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While trying not to appear too spooked or rattled by the prospect of a Trump presidency, organized labor (with a nod to Hunter S. Thompson) nonetheless assumes it’s going to be hit by a million-pound shithammer. They’d be foolish to assume otherwise.
And that’s not because the AFL-CIO believes Trump is, at root, anti-labor. Indeed, over the years America’s unions have had a surprisingly respectful if not cordial relationship with Trump. Rather, it derives from the belief that a Republican-dominated House and Senate are going to insist the White House continue their systematic assault on organized labor, the one that began in 1947, with passage of the Taft-Hartley Act.
But before getting down to the gruesome finer points, let us consider the physical, mental and spiritual condition of the American labor unions—both large and small, service and industrial—that this next president will be inheriting. It’s no exaggeration to say that, across the board, their condition isn’t good. In fact, it’s fairly grim.
Labor’s condition was grim under Obama, grimmer yet under George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, (grim enough to cause Clinton’s Secretary of Labor Robert Reich to resign “in protest”) and grimmest of all under Ronald Reagan, who declared war on America’s unions by making a gaudy show of firing more than 11,000 air traffic controllers.
Nationwide union membership (public and private) hovers at about 11-percent. When we compare those pitiful figures to the glory days of the 1950s (when the middle-class was flourishing, and union membership was close to 35-percent), we are stunned.
And then, when we learn that, in 1921—in the wake of the 1917 Russian Revolution, the 1919 Boston police strike, Sacco and Vanzetti, and Socialist Eugene Debs receiving more than a million votes while in prison—there was genuine trepidation among the Establishment that the U.S. was on the verge of a great “proletarian revolution,” we are dumbfounded.
Could that be true?? Could it be true that as recently as 1921, the movers and shakers of this country actually feared that the American worker would rise up and seize control of the government? Given today’s pro-corporate climate, that notion—tantalizing as it is—seems like something out of a science fiction novel.
Back to Trump. Let’s look at both scenarios: worst and best case.
The worst case goes like this: Trump appoints an anti-union Labor Secretary to oversee the project; he appoints a hundred pro-business judges; he names three pro-business appointees to the 5-person NLRB; and with no hurdles in sight, Congress aggressively moves to water down or repeal as many features of the NLRA (National Labor Relations Act) as possible. And with labor as vulnerable and “friendless” as it is, the whole ball of string begins to unravel. That’s the worst case.
As for “best case,” it goes like this: Trump basically leaves the unions alone. After all, with immigration, Obamacare, building a wall, courting Russia, pacifying the Middle East, and “reclaiming America,” Trump has neither the time nor inclination to focus on something so trivial and fangless as organized labor.
Those who adhere to this scenario remind us that Trump is from New York, the state with the highest union density (the top five, in descending order: New York, Alaska, Hawaii, Washington, California), and that the majority of his construction projects were done with union labor, which means that, despite his weirdness and volatility, Trump is basically labor-friendly. That’s the “best case” scenario.
Alas, that account is not so much a “scenario” as a fantasy. A Republican House, Republican Senate, and Republican Supreme Court would never allow such “benign neglect” to remain in place. Congress will pressure Trump to disarm America’s unions, and render them defenseless.
Granted, we hear disaffected workers say that labor unions are already “defenseless,” that they’re obsolete and anachronistic, that they’re essentially useless, but that simply isn’t true.
If unions were “useless,” the Establishment wouldn’t fear them. But they do fear them. They fear them because they realize they are the one and only institution capable of mobilizing working people.
Question: If reactionary forces prove successful in neutralizing labor unions, what will we be left with? Answer: The American worker as vassal. So much for that “proletarian revolution” we heard about.