In 1980, PATCO leadership infamously chose to grovel to Ronald Reagan, endorsing his presidential run. Less than a year later, Reagan smashed PATCO and helped jumpstart American labor’s precipitous decline.
Unions in the Trump era face a familiar dilemma: how to grapple with powerful politicians poised to launch broad attacks on the American working class. The stakes of the dilemma are no less than those faced by PATCO under Reagan: unions that give their imprimatur to an anti-union president will soon find that president destroying them and the rest of the labor movement anyway.
Too often in American history, unions have responded to attacks by narrowing rather than expanding the scope of their fight, abandoning the increasingly massive sea of unorganized workers as well as cross-sector solidarity in an attempt to curry favor with otherwise anti-worker politicians.
Given the sheer ferocity of the Trump administration and the already weakened state it finds itself in, this may be organized labor’s last chance to learn from the recurring lesson of its past: when unions break solidarity with other workers — union and nonunion — out of political expedience, they too suffer in the end.
Much has been made of unions’ lack of a unified approach to the Trump administration, varying from hostile to cautious to sycophantic. Despite their weak position after decades of retreat, the choices made by labor leaders still matter. Unions must present a unified resistance with one another, as well as with nonunion workers, against the Trump administration. Union support for Trump will provide Trump the populist veneer needed to launch and sustain hideous attacks against not only unions, but civil rights, immigrants, and black, Latino, and Muslim-Americans.
American unions have not always chosen to be champions of the broader American working class, and they have suffered as a result. They have, however, at least survived their checkered history of solidarity. With November’s election of the most diabolically anti-worker and anti-union government in recent American history, this time may be different. This may be unions’ last chance for solidarity with the rest of the American working class.
The Indirect Attack on Unions
Union leaders bear a responsibility to fight for improvements in the lives of their members and survival of their organizations, which often requires compromises with capitalists and conservative politicians. Surviving to fight another day, and winning strong local contracts for members are not only necessary, but laudable strategic considerations.
Leaders of several national unions, mostly in the building trades, quickly issued ringing endorsements of Trump after his inauguration. If pressed, the Trump-lauding unions would likely justify their actions on pragmatic grounds: the president is going to bring home the bacon for them and their members.
The narrow, craft-based model of the building trades has long engendered conservative politics from these particular unions. But unions outside of the building trades also lauded Trump, and the fact that several unions inside the building trades did not join them suggests internal union politics also plays a significant role in determining unions’ support or opposition to Trump.
This is no rare break in the sacred principle of solidarity with the rest of the working class. American unions have many times chosen a quick buck for members over solidarity with non-member workers. While union leaders may have their members’ interests in mind, the breaks in solidarity are wrongheaded. To understand why this is such a problem, we must learn from the consequences of previous examples of union leadership’s failures.
The AFL-CIO opposed progressive immigration reform for decades, ostensibly choosing to protect jobs for members over the rights of immigrant workers. This did not stem the tide of immigrant workers into the United States, but did leave immigrant workers more vulnerable to employer exploitation, more fearful of organizing, and ultimately easier for capitalists to use to undercut unions.
American unions consistently supported American imperialist projects for much of the twentieth century through programs such as the AFL-CIO’s now-defunct American Institute for Labor Development, supporting interventions that often overthrew popular pro-worker leaders and repressed militant labor movements — all to curry favor with American politicians and win for its membership potential crumbs of the American government’s plunder. This did not stop American politicians from attacking unions, but did create huge amounts of easily exploitable foreign workers who fled the effects of imperialism in their home countries and came to the United States — only to find that US unions wanted nothing to do with them.
The AFL, founders of the modern American movement, fought for decades to exclude unskilled workers to protect the privilege of its skilled membership. This didn’t prevent the onset of technological advances that deskilled many craft workers trades, but did lead to a great decline of the AFL.
American unions excluded or segregated black workers into separate locals for years, protecting racial hierarchy in the American workplace rather than linking arms with oppressed black workers. Unions have also long elected to invest the bulk of their resources into servicing existing members rather than organizing nonunion workers. In both cases, excluded workers are left little choice but to work for low pay that put downward pressure on union wages, cross picket lines as strikebreakers, or be otherwise used by employers as weapons against unions’ power.
To be sure, American labor has a long tradition of solidarity as well. Yet the pro-Trump leaders’ recent abandonment of immigrants, Muslims, nonunion working-class Americans, and many more is part of an equally strong tradition rife with lessons for our present moment.
Unions’ solidarity with the nonunion working class is obviously a moral issue, but it’s also a matter of self-interest. Unions’ prosperity is most directly tied to preserving and expanding their roster of dues-paying members, but their fate is also tied to the plight of nonunion working people.
For example, unions have historically gone on strike (generally a positive sign of organization, militancy, and hope) at much higher rates when unemployment is low and wages are on the rise. Unions also grew at faster rates when labor markets tightened and wages were going up. Union-member wages rose and fell along with nonunion wages throughout the twentieth century.
Whether unions refused to organize them, opposed their legal rights, or supported their political repression, workers shunned by unions have regularly come back to haunt labor like ghosts. Workers left alone to fend for themselves are left little choice but to undercut unions. Failure to recognize this relationship only worsens labor’s current state of despair.
Trump is poised to launch a multi-faceted attack on all working Americans. Trump may offer a program that benefits certain unions in the very short term — such as the building trades through infrastructure spending — but his assault on public education, financial regulation, and immigrant rights (just to name a few) would be devastating for working people as a whole.
Besides his attacks on workers in general, Trump will also attempt to directly legislate American unions out of existence. He has already expressed ardent support for Right to Work legislation (Vice President Pence previously ushered its passage in Indiana as governor), and Republicans have already introduced a national right-to-work bill into Congress. If passed, national Right to Work spells, at best, a defensive struggle for survival for most unions.
In a meeting where several union leaders praised him as labor’s savior, Trump still refused to commit to upholding the Davis-Bacon Act, the act that mandates prevailing wages and is largely responsible for the building trades’ continued survival. Reversal of the act would strip the building trades of their primary remaining means of procuring work and likely send them into an organizational death spiral.
Trump’s refusal should be seen as a harbinger of things to come: even at the exact moment union leaders were pledging their support to the president, Trump refused to assure them that his administration would not attack them.
If allowed, the Trump-appointed National Labor Relations Board will halt most new organizing. Card-check agreements, departmental elections, and quick election procedures (the primary mechanisms unions have used recently to organize nonunion workers) will be abolished — effectively slamming shutting most of the doors American labor has used to grow in recent years.
There should be no delusions: no amount of groveling or attempts to distance themselves from the rest of the working class will spare unions.
An Accomplice to Fascism
There are undeniable structural pressures on many union leaders to accommodate Trump or temper their opposition. But every member of the American labor movement must push the limits of their resistance to the Trump administration.
Where intense restrictions or implacable conservative leadership or membership prevent all-out opposition, unionists must at least fight anyone who props Trump up. Where these pressures are not as strong — among certain unions’ leadership, rank-and-filers, and left-labor activists — union leaders must become torchbearers of the Trump resistance.
Certain unions negotiate contracts or otherwise engage directly with the government, and their opposition is structurally limited by this fact. Union leaders bear a responsibility to improve the lives of their members and fight for the survival of the organization, but they can and must do so in a way that doesn’t simultaneously bolster Trump’s dangerous working-class credibility. When unions must negotiate with the administration, they should of course win positive agreements where possible, but they must claim these victories as the result of worker struggle — not of Trump’s benevolence and not in a way that bolsters his pro-worker credentials.
Where unions can declare total war on the Trump regime, they should.
Several national unions have already taken steps to declare opposition to Trump. The SEIU filed an amicus curiae brief against Trump’s Muslim ban, while national leadership of other unions such as the American Federation of Teachers and UNITE HERE issued their own denouncements.
Yet unions can and should go even further. If solidarity with all workers is of the essence, unions must ask themselves what resistance to Trump would look like if campaigns to defend nonunion American workers were treated with equal urgency as those to defend members.
Due largely to the Democratic Party’s well-documented abandonment of the American working class, unions face a challenge of considerable Trump support among their rank and file — AFL-CIO exit polls had 43 percent of union households voting for Trump — and some unions will shirk opposing Trump in fear of alienating pro-Trump members. Yet there is no institution better positioned in society than unions to engage workers in anti-Trump and antiracist political education, mobilizing workers across racial lines against the rich on a daily basis.
If unions drive militant workplace struggles that engage members, they will find their members remarkably open-minded to new political proposals. And besides, if unions don’t engage pro-Trump workers in political education to win them back from racist faux-populism, who will?
Fighting, not flattery, has always been the engine of unions’ success. Ironically, it is largely labor’s refusal to stand up to the Democratic Party that has led the movement into such a dire mess. Fighting Trump publicly will inevitably entail personal and organizational risk, as most genuine struggle does. Given the bloodthirsty militancy of the Trump regime’s anti-unionism, however, Labor’s position is like that of a prisoner on death row: rebellion is risky, but the alternative is even bleaker.
What Is to Be Done?
But the strategy cannot be to persuade opportunistic labor leaders of the error of their ways, or rely on otherwise hamstrung leadership. Rank-and-file union members and labor leftists must seize the reigns of labor’s Trump opposition themselves.
If widespread impression of a working-class mandate emboldens and empowers the Trump administration, union activists shoulder a great responsibility to make clear that the pro-Trump opportunists do not speak for the American labor movement or for the American working class. Their cries must be loud enough to shatter any delusions that Donald Trump acts with support of the American union worker.
If the rank and file and labor left do not speak up, the most backwards element of labor’s leadership will speak for them. Worse yet, Donald Trump will commit atrocities in their name.
IBEW members led an exemplary protest during Trump’s visit to the North America’s Building Trades Unions National Legislative Conference, shouting Trump down despite the invitation extended to him. Union activists should organize anti-Trump solidarity committees within their locals to educate and mobilize members around any looming attacks from his administration.
Yet the crisis also presents opportunity. With union and nonunion workers both so blatantly under attack by the Right, the alignment of interests and need for solidarity has rarely been so obvious and ripe for organizing. Staffers and rank and filers should obviously push for as much solidarity action as possible from their unions, but should also seize the moment to push for lasting reforms and a more class-based perspective in general within their union.
Political education programs, civil rights language in union contracts, greater financial commitment to organizing nonunion workers, minority hiring programs in union shops, member-action committees on social justice issues such as racism — now is the time to agitate and push for programs that encourage a stronger class-based politics within our unions.
The Long-Term Solution
The crisis labor currently finds itself can’t be resolved without another critical transformation: never has the need for internal democratization within unions ever been so blatant.
It is an issue and opportunity relevant to all of labor, not just the Trump panderers. All unions need democratic reforms to empower members and recapture the potential for the mass participation and action that originally built American labor.
This struggle for democracy, and to seize the crisis for good, will take different forms in different unions. In the unions with conservative leadership sidling up to the Trump administration, there can be no shortcut to rank and filers organizing caucuses and slates to take back their unions, as the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators in the Chicago Teachers Union and the Teamsters for a Democratic Union have done.
In the more progressive unions within American labor, with well-intentioned and relatively leftist leadership (though often stuck in conservative organizational routines), staffers and rank and filers can push to persuade their unions to adopt needed changes. They can make a compelling case that adopting a class-based perspective for the union — as leaders of the entire working class — will ultimately strengthen the union itself. In many progressive unions, leadership will be amenable to such ideas if pushed aggressively and demonstrated to be effective.
Moreover, labor’s crisis presents an opportunity of sorts: With right-to-work legislation looming and unions’ revenue in jeopardy, leadership may be more open to creating engaged membership.
Whether it is through persuasive organizing in more left-leaning unions or through sheer self-organizational rank-and-file force in the more conservative, a silver lining to Trump’s attacks and conservative labor leader’ opportunism is the enormous organizing potential to make the transformational changes American labor has long needed.
A Vision of Our Own
Unionists must simultaneously lead the fightback against Trump and go beyond simply leading the resistance — they must develop a positive vision of a new working-class politics.
While many unions have long-embraced the economic nationalism that Trump has unexpectedly brought to the White House, this is a dangerous and short-term strategy. Unionists have to offer a political vision and campaigns that have a real grounding in the realities of American workers — something that Trump’s nationalism will ultimately fail to do and the mainstream Democratic Party does not even attempt to do.
Endorsing Trump’s chauvinistic economic nationalism in the name of “American jobs” is obviously wrongheaded, and attempting to pressure Trump to keep his populist campaign promises is a gimmicky shortcut. Instead, unions must push themselves to launch new, bottom-up campaigns, their own political candidates, and fresh messages that resonate with American workers daily lives.
For example, rather than the apologetic tenor of many recent labor struggles, the Harvard cafeteria workers strike combined an unabashedly ambitious message (a guaranteed annual income) with an ambitious tactic (an indefinite strike), both of which resonated with workers and the public and resulted in a resounding victory.
Time is of the essence. If unions stand idly by while Muslim, Latino, black, and women workers are deported and jailed, while women workers are increasingly degraded, and while millions of workers’ healthcare disappears and standards of life erode, they will undermine the kind of mass movement they will need to defend themselves from imminent attacks against unions.
Declarations of support for Trump from various union leaders took the first step in the wrong direction. Union members and activists cannot sit back and hope for leaders to change course, or even for more progressive-minded leaders to navigate complicated political waters. They must go all-in in a war against Trump. American unions have to get on the right side of history — or be swept into its dustbin.