Recently in Jacobin we ran an excerpt from your first book, Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell), about the 2000 election and what you saw in South Florida. What happened there, and where did the Democrats go wrong?
On the evening of the election we’re all watching the news, and something begins to go wrong in Florida. They began to declare, “Gore won,” then “Bush won.” For people who weren’t alive or paying attention to TV at that moment, it was kind of terrifying, watching people stammering about who won Florida. And then chaos began.
At the time I was on the senior organizing staff of the national AFL-CIO, a job I had just started a couple of years earlier. In those days we still had pagers, before cell phones. So as we’re watching the TV screen my pager goes off and it says “Get next plane to West Palm Beach, don’t call headquarters, don’t use your work card, get on a plane and land, we’ll deal with it later.”
I didn’t hesitate. I put down the pager, picked up a suitcase, and took a 4 AM flight to West Palm Beach. When we landed there, it was actual chaos. It was the first time that we were having the Florida recount, of which we were about to have twelve or eighteen. No one knew what was going on. No one’s sure what to do, so they immediately begin to send labor organizers who are used to organizing strikes to go collect affidavits in condo complexes where largely retired New York Jewish former American Federation of Teachers live, because that’s the list we have.
We put up a notice saying, “Lawyers are coming to collect an affidavit that maybe you voted for the wrong person accidentally on the butterfly ballot in West Palm,” and literally hundreds of people would be waiting in line to give us their affidavit. It was immediately obvious that something was very wrong with the Florida election and that there were tens of thousands of people whose ballots were screwed up somehow.
And people were angry and they were showing up in large numbers with no strategy, nobody working to get people to turn out. They were just turning out by the thousands to talk about what went wrong when they were trying to vote. And so of course the organizers were going back to the daily debrief each night and saying, “Hey, we’ve got tens of thousands of people ready to take to the streets.” And we’re constantly being put down, and hearing from the Gore campaign lawyers who were directing the debrief of senior organizers from the trade union movement, “We don’t want to do a protest yet.”
Meanwhile, within a couple of days the Republicans started holding these little rallies. The little rallies started to grow, and by now the Republicans are actually holding bigger and bigger rallies in Florida, with signs that say “Gore loser” and “Don’t let Al Gore steal the election.” So they started to capture TV coverage and frame the narrative early on.
It’s very clear that there’s a political context to what’s going on, but the Gore campaign has this deep belief in something called the “legal process.” The national Democratic Party agreed forcefully with Al Gore’s lawyers that we should not have an image of protest. We should not be out in the streets.
Then we hear this announcement that Jesse Jackson is going to show up and do this big rally, which is the right decision. I remember going into a meeting and saying, “Hey, I got a flyer in a condo complex that Reverend Jackson’s coming to do a big protest.” And so extreme was the position of the Democratic Party that we were forbidden from showing up at the Jesse Jackson rally, and forbidden to mobilize people in the condominium complexes who were by the thousands wanting to go protest somewhere.
The organizers were protesting in meetings. We were saying we need to hold direct action, we need to get these tens of thousands of retired trade union members from New York state on our Southern Florida voter lists into the streets. This may make people realize how naive I was in 2000, but I really expected at that point that the leadership of the national AFL-CIO would break strategically with the Democratic Party. I would say that was my coming of age moment in the trade union movement, where I realized actually they were going to take orders from the Democratic Party, not give them.
They threatened to send me home, and in fact I begged them to send me home, which they wouldn’t, because the operation was too important at that point. But in essence, we lost the Florida recount. And it was Al Gore’s to lose. The Democratic Party made every effort possible to actually lose that election by relying on something called the legal process and by dismissing protest.
To underscore that point, you write, “By putting their faith in the legal process, the Gore campaign and the national Democratic Party leadership handed the election that Al Gore won to George W. Bush.” You frame it as the difference between a political fight versus a legal fight.
And you alluded to this a moment ago, but I think it’s really important to reiterate that the Right actually understood that they should also fight on the terrain of politics, rather than just retreating to the inner chambers of the legal system.
Now, the tactics they used — threatening and intimidating people — aren’t the ones we believe in. But still you say 2000 was a structure test for the radical right, and that we’re dealing with the lingering consequences of their passing the test. How so?
If we fast forward to the 2018 election cycle, I’d argue that there’s been no evidence yet that the Democratic Party has learned this lesson. There were three races that cycle where serious irregularities and voter suppression had taken place, Georgia’s gubernatorial race, Florida’s gubernatorial race, and a Florida Senate race.
I jumped on the phone with everyone I’d met in Florida to say, “You gotta prepare people to break with the Democratic Party, because they’re going to demand that all three of them surrender very quickly.” Just days later, the national party basically called up all three of them and said, “You need to just pull out. We’re not going to back you.”
One of the biggest challenges that we face dealing with the Democratic Party is their understanding of power. This is what separates a leftist, in part, from a liberal. For me, as a trade union organizer on the ground in Florida, I understood very quickly that we needed to get people in the streets, because for every legal decision that’s made in this country, there’s a political backdrop to it. There are so many things you should be doing to shift the narrative and shift the power dynamic of that fight. And the Democratic Party, I think they just don’t understand it.
The reason I mentioned the radical right using Florida as a structure test is because they were trying to figure out what could they get away with in Florida, and they pulled off a coup. That would set the stage for things to come. What were they going to get away with without being challenged by the other political party that’s meant to be the counterweight to them? The Democratic Party is not an effective counterweight because it’s developing strategy in a total vacuum of power structure analysis.
All of this is dispiriting history in its own right, and also paints a grim picture of what the power brokers of the Democratic Party will do starting this Tuesday on election day if the result is contested. But what is your sense of where the labor movement is at, in terms of whether it will follow along with the party or not?
I actually think there is some good news here, because the movement that began in 2012 with the Chicago Teachers Union — the rebirth of the strike movement and the exercise of the idea of collective power — is actually growing. There’s a broad recognition at the regional, state, and local level that we can’t rely on the decisions of the national unions at this point, because they won’t be able to break in a serious way with the decisions that the Biden-Harris team are making, given how embedded those relationships are and the whole consultant industrial complex that surrounds all of them.
A lot of local unions and a lot of local trade unionists are getting ready to throw down in a way that’s unprecedented. Really smart people have been thinking through all of the possible scenarios and developing strategy, and the local unions and local trade unionists and regional structures can play a decisive role in what’s about to happen.
It’s possible that Biden wins the popular vote, but Trump declares he’s president at midnight on November 3 according to all the votes counted as of right now, adding up to an electoral college victory. If that happens, there are at least five states where this is going to really play out: Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida, Michigan, and North Carolina. In most of those states, if not all of them, we’ve actually got a resurgent movement.
Ultimately the governors have to certify who won their state, and then the governors have to certify the electors. We think we’re voting for a president but we’re actually voting for these things called electors, it’s totally byzantine. In four of the states I just mentioned, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, there are Democratic governors who technically under the constitution are the people who send these numbers in. There are Republican state legislatures in those states, and if we’re predicting this correctly they’re going to try and put a stranglehold on their governors and gum up the works.
What local trade unionists and progressives must do in this scenario is fight in the streets really hard to say that if the preponderance of votes as they continue to come in show that Biden won that state, the Democrats have to behave in a way that thus far in my life experience only the Tea Party and the Republican right wing has behaved, which is to act decisively and ignore the noise coming potentially from your Republican legislature. It’s going to take massive political power at a state-based level to make Democratic Party governors do the right thing. It’s going to take surrounding the state houses with massive turnouts and holding the line.
So it sounds to me you like don’t think that it’s somehow too late to organize a strong union response to attempts to steal the election?
No, I don’t. There’s a lot of planning that has already happened and is still happening. In California, where I am, there are tremendous discussions taking place just in the teacher unions alone about the plans to hit the streets. A lot of the progressive trade union councils and union locals are figuring what armor to bring on November 4, which will realistically be the day of the first massive action if Biden doesn’t do what crazy pollsters think he’s going to do and overwhelmingly win all these swing states.
It is not too late. And it’s amazing that local trade unions are demanding that their national union break with the Democratic Party right now. There are resolutions being passed, there are letters being signed and sent off to national leadership, demanding that the leadership break with the Democratic Party on strategy.
There are calls for strikes at a local level. And I don’t want to underestimate that. Even though the trade union movement has been beaten to smithereens for fifty years running, we’re still the strongest progressive political entity in most states. We can’t underestimate the power that local and state trade unionists can have in creating social conditions that force the Democratic Party to do something that we don’t think that they’re going to do on their own.
Why would or should socialists who are understandably disillusioned with the Democratic Party and unenthusiastic about a Joe Biden presidency participate in this response alongside unionists?
Biden and Harris were probably last in order of preference for me, if I had to rank the twenty-nine million people who were at one point running for the Democratic nomination. But as a trade union organizer I have to say the difference between having people appointed to the National Labor Relations Board who are fair versus those who aren’t is night and day. The result has everything to do with whether or not we have the capacity to help unionize the tens of thousands, the hundreds of thousands, the millions, the 67 percent of Americans who have said in polls that they’d like to have a union.
In Philadelphia, when we organized seven hospitals in twelve months from the ground up with rank-and-file organizing, and helped workers win amazing contracts that were life-changing, that happened under the fair election rules that Obama put in — too late, by the way, late in the second term. Those were repealed by the Trump administration, who put in these horrific people at the Department of Labor and the National Labor Relations Board.
Unless we have a restoration of basic labor law and better appointees at the National Labor Relations Board, we’re not going to grow the union movement and rebuild a strong left. Just as we were talking about the social conditions that can shape legal decisions, we have to talk about the social conditions under which we take to streets, we run strikes, we wage fights to win Medicare for All, and so on.
The reason why I just took part with a whole lot of people in something called “strike school” is because we’re going to have to have a hell of a lot of strikes to force Biden and Harris to do any damn thing. And we know that because we understand power on the left. We understand that if we want Biden and Harris get in, it’s just so that we can then begin to mobilize.