Skip to main content

Can a Racist Be a Good Unionist?

Moderator's NOTE: Bill Fletcher and Bob Wing's article "Fighting Back Against White Revolt 2016" has sparked discussion from Peter Olney "Go Red" and now this piece by Ruth Needleman. Please also read today's reply posting from Fletcher and Wing.


Peter Olney’s “Go Red” strategy and analysis comes from one of the coastal blue slivers in the election that he talks about. Twice he refers to red state white working-class pro-Trump voters in this way: “many of them [are] good union members.” And then “Many of those who voted for Trump are good and loyal trade unionists.” Olney uses this argument to oppose the analysis of Bill Fletcher Jr. and Bob Wing in their article “Fighting Back against the White Revolt of 2016.”.

First off, he misconstrues their argument by suggesting that “they resort to income as a proxy for class.” They don’t. The working class, Olney argues, “is a many splendored thing,” and then that “the traditional Marxist definition” still works for him. The working class has to be looked at, deconstructed, in many ways, because there are fundamental distinctions and strata which must be considered in context. One that the rise of imperialism and neo-colonialism produced historically is what once was referred to as “an aristocracy of labor.” Before the CIO, the AFL very much represented that privileged stratum that benefitted directly from the fruits of exclusion at home and brutal worker exploitation abroad.

What I understood from the Fletcher-Wing analysis was that the support for Trump came not from the poorest excluded workers of this country as much as from the very-well paid elite, in the blue-collar world of unionism. That Olney’s son earns top wages in the IBEW but votes “Blue” is anecdotal evidence that describes a “blue-state” or area exception. The Fletcher-Wing analysis looks closely at class, race, gender and more, but it seems that Olney refers to class as distinct from race, in particular, and apart from the long history of “AFL” –related racism and racial exclusion.

 I live in the reddest of states, Indiana, and have done close to 40 years of worker education with a multi-racial workforce. Here’s another piece of anecdotal evidence: there were no or very few Trump signs in the poorest white working class communities in NW Indiana; they were in suburban or rural white areas. More importantly, quite a few unions and union leaders still embrace the mentality ascribed to the “labor aristocracy,” workers who in fact and in perception received the “American Dream” partially at the expense of other workers, perhaps less-skilled, or immigrant, indigenous or Latino, and especially at the expense of third world, Latin American workers.

The trashing of the so-called “social contract” and neo-liberal globalization of markets hit this stratum very hard. Clamoring for the return of better and better-paid jobs is to some degree for them self-serving and still exclusive.

In the heart of steel and auto production, Indiana, being a “good union member” never meant fighting racism or misogyny, or standing up for any other workers ahead of themselves. In Gary Indiana for example, a very broad coalition of forces successfully defeated a GEO immigrant prison in 2016, although it took months. Not a single union joined that coalition or spoke out against GEO, because of “jobs” for construction workers. The Indiana AFL-CIO took a stand very similar to the one the national AFL-CIO on the nefarious Standing Rock pipeline. Support nothing that the Construction Trades opposes, and talk economics not race, gender, citizenship status or sexual orientation.

Using jobs as a cover for NOT fighting racism is racism. As Paulo Freire insisted, “jobs for whom”: who benefits and who loses?  Again for months the NW Indiana Federation of Interfaith Organizations picketed a $45 million building construction by Indiana University because there was NO local hiring. In our area the Trades have very few workers of color and more often than not they never make it to the top of the “hiring hall list.” And yes we have evidence.

Being a union member and supporting the union does not make you class-conscious or even concerned with the working class other than your own co-workers. Reducing the analysis of Fletcher-Wing to “income as a proxy” completely misses the main points of the analysis. If workers voted in 2008 and/or in 2012 for Obama does not mean that they had abandoned racism as a tool for their own advancement. They wanted change. Voting for Trump in 2016 did mean that his racism, misogyny, and xenophobic views did not present a problem or an obstacle. To me that means that we have to talk with these red voters not mainly on economics but more clearly on economics tied to racism et al.

Bernie was great but his campaign fell short when it came to opposing racism and including anti-racists in his inner circle. Talking economics, talking union in the United States does not grapple with the deep roots of racism among white workers. Not just slavery but settler colonialism based on genocide shaped this country. As Robin D. G. Kelley recommended, An Indigenous People’s History of the United States “may well be the most important US history book you will read in your lifetime.” This book puts the “American Dream” in its fundamentally racist perspective. Read it.

If you like this article, please sign up for Snapshot, Portside's daily summary.

(One summary e-mail a day, you can change anytime, and Portside is always free.)

Ruth Needleman is Professor Emerita, IU.