labor Democratic Socialists Look To Take Over New York's Powerful Labor Unions
NEW YORK — A left-leaning political organization that publicly backed Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in her insurgent victory last year was also quietly plotting to penetrate another New York City power source — labor unions.
The New York City branch of the Democratic Socialists of America presented its members with a strategy last year to gain entry into some of the city’s most powerful labor organizations and ensure they are adhering to the “militant” principles that the group felt had been diluted over time. POLITICO obtained a previously unreported, 37-page memo laying out a follow-up plan that identified 10 unions to target.
The members approved zeroing in on six of those labor groups during a January meeting and have since begun pursuing the effort.
In its memo, the DSA makes clear its dissatisfaction with some of the same unions that were once regarded as a bedrock of left-leaning Democratic politics. The group argues some unions have become too disengaged, too timid and lack the organizing power they once wielded on behalf of workers. The tension resembles the national strain between left-flank Democrats, who want to capitalize on the energy in their wing of the party, and centrists aiming for broader appeal.
“We will focus our branch resources on recruiting NYC-DSA members to take jobs in these sectors and on developing a strategy for militant, democratic, classwide struggles based in these sectors,” reads the introduction to the plan.
It goes on to detail what DSA sees as the shortcomings of each of the six unions and why each is ripe for a shakeup. The organization also identifies ways outsiders can access jobs that would allow them entree into the labor groups.
One union in the group's crosshairs is DC37, a 125,000-member organization representing some of the lowest-paid municipal employees. DSA lamented the union's descent from the 1970s, when it was led by the famed labor organizer Victor Gotbaum, whom the organization called the “second most powerful person in NYC politics.”
“Our Exec Dir (Henry Garrido) is more politically and organizationally [ambitious] than those of the past 20 years. He’s also more ‘progressive,’ but remain[s] cautious of major policy proposals until convinced that it’s both in our material interest and winnable,” the group wrote.
It also criticized the “general disengagement of members and a layer of leaders and staff who appear unable or unwilling to do the organizing needed to regain our power.”
Against this backdrop, the organization sees an opportunity to organize rank-and-file members.
“If we are successful, our leadership may either come to rely on our ability to mobilize the membership, or be pressured by it nonetheless,” it wrote.
Garrido criticized the strategy as divisive in an interview this week.
“The union movement, for the most part, has been one of the few that has pushed the progressive policies that the left is pushing for right now, before they became popular,” he said. “It’s only going to divide a movement that seems to be really taking momentum.”
He credited unions with pushing for a recent increase in the statewide minimum wage and pension divestment from fossil fuels.
“In my union, like any organization, I have people who lean left — most of them — people who lean right and people who are in the middle,” he added. “If you try to push one organization in any direction, you’re going to end up alienating and splitting a very large number of people who believe in labor but may not agree with the tactics the DSA is pursuing right now.”
DSA is looking to change that internal composition, ensuring its members build support for left-leaning causes from within the unions.
Over the past year, the group has held panels, forums and bimonthly training sessions to teach skills about workplace organizing, according to a July 31 Medium post. DSA said 300 members have so far expressed interest in getting jobs represented by the unions it has set its sights on.
“Unions that aren’t democratic oftentimes fall into the trap of not being able to fight back against concessions that an employer is asking for,” Bianca Cunningham, co-chair of DSA’s city chapter, said in an interview Tuesday. “When you don’t have democracy in unions, they might endorse candidates that are not enacting an agenda that’s beneficial for most working people in the city.”
Another target is the United Federation of Teachers, a nearly 200,000-member union representing teachers, social workers, secretaries and other school employees.
“UFT is the largest local of one of the largest unions in the country. It has the potential to be extremely influential in electoral politics,” the group wrote. “It is extremely internally undemocratic, but there is a reform caucus, MORE, which has many active DSA members.”
MORE refers to the Movement of Rank and File Educators, whose website leads with a July post criticizing the union’s internal election process and calling for voting reforms.
The union “fails to exercise the full potential of its power” and ends up backing centrist or conservative Democrats, the group added.
“With more DSA teachers, we could bolster and significantly support the internal movement for democracy and militant organizing within the union but it will likely take years to reform the UFT,” it concluded.
Through a spokesperson, UFT President Michael Mulgrew said his union “has been fighting for students, teachers, families and progressive causes since the day it was founded.” He did not comment on anything else in the strategy memo, which references the prospect of school shutdowns over contract negotiations.
The other four unions DSA identified are the New York State Nurses Association, Transport Workers Union Local 100, the District Council of Carpenters and the UPS division of the Teamsters.
Many union leaders bristled at the strategy.
“It makes no sense that at a time when solidarity is needed to fight for real gains in economic opportunity and social justice for working families that the DSA would sow the seeds of disunity by targeting some of the most progressive unions in our city with plans for infiltration and disruption,” Vinny Alvarez, president of an umbrella group of unions known as the Central Labor Council, said in a prepared statement.
“It’s not a straight line to, you get a job in the industry and all of a sudden you’re the president of the union. It doesn’t work that way,” said another labor leader who declined to speak on the record.
Some of the more left-leaning unions were spared.
The group originally considered going after the Communications Workers of America, but DSA members decided against it. In the memo, the organization applauded the union for a “history of militancy in Verizon” and endorsing Bernie Sanders in 2016. It said it wants to ensure “radicals in the union [have] plenty of room to push for the kind of unionism that can build the basis of a socialist movement.”