The election of Donald Trump sent a shiver down the spine of every progressive working person across the country. Behind the facade of “making America great” and creating jobs lies an administration of, by, and for the billionaire oligarchy determined to eliminate any restrictions to corporate profits. Every gain working people made in the past that still stands – occupational safety, health and environmental protections, the minimum wage, Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare – is under direct threat by Trump’s gangsters. Emboldened politicians like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell could eviscerate the Fair Labor Standards Act and equal employment protection. And, above all, there is the threat of a national “right-to-work” legislation along the lines of what Scott Walker did in Wisconsin – although the Supreme Court, with a new Trump appointee, might beat them to the punch.
The unions have continued to be weakened by decades of false policies from a leadership that touted collaboration with the employers and reliance on corporate Democrat politicians – not a policy of class struggle to build union power – as the only “realistic” way forward. The results of these policies are now in front of us: Overall union membership fell by another 500,000 under Obama, while inequality continued growing to the point where over 40% of working people are now at or near poverty levels (AlterNet.org, 12/14/2016).
Obama – after bailing out Wall Street from the 2008 economic crisis – rewarded working people with 10 million families losing their homes to the foreclosure crisis (National Center for Policy Analysis, 3/15/2015) while promoting the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – another free trade agreement to further eviscerate workers’ rights and environmental regulations. The vast majority of the new jobs created during the Obama years were low-paid jobs. In the private sector, only 1 in 15 workers is in a union. Plant shutdowns, outsourcing, two- and three-tier contracts, precarious employment, and health-care costs are escalating alongside a serious crisis for those workers who had union pensions. At present, overall union membership is at a 70-year low.
It was these trends that contributed to Hillary Clinton receiving the lowest union turnout for a Democratic presidential candidate in more than 30 years. Clinton was correctly perceived to be in the pocket of big business, and she failed to motivate or inspire against the demagogic, racist, and xenophobic campaign of Trump. Union households went 51-43% for Clinton – an 8% margin for the Democrats, far lower than the typical 15-20% margin in previous presidential elections.
These attacks on unions, health care, pensions, and wages were already happening under the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations, but now, after Trump’s inauguration, unions and working people are facing a grim reality. We are confronted directly by a gang of criminal sociopaths brandishing baseball bats and switchblades. The question is how to effectively counter this threat and what policies can effectively defend working-class people. This will be the instinctive conclusion of millions of working people, women, minorities, and immigrants: as Joe Hill famously said, “Don’t mourn, organize!”
The good news is that millions of people have rejected the calls by many Democrats, and even some union officials, to “work with Trump” by getting out in the streets and showing they are ready to fight back. To preach peace when the other side is preparing for war is complete foolishness, if not open betrayal.
How can an “unstable charlatan who made his fortune by scamming working families,” as Richard Trumka of the AFL-CIO called Trump, be trusted to defend workers? Trump’s criticism of awful trade agreements like the TPP and NAFTA – promoted by Democrats as well as Republicans – has nothing to do with defending workers’ jobs, but it is centered on a vicious attack on wages and regulations in the U.S. so that companies will invest here.
Trump fraudulently claimed in December to have “stopped” Carrier from moving its plants to Mexico from Indiana. In reality, 1,300 workers are losing their jobs and Carrier simply took advantage of tax write-offs to keep some jobs in the U.S.
“Hey, it’s not Mexican workers we have got an issue with. They are being exploited, too – they are not making out on the deal. The corporations are!” explained Chuck Jones, president of Steelworkers Local 1999 in Indianapolis.
The attacks on unions by Trump and the employers will likely start immediately, with executive orders directed at public sector workers’ unions. Trump has imposed a hiring freeze in federal agencies, which could be the first step to attacking the pay, benefits, and union rights of federal employees. This can then lay the basis for going after the union rights of public sector workers more generally, using Wisconsin as a model. It is critical to use the momentum from the mass rallies and protests against Trump to build a broad movement to defend workers’ rights on the streets alongside defending immigrants, Muslims, and women’s rights.
While Trump won the election, it should be remembered that 2016 saw an increase in workers’ struggles on a number of fronts, from further gains in the fight for $15 to the Verizon workers’ strike, which was the biggest strike in nearly 20 years. We saw the explosive rise of the Bernie Sanders movement and the call for a political revolution – a mass awakening by millions of discontented workers and young people. While this movement was defeated by the intrigues of the pro-capitalist Democratic Party and Bernie’s failure to launch a new left party, the campaign radicalized millions. For the first time in decades, socialism became a popular idea alongside a rejection of Wall Street and the billionaire class.
The debates in society about how to fight Trump will play out inside unions, as well. Labor for Bernie exploded against the leaders of major unions, who rushed to endorse Clinton despite her coziness with Walmart and Wall Street. Tens of thousands of union members registered their anger and frustration with union officials on social media.
It is urgent that unions and workers across the country link with immigrants, communities, students, and socialists to prepare to build solidarity and defend ourselves against the attacks from Trump. These attacks will include appointing a conservative to the Supreme Court, opening the door for attacks on women’s rights as well as those of public sector workers. The renewal of the DAPL and Keystone XL are just the beginning, as big business drives to further undermine and even smash union rights across the board.
Union members should move resolutions in their locals to demand meetings to mobilize for mass protests against the Trump regime. Unions have the resources and can, alongside other forces, provide the backbone for taking immediate action, including mass rallies, boycotts and mass media campaigns, as well as strikes and civil disobedience against attacks on immigrants, public education, etc. This type of movement could spread like wildfire across the country and disrupt the plans of Trump and the Republicans. We need to end the disgrace of labor giving millions of dollars to politicians who do not fight for working people. We need a union leadership that is prepared to fight back. Let’s make sure that labor is at the forefront of the resistance at the next big rallies, on International Women’s Day, and especially on May Day 2017.
The Sanders campaign showed that millions of working people are prepared to start taking action and to support a challenge against the dictatorship of capitalism and the Trump oligarchs.
After decades of misleadership, setbacks, and defeats, the unions have to be transformed into fighting and democratic organizations and discover what it means to become a social movement for justice, in the way that the abolitionist movement or the Civil Rights Movement were in their day, bringing together working people around the vision of a new society based on solidarity, equality, and justice, as opposed to the nightmare of capitalism.