Traven Leyshon, a socialist and trade unionist in Vermont, spoke to Sacha Ismail from Solidarity on 3 November, polling day for the US presidential and congressional elections.
This is a very tense country now. There’s a widespread perception among the Trump supporters that there’s going to be violence from the left. They expect their homes and cars to be vandalised after the election if Trump wins, and in general rioting in the streets “from the other side”. It’s a deep paranoia. I guess it goes along with fairly widespread acceptance of conspiracy theories, and it’s been fed and built up by Trump himself. The “other” coming to get you is often people of colour, black people, as well as socialists, communists, anarchists. Among liberals there’s a tremendous fear of militias and violence from the right.
In some places you see stores being boarded up and municipal buildings being guarded. You’d have to go back to the run up to the civil war, I assume, to get this level of fear.
This isn’t so much the case in Vermont, where there’s a higher degree of civility, and our Republican governor has said he isn’t going to vote for Trump. But even here there is a level of fear, which is a hindrance to mobilising people for the pro-democracy demonstrations that are starting tomorrow.
Do you think there is going to be violence to stop people from voting?
I don’t know. I think probably the violence will start tomorrow, not today [ie not on election day]. What there probably is is a lot of intimidation, armed militia types with Trump banners hanging around polling places. In some places they’ve been legally given the right to take their guns. That will keep some people away.
This is all a dark picture but at the same time there are good things. I think we’re going to see a very high level of mobilisation on the streets. Organisations with significant authority and ability to bring people out, like the Movement for Black Lives, are going to take to the streets starting tomorrow, and unions are involved in mobilisations too. And specifically in the labour movement there is a lot of discussion about preparing for political strikes.
Some of this is bluff. The national AFL-CIO came out and said they would not allow the stealing of the election; but they had a meeting planned of leaders to discuss this, and they cancelled it. They’ve really done nothing except try to turn out votes for Biden and mobilise the lawyers. But on the ground, there are unions with significant organisation and mobilising-capacity, like the Chicago Teachers Union – which yesterday held a press conference with other allied unions. This is the third largest teachers’ union in the country and they have a history of major strikes, not just around bread and butter issues but also wider issues of social justice.
If Trump tries to do what he says he wants to – and it does seem like most Republican operatives are willing to implement this strategy – then I think we’ll see a major polarisation in the labour movement about what to do.
Along what lines?
About whether we rely on mass action or on a legal strategy. In the 2000 election, the right mobilised – not just legal action, but also demonstrations – while the Democrats told people to stand down, and the union leaderships and the AFL-CIO went along with them. This time I think labour will be much more split and significant parts of the movement will want to act.
Beyond that, the debate will be our attitude to a Biden administration, if we get one. There’s now a very serious and growing far right in the US, with a large constituency of people who like the thuggishness and violence, and it will likely to continue to grow regardless of who wins, fuelled by a neoliberal Biden administration. Then you’ll have people saying give him a chance, as they did with Obama. But I don’t think he’ll get the honeymoon Obama did, particularly with young people and in particular young people of colour.
I think there’ll be a significant force of folks saying no, we’ve got to deal with racial injustice, we’ve got to get Medicare for All, particularly in this pandemic, and we’ve got to deal with the climate seriously. So despite everything I’m optimistic. I think people are going to go through an experience of mobilisation in large numbers, and that mobilisation will be broadly anti-neoliberal as well as anti-authoritarian.
We’re entering into a period of political crisis, which in many ways is what this country needs.
Do you think unions, or labour councils, or other labour movement bodies, have the ability to bring people out on strike against a coup if they decide to try?
I don’t think labour councils, even local ones, are necessary the bodies which can bring people out. In Vermont our state labour council has made that call, and we’re going to take that perspective to our convention on 21 November. We’re doing that to help build up to people doing it, to get the idea out there. But it’s actual unions themselves that can bring people out. Now, I’m pretty sure the international unions [the US term for national unions] will try to prevent their locals from engaging in political strikes, because they’re highly illegal and union officials fear the consequences. There’s more broadly a general conservatism and a lack of history with this. We’ve not seen anything comparable from unionised workers since 1946.
In 2006 you had huge numbers of migrant workers come out on a political strike for migrants’ rights, but that was mostly unorganised or at least ununionised workers. Here too I think you might see wildcat strikes begin in unorganised shops which will then spread.
Having said that, we do have bits of the labour movement like some of the local teachers’ unions, the West Coast longshoremen and maybe the flight attendants with some capacity and history here, unions which have shown they can bring people out and bring significant public support.
Is there any discussion in the US labour movement about campaigning to seriously reform US political structures?
Not so much. There’s a widespread feeling that we need to abolish the electoral college, but the road to constitutional amendments is so difficult it’s hard to see a path there. Beyond that, very little discussion. I did hear that the Chicago teachers have floated some demands that they think might be winnable in changing how we vote.
There is discussion about Trump gaining some ground among black and Latino voters. What do you think is happening there?
Bear in mind the Democratic party has no roots in black and Latino communities, outside some churches. It has changed its constituency to looking for elusive, Republican-leaning middle class people offended by Trump’s boorishness, and so working class people of all types are alienated. Large numbers of black people, young black people, are tired of being taken for granted by the Democratic party – that was decisive to people not coming out for Clinton in 2016.
But you have large movements, even if diffuse ones, among young people of colour, like the Movement for Black Lives, which are very active campaigning against Trump. The BLM demonstrations were the largest in the history of the US. To the degree that you’ve got elements of the labour movement that are in coalition with those forces, that’s very promising. This movement won’t happily allow a Biden administration to continue on its neoliberal course without a fight.
The task for the socialist left, which is very small, is to turn people out, to get to these mass rallies and to get a clear message out there in whatever ways we can, with literature, with banners, with QR codes, with all the difficulties in the pandemic. We’ve got to make the argument that there should be no honeymoon for a Biden administration, no time given for it to somehow sort itself out. There’s a slogan circulating that we have to dragons to slay: the dragon of neo-fascism and the dragon of neoliberalism.
We have to audibly and visibly make the case that a Biden administration is not going to take the kind of action necessary to meet people’s needs. Look at the crucial issue of climate change. Biden’s said he’ll allow fracking, because he thinks that’s what’s necessary to win Pennsylvania. Of course he’s not going to take on the fossil fuel industry, let alone fight for a Green New Deal that’s in any way meaningful.
There is a problem which is how do you make that argument without it leading to more despair and thus feeding the far right further? How do you make a credible case we can win Medicare for All, for instance, when people are profoundly disempowered and don’t have experiences of effective collective action. That’s one of the reasons the Sanders campaign failed. When people said none of this stuff is going to happen even if Sanders is elected, they partly had a point.
However, that’s why I look forward to a crisis, to people coming into the streets, to sections of labour beginning to act, to breaking the law and taking political strike action, to being in coalition with the Movement for Black Lives. People can discover a sense of their power in a way they haven’t since the 1970s.
What role is there for international solidarity?
International solidarity is good, but I don’t know what impact it can have. If we get to the point of political strikes, and shutting the country down, then action like stopping flights to the US would be very meaningful. We do have unions, like the longshore union, with links all over the world. But it’s going to take some combativity here first.