Why labor is mobilizing to protest the far right

August 25, 2017

Larry Bradshaw, who serves as strategic adviser to the executive board of SEIU Local 1021, has been part of the organizing for this weekend's Bay Area Rally Against Hate to counterprotest the far right when it returns to Berkeley on August 27. He talked to SocialistWorker.org about why unions need to be actively involved in this struggle--and how labor can contribute to the strategy of building mass opposition to the hatemongers.

THE labor movement has a long and proud history of opposing and campaigning against the far right, and that's for good reason. Remember the poem by Pastor Niemöller from Germany, who famously warned:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me--and there was no one left to speak for me.

It's not surprising that Pastor Niemöller mentioned trade unions early on as a target of the far right and Nazis. That's because unions are the collective voice and strength of working people on the job, and democracy and solidarity are at the heart of the labor movement.

What these far-right extremists and neo-Nazis want to do is divide communities on the basis of some perceived difference--race, ethnicity, national origin, sex, gender, etc.

Whereas labor gets its power by celebrating our diversity and building strength through inclusion and unity. The far right uses its rallies to try to intimidate and threaten people, while labor tries to mobilize people around a message of justice, equality and human rights.

Masses of people take the streets in Boston to protest the far right
Masses of people take the streets in Boston to protest the far right

The far-right extremists scapegoat the weakest and most vulnerable in our society in order to give their members a sense of strength and superiority. Labor champions the downtrodden and tries to lift up those left behind, knowing that when we lift up those on the bottom, we lift up everyone.

THAT'S WHY those of us in unions thought it important for labor to take a high-profile, leadership role in helping build a political mass movement in Berkeley that isolates this far right and shows just how marginal they really are.

The far-right extremists have targeted college towns like Berkeley and Charlottesville, where they come and try to demonize immigrant communities, Muslims and LGBT people. They try to intimidate folks, physically and psychologically, and provoke violence.

For most of this year, the people who have gone out to counterprotest because they're disgusted with the neo-Nazis and the far right feel like the only solution is to try to physically drive them off the street.

There are good reasons why they think this. They're recognizing the truth in something Hitler wrote--that the one thing that could have stopped the Nazis was if its enemies had understood what it was about from the start and smashed the nucleus of the movement from the first day.

That's where the Antifa folks are coming from. But as unionists and people who live in Berkeley, we feel that physical confrontation, in and of itself, isn't enough--and that we need to build a political movement that isolates the far-right extremists. We need a mass movement against those who seek to make racism and violence and xenophobia acceptable.

When the far right has shown up in Berkeley this year, they've been confronted each time by a small number of anti-fascists who try to physically defeat them. But if it's a small group of anti-fascists, this fits into the far right's narrative that the left is denying the alt right their freedom of speech. We don't get to talk about what the far right really represents.

What these battles have done is limit the number of people who feel like they can come out and confront the far right. If the litmus test for being an anti-fascist is being able to physically mix it up and get into a melee with far-right extremists, then you've excluded the majority of workers, students and members of community organizations.

We have a situation where the majority of us who live and work in Berkeley have been made passive spectators in this fight against the far-right extremists.

So a number of us in different unions who live in Berkeley started talking among ourselves about whether labor could help anchor a broad coalition of unions, students, community organizations and the left to create a safe space where the broad majority of Berkeley could come together against hate speech and the far right.

Meanwhile, the International Socialist Organization, working with organizations like La Voz de los Trabajadores and Democratic Socialists of America, were floating a similar proposal, and that began spreading on the left and among progressive organizations.

So we joined forces, including the three biggest unions in the city of Berkeley: the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, AFSCME Local 3299, which represents campus workers at UC Berkeley, and SEIU Local 1021, which represents city of Berkeley workers. Other unions like UAW Local 2865, which is the student workers on campus, signed on, too.

What we wanted to do was organize a nonviolent rally that would be a place where people who had been made spectators could come out and take part in a public, visible expression of opposition to these far-right extremists.

It would also be our free speech rally, where we would talk about our values: that we're for immigrant rights, for worker rights, for Black Lives Matter, for transgender rights, for the rights of people with disabilities and much more.

WE LINKED up our efforts behind this vision of building a mass movement against the far right around eight weeks ago--way before Charlottesville. It was a bit of a struggle early on--the coalition grew slowly and steadily.

Then Charlottesville happened. Everyone witnessed the horrific tragedy and recognized that some on the far right aren't above using lethal force against counterprotesters.

We weren't really sure what that would mean for our movement in Berkeley--maybe it would mean our rallies would be smaller. But what happened instead was an outpouring of support and endorsements. If you look on our website, you'll see that we now have about four pages of endorsements. There are nine unions on board, along with the Alameda Labor Council and San Francisco Labor Council.

Working in this coalition has been exciting, and it's also been challenging.

It's challenging because it's a real coalition--very big and broad. You have a lot of people in the room, and we have different views on how to fight the far right, on the role of the police, on the city administration, on how to deal with the Democratic Party and politicians.

So it has been a struggle to keep that unity around the singular focus of building a mass movement against these far-right extremists. But what's exciting is that we've been able to do that.

Last Sunday, for example, we held our first safety and security training, and we expected maybe 40 or 50 people would show up. We had 170 people packed into the room: young union members, students, members of community organizations, people who had never served as a marshal in a protest or a demonstration.

That energy and excitement, that refusal to be intimidated by what happened in Charlotttesville, has been overwhelming.

There's still tensions and debates. Some forces on the left say that what our coalition has done is good, but the real anti-fascists are the people who want to wear face coverings and armor and shields, and go down and physically confront the neo-Nazis.

I think we have to push back and say, yes, those are anti-fascists. But so is a city of Berkeley worker who comes out to our protest. So is a campus groundskeeper or a teacher who comes out to our protest. We all have to be anti-fascists now after Charlottesville.

We had no idea that something like Charlottesville was around the corner when we started our organizing in Berkeley. But it was the right thing to do, and when you start building from the ground up, you're in a position, when something big or horrific happens, to pull together the forces that can respond.

So I think the message to folks around the country--particularly folks in the labor movement--is that you should be reaching out and building these alliances and coalitions in your communities.

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