By Lisa Descary
Spring Magazine’s Lisa Descary interviewed Bianca Cunningham, co-chair of the Brooklyn chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and organizer with the US organization Labor Notes.
Why did you decide to join the DSA?
My story about joining the DSA is really correlated with my story about organizing my own workplace, which is how I came in contact with socialist organizers–these were folks that were working for the union. And then when I got fired, we became good friends. Obviously, we won, and then I ended up getting fired. And then they [the union] brought me into the office working with those same socialist organizers. And so one day we were doing a weekly project called Project for Working Class Power, which is basically a reading group on class struggle, capitalism, etc. We are getting like 30 people on a Wednesday, and Bernie Sanders is running for president. Workers were on strike, and it just seemed like there were a bunch of things happening, a lot of momentum.
And so when Bernie actually lost the New York primary, a bunch of people came together. And, you know, they came to me and said, “I think we’re going to have a meeting about starting a new project.” And so we met with the National Director, Maria Svart, right there at the CWA [Communications Workers of America] district headquarters and there are other union members from other unions there as well, namely, New York State Nurses Association. And we just talked about what it might look like for labor to be able to respond in these huge moments that are happening in the United States, particularly in New York City. Stuff around Black Lives Matter was really popping off at that same time, and Occupy Wall Street had just finished up. And it was really frustrating that we wanted our unions to take positions, but oftentimes felt so burdened down by the bureaucracy and the communication, structure, etc. And we decided that we could act as labor, right? Like, we don’t need to wait for their permission.
And so we decided, in that moment, at that same meeting, to start a labor group of the Democratic Socialists of America. We were actually the first revitalization of the DSA in New York City. And so they said, this is what we’re going to do. Everybody seems to be on board and it made sense to me. And so I became the chair of the labor branch of New York City DSA. And then after that almost within two weeks, our friends and some activists who aren’t in labor movements decided to start a Brooklyn branch of the DSA. And so we kind of like sprung up at the same time. And from there, just have grown. But yeah, at first, it was just a couple of us. So, I joined because I was like, tired of like, going through reading groups and tired of feeling paralyzed by union bureaucracy. And so I was like, oh, are we actually going to do something together? Because, that would be great. So that’s why I joined.
How do you think the workers movement can rebuild the level of confidence and militancy?
Yeah, I think the best way to rebuild confidence in the labour movement is for you to start actually fighting. If there are no examples of unions who are fighting and winning, then why would workers feel any need to put their livelihoods on the line, joining a dying organization, right? So I think the best thing that we can do is to fight. And it’s almost the only thing that matters.
So kind of learning by doing?
Yeah. There was a time, especially here, that they [unions] were fighting and doing it. And some still are, to their credit, but not enough of them. So many of them are willing to take concessions, so many of them are willing to, bargain away long fought-for benefits like pensions. I feel like nobody’s excited to join a union when they see them rolling over for management.
How you think issues of race affect how we approach working class organizing?
I am co-founder of the Afrosocialist and Socialists of Colour Caucus of the DSA. We were established in 2017, at the last DSA convention. I think that in this country, particularly, race is a trip wire that we keep tripping over. The way I do my work and what I think needs to be done, is more open conversations and more modeling and more resources for what it looks like to build multiracial class struggle. So what it doesn’t look like is pandering or tiptoeing around white nationalists, or those who use fascist symbols, like the Confederate flag, but what it does look like is talking to people.
One thing that I actually talk about a lot, is the creation of whiteness. I think that’s a really interesting thing. It’s this whole “race is a social construct.” People say it in a way that’s like, “race is not real, and we shouldn’t focus on identity politics.” So I agree with half of what they’re saying; race is actually not real. But it has been, real in the minds of the people in stealing this country, building on it, building an economy, etc. The part that’s been crucial is people of color and Black people’s free labour. And so I feel like we need to present those types of issues. First of all, I think that there’s a way to present even the case about reparations for descendants of slaves. And I think that’s really a case of like, unpaid wages, right? We can look at that as labor and understand like, oh, people worked, they didn’t get paid for it, you know, like that simple.
I also feel like, when you talk about the creation of whiteness, it’s very eye opening for specifically Americans. Because it’s never really occurred to them that there was a whole sector of folks who were originally considered not white, like the Irish, the Polish, Italians. Because of economic reasons, and because it’s in the best interest of the elite for them to be on their side, they certainly didn’t want them to be allies with people of color and oppressed folks in the country. We call this like the Great Deal, right? I think that to win them over, they made this deal that said, “you’re not going to be a slave, you can actually accept and step into this whiteness category, and we’ll protect you, but the caveat is that you have to be with us. You can’t be with them.” Right? For instance, specifically in New York City, the police department here started off as the Mob. The State was paying the mob to spy on Black and Brown communities; that’s who the first police officers were. It’s really this Grand Exchange, really trying to get people to understand that our interests are aligned, that whiteness is a facade. And yes, the benefits are real. And the struggles are real for people of color and Black people in this country.
You also work at Labor Notes as a staff writer and organizer. I wondered how you saw that fitting with your socialist politics and with your work with the DSA?
Personally, it’s a lot of overlap for me. I remember when I was organizing my own workplace, with no knowledge of left politics, or knowledge of unions, honestly, besides that they existed. I remember feeling like, wow, we’re making history. We’re the first folks in this company to try to unionize. It’s a huge company. It’s a big deal. The CEO is flying out, the CFO was flying out and having captive audiences with us.
It seemed like it should be enough to get their attention, so why is nobody in the media covering this? Why isn’t this news? We didn’t understand the way the whole system works. So who was the first person to cover our election and our win? It was Labor Notes. They reached out and said, “Hey, do you want to write about what happened in your workplace?”, and they offered us support from the very beginning. And those are also the same folks to introduce us to the rest of their organizing friends, to the same folks that were in DSA, that were helping get the DSA off the ground, the same folks that continued to rally around us as we were trying to get a first contract. I can’t say the number of reading groups they would do, focused on our fight at Verizon, and then they’d take a donation for striking workers. They would always reach out, they would always cover us. And so it was already like my support system while I was still at my union, before I even decided to come work at Labor Notes eventually. So it was just a natural thing. We had built a relationship.
And now when they asked me to come work at Labor Notes, it seemed like just a continuation of the work that I was already doing. So it was really seamless. And its continued to be, and I’m happy to now be a part of a team where I can now be that support system for other workers and other folks who are going through this, because we could be that community because you know, this stuff can be so alienating and isolating. I mean, it’s like nerve wracking, you’re putting your livelihood on the line,and life is expensive. And sometimes you go to your friends and your family and they just don’t really understand what it is you’re going through. But it’s great to have a community of folks who understand exactly what’s at stake, exactly what they’re hitting you with, exactly what you’re going through and can offer support and advice to get you through. That’s what Labor Notes has been for me, and for many other workers, I’m sure.
Labor Notes is organizing a ‘Troublemakers School’ in Vancouver, BC in October; I wondered who you’re hoping to attract to the conference and what you want the conference to achieve?
That’s a great question. Troublemakers School is on October 26, at the Maritime Labour Center. It’ll be an all-day super exciting organizing event and will cover more fundamental topics like organizing and dealing with difficult supervisors and filing grievances. But then we’ll also talk about climate issues, issues pertaining to race and labor, solidarity with other oppressed groups, and talking about how we can really build the labor movement.
Everyone should come because I think that everyone should organize their workplaces if they’re not already in unions. And those already in unions should definitely come, because there’s going to be a ton of stuff about how to navigate politics in unions, how to organize around bureaucracy, how to really take issues into your own hands – your and your co workers hands – and not have to rely on special people at the top. And I hope that what the day brings is really, it’s what I actually felt, at the end of the Secrets of a Successful Organizer training that we that we just finished in BC, which was, at the end, everybody coming to a collective realization that we’re going to have to fight together. And we’re going to have to challenge power, and it’s going to be freaking scary. But we’re going to be able to do it with every single person in this room. We can’t let things slide by because it’s such a slippery slope. So I feel like that’s what came out of the last one. People were talking about the BCNDP, talking about challenging them. And you need to be ready to challenge any attacks on working folks at any place, right. This is what all of this is for.
The last thing I wanted to ask you is, where do you think young socialists should be putting their time and energy?
Base building. Yeah, base building, base building, base building!
There’s a rural area in Arkansas, and they’ve been able to do some really amazing things in a short amount of time based on relationship building, Based, you know, on just being human and being able to present our ideas in a way that everyday people can understand. I think there are more people that agree with us than don’t, but I think that the way that the message is presented, oftentimes, in media, even from ourselves, is not the best.
And so I would encourage all young socialists to pick a neighborhood, talk to people, figure out the issues, if you don’t know already, and continue to stay in that one sweet spot. And stick it out, grind it out. Just be committed to it and be there and be listening and be open, and really be committed to it. So that’s why I encourage folks to not take on too much. There’s a million things to care about, and there’s a lot of things that are missing, but we can’t win them all fighting all of them at the same time. So we have to pick one and come together around one or two things that we really could be strong on. That’s the best use of our limited capacity and resources at this point.