Interview with Cliff Willmeng: A Class-Struggle Leadership Candidate for MN Nurses Association

Socialist Revolution recently interviewed Cliff Willmeng, a labor activist and candidate for the Board of Directors of the Minneapolis Nurses Association and for delegate to the Minnesota AFL-CIO. Socialist Revolution organizers in the Twin Cities first met Cliff at a picket at United Hospital on 5/20, which was organized by the union in response to his termination in retaliation for raising safety concerns about PPE. The interview was edited for clarity and length.

Socialist Revolution: Tell us how you became a labor activist? What union do you belong to?

Image: Cliff Willmeng for MNA Board

Cliff Willmeng: To the first question, I’ve been a worker all my life. I started working as a dishwasher when I was 12. I eventually got into construction in my 20s, and I was a non-union carpenter when I went out to Seattle to participate in the big protests against the World Trade Organization in 1999. I had been a political activist since I was 15 years old, and it was really Seattle that demonstrated for me the real organized power of workers together. It’s sometimes an academic point, in socialist learning, but that experience really drove that.

When I returned from Seattle I joined the carpenters’ union, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, either in ‘99 or 2000, and did union activism in the carpenters’ union as a rank-and-filer. Eventually I had to go to nursing school, because we couldn’t find work after a lot of years of fighting for rank-and-file stuff. After nursing school, my family and I moved down to Colorado. I eventually became a steward in UFCW Local 7, and the Vice President of the Executive Board there. We moved to Minnesota last summer. I’m currently in the Minnesota Nurses Association (MNA), as a steward.

That’s great stuff. Fighting within the rank and file for union democracy is exactly what we need right now. For the benefit of our readers, could you tell us how big the MNA is?

Sure, it’s about 22,000 members. It’s mainly in Minnesota, but there’s a recently organized hospital in Bismarck, North Dakota. We may have some other affiliates in Iowa or Wisconsin, but it’s primarily 22,000 members in Minnesota.

Is it affiliated with any larger unions?

Yeah, it’s in the AFL-CIO, and it’s also in the National Nurses United, which is the umbrella national group.

What’s it like for nurses and healthcare workers right now, with COVID-19, and how is it affecting the consciousness of nurses?

COVID-19 really brought out the essence of corporate, privatized healthcare. It really demonstrated it for everybody: nurses for sure, but also the entire working class, all the essential workers, that are being coerced into going to unsafe workplaces to make ends meet. It’s driven a few things home. As far as the nurses are concerned, unsafe workplaces, contradictory policy, near-complete disenfranchisement over the medical decision-making and policy, on top of a deeply disorganized response to a pandemic that’s been predicted for 15 years. Of course, we would be negligent to say that the problems and elements that make it such a harsh work environment aren’t simply relegated to the corporate offices. You have to couple that with a labor movement that’s been rudderless at best for 50 straight years. When you accompany a “loser mentality” that is really the American labor movement, and a subservience to the Democratic Party, and to all of the executive decision-making, except for in superficial ways, you drive a very powerless element into the consciousness of working people.

That’s certainly something that nurses are familiar with. It’s not the dominant element all of the time, but you live in a very precarious position. Obviously, in my case, when you raise issues about safety, you’re subject to retaliation, retaliatory measures, up to and including firing, blacklisting. It’s an extremely contradictory and precarious situation. Throw on top of that, that we really care about our patients, that we aren’t just building a Bloomingdale’s here, or some McMansion somewhere. We’re taking care of humans, of human life. You have to accompany all of that contradiction and danger with the fact that our mission is to help heal people. It’s very harsh and very tough. Nurses tend to rise to the occasion, but this is something that none of us have ever experienced.

Nurses picketed and marched to the Capitol to demand that Allina Health United Hospital and other hospitals, as well the…

Posted by Minnesota Nurses Association on Thursday, May 21, 2020

It definitely seems to be shaking consciousness. After years of business unionism, “work with the boss, everyone gets a fair share” doesn’t seem to hold up to reality anymore. It’s great to see nurses fighting back. You mentioned that you were fired by Allina. Could you give our readers some background on that?

Sure. You can include about 20 links to different news stories that we drove. I was fired. I work at United Hospital in the ER, primarily as a nurse in the ICU, I’ve even worked primary care a couple years. At United Hospital, it wasn’t an issue that I would have ever anticipated a major battle breaking out on. It was really about the context, unsafe working conditions: extremely poor protocol, disorganized hospital management, top-down contradictory orders, vacillating policy, etc. It drove the point home that our upper executives were totally unprepared, or near-totally unprepared for this pandemic, and because of that lack of preparation and disorganization, we had to start taking measures ourselves to make sure that we were safe.

Among those measures that nurses picked up is the fact that we were supposed to be wearing our personal scrubs to and from the hospital and laundering them in our homes. If you talk to the American College of Emergency Physicians, they recommend that everybody get issued a hospital pair of scrubs, so at the end of the day, after you’ve been exposed to COVID-19 for an 8 or 12-hour shift, you can leave those textiles in the hospital to be commercially laundered—and the hospital refused to provide us that. To illustrate how bad it got, at one point in March, I had to text my brother to ask him: if I were to contract COVID-19 and bring it home to my wife, and we were both either intubated or killed by it, would he raise our kids for us?

Image: We do the work

At that point, I realized how expendable I was. I’m not going to die for some corporate climber. I made the determination along with many of my other coworkers that we were just going to take the hospital-issued scrubs that sat on the rack in the ER locker room every day, that the physicians use every day. We knew the scrubs were there. All of the same day surgeries had been cancelled because of COVID-19, so we knew that the supply was there, and so we started wearing the hospital-issued scrubs every day and taking them off at the end of the day, throwing them in the same bin as the doctors throw them into, and coming home in our street clothes, so we would not bring the virus home to our families.

That’s really where Allina drew the line in the sand, and every one of us that wore the scrubs were immediately brought into disciplinary proceedings. They operated very fast. They were clearly on a mission to drive a point home to us. That went all the way from March, all the way through May, until I was fired on May 8. I should say, too, that part of all of that was that when we were asking for the hospital-issued scrubs, we were not getting an adequate response from management.

I do a little workers’ podcast called “We Do the Work,” we have a humorous methodology, where we’ll call up the executives or administrators on their phones and video-record that, to get their response. 99 times out of 100, they never pick up the phone. I cleared it with the lawyers here whether it was legal to do, and yes, it’s a one-party consent state. So I called up Janet Pestel, who is the CNO of United Healthcare, and recorded myself in a video in my basement, and I didn’t anticipate that she would answer, but she did.

That video is up on our YouTube channel, and within the couple minutes that I’m on the phone with her, I’m asking her about the hospital-issued scrubs, and she responded that hospital-issued scrubs were not indicated, which was confusing to me—and you can see my confusion on the video, because of course they’re indicated. COVID-19 can live on surfaces, we all know that, but what she was telling me was that the infectious disease unit in the hospital indicated that that was not a concern, which was a contradiction from how I practice nursing and from how most people practice medicine.

I posted that video, and within 24 hours had a phone call from my Director of the ER, Eric Johnson, from doctor Cindi Larson, who is the infectious disease specialist from United who made this claim, and Jennifer Grand from Human Resources. They called me and they assured me that the call could not lead to disciplinary proceedings, which was a lie, which I knew because I’m a steward. It’s very often that you’ll get told that one, but I wanted to hear them out, about when she told me that there was no indication that COVID-19 could live on scrubs. I was stunned. It was quite clear that they did not want the conditions of that ER being reported in public, and certainly they did not want the vacuous response of administration being given any kind of accountability or transparency.

That’s really what started it all. That led to a 2-month battle across the ER, where we had dozens of people brought into the office, a lot of harassment, a lot of intimidation, that was extremely difficult to work with, especially under the conditions of COVID-19, while you’re doing patient care. They really set an example with me and that played out in the media, and I think Allina tried to demonstrate their power over the membership through their treatment of me and my eventual termination.

It absolutely goes to show that what these corporate bosses are concerned about is not at all human life, not at all safety or stopping the virus. At the end of the day, it is about their profits.

Entirely. And there’s a big misconception about not-for-profit healthcare. Not-for-profit healthcare is simply a tax-bracket. It’s just a tax break. They might have very flowery mission statements, but there’s no legal mandate for these hospitals to abide by their pretty-sounding mission statements. They abide by the corporate bylaws. They are corporations, they have CEOs. The CEO of Allina, Penny Wheeler, makes over $2.3 million a year. Despite the way that they dress themselves, and their public relations campaigns, these are corporate models from the top down. I can’t tell you what goes on in the internal life of these executives, but I can certainly describe their actions. They are an institution of US capitalism, no different from a meatpacking factory or a Walmart or an auto plant.

The CEO of Allina, Penny Wheeler, makes over $2.3 million a year.

There’s a story about one businessman talking to another. He says, “I’m not in the car business, I’m in the money-making business.” It’s not about what you invest in. It’s not about the humans or even the things they are making. It’s about making money, wherever is most profitable.

Entirely. Healthcare is no different. We don’t get taught that in nursing school. We should.

Which brings us to the point of how we can fight it. In the healthcare industry, if all the unions formed a united front, could more gains be made? Would this help to organize the unorganized?

It’s a question that deserves a little unpacking. The union leadership will tell you right now that they’re all united, they’re all organized. The question is: united on what basis? The unions operate in about 9% of the US economy, that’s what’s unionized right now. That’s being hacked away at all the time. If you unite on a weak strategy, the outcome will be as weak as the strategy.

I think the potential with COVID-19, is that not only does it demonstrate the expendable nature of the US workforce, our real relationship to the executive class, and how disposable you really are, but it’s also shown that we can shut the entire country down. The country cannot function without those same workers that are being treated like disposable cogs. You have to understand that the union leadership is allied with US capitalism. It accepts US capitalism. It’s really just the ATM of the Democratic Party. That’s the dominant strategy, that the unions are going to abide by the standard predictable labor law. The NLRA [National Labor Relations Act] is only there to make our response scripted and predictable, and to facilitate commerce. That’s what the NLRA does. If you unite on that basis, if you file grievances, and you hand money over to the Democratic Party, and hope that they do the right thing by you, the result is the disaster that we’re currently experiencing.

I think that what’s underestimated right now is the anger of the rank and file, how the potential is there for the rank and file to engineer a new strategy and come together from the bottom up, and start to really address these issues like in the 1930s, versus what we’re currently suffering today. In that sense, yes, we can talk about uniting with the unorganized. We can talk about joining the labor movement, to have relevance, and help lead in the new civil rights movement and the revolt against racist police brutality. The potential is there for something explosive, but that is going to be conditioned on how the union leadership is overcome and washed away, and replaced with something with a lot more vision, more audacity, and with the genuine experience of the rank and file. That’s the way it’s going to happen. There’s no way this leadership that has gotten us into this tremendous mess can be the vehicle to get us out. There’s got to be something different.

Exactly! The crisis we’re experiencing now really is a crisis of the leadership of the working class. You mentioned “the ATM for the Democrats” that a lot of the unions act as, and that really brings the point that you raise in your program, of needing an independent party, that the working class needs its own political party. So I’m wondering, how do you raise this idea of a workers’ party with your coworkers and how do you think that would be achieved, a workers’ party?

I struggle with it, to be honest, because we’ve been chained to the Democratic Party for so long. I know, it’s a real peasant mentality. If you’ve been the property of the lord for an extended period of time, the idea that you would have a life outside of that is almost completely foreign. So it’s not that the rank and file of the unions are Democratic Party activists; they’re simply deposited there by their leadership.

Of course the Democratic Party and the union leadership are almost indistinguishable. According to my research, over the last twenty to thirty years, there are unions that have given over two billion dollars to the Democratic Party. So if you can imagine the US workforce simply breaking with that. Not on the bullshit, vacillating talking points that there might be some good Democrats and then “corporate Democrats.” Let’s triage the Democrats. Let’s get this straight: they’re either the leadership of the Democratic Party or they’re covering for the Democratic Party, or both of these elements.

Of course, the Republican Party is a no-brainer, but both of these elements act to destroy our self-confidence, our class consciousness, our unity with other working-class people. Those strategies have paved the way for what we’re seeing under Donald Trump, the division of the working class, the continued institutional racism across the entire country.

I actually raised a motion that will be voted on at the MNA convention this year. I felt like I couldn’t go so far as to articulate what a workers’ party would be, because that concept in itself deserves its own resolution or motion. The motion that I put out was basically that these two political parties do not serve us in any meaningful way, that their real nature is to undermine our class consciousness, our militancy, our ability to organize, which is to the benefit of the bosses. It put forward that the MNA would divorce itself of the Democratic and Republican parties altogether, and stop the financing of these parties and contributions to their PACs from the donations of labor and door-knocking, and all the other grunt work we get assigned.

The resolution suggests and leaves room for the development of a real workers’ organization. How that would start or be built is really up to us, the rank and file. I imagine it would be a network of rank-and-file unionists, some organized, some not, certainly with the ability to speak to the oppressions of racism and sexism, and all of the other things the world is tackling right now. All that money and labor we divest from the Democratic Party, we would take possession of to build our own institutions, our own organizing, our own networks, to call unified job actions, to arrange a petition, etc. That can build up to a general strike nationally. I think that’s where this has to go. I think that we have the power to do it, I think we demonstrated that just this year. It’s just a really tenacious and difficult fight to win a new vision from the old guard of the trade union movement I hope to be a part of.

That is definitely the kind of militancy that we need. Like you said, with the Democrats, with friends like these, who needs enemies? Also, we’ve seen how the left wing of the Democratic Party acts, like you were saying, as a cover for the Democratic leadership. It brings to mind Bernie basically acting as a cover for Pelosi and Biden at the end of the day. His “good friend,” Joe Biden. All these resources that the union leadership is putting into the hands of the bosses could definitely be used for a workers’ party, so those are great points.

Well, it’s a comprehensive opportunity cost. We’re handing over time, labor, money, and emphasis to a party that does not have your back, will not pass “Medicare for All,” will not get us out of these wars, will not defund the Pentagon—and is also, by the way, the commanding political party for all major US cities that are experiencing all of the police brutality, racism, and murder. At least with Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden, what you see is what you get. They are vicious right-wing capitalists.

Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and House Speaker Pelosi in 2019
AOC had increasingly emphasized working with the Democratic leadership. / Image: Wikimedia Commons

I think that the real bait-and-switch, the real treachery, comes from people like Bernie Sanders, AOC, and “the Squad.” For all of their polished talking points, they accept the minimum role of the Democratic Party. AOC is like Pelosi’s lapdog at this point. She voluntarily prerecorded a sixty-second statement for the DNC. That’s it. We need to address that very clearly as socialists, recognize the titanic mistake of giving all that time to Bernie Sanders, and also acknowledge that that is not going to defeat Donald Trump as the origin of that type of right-wing militancy. We’ve got some work to do, and obviously I’ve got some strong feelings about it, but that’s really the task cut out for us.

Definitely. I also wanted to touch on another point in your program that I think is very relevant, especially in our city of Minneapolis, the question of fighting back against racism. You raised that in your program, so I’m wondering if you could talk a bit more about fighting racism in the workplace, fighting racism in society generally, how the unions can play a role in that.

The unions, for a long time, have taken a passive or symbolic attitude towards fighting racism. They’ve tended to emphasize “diversity,” which I think is hollow. I don’t think that my working conditions would improve with a rainbow of CEO-climbing executives. I’m not under any illusions for that. I also know that the unions have been “out to lunch” for a long time with regards to the realities of communities of color across the United States. They don’t have a program in place to eliminate poverty at all.

They can’t. That relationship with the Democratic Party precludes you from having any real significant strategy or tactics that really gets to the root of these racist institutions. You can’t. You already accept capitalism, you already accept the Democrats. The Democrats are the ones signing contracts with the Fraternal Order of Police. The Democrats are the ones who helped to institute the New Jim Crow and mass incarceration. If your political strategy is based on maintaining a relationship with those elements, how the hell are you supposed to address racism in any fundamental or substantial way? That’s the real informing arc of it.

I think that alliance to those political parties has meant a destruction of class consciousness and I think that it’s also helped to allow a racism within the white workers to fester and grow, and to go unaddressed. When we talk to nurses of color in MNA, they will tell you point blank that, as people that have been ignored for many years and have never been asked about their experience, they’re experiencing racism from management, they’re experiencing racism from many of their coworkers, but also a lot of solidarity from their coworkers, too. They feel unincluded within the operation of their union.

In MNA, we met with a lot of the nurses of color, through the Racial Diversity Committee, which has been there for 3 years now. Our position is that we wanted to do more than talk about diversity, that we wanted to restructure MNA to be an anti-racist union. Those nurses of color spoke to us white nurses about their experiences, and they asked that we put together a letter of solidarity to the nurses of color. A lot of us put a lot of work into that letter, that talked about the institutional function of racism, which is of course to divide the working class and keep us inert and fighting each other, and really pledged to throw down some solidarity for our nurses of color in tangible ways—at the job site, through the union institution itself, and to address the systemic racism that’s inherent to capitalist healthcare and the system as a whole.

Longshore Union Workers BLM ILWU
Image: Free Public Domain

It’s amazing! What an opportunity to be a trade-union activist in the time of the George Floyd rebellion! It’s changed everything. The conversations in the workplace have changed. The workers have to be more reflexive. This is a tremendous opportunity to restructure our organizations to become fighting anti-racist institutions, and to build the solidarity that we need to do more than just appeal to the bosses, but rather replace them. That’s what we have to do. We have to replace the bosses with frontline workers. That’s the only way this stuff is going to function. The only way you’re going to be able to do that is by taking a frontal approach to fight racism. It’s compelling and challenging and it’s real. It’s anti-racist work that’s being pioneered by working-class people. We’re not fucking academics. We haven’t read all the books. We haven’t gone to the white-person therapy sessions that a lot of academia requires of us. The “white fragility” stuff. It’s very real. It’s visceral and truthful and comes from the experience of real working-class folks, and I think that we can write an anti-racism that is fundamentally different from the crap we’ve been prescribed for a very long time, that’s done almost nothing to stop that problem. It’s thrilling.

That’s awesome to hear about that solidarity work that’s being done. It’s definitely the way forward. White workers, black workers, workers of all colors coming to each others’ support in times of need, fighting against the common enemy which is the capitalist class. That’s absolutely essential. That’s great work. It also raises the question: like you were saying, we can run things without the bosses, so what would it look like for frontline workers to start controlling the workplace? How would we involve frontline workers in that? What might that look like?

It’s probably the fundamental question. The answer is, it’s probably going to be multifaceted. How would that happen? How would the workers take, not just more influence, but actually take command and control of these institutions? I know this: I know that Allina operates with a Board of Directors. They’re likely all appointed. They’re certainly not voted on by any of us. That’s the critical institution for decision making at Allina. They are subservient to their bylaws. In a lot of these healthcare facilities right now, we have what’s being called “incident commands.” These are basic corporate command centers that are making an attempt to drive policy protocol during the crisis of this pandemic.

Our demand is that we want inside of those incident commands. What we get in United Healthcare is no different from any healthcare institution and a lot of workplaces around the country. Those corporate owners of the institution’s facilities create these little panels, where we’re supposed to go to some mid-level executive and make a moral plea or a medical plea to them, to do what we think is necessary, or just, or fair, or required. They’re under no mandate to listen to us at all. They only sometimes listen to the contract, which they’re breaking before the ink is dry.

To me, the demand that we get placed at the center of all communications and decision making is a transitional demand. It’s impossible for the corporations to meet that demand. Why? Because if the frontline workers of any industry were exposed to the ineptitude and confusion in communications and decision making—and the completely lost, amoral, dysfunctional, and corrupt approach to the stated mission of that institution—the whole facade would collapse. To me, we need to drive ourselves into those decision-making facilities.

I think that we do need to have our own political party that would not only run candidates in the conventional sense. Rather, those candidates could use those campaigns to build what is the only critical variable, the grassroots power of the working class, and to coordinate that and to use those campaigns as a platform. I think that we can also write our own laws that mandate frontline workers to intervene and have the position of decision making within these major institutions.

By that time, you’re so far away from where the Democratic Party is politically capable of living; you’re looking at something major at that point. Of course, this has to be enforced by strikes and workplace actions. It means taking over your morning huddle in the hospital, and not just being a spectator to what your manager has got to say to everybody. It’s really exerting our collective power in tangible ways. That’s something that we’re not used to doing. There’s no better teacher than experience. That’s a combination of all of those elements that can start to raise a wider vision, and really start to get at the essence of the problem—which is that the frontline workers aren’t running society, and that’s the only way this system can preserve any kind of real functions. That’s us. We have to get into the decision making. We have to actually enforce that.

Exactly. There’s that old quote: “Not a lightbulb shines and not a wheel turns without the kind permission of the working class.” We’re the ones who graciously allow society to run in the first place and allow the bosses to make their profits. If we wished, we could shut everything down. That brings up the question of a general strike. What do you think we could achieve with a general strike? What sort of things could we get from that?

A general strike would be an international game-changer, and one of the most historic advances of the US working class in over a century. In that sense, it would demonstrate our power, in concrete tangible terms, to the working class. I agree with the quote, that we’re all voluntarily turning these wheels and doing the business of US capitalism and moving society. But again, we’re getting back to the cumulative impact of the union misleadership. How do you teach tens of millions of workers that we are powerless? How do you do that? How do you accomplish that, when the fact of the matter is, if we don’t show up to work tomorrow morning, it doesn’t matter if some lone wolf 17-year old shows up with an AK-47 or AR-15, society is shut down.

The fact that this hasn’t happened is a testament of how tenacious this archaic and corrupt philosophy of the union officials is currently: their rudderless attitude, their lack of vision, and the fact that anything that departs from this represents a great threat to them. But if you think about what a general strike would do… What would that do to the consciousness of working-class people that are living this fantasy that billionaire Donald Trump cares more about them than anybody else? It would splinter it into a thousand pieces. Those workers would have to start answering the question: do you have more loyalty to your coworkers or do you have more loyalty to your boss? Do you have more loyalty to Wall Street or do you have more loyalty to the teacher that teaches your kids? It would fracture that. It would weaken it and blunt it. A general strike, I believe, would destroy the function and power of fascism. It would be just the beginning. If we can pull something like that off, we could change the world.

Definitely. That’s the sight that, as more and more working class people move into combat, more and more people are going to have that sort of vision. Of course, it’s a question of, how do you start that? How do you get that going? I think what you’re doing is just the first start of that. It’s everyday militants fighting and putting an independent voice for the working class. With your campaign specifically, how much traction has it gotten so far? And how much push back have you received from the union leadership?

I’m fighting at a disadvantage here, because as far as a lot of workers in Minnesota are concerned, to them it feels like I just fell out of the sky. I’ve only been here for a year. Certainly, it’s made an impact across the Twin Cities and the workplaces—as to how we raise that stuff and what the campaign is like. When you talk to workers, MNA is no different to a lot of unions. The workers are relatively disenfranchised. Most workers will never vote in a union election, most workers won’t open their union newspaper. It’s not because they’re idiots; it’s because they reached a logical or reasonable conclusion that voting in union elections does not produce any tangible results in their lives.

There, our task is twofold: for one, we have to drive additional interest and we have to drive participation, but we have to start driving a new narrative in that sort of thing. That takes time. When you’re talking about workers that are afraid of dying, I mean literally, writing advanced directives on the nursing stations. You know, they’re working in those kind of harsh conditions. It’s difficult for people to envision turning that one-hundred-and-eighty degrees around and starting to take power. A lot of the mentality is that we have to shelter ourselves from the worst potential damage that we can experience in the immediate term.

It’s one of those things where these ideas have not been introduced to the workforce in the MNA for a very long time. When we talk about political independence, it’s something workers can understand right away. It’s really only the political activists that can’t figure that out, because they’re smart enough to know that you can’t have a strategy unless you’re linking yourself to the Democratic Party. The fact that I’ve had to get a website together… you know, it’s very difficult to campaign during the time of a pandemic. Getting into hospital institutions is tough, even as a union steward. Let’s not forget the fact that I’ve been effectively banned from all [inaudible] facilities during and after that termination. It’s tough.

I would say that there’s more people coming forward now in the MNA than they’ve seen in a long time. I know that the Racial Diversity Committee sometimes had trouble seeing eight or ten workers on their meetings, but now there are sixty or seventy workers on it. I know that the metro stewards’ group, which is the central stewards’ group for the Twin Cities and MNA, went from twelve, fifteen members to sometimes seventy and eighty participants in those meetings. So the participation is there.

Of course, I’m a bit of a controversial figure right now because of a few different elements. I certainly have to give weight to the fact that I’ve not even been an employee in Minnesota for longer than nine months. We’ll see how it goes, I don’t know. It’s going to be more than one of us that’s running. There’s many people running for MNA: people that are new to leadership positions, people that have different visions, people that have been on the receiving end of this rudderless leadership, people that were certainly there during the 2016 strike, and MNA lost! That scar runs very deep with workers here, so we have to demonstrate that we can fight and win. That is something that’s gonna take some real tenacity and networking. No worker’s gonna buy that on paper, you’re gonna have to show that.

As far as pushback goes, yeah, there’s a bit. We can’t campaign at the convention, which is a more traditional way that people campaign here. We ask MNA for a virtual candidate forum. Actually, we asked for two of them, and they rejected that. They said that they would not host a candidate forum. The rank and file might be hosting our own. We’ll see where that goes. We’re doing what we can, we’re getting some ads out, talking with our coworkers. It’s an uphill battle and you’re fighting against fifty years of surrender and tradition. That’s where we’re at.

Yeah, definitely a fight worth to be had, though. Just a few more questions I have. This has been super interesting, super relevant to the times we’ve been living in.

Feel free to cut all the bullshit out of it!

No, no, there’s no bullshit here! Another question I had is, supposing you won and got onto the MNA board, what sort of actions would you take then? How would you act differently?

I think that’s critical. I think it’s important to understand that, just by capturing a leadership position, that doesn’t fundamentally change anything. Union leadership is a double-edged sword. It can be used to blunt the power and the effectiveness of the membership or it can be used to mobilize the membership. Just because I get on the MNA board doesn’t mean everything’s gonna change. But by getting rank and filers that want to see real mobilization, real organizing, real networking, and real action, and raise ideas that the union has evaded for many years, the leadership position can catalyze that.

In that sense, if we get enough people on the MNA board to start driving a new vision and to start to speak with the workers… You’ve gotta understand, we’ve got over twelve-hundred stewards in MNA that do almost nothing. I’m talking about even “nothing” compared to what the conventional 21st-century labor movement looks like. They don’t do step-one grievances, they don’t do step-two grievances, they almost never represent workers in disciplinary hearings. You’ve got twelve-hundred stewards that should be your absolute fabric and foundation of mobilizing, networking, and communication, and you’ve got them completely paralyzed.

The first thing we could do is to get those stewards trained, empowered, supported, help them take initiative in the workplace, remove those barriers to communication where they could be like, “Hey, look, we’re dealing with X,Y, and Z. This is what we need from you folks, this is where our coworkers are at.” You know, start to lift that deep pessimism and atrophy from the real rank and file. If you don’t possess the commanding institution of the union, that’s the institution you have to fight in order to get anything done. That’s the real element of it. If we can get the board of directors of MNA, we can facilitate that mobilization of the rank and file where they can actually start to get a sense of the power that you and I have been talking about the whole interview.

Definitely.

And of course there’s the networking with other workplaces, there’s the networking with other institutions, other unions. You can’t build a general strike just in healthcare alone; you’ve gotta advocate and agitate around that idea from one union to the next. One union to the next, you’re gonna get met with the same bureaucracy. I can’t speak for all my coworkers, but for myself, I have a big vision for this, and it’s long overdue.

Definitely. New leadership is required and I think that once workers in one industry start to move into the battlefield, it’s easier for workers in another industry to do so as well, so building that network of militants is very, very critical. Here’s one question that I think you will certainly have some thoughts on. Have you taken inspiration or lessons from any strikes in the past or around the world?

twenty to thirty thousand workers pack warehouse district 1934 teamsters strike
20000-30000 Workers pack the warehouse district in Minnesota during the 1934 Teamster Strike

For sure! What no Minnesota worker really knows about in any sense is the Teamsters’ strike in the 1930s here, that shut down the Twin Cities. Farrell Dobbs wrote about it in Teamster Rebellion. I know working people don’t read a lot of books, but this is a book written by one of us. That book to me was instrumental in getting me to see what real union leadership could look like and what it could accomplish. Not in a way that is fantasy or detached, but that book really describes the grunt work, the struggle against the political class and the police, even the National Guard, and obviously the bosses.

That kind of history is what’s been buried and removed from the experience of workers today. I don’t think we have to look far in our history to say, “Yes, we did not get here by opening court orders. We didn’t get here by working with the employers. We didn’t get here by cozying up to politicians. We got here by taking that power, by demonstrating it, by organizing it, and cutting right to the profit line of industry and forcing concessions out of those CEOs that otherwise would never accept. You can read all about this kind of stuff. Anytime you see massive union victory and acceleration, you’ll always see the same type of leadership that is prepared to go beyond the traditional confines of the role we’re supposed to play, that we’re prescribed.

We have a rich history. I think that the George Floyd Rebellion isn’t a revolt of the organized working class, but it is without a doubt a working-class revolt. The examples are throughout our history, but they are also living right here among us today. That kind of vision and tradition and history, that kind of strategy, is waiting to explode onto the scene at any time.

I agree, there’s so much potential right now. I had a feeling you might mention the ‘34 strike. That’s the classic example. I think something that’s critical there is that they had a leadership team, a politically trained leadership team. You talk about the Dunne brothers, Skoglund, Farrell Dobbs, members of the Communist League of America that were politically organizing with a trained Marxist vision. My last question here is, do you think union militants need a Marxist perspective in order to clearly fight the capitalists and their system?

I think it’s critical. I would not be effective as a working-class fighter if I wasn’t trained in the ideas of Marxism and socialism. It’s weird, I had such shitty experiences with socialist groups for so long. They always seemed to preach to me and they always seemed to be comprised of academics and grad students. It was always hard for me to relate to them. I think that, as Marxists, we need to own some of our own failures of the last thirty or forty years. Without those ideas, I would not understand my place in capitalism and my place in the world. It’s very hard to devise a battle strategy if you don’t know the theater of operations you’re working in.

Of course, when you talk about Karl Marx, workers recoil. That’s at least the case with the older workers; I think the younger ones, not so much. They’re at least open to ideas that start to head towards Karl Marx. I think it’s critical, but I also think it’s critical that Marx be described and discussed in workers’ language, not the language of academics. I think we need to be much more nuanced about this. No worker wants to hear about the labor theory of value, no one, or the theory of anything, to be honest. They want to know what does it all mean? That just means all of the profits that the boss is getting is just looted wages. That’s all it is. I think we need to be more thoughtful about how we approach workers about those theories and how we apply them.

Look at Farrell Dobbs in Teamster Rebellion—he was not trained in Marxism. He had the benefit of people that were. There’s a part in that book where he asks—I forget, was it Skoglund?—He asks him, “Are you a communists?” And he (Skoglund) replies, “What the fuck business is it of yours?” “Well, I don’t know. I just know that if you’re a communist, I might wanna be one.” And that’s because he was never given a book, but he saw the role that those revolutionaries were playing in organizing the transport workers. I think that theory falls hollow if it’s not joined with application and experience. I’ve not given it enough emphasis that I think it deserves, personally. I think that we have to go to that because I think it’s the source material for our strategy and vision.

Well, those are all the questions that I had for today’s interview. Thanks for taking the time to chat with me. I don’t want to take up too much more of your time. Definitely a really rich discussion, I really appreciate all the contributions you made here.

Well, thank you and thank you for interviewing me! Thank you for whatever material you can put together. I know that a lot of times, we don’t have the luxury of writing down our shitty thoughts, let alone our really good ones. I appreciate it, and please, if you have any follow-up questions, reach out to me. If you want to do any promotion of the website, just have at it. Thanks again for taking the time!


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