Rebuilding the Labor Movement in the 21st Century, an Interview with Scott Marshall


Editor's note: Scott Marshall chairs the Communist Party's labor commission.

PA: Can you give us your general impressions of the AFL-CIO convention held in Pittsburgh in September.

SCOTT MARSHALL: I think the Convention really continued a trend that has been going on ever since the big change when John Sweeney was elected in the mid-90s, but it has now changed more in the direction of confronting the economic crisis and taking a real class position on what’s wrong with the economics of this country. It was a pretty amazing discussion at many levels, and there was really a deeper understanding of how finance capital works globally and in this country. It came through in the speeches and it came through in the discussions.

It was an amazing continuation of where the AFL-CIO and the labor movement have been going in general. I think there was a fantastic amount of attention paid to questions of diversity, questions of opening up the ranks, and in particular real concern about how to bring young workers into the labor movement. There were panels and there were discussions about attracting young workers, and they are taking some concrete steps to go out and talk to young workers and hear what young workers have to say about how they see the labor movement and what it is doing. So that was really good. Also, as I am sure a lot of your listeners already know, for the first time two of the top three elected officers are women. I think that is an indication of where they are headed on questions of diversity and making the leadership of the labor movement look more like the working class in this country.

To me, one of the most exciting things that happened at the convention was the showing of Michael Moore’s new movie, “Capitalism: A Love Story.” It started with a rally for single-payer healthcare at a hotel near the convention, and then close to 1,500 people marched through the streets of Pittsburgh to the movie theater to watch the movie. The response of the people who saw the movie was tremendous. Michael Moore himself said that he has never gotten that kind of response to any of his movies. He got a 10-15 minute standing ovation at the end of it.

What is really remarkable about that is who these people are. These were not left activists in the labor movement – they were the elected delegates to the AFL-CIO Convention and the top leadership of many of the unions in the country, who were responding that way to a movie that basically is a blistering critique of capitalism and what has gone wrong in this financial crisis. I think that kind of tells you what kind of meeting the convention was.

PA: The convention itself adopted a unique approach to the health reform issue. What happened in Pittsburgh in regard to that?

MARSHALL: I think they showed very sound tactics in the way they approached the healthcare issue. They passed one resolution strongly supporting a robust public option in the healthcare reform bills that are in Congress now. In the discussion of that many of the people said that they supported single-payer, but this is a step we have to take to move in that direction, and when this passes – if we can get this passed with a strong public option – it’s not the end of the struggle, it’s in many ways the beginning of the struggle. Then the next day they passed a resolution supporting a single-payer system. Again I think that was really good tactics, because it unites everybody in the healthcare fight around the step that needs to be taken right now, but it also seeks to overcome any tension between people whose final goal is the single-payer system and people who are really pulling out all the stops to get a strong public option right now.

PA: What is your assessment of the newly-elected leadership of the AFL-CIO?

MARSHALL: Richard Trumka, the newly elected President, was part of the Sweeney team that made the change in the 1990s and really took the labor movement in a very different direction than it had been in, rejecting business unionism and heading more toward a class struggle approach to the labor movement. But right now, in the context of the economic crisis and in the context of having a pro-labor Obama administration, it presents so many new possibilities. Because of the “urgency of now,” labor needs a stronger, more powerful voice, and in a lot of ways I think Richard Trumka represents that more powerful voice. Look at the way Trumka handled, for example, the question of racism in the 2008 election and his speech at the Steelworkers Convention, where he really convinced white workers that it was in their interests to vote for Obama. Not only has he continued that kind of leadership since then, but he has also really taken on the corporations and especially finance capital in a new way.

In fact, after he left the convention he went to Wall Street and gave a blistering speech on the need to re-regulate finance in this country, and about the role that it plays globally and domestically. It’s more than just a change in tone, it’s more of a fighting kind of voice that is coming from Trumka at this point. Some people have pointed out that it’s Trumka returning to his roots, because Trumka, when he was president of the United Mine Workers, led some of the most incredible struggles, including the Pittston miners strike, which was really a watershed strike in terms of militancy and mass mobilizing to defend the miners.

Arlene Holt Baker has been the Vice-Chair of the AFL-CIO for several months now, and she also brings that same kind of militancy and that same kind of powerful voice that we need to get things done. The same is true of Liz Shuler, who is the new Secretary-Treasurer. With Liz one of the important things is that she is really committed to the question of young workers, and besides her constitutional role as Secretary-Treasurer, she has really carved out for herself a real leadership role in trying to bring more young workers around to the AFL-CIO and reaching out to young workers. In interviews she told us that she is convening meetings all over the country of young workers to talk to them about how they want to see the labor movement change and what the labor movement can do to bring young workers in, etc.

I think it is a really good leadership team. It continues the direction that has labor has been going in for quite a while now, but I also think it ratchets it up a notch. It puts the labor movement much more out there, out in front of the struggles of the people, and that is really important.

PA: What role did President Obama play at the Convention?

MARSHALL: Obama’s speech electrified the convention, and it was tremendously well received. At the current time, one of the things that is difficult for a lot of people and not just for the labor movement, is that people really have to shift gears now. The labor movement and the peoples movement have for 30 years basically been in a defensive posture, attacking George Bush and things like that. But now the labor movement and the people’s movement have to shift gears. We now have a President who agrees with many of the things that the labor movement wants to see happen. He supports the Employee Free Choice Act and a strong public option, and has already shown with his new Labor Secretary, Hilda Solis, and the policies that have come out of the Labor Department, that he is really pro-labor. Speaking at the convention when this change is taking place, in the context of the new AFL-CIO leadership and the stronger focus on struggle that came out of that convention, I think was electrifying, and I think the relationship between the Obama Administration and the labor movement is really jelling.

A good example is the healthcare resolutions that we talked about earlier. The Convention was very careful to support the President’s health reform agenda. They see the necessity of fighting for it, because they see it as a step toward putting together a big coalition in this country of people who want to see healthcare reform, and they do not want to play that off against where else they want to go with healthcare – single-payer, etc. I think there was a lot of that kind of calculation at the convention, a lot of very careful thought given, even where they disagree with the President, about how to disagree with the President without weakening his coalition, and without weakening our ability to move things on the ground. I think that was a very big factor in this convention.

PA: Did you get any new information about where we are with the fight for the Employee Free Choice Act?

MARSHALL: The fierce determination for it is there, but I think most people in the labor movement have concluded that we have to win on healthcare first. Not coming out with a good bill on healthcare will greatly weaken the chances for the Employee Free Choice Act. I also think, however, both from the debate on the floor and the pre-conference discussions I was able to sit in on, that there is growing confidence that EFCA can be passed, but that it might not be as quick as they wanted – because they wanted it already. But there is growing confidence it will eventually pass.

I think they are getting more and more feedback from the membership in the labor movement, and they are also attracting more and more allies, such as economists and various people’s organizations, and from all kinds of people who are saying that the only way out of this crisis is to put people back to work and raise the living standards of people, so that there is money in circulation to build an economy. I think they are getting confident with that message, and I think they are feeling a growing confidence that it can be passed and won.

PA: The convention also passed a resolution on Cuba. Could you describe for us what happened there?

The original resolution that was in the resolution book was actually much stronger than the one that finally got passed. I don’t know what the calculus was on that, whether people felt like it was too strong to pass, or whether they had some tactical considerations in terms of the Obama administration – I am not sure what it was. I think that they were tipping their hat to the right in the labor movement, although I also think they overestimate how strong that the right is, particularly on this issue.

The general sense of the resolution that passed is to call for an ending of all restrictions on travel to Cuba, and for everyone, not just for families, and an end to restrictions on being able to send money to Cuba, which were two very important steps in the direction of changing our relationship with Cuba. It also calls for better relations with Cuba, and that the State Department and the government should work toward that end. Then they also threw in a bunch of stuff that we wouldn’t agree with, and that a lot of people at the convention didn’t agree with, on political prisoners and free trade unions and things like that – but then there were, of course, a lot of people at the convention who would agree with that. Anti-communism is not completely dead by a long shot.

I think it was a good resolution that finally did pass anyway. I think it really is important that the labor movement stepped up on the question of freedom to travel and being able to send money to Cuba.

PA: What role did labor play in the G-20 demonstrations that followed the convention?

MARSHALL: Labor was very active, particularly the Steelworkers and the United Electrical Workers who are both based in Pittsburgh. They had speakers and mobilized for all of the activities that I went to. They were very involved in them and helping to mobilize and bring people out. There was a series of teach-ins that the Steelworkers had at their headquarters, and there were also marches and meetings on climate change and trade. So it was really bringing a class perspective to the question of the G-20 protests.

As I said, there was a lot of emphasis on the issue of global finance capital, about how the big corporations and financial institutions are plundering the earth and basically need to be reined in and controlled. A lot of the labor input in terms of the demonstrations was really, in my opinion, anti-imperialist. They were saying, look, the US cannot continue to play this kind of role of promoting a race to the bottom, playing worker against worker around the world, and allow the banks and corporations to just move in and plunder these countries. There really was that kind of stark way of putting it, that kind of clear, anti-imperialist way, in a lot of things that were said.

One of the highlights was when the Steelworkers, the Sierra Club, the Blue-Green Alliance and Repower America held a rally for renewable energy and green jobs, and it was really very well attended. There were several thousand people at that rally. Richard Trumka spoke and Leo Gerard spoke, and also Carl Pope from the Sierra Club. They were all excellent, and they were directly tying the policies of G-20 countries to the world economic crisis. They were also strongly making the point that any solutions had to include paying attention to the massive poverty in the world and to the countries that are the victims of finance capital and the plunder of the corporations, etc. So there was a very high-level kind of input there too.

PA: Finally, if we hold the view that class consciousness is fostered by the broad unity of the labor movement with the entire working class, by a strategy of militant struggle, coupled with a global outlook, how would you assess the level of class consciousness in the US labor movement today?

MARSHALL: I would say all of those things are present in the labor movement today. Is class consciousness dominant in the labor movement? I don’t think so, but I do think that things are moving in that direction. I think there is a growing class consciousness. It’s like one of the delegates said to me in an informal discussion: “There’s nothing like an economic crisis to let people know which side you’re on.” I think he’s right. In the context of the role that labor played in the 2008 elections and throughout the economic crisis, I think that labor is moving in that class-conscious direction.

But it’s uneven - I would never claim that everything is now okay and there is no struggle left. There are a lot of things that need to be taken on, but the overall growth of people who are anti-imperialist in the labor movement, including in the leadership of some of the unions, is very significant. I think that more and more of the union leadership in this country see themselves not as just the champions of their members and the wages, hours and working conditions of their members – although, of course, that’s still very much part of what labor has to do – but they also see themselves more and more as champions of the whole of the working class, and they are realizing the need to build a broad coalition with a wide range of allies, with the racially and nationally oppressed, with women, with young people, with gay and straight, etc. They really have an increasingly broad view of the working class and what that means, and I think that is a central part of class consciousness too. I feel like this has been developing since the mid-90s, but I think it took a big leap at this convention.