Monday, November 17, 2008

Winning Change

Valery Alzaga interviewed by Ben Trott

A couple of days after Obama’s November 4 victory, I interviewed Valery Alzaga. She is the European Organizing Coordinator for the coalition of American labour unions, the Change to Win Federation (CtW). CtW was formed in 2005 out of a number of trade unions who disaffiliated from the AFL-CIO, largely in response to its consistent inability to respond to the challenges (and opportunities) presented by the sharp decline of union density, industry changes, and newer membership constituencies - particularly women and immigrants. The Federation represents a broader trend within the trade union movement towards the so-called ‘organising’ model or ‘social movement unionism’. Resources are increasingly invested in attempting to boost active union membership over seeking to influence industry standards and electoral politics, and unions emerse themselves in broad coalitions for social change. Nevertheless, CtW came out in strong support of then presidential candidate Barack Obama, investing considerable time and resources in supporting the candidate. Here, Valery Alzaga explains what CtW’s role was in the election, and her thoughts about an Obama administration strategy for the Federation and the US labour movement.

Ben Trott: Can you tell me a little bit about your job at Change to Win, and whether you were directly involved with the 2008 presidential election campaign?

Valery Alzaga: I’m the European organizing coordinator for CtW, although currently I’m also doing work in South Africa for Union Network International. This means I’m helping coordinate organizing campaigns in different sectors with our partner unions. Specifically, I help develop strategic campaign plans, trainings and develop staff capacity and organizing skills. I’m currently advising the cleaning, retail and public sector unions in Holland, Verdi in Germany, the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union, and I’m beginning a new campaign in Turkey next week. All these efforts have the same goal: increasing our local power to be able to effectively coordinate and mobilize ourselves against the same multi-national corporations at a global level.

I was not directly involved in getting the vote out since I was in Europe, but our entire union and most of our global team were out and leading the effort in swing states. In the past I’ve worked and coordinated voting efforts in California and Colorado which has been, until very recently, a Republican strong hold. Our work is to train union members and other volunteers to phone bank, knock on doors and educate voters on key issues to urge them to vote for pro-worker candidates. We deploy hundreds of people into key neighborhoods to deliver literature and do face-to-face grassroots work.

Could you explain CtW’s electoral campaign strategy? As I understand it, the coalition came out in support of Barack Obama pretty early on in the primaries, ahead of Super Tuesday when his success – even against Hillary Clinton – was far from certain.

The CtW strategy (including that of my own union, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU)) was to provide economic resources and thousands-upon-thousands of union activists on the streets and on the phones to mobilize the votes in swing and non-swing states. Our deployment was done with surgical precision. We understood, geographically and numerically, where we needed to increase the vote to win the majority of the Electoral College in the key swing states. The SEIU has around 2 million members. It contributed $85 million and alone accomplished a great deal through grassroots organizing. Members and staff engaged union voters and the general public one-on-one throughout the election. Together, they knocked on 3,390,796 doors, made 16,537,523 phone calls, sent 5,125,378 pieces of mail, registered 102,206 new voters, helped 10,992 voters vote early or by absentee ballot, and held 658 media events. Members increased their commitment to the SEIU’s Committee on Political Education (COPE) through contributing an average of $4.22 per month per COPE contributor, on the top of their union dues. This represented an increase of 25% over the past year. An additional 4,014 new COPE contributors, enrolled at an average contribution level of $5.03 per month.

SEIU members challenged Democratic presidential and congressional candidates to ‘Walk In My Shoes’, where they participated in a program to gain first hand experience of what it is like for service and healthcare workers trying to raise a family in today’s economy. 21 candidates took up the challenge (more info here), and locals across the country embraced the program. More than 3,000 members, and local and international staff were deployed across 20 states to help win for working families. More than 100,000 nurses, janitors, childcare providers and other workers volunteered after work and at the weekend to ensure success for SEIU-endorsed candidates.

Experienced CtW staff coordinated most of the election field work, alongside the Democratic Party and other pro-Obama community and political organizations working in swing states. Our long term campaign expertise was crucial to the Obama operations.

Needless to say, the Bush administration with it’s free market fundamentalism has been disastrous for labour and public funding for social programs such as healthcare and education. Labour was clear that we needed to get Bush and the Republicans out. Period. On the other hand, labour as a whole reached an understanding with Obama prior to the elections in which he would facilitate the following:
1) Passing the Employee Free Choice Act. EFCA is a law that would make it easier for unions to organize/unionize workers without the employers’ current systematic repression. EFCA would reverse Republican laws designed to inhibit employees’ free choice. Union busting advisory firms are a billion dollar industry in the U.S. (and are coming to Europe!), so this is the single most crucial task for labour. Most importantly, it is the only tool workers will have to organize each other in a safe environment, growing and revitalizing the labour movement.

2) To pass universal healthcare. Over 45 million working people in the U.S. don’t have healthcare. As things currently stand, most of our future ‘wage increases’ will be swallowed by rising healthcare costs, not allowing the majority of workers’ wages to keep up with the increasing cost of living.

3) The legalization of the 12 million undocumented workers, a lot of them our own union members like janitors, farm workers, laborers, warehouse workers, etc. (Some of us pushed for an agreement on legalization which commits to not criminalizing future migrants or continuing with the erection of the border wall – and fighting for this in the future will be a hard job, which we need to start working on now.)

4) The end of the war in Iraq. After the election, the focus for those of us in Labor Against The War is beginning to shift to organizing against the government increasing war activity in Afghanistan.
These were the 4 things labour requested of Obama before the endorsements. These demands would help workers get organized and allow them to elevate public funding and labour standards which would directly improve their lives and their communities.

There has been quite a bit of criticism made of the ‘lesser of two evils’ approach to the election taken by much of the left, particularly US trade unions. Do you think it was the right strategy for the labour movement to offer so much support to one candidate, deferring a lot of the criticism of his labour policies until after the election?

It is fundamental to start by looking honestly, humbly and pragmatically at where we are at as a labour movement, as opposed to trying to begin where we should be, or where we would like to be. To know where you ‘stand’ in real terms allows you to understand the real levels of the possible, your actual choices, and to map your way to a solution in concrete steps.

Fortunately for the labour movement, there is no delusion. All of us know that although we are still a relatively powerful electoral machine, we have not had the necessary political power to fundamentally change things in the recent past. On the contrary, it is well known by the unions and capital (employers, the lobbyist and associations) that our movement has been systematically weakened. We have had declining membership for years (by Republican design as well as labour’s own ossification). Most of our unions have not been able to ‘adapt’ and organize aggressively in their sectors (let alone in the ‘new economy’ sectors) in order to keep up with the current industrial changes. Unions have lacked the political will to organize at a grassroots level again. This is changing, and CtW is a good example of this. But today, we only have 12% of the total workers in America unionized (8% in the private sector). This means most workers in the U.S. don’t even know what a union is and have no recourse or rights. Thus we have had a serious lack of power to define workers interests in the broader political and economic system. We have not been able to be a counter-balance or be a regulatory force against the neocons’ free market policies. Most of the laws that support employers/companies over workers have been strengthened in recent years by the Bush administration. Clinton, incidentally, was equally damaging to labour (by introducing the North American Free Trade Agreement, weak labour appointees, etc.) That’s why CtW didn’t endorse Hillary.

On the other hand, Obama had a solid pro-worker reputation in Chicago and many CtW unions there had supported him in the past with good results. These existing micro-political relationships were crucial when it became time to decide the early endorsement. As an example, Obama supported time and time again the cleaners’ union in Chicago, Local 1, and the union itself was vital to him in winning his own local elections as Senator. Second, Obama was and in many ways is (or continues to think as) an organizer. He has been honest to labour from the beginning when he said ‘there is no way I will be able to change anything by myself unless we have a strong majority in government and most importantly if there is a strong social and labour movement pushing from below’. In other words, our rights will not come from a paternalistic figure in the White House. We have to fight and invent our rights for ourselves. In that sense, I don’t think this has been the wrong strategy. The labour movement is not a victim of the Realpolitik yield in Washington; we have been part of it for too long ourselves, at times for sheer survival and at times to preserve the status quo. It is time to change ourselves. This is why organizing agendas matter. This is why social unionism matters, because we cannot do it alone. Labour is part of a bigger wave of social change with regards to this election. The question will be whether we are able to continue the momentum, to use Obama as a step or an opportunity to educate the active electorate about unions, to show everyone what an active social and labour movement looks like through time. Rather than becoming complacent after the first big step, we need to move things in phases and with determination to pass EFCA, win the legalization of undocumented migrants, get universal healthcare and stop the war. We need to push strategically for a majority in the government to support our demands despite, or rather, in spite of the economic crisis.

CtW knows Obama is supportive of labour, not only because of ‘Democratic principles’, but also because he’s an organizer. This means he’s now thinking about how he can consolidate and develop his electoral base in swing states over the next 4 years, and the obvious answer is for labour to populate those states with active unionists mobilizing their and other people’s votes, advocating for a stronger welfare state (as public workers interested in providing quality healthcare and services) and working with community and religious organizations fighting for the same things to create the necessary synergy to win again.

Equally important is for all of us to understand that his administration just inherited a complex and difficult situation. We have to consider the process and give his administration some space to develop responses, but with clear advocacy of what’s needed for working people.

On other hand, there is a clear danger or risk if labour submits completely (or accepts a conservative economic approach) to the current crisis, allowing for non-strategic bail outs, impunity and cautious paralysis without a response. If we simply accept what is offered, this historic opportunity will be wasted. We will need to quickly and efficiently deploy the infrastructure we developed during the elections to mobilize workers to the streets. To balance urgency and patience is hard, but somehow we need to keep close to the process and have a clear pro-active plan.

We also need to call for the rejection of any bail out that doesn’t have labour’s input. We need to demand legal recourse for the specific people culpable for the crisis, and we need to fight for a New Deal between capital and labour which favors workers again.

If there will ever be a substantial change in capital-labour relations, it should be now that the American people understand the need for it. This change should be planned now to accommodate an economy based on new and fairer principles. Labour can negotiate agreements which can be phased in as the economy recuperates, but the political point has to be made now.

What are CtW’s concrete plans for applying pressure to the Obama administration during the period of transition?

There are different competing perspectives on this. I’ll tell you mine - which is not an official CtW position.

If things don’t move our way: A million worker march to Obama to demand what he promised should be our next step, with a clear escalation plan culminating in massive civil disobedience or even (ideally!) strategic sectoral strikes in key economic national and regional markets. Of course this depends on what Obama chooses to do, our existing numbers, resources, possible allies, and political will – and at this point we might not have enough power, momentum and leadership to get there…it’s hard to say. So the necessary step is to join the labour movement and get active. This is a crucial time for us, we need to be bold.

And finally, could you tell me what you think about the team which Obama is currently assembling around himself – specifically, the appointment of Rahm Emanuel as Chief of Staff and the economic advisory transition team? What does this say about the prospects for organised labour during an Obama administration?

It’s certainly not good news and we need to act accordingly. Ideally we need labour representatives in this process, but when you only have 12% union density in the economy, you are treated like a minority voice – so the only thing for us to do is organize, grow, and work deliberately to create a more confident social and labour movement that can strongly and effectively push to the left of the possible in Washington as well as on the state and local levels. Winning the election was and is crucial for this confidence. We cannot underestimate what such victories can accomplish, what victories do to movements. It strengthens them, it nourishes them and building power is contagious and vital to being able to spark the further growth of our movements. Yes, there are a lot of obstacles; but that’s a given. The interesting thing is to imagine, plan, and organize further to create more possibilities.

Thank you very much.

Thank you.

Biog: Valery Alzaga is the European Organising Coordinator for the Change to Win Federation.

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