The Union Revolt No One is Talking About

This election proved that you overlook the labor movement at your peril. Democrats took rank-and-file union members for granted. They must make labor central to the conversation again .
Bob Hennelly
November 26, 2016
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Donald Trump’s election victory has sent the Democratic Party into a circular firing squad of recrimination. But the folks that should really be worried are the leaders of organized labor who opted to back Hillary Clinton, the “sure thing,” over the right thing, Bernie Sanders. This decision by the union leadership was in the face of consistent polling throughout the primary season that showed Sanders holding a commanding lead over Trump in head-to-head matchups.
 
The 74-year-old Vermont firebrand just did not have all of Clinton’s baggage on free trade, Clinton Foundation self-dealing, and the six-figure speeches she gave to the likes of Goldman Sachs that had pillaged America’s Main Street for fun and profit,
 
Not since the Reagan Revolution has the leadership of organized labor been so repudiated by the vote totals in the very states and counties data would indicate they should be able to deliver. NBC reports that Trump flipped 225 counties that President Obama carried in states like Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, where union registration is well above the national average. Yet the exit polls indicate the rank and file union voters split with their leadership over who should lead the free world.
 
NBC exit polls documented that in Ohio, that went for Obama in 2008 and 2012, Trump’s anti- free trade stance and messaging on the economy carried the day with union households that Romney lost to Obama by 23 points. Four years later Trump carried those same union households by 6 points. For these communities, the loss of good paying factory jobs to global free trade was life altering with generational consequences the elites missed.
 
The corporate news media had to concede that the Trump working class wave had come from states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan where the damage done to the Main Street economy by the Great Recession (or Great Wall Street Heist) had been far more extensive and enduring than they had reported. If the media did not see Donald Trump coming, it was because they had become entirely disconnected from the circumstances of the working class.
 
The alleged “recover” that President Obama hoped would be a corner stone of his legacy made the banks more than whole but left many rust belt many households twisting in the wind. Whatever income gains there were went overwhelmingly to the top one percent.
 
Not surprisingly, the places where Donald Trump made inroads with union households were the counties that had not recovered from the financial crisis, and in many cases were already in decline from before the official start of the Great Recession. As I have previously reported, as late as this early this year the National Association of Counties had documented that a full recovery had actually only occurred in seven percent of America’s more than 3,000 counties.
It is important to note that there were unions who were more in touch with this growing working class anger and backed Senator Sanders. They knew that Clinton had everything going for her but the arc of history.  The Communication Workers of America, The American Postal Workers Union, the National Nurses United, the Amalgamated Transit Union, and TWU Local 100, which represents   New York City’s transit workers  backed Sanders.
 
After the election, I interviewed TWU Local 100 President John Samuelsen for the Chief-Leader. As Samuelsen saw it,  Mr. Trump’s vocal opposition to the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership free trade pact and his pledge to roll back NAFTA wooed millions of blue collar union workers looking for a shake-up of the political status quo.
 
“I think that it is now absolutely clear the Democratic Party  has lost touch with its working class roots,” Samuelsen told Salon. “These fissures between the working class have been exploited and blown wide open by Donald Trump. Democrats need to take a step back and ask why, with all the ridiculous things Trump said, he was ultimately more palatable to working class trade union Democrats?”
 
Throughout the bruising primary campaign there were reports of a split between union leadership and rank and file when it came to the Sanders-Clinton face-off. Back in April Politico reported that despite the enthusiastic endorsement of the American Federation of Teachers for Clinton, a search of  Federal Election Commission contribution database indicated Mr. Sanders had garnered $413,000 in donations from 9,000 teachers to her $394,000 from just 4,500 educators.
 
Trump’s victory certainly raises the stature of Gov. Scott Walker  of Wisconsin, whose success at pitting  taxpayers against public unions catapulted him to the national stage, where he pledged as a presidential candidate to eliminate unions from the federal workforce.
 
Perhaps, more than any other faction of the Democratic Party’s base the labor movement is the one that faces an existential threat to its own existence in Trumpworld. Currently, thanks to anti-union campaigns in Wisconsin and West Virginia a majority of the fifty states are as so called ‘right to work’ states where unions  can’t get traction.  For decades the percentage of Americans in a union has been in decline since its high of 35 percent   in the mid-1950s. Now, it is 11 percent, less than a third of that even though, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the annual earnings for a union member are significantly higher than non-union workers. According to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics union workers make $980 a week contrasted to $776 for non-union  workers.  It is no coincidence that as the prevalence of unions continues to wane income inequality has become more pronounced.
 
So now what? Yes, Clinton has the popular vote and Trump has the Presidency based on the Electoral College, which is a vestige of white male oppression that can trace its roots back to when the slave states could hold dominion over our  entire republic. The challenge for labor is to insert itself with a new militancy into the national conversation by zeroing in on the thing that many parents and grandparents of all political perspectives are most anxious about, the ability of their kids and grandchildren to support themselves.
 
For too long labor unions have been perceived as protectors of the status quo who look out for  their most senior members, even if it means cutting rotten deals for their new hires that are most often young people.  In too many workplaces in America this has created a two-tier system where the legacy union worker makes $25 an hour and the new hires make $9.10 cents. That was my recent experience in a New Jersey supermarket where I was a member of the United Food & Commercial Workers Local 1245.  I was blown away when I looked up the six figure salary the head of that union local made, even as the bulk of the union workers were making pathetic wages based on scheduling that was based on whimsy of management.
 
When I talked to the twenty-somethings, working in the “union” supermarket with me they felt the union was actually a predator, a dues collecting machine disconnected from the misery of  a single mother struggling to feed her children on sub-standard “union wages.” Where unions have to focus like a laser is on these young people, making their struggle and aspirations their own,  just as some unions like the SEIU are already doing, with their national $15 an hour campaign.  Any union not pushing for a livable wage should be called out.
 
Historically, unions got traction because they became incredibly relevant to people’s lives by offering a path to something better in life, even if it had to be redeemed by struggle. Right now, in too many American cities millions of 16 to 24-year-olds are not in school and not at work. They are a generation wasting in waiting.  By some estimates  as many as six million are idle. There are millions of unemployed and underemployed millennials.
 
We know that every year that goes by without them being engaged in work or school increases the likelihood of them running afoul of the law. Labor needs to champion these young people and lead a national campaign for job training and placement.
 
Sadly, even in a place as progressive as New York City, despite an historically  large commitment to funding for 60,000 slots youth employment, close to 80,000 kids went away empty handed from the lottery based system. That’s about a one percent improvement from 2015 when 130,000 young people applied for 54,000 openings.
 
There are massive changes already underway in the world of work that could mean the emergence of a permeant underclass in American life, disconnected from productive society because year after year we ignored their circumstance. In many communities we have seen such a trend get a foothold as a consequence of our decision to criminalize drug use and brand a generation as unemployable.
 
The path to employment is getting steeper all the time in ways that transcends the economic cycle. A study just released by the National League of Cities, entitled the “Future of Work In the Cities” , describes a pretty sobering state of affairs where by 2025 15 to 25 percent of jobs linked to manufacturing, packing, construction maintenance and agriculture could all be automated. We need to be focused on job training and entrepreneurial coaching for the world yet to be not the one that has been.
 
There are real world examples where young people of color, from neighborhoods  where good jobs are hard to find, are being embraced by the labor movement, a dramatic contrast  to just twenty years ago. Gary LaBarbera, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council, which represents the city’s construction unions, says in New York City a robust apprenticeship program has made all the difference in helping shape a far more diverse building trades union workforce in the 21st century.
 
“Many, many years ago, twenty years ago, there was no question that diversity was a challenge in the trade,” LaBarbera said during a phone interview. “Today it is a very different picture and I will tell you frankly that the current membership is extremely diverse. Our estimates are that there is over  50 percent diversity within the trades currently, over 50 percent, which is a very good number.”
 
LaBarbera credits a collaboration between the unions and the Building Trades Employers’ Association of New York on an apprenticeship program that was created more than ten years ago that helped the unions and contractors tap into a broad cross-section of New York City high school seniors willing commit to the trades.
 
“On the workforce side the union members employed by BTEA contractors are highly diverse,” said Lou Coletti, President and CEO of the BTEA.  “Today, there are about 8,000 apprentices. With 65 percent being African American Latino and women 75 percent are NYC residents.
 
The Edward J. Malloy Construction Skill Pre-Apprenticeship  program, along with the city’s Department of Education, offer eligible  seniors the chance to enter into a three to five-year training  program, depending on the trade, that will lead directly into a well-paying apprenticeship.
 
Back in 2014 Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs conducted a comprehensive examination of the program and found  that it has an 80 percent retention rate and that almost 90 percent pf the graduates were black, Hispanic or Asian. Between 2001 and 2013 the program had produced 1,443  graduates directly into union apprenticeships.  But program just wasn't racially diverse. A third of the participant came from Brooklyn, 28 percent from the Bronx, 23 percent from Queens and 6 percent from Staten Island.
 
For what amounted to a $7,500 investment per student investment the graduates of the program were projected to earn $1.6 million over their work lifetime compared with a classmate who found work as a short order cook. The union, DOE, contractor collaboration was placing the program’s graduates  into industry positions that paid a $67,110 salary  on average. Authors of the Columbia study “Expanding Opportunity for Middle-Class Jobs In New York City”  say the program is the “most successful construction industry pre-apprenticeship program in the country.”
 
Just as organized labor identified with civil rights,  back fifty years ago, it now has to be championing more than the preservation of their own fringe benefits and pensions.  It needs to be seen as the leading champion of full youth employment and engagement. It’s an opportunity that is wide open.  And there is no time to waste. It is time to get all of America  back to work again.
 
Follow Bob Hennelly on Twitter: @stucknation
 
November 27, 2016