By Jim Miller
Last week in the bluntly titled “Trump Presidency Could Kill Labor Unions,” distinguished journalist Harold Meyerson ponders the possibility that the 2016 Presidential election was “an extinction-level event for American labor.” Noting the sad fact that a high percentage of union households (about 43 percent nationally) went for Trump, Meyerson wastes no time in outlining what the costs will be for working class folks in America:
Now, Trump, the Republican Congress, and the soon-to-be Republican-dominated Supreme Court are poised to damage unions—and the interests of working people, both union and not—even more. Indeed, within the GOP, the war on unions engenders almost no dissent. Since Republicans were swept into office in a host of Midwestern states in the 2010 elections, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin have all effectively eliminated collective-bargaining rights for public employees and subjected private-sector unions to “right-to-work” laws that enable workers to benefit from union contracts and representation without having to pay their union any dues. Previously, such laws were largely confined to Southern states, whose respect for worker rights has improved only somewhat since they were compelled to abolish slavery. As the GOP has become steadily whiter and more right-wing, those Southern norms have become national.
Surely, Meyerson points out, we will soon see the elimination of all of Obama’s labor-friendly executive orders followed by national Right-to-Work legislation and a death blow from the Supreme Court to public sector unions.
We know all this because the people behind Trump are part of a network of corporate think tanks and front groups for plutocrats bent on selling oligarchy to the masses. George Monbiot aptly describes this nexus of economic and political power in the Guardian, “Its purpose is to portray the interests of billionaires as the interests of the common people, to wage war against trade unions and beat down attempts to regulate business and tax the very rich. Now the people who helped run this machine are shaping the government.”
And there really is nothing at all new here as a look behind the curtain quickly reveals that we are dealing with the usual suspects. As Monbiot notes:
Charles and David Koch – who for years have funded extreme pro-corporate politics – might not have been enthusiasts for Trump’s candidacy, but their people were all over his campaign. Until June, Trump’s campaign manager was Corey Lewandowski, who like other members of Trump’s team came from a group called Americans for Prosperity (AFP).
This purports to be a grassroots campaign, but it was founded and funded by the Koch brothers. It set up the first Tea Party Facebook page and organised the first Tea Party events. With a budget of hundreds of millions of dollars, AFP has campaigned ferociously on issues that coincide with the Koch brothers’ commercial interests in oil, gas, minerals, timber and chemicals.
In Michigan, it helped force through the “right to work bill”, in pursuit of what AFP’s local director called “taking the unions out at the knees”. It has campaigned nationwide against action on climate change. It has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into unseating the politicians who won’t do its bidding and replacing them with those who will.
Of course, the bitter irony of this is that part of what energized Trump voters in key swing states was a backlash against “economically and politically disastrous” trade policies that prominent Democrats embraced over the wishes of their allies in labor. And now that the Right has triumphed, they will crush those very same unions in order to further gut the political power of the Democrats who rely on labor for voter mobilization, not just among unionized workers, but also in working class communities of color.
Despite their hopes for strongman populist magic, what the angry white workers in Ohio (where the majority of union households went Republican) and elsewhere in the Rust Belt will get in exchange for their embrace of Trump will not be a reversal of the excesses of unlimited capital but more inequality, the slashing of the social safety net, and further humiliation.
Along with this, they will also have the opportunity to witness the decimation of the only counterbalance to the power of the rich and corporate America that ordinary people in the United States have ever had—their unions. As Meyerson correctly observes:
One thing is certain: If Trump’s victory does indeed become “an extinction-level event for the labor movement,” it would also extinguish any prospect that America could ever become “great again.” No country in history has ever achieved decent working-class living standards (and the social and political stability they engender) absent a vibrant labor movement. Anyone who hopes for American greatness must also hope that labor has the strength and smarts to survive what’s coming in the Trump years.
But American labor’s survival will not come from mimicking Trump’s nativist bluster or from continuing to endorse and rely upon neoliberal Democrats who disdainfully treat them like a handy ATM. Instead, unions will have to, by necessity, return to old-school organizing or die. New kinds of workers’ collectives along with innovative political strategies will need to be born.
Unions will also have to find real community-labor alliances that are more about movement building and less about transactional politics as usual. This will mean reinvigorating an ethos of solidarity across occupational, racial, and gender lines and keeping that fire burning in opposition to the ugly, divisive backlash populism of Trumpism.
Unionists might also try to get more comfortable talking about class again in ways that many labor leaders have forgotten how to do–hence the pathetic state of affairs that brought us a cartoon billionaire populist champion of the revanchist downwardly mobile white man as President of the United States.
The real question is not whether the American labor movement will be able to stop the coming assault in the short term–it won’t–but whether it will be able to learn how to fight again in pre-New Deal conditions with more boldness and courage than we’ve seen in a long time. Shortly, we’ll all be on our backs and, like it or not, there will be nowhere to go but up.
And if labor isn’t ready to reinvent itself, it’ll be a long dark night for workers and American democracy as the furies unleashed by the Trump campaign will bring out the worst in us and continue to shred our social fabric. Our present level of historic economic inequality isn’t going away anytime soon and labor is the only force in American life that has traditionally been able to channel the anger that this brutal inequity will continue to produce toward creating a more thoroughgoing democracy rather than scapegoating and recrimination.
Unions can sit back and let racist demagogues tear us apart or insist with a fresh urgency that an injury to one is an injury to all. We can keep begging for scraps from the table with an even meeker voice or start, as Martin Luther King Jr. suggested, questioning the edifice that creates beggars.
If not now, when?