Transmissions Ep. 4: An Organizer’s Life (w/ Danny Fetonte)
In this very special episode of Class Unity Transmissions, we bring you the last interview ever recorded with Danny Fetonte. Danny was a well-known labor organizer in Texas, with over 30 years of experience. He worked at Bethlehem Steel for 4 years, and spent a decade working in a variety of other industrial jobs. He later became a professional organizer, for the Communications Workers of America (CWA), becoming a member of the union’s national staff in 1986. Moving to Texas, he became an important leader of the DSA chapter in his new hometown of Austin, growing the chapter from a state of more or less total dormancy, to over 700 members by 2017.
Sadly, young DSA members will likely remember Danny not for his lifelong commitment to labor organizing but for a Twitter scandal that destroyed his relationship with the DSA, and left his reputation in tatters. At the 2017 DSA National Convention in Chicago, Danny was successfully elected the National Political Committee (NPC) of the DSA. It was his second time to run for the NPC. A well-known figure in labor circles, Fetonte’s record was widely documented in online spaces. However, as the Convention drew to a close, a vocal group of anti-police online leftists began to claim that Fetonte’s campaign statement was a fraud.
What Fetonte had been concealing, his detractors claimed, was his role as an organizer with the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (CLEAT), which is a police and corrections officer union, and an affiliate body of Danny’s longtime employer, the CWA.
Now, it was true that Fetonte had not mentioned this fact in his campaign materials. But it was widely available information, and many of the Austin chapter members who were active on the floor in support of him during the Convention were well aware of his resumé. Such facts poured cold water on the idea that Fetonte was somehow hiding his true identity.
Nevertheless, outrage swirled on Twitter, with many saying they would never have voted for him had they known he was involved in police union work. Eventually, on August 10, after days of delay, the DSA’s Interim Steering Committee issued a statement suggesting in no uncertain terms that they were taking a dim view of the matter: “We believe that Fetonte’s omission was uncomradely and out of line with the principles of our organization.”
“We believe that Fetonte’s omission was uncomradely and out of line with the principles of our organization.”
The controversy set off a tumultuous debate about the extent to which DSA should be trying to find solidarity with police union organizers, and whether members should make a practice of discriminating against individuals for their career backgrounds.
The Convention closed on August 6. Three weeks later, on August 27, the NPC (absent Danny) voted 8.5 to 7.5 to seat him, because they could not find any basis to remove him for malfeasance. Danny charged that, seeing as he was a duly-elected member of the NPC, a non-profit board, the exclusionary actions of the NPC in the intervening period were both illegal and unethical.
In just a moment, we’ll present our interview with Danny, where he goes into detail on these allegations, as well as detailing the behind-the-scenes involvement of DSA National Director, Maria Svart. Before we hear from Danny, however, it might be useful to take moment to reflect on the legacy and significance of the Fetonte controversy for the contemporary left in America.
Black Lives Matter demonstrations have played an effective role in raising public consciousness. However, as Cedric Johnson noted in a 2019 lecture at ArtCenter College of Design, to achieve real change social movements need real power, and this kind of power cannot be achieved solely through social media debates and dramatic performances at the barricades. Such tactics need to be accompanied by honest, patient, and sustained conversation among activists, victims’ families, and reformist elements within police unions and departments. It is within these spaces, suggests Johnson, that internal dissent can be emboldened, and the ranks of those willing to break the “blue code of silence” can grow.
None of this is to suggest unequivocal support for entrenched police unions. It is clear that some police officers are unfit to work with the public and especially in minority and working-class communities. Yet officers are neither monolithic nor devoid of internal contradictions. As you’ll hear in this interview, Danny Fetonte had an instinct for navigating these complexities in a way that the contemporary left would do well to study.
Danny passed away on October 23, 2022, in Austin, Texas. This interview was recorded on October 9, just two weeks before he died. It was his last media appearance. We want to thank his wife Barbara, and the rest of his family, for their support in making this interview possible.