On May Day 2022, Voices for New Democracy hosted SEIU Secretary-Treasurer Gerry Hudson for a discussion on the state of the American labor movement. Throughout the conversation, Gerry discussed his history at 1199SEIU, outlining how the union’s participation in struggles for racial justice and immigrant justice mobilized membership and helped secure important victories; how 1199’s emphasis on rank-and-file organizing and leadership was key to their strength; and what lessons these experiences hold for today’s wave of union organizing across gig workers, Amazon workers, delivery drivers, Starbucks workers, and more. Gerry also reflected on SEIU’s political mobilization around the 2020 elections — playing an important role in Biden’s victory — and the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead in 2022 and 2024.
This was a paper presented by Kent Wong to an international conference hosted by Ton Duc Thang University in Ho Chi Ming City, Vietnam in April, 2022. Ton Duc Thang is the Trade Union University of Vietnam and is affiliated with the Vietnam General Confederation of Labor.
As the director of the UCLA Labor Center, I have taught labor studies, labor law and collective bargaining for many years. Collective bargaining is a cornerstone of U.S. labor relations, and yet it has been under attack in recent decades. This is harmful not only to U.S. unions and workers, but represents an increasing threat to U.S. democracy.
Collective Bargaining in the U.S.
For more than 50 years, unionization and collective bargaining have been in decline in the United States. The right to collective bargaining was won in the 1930’s, in the midst of the Great Depression and as a result of unprecedented organizing campaigns throughout the country including a General Strike in 1934. The 1930’s saw the birth of contemporary U.S. labor laws, and the establishment of collective bargaining as the foundation of U.S. labor relations.
Throughout In the 1950’s, fully one third of workers in the U.S. were members of unions and covered by collective bargaining agreements. This massive union expansion resulted in historic improvements in the wages and working conditions of U.S. workers. U.S. workers were able to improve job quality, raise wages to support their families, and the growing strength of unions resulted in significant government policy victories including social security, employer provided health care coverage, occupational safety and health standards, paid sick time, paid vacation time, and pensions.
However, in the 1970’s and 1980’s, the U.S. witnessed a decline in unionization that has continued to this day. The causes of union decline have included globalization, a dramatic change from a manufacturing economy to a service economy, and policies of deindustrialization that resulted in capital flight and plant shutdowns throughout the country. Union decline was also accelerated by anti-union corporate policies and their support of anti-union labor laws that undermined collective bargaining rights. Today, only 10% of U.S. workers are union members, and only 6% of private sector workers are in unions.
The decline in unionization and collective bargaining has led to stagnation and decline in the wages and working conditions for U.S. workers. Previously high wage union jobs have been replaced by low wage non-union jobs. The two largest corporations in the U.S., WalMart and Amazon, are both fiercely anti-union, and have invested millions of dollars to oppose their workers from forming and joining unions.
The decline in collective bargaining has also weakened worker political power. Government policies that were established decades ago to support workers have steadily been eroded. Also, weakened unions have also allowed corporations and the right-wing to exert greater political influence to support reactionary, anti-union politicians and laws.
The Attacks on Collective Bargaining and the Election of Donald Trump
In 2016, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote for President, and received almost three million more votes than Donald Trump. However, due to the undemocratic U.S. Electoral College system, Donald Trump was elected President instead.
Three critical states that had supported Barack Obama in 2012, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, flipped from Democrat to Republican in 2016. In each of these three states, Republican Governors and members of the State Legislatures had attacked collective bargaining rights and unions.
In Michigan, the state where the United Autoworkers of America was founded, the state legislature passed anti-union “Right to Work” laws in 2013, dramatically undermining worker rights. In Pennsylvania, conservative anti-union forces in the State Legislature have fought to restrict collective bargaining rights, especially for public sector workers. And in Wisconsin, fifty years of collective bargaining rights for public sector workers was eliminated by a right-wing governor in 2011.
The attack on unions in these three states had a direct impact on the 2016 election. Trump defeated Clinton in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by a margin of only 70,000 votes, which allowed him to prevail in the national electoral college vote and become president. In 2020, after unions intensified organizing in these same three states, all three flipped back to support the democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden.
Joe Biden’s presidential victory was commanding, both in the popular vote and in the electoral vote. In the midst of the pandemic, the 2020 presidential election was held and Joseph Biden and Kamala Harris were elected President and Vice President. Joseph Biden had previously served as Vice President under President Barack Obama, and Kamala Harris is the first woman and first person of color (both African American and Asian American) to hold the position of Vice President in U.S. history.
However, to this day, Donald Trump has promoted the “Big Lie” that the 2020 election was illegitimate and that he won the election. On January 6, 2020, Donald Trump encouraged his supporters to engage in an armed insurrection of the U.S. Capitol to overturn the election results. The Trump lead white supremacist and right-wing movement presents a major threat to U.S. democracy, and Republican leaders in Congress continue to spread lies and misinformation that Donald Trump won the 2020 election.
Growing Economic Inequality
During the past two years of the global pandemic, the contradictions and crisis of U.S. capitalism have been exposed. More than 900,000 people in the U.S. have died as a result of Covid-19. Former President Donald Trump lied to the American people and deliberately down-played the seriousness of Covid-19. He attacked public health leaders and safety guidelines, and refused to wear masks and abide by social distancing. Many Republican leaders continue to spread lives about Covid-19, and have contributed to the public health crisis and increased death toll.
Although the U.S. has the most expansive and expensive health care system in the world, millions of people do not have access to health care. Covid-19 has disproportionately claimed the lives of the poor, people of color, and immigrants. The wealthy have access to the best health care system in the world, while many workers and the poor are dying because they lack of health care access.
The U.S. is a deeply polarized country, both politically and economically. The U.S. stock market has been setting new records, and wealthy corporations and billionaires continue to make massive profits during the pandemic. Housing prices and home rental costs are rising steadily, which also contributes to economic inequality. The number of homeless people has also grown sharply as housing insecurity impacts more workers.
A Growing Workers Movement
The pandemic has also witnessed the rise of a new workers movement. Public opinion polls reflect that sentiment supporting unions is at a 50-year high in the U.S. More people realize that unions are necessary to improve the quality of life for workers.
There has been a new wave of strikes throughout the country, including in the manufacturing sector, and more workers have been engaged in union organizing campaigns in recent years than in recent decades. Amazon workers, Starbucks workers, Fast Food workers, and “Ride Share” workers have been engaged in organizing campaigns in work places and industries that have never before been unionized.
Pro-union sentiment has been especially high among young workers and workers of color, who have been leading many of these organizing campaigns. These campaigns bode well for the future of the labor movement, and also present opportunities to expand collective bargaining rights in the U.S.
The Importance of Collective Bargaining Education
As the Director of the UCLA Labor Center, I teach Labor Studies to our students at the university. Each year, we introduce collective bargaining education into the classroom, to provide our students with an appreciation of the role of unions, an understanding of the dynamics of collective bargaining, and the importance of a union contract in providing good wages, benefits, and working conditions, and a collective voice for workers.
One of the most popular learning activities within our curriculum is a collective bargaining simulation, where each student is assigned to participate on either a union or management bargaining team. The students are given informational hand-outs based on real collective bargaining case studies, and then engage in a mock collective bargaining session. They have the option of either signing a union contract, or engaging in a strike or lockout. Inevitably, most of the student bargaining sessions result in a signed union contract, although in a few instances there are strikes or lock-outs. This outcome mirrors what happens in the real world, where the vast majority of collective bargaining sessions result in a mutually agreeable settlement.
The UCLA Labor Center in recent years has established a Labor Studies Major, the first in the history of our university and the first within the nine campus University of California system. We are also in the process of establishing a Master’s Degree in Labor Studies.
The Labor Studies program provides a foundation for students to learn about unions, collective bargaining, labor history, labor law, and contemporary issues that impact workers and the work place. Our program also provides opportunities for students to engage in research on labor issues, and to take part in internship programs that directly place them with unions and worker organizations. Through these placements, students learn about the world of work first hand, and many find jobs and careers through developing their skills and relationships.
The UCLA Labor Center has also established innovative programs to conduct research on young workers, and to encourage young workers to learn about their rights on the job, and to form and join unions. Labor education plays an important role in preparing the workers of tomorrow to join the labor movement and advocate for the interests of the working class.
The UCLA Labor Center is committed to continue our partnership with Ton Duc Thang University. We applaud the efforts of Ton Duc Thang to promote worker rights and global labor solidarity, and we share our mutual commitment to advance peace and prosperity for workers in Vietnam, the United States, and throughout the world.
Last Sunday, March 19th, Voices for New Democracy hosted our latest monthly political forum covering the crisis in Ukraine and its implications for global geopolitics. Spring Wang, Steve Clark, and Floyd Huen joined the panel to discuss each of their analyses around the current international situation, sparking spirited debate over the nature of the war in Ukraine, its beneficiaries, and the long-simmering tensions and contradictions that preceded it. The debate raised key questions and implications that the Left should consider in our analysis of global politics and our strategy for building progressive change.
Watch the full forum below, and email email@example.com to submit your own reflections on these issues.
Join Voices for New Democracy on Sunday March 20th at 7 p.m. ET / 4 p.m. PT for our next monthly political forum discussing the war on Ukraine, the new Cold War, and the changing international situation. Spring Wang, Steve Clark, and Floyd Huen will share their reflections on the ongoing conflict and its implications for international geopolitics. The majority of the time will be spent in conversation, so we encourage you to come with your ideas and analysis.
On Sunday, January 23rd, UCLA Professor and acclaimed historian Robin D. G. Kelley joined Voices for New Democracy for our latest monthly political forum discussing the past and future of Black liberation.
The wide-ranging conversation touched on important reflections on where the Left stands today, and explores some of the lessons from historical experiences in the struggle for Black liberation from Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition to BLM, and the reactions and backlash these struggles have faced. Building on recent forums and essays on Voices for New Democracy exploring some of the recent challenges and defeats we’re facing, Kelley asserts that the present moment is still full of opportunity. But to seize the moment, Kelley challenges us to think deeply about how we can build a unified Left, inspired by new ideas, that operates with organized cooperation and accountability. And as capitalism undergoes new structural changes in the face of concurrent crises, the Left will have important opportunities to advance our movement in different places at different moments. Whatever dark moments lie ahead, Kelley reminds us to maintain our commitment to the struggle.
This article will appear in the next issue of the New Labor Forum.
Fundamentally, we need to build an immigrant rights movement to create the change we need. Reliance on the Democratic Party or on policy formulations alone will never result in meaningful change unless we can successfully build a movement led by immigrant workers and immigrant youth.
The Obama-Biden administration was responsible for more than two million deportations, the worst record in U.S. history. During his 2020 presidential election campaign, Biden promised immigration reform within his first year in office. Not only do those promises remain unfulfilled, but unfortunately, Biden has maintained some of the repressive anti-immigrant policies implemented by Trump.
We support the necessity of building a broad-based alliance to advance meaningful immigration reform. The alliance must include undocumented immigrants themselves, the labor movement, African Americans, youth and students, environmentalists, and the faith-based community.
While we obviously supported the Biden-Harris ticket, and celebrate the end of the horrific Trump administration, we should not be surprised about Biden’s lukewarm commitment to immigration reform in light of his track record. The Biden administration will only do the right thing if there is a strong movement demanding change.
DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) was one of the few immigrant rights victories that was won during the Obama-Biden administration. DACA was a breakthrough in providing a relief to more than 800,000 immigrant youth who otherwise would still live under the constant fear of deportation and would not be able to legally work.
The immigrant youth movement played a decisive role in securing one of the few immigration reform victories under the Obama-Biden administration. Yet it is important to note that DACA was not prioritized or actively supported by major immigrant rights organizations. Even the Federal DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) was not a priority of major immigrant rights organizations, because of their fear that if the DREAM Act moved forward as a stand-alone bill, this would undermine the passage of comprehensive immigration reform.
We strongly disagree with this analysis and approach. The one-sided push for comprehensive immigration reform and reliance on the Democratic Party has been a failed strategy, that has effectively yielded nothing.
The right wing understands the benefit of incremental change on immigration. They have tried to secure anti-immigration victories wherever and whenever possible, at a federal, state, and local level. They have built an anti-immigrant movement grounded in racism and nativism, and have used the anti-immigrant issue to mobilize their primarily white constituency at the ballot box.
Instead of relying the Democratic Party, we believe that we must focus our energies on movement building. And two major movements that have helped to shift the national debate on immigrant rights are the immigrant workers movement, and the immigrant youth movement. We would benefit from deepening an understanding of the role of each, in order to confront the challenges ahead.
Immigrant Workers Movement
The U.S. labor movement has a decidedly mixed history when it comes to immigration reform. From their support of the passage of the racist Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, U.S. labor has historically embraced anti-immigrant policies. During the last major immigration legislation passed by Congress, the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, labor advocated for employer sanctions to impose civil and criminal penalties for employers who knowingly hiring undocumented immigrants. They erroneously believed that this would safeguard jobs for U.S.-born workers.
Employer Sanctions has been a disaster that has done little to nothing to punish employers for hiring undocumented immigrants. Instead, employer sanctions have caused great to harm to undocumented immigrants who been viciously exploited with little legal recourse, and driven further into the underground economy.
The emergence of the immigrant workers movement was a powerful force that helped to reinvigorate parts of the U.S. labor movement, and harness the power of a new generation of predominantly Latino immigrant workers to transform parts of the labor movement. In Los Angeles, the legendary Justice for Janitors Movement and the organizing of the Hotel Workers under the leadership of Maria Elena Durazo represented historic breakthroughs in not only immigrant worker organizing, but the embrace of social movement unionism. The victory of the Home Care workers, led for years by black women, also greatly diversified the labor movement of California and brought more women, people of color, and low wage immigrant workers into the labor movement than any other organizing campaign in decades.
The national debate on the AFL-CIO policy on immigration came to a head during the 1999 convention held in Los Angeles. On the opening day of the convention, the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor organized a march within the convention hall with hundreds of recently organized immigrant workers of color. The marchers jumped on to the podium where the largely aging, white male AFL-CIO Executive Council was seated, dramatically contrasting two distinct parts of the labor movement. A remarkable change in the AFL-CIO immigration policy came the following year, in 2000, led by a progressive coalition of key unions including UNITE-HERE, SEIU, UFCW, and the United Farmworkers of America. For the first time, the AFL-CIO lined up on the right side of history on immigration, calling for full rights and a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
In 2003, UNITE HERE launched the Immigrant Worker Freedom Ride, a series of national bus tours that drew on the tradition of the Civil Rights movement. In states and cities throughout the country, the Freedom Ride built union and community alliances with a movement-building orientation. Congressman John Lewis and Rev. James Lawson Jr. worked with the Immigrant Worker Freedom Ride to connect the emerging immigrant rights movement with veterans from the Civil Rights movement from decades before.
In 2006, the largest May Day marches in U.S. history held in dozens of cities across the country were organized to respond to draconian anti-immigrant legislation in Congress. It was a profound reflection of the power of the immigrant workers movement, that successfully led to the defeat of the pending legislation. Ironically, the largest May Day in U.S. history was not led by the U.S. labor movement, but by immigrant workers themselves. In fact, some conservative union leaders watched from the sidelines, refusing to support the just demands of immigrant workers to end deportations and for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
The election of Tefere Gebre as the AFL-CIO Executive Vice President in 2013 was a breakthrough. For the first time in history, a black immigrant and political refugee became one of the top officers of the U.S. labor movement. Gebre was previously the leader of the Orange County Federation of Labor, where he mobilized the power of immigrant workers to not only reinvigorate the labor movement, but to change the political landscape. Orange County in 2016 voted for a Democrat for President for the first time since the 1930’s, and in 2018 Democrats swept the entire Congressional delegation in what was previously a bastion of right-wing politics.
In 2021, Liz Schuler was elected as the first woman President in AFL-CIO history. Currently, her two other national officers are black men, another historic first. The first leadership team of women and people of color within the AFL-CIO could change the national political environment through building a grassroots movement to support immigration reform.
Immigrant Youth Movement
Immigrant youth have been at the forefront of securing meaningful immigration policy victories over the last decade. Though immigrant youth have been organizing for a long time, the year 2010 was a game changer.
In May of 2010, five undocumented youth held a nonviolent sit-in at the office of Senator and former presidential-candidate John McCain, risking arrest and deportation. This courageous act exposed McCain’s political opportunism as a Senate leader who had previously co-sponsored the DREAM Act, yet instead withdrew his support to align with Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
In the coming months, immigrant youth engaged in unprecedented activism from hunger strikes in Los Angeles and Texas, a 1,500 mile march on-foot from Florida to Washington known as the “Trail of Dreams,” a “Dream Freedom Ride” caravan from Los Angeles to Washington D.C., and many other forms of nonviolent civil disobedience. The emergence of United We Dream, a national coalition of undocumented youth organizations, as well as “Dream Teams” of undocumented activists in states and cities across the country set the foundation for a new immigrant youth movement.
For more than twenty years, the DREAM Act, overwhelmingly supported by the public, has been blocked in Congress. The DREAM Act could provide a pathway to citizenship for qualifying immigrant youth and could change their lives, as well as the lives of their families and their communities. Despite the tremendous efforts made by immigrant youth, the DREAM Act was unable to get through the Senate because of a threatened filibuster in December of 2010. This was a bipartisan failure. A handful of Democrats voted against it, while some senators like John McCain and Joe Manchin, did not even show up to vote. As heartbreaking as this loss was, immigrant youth did not give up. Instead, they directed their attention to other efforts that could harness their energy and collective power.
The failure of the DREAM Act in December 2010, was the impetus for the launch of “Dream Summer” in 2011. Dream Summer is the first and only national fellowship program run by and for immigrant youth, launched by the UCLA Labor Center with support of United We Dream. The program aims to empower the next generation of social justice leaders by providing leadership and professional development opportunities to immigrant youth that embraces an intersectional, intergenerational, cross-racial approach. In its first year, the program received over 1,000 applications from eager immigrant youth that were ready to join the movement. Since its founding, the Dream Resource Center (DRC) of the UCLA Labor Center has emerged as a national source for innovative research, education, leadership development and policy on immigration issues.
Dream Summer centers the immigrant youth voice in local and national conversations that directly impact them in order to achieve representation, opportunity, and justice for immigrant communities. Over the past ten years, Dream Summer has played a pivotal role in developing immigrant youth leaders who have secured legislative victories such as the California Dream Act, DACA, and Health4AllKids in California.
In 2011, immigrant youth organized actions across the state of California to secure the passage of the California Dream Act, which for the past decade has provided tens of thousands of immigrant youth access to state financial aid for eligible undocumented Californians. Between 2016 – 2017 alone, more than 54,000 California immigrant youth applied for the California Dream Act.
Undocumented immigrant youth, many of them leaders of Dream Summer such as Neidi Dominguez and Ju Hong, were instrumental in advancing a national strategy to push President Obama to introduce Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in 2012. Today, over 800,000 immigrant youth have been able to work and have protection from deportation as a result of this victory.
In 2013, Dream Summer launched the Health Ambassadors Fellowship. The late Beatriz Solis from The California Endowment led the effort to support 114 immigrant youth to work at the intersections of health and immigration. The Dream Summer fellows produced a series of reports entitled, Undocumented and Uninsured, which informed policymakers about the need for health care for all Californians, regardless of legal status. In 2015, California passed Health4All Kids, which expanded full-scope medical to low-income children under the age of 19, regardless of immigration status. Most recently, immigrant youth were also key in securing the passage of the California Values Act, which limits collaboration between law enforcement and immigration officials in the detention and deportation process.
2021 marked the 10th anniversary of Dream Summer. Since its inception, more than 820 immigrant youth from across the country have participated in the program. Dream Summer has also developed partnerships with over 265 social justice organizations. Many Dream Summer alumni have gone off to hold leadership positions in various national, state and local social justice organizations. Undocumented immigrant youth continue to be at the forefront of the fight for immigrant justice.
Movement building is essential to advance Immigration reform. Unfortunately, some immigrant rights organizations speak on behalf of undocumented immigrants, while not promoting undocumented immigrants in key leadership positions. This is problematic, and has contributed to a failure to focus on movement building and a commitment to undocumented immigrant empowerment. History teaches us that we must build the immigrant workers movement and the immigrant youth movement to secure meaningful immigration reform.
Please join Voices for New Democracy for our next monthly political forum on Sunday, January 23rd at 4 p.m. PT / 7 p.m. ET for a conversation about the past and future of Black liberation with UCLA professor Robin D. G. Kelley. Click here to join the forum when it begins.
Professor Kelley will discuss the past and future of the latest iteration of Black liberation (BLM and more), and also reflect back on where we were 25-30 years ago as a way to think about the folks we recently lost and the lessons we might take from that moment, which Kelley believes was as dynamic and potentially transformational as 2014-2020.
As background reading, Professor Kelley encourages participants to read this short piece by Jamala Rogers, which sums up some of the internal crises facing the BLM movement: “things we don’t want to talk about but must.”
At long last, our world seems to have accepted the reality of climate change and the devastation it portends. But, we still have a long way to go in assessing, much less implementing, an effective global response.
Inevitably, the struggle for programmatic clarity unfolds against the backdrop of long-entrenched corporate domination of the key entities – the IMF and most of today’s nation-states — that might do something about it. These cautious and self-interested perspectives controlled the agenda at the recent COP26 climate conference in Glascow. Outside the conference, however, more thoughtful voices are beginning to be heard.
“US immigration policy is harsh and xenophobic, but it’s also rear-looking and stupid,” says (I paraphrase) Parag Khanna, author of Move: The Forces Uprooting Us.
Khanna was interviewed November 20 on the MMT-themed Macro ‘n Cheese podcast by regular host Steve Grumbine.
In world system geographer Khanna’s mind, climate change will impose adaptations on civilization that, unfortunately, the recent COP26 conference barely mentioned. Anticipating the conference’s stance, he says, it will focus on mitigations to “virtue signal” that “we can do this, world.”
That’s what it did, but that’s not good enough, says Khanna. Instead, he is laser-focused on one imposing, yet well-ignored adaptation: mass migration. Already unfolding and irreversible – just like climate change, itself – mass migration can be ignored only at civilization’s peril.
This is because, as climate change deepens and imposes its will, a great swath of the places where people live today will become increasingly uninhabitable. This devastation of ancient, previously-productive habitats distresses the Global South and indigenous people far more than the “modern” societies of the Global North. According to Khanna, mitigation efforts must, of course, be deployed, but they won’t be adequate to prevent the impending catastrophe in the South. Independent of our will and efforts, our warming earth is going to make life for humans in equatorial regions difficult and sparse. Adapting to that reality, mass migration from South to North is vital, but unfortunately, excruciatingly difficult.
While tragic in so many ways, this inevitable migration, Khanna avers, is also a “silver bullet.” For people of the Global South, it provides a place to go to sustain families and build new lives. And for nations in the North that are already at or near zero population growth, migration provides the younger workforce that these aging societies can’t do without.
In Khanna’s prophecy, mass migration serves both North and South and helps get humanity to the other side of its ecological nightmare. In stark contrast, the indigenous radicals behind The Red Deal say mass migration (social displacement) is just the latest and greatest catastrophe imposed on Nature and native people by capitalism and settler colonialism. “Land Back!” is their demand. They insist on full indigenous control of natural resource management everywhere because, without such strategic (anti-capitalist, anti-colonial) oversight and guidance, human life – indeed, all life – is in jeopardy.
To indigenous people, the earth – just like the water, animals, plants and other people – is a “relative” and, like all relatives, must be treated with care, justice and opportunity. Relative-care is the only way to save our planet from the destruction of capitalist exploitation. Thus, indigenous people look forward to managing the earth’s fragile, climate-ravaged, equatorial regions, and they will endure whatever hardship is necessary to restore their wounded relative — the earth. But for this, indigenous people expect nothing less than the decisive voice in civilization’s long-range, natural resource management agenda (aka, the Green New Deal) as well as all the resources necessary to mitigate and abate the crisis wherever it exists or emerges. In the meantime, indigenous people expect the right to emigrate and to be welcomed wherever they choose (or are forced) to go.
Today’s ill-conceived US immigration policy erects walls against the very workforce the nation needs for its own survival. Biden-Harris take note. A good policy would encourage immigration and a path to citizenship. Khanna cites Canada and Kazakhstan as nations that have sound immigration and citizenship programs and stand to prosper as people and production move north through the 21st century. After traveling extensively in Russia (where global warming is creating vast regions of newly arable land), he also reports rising interest in the Russian hinterland for a more welcoming immigration policy. The US, meanwhile, stands to lose substantially if it does not ease its anti-immigrant policies and correct its white-supremacist fringe.
Khanna acknowledges but doesn’t much concern himself with the injustice that, “once again,” hits the Global South far worse than the North. In his brief allowance that mitigations (as well as adaptations) must be deployed, Khanna expresses solidarity with those seeking redress of imperialism’s unjust equatorial legacy, yet he stresses the inevitability and redeeming worth of mass migration and, accordingly, urges an “incremental evolution” in anti-imperialist demands. He does not so much as mention “indigenous rights” or “indigenous authority,” apparently presuming that existing means of natural resource management and allocation can be adequately reformed within the framework of evolving but on-going capitalism and nation-state authority. He also never mentions socialism or any transformational vision of mainstream production and exchange.
His omission of indigenous impacts and other class dynamics is hardly unexpected given the white, settler, colonial blind spots of Western imperialism and the academics within. It is a major, ideological shortcoming but should not disqualify Khanna’s factual point that – depending on various geographic factors (resources, borders, infrastructure and people) – climate change is already having uneven and divergent impacts that will make life easier and more sustainable in northern regions than in southern. Sound public policy will ground itself in this reality.
Khanna also anticipates sharpening competition between the US and China because both are competing for younger workers, yet both are rather xenophobic. He says that China, with a younger domestic workforce, was ascendant as the (post-Soviet) global economy took shape in recent decades – and was more nimble with state finances than the West. But, going forward (post-pandemic), it will endure strong competition as all economies seek to add (restore) local production and commercial circulation against the pandemic-made-apparent danger of over-reliance on global supply chains. Diversification and localization are the now the rising trend. China’s share of global trade is bound to shrink. He notes that Cuba and Viet Nam (among others) evidence sound practice in endogenous self-sufficiency. In contrast, he lists Norway and other Scandinavian countries that, despite their welcoming social perspective, cast a heavy global footprint due to their national reliance on oil revenue.
The divergence in viewpoint between Khanna and the Red Nation reveals the depth that the present climate change discourse must still fathom. It’s a deep and wide chasm, but with only a decade or less to figure it out, a much intensified debate and a re-tooled strategy is indispensable. Who is going to lead us to salvation… the corporate sector with its financial and technological “fixes” or indigenous people at the head of a popular, global movement? Time is short; we need to get this right, and we need to do it soon.
As we enter the new year, Voices for New Democracy is proud to announce our next monthly political forum will take place on January 23rd at 4 p.m. PT / 7 p.m. ET featuring UCLA Professor Robin D. G. Kelley.
In anticipation of the upcoming forum, we are reprinting an interview with Kelley from March 2021 by the writer Vinson Cunningham, which delves into key themes of his work and analysis. In it, Kelley discusses Black Marxism and the legacy of Cedric Robinson, highlights the role of the Black radical tradition in the summer 2020 uprising, interrogates and clarifies our understanding of racial capitalism, and highlights the importance of solidarity in advancing movements for justice. Among other wide-ranging topics, Kelly also touches his experience with the Communist Workers Party and his personal history of activism.
Robin D.G. Kelley is, for my money, the great historian of our era. He has written groundbreaking works about, among other things, Alabama’s Communist Party during the Great Depression; the life of Thelonious Monk; and the visions of activists and thinkers from the African diaspora. On top of his work at UCLA — where he is a distinguished professor and holds the Gary B. Nash Endowed Chair in U.S. history — he issues a steady stream of limpid, persuasive, almost casually brilliant essays on politics, current affairs and cultural matters for Boston Review and other outlets. He keeps an eye on grassroots movements and on how maintaining a fertile, humane vision for the future creates new opportunities for radical action in the present.
In the year 2000, Kelley led the charge to reissue “Black Marxism,” a great, globe-spanning work of political history by one of his mentors, Cedric Robinson — successfully rescuing the book, then out of print, from near-obscurity. Since then, he has quite accidentally become the foremost authority on the late Robinson’s work and ideas. (“I did not want that,” he told me, sounding good-naturedly harried by the distinction.) Last year, after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, among others, at the hand of police officers, and the global protest uprising that followed, UNC Press decided to reissue “Black Marxism,” which — as Kelley had predicted two decades earlier — had become more relevant than ever.
Kelley wrote a rousing foreword for the new edition of “Black Marxism” and is working on a book called “Black Bodies Swinging: An American Postmortem,” about how the protests of 2020 are connected to a long history of resistance.
Vinson Cunningham: I’ve been thinking about you and Cedric Robinson. I love how, in your foreword to “Black Marxism,” this new foreword, you always call him by his first name. It’s like: Marx and Engels and Cedric. That’s moving to me. It reminds me of one of my favorite essays, “Looking for Zora,” where Alice Walker goes to find Zora Neale Hurston’s grave. There’s a kind of artistic and intellectual lineage that’s not only about reading — there’s an affective aspect, something to do with feeling and familiarity. What is it about Cedric for you?
Robin D.G. Kelley: I was a student of Cedric’s. He was on my dissertation committee. I was in awe of him. Reading “Black Marxism” that first time in 1984, it just blew my mind and changed my whole orientation. Everything I do as a scholar can be traced back to that book — everything.
He passed in 2016, and with his passing, that’s the first time I ever really dug into his biography. His widow, Elizabeth Robinson, knew that I was close to Cedric intellectually and in other ways. She said, “Look, no one’s writing an obit. We can’t get an obit anywhere.” And I said, “I’ll write one.” I interviewed her, talked to her, and learned all these details that I was kicking myself. I was like, “If I had asked the question … .” I didn’t ask the question because I’m a very shy person. I know that I’m in the public and stuff, but it’s a different thing.
VC: Why did you think the time was right for this third edition?
RDGK: I confess, I’m not the one who came up with the idea of putting it out again. It was UNC Press: Brandon Proia. In the midst of the protests — you had 26 million people on the street. He emailed me and Elizabeth and said, “Look, now’s the time to put out a third edition.” With the new foreword I wanted, one, to really tell Cedric’s story, to situate his intellectual biography to understand where this book came from. Two, to situate the book in relationship to the rebellion of 2020 and talk about it as a manifestation of a black radical tradition. So much of the conversation in political circles, coming out of or preceding the 2020 rebellion, all use terms like “racial capitalism” more than anything else. So I wanted to try to understand this movement, while also trying to clarify what Cedric meant by (a) Black radical tradition and (b) racial capitalism.
VC: What are the difficulties in defining what racial capitalism means?
RDGK: The slightly more traditional Marxist scholars reject the idea that capitalism can actually be racial. They say, “Race is real. It’s a phenomenon. But it’s not really the fundamental one. It sort of gets in the way of what’s really the root of oppression: the reproduction of a capitalized class.” That’s class reduction. And then meanwhile, the so-called race reductionist position — you could call it Afro-pessimism lite — is that we’re just for Black people. They say, “The whole structure of Western civilization is based on anti-Blackness and anti-Blackness alone. And therefore, there can be no allyship, there can be no solidarity.” This kind of standoffishness, saying Black people need to just be for Black people, is not Cedric’s position at all.
The class reductionist versus race reductionist debate doesn’t really advance us. Cedric advances us by helping us understand how capitalism is based on racial regimes. So, for example, property may be capital, in the Marxist sense, but property values are dependent on things that are nonmaterial — that are ideological, or superstructural — like race. Capitalism is rooted in a civilization that is based on difference. This doesn’t at all mean that white people are the enemy, or that Black people are all victims, which I totally reject. It doesn’t mean that all white people benefit. It just simply means that capitalism is structured through difference.
I have made a point of the fact that Cedric was writing a critique of Marxism — but not a hostile critique. He wasn’t rejecting all of Marx and Engels’ ideas, but he felt like Marxism was a window to understanding forms of radicalism that neither Marx nor Engels, nor Lenin, and others, could really grasp. Ironically, some people have gone to a kind of extreme, saying, “There’s nothing in Marxism that’s useful. It’s just a white man making up some stuff, and Cedric is right.” And I’m like, “No.” I find myself actually becoming more of a Marxist in my defense of Cedric.
VC: What do you view as your role as an intellectual? As you write “Black Bodies Swinging,” how do you make sure that what you’re describing is not only scrupulously true but also feeds into a politics that helps us both survive in the present and get somewhere more free in the future?
RDGK: That’s a great question. I feel like it’s not mandatory but it’s really important for me to be engaged in these movements, to make no pretense about some kind of dispassionate, detached objectivity. I think that we need to practice something that’s even better than objectivity. And that is, as you know, critique. Critique, to me, is better than objectivity. Objectivity is a false stance. I’m not neutral. I’ve never been neutral. I write about struggles and social movements because I actually don’t think the world is right and something needs to change.
As a historian, as a writer, I’ve got to try to be as critical as possible. I’m always trying to be truthful. As I write and produce this work, I learn things that we didn’t see before, but then, the work also reveals things that I failed to understand. And so to me, it’s always a process.
VC: Speaking of that kind of deep involvement, I would love to hear you talk about what California — and maybe Los Angeles, specifically — has meant for you in terms of your life but also in terms of your imagination of struggle.
RDGK: I came to California by way of Seattle in high school at the age of 15. It was in Pasadena. I was able to go to a state university where the tuition or the fees were $90 a semester. Cal State Long Beach. This was a time when we had a lot more Black students and brown students in college. I was involved with the Black student union. I had a part-time study group that was organized by the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party in Long Beach. That’s where I read Walter Rodney and Samir Amin and C.L.R. James — not so much in classrooms but in study groups.
A lot of the young people at the university and older people were working-class people — these were not the elites. In the ’80s we had the invasion of Grenada, we had the sanctuary movement, and the wars in Central America that were just driving Central Americans into Southern California; there was the anti-apartheid movement.
I ended up joining the Communist Workers Party at some point around 1983 or ‘84. I can’t remember when. [Jesse] Jackson’s 1984 campaign was really, really important. We had the Olympics come to Los Angeles in ’84. We organized a whole protest around the Olympics called Survival Fest. And we had a march down Wilshire Boulevard, MacArthur Park. There were like 10,000 people. Got no press, but 10,000 people marching down Wilshire Boulevard. Demanding what? Our demands were jobs, peace and freedom. It was a very exciting time.
VC: I’m glad you mentioned Jesse Jackson, because I have often lamented our resistance to his idea of a Rainbow Coalition. He was explicitly tying rural whites to Latino immigrants to Black working-class people, and putting forward the idea that we can only do this together. Solidarity was in the air.
RDGK: And, of course, where does Jesse Jackson get the idea of the Rainbow Coalition? It comes from Fred Hampton. He coined the term. The Black Panther Party, Illinois chapter, coined the term. And it’s through, specifically, a man named Jack O’Dell. I knew him. Jack was a former Black Communist, a close associate of Dr. King’s and then of Jesse’s, who bridged the generations and brought a left orientation to the civil rights movement. He was the one who introduced the Rainbow Coalition to Jackson. In our current moment, it’s hard to talk about things like a Rainbow Coalition politically. It goes against the white-ally idea, which I’m not really big into, where the ally is perceived to stand aside, standing there ready to be …
VC: … happy to help.
RDGK: Yeah, “happy to help.” The Rainbow Coalition’s more like, “We need to build a movement and we’re all in it.”
VC: And my freedom is a part of yours. I can’t get mine without you getting swept up too.
RDGK: Absolutely. The Rainbow Coalition notion really happened at the grass roots. It had less to do with Jackson and more to do with all the organizing on the ground. When Jackson ran for office, there was a vacuum because the Democratic Party establishment did not like him. The Black Democratic Party establishment did not like him. So that vacuum meant that all of these left-wing organizations basically swept in and became his advisors, Line of March, Communist Workers Party, the Communist Labor Party. I can name them because I was part of it. I was a member of the Communist Workers Party working on the Jackson campaign, all part of this underground of left-wing forces.
VC: You’ve said that in some ways the Black radical tradition comes together at “the crossroads where Black revolt and fascism meet.” What does fascism have to do with our moment, and what resources do we have to fight it?
VC: In order to fight it, you have to fight it everywhere it exists and be in solidarity with — show love for — everybody who lives under it.
RK: Internationalism is the Raid for the cockroach of fascism. Because fascism, it’s always about using nationalism, and the nation, as a bludgeon to generate support for death policies, on behalf of death governments. For violence and repression and exploitation, internationalism is the antidote, always.
On Sunday, December 12th, Voices for New Democracy hosted our latest monthly political forum exploring the climate crisis and what it means for today’s left.
Moderated by our very own José Z. Calderón, the discussion was led by Voices for New Democracy friends Bob Eng and Harrison Carpenter-Neuhaus, starting with a presentation highlighting the scope of the climate crisis and the path toward a decarbonized world. The discussion touched on important and challenging issues raised by the specter of climate change: the disruption of extreme weather events, demobilization due to “climate grief,” a new era of geopolitics driven by demand for clean energy commodities like lithium, and the threat of exploitative business models driving the global energy transition. Conversation with the audience also raised important questions about how the left should orient itself politically amid these headwinds: whether we must embrace the movement for “degrowth,” prioritize indigenous liberation and anti-colonialism in our efforts (as advocated in The Red Deal), and how to engage with more mainstream labor-climate proposals like the Green New Deal.
Given the scope of the climate crisis, our presenters believe that climate politics represents the political terrain of the 21st century. But big questions remain about how the left can rise to the moment, and we need your analysis.
With that in mind, we encourage our readers to write to us to share their thoughts and analysis around these questions. If you’re interested in responding to any points raised by this discussion, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.