Alabama Political Engagement - Part 2: Moving Forward
Updated On: May 23, 2023

Given the reactionary nature of the Alabama Republicans and the utter dysfunction of the Alabama Democrats, what potential do we have for a new working class coalition in the state?

By ADAM KELLER Published on May 8, 2023

One thing that always comes through to me in the AL Democratic Party conversations I’ve observed and participated in is that neither of the two apparent main factions that have quarreled over the years seem all that interested in engaging labor, the left or for that matter, most anyone under the age of 50. We've seen the last few election cycles under Worley, England, and Kelley that were total disasters by any metric. Obviously, in fairness, Kelley came after candidate qualifying this year so it remains to be seen what will come from his leadership, though based on the conversations hosted on The Valley Labor Report, there certainly seems to be a disconnect between leadership and many of the activists. This disconnect erupted in the May 6 meeting in which the diversity caucuses were disbanded by the Kelley/Reed faction.

I am not alone in wanting an interracial working class movement that can shift the balance of power in our state. A movement carrying forward the torch of movements past. I think that's our best hope to address the multiple layers of crisis we're facing. We have to fight bigotry, oppression, and exploitation with love, justice, and solidarity. The working class is the majority and is the most diverse class. We need to be strong enough to not only win elections but so much more. To the extent we need leaders, I want leaders who are of, by, and for the people. We need more democracy, not less, and I think an organized working class is how we get it.

Now, when I say such things among Democrats, many of them look at me like I am speaking a different language (and in some ways, perhaps we are). 

Which leads to the question of what should be done? How can the working class move forward politically in Alabama? Or can it move forward? 

Some will reject electoral politics all together, focusing on workplace and community organizing, mutual aid, and/or other efforts. I think there are essential ways to build people power, particularly with workplace unionization and organizing, that are outside of political elections. We need that! But should we completely abandon electoral politics? 

There are those who say we need a new, independent working class party, a new labor party. I’m certainly intrigued by the idea of having our own political party of, by, and for the working class and with a base of power in the unions. But there are drawbacks to account for and questions to answer with that strategy. How to overcome a political system designed to exclude 3rd parties? how to reach the working class folks who do currently vote Democratic or even Republican while still activating new voters? And to what extent is there support for such an effort inside the unions, as of now? 

There are still others who would say we have no choice but to work inside the Democratic Party, that’s where the numbers are, that’s how the system is structured; that it’s the easier or more likely pathway to building an opposition to one-party, right-wing rule and making some gains for working class people. But there’s certainly reasons to be skeptical about that pathway, to include over a decade of pitiful results.

There are no doubt smart, dedicated folks already pursuing all of these strategies. There’s pros and cons to each approach. I think we’ve seen examples of all of these strategies and more throughout history and throughout different states and regions. And I think those case studies are worth examining so that we can get a clearer picture of what activists and organizers in Alabama should be doing moving forward.

Now, I’m just thinking out loud here but I’m going to lean towards an all of the above approach for now. I think we must strengthen our coalitions and networks of solidarity and collaboration. Strengthen our relationships. Unite the organizers and activists across the state. Link up the folks who are already doing this sort of stuff, even if it is in different arenas or through differing strategies. We have to reach that 60+% of non-voters and expand beyond the AL Democratic Party’s usual ceiling of 35-40% OF the 35-40% of Alabamians who are actually voting. While at the same time, we still have to organize amongst the workers who are voting consistently. We have to reach as many Alabama workers as possible, some of whom are being reached by Democrats, some of whom are being reached by Republicans, and most of whom are not really being reached by either. I reckon that starts by connecting folks who are already trying in their own ways and building out from there our capacity to reach more workers.

I’m wondering if we need a grassroots effort to establish a coalition that can develop a political program. A coalition around a "worker first" progressive platform & strategic framework. Then look for candidates who will run on a coordinated slate on this political program (whether it is inside or outside the ADP, or maybe some combination depending on the circumstances). In my assessment, there’s a small but important left-labor-social justice base out there in Alabama, inside and outside of the ADP, that has the potential to bring together such a coalition. A coalition that can not only develop a common campaign platform but a real program of outreach and education while connecting existing movements and organizers, lifting up the good solidarity work already being done across the state and highlighting current struggles in need of solidarity. 

While it’s an imperfect measurement of this base, it’s worth considering that over 100 Alabamians showed up to the Troublemakers School in October. Based on that, I estimate a core of the most activated and militant worker organizers in the state to be at least a few hundred strong. Could that be the core basis of a new coalition? 

And based on 2016 and 2020 primary election results, there’s a solid block of about 75,000 Bernie voters who right now have no voice in Alabama politics or leadership. Could that be a pool of sympathetic workers, not only a pool of potential supporters but importantly, potential activists and organizers who can in turn grow their numbers? And certainly, the number of Bernie voters in the previous primaries is not a perfect estimate of unrepresented progressives but it gives us a data point. Insert your own data points here if you wish.

While Alabama’s union membership is way too low, we do have higher density than most states considered to be in the South, with estimated membership ranging around 7-8% of the workforce. Of course, there’s varying levels of organization and militancy there. But these unions have networks, have resources, have PACs. Some of them, maybe most of them, might be too conservative to do anything outside the box but maybe not all of them. Could the established unions provide a base of support for such an effort? According to 2022 statistics, there are nearly 150,000 union members in the state across several hundred locals. To be sure, these are really small numbers compared to the overall electorate but we also know that organizing is a means towards addition and multiplication. 

There are numerous grassroots organizations across the state doing good work with their own activists and networks. From criminal justice reform to environmental defense to LGBT rights to reproductive justice, there are already progressives across Alabama fighting to build a more just, inclusive state. And there are still others who are looking for direction, folks who are supportive but not sure what to do, alongside folks who are active but not necessarily in an organized direction.

Could these folks be the foundation for a militant minority that could advance an Alabama, labor-first political movement? Or… am I just talking out of my rear end? I’m really curious what our listeners and readers think, as many of you would be among the most militant and organized workers in the state. I certainly won’t pretend to have all the answers or the right prescription. I do think it’s important that we have these conversations, and my goal is mostly to facilitate more dialogue among the folks who could be considered the militant minority. Right here in Alabama, there are some brilliant, courageous, justice minded folks doing good work through their unions, their political organizations, their advocacy groups, and in the broader community. The more those folks, the more y’all, can put your heads together, the more solutions we can find to these pressing questions.

For those of us committed to a better Alabama, whatever approach we take over the next four years, we gotta keep organizing for positive change and interracial people power regardless of the Democrats and Republicans. We need to have more collaboration and build sustainable networks that can support people when they organize for positive change. Typically, change comes from the bottom-up. IF, if, we can transform Alabama politics, it will be through the power of working class people coming together around our common interests.

Adam Keller is a union stagehand with the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 900 and co-host of The Valley Labor Report. He is a former high school history teacher and spent several years representing education workers in Huntsville, Alabama. He has served in various roles as a union member and is a member of multiple organizations seeking to build a better community. Adam is proud to be part of The Valley Labor Report media collective as we strive to amplify the voices of the working class in the American South.

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