Former Top Dem Lawmaker Bonior: Organizing, Shoe Leather, Needed To Fight The Right

Mark Gruenberg Editor, Press Associates Union News

Shoe leather. One-on-one meetings. Finding an issue – economic justice – to pound home. Organize, organize, organize. And, in Dave Bonior’s case, give away a million tree seedlings over 26 years.

That’s the basic message, minus the trees, that Bonior, the former House Majority Whip from Macomb County, Mich., brought to an overflow crowd at the AFL-CIO in discussing his new book, Whip: Leading The Progressive Battle During The Rise Of The Right.

The book traces Bonior’s career, from his first election in 1976 – and the volunteer-driven door-knocking and seedling-distributing campaign that led to the win – to the final drive, when he ran for the Michigan governorship in 2002 after deciding to retire from Congress.

Bonior ran all his campaigns depending on a corps of volunteers, including environ-mentalists energized by his pro-green stands and Vietnam-era veterans who remember he served, stateside, in the Air Force while the war was on. But they had to build their organization, originally called the Locofocos, from the ground up.

And Bonior faced particular problems in Macomb County, a classic swing county outside Detroit, and with some Democratic activists. They mirror some of the problems the Democratic Party faces today.

One key problem he had with activists was his stand against abortion. Popular in Macomb, it was unpopular in the party, and cost him some support in his always-close congressional races. Another was Macomb itself.

A classic blue-collar county, Macomb contains voters whose background mirrors Bonior’s own: His father was a union member, his grandfather worked at Dodge Main, and he’s still a member of the Auto Workers’ National Writers Union local. He also chaired American Rights at Work.

Bonior’s blue-collar voters swung to Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and to Donald Trump in 2016. Democratic nominee Barack Obama carried Macomb in 2008 and 2012, but Trump beat Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton by 50,000 votes there. He won Michigan by 11,000.

Which brought Bonior to one big battle the book covers, with unions on his side as they were in his campaigns: The fight against NAFTA and Bill Clinton, in 1972. Clinton won, 234-200, in a post-election vote in the U.S. House “and laid the seeds for Hillary’s defeat,” he said.

His other big battles in the U.S. House covered the ballyard, from campaigning against wars in Latin America to opposing bad trade pacts at home. They’re still bad, he said,

specifically citing the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Democratic opposition forced Obama to shelve the TPP and Trump then officially dumped it. “Unless we can get strong guarantees on worker rights, we should walk away,” Bonior said.

Bonior praised the president for appointing “free trade” pact skeptic Robert Lighthizer as U.S. Trade Representative, and top negotiator in “new NAFTA” talks. The latest sessions are occurring in Mexico City. But he wasn’t sure Trump will be able to follow through for workers. 

“Fortunately, we have a U.S. trade negotiator who tends to agree more with us” in the labor movement that NAFTA kills jobs due to low wages, no worker rights and lack of environmental standards and enforcement in Mexico, Bonior said. “The key piece” of NAFTA “is labor rights and environmental rights. Trump doesn’t know anything about it, and everyone else in his administration is pro-business.”

But Bonior spent much of his talk saying leadership on issues must come from the grass-roots, not from Washington, and discussing what he sees as valuable attributes for “leaders” in and out of politics.

Besides organizing by talking one-on-one with people “every single day,” good leaders, he said, listen more than they talk. “If you just talk, you will miss the opportunity to learn.”

And to build trust, he added. Speaking of his battles with House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., Bonior led those Democrats who exposed Gingrich’s unethical finances. And Gingrich talked so much – and didn’t listen – that his own party didn’t defend him, Bonior said.

But listening is also not enough. You “have to have a vision” of what you want to achieve, Bonior warned – in his case, economic and social justice for workers. That vision includes a “willingness to take risks,” he noted.

Another key attribute is to involve the rank-and-file – backbenchers in Congress – in key decisions and in legislation. As part of his rise, then House Speaker Tip O’Neill, D-Mass., put Bonior in charge of the Democrats’ investigation and campaign against Reagan’s Central American wars.

And as whip, Bonior delegated post-NAFTA trade fights to Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and Lori Wallach, executive director of Public Citizens Trade Watch. Both, strong labor supporters, still lead the battles against so-called pro-corporate “free trade” pacts.

“Don’t hog the ball – or the microphone,” Bonior commented. “A sense of ‘team’ is important,” he said, since you need a “team” not just to fight for what you believe but also to fight successfully against the right wing and their allies, he said.