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With the election of President-elect Donald Trump, labor faces a unique opportunity. Yes, it will face hostility in all branches of the federal government, and will have to maintain a multi-pronged fight. Yes, union density numbers are at historically low levels, and the bulwark of public-sector unionism may suffer a major blow at the Supreme Court through a case challenging the constitutionality of fair-share fees in the public sector. Yes, it will face unprecedented challenges to expand, let alone stay afloat. But in the midst of all this, labor has the opportunity to reform itself so that it can not only survive a Trump administration, but grow as well. Perhaps “opportunity” is the wrong word to describe the moment; labor has the existential imperative to reform itself, harness the existing energy, and lead a movement.
There is no doubt that Donald Trump—through the use of Executive Orders, executive and judicial appointments, and legislative priorities—will likely usher in an environment that is hostile to labor. However, unlike Ronald Reagan, Trump ran a campaign that provided the ground for labor to reform itself. First, he will be the first president in modern history that ran a campaign that was centered around worker issues. All presidential candidates talk about middle and working class issues, but successful campaigns are rarely centered on improving the lot of workers. Second, Trump’s calls for mass deportations, exclusion of Muslims, dismantling of the regulatory state, limits to access for abortion, and a litany of xenophobic actions and policies, have united large swaths of Americans in opposition. Under these conditions, labor can transform itself from what has increasingly become a membership-based services organization into a movement.
In the short time since the election, there has been a palpable desire by many to organize, to resist, to act together in ways that show opposition and can effectively oppose Trump’s agenda. Many are new to political organizing, and are searching for means of engaging in collective action. They are creating“secret” Facebook groups, coming together in ad-hoc groups of like-minded individuals, and taking to the streets in protest. There have been daily protests in cities across the country, there is talk of a “Sick Out” or general strike on Inauguration Day, there are plans for a Million Woman March on Washington on January 21, and these actions are likely to spread. As a result, there is a turning of attention to institutions that can effectively challenge state power.
However, there are few such institutions in American life that are national, cut across demographics and class, and have a history and ability to organize people. Though labor may not be the ideal choice to fill this role, it may be the only choice. And if it reforms itself into a movement of the disaffected, it may be able to grow in ways that traditional employer-by-employer organizing has not been able to achieve.
To do this, labor should look to its locals that have been able to organize communities, rather than narrowly and solely focus on the bread-and-butter issues of its membership. The Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU) is one such example. Facing a deterioration of schools, mass closures of schools in the most vulnerable communities, budget cuts, and a new law that raised the threshold for a strike, the CTU positioned itself as the organization that was fighting for communities and quality education. Instead of making the fight solely about wages and benefits, it became about access to school counselors and libraries, air conditioning in schools during Chicago’s sweltering summers, and proper funding that provided educational opportunities for students in all neighborhoods. Highlighting Rahm Emanuel’s abrasive rhetoric, his connections to corporate interests, and his Draconian education policies, the CTU was able to position Rahm Emanuel as the villain (it can only help a movement to have a good villain, such as Sherriff Bull Connor in the 1960s). Then, in order to meet the high legal threshold necessary for a strike, the CTU engaged its membership and interested communities to ensure mass participation. The seven-day strike of 2012 was an enormous success, with the CTU emerging with high levels of support and many of their demands met.
This year, threatening another strike, the CTU was able to get Rahm Emanuel to divert tens of millions of dollars from discretionary Tax Increment Financing (TIF) funds to the Chicago public school system. Teachers unions have been particularly adept at this type of organizing, as can be seen with the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, who were able to negotiate a contract provision that requires that the School District, which is the largest bank customer in the region, to not bank with any institution that does not have a written policy prohibiting foreclosure of homes with school aged children living in them. It is this type of local community-centered common-good unionism that should be harnessed in taking the lead against Trump’s agenda.
Labor is used to fighting its battles alone, and transforming into a movement will require it to make democratic reforms, engage its membership more, and organize actions that are not directly related to the workplace. In many of the major cities where protests are already taking shape, from Los Angeles to New York, labor has a strong presence and can work to galvanize disparate movements. Labor unions can have a particularly resonant voice in mobilizing for workers’ issues and against Trump’s extremist agenda both because of their deep organizing experience and because of Trump as a self-styled workers’ candidate. No group is better suited to monitor Trump and bring to the light the ways in which he is falling short of his promises to help workers.
Much of this work should come from the labor locals, rather than the internationals, as the locals are more connected to their communities and better understand the direct needs of those communities. Further, locals can more effectively use local and regional power to rally against federal actions that Trump has promised. In doing so, labor can attract more people to have positive experiences with labor, and see it as a common force for good. Many of those individuals will experience firsthand the power of organizing and collective action, and will have contacts with local labor organizers, all of which will create more fertile ground for organizing in the workplace and organizing for more progressive policies on the state and local level.
No one knows what the political reality for labor will look like under a Trump administration. It is likely that Executive Orders that help labor will be rescinded; a Supreme Court with a fifth conservative Justice is likely to be hostile to labor; the NLRB will likely take a conservative turn, and may have its budget slashed. Under these conditions, labor cannot simply assume a defensive posture and try to weather the storm. It cannot make milquetoast responses, saying it will work with Trump on areas of common ground, but instead should take this opportunity to enact reforms that have been long overdue, and transform itself into a movement for workers.
A presidential loss, especially an unexpected one, produces no shortage of scapegoating and second-guessing among activists and insiders of the defeated party. In this regard, the otherwise unprecedented 2016 election proved utterly normal. The emerging narrative pins the Clinton campaign’s shocking Electoral College defeat on its neglect of the white working-class, a constituency buffeted by decades of de-industrialization and declining union memberships. As evidence, adherents of this theory point to Rust Belt counties and states that flipped from blue to red between 2012 and 2016, and exit pollsshowing a smaller share of union households backing Hillary Clinton than Barack Obama. Journalists have had no trouble digging up disaffected white working-class voters who cast their first Republican ballot this year.
What’s remarkable is how quickly this narrative congealed into conventional wisdom. As an interpretation of what went wrong, it leads to one obvious path for Democrats to take going forward, summed up here by the Times’ David Leonhardt: “Figuring out how to win more white working-class votes, especially in the Midwest, has to be at the center of any Democratic comeback plan.”
Choosing this path would be a mistake.
The story of the 2016 race is Democrats not voting, not Donald Trump turning disaffected white working-class Democrats into Republicans. And conjoining white working-class voters with organized labor presents an inaccurate portrayal of the contemporary labor movement. These issues matter, because they point to different paths forward for Democrats and organized labor to take.
Wisconsin and Michigan are ground zero for the white working-class thesis: formerly Democratic strongholds, and former anchors of the U.S. labor movement, which flipped to the Republicans. Donald Trump won Wisconsin by a little over 27,000 votes. In Milwaukee County, disproportionately working-class, disproportionately non-white, Hillary Clinton received nearly 40,000 fewer votes than Barack Obama. Did these voters switch allegiances? It’s unlikely, as the Republicans received slightly fewer votes in the county in 2016 compared to 2012. Across the state of Wisconsin, the Trump “surge” netted him just over 700 more votes than that champion of the common man, Mitt Romney, out of nearly 3 million cast.
Michigan provides an even starker example of the Clinton team’s failure to hold the Obama coalition together. In Wayne County, which includes Detroit, the Democrats netted nearly 80,000 fewer votes in 2016 than 2012. Hillary Clinton lost the state of Michigan by just under 12,000 votes. One can look and find examples of exurban white working-class voters who turned out for Trump after voting for Obama. Some of them may be current union members, or may have grown up in a union household. Or one can ask what happened to the tens of thousands of actual Democrats – union members among them – who failed to turn out on Election Day.
And disproportionately non-white urban areas that are reliably Democratic happen to be where organized labor was recently quite strong. The election postmortems paint a picture of the U.S. labor movement as a set of beleaguered organizations made up of white, male, manufacturing workers. That would have been an accurate representation of organized labor a century ago. More recently, the demographic and occupational composition of organized labor changed dramatically, bringing millions of women and racial and ethnic minorities into its ranks. During the latter half of the 20th Century no population was more over-represented in labor unions than African-Americans. In the Detroit metropolitan area three decades ago, unions had organized nearly 1 out of every 3 workers; by 2015, the rate had fallen by more than half. In the Milwaukee metro area, 1 out of every 4 workers belong to a labor union back in the mid-1980s. Today, less than 1 in 15 do.
Democrats’ newfound attention to the electoral consequences of organized labor’s plight is welcome, although several decades overdue. Alongside churches, unions remain the only set of mass-based organizations that connect working-class Americans to politics. If 2016 has taught us anything, it is that all the advanced analytics in the world can’t compensate for desiccated political organizations that engage workers biennially, at best. But looking to convince white working-class Republican voters in Sheboygan or Kenosha Counties to join the Democrats makes sense only if Democrats had turned out all their potential voters. A more fruitful way forward would be for Democrats, labor unions, and progressive allies to reinvigorate remaining unions, especially in urban areas, and to coordinate resources and activities with state and local political organizations.
Here Nevada is leading the way. Hillary Clinton took the once-red state by 2.5 percentage points. Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto retained a Senate seat vacated by Harry Reid. And Democrats reclaimed control of both chambers of the state legislature. What distinguishes Nevada from so many other states today is the combination of a robust and active state party apparatus and a powerful labor movement. These forces work in tandem to engage their members, and work all the time, not simply in the weeks leading up to national elections. Unions in Nevada have to remain vigilant and on top of their members’ concerns in order to maintain their memberships, given that Nevada is a right-to-work state.
Replicating the Nevada model should be the progressive cause going forward. Right-to-work is now a reality in more than half the states, and Republicans plan to expand this majority in short order. Nevada unions demonstrate that right-to-work does not necessarily doom labor. Nevada’s unionization rate – 14% – isn’t especially high either, proving that small densities can have outsized political impact, given the right ingredient mix. As recent contributions to OnLabor have highlighted, the best case scenario of a Trump presidency still reads like a nightmare for the national labor movement. Yet in a federated system, energizing organized labor at the state and local level can deliver short-term victories for the workers involved, while planting the seeds for longer-term political success at the national level.
Democrats are right to turn their attention to organized labor. And the economic problems faced by the white working-class are real. Solving these problems will require a progressive political resurgence, one unlikely to be delivered by white working-class votes.