From Transactional to Transformative Politics: Metro Labor Council's Carlos Jiminez Speaks to Socialist Salon
By Kurt Stand
Though Bernie Sanders is not a ballot choice this November, the perspectives he articulated during his presidential campaign continue to inform working-class and progressive politics because they touched upon the sense of common need and urgency for a new direction felt by many. That combination was at the heart of a presentation by Carlos Jimenez, Executive Director, Metro Washington Council, AFL-CIO at Metro DSA’s Socialist Salon on September 22.
Throughout his talk, he stressed the connection between sustaining local labor’s current strength, organizing new members and affirmatively acting on behalf of working people’s needs beyond those defined by collective bargaining.Jimenez is part of a new leadership team at the Council, working with Jackie Jeter who was elected Council President (she also serves as Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 president), taking charge of a body that has 200 local union affiliates representing over 150,000 members in DC and suburban Maryland. This is a new structure, dividing responsibilities held by longtime Council President Joslyn Williams prior to his retirement. Williams had overseen the Council’s growth not only numerically but also its scope — providing services, support and solidarity for organized and unorganized workers alike in DC and suburban Maryland. The need to have an Executive Director alongside an elected president speaks to the complexity that accompanies growth. It also speaks to the need for on-going revitalization in the face of union contraction for locally as across the country the percentage of unionized workers is in decline. The changing nature of work and employment means that several thousand new union members have to be organized in our Metropolitan region each year just to maintain existing union density. A near impossible task given the state of labor law and the expansion of part-time, precarious work unless the political environment is changed.
It is a decline that, if not halted, will lead to an existential crisis at some point in the future. How to confront and overcome that potential collapse was at the heart of Jimenez’ talk, in which he stressed the need to address the political and social dimensions of the assault on working people as intrinsic to defense of workers wages, benefits and rights on the job. In furtherance of those goals, the Labor Council has been in the leadership in the fight for a $15 minimum wage, in the fight for paid sick/family leave, for improved Metro safety, increased public school funding and greater access to health care.
A participatory discussion following the formal presentation centered on various views of what a broad labor/social agenda might look like. Concerns that were raised included climate change, war abroad and military spending, student debt, policing and mass incarceration, education, discrimination and inequality, transportation, gentrification and housing. All of these, as Jimenez noted, are issues of direct concern of union members, citing, for example, housing costs and rising rents, for such have reached levels that force union members with good jobs to go into debt or move.
To confront this array of problem requires action based on a level of analysis that looks beyond surface issues — workers need jobs, yet in a capitalist society jobs are dependent on a irrational imperative to growth which is destroying our environment (and which can lead to conflicts within labor as is taking place now over pipeline construction). A critical aspect of engaging working people in substantive discussions that looks beyond the surface lies in confronting business control over the media which not only distorts the news, but also limits the frame of what is seen or known. Thus in response to a question of the extent to which unions engage in social activity, Jimenez pointed out that union members frequently hold picnics and social events, and engage in volunteer activity — such as craft workers volunteering their time to help repair dilapidated housing — but slices of life and commitment like these never make it to the Washington Post, to local television or commercial radio.
Moreover union members, activists and leaders alike need to have a clear understanding of who really has power in our region. This entails doing a local power structure analysis in order to see which corporate forces behind the scenes are driving policies adopted by Mayor Bowser and the City Council (and those of the Prince George’s and Montgomery County Executives). Jimenez explained the importance of doing so by reference to a recent 9-4 vote to table a “Just Hours” measure that would have given low-wage workers predictability in their schedule and inhibit employers increase of part-time work in order to avoid paying health, family leave and other legally mandated benefits to their employees. Several “progressives” on the Council who had promised to support the legislation failed to do so at the least moment, most likely due to pressure from big box stores.
That problem ties to another: the need to prioritize resisting labor’s direct enemies, while also challenging those who ask for (and receive) union support. This is precisely the message of Sanders since the close of his campaign — we must defeat Trump and we must be prepared, the day after the election, to organize and press Hillary Clinton to carry out the progressive proposals incorporated in the Democratic Party platform.
Or, in other words, build the basis to move from transactional (deal-making) to transformative politics. Jimenez cited an example from his native Los Angeles where the local labor movement supported Antonio Villaraigosa when he ran for Mayor in 2001 and (successfully) in 2005 against an incumbent fellow Democrat — posing the usefulness of working with an office holder to whom unions could talk against the principled value of supporting someone who spoke to a Latino population which until then had no meaningful voice in the city’s politics. There is returned us to the importance of combining particular trade union goals and interests within the general framework of organizing on behalf of working-class needs and interests as a whole within our communities and society at large. In that there is a broad congruence of perspective between DSA and the Labor Council, and the talk ended with the desire to continue joint discussions and action. The latter, Jimenez concluded, can begin with a planned demonstration against all that Trump represents, which is being planned for the opening of his downtown hotel.
Jimenez’ remarks at the Salon recalled those he gave at the “Democracy Awakening” rally and civil disobedience actions in front of the Capitol Building this past April:
“Democracy, by its very nature, will require that we embrace each other. Everywhere you go you see labor’s struggle … I need this planet, I need to be able to breathe, I need to be able to eat, I need to be able to be myself, whoever that may be. I need to live. All of us who promote social justice, defend self-determination, and share a commitment to a collective responsibility for creating a more just world have got to come together to preserve democracy …”
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