[Note: Following is an interview with Mark Dudzic, national coordinator of the Labor for Single Payer campaign and past coordinator of the Labor Party. The interview was aired on March 12, 2016 on Equal Time Radio (WDEV 550AM/96.1FM–Vermont) and was conducted by radio host Traven Leyshon, secretary-treasurer of the Vermont state AFL-CIO. The transcription is by Unity & Independence, the labor supplement of The Organizer newspaper.]
Traven Leyshon: The Sanders victory in Michigan rocked the political establishment. Sanders tapped into and expressed the deep anger among labor and youth, and he is making more inroads into the African-American community. Beyond the immediate primaries or Democratic Party national convention, could we be seeing the first steps toward a party of our own?
Mark Dudzic: Certainly that is my hope, and it’s the hope of a lot of other activists in the labor and other social movements. But it’s a little too early to tell. Clearly the Sanders campaign has captured the widespread disgust with the kind of “accommodationism” that characterizes Democratic Party politics, especially at the national level. There’s a constant feeling of betrayal. Senator Sanders has given voice to working people who never recovered from the 2008 economic crisis and who see no future under the current system.
Traven Leyshon: Labor unions are diminished in strength, but they’re still the largest mass organizations that people have. What do you see in regard to the ferment in labor or more widely among working people? A lot of people who had given up on the political process, it seems, have become more politicized.
Mark Dudzic: I don’t think people who are active gave up on politics; they gave up on politics that produced no real benefits for themselves, their neighbors, and their co-workers. Sanders represents a real sense of hope for them. I do most of my work within the labor movement, and, as you said, despite being weakened over the years, labor is still central and essential to the working class and to working-class politics.
We’re now in an unusual situation where the contradictions of what labor is all about are really coming to the fore. On the one hand, you have a long-term practice of “instrumentalism,” trying to utilize whatever small space labor can find within politics to protect or preserve the institutions within labor and the conditions of the people they represent. And we’ve been doing this for ages, to the point where labor’s vision becomes restricted to the very narrow politics of what’s possible.
On the other hand, there is what I would call labor’s “transformative” side—that is, its capacity to act and think in terms of the long-term interests of working people. And Sanders has crystallized this transformative vision: What would politics in this country look like if it were conducted on behalf of people who work for a living? Why should college not be free, just like high school? Why shouldn’t we have healthcare for all like every industrialized country? These are issues that wake up and energize working people, and reach the core of the group of activists who do the work of the labor movement.
Traven Leyshon: What is Labor for Bernie, and where is it going?
Mark Dudzic: Labor for Bernie is an informal structure; it is not connected to the Bernie campaign. Labor activists were asked to sign a pledge. Close to 20,000 people have joined the network. Some national unions have come on board. These are the change agents in the labor movement; they are people who feel that labor’s many compromises have made it impossible to represent our members. They have a different view of how we must do our politics and where we must be as a labor movement. It’s very exciting.
It’s such a significant movement, in fact, that it’s resulted in the national AFL-CIO maintaining a position of neutrality in the campaign—which has certainly disrupted the plans of the Democratic establishment and the Clinton campaign.
Traven Leyshon: Let’s review for a few minutes the period of the Labor Party in the 1990s. It was a period of great hope, when people had a broader vision, where a wing of the labor movement made links with poor people’s organizations; there was institutional support from labor organizations. First we had Labor Party Advocates, then the Labor Party, which was more of an organizing committee for a future Labor Party, as we were not running candidates. Do you see the possibilities of networks, Labor for Bernie, unions that have come out for the Sanders campaign, or other community organizations…creating some kind of institutional support for other experiments, non-partisan networks, with some kind of political independence?
Mark Dudzic: It’s a complex situation. Everything is in flux right now. It’s always hard to make a prediction when you’re at this point in the movement.
I think that what happened in the 1990s is very relevant to what’s happening today. You had two significant things going on in the 1990s: You had an internal insurgency in the labor movement after decades of getting our butts kicked, both politically and in the shops and bargaining units. There was a sort of fightback movement that talked about new ways of organizing, be it new-member organizing, more sophisticated campaigns to represent our members, or breaking with some of the collaborationist ideas that the national labor movement had adopted when it was fat and lazy in the 1950s, ’60s. and ’70s. All this resulted in the only contested leadership election and a new leadership in the AFL-CIO.
This was coupled with the deep disillusion with another Clinton—Bill Clinton—who was elected in 1992. There was a lot of hope after 12 years of Reagan and Bush that Clinton would start advocating for workers’ interests—but instead, the administration completely dropped the ball on healthcare reform, instituted vicious blame-the-victim welfare reform and criminal-reform policies, walked away from labor-law reform and then, the thing that really capped the disgust, was Clinton’s wholehearted support for the NAFTA agreement—which really was the fast march toward globalization and de-industrialization.
That disgust and that insurgency combined for about 10 years. We had a very powerful movement within the labor movement to call for a party of our own, for a Labor Party, that would represent the interests of working people—not the compromises in parties that were dominated by corporate interests.
What’s different today is that the labor insurgency basically was defeated; the labor movement is a lot weaker and more isolated than it was in the 1990s. But today, there are all sorts of new coalitions and organizations that aren’t strictly speaking part of the institutions of organized labor, but are talking about economic and social justice issues for working people. These movements are coming together and are becoming more and more significant in working-class life.
But new opportunities for organizing and for doing politics are a lot less clear. I’m not sure there’s a consensus in the activist community that we must move toward a complete break with the Democratic Party to build a party of our own, as the next step to take.
I am very hopeful that this moment will result in a broad discussion within the labor movement and other social movements about how we can move away from corporate-dominated politics toward independent working-class politics. But I am not sure anyone yet knows what exact form that discussion and that organization will take at this point.
Traven Leyshon: A lot will be impacted by whether or not the Sanders campaign continues to develop momentum. People are holding their breath every time there is a mega-Tuesday. Sanders is proving the pollsters wrong, like in Michigan, where he proved he can win a greater percentage of African-American voters. You now have more union activists and more community organizations, like National People’s Action, doing real grassroots organizing for Sanders—and many of these organizations are going to continue mobilizing around their issues after the campaign, no matter what happens.
We certainly have that in Vermont. The most enthusiastic supporters of Sanders are not the Democratic Party establishment; it’s independents, it’s Progressive Party members, it’s the affiliates of National People’s Action. Do you see any formations developing that can capture and express in an organized way this Labor for Bernie campaign, this enthusiasm and upsurge nationally, that we’ve got to do something?
Mark Dudzic: I think that the understanding that we need to do something is everywhere across the country right now. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle, even if Sanders never wins another primary. I think that the energy and vision that he unleashed are not going to go away, certainly not in the labor movement. These are folks who have taken a stand against the way their unions do politics. So that’s not going to go away. But I’m not so sure at this point that there’s any clarity about what kind of coalition will come together after the campaign.
The trouble with an election campaign is that it’s an urgent moment when you have to work exclusively around campaign issues. Historically, it’s been very difficult for permanent organizations to emerge from the aftermath of progressive campaigns. So there’s reason to be concerned that all this energy will dissipate once the campaign is over, however it ends.
I am hopeful, though, that people can weigh in now, while the campaign is still viable and still reaching millions of people, on what we need to do to communicate with one another and keep momentum going after the elections are over in November.
Traven Leyshon: Exactly. In the 1980s, the Rainbow Coalition was dissolved, nothing was left.
Mark Dudzic: This is an important lesson: You have to think about the future while the campaign is still going on. There’s a difference between a political campaign, on the one hand, and a substantive and sustained campaign and movement-building for working people, on the other. An election campaign is just one manifestation of this—but you can’t build a movement around a political candidate.
I hope that these lessons will inform the work that we do here. Also Senator Sanders, to his credit, has talked about the need to build a movement; he has said that he supports any effort during this campaign to turn it into a real, long-term force for social change
Traven Leyshon: Any concluding thoughts?
Mark Dudzic: We are going to be meeting soon to put together the activist core of the Labor for Bernie movement. There are also other efforts under way; folks are organizing a People’s Assembly in mid-June in Chicago.
This is a time when we have to put our energies into continuing the Sanders campaign on the ground while building networks of activists that use this campaign as an opportunity to build the kind of movement that is needed to build the kind of politics that can represent the real concerns of working people in this country.