Labor’s duty to confront the far right

February 28, 2018

Joe Allen explains how far-right ideas can find a hearing among workers--and argues that organizing in unions and workplaces is the way to confront this threat.

ONE OF the most disturbing features of the growth of the far right, including outright fascist and Nazi parties, during the last three decades has been its appeal to working-class voters, especially in the older, industrial heartland regions. Pick a country across Europe, and the story is virtually the same.

Ravaged by deindustrialization, accompanied by decades of declining living standards, significant layers of industrial workers and their communities have turned away from traditional social democratic or Communist parties toward parties of the far right. In many cases, the parties of the far right have recast themselves as "working class" parties

Earlier this month, the New York Times published an extremely disturbing article on the growing influence of the modern-day Nazi party in Germany, Alternative for Germany (AfD) in the German union movement.

While the Times focused on one worker--a coal miner, union activist and former supporter of the center-left Social Democratic Party who is now an activist for the AfD--this is a situation that has been evolving for a long time.

Autoworkers organized around the UAW's "Buy American" campaign in the 1980s
Autoworkers organized around the UAW's "Buy American" campaign in the 1980s

A new report titled "Trade Unions and Right-Wing Extremism in Europe" by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung forum in Berlin quotes a 1990 report by Ernst Breit, then-Chairman of the German Trade Union Confederation (DGB). He wrote:

Although the DGB has always drawn attention to a noteworthy far-right and xenophobic potential...we cannot claim that we were prepared for the new situation. We need to acknowledge that membership in a trade union does not provide immunity against infection by the far right.

Talk about not heeding warnings--those words were written 28 years ago. Further successes for the AfD and other far-right parties like it, whether in electoral politics and the trade unions, will have global implications for socialists and antifascists.

IN THE U.S., Donald Trump's triumph over Hillary Clinton, thanks to the Electoral College, was based on a similar political message of racism and economic nationalism, but still contained within the two-party system. Trump appealed directly to industrial workers--many of whom had voted for Barack Obama twice before--embittered by the Democrats' betrayals and the failed promises of "free trade" deals like NAFTA.

Slogans like "America First, " "Make America Great Again" or "Buy American" tap into a widespread belief that the U.S. is plundered by ungrateful foreigners, in league with "elites" in the U.S., at the expense of hard-working Americans. Trump's disgusting anti-Mexican racism and China-bashing are meant to distract workers from the real source of the misery--brought to them by the capitalist class of this country.

Trump's xenophobia, unfortunately, is a version of what has been the "foreign policy" of most U.S.-based trade unions for decades--with the notable exception of the United Electrical (UE) workers union. The big industrial unions, including the United Auto Workers, United Steelworkers and Teamsters deserve a large share of blame for legitimizing xenophobic politics, while not launching any serious fightback against the bosses.

Support for protectionist trade measures and wide-ranging concessions to U.S.-based corporations, supposedly to make them more "competitive" internationally, have gone hand in hand, weakening labor's ability to fight capital.

In the last 20 years, while the major industrial unions have scrubbed away some of their nastier messaging, the underlying point is the same: Foreigners are responsible for your plight.

This was clear from the UAW's "Buy American" campaign of the 1970s and '80s, which didn't start at the top the union, but "surged up from the bottom," as Dana Frank, who wrote Buy American: The Untold Story of Economic Nationalism, put it.

"Buy American slogans and activities cropped up all over the country," Frank wrote, "although they seem to have been strongest in the upper Midwest, the historic center of automobile employment where UAW loyalties were strongest and where entire communities were most often devastated by auto layoffs in the 1980s."

The UAW's campaign was focused on primarily on Japanese automakers Toyota, Mitsubishi and Nissan. The campaign dredged up the barely concealed anti-Japanese racism from the Second World War era, replete with the horrid and ignorant mocking of Japanese culture and language. UAW members also enthusiastically participated in well-publicized events, such as smashing up Japanese-made cars with sledgehammers.

One deadly consequence of this Japan-bashing was the murder of Chinese-American Vincent Chin by Chrysler plant superintendent Ronald Ebens and his stepson in 1982. "It's because of you little motherfuckers that we're out of work," Ebens shouted at Chin before bludgeoning him with a baseball bat. Chin died from his injuries four days later.

Ebens and stepson were charged with manslaughter--and after being convicted, they were sentenced to three years' probation. The Asian-American community was outraged by the light sentence.

To its credit, the UAW demanded that Ebens, not a UAW member, be removed from the Chrysler plant where he worked, but the union also knew that it was playing with fire.

Three months before Chin was murdered, Lee Price, the UAW's research staff member responsible for trade issues, warned, "I would like to suggest that all our orientation sessions explicitly address a potentially explosive issue: racist remarks."

He feared that racist remarks by union members at "Buy America" events could result in the "UAW becom[ing] associated with racism in the minds of Congress, the media and ultimately the public."

IN THE 1990s, Bill Clinton remolded the Democratic Party to embrace neoliberal economic policies, and one of the few campaign promises he kept was to sign NAFTA into law.

While a large number of Congressional Democrats voted against NAFTA and similar trade deals, it was outlier reactionaries like billionaire Ross Perot and political columnist Pat Buchanan who made a name for themselves by highlighting their opposition to "free trade" and ugly anti-Mexican racism during their presidential campaigns.

Buchanan left behind an important legacy for the far right to claim today. He worked in the Nixon and Reagan White Houses, but his Holocaust denial, anti-Semitism and opposition to free trade made him anathema to the Republican establishment in the 1990s.

After running outsider campaigns for the Republican presidential nomination that were successful in mobilizing a right-wing base, but fell short of victory, Buchanan resigned from the Republican Party in 1999 and joined the Reform Party, which Perot created as a vehicle for his own presidential ambitions in 1992.

Buchanan's third-party presidential campaign in 2000 might have been entirely ignored had he not been rescued from obscurity by the Teamsters.

In April 2000, the Teamsters took the lead in organizing a thousands-strong march on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., in a failed effort to stop trade normalization with China. Speaking at the rally, Buchanan praised old guard Teamster leader James P. Hoffa and promised to appoint him to his cabinet if he was elected president.

Hoffa's embrace of Buchanan re-established the Teamsters' ties with the political right that were severed during the reform years under General President Ron Carey. The old guard was not only connected to the Republican Party over many years, but to the creepy fascist world of cult leader Lyndon LaRouche.

Meanwhile, Buchanan's toxic politics were a gateway to fascism for the current crop of would-be Führers in the U.S., including Matthew Heimbach, who leads the Traditionalist Worker Party (TWP). Heimbach, who became infamous for his assault on a Black women at a Trump rally in 2016, promotes his party as friendly to the white working class, though so far, it has gotten little traction.

In many ways, Trump's 2016 campaign owes a lot to Buchanan, even though Trump once denounced Buchanan as a "Hitler lover." Trump also harvested the seeds planted by big industrial unions long ago.

TRUMP'S ELECTION has clearly emboldened the far right. While the Nazi fringe was pushed back following the violence it initiated at last August's "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, the broader alt-tight continues its nefarious project with deadly consequences. They

The far right continue to feed off Trump's xenophobic and racist policies. It is this larger xenophobia, combined with deeply rooted anti-Black racism, as well as anti-Semitism, that emboldens and legitimizes today's fascists and wannabe-fascists.

Fascism is not a working class movement. When fascists have come to power, the working class and its institutions have been the primary targets of repression.

However, some the U.S.'s most notorious fascist murderers, political figures and leaders have come from working class backgrounds.

The most infamous was probably Timothy McVeigh, the son of a General Motors autoworker and UAW member from upstate New York, who, along with Terry Nichols, carried out the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995.

Another example is Randy Weaver, made became famous during the Ruby Ridge standoff in 1992--he came from a working-class family and worked at a John Deere assembly plant before moving to Idaho and becoming an active white supremacist.

Notably, McVeigh, Nichols and Weaver all learned their deadly skills in various branches of the U.S. military.

Dylann Roof, who murdered nine people at a Black church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, came from a broken and struggling lower middle class/working class family. His father was a carpenter. Roof lived a socially isolated life with few jobs prospects.

There are hundreds of thousands of downwardly mobile white kids like Dylann Roof. The future and shape of anti-fascist organizing has to take these things into account.

Personally, I don't believe that Trump and his policies are as unpopular among his white working class supporters as we would have hoped by now. Why do I say this? Because my job takes me to many places in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana where I interact with many white truck drivers and skilled tradesmen.

In my opinion, those who voted for Trump are still Trump supporters, though they may be less vocal about it in some cases and not in others. Trump is still sowing fertile ground for fascist politics to take root among working-class people.

The Autoworker Caravan, a network of current and retired UAW members, described to the Detroit News a visible rise in racist intimidation and Nazi-like behavior inside the auto plants:

Among the incidents that the group has heard of and condemns: A Black worker encountered a noose at an auto plant in Wyoming, Mich.; shop-floor supervisors at a non-union facility in Warren gestured to each other with Nazi salutes; and racist graffiti was found in the lavatories in an engine plant in Ohio.

Frank Hammer, a retired local UAW president and co-founder of the Autoworker Caravan, told the News, "Several of these reports came from internal sources. We're seeing what may appear to be a pattern of heightened racists incidents that I, personally, believe is coming in the wake of Trump's election."

SOCIALISTS IN the U.S. are not in a situation where we can do anti-fascist work among industrial workers or their communities, but there are opportunities to organize, particularly in education workplaces and unions.

The Campus Antifascist Network (CAN), an initiative launched by education workers, provides socialists with organizing opportunities. CAN is important not only for being a modest network to build solidarity with left-wing, Muslim, Arab and critical thinking faculty who are under siege across the country, but it is also a training ground for anti-fascist organizing in a workplace where faculty and staff may be union members or supporters.

One important example of labor activism against the far right was the mobilization of unions for the Bay Area Rally Against Hate rally in late August 2017.

Last year, Berkeley, California, came under sustained attack from the far right because of its reputation of as a liberal bastion, the huge University of California (UC) campus located there.

Following on the heels of the Nazi violence in Charlottesville, far-right groups planned another mobilization for Berkeley, and major unions were central to organizing the counterprotest, including the Berkeley Federation of Teachers; AFSCME Local 3299, which represents campus workers at UC Berkeley; SEIU Local 1021, which represents city of Berkeley workers; and UAW Local 2865, which represents student workers on campus.

Vastly outnumbered, the Nazis skulked away in defeat that day.

But it isn't just on the college level that this struggle is taking place. In Stoughton, Massachusetts, south of Boston, the display of a swastika at a school event led to three teachers being disciplined by the school superintendent for responding to it. The Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) rushed to the defense of its members, but this event highlighted for me how the potential Dylann Roofs of the world are all around us.

That concern recently played out at Marjory Stonemen Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where Nikolas Cruz shot and killed 17 students. Cruz was erroneously reported to have been a member of a fascist group, but later reporting revealed that his Instagram chat group was filled with toxic racism and anti-Semitism, along with threats by him to kill gays and Jews.

Historically, anti-fascist work has work has been difficult to sustain. The experience of the Midwest Network to Stop the Klan in the 1990s taught many of us a lot about things about organizing largely reactive actions to the Ku Klux Klan. But we are in a new era, both for the global fascist threat and the necessity of anti-fascist campaigning, especially in unions and workplaces.

Further Reading

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