Howie Hawkins interview, part 2: "We need a left party that organises in the unions"

Submitted by AWL on 20 October, 2020 - 5:18
Howie Hawkins

Howie Hawkins, a socialist running in the US presidential election on the ticket of the Green Party, spoke to Stephen Wood from Solidarity. Part 1 of this interview was in Solidarity 567. Workers’ Liberty backs Hawkins in the election.

Bernie Sanders, during the Democratic primaries, was clear about his policies. But it looks like now he’s making almost no demands on Biden?

Bernie Sanders is saying if we get Joe Biden in there, we can push him. But in the course of this campaign, he’s compromised on his signature issue, Medicare for All.

He went on MSNBC and said: I’m willing to compromise to Medicare for All over 55s. That leaves in place hundreds and hundreds of private insurance companies and creates this enormous administrative overhead in the healthcare system because providers have to figure out which plan you’re covered by and what services they cover.

So we’re going to have Medicare for all with Biden, but only for the over 55s? That undermines the whole idea of the efficiencies of a single-payer-funded healthcare system.

How has Covid affected how the campaign runs?

On the ground, it’s mostly phone calls. We are phoning seven million voters in various states. We have a whole phone banking operation in some states, like New York and New Jersey. Lots of DSA members will vote for Biden, we know that, but we have four DSA chapters backing our campaign now. I hope lots of Sanders voters see us as a real alternative.

And then, as candidates, we are trying to get media coverage. We tend to be able to get coverage in smaller media markets. It’s very different from being on the network news and the cable news every night. And when we do get coverage, it’s usually for ballot access stories.

The subtext is the Republicans are trying to get us on. Democrats are trying to get us off. They try to treat us like pawns on their chessboard.

And so the issue is being able to talk about our policy issues. Our website crashed during the first Trump/Biden debate. Once that debate got nasty, people were turned off. Lots of people did go to look then for other candidates and other policies.

What do the Greens do outside an election? Are they there to support strikes, and demonstrations?

The Greens are reliable participants in those kinds of movements. The Greens show up to events that other groups initiate. But I think the Greens need to learn how to initiate some campaigns and really show how we can have a united front around an issue.

The campaign groups, the NGOs, want us to be there in the audience but not on the speakers’ platform. Because most of those non-profits are oriented to the Democratic Party. Their funders and the wealthy donors want to funnel these movements towards the Democratic Party.

If we were able to shape these movements, we would invite people that agree with us on the issues to speak as well, even from the Democratic Party. It’s like the movement against the Vietnam War. We didn’t take it easy on Humphrey because Nixon was worse. Our demand was Out Now! Even during the primaries, Kennedy and McCarthy were seen as anti-war when in fact, they were calling for negotiations. We put pressure on them, too. That’s the kind of thing I think that Greens can do if we become better organisers.

We had a statement out on 12 October about renaming that federal holiday Indigenous People’s Day, instead of Columbus Day, and about honouring the treaties with Indigenous nations that have been violated and other measures to end discrimination and violence that these communities are experiencing. We have been trying to popularise and work with progressive movements throughout this election.

We’ve highlighted, with my background as a Teamster in a warehouse for UPS, the dangers that people in those industries face even while they are called essential workers. The PPE has not been available. A lot of them are getting sick. There have been some wildcat strikes at Amazon. There’s a new report about XPO worldwide treating its workers appallingly. We have tried to add our voice to those concerns and those actions.

We’ve had a hearing in particular with rank-and-file and local organisers of Black Lives Matter activities. The national Black Lives Matter group that’s got some big foundation funding has been oriented toward mobilising people to the Democratic Party. And one of their leaders just came out with an explicit statement to vote for Biden.

The way the Democrats deal with BLM is to focus on reforming use-of-force policies, for example, banning chokeholds. New York City has had a ban on chokeholds since 1993, yet Eric Garner was still strangled to death by a chokehold in 2014.

We’re saying community control of the police. As long as the police are able to police themselves in internal affairs, they’re going to cover up their crimes. So we’re going to need an independent commission, elected or even selected by lot like juries. That’s an old demand in the black radical tradition, starting with the Black Panther Party.

In most places, the local movements have focused on use-of-force reforms. And it is not enough to have the same politicians appoint advisory review boards who have built the police forces we now have. We’ve got some traction in the movement with that discussion about community control.

We’ll also talk about what can be done if you defund or re-allocate resources in police departments to services that people need, homes rather than vagrancy charges for the homeless for instance, ending the war on drugs etc. We also say there’s not enough money in police department budgets to really provide those services. Part of our Green New Deal is investing in homes, in schools, healthcare, and jobs in racially-oppressed communities.

How do you respond to demonstrations with increasing numbers armed and prepared to shoot each other?

I think it’s important that we take a non-violent approach and make that very clear publicly. Anybody who is in violation of that is not with us, even if they say they are. There are some fringe people who call themselves left who have been doing some provocation. A lot of that is the far right and law enforcement themselves, posing as BLM. And we also have the problem that in a lot of police departments and sheriff’s departments, and amongst state troopers, are people who, if not directly affiliated to them, are sympathetic to these right wing vigilantes.

Mass actions can build a broad base of support, whereas if you start getting into gunfights with these right-wing vigilantes, that’s just what Trump wants, because then he can say, they’re coming to burn out your suburbs, and we need law and order.

I don’t think [Trump’s line] has worked out too well. Particularly among women voters, who don’t think having a right-wing militia patrol the streets is better than a demonstration in their suburb.

Do you think there is any prospect of organised labour supporting a third party challenge to the Democrats, or backing left challengers?

We do have some limited support in union rank-and-files and among some union staff. I did have a meeting with a local Labor Council here in New York that has been very supportive in the past.

But most of the unions, if they don’t like Biden, are just saying very little and keeping quiet. In terms of building anything left within the labour movement, we do have the remnants of the Labour Party that was pretty big in the late 90s. And their leadership says when 10 percent of the unions are ready to start a Labour Party, we can start one, right? I told them when 10 percent of the people start voting for the Green Party, then the unions will start looking at us!

I don’t think we’re going to get it through the structures of the unions we have now. The United Electrical workers are committed to independent politics, but most of the reform caucuses tend to avoid partisan politics.

Even the national AFL passed a resolution in support of supporting independent candidates and looking to an alternative to the Democrats or Republicans. That reflects a sentiment amongst a lot of workers in unions. But there’s no organised effort like Tony Mazzochi of the Labor Party was trying to do 20, 30 years ago.

I think it will take a left party that organises within the unions to bring the labour movement to working-class political independence, to campaign around its own program and its own banner.

If you end up working for one of the non-profit organisations, you are limited in what you can say. They want Democrats on staff. I went for one of those jobs, but then I saw it would limit what I could do.

Here in New York there were Greens looking to get jobs in those organisations. They were told you can be registered as a Democrat or even Working Families Party, but if you’re a Green, it’s too controversial. So if you want the job, you’ve got to change your party registration.

I think we’re better off organising as rank-and-file workers with other workers on the job than trying to get staff positions in the unions and the nonprofit organisations.

We need an independent party with local branches where people sit down together and they talk things through, educate themselves, and make themselves smarter. We’ve got to be smart and develop ourselves as thinkers and speakers and writers. That’s what’s missing, because the NGO organisations are very top down.

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