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Getting Out of Tight Corners

This article is part of the Review’s series on the 2020 US elections.

The tint on the windows of the van transporting us to the counting room in Miami was so dark that it was difficult to see out of the windows. But it kept our faces concealed from the throngs of reporters who had traveled to Florida from around the world, and also from the clean-shaven Christian militants holding up signs with slogans such as “Gore Loser” and “Don’t Let Democrats Steal This Election.” They reminded me of skinheads. By that time in the Florida recount, as the debacle came to be known, we were less than two weeks from the Supreme Court essentially executing a coup. Everything was upside-down—including the fact that I was riding in the van. My usual experience with vehicles like these was limited to the outside, blocking roads or driveways and holding signs against strike breakers trying to cross picket lines.

I had three instructions from my higher-ups before I stepped out of the van at the courthouse: wear a hood or hat to cover your head—sunglasses, too—so you won’t be recognized; don’t talk to reporters; and fucking win. I took the orders like a good soldier. We won that day—we proved that there was a significant enough discrepancy between voter intent and reported tallies from election day in Miami-Dade County to begin recounting ballots in Florida’s most populous county—but we didn’t win the race. By putting their faith in the legal process, the Gore campaign and the national Democratic Party leadership handed the election that Al Gore won to George W. Bush. As I wrote in my first book, Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell), “Oh, well. All that was at stake was an endless war in Afghanistan, an unprovoked war on Iraq, American torture, warrantless wiretapping, eight years of doing nothing on global warming, not to mention a relentless class war against workers and their unions, all building up to a second Great Depression. No big deal.”

This was exactly twenty years ago. As a senior union organizer working for the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), I was part of a team that was the first to land and the last to leave. I’ve resisted almost every invitation to Florida in the years since. Florida in 2000 was more or less what we union organizers refer to as a “structure test”—an evidenced-based tool to assess one side’s readiness to win—for the radical right. Now the right controls half of American states, the national Republican Party, the White House, the Senate, the Supreme Court, and legions of hugely important and little-discussed power structures, such as the Board of Governors of the US Postal Service.

The experience that November in Florida was far more intense than most people understand, but it was tame compared with what’s to come on and after November 3, 2020. This year will bring Florida 2000 on steroids. People will get hurt, physically, maybe in large numbers. Two related questions come to my mind: “Can what’s left of democracy survive multiple Florida recounts simultaneously?” and “Can it”—meaning a further slide into an authoritarian state—“happen here?” These questions are not hyperbolic. And if we don’t seriously prepare, in ways the Democrats refused to do in 2000—and appear to be refusing to do now—the answers will be very ugly.

My reflections from the Florida recount have more recently been informed by the work I did last year in Germany, where discussions of fascism are ubiquitous. I was leading a training session for trade union organizers in the auto sector on the German-Polish border, in the former East Germany. I asked everyone in the room to introduce themselves by stating their name, how long they had been a union organizer, and one thing they hoped to get out of the training that day. I was not prepared for their responses.

The first German who spoke said she was there to learn to talk to workers with more success than the neo-Nazis who were in the big auto plant, campaigning to win elections in Works Councils. (Works Councils, under German labor laws, are structures that give workers direct input into the operation of the workplace. In a big factory, Works Council elections can be bigger than those in small towns.) Similar to the way the Christian right implemented new book-banning and curriculum-altering tactics in local school board elections in Kansas before expanding to California and beyond—structure tests to see how much control over US public education it could take—neo-Nazis in Germany are presently testing their strength through Works Council elections. As a union organizer in a country rampant with a thuggish and grotesquely wealthy union-busting industry, I’m accustomed to high stakes in my training sessions. But I’d never heard anything like this. I haven’t needed caffeine since.

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The German organizers explained to me the rap, the message, that the neo-Nazis in their workplaces were deploying. They sounded like a more intense version of what Trump-supporting workers here might say: “Is your family better off today? No. Do you know why? The German state has failed you, the German trade unions have failed you, and only one thing can make your life better: your standing together with other Germans to make Germany work for the real German people. The Poles crossing the border to work in our plants are tearing down what real Germans deserve—a better life. Vote for us and we will strike this factory and win for German workers what you deserve.”

It’s an effective rap. Despite the country’s reunification, the wages and benefits in the former East Germany are roughly 25 percent below those in the former West. The national trade unions have been afraid to strike over the lower standards in the former East because plant CEOs threaten to retaliate by either making the workers under union contracts in the former West take less in salary and benefits as a way to pay for bringing the standards in the East up, or closing the plants altogether and moving them to Bulgaria or Romania. Sound familiar? Workers in Germany and the United States alike are steadily losing under this backward we-won’t-fight strategy from risk-averse national trade union leaders.

Anyone who thinks civil unrest isn’t coming on November 3 isn’t paying attention. The most important lessons from Florida in 2000 and Germany in 2019 have a common thread: ordinary people need to be willing to defy Democratic Party leadership, and even some trade union leadership, to save the country from an even worse misery. We need to mobilize into organized cells, into what are sometimes called Affinity Groups. (Indivisible and groups like them are places to turn for how-tos.) In Florida, many organizers like me, who understood that Gore had won the election and that the Gore campaign and the Democrats were not understanding the super-polarized street theater being orchestrated by the Republicans, demanded that we create immediate mass mobilizations in the streets. Several times then I came close to being sent home, if not outright fired, because I was loudly challenging our strategy. But they kept me; I knew how to count and how to stand up to pressure. I did so over and over, from tables in West Palm and Broward counties, to the ultimate scene of the crime, Miami-Dade County, where I did as I was told: I won the one percent precinct count where only two people per political party were chosen to be at the two tables around which hundreds of cameras clicked and television broadcasters taped.

The majority of United States citizens are in a tight corner. Joe Biden and the people around him now are behaving like the Al Gore of 2000. Do not count on the national Democratic Party leadership. Do not count on the media, not when it comes to how to save the country this November and beyond. Do not count on the legal process. Count on yourselves, and one another.

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