (a 1970s version of Progressive Democrats of America) ends up with but one mention, in passing, and no listing in the index, for example. So how does DSOC rate several pages?

During the 1960s and 1970s, there was an effort on both the right and the left to “realign” the Republican and Democratic parties so that all the conservatives would be Republican and all the liberals would be Democratic. On the right, William Buckley and the Young Americans for Freedom, among others, led the effort. On the left, getting a later start, there were groups including DSOC and the New Democratic Coalition. Both sides had some reason to believe that a majority of the electorate would be on their side.

Among Democrats, the quest for realignment dated back to the New Deal, but by the 1970s this effort at realignment was conflated with a populism that sought to cut out the middle-man of party organization, making candidates, as much as possible, directly selected by the Democratic Party electorate. And as public officials, they were to have some accountability to that same electorate. The demand for direct selection of candidates led to an accelerated spread of primary elections over conventions and caucuses as a means of selecting candidates, delegates, and party officials. This has facilitated the “realignment” of what we call the Democratic and Republican parties.

On the national level among Democrats, the 1970s effort at accountability led to the establishment of a “mid-term” national convention. The first such convention was held in 1978. It was the only such convention because of the near success of Democratic Agenda, a project of DSOC, at holding Jimmy Carter accountable to the many promises he made to win his nomination by the Democrats in 1976. Democratic Agenda elected, lobbied and organized convention delegates, and came very close to defeating a sitting president on a number of votes. The votes were close enough that Carter’s victories were counted as defeats. An American analyst would have ignored these organizational details and labelled Democratic Agenda as a stalking horse for the Ted Kennedy for President campaign and paid no more attention to Democratic Agenda. Stanley does not.

Democratic Agenda at the 1978 convention gave DSOC a great deal of “street cred” among political professionals. It also is the root of the enduring DSA stereotype: that DSA works exclusively within the Democratic Party. Oh, yes. Carter’s floor manager (thus DSOC’s chief opponent) at the mid-term convention? Hillary Rodham.

Democratic Agenda’s campaign was accomplished on a shoestring by mainstream standards. Democratic Agenda had a yearly budget of about $61,000 (in 2009 dollars, about $217,000) half of which was donated by three unions: the UAW, the Machinists, and AFSCME; a Washington office; one full time director and two part time field staff. Part of the point Stanley is making is that Democratic Agenda was able to accomplish so much with so little because it was sailing with the political wind.

Stanley does get some things wrong. He moves DSOC off the stage with a paragraph that begins dramatically: “an acrimonious internal split tore DSOC apart over primary tactics.” This is story telling. In fact, no such split occurred and the reference he cites does not support it. He is correct, however, that the opening DSOC exploited was closing. The 1978 mid-term convention was the only one the Democrats ever held though a carefully neutered 1982 mid-term “conference” was held in Philadelphia, mostly as a way of gracefully backing out of having such meetings. The 1980 Democratic National Convention was the last convention where delegates actually had much autonomy or anything of consequence to decide. Subsequent conventions became extended TV commercials for the putative nominee. DSOC never came to any consensus regarding what to do in response and the debate about that was indeed sometimes heated. Instead, DSOC began negotiations with the New American Movement to merge, all the while continuing to press the Democratic Agenda lever (later rebranded and repurposed as “Democratic Alternatives”) like some over-trained pigeon in a Skinner Box. Even so, DSOC continued to grow. Stanley notes that membership stood at about 3,000 in 1979. That year the organization set a goal of 5,000 members by 1980, and exceeded it.

Stanley also misattributes the December, 1980, “Eurosocialism and America” conference to Democratic Agenda. The conference brought together political leaders (indeed, future presidents and prime ministers) from Europe and the United States for an extended policy discussion. Some 2,000 people attended, and an unknown number were turned away by the Washington, DC, fire marshal for exceeding the venue’s capacity. The conference was a DSOC project, held under the auspices of the Institute for Democratic Socialism, DSOC’s 501c3 affiliate, and it says so in the reference Stanley cites (Eurosocialism and America, edited by Nancy Lieber, Temple University Press, 1982). The conference, incidentally, seriously irritated AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland and the now defunct Social Democrats USA; the AFL-CIO did its best to sabotage the event while not being too public about it.

These are minor points but worth mentioning because, after all, this is a DSA newsletter.

What I Saw of the 2009 DSA National Convention

Originally published in New Ground 127, November — December, 2009.

by Bob Roman

“Why Evanston?” the reporter for a student newspaper wanted to know. “Because we got a great deal on a union hotel!” I answered with just a bit of asperity. But to answer the spirit of her question, DSA‘s biennial National Convention rotates through the regions of the country. The Midwest was next on the rotation. Chicago is a transportation hub: accessible and cheap to get to. It was Chicago’s turn.

Not that the Chicago Local’s Executive Committee had any great enthusiasm for the idea when it was proposed in 2008. The first answer was no. The last time the Convention was held in Chicago, 1991, we were able to subsidize all 9 of our delegates. In addition to a significant registration fee, each delegate is expected to pay into a travel fund that subsidizes the travel of delegates who journey a great distance. The 1991 subsidy from the Chicago Local amounted to a few thousand dollars. It was already clear in 2008 that we would not be in a position to offer any subsidy to our delegation. If Chicago area members were priced out of attendance, having the Convention here would not do us much good. In the end, the formula was modified somewhat for delegates travelling by public transit.

If 2009 found Chicago DSA in penurious condition, time has not been kind to the national organization, either. In 1991, there were several staff available to work on the event. Today, DSA employs a full time National Director, a part time clerk, and a full time Youth Organizer. (Frank Llewellyn deserves congratulations for juggling the various pieces as well as he did, but inevitably some dishes hit the floor.) Membership is roughly half of what it was shortly after that 1991 convention. And it is hard to say if the political environment is better today or simply very different.

For all that gloom and ambiguity, the 2009 DSA National Convention turned out to be a much better, more optimistic event than the 1991 Convention. Some of this spirit of optimism comes from some long overdue changes to the Convention itself. The typical DSA Convention had been something of an exercise in “resolutionary socialism.” While the delegates would some time on discussing and setting the organization’s priorities, much of the rest of their time would be spent on discussing and amending various organizational statements that, no matter how relevant to the events of the time, would be forgotten sooner than later. This was a considerable amount of work, often shouldered by just a few delegates mostly, and usually not terribly rewarding for the individuals or for the organization.

This Convention marbled decision and discussion with education and skills building. While this practice is not unheard of at DSA Conventions, this particular instance was imported from recent Young Democratic Socialists conferences, and it seemed to work very well.

This Convention included some resolutions: in particular three brief statements on the economy (see sidebar) and a brief statement in condemning the witch-hunt against ACORN. Most of the other resolutionary work was devoted to setting organizational priorities. The drafts of these resolutions are on the DSA web site (www.dsausa.org) and the final versions will be posted soon.

The Thursday evening “pre-convention” sessions were free, open to the public, and brought some attendees from Evanston. The first session was a showing of Never Turning Back , a documentary about a remarkable political artist and resident of Evanston, Peggy Lipschutz. The documentary was shown by its Producer and Director, Jerri Zbiral, and was followed by a question and answer session. The second was a presentation by Northern Illinois University labor historian Rosemary Feurer, who took the opportunity to show a documentary she had co-produced, Mother Jones: America’s Most Dangerous Woman .

The Friday evening outreach forum (a DSA Convention tradition) brought together Interfaith Worker Justice’s Kim Bobo, Black Commentator’s Bill Fletcher, and Washington Post’s Harold Meyerson. All three of these speakers have appeared for DSA in Chicago before, but this was the first time for all three together. The topic was “The Politics of the Economic Crisis: Right Wing Populism or Left Wing Resurgence?” People who make a point of attending DSA events might have considered this line up to be predictable. But each speaker brought a unique perspective and style to a particular aspect of the topic; however different the speeches, they were also complimentary. I couldn’t help but think of Neapolitan ice cream. I can’t do their presentations justice but this was one of the more powerful and informative panels I’ve witnessed at a DSA event. It should be available online soon.

The Saturday evening banquet is also a DSA Convention tradition. This time the speakers were to be Harvard University’s Elaine Bernard and In These Times’ Joel Bleifuss. Unfortunately, Elaine Bernard was suffering an allergenic reaction to medication and was unable to come to Chicago. Much of Joel Bleifuss’ speech was based on an article by William Domhoff that will be appearing in the In These Times January issue. DSA should have the speech online before then.

Delegates also elected a new National Political Committee (NPC). This body functions as DSA’s board of directors and is evenly split between males and females with seats reserved for minorities. Also traditional at DSA Conventions: only the male seats had more candidates (by one) than seats. Only one female seat remains unfilled. No co-chairs were nominated or elected. Five of the fifteen NPC members are from the Young Democratic Socialists (YDS). This pretty much reflects the demographics of DSA membership with a majority of members being either over 55 years old or under 30.

The delegates also elected the honorary chairs and vice chairs of the organization (see sidebar). These are roughly equivalent to the “advisory boards” that many other organizations have, except that the positions are somewhat less anonymous (more a part of the individual’s public biography) than most advisory board memberships. Like the NPC, these positions must be balanced between male and female and have positions reserved for minorities. There are vacancies to be filled by the NPC.

As an experiment, selected sessions of the DSA Convention were streamed live over the web. No one was hoping for a large audience so much as learning how to do it. And the small audience did report problems, so it was very much an exercise in learning.

What I saw of the 2009 DSA National Convention was very positive. The delegates were serious about both their politics and their organization. They were serious about cultivating new and young leadership. And YDS is showing signs of organizational strength, with several of its stronger chapters surviving changes in leadership. Finally, for the first time that I can recall, the majority of delegates also regarded DSA’s finances as a serious political issue. These are seriously good signs for DSA.

But good signs for DSA is not the same thing as good signs for socialism in the U.S.A. Various Trotskyist and communist organizations would have their own reasons for agreeing, but what I mean is this: DSA’s “market penetration” among the population of lefties is shallow enough that we could quadruple our 6,000 members while only somewhat increasing the broader left.

That population of lefties is not huge. As a political movement, socialism (democratic or otherwise) in the U.S. has been dead for many decades, despite sparks and occasional flashes that last a few years before dwindling. As Joel Bleifuss pointed out, the combined circulation of left publications in the U.S. amounts to somewhere between 400,000 and 500,000, making socialism very much a particular interest though larger than miniscule. But the conflicts that fueled the growth of socialism as a political movement in the 19th Century have not gone away.

People have devoted entire careers to investigating American exceptionalism with respect to socialism. (See, for example, New Ground 74: “Lord, Lord, It’s a Bourgeois Town” ) The task for DSA in the short term is not to solve that conundrum but to provide political activists with a means of making sense of the current crisis and the proposed solutions, and to grow with respect to the larger left. This Convention gave me confidence that DSA can reasonably do this.

In the longer term, DSA needs to be able to do the above and to bring home the bacon on national projects. This is an issue for small organizations on a national stage. Doing that, DSA can begin to grow the left and not just itself.

A Meeting of Terrible Lizards!

The Socialist International lumbering toward extinction at its 22nd Congress

Originally published in New Ground 91, November — December, 2003. In the years since, DSA has dropped its membership in the Socialist International (2017). The main rationale for DSA’s membership (and the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee before it) was largely symbolic, as a way of saying that DSA was a legitimate part of mainstream politics, not disqualified from governing by label or ideology. As DSA was never a political party, we really had no other business being a full member. The other reason for membership was to stick it to the Social Democrats USA, the sad and tiny remnant or the Socialist Party of America, who never really forgave Michael Harrington from leaving their organization and then succeeding. The Social Democrats USA left the SI sooner, probably because they could not afford the dues, then went belly-up. The name Social Democrats USA, at least, was rescued from the dust bin of history by some oddly sentimental folks, but it’s mostly a blog site. I believe the International Union of Christian Democrat and Peoples Parties is also defunct.

by Bob Roman

The Socialist International (SI) held its 22nd quadrennial Congress in São Paulo, Brazil, on October 27 through 29. For DSA members, a more detailed, intimate account will probably appear in a future issue of Democratic Left, but here are a few quick observations.

The SI is a political club of national political parties established in 1951. You could regard it as a successor to the early 20th Century Second International of socialist parties, a sort of Second International version 3, perhaps. At about 170 members, it’s the largest of several similar international clubs, there being one for most parts of the political spectrum.

The mainstream press accounts (Associated Press, mostly) emphasized the national leaders (such as Tony Blair) who were scheduled to attend the Congress but cancelled. The implication being that the SI Congress was simply not worth their while (a meeting of “dinosaurs”) though coincidence as a possibility was conceded.

In fact, it was the São Paulo location that was probably the most significant news. If anything remains in the SI of the late Willy Brandt’s idealism, it is a continuing interest in expanding the base of the club beyond SI’s industrial and European roots. The Congress was hosted by Lula’s Workers Party, which is not a member of the SI but is being actively wooed to join (the present Brazilian member is the Democratic Workers Party). And this Congress was the occasion of one of the larger expansions in SI membership: 18 parties admitted to Full membership and 20 parties given Consultative status, Latin America, Africa and Eastern Europe predominating. It was probably a disappointment that Lula’s Workers Party did not take the occasion to at least apply for membership, but that question is still on the Workers Party agenda.

Most of the new Full membership parties previously held Consultative membership, an example being one of the bigger disappointments on the list, Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). One party directly admitted to Full membership is Bulgaria’s old Communist Party, now known as the Bulgarian Socialist Party. And for the delight of all those American devotees of paranoia and conspiracy, the Democratic Party’s non-profit foreign policy foundation, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI), has joined the SI as an Associated Organization.

For the confusion of the paranoid, the NDI has a similar membership status with the Liberal International. The Republican Party is a full member of the International Democrat Union. Dual memberships are not typical but not unusual. For example, Germany’s conservative party, the Christian Democrats, is a member of both the International Democrat Union and the International Union of Christian Democrat and Peoples Parties.

The Greens are organized somewhat less formally in a Global Green network. There are probably several Trotskyist internationals.

For the SI in particular, it’s not unusual for more than one party in a country to be members of the international. In the Mexico, both the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) and the PRI are members. In the United States, both DSA and Social Democrats USA are Full members in addition to Associated Organization membership of the NDI.

The expansion of the SI membership does appear to be having an effect on the organization’s culture. Traditionally, the SI has expressed a consensus of its members, an agreement that is reached before anything comes to a formal vote. At this Congress, some of the disagreements made it to the floor, mostly at the initiative of some of the Latin American parties. Specifically, a resolution demanding immediate U.S. withdrawal from Iraq was proposed but defeated. And Tony Blair’s election as a Vice-President of the SI was opposed. He was elected.

Obviously the SI has a ways to go for it to be a more congenial place for the likes of DSA and perhaps for Brazil’s Workers Party.

For more information about the 22nd SI Congress, click here.

What I Saw of the 2018 Women’s March

in Chicago’s Grant Park

Click on any of the photos above for a larger view.

Despite the beautiful weather, this year’s march was smaller than last year’s event. It may have been at most half the size, but that is still a sizeable event; last year was a monster.

Chicago DSA brought a few dozen to the march this year: more than last year.

Despite a considerable investment in stage, sound and TV, most of the program was inaccessible to attendees. It was carried live by Chicago’s community access cable network, so you may be able to pick up the archived recording at CANTV eventually.

Post script:

The organizers of the march are claiming that the turnout was larger than 2017. Maybe it was. Crowd sizes are always difficult to numerate. Plus, are you counting everyone who participated or just the maximum crowd size? But here is what I observed:

  1. In 2017, the Red Line CTA trains southbound from Howard were packed beyond capacity. People were actually taking trains north in hopes of finding a station where trains would have some space. This year, it was pretty much a normal rush hour, extraordinary for a Saturday morning but not like 2017. I saw no evidence that there were more trains on the Red Line. The CTA did announce more buses on Route 147 that parallels the Red Line, but I rather doubt that this did anything more than maintain the usual Saturday capacity by making sure there were at least a few buses that were not trapped down in Grant Park. The CTA did add cars to the Brown Line, at least, and maybe the other lines and Metra did add a few trains and and extra cars. I’m skeptical that any added capacity would have accounted for the difference in crowding if the turnout was actually greater than 2017.
  2. In 2017, it was very nearly impossible to navigate around the demonstration. It was that packed. Maybe this year had better logistics, but apart from the space directly in front of the stage and giant TVs, it was possible to navigate the park.
  3. Columbus Drive was reserved as far south as Balbo but occupied not quite as far south as Congress. I recall the 2017 event as larger.
  4. On the other hand, I left somewhere mid-program, before the actual march, and while I was not alone in leaving there were others (and more of them on Congress) still arriving.

So how big was it? {Shrug} You’ll have to decide yourself. Regardless of how big it was in relation to 2017, it was still really big.