Thursday, February 9, 2017

Labor in the Era of Trump

We are only a few weeks into the Trump administration, and already we have seen the birth of the resistance.  The Women's March on Washington drew the largest collective nationwide protest in modern American history.  Spontaneous protests broke out at airports around the country when Trump issued an executive order banning Muslim refugees and immigrants from seven countries from entering the United States.

Earlier this week, national Right to Work Fire legislation was introduced by Iowa congressman Steve King.  While this stands little chance of overcoming a Democratic filibuster in the Senate, it highlights the fact that collective bargaining rights have been on a losing streak in recent years.  In the last five years alone, six states have enacted Right to Work legislation, bringing the total number of states with open shop laws to twenty eight.  The AFL-CIO has held public rallies at the respective statehouses, op-eds have been penned, in some cases, court challenges have been filed.  However, in every state after losing the battle, it seems that the house of labor folds like a house of cards.

With private sector union density dropping to 6.4% in 2016, one starts to wonder when the AFL-CIO will find that the time is right to abandon the strategy of placing all our eggs in the Democratic Party basket.  If we look back at the biggest victories in American labor history, they are social, not political.  I recently asked a few friends in the labor movement their thoughts on the current state of labor.  There were a few points made that really resonated with me.  Chris Townsend, retired national political director of the UE, who is now the Field Mobilization Director of the ATU, assessed the current state of the labor movement this way: "Most of the unions are paralyzed, owing to their conservative political approach and combined with the fact that major sections of union membership voted for Trump."  

This has been evidenced recently by a meeting, which was reported by the New York Times between leadership of the North America's Building Trades Unions and President Trump.  It is almost unfathomable that the leader of a labor organization would say of a president who has said he supports right to work 100%, "We have a common bond with the President...he understands the value of driving development, moving people to the middle class."

The hard truth, as a union organizer that I know pointed out, is that a lot of rank and file members voted for Trump.  This was based on a variety of issues, but the underlying problem for union leadership is the struggle many members face when they weigh supporting labor endorsed candidates with whom they have moral disagreements on everything from guns to abortion.  It would seem that the Wobbly approach of non-political involvement in favor of direct action might be due for another look.

Back to my original point of how all of this plays into the current situation with the Trump administration, I would like to offer the following observation as a warning:  when unions become more of a political organization than a collective of workers, they inevitably become a political enemy of one side or the other.  When the opposite side finds themselves in power, as is the case now, labor runs the risk of becoming a political casualty.  The question is, will they realize it and change course in time?

In Solidarity,

Joseph Riedel 

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