Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Spring Fund Drive: Keep CounterPunch Afloat
CounterPunch is a lifeboat of sanity in today’s turbulent political seas. Please make a tax-deductible donation and help us continue to fight Trump and his enablers on both sides of the aisle. Every dollar counts!
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

This is Not a Drill: Labor Braces for the Trump Era

Donald Trump’s win is the gut-punch finale to a surreal election season. For thousands of rank-and-file activists the outcome is even more bitter after the inspiration and energy stirred up by Bernie Sanders’ improbable campaign.

Unfortunately, we don’t need a crystal ball to figure out what a Trump presidency has in store for labor, especially with Republicans controlling the House and the Senate.

National “right-to-work” legislation, outsourcing and privatizing more public services, large-scale deportations, a ban on prevailing-wage laws, pulling the plug on Obamacare—these are just the tip of the iceberg. So after we mourn, we need to organize.

OPEN-SHOP AMERICA

Near the top of labor’s to-do list is preparing for the real possibility that the whole country may be right-to-work before the snow melts.

As we’ve written before, such a law isn’t a death sentence. Unions have survived, even thrived, in right-to-work states. But as we saw in Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan 2012-2015, decades of business-as-usual unionism have left most of our movement ill-prepared.

Last year’s Supreme Court case Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, which could have required open shops in the sector, was a dry run—and a painful reminder that most unions don’t realize what it’s going to take to survive in open-shop America.

Many put their heads in the sand. Those that tried to prepare for Friedrichs usually assumed all that was needed was a better explanation of the “union advantage” together with high-tech mechanisms to sign up members and collect dues. Few asked the deeper question—what inspires people to organize a union in the first place?

What’s needed is not a better sales pitch, but getting back to basics. Members will stick with a union that’s visible and vocal in the workplace, one that uses collective action as a shield and a stick against management’s abuses.

DEMOCRACY THE BEST DEFENSE

No one is riding to our rescue. Members will have to do this for themselves. And union leaders who want to inspire more rank and filers to step up to the task have to mean it when they say “you are the union.”

For too long unions have treated members as an ATM for predetermined priorities or an unruly nuisance that needs to get “on program.” This democracy deficit explains why so many members feel disconnected—and why so many are likely to vote with their feet under right to work.

When you’re getting clobbered every day on the job and no one seems to notice, why would you want to foot the bill for an agenda you had no hand in creating, one that offers you little relief?

But simple self-preservation isn’t the only reason union members need to reclaim the driver’s seat. It’s also the only way unions can identify, recruit, and train enough leaders for the fights ahead.

Defensive victories, much less forward progress, in the Trump era will require more audacity and breaking a lot more rules. Precious few members will be willing to take those risks unless they’re part of making the plan and steering the ship.

WHICH US, WHICH THEM?

Drawing in exponentially more leaders will require a shared understanding of how we got into this mess—something labor can no longer sidestep after this election.

Exit polls show that 51 percent of voters in union households voted for Hillary Clinton, the lowest percentage for a Democratic nominee since 1980. The numbers were even worse in white working-class communities across the Midwest, where over the last 15 years millions of factory jobs have disappeared.

After voting for the nation’s first Black president by large margins in 2008 and 2012, how could so many union members pull the lever for Trump, a candidate who nakedly stoked racial resentments and blamed Mexican immigrants and Muslim refugees for the country’s problems? Figuring that out will require frank conversations with our co-workers—uncomfortable but essential.

Unions are one of the few places where Trump supporters and those on the receiving end of the backlash are in the same room. And there’s no stronger anchor for the fight against Trump’s racial divide-and-conquer than labor’s principles of solidarity.

Millions embraced Sanders’ argument that the devastation in working-class communities stems from unchecked corporate greed and a government that’s bought and paid for by bankers and billionaires.

This is fertile ground for creating a different common sense—without whitewashing history or ignoring labor’s own checkered past, from Jim Crow to immigration.

AN INJURY TO ALL

An injury to one is an injury to all. We can put that principle to work by defending the people Trump is attacking, starting with our own members.

For instance, many unions have negotiated contract protections for immigrant workers when employers challenge their legal status or Immigration and Customs Enforcement demands audits.

Given Trump’s promise to deport 3 million immigrants once he’s sworn in, we need to extend such contract protections everywhere—including to workplaces with no immigrant workers, as a declaration of solidarity and an organizing opportunity.

The same goes for ensuring Muslim workers’ right to religious expression—the issue that laid the foundation for the very first Fight for $15 campaign, the one at the Seattle airport, which kicked off a national movement.

In health care, education, and much of the public sector, we have more points of connection—it’s easy to make the case for defending our patients, students, and clients too.

And starting within our ranks can lay the groundwork for unions to take the next step and help defend targeted communities, the way the Electrical Workers (UE) and the Chicago Workers Collaborative did in 2007 when they developed a citywide rapid-response network.

Through pickets and direct action, the network helped hundreds of immigrant workers keep their jobs. And in 2008 it mobilized union members and community activists to serve as a buffer between police and the Republic Windows and Doors workers who occupied their factory.

To reverse the rightward momentum that brought Trump to power, we’ll need thousands more of these experiments in community solidarity.

DIY POLITICS

As we gear up, we need to take a hard look at what happened at the polls and why. The flaws in labor’s electoral strategy have never been more glaring.

For more than a generation unions have placed our fate in the hands of political insiders and party operatives. Each election cycle we pour more money, time, and shoe leather into Democratic candidates and campaigns—and have less and less to show for it.

It’s past time for union leaders to admit that the Democratic Party is run by suits. The people calling the shots are perfectly comfortable with trade deals like NAFTA, and completely out of touch with working-class voters.

They’ve won handsomely at the Wall Street casino. They idolize Silicon Valley billionaires. They embrace privatization schemes such as charter schools. Voters didn’t just reject these policies—they rebelled against a party run by and for the elite.

Thankfully there was some debate about labor’s electoral strategy this year, led by the Communications Workers, National Nurses United, the Amalgamated Transit Union, the Longshore Workers, the UE, and the Postal Workers, who broke with AFL-CIO decorum and backed Sanders in the Democratic primary, where he bested all expectations.

Had larger unions such as the Service Employees, Teachers, AFSCME, and the National Education Association lined up behind him, Sanders could have secured the nomination—and we might be looking at an entirely different landscape.

The Sanders campaign revealed a widespread hunger for an audacious social and economic agenda. Unlike the politicians on both sides of the aisle who’ve spent generations telling us to lower our expectations, Sanders challenged voters to dream big, and their response was overwhelming. We live in the richest country in the history of the human race. Why can’t we provide health care for everyone, or have the best schools on the planet, or develop viable alternatives to fossil fuels?

It’s labor’s job to make sure these aspirations don’t disappear, and trumpet an ambitious vision of what our society could be long after the election cycle winds down. If not now, when?

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #453, December 2016.

More articles by:
May 23, 2018
Nick Pemberton
Maduro’s Win: A Bright Spot in Dark Times
Ben Debney
A Faustian Bargain with the Climate Crisis
Deepak Tripathi
A Bloody Hot Summer in Gaza: Parallels With Sharpeville, Soweto and Jallianwala Bagh
Farhang Jahanpour
Pompeo’s Outrageous Speech on Iran
Josh White
Strange Recollections of Old Labour
CJ Hopkins
The Simulation of Democracy
stclair
In Our Age of State Crimes
Dave Lindorff
The Trump White House is a Chaotic Clown Car Filled with Bozos Who Think They’re Brilliant
Russell Mokhiber
The Corporate Domination of West Virginia
Ty Salandy
The British Royal Wedding, Empire and Colonialism
Laura Flanders
Life or Death to the FCC?
Gary Leupp
Dawn of an Era of Mutual Indignation?
Katalina Khoury
The Notion of Patriarchal White Supremacy Vs. Womanhood
Nicole Rosmarino
The Grassroots Environmental Activist of the Year: Christine Canaly
Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin
“Michael Inside:” The Prison System in Ireland 
May 22, 2018
Stanley L. Cohen
Broken Dreams and Lost Lives: Israel, Gaza and the Hamas Card
Kathy Kelly
Scourging Yemen
Andrew Levine
November’s “Revolution” Will Not Be Televised
Ted Rall
#MeToo is a Cultural Workaround to a Legal Failure
Gary Leupp
Question for Discussion: Is Russia an Adversary Nation?
Binoy Kampmark
Unsettling the Summits: John Bolton’s Libya Solution
Doug Johnson
As Andrea Horwath Surges, Undecided Voters Threaten to Upend Doug Ford’s Hopes in Canada’s Most Populated Province
Kenneth Surin
Malaysia’s Surprising Election Results
Dana Cook
Canada’s ‘Superwoman’: Margot Kidder
Dean Baker
The Trade Deficit With China: Up Sharply, for Those Who Care
John Feffer
Playing Trump for Peace How the Korean Peninsula Could Become a Bright Spot in a World Gone Mad
Peter Gelderloos
Decades in Prison for Protesting Trump?
Thomas Knapp
Yes, Virginia, There is a Deep State
Andrew Stewart
What the Providence Teachers’ Union Needs for a Win
Jimmy Centeno
Mexico’s First Presidential Debate: All against One
May 21, 2018
Ron Jacobs
Gina Haspell: She’s Certainly Qualified for the Job
Uri Avnery
The Day of Shame
Amitai Ben-Abba
Israel’s New Ideology of Genocide
Patrick Cockburn
Israel is at the Height of Its Power, But the Palestinians are Still There
Frank Stricker
Can We Finally Stop Worrying About Unemployment?
Binoy Kampmark
Royal Wedding Madness
Roy Morrison
Middle East War Clouds Gather
Edward Curtin
Gina Haspel and Pinocchio From Rome
Juana Carrasco Martin
The United States is a Country Addicted to Violence
Dean Baker
Wealth Inequality: It’s Not Clear What It Means
Robert Dodge
At the Brink of Nuclear War, Who Will Lead?
Vern Loomis
If I’m Lying, I’m Dying
Valerie Reynoso
How LBJ initiated the Military Coup in the Dominican Republic
Weekend Edition
May 18, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
The Donald, Vlad, and Bibi
Robert Fisk
How Long Will We Pretend Palestinians Aren’t People?
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail