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Democracy, Strategy, Modes of Struggle: The High-Stakes Strife in DSA

| Max Elbaum |

This piece was originally published in Convergence Magazine. We encourage dialogue and debate around these questions; if you would like to publish a response, please email voicesfornewdemocracy@gmail.com.

The campaign in Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) to expel U.S. Congressmember Jamaal Bowman is not at the root of the sharp conflict taking place within the organization. But it was the trigger for its escalation into a problem that threatens the future of the organization and has major implications for the entire Left. So before getting to the political differences underlying the bitter disputes underway, let’s start there.

Bowman, a member of the Squad, was first elected in 2020 in a contest where he received DSA’s endorsement. In November 2021, he went on a J-Street sponsored trip to Palestine and met with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennet. Then he voted in favor of U.S. funding for Israel’s “Iron Dome” military program.

DSA as an organization is committed to Palestine solidarity in general and to BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) in particular. Bowman did not claim to be representing DSA when taking these actions, and DSA’s membership policies do not forbid members from publicly disagreeing with, or acting in ways inconsistent with, organizational positions. But he is a high-profile figure, and it was both warranted and inevitable that his actions would attract substantial criticism from other members.

A significant number of members raised the demand that DSA should go beyond airing criticism of Bowman’s actions and expel him from the organization. Others disagreed that this was the appropriate response. A major debate within the organization ensued.

From the perspective of building power toward ending U.S. support for Israeli apartheid —the main task of the Palestine solidarity movement in this country—actions other than expelling Bowman would have seemed more in order. For instance, what about DSA committing to a grassroots campaign in Bowman’s district to educate his constituents about Israeli apartheid and U.S. backing for it? Allotting organizational resources, deploying organizers who live in the district and members from other areas, identifying allies, and aiming to build a robust, mass-based voting bloc in that district for Palestinian rights? For that matter, why not launch such campaigns in other districts where there are progressive congressmembers (and local and state electeds) who are on the progressive end of the political spectrum but, because of both their own shortcomings and the weakness of support for Palestine in their districts, do not stand firm on this crucial component of an anti-racist and internationalist agenda?

This kind of effort could help build the clout of the Palestine solidarity movement. By showing that DSA was serious about putting its political muscle where its principles are, it could attract potential allies, including electeds and people considering running for office. It would show that DSA, a disproportionately white organization, is committed to building a strong relationship with progressive Black leaders, Bowman being the most radical Black male in the U.S. Congress. DSA members who participated in such an outward-looking campaign would gain rich experience and be better organizers coming out. And it could educate the entire organization on some home truths about doing politics: you cannot win “at the top” what you haven’t won at the base; elected officials are not the source of radical power; they reflect how much power we do (or don’t) have.

The expel-Bowman effort, in contrast, is inward-looking, focusing more on purifying DSA’s ranks than affecting U.S. policy. And by enlisting non-DSA members’ participation in the campaign to expel Bowman it has added new obstacles to winning broad mass organizations—unions, religious groups, etc.—to adopt BDS; those groups now have to add to their considerations the possibility that their own internal organizational policies will be challenged if, say, a prominent member who does not support BDS indicates that in public. Rather than show that DSA is into building the kind of base that will make it possible for electeds to take positions that are not easy to take in U.S. politics today, it is—consciously or not—a sign that DSA wants electeds to provide a short-cut route to gaining political power.

After a sharp debate in the various bodies and media platforms that DSA members utilize to consider political issues, the matter went to the National Political Committee (NPC) for a decision. The body voted to reject the demand to expel Bowman.

Things didn’t stop there

In a healthy big-tent organization, this vote would have resolved this disagreement.  Democracy means, among other things, respect for majority rule. The national convention is the highest decision-making body of DSA, and that convention elects (or appoints via its elected leaders) bodies that are authorized to make various decisions in between conventions. When a decision is made that some substantial number of members disagree with, they of course can retain their opinions and try to change policy or personnel at the next convention. But until then, decisions of authorized bodies have to stand. Otherwise, an organization descends into a debating society.

That didn’t happen. The campaign to expel Bowman simply continued, with a pressure effort on the NPC to change its vote. Members who disagreed did not simply register that fact, which would be perfectly appropriate. Rather, they utilized official bodies of the organization that are accountable to the leadership (including the organization’s BDS Working Group) to wage an effort to reverse the decision.

The way many of this campaign’s most aggressive advocates conducted it indicated, as noted above, that the issue of Bowman’s mistaken actions in relation to Palestine was not its main driving force. Had that been the case, the central arguments raised would have concerned how elected officials (and socialists’ relationship to them) fit into an effective strategy to build power to change U.S. policy on Israel/Palestine. There is both a rich history and extensive current practice to look at in this regard.

The gains made by the anti-Zionist Palestine Solidarity Committee in the 1980s via work in the Rainbow Coalition, Jesse Jackson’s campaigns, and Harold Washington’s campaigns and administration in Chicago hold important lessons. So do the current efforts to build support for Rep. Betty McCollum’s bill to protect the rights of Palestinian children, which falls well short of BDS but is the key legislative project of groups that are willing to throw down for Palestinian rights, ranging from the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights to M4BL. (A measure of the balance of forces around Palestine in Congress, the bill now has 32 co-sponsors, all Democrats, including Jamaal Bowman.) But no discussion of strategy looking at these experiences was present, much less at the center, of the continuing expel-Bowman effort.

Rather, the political focus of debate shifted to DSA’s relationship to the Democratic Party. The most aggressive proponents of expelling Bowman have expanded their argument and now anchor it in a critique of the Squad, Bernie and other progressives and socialists who believe fighting for multi-racial, gender-inclusive political power at this stage of history requires engaging the fight within the Democratic Party over its direction. The argument is now that those who oppose expelling Bowman don’t take that position because they think it’s better for building Palestine solidarity; rather, they are accused of siding with Democrats against Palestinians and the Palestine solidarity movement.

And, besides the shift in political emphasis, the expel-Bowman forces have shifted their immediate demands and arguments to focus on various organizational decisions made by the NPC.

Let’s sort out both these levels.

The political agenda: break with the Democrats

The combination of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s exciting 2016 Presidential campaign and the victory of Donald Trump triggered a period of explosive growth and political transformation for DSA. Even though Bernie was not a member of DSA, his popularization of “democratic socialism” was a huge boost for the organization sharing that self-definition. The successful campaigns of the four women of color who formed the Squad in 2018, and then in 2020 Bernie’s second effort and the Squad’s expansion to six, carried that momentum forward. DSA works on many battlefronts besides elections, and its members’ involvement in today’s upsurge of militancy and unionization at workplaces is of great importance. But it is mainly DSA’s identification with Bernie and the new wave of progressive congressmembers, and to a lesser extent some important state and local officials, that has driven its growth. And the organization’s capacity to deploy volunteer canvassers has been the main source of its clout.

Despite this trajectory, from 2016 on a portion of the new members who flooded into the organization did not agree with the political strategy of the candidates themselves. Bernie and the Squad operate from the view that defeating a Republican Party now controlled by racist and misogynist authoritarians at every level is a prime task; that this requires building a broad electoral front of all those opposed to the Trumpists and voting for non-progressive Democrats to beat MAGA supporters; and that these tasks need to be done alongside building independent progressive clout. In short, they share an “inside-outside” strategy which involves both unity and struggle with the mainstream forces in the Democratic Party.

A portion of the DSA membership disagrees strongly with this strategy. And within this cohort are several groupings or caucuses with a well-developed alternative. In their view, treating the Democratic Party as a terrain of battle is a fundamental error which inevitably leads to abandoning the socialist project. For them the key task of this period is to establish an untainted revolutionary pole in the mainstream of U.S. political life. To do that it is necessary not only to differentiate this pole’s politics from liberalism and all other left-of-center currents, but also to be completely separate organizationally. Forming a purely working-class revolutionary party is therefore the overriding task, to which all other tasks must be subordinated.

Even with the MAGA bloc aiming to take the country back to some hybrid system combining Jim Crow, Christian supremacy, and McCarthyism, the amount of attention paid to defeating that bloc at the ballot box or anywhere else is seen as a purely tactical matter. So is what kind of relationship should be built with non-socialist progressives or socialists who advocate work that entangles anyone with the Democrats or in any other cross-class alignment. These are to be considered only by the criteria of how they might or might not advance the task of building a revolutionary party, allegedly ensuring the “class independence” necessary for any forward motion in the direction of socialism.

Bernie changes the game

Before Bernie’s campaign, those who held this view opposed voting for anyone on the Democratic Party ballot line without exception. But Bernie’s 2016 campaign, where running as a Democrat he made socialism more popular in the U.S. than it had been in decades, punched a huge hole in that position. It was a factor (though not the only or even the main factor) in the largest group holding that view—ISO—disbanding; in splits within Socialist Alternative; and in many members of Solidarity and partisans of this view with no other organizational affiliation backing Bernie and/or joining DSA.

These activists now acknowledged, as did people with different histories and many newly radicalized individuals, that it was acceptable for socialists to run on the Democratic ballot line. But for many (not all) of these, no engagement beyond that was to be permitted. And DSA should only endorse socialists who promised to prioritize accountability to DSA itself over accountability to the broader progressive coalition that had to be forged for any campaign to be successful. The goal was still to build a self-contained revolutionary party, but the road to a complete break with the Democrats—including a separate ballot line, which was supposed to happen as soon as possible—now lay through the temporary tactical necessity of capturing the Democratic ballot line where possible.

Post-2016 DSA electoral work, often appearing to reflect a unified organizational effort, was in reality a complicated mix. Some members conducted that work as a steppingstone toward a break with the Democratic Party. Others pursued the kind of “inside-outside” strategy practiced by Bernie and the candidates who became the Squad. Tensions existed beneath the surface. But in practice, in campaigns to win a Democratic primary and to win the general election after a nomination was won, alliances with a wide range of other progressive groups were both necessary and possible. And many non-socialist progressives ran for office on programs that were all but indistinguishable from those advanced by socialist DSA members.

So, despite attempts by some in DSA to build a high wall between hoped-for members of a soon-to-be-established pure revolutionary party, serious political alliances and relationships developed between most DSA electoral activists and much wider circles. And in these wider circles, the strategy of Bernie and the Squad, including the high priority placed on electoral defeat of the Trumpified GOP, was—and is—overwhelmingly dominant.

In 2019, when the Left had high hopes for Bernie’s success in 2020 and the mainstream Democrats failed to offer a compelling agenda, the “stay away from the Dems” view in DSA had wide appeal. The result was passage of the “Bernie or Bust” resolution at that year’s DSA convention. But in Spring 2020 Bernie conceded the nomination to Biden, endorsed him and campaigned hard for his one-time opponent.

The vast bulk of progressives and radicals outside DSA, especially those rooted in labor and communities of color, worked hard for Trump’s defeat. And following the election, the extreme danger posed by the Trumpist camp was underscored by the GOP closing ranks after January 6. Simultaneously the Democratic Party mainstream shifted away from their previous neoliberalism. DSA members moved toward a more realistic assessment of the actual balance of forces in U.S. politics than had been the case in 2019. A resolution reasserting the “Bernie or Bust” perspective in different form (demanding that all DSA-endorsed candidates incorporate public advocacy of a break with the Democratic Party into their campaigns) failed at the 2021 DSA Convention.

But a section of those who disagreed with the Convention vote did not reconcile themselves to waiting until the next Convention to re-raise their view. Then came Bowman’s serious misstep regarding Israel-Palestine. Here was an issue that—if Bowman were expelled—could lead to a break not just with him but with the entire Squad, Bernie, and others who identify as radical or socialist but see the Democratic Party as a terrain of struggle.

No doubt those whose main priority is building a pure revolutionary formation believe expelling an elected who is not firm on Palestine is the right thing to do in itself. But their underlying strategy is more rooted in the demand to break with the Democrats. In that context, the Bowman controversy is a convenient “wedge issue” to accomplish that break without a frontal assault on the position adopted at DSA’s 2021 convention.

Internal democracy?

Those are the politics that account for the campaign to expel Bowman continuing and even intensifying after the NPC vote. The effort, at least for a time, crowded other matters off chapter agendas and became a preoccupation in internal DSA media. Rhetoric and accusations escalated, reportedly up to and including death threats. Tensions mounted among people on different sides and within leadership bodies. People with various views on the issues at hand tried to simultaneously lower the conflict temperature and raise the political level of debate. But overall, an all-too familiar pattern characterizing internal battles in socialist groups took hold: issues of internal democracy and alleged “top-down” leadership became prominent, obscuring the political issues underlying the internal conflict.

With respect for majority rule having broken down (it was thin in DSA in the first place) all kinds of uncomradely behavior became common. The leadership—and others—tried to enforce organizational rules. But sorting through the rights and wrongs of each specific situation was time-consuming, wearying, and thankless. With vital external work tasks not getting the attention they required, the NPC succumbed to the temptation to try to move forward by using organizational means. In this case, that took the form of moving to de-charter the BDS Working Group.

Proponents of the de-charter argued that the Work Group was not staying within its mandate as a body subordinate to the NPC, was using organizational channels to oppose majority rule and violating democratic norms; and that several members were making abusive allegations against some NPC members. They made a strong case. But a membership overwhelmingly committed to Palestine solidarity would clearly react differently to the suspension of a BDS-focused committee than to the decision not to expel Jamaal Bowman.

A broader and deeper discussion in the organization about the Working Group’s violation of democratic norms, with more specifics about how it would move forward with Palestine solidarity efforts, would be needed to avoid another round of bitter conflict. Instead, the de-charter, and the rush by some DSAers to galvanize support for the NPC decision before the organization as a whole could obtain and absorb all the necessary facts, caused more problems than it solved. And the decision was later rescinded.

Utilizing organizational means is a perilous course, especially when important political issues underlie internal conflict. Identifying and debating those issues in full view of the membership—putting politics front and center—is a far better course. Failure to do this, and failure to use all available channels to give the membership information and an opportunity to air their views, almost always backfires. It allows those violating democratic norms to assume the posture of victims being persecuted by an allegedly dictatorial leadership.

Especially in a young organization where leadership bodies have not yet earned significant political authority—and given the lack of leadership accountability in so many past socialist groups—this stance generally garners sympathy. By their nature, crackdowns on abusive behavior or rule violations have a large proportion of messy, “they said, they said” charges and sometimes facts and allegations are at least partly confidential. These problems are exacerbated in DSA because the NPC, rather than some independent, non-leadership body, is designated as the arbiter of grievances and other kinds of disputes.

All that played out in DSA in arguments about the de-chartering and applying discipline to certain individuals. Mistakes were made on all sides. These need to be identified and the lessons used to improve organizational practice, and perhaps do some restructuring, going forward. But whatever mistakes were made on this front, they are not the reason tensions in DSA have reached the point they have.

The fundamental reason the political differences shaping this struggle have led to tension and crisis rather than greater political understanding is this: A minority in the organization refused, and still refuses, to accept the will of the majority, as expressed in the last Convention and in the NPC vote rejecting the demand to expel Jamaal Bowman.

Tear members down or lift members up?

An additional factor makes the current fight in DSA so toxic. “Call-out culture”—harsh criticism of individuals that attributes political views a person disagrees with to character flaws or lack of commitment on the part of the target—is widespread in DSA, as it is in all too much of the broad Left. The result is that political debates, especially on the internet, deteriorate rapidly into personal attacks.

My generation is no stranger nasty and destructive internal Left debate. The sectarian wars we conducted during the 1970s and ’80s were counter-productive to say the least. But it was political sectarianism: we lost any sense of proportion, exaggerated small differences, and gave our opponents’ views every negative label in the book. But for the most part, we considered our opponents carriers of bad—even counter-revolutionary—lines, not bad people. We aimed to “win them over” to our supposedly enlightened perspective—”cure the disease to save the patient.”

There are lessons to be drawn on this from my generation’s mistakes. Yes, each of us carries baggage from growing up in an individualistic society founded on racism, sexism and other forms of dehumanization. But people enter the radical movement and join an organization like DSA to contribute to changing that society. They are to be valued and given the tools to grow as they engage in political activity. Except for police agents (when we can identify them with certainty) and the occasional person too damaged to work in any collective setting, our default assumption must be that everyone acts in good faith. Attacking people’s character or treating others in ways you would not want to be treated—not to mention threatening someone’s personal safety—should be out of bounds.

That does not mean that there aren’t political views and practices that are destructive. There are. But they need to be taken on as political views one thinks are badly misguided, not as indications that their proponents are bad people or less committed to social justice than “our side.”

Some kinds of politics are destructive

Keeping that polemical standard in mind, it is still true that there is a political perspective held by some currents in DSA that is not just erroneous but destructive. Whatever the good intentions of its advocates, it translates into the kind of “rule or ruin” practice that has weakened or destroyed numerous broad Left organizations in the U.S. and around the world. This perspective holds that building a purified revolutionary party is such an important priority that it justifies doing whatever it takes within DSA to gain influence and recruits for that perspective. If DSA is badly weakened or even destroyed in the process, that is not just acceptable. It is a good thing.

This general perspective has a long history in the socialist movement. Its clearest expression is not in the words of its critics, but in those of its own proponents. For example, dedicated revolutionary and main founder of U.S. Trotskyism James Cannon voiced it as he offered his summation of the results of his group entering the Socialist Party USA in the 1930s, and then exiting to form the Socialist Workers Party:

“The [SWP Founding] convention adopted the entire program of the Fourth International without any opposition. This showed that our educational work had been thoroughgoing. All these accomplishments can be chalked up as evidence of the political wisdom of our entry into the Socialist Party. And another of them-and not the least of them-was that when the Socialist Party expelled us and when we retaliated by forming an independent party of our own, the Socialist Party had dealt itself a death blow. Since then the SP has progressively disintegrated until it has virtually lost any semblance of in-fluence in any party of the labor movement. Our work in the Socialist Party contributed to that. Comrade Trotsky remarked about that later, when we were talking with him about the total result of our entry into the Socialist Party and the pitiful state of its organization afterward. He said that alone would have justified the entry into the organization even if we hadn’t gained a single new member. Partly as a result of our experience in the Socialist Party and our fight in there, the Socialist Party was put on the side lines. This was a great achievement, because it was an obstacle in the path of building a revolutionary party. The problem is not merely one of building a revolutionary Party, but of clearing obstacles from its path. Every other party is a rival. Every other party is an obstacle.”

James P. Cannon, “The History of American Trotskyism,” Pathfinder Press, New York, 1972, pp 252-253

Let me be crystal clear about this. I think the labels from the pre-1989 Left—Maoist, Trotskyist, Marxist-Leninist, Stalinist, Social Democrat, etc—are mostly useless in understanding today’s Left. Not all those who identify with Trotskyism share Cannon’s views or engage in anything like the kind of practice he praises. And all too many who identify with other ideological currents in the pre-1989 Left do engage in “rule or ruin” adventures. So broad-brush generalizations about any ideological tendency must be resisted. (To reinforce this point: what use are pre-1989 categories when leading voices in the allegedly “Stalinist/Tankie” Communist Party USA vehemently condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine, while three groups from the Trotskyist movement (Socialist ActionWorkers World Party, and the Party for Socialism and Liberation) refuse to criticize the Putin regime’s aggression and blame the entire situation on US/NATO imperialism?)

That said, it would be the height of naiveté not to see that there are groupings within DSA that are operating in a manner that subordinates the integrity of DSA to their conception of a higher good. Some entered DSA as a group with their own discipline; others evolved within DSA since its 2016 explosive growth and transformation.

Political strategy is the bottom line

This is not an issue DSA can resolve by organizational means. It is a matter of identifying the core political issues and the different views advocated by the contending currents in the organization. Peel away all the back-and-forth about who mistreated whom, all the noise and call-out attacks on social media, and all the “gotcha” questioning of people’s character and commitment. Then you get to the bottom-line political choice DSA must make.

DSA can focus outward and continue on the path most connected to its recent growth: establishing itself as a socialist force within the progressive trend in U.S. politics whose most prominent figures are Bernie and the Squad. Taking that course would mean focusing, like the vast bulk of that trend, on both defeating the authoritarian right and building the independent strength of social justice and socialist forces in the process. It would point to synergizing electoral work with efforts to revitalize the labor movement; strengthen the urgent movements for racial justice, gender justice, and environmental protection; and root the organization the multiracial, gender-inclusive working class. And it would involve work to rebuild the tattered and beleaguered peace and solidarity movements, including serious efforts to build a voting bloc committed to Palestinian rights in as many congressional districts as possible.

Alternatively, DSA can prioritize a purification effort and set a course toward building a new revolutionary socialist party outside of and in opposition to that trend. Expel Jamaal Bowman and move to break ties with others in the Squad and Bernie because, according to one of the prominent expel-Bowman advocates:

“DSA’s “electeds” and allies, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and of course Bernie Sanders, all ceased any semblance of being an opposition and instead branded themselves as the staunchest liberal Democrats who would try to work harder in service of the Democratic Party.”

This choice is at the core of DSA’s current internal conflicts. The debate about it can be conducted in a way that brings more light than heat. It is a multi-faceted debate that in this case pivots on electoral strategy but reflects different assessments of the current balance of forces in U.S, politics, different views on the relationship of the fight for democracy and the fight for socialism, and—of special importance—the inter-relationship of white supremacy with U.S. capitalism and what that means about the nature and danger of today’s Trumpist bloc. (Besides what is in this essay, my opinions on these issues are presented in the 20-plus columns I have written for Convergence—formerly Organizing Upgrade—over the last two years, available here. And for a specific critique of overly narrow views of the alliances needed to effectively challenge U.S. racial capitalism, see the Convergence symposium “The White Republic and the Struggle for Racial Justice,” especially the concluding essay here.)

Once DSA makes this choice, it can and should be tested out for a period of time. Those who disagree certainly have the right to remain in the organization and re-raise their alternative perspective at the appropriate time, likely a national convention. But no socialist organization can function effectively if it is embroiled in constant internal strife over a fundamental question such as where it positions itself within the politics of the country in which it functions.

DSA is the largest socialist organization the U.S. has seen in at least 70 years. Its explosive growth since 2016 has heartened everyone on the progressive side of the spectrum at a time of humanity-threatening crises and a dire threat from right-wing authoritarianism. The entire Left has a stake in the direction DSA chooses to take.

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Democracy: Rule of Law & Elections Economic Justice

Watch: May Day Forum with Gerry Hudson

On May Day 2022, Voices for New Democracy hosted SEIU Secretary-Treasurer Gerry Hudson for a discussion on the state of the American labor movement. Throughout the conversation, Gerry discussed his history at 1199SEIU, outlining how the union’s participation in struggles for racial justice and immigrant justice mobilized membership and helped secure important victories; how 1199’s emphasis on rank-and-file organizing and leadership was key to their strength; and what lessons these experiences hold for today’s wave of union organizing across gig workers, Amazon workers, delivery drivers, Starbucks workers, and more. Gerry also reflected on SEIU’s political mobilization around the 2020 elections — playing an important role in Biden’s victory — and the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead in 2022 and 2024.

Watch the full forum below.

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Economic Justice

Collective Bargaining and the Future of U.S. Labor

| Kent Wong |

This was a paper presented by Kent Wong to an international conference hosted by Ton Duc Thang University in Ho Chi Ming City, Vietnam in April, 2022. Ton Duc Thang is the Trade Union University of Vietnam and is affiliated with the Vietnam General Confederation of Labor.

As the director of the UCLA Labor Center, I have taught labor studies, labor law and collective bargaining for many years.  Collective bargaining is a cornerstone of U.S. labor relations, and yet it has been under attack in recent decades.  This is harmful not only to U.S. unions and workers, but represents an increasing threat to U.S. democracy.  

Collective Bargaining in the U.S.  

For more than 50 years, unionization and collective bargaining have been in decline in the United States.  The right to collective bargaining was won in the 1930’s, in the midst of the Great Depression and as a result of unprecedented organizing campaigns throughout the country including a General Strike in 1934.  The 1930’s saw the birth of contemporary U.S. labor laws, and the establishment of collective bargaining as the foundation of U.S. labor relations.

Throughout In the 1950’s, fully one third of workers in the U.S. were members of unions and covered by collective bargaining agreements.  This massive union expansion resulted in historic improvements in the wages and working conditions of U.S. workers.  U.S. workers were able to improve job quality, raise wages to support their families, and the growing strength of unions resulted in significant government policy victories including social security, employer provided health care coverage, occupational safety and health standards, paid sick time, paid vacation time, and pensions.   

However, in the 1970’s and 1980’s, the U.S. witnessed a decline in unionization that has continued to this day.  The causes of union decline have included globalization, a dramatic change from a manufacturing economy to a service economy, and policies of deindustrialization that resulted in capital flight and plant shutdowns throughout the country.  Union decline was also accelerated by anti-union corporate policies and their support of anti-union labor laws that undermined collective bargaining rights.  Today, only 10% of U.S. workers are union members, and only 6% of private sector workers are in unions.

The decline in unionization and collective bargaining has led to stagnation and decline in the wages and working conditions for U.S. workers.  Previously high wage union jobs have been replaced by low wage non-union jobs.  The two largest corporations in the U.S., WalMart and Amazon, are both fiercely anti-union, and have invested millions of dollars to oppose their workers from forming and joining unions.

The decline in collective bargaining has also weakened worker political power.  Government policies that were established decades ago to support workers have steadily been eroded.  Also, weakened unions have also allowed corporations and the right-wing to exert greater political influence to support reactionary, anti-union politicians and laws. 

The Attacks on Collective Bargaining and the Election of Donald Trump

In 2016, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote for President, and received almost three million more votes than Donald Trump.  However, due to the undemocratic U.S. Electoral College system, Donald Trump was elected President instead.  

Three critical states that had supported Barack Obama in 2012, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, flipped from Democrat to Republican in 2016.  In each of these three states, Republican Governors and members of the State Legislatures had attacked collective bargaining rights and unions. 

In Michigan, the state where the United Autoworkers of America was founded, the state legislature passed anti-union “Right to Work” laws in 2013, dramatically undermining worker rights.  In Pennsylvania, conservative anti-union forces in the State Legislature have fought to restrict collective bargaining rights, especially for public sector workers.  And in Wisconsin, fifty years of collective bargaining rights for public sector workers was eliminated by a right-wing governor in 2011.  

The attack on unions in these three states had a direct impact on the 2016 election.  Trump defeated Clinton in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by a margin of only 70,000 votes, which allowed him to prevail in the national electoral college vote and become president.  In 2020, after unions intensified organizing in these same three states, all three flipped back to support the democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden.   

Joe Biden’s presidential victory was commanding, both in the popular vote and in the electoral vote.  In the midst of the pandemic, the 2020 presidential election was held and Joseph Biden and Kamala Harris were elected President and Vice President.  Joseph Biden had previously served as Vice President under President Barack Obama, and Kamala Harris is the first woman and first person of color (both African American and Asian American) to hold the position of Vice President in U.S. history.  

However, to this day, Donald Trump has promoted the “Big Lie” that the 2020 election was illegitimate and that he won the election.  On January 6, 2020, Donald Trump encouraged his supporters to engage in an armed insurrection of the U.S. Capitol to overturn the election results.  The Trump lead white supremacist and right-wing movement presents a major threat to U.S. democracy, and Republican leaders in Congress continue to spread lies and misinformation that Donald Trump won the 2020 election. 

Growing Economic Inequality

During the past two years of the global pandemic, the contradictions and crisis of U.S. capitalism have been exposed.  More than 900,000 people in the U.S. have died as a result of Covid-19.  Former President Donald Trump lied to the American people and deliberately down-played the seriousness of Covid-19.  He attacked public health leaders and safety guidelines, and refused to wear masks and abide by social distancing.  Many Republican leaders continue to spread lives about Covid-19, and have contributed to the public health crisis and increased death toll. 

Although the U.S. has the most expansive and expensive health care system in the world, millions of people do not have access to health care.  Covid-19 has disproportionately claimed the lives of the poor, people of color, and immigrants.  The wealthy have access to the best health care system in the world, while many workers and the poor are dying because they lack of health care access.  

The U.S. is a deeply polarized country, both politically and economically.  The U.S. stock market has been setting new records, and wealthy corporations and billionaires continue to make massive profits during the pandemic.  Housing prices and home rental costs are rising steadily, which also contributes to economic inequality.  The number of homeless people has also grown sharply as housing insecurity impacts more workers. 

A Growing Workers Movement 

The pandemic has also witnessed the rise of a new workers movement.  Public opinion polls reflect that sentiment supporting unions is at a 50-year high in the U.S.  More people realize that unions are necessary to improve the quality of life for workers.

There has been a new wave of strikes throughout the country, including in the manufacturing sector, and more workers have been engaged in union organizing campaigns in recent years than in recent decades.  Amazon workers, Starbucks workers, Fast Food workers, and “Ride Share” workers have been engaged in organizing campaigns in work places and industries that have never before been unionized.

Pro-union sentiment has been especially high among young workers and workers of color, who have been leading many of these organizing campaigns.  These campaigns bode well for the future of the labor movement, and also present opportunities to expand collective bargaining rights in the U.S.  

The Importance of Collective Bargaining Education

As the Director of the UCLA Labor Center, I teach Labor Studies to our students at the university.  Each year, we introduce collective bargaining education into the classroom, to provide our students with an appreciation of the role of unions, an understanding of the dynamics of collective bargaining, and the importance of a union contract in providing good wages, benefits, and working conditions, and a collective voice for workers.

One of the most popular learning activities within our curriculum is a collective bargaining simulation, where each student is assigned to participate on either a union or management bargaining team.  The students are given informational hand-outs based on real collective bargaining case studies, and then engage in a mock collective bargaining session.  They have the option of either signing a union contract, or engaging in a strike or lockout.  Inevitably, most of the student bargaining sessions result in a signed union contract, although in a few instances there are strikes or lock-outs.   This outcome mirrors what happens in the real world, where the vast majority of collective bargaining sessions result in a mutually agreeable settlement.  

The UCLA Labor Center in recent years has established a Labor Studies Major, the first in the history of our university and the first within the nine campus University of California system.  We are also in the process of establishing a Master’s Degree in Labor Studies.  

The Labor Studies program provides a foundation for students to learn about unions, collective bargaining, labor history, labor law, and contemporary issues that impact workers and the work place.  Our program also provides opportunities for students to engage in research on labor issues, and to take part in internship programs that directly place them with unions and worker organizations.  Through these placements, students learn about the world of work first hand, and many find jobs and careers through developing their skills and relationships.

The UCLA Labor Center has also established innovative programs to conduct research on young workers, and to encourage young workers to learn about their rights on the job, and to form and join unions.  Labor education plays an important role in preparing the workers of tomorrow to join the labor movement and advocate for the interests of the working class.  

The UCLA Labor Center is committed to continue our partnership with Ton Duc Thang University.  We applaud the efforts of Ton Duc Thang to promote worker rights and global labor solidarity, and we share our mutual commitment to advance peace and prosperity for workers in Vietnam, the United States, and throughout the world. 

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Democracy: Rule of Law & Elections

Watch: Forum on Progressive Electoral Organizing with Linda Burnham & Max Elbaum

This past Sunday, Voices for New Democracy joined our comrades at Convergence Magazine for a conversation with Linda Burnham and Max Elbaum around their new book, Power Concedes Nothing: How Grassroots Organizing Wins Elections, a collection of essays exploring grassroots mobilization as the key to electoral power. Burnham and Elbaum discussed their work with Convergence, pulled out key highlights from the book and examples of progressive organizing in action — including its pivotal role in ousting Trump — and emphasized the need for progressives to unify and work together to defend democracy while building grassroots power.

Watch the full conversation below.

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Power Concedes Nothing: February 27 Monthly Political Forum with Linda Burnham & Max Elbaum

Join Voices for New Democracy and our comrades at Convergence Magazine on Sunday February 27th at 7 p.m. ET / 4 p.m. PT for our next monthly political forum hosting Linda Burnham& Max Elbaum, co-editors of the new book Power Concedes Nothing: How Grassroots Organizing Wins Elections.

Burnham and Elbaum will discuss the new book, a collection of essays exploring grassroots mobilization as the key to electoral power, including ousting Trump in 2020. Now, with 2022 posing the greater threats to democracy, all progressives need to unify and work together to preserve it while at the same time building grassroots power. Join us.

Click here on Sunday, February 27th at 7 p.m. ET / 4 p.m. PT to join the forum.

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Economic Justice

Watch: Forum on Black Liberation with Robin D. G. Kelley

“There has never been a moment in the last 150 years on the planet that we did not have to rebuild the Left.”

Robin D. G. Kelley

On Sunday, January 23rd, UCLA Professor and acclaimed historian Robin D. G. Kelley joined Voices for New Democracy for our latest monthly political forum discussing the past and future of Black liberation.

The wide-ranging conversation touched on important reflections on where the Left stands today, and explores some of the lessons from historical experiences in the struggle for Black liberation from Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition to BLM, and the reactions and backlash these struggles have faced. Building on recent forums and essays on Voices for New Democracy exploring some of the recent challenges and defeats we’re facing, Kelley asserts that the present moment is still full of opportunity. But to seize the moment, Kelley challenges us to think deeply about how we can build a unified Left, inspired by new ideas, that operates with organized cooperation and accountability. And as capitalism undergoes new structural changes in the face of concurrent crises, the Left will have important opportunities to advance our movement in different places at different moments. Whatever dark moments lie ahead, Kelley reminds us to maintain our commitment to the struggle.

Watch the full forum below.

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Comment on the Biden Administration’s Continued Support of Trump-Era Immigration Title 42 and Remain in Mexico Policies

| José Z. Calderón |

Biden could have broken with Trump’s anti-immigrant policies and allowed anyone who wished to apply for asylum to be able to do so at a port of entry and increase the possibilities of immigrants from Central America and from places like Haiti to obtain lawful employment (through such measures as H-2B visas).

Instead, the Biden administration has kept in place a Trump-era policy, Title 42, which does the opposite by indefinitely closing the border to “nonessential travel” (to supposedly “limit the spread of the coronavirus”) and increases the deportation of those who are seeking work or who are seeking to apply for asylum. Title 42, under both the Trump administration and now under Biden, allows for the Border Patrol to decide who can enter the process of asylum and who cannot. As a result, in the last year, border authorities applied Title 42 to more than 80% of encounters with immigrants resulting in 530,000 expulsions of which 16,000 were children migrating alone and 34,000 children-plus parents. Adding to the number of expulsions, the Biden administration has moved on speeding up deportations of some migrant families through “expedited removal,” allowing for ICE to deport them without a hearing before an immigration judge.  

In this light, our organizing efforts, in addition to supporting DACA and Temporary Protective Status measures, has to include a halt to the contradictory government policies of Title 42 and a call for humane refugee asylum policies. 

Along these same lines, it is important to organize against the Biden administration’s reinstating of a Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” policy, that is part of a deal struck with the Mexican government forcing asylum seekers to stay in that country until their U.S. immigration court date. Under this policy, about 70,000 immigrants have been returned to Mexico. Although the Biden administration justifies its actions by claiming that it is only following court orders, that it is applying “humanitarian speed-ups” of court proceedings of migrants and refugees, and that it is providing avenues for access to legal counsel, there is no getting around that the ‘Remain in Mexico’ policies are resulting in mass deportations and inhumane treatment. There are thousands of immigrants, seeking protection from increased violence in their home countries, who are being deported back to areas where they are met with brutal attacks and kidnappings perpetrated by deadly cartels and corrupt officials.  For instance, according to Human Rights First, there were at least 1,544 publicly documented cases of rape, kidnapping, assault, and other crimes committed against individuals sent back under these policies this last year. 

Meanwhile, Kamala Harris has been assigned to focus on the “root” causes of migration in Latin America, announcing that the plan will deal with issues of  economic insecurity and inequality, combating democratic corruption, and promoting respect for human rights. 

While some of us in the immigrant rights movement have promoted policies that would focus on changing the economic conditions in the sending countries that are forcing so many to migrate here, the reality is that they are meaningless in this time period when there is a need to prioritize the passage and implementation of pro-immigrant legislation here in the U. S.  These gestures by Kamala Harris, focused on the conditions abroad, affect very little in the immediate and, with the Republicans already making immigration a central issue, the prospects for building the kind of movement that is needed to ensure the defeat of the right in the mid-term elections is further damaged.

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Movement Building is Essential to Advance Immigration Reform

| Kent Wong |

This article will appear in the next issue of the New Labor Forum.

Fundamentally, we need to build an immigrant rights movement to create the change we need.   Reliance on the Democratic Party or on policy formulations alone will never result in meaningful change unless we can successfully build a movement led by immigrant workers and immigrant youth.   

The Obama-Biden administration was responsible for more than two million deportations, the worst record in U.S. history.  During his 2020 presidential election campaign, Biden promised immigration reform within his first year in office.  Not only do those promises remain unfulfilled, but unfortunately, Biden has maintained some of the repressive anti-immigrant policies implemented by Trump.

We support the necessity of building a broad-based alliance to advance meaningful immigration reform.  The alliance must include undocumented immigrants themselves, the labor movement, African Americans, youth and students, environmentalists, and the faith-based community.  

While we obviously supported the Biden-Harris ticket, and celebrate the end of the horrific Trump administration, we should not be surprised about Biden’s lukewarm commitment to immigration reform in light of his track record.  The Biden administration will only do the right thing if there is a strong movement demanding change.

DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) was one of the few immigrant rights victories that was won during the Obama-Biden administration.  DACA was a breakthrough in providing a relief to more than 800,000 immigrant youth who otherwise would still live under the constant fear of deportation and would not be able to legally work.  

The immigrant youth movement played a decisive role in securing one of the few immigration reform victories under the Obama-Biden administration.  Yet it is important to note that DACA was not prioritized or actively supported by major immigrant rights organizations.  Even the Federal DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) was not a priority of major immigrant rights organizations, because of their fear that if the DREAM Act moved forward as a stand-alone bill, this would undermine the passage of comprehensive immigration reform.  

We strongly disagree with this analysis and approach.  The one-sided push for comprehensive immigration reform and reliance on the Democratic Party has been a failed strategy, that has effectively yielded nothing. 

The right wing understands the benefit of incremental change on immigration.  They have tried to secure anti-immigration victories wherever and whenever possible, at a federal, state, and local level.  They have built an anti-immigrant movement grounded in racism and nativism, and have used the anti-immigrant issue to mobilize their primarily white constituency at the ballot box.

Instead of relying the Democratic Party, we believe that we must focus our energies on movement building.  And two major movements that have helped to shift the national debate on immigrant rights are the immigrant workers movement, and the immigrant youth movement.  We would benefit from deepening an understanding of the role of each, in order to confront the challenges ahead. 

Immigrant Workers Movement

The U.S. labor movement has a decidedly mixed history when it comes to immigration reform.  From their support of the passage of the racist Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, U.S. labor has historically embraced anti-immigrant policies.  During the last major immigration legislation passed by Congress, the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, labor advocated for employer sanctions to impose civil and criminal penalties for employers who knowingly hiring undocumented immigrants.  They erroneously believed that this would safeguard jobs for U.S.-born workers. 

Employer Sanctions has been a disaster that has done little to nothing to punish employers for hiring undocumented immigrants.  Instead, employer sanctions have caused great to harm to undocumented immigrants who been viciously exploited with little legal recourse, and driven further into the underground economy.  

The emergence of the immigrant workers movement was a powerful force that helped to reinvigorate parts of the U.S. labor movement, and harness the power of a new generation of predominantly Latino immigrant workers to transform parts of the labor movement.  In Los Angeles, the legendary Justice for Janitors Movement and the organizing of the Hotel Workers under the leadership of Maria Elena Durazo represented historic breakthroughs in not only immigrant worker organizing, but the embrace of social movement unionism.  The victory of the Home Care workers, led for years by black women, also greatly diversified the labor movement of California and brought more women, people of color, and low wage immigrant workers into the labor movement than any other organizing campaign in decades.

The national debate on the AFL-CIO policy on immigration came to a head during the 1999 convention held in Los Angeles.  On the opening day of the convention, the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor organized a march within the convention hall with hundreds of recently organized immigrant workers of color.  The marchers jumped on to the podium where the largely aging, white male AFL-CIO Executive Council was seated, dramatically contrasting two distinct parts of the labor movement.  A remarkable change in the AFL-CIO immigration policy came the following year, in 2000, led by a progressive coalition of key unions including UNITE-HERE, SEIU, UFCW, and the United Farmworkers of America. For the first time, the AFL-CIO lined up on the right side of history on immigration, calling for full rights and a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. 

In 2003, UNITE HERE launched the Immigrant Worker Freedom Ride, a series of national bus tours that drew on the tradition of the Civil Rights movement.  In states and cities throughout the country, the Freedom Ride built union and community alliances with a movement-building orientation.  Congressman John Lewis and Rev. James Lawson Jr. worked with the Immigrant Worker Freedom Ride to connect the emerging immigrant rights movement with veterans from the Civil Rights movement from decades before. 

In 2006, the largest May Day marches in U.S. history held in dozens of cities across the country were organized to respond to draconian anti-immigrant legislation in Congress.  It was a profound reflection of the power of the immigrant workers movement, that successfully led to the defeat of the pending legislation.  Ironically, the largest May Day in U.S. history was not led by the U.S. labor movement, but by immigrant workers themselves.  In fact, some conservative union leaders watched from the sidelines, refusing to support the just demands of immigrant workers to end deportations and for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. 

The election of Tefere Gebre as the AFL-CIO Executive Vice President in 2013 was a breakthrough.  For the first time in history, a black immigrant and political refugee became one of the top officers of the U.S. labor movement.  Gebre was previously the leader of the Orange County Federation of Labor, where he mobilized the power of immigrant workers to not only reinvigorate the labor movement, but to change the political landscape.   Orange County in 2016 voted for a Democrat for President for the first time since the 1930’s, and in 2018 Democrats swept the entire Congressional delegation in what was previously a bastion of right-wing politics.  

In 2021, Liz Schuler was elected as the first woman President in AFL-CIO history.  Currently, her two other national officers are black men, another historic first.  The first leadership team of women and people of color within the AFL-CIO could change the national political environment through building a grassroots movement to support immigration reform.  

Immigrant Youth Movement

Immigrant youth have been at the forefront of securing meaningful immigration policy victories over the last decade. Though immigrant youth have been organizing for a long time, the year 2010 was a game changer. 

In May of 2010, five undocumented youth held a nonviolent sit-in at the office of Senator and former presidential-candidate John McCain, risking arrest and deportation.  This courageous act exposed McCain’s political opportunism as a Senate leader who had previously co-sponsored the DREAM Act, yet instead withdrew his support to align with Sheriff Joe Arpaio.  

In the coming months, immigrant youth engaged in unprecedented activism from hunger strikes in Los Angeles and Texas, a 1,500 mile march on-foot from Florida to Washington known as the “Trail of Dreams,” a “Dream Freedom Ride” caravan from Los Angeles to Washington D.C., and many other forms of nonviolent civil disobedience. The emergence of United We Dream, a national coalition of undocumented youth organizations, as well as “Dream Teams” of undocumented activists in states and cities across the country set the foundation for a new immigrant youth movement. 

For more than twenty years, the DREAM Act, overwhelmingly supported by the public, has been blocked in Congress.  The DREAM Act could provide a pathway to citizenship for qualifying immigrant youth and could change their lives, as well as the lives of their families and their communities. Despite the tremendous efforts made by immigrant youth, the DREAM Act was unable to get through the Senate because of a threatened filibuster in December of 2010. This was a bipartisan failure.  A handful of Democrats voted against it, while some senators like John McCain and Joe Manchin, did not even show up to vote. As heartbreaking as this loss was, immigrant youth did not give up. Instead, they directed their attention to other efforts that could harness their energy and collective power.

The failure of the DREAM Act in December 2010, was the impetus for the launch of “Dream Summer” in 2011. Dream Summer is the first and only national fellowship program run by and for immigrant youth, launched by the UCLA Labor Center with support of United We Dream. The program aims to empower the next generation of social justice leaders by providing leadership and professional development opportunities to immigrant youth that embraces an intersectional, intergenerational, cross-racial approach. In its first year, the program received over 1,000 applications from eager immigrant youth that were ready to join the movement.  Since its founding, the Dream Resource Center (DRC) of the UCLA Labor Center has emerged as a national source for innovative research, education, leadership development and policy on immigration issues. 

Dream Summer centers the immigrant youth voice in local and national conversations that directly impact them in order to achieve representation, opportunity, and justice for immigrant communities. Over the past ten years, Dream Summer has played a pivotal role in developing immigrant youth leaders who have secured legislative victories such as the California Dream Act, DACA, and Health4AllKids in California. 

In 2011, immigrant youth organized actions across the state of California to secure the passage of the California Dream Act, which for the past decade has provided tens of thousands of immigrant youth access to state financial aid for eligible undocumented Californians. Between 2016 – 2017 alone, more than 54,000 California immigrant youth applied for the California Dream Act. 

Undocumented immigrant youth, many of them leaders of Dream Summer such as Neidi Dominguez and Ju Hong, were instrumental in advancing a national strategy to push President Obama to introduce Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in 2012. Today, over 800,000 immigrant youth have been able to work and have protection from deportation as a result of this victory. 

In 2013, Dream Summer launched the Health Ambassadors Fellowship. The late Beatriz Solis from The California Endowment led the effort to support 114 immigrant youth to work at the intersections of health and immigration. The Dream Summer fellows produced a  series of reports entitled, Undocumented and Uninsured, which informed policymakers about the need for health care for all Californians, regardless of legal status. In 2015, California passed Health4All Kids, which expanded full-scope medical to low-income children under the age of 19, regardless of immigration status. Most recently, immigrant youth were also key in securing the passage of the California Values Act, which limits collaboration between law enforcement and immigration officials in the detention and deportation process.

2021 marked the 10th anniversary of Dream Summer. Since its inception, more than 820 immigrant youth from across the country have participated in the program. Dream Summer has also developed partnerships with over 265 social justice organizations. Many Dream Summer alumni have gone off to hold leadership positions in various national, state and local social justice organizations. Undocumented immigrant youth continue to be at the forefront of the fight for immigrant justice.

Movement building is essential to advance Immigration reform.  Unfortunately, some immigrant rights organizations speak on behalf of undocumented immigrants, while not promoting undocumented immigrants in key leadership positions. This is problematic, and has contributed to a failure to focus on movement building and a commitment to undocumented immigrant empowerment.  History teaches us that we must build the immigrant workers movement and the immigrant youth movement to secure meaningful immigration reform.

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1/23 Forum on Black Liberation with Robin D. G. Kelley

Please join Voices for New Democracy for our next monthly political forum on Sunday, January 23rd at 4 p.m. PT / 7 p.m. ET for a conversation about the past and future of Black liberation with UCLA professor Robin D. G. Kelley. Click here to join the forum when it begins.

Professor Kelley will discuss the past and future of the latest iteration of Black liberation (BLM and more), and also reflect back on where we were 25-30 years ago as a way to think about the folks we recently lost and the lessons we might take from that moment, which Kelley believes was as dynamic and potentially transformational as 2014-2020.

As background reading, Professor Kelley encourages participants to read this short piece by Jamala Rogers, which sums up some of the internal crises facing the BLM movement: “things we don’t want to talk about but must.”

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Democracy: Rule of Law & Elections

Remembering Lani Guinier

Voices for New Democracy joins our friends across the country in mourning the passing of Lani Guinier, a tireless fighter for political and social justice.

As an educator, Guinier blazed trails as the first woman of color to be appointed as a tenured professor at Harvard Law School. As a legal scholar and theorist, she devoted much of her life to wrestling with thorny questions and innovative ideas around the structure of our democracy, the importance of social inclusion, and the centrality of racial justice in fighting for progressive change and broader social justice. And as an activist and friend, she touched many of us with her thoughtful and compassionate spirit.

As we remember Lani Guinier, we invite you to listen to her words about the lessons of the 1979 Greensboro Massacre, which she delivered at an anniversary event in 1999. While her remarks are over two decades old now, the lessons about power and community are timeless.

Click the link here or below to watch the video and join us in honoring Lani Guinier’s memory.