Palestine, labour activism and the US presidential elections: An interview with Neal Meyer (Bread & Roses DSA)

UAW Free Palestine

Neal Meyer is a national leader of Bread & Roses (B&R), a caucus of Marxist activists in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Based in New York City, he is on the editorial board of The Call and writes for Left Notes, which covers politics, the labour movement and philosophy from a democratic socialist perspective. In this extensive interview with Federico Fuentes for LINKS International Journal of Socialist Renewal, he discusses the impact of the Gaza war on US politics, the recent rise in labour activism, and the current state of DSA.

How has the US-backed Israeli war on Gaza impacted domestic politics? Has public opinion shifted since the war began?

When the Hamas attacks happened on October 7, the initial reaction among most people not on the left was knee jerk sympathy for Israel and against our pro-Palestine mobilisations. This created a really difficult political climate for DSA and the various social movements who knew what was coming in terms of Israel’s response. For example, in New York, the left organised a big and very controversial demonstration in Times Square. It was not actually sponsored by DSA, but the media and many Democratic Party politicians tried to attribute it to DSA to attack us. So, there was a sense that we had to hunker down that first week or two as popular opinion was definitely not on our side. 

But since then, it has become obvious to most people that Israel is carrying out horrific atrocities in Gaza and that the [Joe] Biden administration is empowering it. The popular mood has really shifted. Now, around New York, you will see a lot of Palestinian flags in windows and lots of graffiti and stickers expressing solidarity with Palestine. In contrast, there has been a visible decrease in the presence of pro-Israel propaganda, which was pretty strong in the first month or two. 

This shift is reflected in recent polls, which show almost two thirds of the country supporting a ceasefire and expressing strong discomfort with the Biden administration’s position. Those sentiments are even more pronounced among young people, and the younger you get in the population, the more pro-Palestine they are. It is also very pronounced inside the Democratic Party, where a plurality of Democratic Party supporters now sympathise more with Palestine than with Israel. And there is really strong support for a ceasefire among everyone left of centre. This has created a very difficult dynamic for the Biden administration, as its own party and base are so obviously out of sync with it. Nevertheless, Biden so far is pushing through and remains committed to supporting Israel’s genocidal campaign. I do not see any serious effort to bend to popular opinion or the opinion of his party.

In general, the mood among progressives and young people is very critical towards Israel and very critical of the Biden administration, which gives me hope.

Can you give us a sense of the state of pro-Palestine organising? 

In the first two or three weeks after the October 7 attacks, many of us on the left found ourselves unsure about where the country stood. Since then, there has been a real reassertion of popular energy against what is happening in Gaza and a constant stream of activity throughout the country. It is hard to tell whether the demonstrations are still as large as they were at their height in November, but the number of actions has remained about the same. Pro-Israel mobilisations on the other hand have declined significantly. A lot of Palestine solidarity activism seems to have pivoted from mass mobilisations to more targeted civil disobedience. I think we are also going to see a lot more disruptions of presidential campaign events as a new tactic.

Why has the movement pivoted towards civil disobedience?

I would attribute the shift to a need to move solidarity work towards actions that are more sustainable and targeted. It is hard to maintain mass mobilisations at the same level after a while. And there is a desire to have a more targeted effect in bringing attention to the issue. Some of the best actions have been those targeting defence corporations or particular politicians who support Israel. There is a debate to be had, however, about the utility of some blockades, for example on bridges and highways. The argument activists make in favour of these actions is that it forces people to pay attention to an issue they would otherwise ignore. But most people sympathise with Palestine and are pretty critical of Israel. So, it is a question of whether the public should be the target of civil disobedience — it is a question of tactics. 

What role has DSA played in these protests?

DSA has been active in organising marches and demonstrations, as well as civil disobedience protests. DSA and DSA-aligned politicians have also done a good job in standing up to the Democratic Party leaders' vicious propaganda campaigns. Politicians such as [New York congresswoman] Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and especially [Michigan congresswoman] Rashida Tlaib have been very vocal in supporting Palestine and pushing back against the dominant pro-Israel discourse in Congress. In New York, DSA has a big group of politicians in the state legislature and a few city councillors that have been really good on the issue and actively participate in solidarity demonstrations and civil disobedience.

On the other hand, it has been frustrating and at times upsetting for many of us to watch Bernie Sanders’ role in this whole process. He was really pretty defensive and very slow to speak out, at first opposing a ceasefire. He still will not explicitly endorse the demand for a ceasefire, though he seems to support it in all but name now. This is in line with his historic commitment to defending “Israel’s right to exist”. But I think he is slowly coming around on the issue. He tried to push through a resolution in the Senate to get the US to investigate Israel for war crimes and pause sending military supplies — that was obviously voted down. He has started to come around, but there is definitely still a lot of hard feelings from activists — myself included — for how long it took him to get to this point. 

Prior to the Palestine solidarity protests, many on the US left were excited by what was being referred to as a “strike wave”. What factors explain this uptick in union strikes?

Whether or not there has really been a “strike wave” yet is something that comrades debate. Either way, we are definitely living through a resurgence in labour struggles, powered in large part by a wave of reform efforts inside the unions. These are led by worker activists with assistance from allies on the left. And this is one of the developments that I and many in DSA are most hopeful about. DSA really took off in 2016-17 during the Sanders campaign and gained a lot of its initial traction through electoral work. But many of us have been arguing for a long time to take labour and union organising more seriously, given the role unions play in building class consciousness. So, it has been really encouraging to see this organic rise of labour activism over the past few years. 

Starting in the late ’70s, early ’80s, the US labour movement — like labour movements all over the world — went into a tailspin, with membership and strike activity declining ever since. This reached a nadir around 2010-11, when Republicans tried to strip unions of organising rights in midwestern states such as Wisconsin. The response was one of the first major political developments within the labour movement in the new century, with mass occupations of state capitol buildings across the Midwest in 2010. Ever since, there has been a slow build up of labour activism. 

We saw some union presence at Occupy Wall Street [in 2011]. Then there were the Chicago Teachers Union strikes in the mid-2010s, which inspired a lot of people and became an important reference point for what many call the “troublemaking wing” of the labour movement. But I think many really got the sense that something was happening in 2018 when teacher strikes, inspired by the Chicago example, washed over West Virginia and a bunch of other red [Republican-dominated] states. These were major wildcat strikes by teachers fed up with austerity. They demanded higher pay and better conditions, not just for themselves but for their students. That was the moment when it really felt like some kind of consciousness around labour was starting to emerge in the US. 

The conditions that paved the way for this upsurge seem pretty clear. There is an obvious objective condition: in the US we have horrible inequality and many are forced to work really shitty and precarious jobs. This has created a sense of frustration and pessimism, especially among younger workers. This can lead to apathy and resignation, or to organising. Fortunately, many have opted for the latter path. And in the last three or four years, labour activism has really taken off, aided by a few additional developments. One obvious and really important new factor is the tightening of the labour market after the pandemic. We have something approaching full employment in the US at the moment. Workers feel a lot more emboldened to organise and be active. Second, the Black Lives Matter movement played a role in inspiring younger workers in the cities, especially Black workers, to stand up for their rights. A third factor was the Sanders campaign, which played a role in spotlighting inequality and pointing to organising and activism as the solution. Finally, the Biden administration has also played somewhat of a role — even if it has been overhyped — by appointing new pro-union members to the National Labour Relations Board, which has been more pro-worker in its rulings. 

But a lot of the upsurge is also due to a critical subjective factor: generations of union militants helping to bring this moment together by reforming their unions. For years, there has been a concerted effort by the “troublemaking wing” to build union reform caucuses. With support from projects such as Labor Notes and organisations on the socialist left, these reform caucuses have succeeded in building up a layer of organic militant labour activists. I am talking about caucuses such as the Teamsters for a Democratic Union and Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD), of which I am a member. UAWD helped elect Shawn Fain and a whole slate of reformers across the country to the leadership of the United Automobile Workers (UAW) last year. We are also starting to see reform caucuses forming in other big national unions. This is creating a leadership layer that is more democratic, more left-wing and more willing to fight and take risks. At the same time there are also similar but smaller efforts in a lot of local unions across the country. 

This past year is when all these factors came together to change the situation in the labour movement. We had the Writers Guild and the Screen Actors Guild strikes in the summer, involving tens of thousands of workers. There were also a lot of localised strikes. There was a lot of hope around the UPS Teamsters contract battle, which over the summer had the potential to see one of the largest strikes in US history with some 340,000 Teamsters set to go on strike. In the end the workers got a contract that was agreeable for most. It was good for the workers but unfortunate for the country that the strike did not happen. Then we had the UAW strike in the “Big Three” auto companies [Ford, General Motors and Stellantis] starting in September, which was a really big deal. Fain and his team did a good job in popularising the cause and attracting a lot of support. They used novel tactics, such as the “Stand Up Strike”, which allowed them to shut down particular factories and provide support to those workers, rather than shutting down the entire industry all at once. In the end they won an impressive contract that has allowed them to springboard into organising the very large non-unionised sector of the auto industry. And they are tying their demands and work to questions of a just transition and a Green New Deal. 

And I have not even mentioned the Starbucks workers who have been organising and bringing a lot of young people into the process, or the struggle of Amazon workers, which has been very important. There is a lot going on. A lot to be hopeful about in the US when it comes to workers’ struggles.

Could you expand a bit on the role that Labor Notes and DSA have played in this process?

Labor Notes was founded in 1979 by cadre coming out of the International Socialists, with the goal of building a publication and milieu of labour reformers. They run training workshops — what they call “Troublemaker schools” — for people who want to organise in the workplace and provide educational resources for union organisers. It serves as a network for people to meet, share experiences and learn from each other. They have a conference every two years in Chicago (the next one is in April). These are huge gatherings of thousands of rank-and-file union activists, local shop stewards, local union presidents, secretaries — everyone with a reform or left-ish orientation from all over the country. It is not an explicitly socialist project, rather they are trying to build a militant workers movement. In sum, you could describe it as a kind of clearing house for ideas and reports, plus a network of activists, plus a training machine for the kind of new labour movement that is rising in the US. This is why it is very important. 

Labor Notes’ main focus is bringing together worker organisers in existing unions. The theory of change they have — which I share — is that to organise workers in the unorganised sectors, we need existing union members to rebuild strong and democratic unions with a real commitment to organising the unorganised. We will see if UAW proves this can work, but it seems to be so far. Reformers organised for years inside the UAW. Then came the moment when a reform leadership got elected. They led a really powerful and successful contract campaign in the Big Three and now are trying to catapult into organising the unorganised auto sector. The story is somewhat similar in the Teamsters, where reformers plus a section that broke off from the old guard formed an alliance to lead the union. They led a contract campaign in UPS and now are trying to figure out how to organise the rest of the logistics industry. The idea in its crudest form is: reform the union and then move into new organising campaigns. 

But young Starbucks organisers, Amazon organisers, people organising in other industries are also attending these Troublemaker schools, reading Labor Notes and its publications such as Secrets of a Successful Organiser, and attending its conferences. So Labor Notes helps support all sections of the labour movement. It is worth also mentioning that there is a new generation of labour journalists and strategists, including most famously Jane McAlevey but also writers for Jacobin and other publications, who are helping “socialise” a lot of this knowledge for young activists as well.

DSA has also played an important role in supporting this process. DSA has embraced what in the US is called the rank-and-file strategy. This is the idea that socialists join up with existing radical workers in unions to help transform them in a more militant, left-wing and democratic direction. Some DSA members have been organising in industries where they work, while lots of DSA members have gotten jobs in industries that are already unionised and that we consider strategic as part of the process of organising and reforming unions. A significant number of DSA members have gotten jobs in education and healthcare, and to a lesser extent in logistics and some building trades. Our activists are learning how to organise in the workplace and participate in reform caucuses and strikes. Comrades from DSA are building efforts such as the Rank-and-File Project (RFP) to support this work. RFP, for example, is mentoring a new cohort of rank-and-file activists across the country as they get jobs and learn to be workplace activists.

DSA is also earning a really good reputation as a group to go to when you need strike support, because it can provide fundraising capacity, coordinate meal support, etc. Even in smaller cities, DSA can help bring out a dozen people to a picket line, which is potentially a big contribution. We are very much trying to be a presence in this labour upsurge, and I think we have a lot to be proud of on that front.

Have there been any examples of unions and the Palestine campaign linking up?

Yes, absolutely. There is definitely a movement in labour to support Palestine, which is really inspiring and great to see. Historically, the labour movement — as on many other questions — was not where we wanted it to be on Palestine, in part because for a long time there was a strong “labour Zionist” current. But with the influx of a new generation of activists into the labour movement in the past 10-15 years, there has been a real push to the left on a lot of questions. Palestine is one of them, so too immigration, climate, etc. 

There has been an impressive amount of support for Palestine among labour activists. The demonstration for Palestine I went to in New York a couple of weeks ago, which had thousands of people out on the streets, had a really strong labour component. There were a lot of public sector workers, teachers, nurses, electricians, UPS workers, Starbucks workers — overall there was a strong representation of the various more left-leaning unions and union activists. In terms of specific unions, the Postal Workers Union, which has a very progressive leadership, has been pretty pro-Palestine. Most excitingly, the UAW, which used to be so conservative and pretty corrupt in many ways, has changed direction on a lot of questions with this new leadership, including Palestine. Fain and a lot of his team at the regional level have been strong in their support for a ceasefire and really critical of Israel. Overall, there has been a good level of cooperation between left-leaning sections of the labour movement and the Palestine solidarity movement for the past few months, which is really great to see.

What will the likely impact of this labour activism and Palestine be on the US presidential elections?

In terms of labour, that’s a bit harder to tell. There are a lot of important contracts expiring across the country this year, including for postal workers, for some dock workers on the East Coast, and for teachers in Philadelphia and in Pennsylvania, which is going to be a really important state. So, there might be an interesting dynamic with labour struggles in the presidential campaign. We will have to see, but there is definitely the possibility that this labour militancy carries over into this year and forces the presidential election to orient itself around labour and workplace conflict. If it did, that would be incredible — something like that has not happened in a long time in US presidential politics. 

It is also worth noting that while in the past, unions mostly rolled over and automatically endorsed Democratic Party candidates, and contributed huge amounts of money to their campaigns, this time around there is some reason to think it will be different. The UAW in particular was reluctant to endorse Biden, though they recently did. And they are definitely focusing more on organising workers than mobilising for corporate Democrats, which is a positive sign. 

Israel’s genocidal campaign on the other hand is actively rewriting people’s expectations for this presidential election. A lot of people expected it to be very close because [Donald] Trump enjoys a base of rock-solid support while Biden is not super popular. But I think the genocide in Gaza and Biden’s support for Israel is really beginning to put into question expectations of a close race. Trump is doing real pretty well in a lot of polls: he is polling very well among Latino voters, he is polling surprisingly well among Black voters, he is polling well among young people. Biden is not doing as badly as that might lead you to think, primarily because he has gained some support among whiter and more affluent voters — as Democrats continue to evolve into the party of higher-income, college-educated voters and shed workers from all racial groups. But the trends do not look good for his reelection chances. 

There is a lot of completely understandable anger towards the Biden administration among Arab and Muslim communities. There is every reason to think many will stay home in November and not vote for Biden. Michigan, which has a large Muslim community that traditionally supports the Democratic Party, is going to be a key state: if Biden loses even a couple of thousand votes, that could push Michigan back to Trump. And I just do not see any reason to think the Democrats will enjoy anywhere near the support they got from young people in 2020. There is mass disgust at what Biden and the Democrats have done. A lot can change in 10 months, but there is every reason to think Israel’s genocidal campaign and the Biden administration’s support for it has rewritten what is going to happen in this presidential election. And all of this is the Biden administration’s fault — their response to this issue has strengthened Trump’s hand and made it more likely that Trump will win. 

As for DSA, as an organisation it did not support Hillary Clinton in 2016 nor Joe Biden in 2020. A lot of people on the left held their nose and voted for Biden four years ago because there was a sense that Trump was very dangerous. That part has not changed, of course — Trump remains a major threat to the climate, civil liberties, democratic rights, and more. But I have a hard time imagining, at the moment, there being a vocal movement from independent activists and leaders on the left for lesser evil voting on the scale we saw in 2020. What is happening is so bad that it is hard to imagine persuading people on the left to vote en masse for Biden. And I think that will have an effect on the vote, especially because the left in the US is much larger than it used to be. It is now a small but significant factor in US politics. Biden and the Democrats can not afford to entirely discount its importance for their campaign.

Speaking of DSA, over the past decade, it experienced strong growth on the back of its support for Sanders’ presidential campaigns. However Sanders is not running this time. What impact will this have on DSA and its campaigning? And could you give us an idea of the current state of DSA?

DSA has about 70,000 members. It is a much more serious organisation than it was seven years ago, when it took off after Trump’s first election. Back then, there was a lot of energy and a lot of young people flooding into DSA who had no experience in organising. Before that influx, DSA was very, very small. I have been in DSA since 2012 and for the first four years I was in DSA, we had maybe 150 active activists across the entire country. Conventions would be 60 people over 65 and maybe 10 people under 40. Then it kind of exploded at the end of 2016, right after Trump’s election. But the organising capacity was not really there. There were very few people who had any experience and could guide the group. Everyone was kind of learning and making it up as they went along. 

Fast forward to 2024, people now have six or seven years of organising experience in how to run a democratic organisation. DSA is the main socialist organisation in most cities and towns. It is still very small in the grand scheme of things, but we have had modest gains in electing people at the city and state level. We have also contributed to the election of a couple of congresspeople who are nominally DSA members. At the state and local level we have a serious relationship with our elected officials, especially in places like New York City and also in some smaller cities, where we coordinate with them on a more regular basis. We have a good and growing labour program. We also have a good climate activist program and a good housing program, among other projects. 

It is absolutely true that the Sanders campaigns in 2016 and 2020 gave us an important chance to organise and grow. Contrary to impressions, Bernie is not a DSA member; he is very independent of DSA and of all groups for that matter. And although a lot of DSA members were staffers on his campaign, DSA was an independent factor in his presidential campaign. We ran a parallel campaign for Bernie in an attempt to build our own electoral apparatus and strength. 

It is definitely true that we are missing the energy his presidential elections brough. It feels frustrating to be a bit more on the sidelines in 2024 as a group in the presidential campaign. There was almost no appetite or interest in being involved in the Cornel West campaign, in large part because West will be a candidate in the general election and runs the risk of being a “spoiler” for Trump. Had West decided to run in the Democratic primary, it might have been possible for DSA to be more involved in his campaign. We will have to figure out how to assert ourselves as a factor in the general election to draw attention to and build energy around the group. 

At the same time, DSA has some state and local electoral initiatives to feel good about. We have some good candidates running for state legislatures, which is going to be a major focus of our work this year. Some of our chapters are running exciting campaigns in deep “red states” — like the campaign of my friend and comrade JP Lyninger in Louisville Kentucky

Bread & Roses was set up as a “caucus of Marxist organisers” within DSA. Can you tell us a bit about its origins, how it fits within DSA and why it sees the need for such a caucus?

When DSA took off around 2016-17, myself and a few other comrades were part of a left caucus that was attempting to challenge the dominant old guard on a number of questions. But for the most part, we did not have organised groups in the organisation. As soon as DSA took off, this caucus receded and we focused on building DSA, which was the right thing to do. But it quickly became apparent to a lot of us that it was very hard to manage the almost wild, freewheeling democratic culture that we had as an organisation. By 2017, we had become an organisation of about 30,000 people with 1000 people at our convention. It was really hard to organise democratic discussion and put forward perspectives. So, people started to come together in smaller groups to present ideas and leadership options within DSA. It was a natural process of people coming together from across the country, sharing perspectives and reaching agreement on certain issues. It was a kind of sifting through process within the organisation. Out of this, three basic poles have now emerged within DSA, which have differences in terms of their political perspective and focuses. I should note that the vast majority of members in DSA are not members of any caucus, though many chapter and national leaders are, and caucuses tend to set many of the debates at the national level. 

One of the poles involves a couple of caucuses — such as the Socialist Majority caucus (SMC), Groundwork, and North Star — that are more or less aligned on most questions. I would say they are to our right, although they would dispute this label. They are very interested in electoral politics and tend to be much more OK with the fact that DSA operates within the Democratic Party. They do not see the need to talk about breaking from the Democratic Party or building an independent party in the future. Comrades around this pole say they want to be independent of Biden’s politics — and to their credit they have been as vocally opposed to Biden’s Israel policy as anyone else in DSA. Having said that, they tend to be more optimistic about elements of Biden’s program such as the Inflation Reduction Act, and are more quick to defend Bernie and the Squad’s “junior partner” relationship with the Biden administration. They have made legislative reform campaigns a big focus of their work, especially campaigns around publicly-owned renewable energy and housing reforms. In terms of international politics, they tend to be more supportive of what I would characterise as centre-left governments in Latin America, especially [Luiz Inácio] Lula [da Silva]’s in Brazil, and seem to view these as a model for the US left. At our conventions, comrades from these tendencies are often more critical of aspects of DSA’s rank-and-file strategy. Groundwork and SMC make up a little less than 40% of DSA’s national leadership.

Then on what we might say is the pole to our left — a label these groups would happily embrace — there is the Communist CaucusReform and RevolutionRed StarLibertarian SocialistsMarxist Unity Group and a couple of others. There is probably not as much agreement among comrades on this end of DSA compared to a lot of overlap between SMC and Groundwork, but among other things the “left caucuses” tend to be much more suspicious of the Democratic Party. Some are even sceptical about doing any electoral politics at all. They tend to focus more on housing and building tenant unions, as well as organising around abolishing the police and prisons. On international politics the “left” of DSA includes a range of perspectives, including some groups who would identify more with campist perspectives and are willing to defend, for example, [Nicolas] Maduro’s government in Venezuela and [Daniel] Ortega’s in Nicaragua. Other groups on the left, such as Reform & Revolution, have a perspective on international politics more similar to B&R’s. On the NPC, Red Star, Marxist Unity Group and a few independents who lean “left” hold a bit more than 40% of DSA’s national leadership. The other caucuses are not represented in national leadership, despite having a significant number of activists.

And then there is B&R. We launched our publication, The Call, in 2018 to start developing our political perspective. We came together around a couple of key points we felt represented a unique perspective in DSA. Today we make up about 20% of the DSA national leadership. We support using electoral campaigns to build DSA and the left, as opposed to the abstentionism that many on the left embraced prior to 2016. But we are also in favour of what for some time now has been called a “dirty break” with the Democratic Party. We understand the need to run on the Democratic Party ballot line for the time being, as it is quite hard to imagine building a third party in the US in the near future. But we also feel it is important to talk now about how to break from the Democratic Party. In the medium term, we want to maximise the distance between DSA and the Democratic Party leadership. We have raised the idea that DSA should “act like an independent party”: we may not have our own ballot line, but in all other respects we should be independent of the Democrats. That means we do not share volunteer lists, we have our own voter lists, our own fundraising operation, our own political program, our own legislative caucuses and our own brand that we promote publicly and aggressively so people know DSA is different from the Democrats. We acknowledge that there is a huge contradiction between being a socialist and being associated in any way with the Democratic Party. That contradiction has rarely felt stronger than it does right now with the Biden administration’s support for the genocide in Gaza. 

Beyond electoral politics, we are very focused on labour organising and being part of the reform movement within the labour movement, which I talked about a lot already. We have been among the most vocal champions of the rank-and-file strategy in DSA, and many of our members are carrying it out by getting jobs as teachers, nurses, electricians, truck drivers, etc. We are also interested in promoting anti-campist, class struggle internationalism. We see the major dividing line in global politics as being between the international working class and the international ruling class, rather than picking sides in inter-imperial conflicts. But despite these differences, we are making a strong effort to work with everyone to build a really good democratic culture within DSA, where all the different tendencies feel they can work together.