labor Trump’s Triumph, Labor Resistance?
On Labor Day, 2016, Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, joined Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine in Cleveland, Ohio for the traditional kick-off rally heading into the November 8 general election. Trumka denounced the man who would soon shock the political establishment by winning election to the presidency:
“What can I say about Donald Trump? You saw the convention here. It was like a bad horror movie. Trump says he’s our friend. Let me ask you this.
What kind of friend wants to lower your wages? What kind of friend refuses to pay when he owes you money? What kind of friend sends your job overseas?
What kind of friend threatens your retirement? What kind of friend calls you names because of the way you look or talk or worship?
Trump is not our friend. He is a fraud”.
Trumka was speaking truth about Trump, but his words and the electoral deeds of the AFL-CIO did not translate into the votes necessary in the “firewall” states to deliver the election to Hilary Clinton. Ohio, where Trumka spoke on Labor Day, was indicative of the weakness of the union message and program. A state in which union households voted by a 23 percent margin for Barack Obama in 2012 saw the union household vote flip to Trump by 7 percent in 2016. The same story was repeated with similar surprising severity in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania where working-class voters who had supported President Obama in 2012 turned to the anti-union fraud that Trumka described in his speech. The Trump/Clinton margins in those three states were so thin that the difference between the two candidates is about the same as a capacity crowd of 107,601 for a University of Michigan football game in the Big House. Based on the final voter files of each state, the Trump/Clinton margin in Pennsylvania was 68,236; in Michigan, 11,612; and in Wisconsin, 27,258.
In the wake of Trump’s electoral triumph, the analysis of the Republican victory and its root causes has been much debated. Diagnostics range from an emphasis on the racist character of the Trump vote to the failure of the Democratic Party to campaign with a candidate and a message that resonates with the working class, particularly the white working class.1
Senator Bernie Sanders’ candidacy seemed to carry that message during the 2016 primaries. However, his campaign opened up new political contradictions in the U.S. labor movement. Unlike other Western democracies, where organized labor has had a role in founding social democratic parties of many different stripes, U.S. labor often faces the painful and difficult choice of supporting the lesser evil of two corporate candidates, usually the nominee of the Democratic Party. But in May of 2015, when avowed Socialist Sanders threw his hat in the Democratic Party primary ring, a prairie fire was ignited within the labor movement.
For the first time in anyone’s memory (and for that matter for the first time since Eugene Debs in 1920), a self-identified Socialist rallied large numbers behind an explicitly anti-corporate, anti–Wall Street, pro–working-class platform. The reaction within labor was swift and very impressive. Although the usual suspects (the Service Employees International Union [the SEIU]; American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees [AFSCME]; National Education Association [NEA], etc.) lined up to support the pre-ordained candidacy of Hillary Clinton as expedient and inevitable, six national unions (United Electrical Workers [UE], International Longshore and Warehouse Union [ILWU], National Nurses United [NNU], Amalgamated Transit Union [ATU], Communications Workers of America [CWA], and American Postal Workers Union [APWU]) and over one hundred locals and more than fifty thousand individual union members endorsed Bernie. In a telltale sign of the political future of neoliberalism, thirty-five locals of the traditionally conservative International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) endorsed Senator Sanders and joined the new political formation, Labor for Bernie.
Today, many think that Bernie would have beaten Trump, especially because of his traction with disaffected working-class voters in the key swing states that flipped the Electoral College to Donald Trump.
“The challenge now is to regroup the Bernie unions—and many more—to support Our Revolution . . .”
“The enthusiasm for the Sanders campaign showed the potential for a new progressive wing in the labor movement,” said Rand Wilson, Organizing Director at the SEIU Local 888 in Boston. “The challenge now is to regroup the Bernie unions—and many more—to support Our Revolution, the populist political organization that emerged from the Sanders’ campaign.” Wilson was a national organizer for Labor for Bernie and now is helping to build Labor for Our Revolution.
Labor had dodged a devastating bullet when Antonin Scalia died on February 13, 2016 on a dude ranch in Marfa, Texas. The Supreme Court was poised to rule on the Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association case that would have made unconstitutional mandatory union dues for public employees. The suit arose out of the teachers union in California but would have affected all the big public-sector unions including AFSCME and the SEIU. With Trump’s election and the appointment of Gorsuch to the court, the Janus v. AFSCME case is queued up to be decided in 2018. Janus, like Friedrichs, will make mandatory union membership fees illegal. The treasuries’ of the unions with large public membership (NEA, AFT, the SEIU, and AFSCME) will undoubtedly be hit hard.
In anticipation of Friedrichs, many of these unions started internal organizing to encourage their members to voluntarily sign on to pay fees. These efforts mostly got shelved after the death of Scalia, but have resumed in anticipation of the Janus decision. With Janus, the power and political clout of the public unions will likely be seriously diminished because they heavily rely on the membership dues to affect elections with troops and money. Furthermore, in the case of the SEIU, it is unclear whether funding for the Fight for $15 and the Fast Food workers’ movement will continue in light of budget cuts.
One positive consequence of the election was the decision by the Trump administration to withdraw from the Obama-negotiated Trans Pacific Partnership. And the administration’s decision to reopen NAFTA holds out some promise for labor to intercede, build tri-national alliances, and get a better deal for the working people of Mexico, Canada, and the United States. Just as the discussion of and attacks on the Affordable Care Act have led to broader support in Congress and the general public for Medicare for All, the renegotiation of NAFTA could also lead to a reinvigorated movement for a better trade deal. This will require some heavy lifting in labor in all three affected countries.
Trump ran on a nativist, xenophobic, and racist platform that put the issue of immigrants particularly from Mexico front and center. His ugly characterizations of Mexicans as drug dealers, criminals, and rapists and his calls to build a wall were appeals that resonated with a segment of the white population. Post election, the Department of Justice led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions has made good on the promise to persecute and criminalize undocumented workers.
The labor movement’s mixed relationship to environmentalists and Native American Peoples was on full public display in the battle over the Keystone XL Pipeline.
The reaction on the part of labor has been muted at best. On February 16, there were actual walkouts and shutdowns mostly in the restaurant business, but the calls to action on May Day had nowhere near the response of 2006 when millions of immigrants marched in almost every major city of the United States. Despite the calls by four of the Bernie unions (CWA, ATU, NNU, and UE) to support immigrant workers on May Day, labor action was minimal. The SEIU United Service Workers West in California called for walkouts on May 1, but very few workers answered the call. Fear of raids and deportations has taken their toll.
The labor movement’s mixed relationship to environmentalists and Native American Peoples was on full public display in the battle over the Keystone XL Pipeline. The pipeline which is being built to carry oil from Western Canada all the way to refineries in Texas and Illinois would traverse sacred tribal lands of Native Americans. The Native American Peoples drew a line at Standing Rock in North Dakota and engaged in a very dramatic protest in the winter of 2016. Several unions, among them the high-profile endorsers of Senator Bernie Sanders such as CWA and NNU, supported the tribes and sent members and resources to Dakota. The ILWU Locals in both Tacoma and Los Angeles sent their members with supplies and camped out with the occupying Native Peoples and their allies. This support and resistance drew the ire of several of the building trades unions, chiefly Terry O’Sullivan of the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) who lambasted environmentalists and the unions that dared to cross the narrow and shortsighted interest of his LIUNA and limited employment on the pipeline. Trump, of course, promised to build the pipeline, undoing Obama’s Army Corps of Engineers obstruction.
This division extended to Trump’s inauguration. At the first high-profile meeting held at the White House on January 23, Trump was joined by the North American Building and Trades Unions (NABTU). Sean Garvey of NABTU welcomed the president’s initiative to invite these unions to the White House and Doug McCarron of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America (UBC) praised the president’s inaugural address as a beautiful speech for working people. Many observers called this the labor movement’s “Vichy” moment2 and wondered how some in labor could praise a president whose candidacy had supported Right to Work and the abrogation of Davis Bacon laws.
Many observers . . . wondered how some in labor could praise a president whose candidacy had supported Right to Work and the abrogation of Davis Bacon laws.
Doug McCarron’s remarks were deeply ironic and tragic in that his whole ascent to power in the UBC was based on the Southern California drywall carpenters strike in 1992. McCarron courageously backed a rolling strike by three thousand immigrant Mexican workers, many of them undocumented, which resulted in a huge victory with a contract for the residential construction drywall segment of the industry.3
In 2017, McCarron was heaping praise on a president who had launched his campaign in June of 2015 at Trump Tower in New York City with an attack on Mexican immigrants. Contrast this slavish behavior with the stance taken by the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT) which has launched a high-profile defense of one of its members detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).4
In early April 2017, NABTU invited President Trump to speak at their legislative conference and he gladly accepted. From the podium, he called out individual trades locals by name and location, receiving in most cases a resounding applause. One notable exception was IBEW Local 3 from New York City whose leaders refused to rise to the hometown billionaire builder’s shout-out. Later, a group of IBEW members from Local 569 in San Diego rose in protest with placards reading “Resist” and were carried out of the hall in defiance.5
The Teamsters’ Election
Lost in the drama surrounding the U.S. presidential election was the stunning result of the internal election for president and officers of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT). President James Hoffa, son of legendary President Jimmy Hoffa, was challenged by Fred Zuckerman, the leader of the largest United Parcel Service (UPS) local in the country in Louisville, Kentucky. Zuckerman allied with Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) and other reform forces within the IBT. In a stunning result the week after the U.S. election, the Hoffa forces lost the vote in the United States (93,457 to 92,625), but Hoffa’s presidency was preserved by the Canadian vote. Four opposition-slate vice presidents swept to power on the Executive Board from the central states where discontent over pensions ran high.
. . . [T]he rejection of Hoffa in the United States can be seen as not only part of the anti-incumbency spirit sweeping the country, the discontent that helped elect Trump . . .
Overall, the rejection of Hoffa in the United States can be seen as not only part of the anti-incumbency spirit sweeping the country, the discontent that helped elect Trump, but also a reflection of the rejection of the leadership’s negotiation of the Teamsters’ UPS and Carhaul divisions contracts, two agreements that affect Teamsters nationwide. Locals with big UPS contingents that Hoffa handily won in the last election in Dallas, New Jersey, and Philadelphia went this time to his opponent, Zuckerman.
Food Workers’ Leadership Change
In December 2014, Mark Perrone succeeded Joe Hansen as president of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). Soon afterward, Perrone decided to close down the UFCW’s very active national Our Walmart campaign. Observers estimate that the union had spent close to $20 million on this high-profile campaign in 2014. Perrone and his allies decided to focus the union more on building power in local and regional campaigns like the effort to organize El Super, a Mexican-owned chain of ethnic grocery stores in the Southwest.
Large-Scale Victories and Defeats
In spring 2016, during the buzz of the Democratic primaries and the effervescence of the Sanders’ campaign, thirty-six thousand Verizon workers engaged in a strike that lasted from April 13 to June 17. Coming off a concessionary contract in 2012, there was concern that the company would tough it out again and defeat the union. Instead, the union built a solid and creative strike and benefited from the presence of Senator Sanders on their picket lines leading up to the New York State primary. The CEO of Verizon, Lowell McAdams, went so far as to attack Bernie Sanders by name: “His uninformed views are in a word contemptible, and the Senator is disconnected from reality.”
Meanwhile, on a somewhat negative note, the Spectrum strike of 1800 IBEW members in New York and New Jersey continues after over five months with no end in sight. Charter Communications (the parent of Spectrum), the second largest cable provider in the country, wanted its techs, dispatchers, constructors, engineers, and warehouse people to accept sub-standard health care and a 401(K) to replace a defined benefit pension plan. In response, the members of IBEW Local 3 struck on March 28, 2017. Labor started to swarm in solidarity by holding a rally of thousands in September.
In the winter of 2015-2016, nurses in Philadelphia organized new bargaining units in five hospitals and waged a high-profile battle that resulted in 2,765 new members for the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals (PASNAP). This was one example of the strategic power of skilled nurses who have become increasingly willing to engage in strikes for better contracts and better patient care. PASNAP grew by 40 percent in a couple of weeks.6
The Fight for $15 and a Union recorded both forward momentum and stasis. The SEIU continues to fund this exciting campaign, even though the union’s endorsed presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, only grudgingly supported a $13 per hour minimum wage. Many cities, counties, and states, notably New York and California, adopted $15 per hour phased-in minimum wage. The Fight for $15’s dramatic public relations tactics and a sophisticated social media approach have helped score major policy victories. But the campaign has thus far been unable to fulfill the promise of a union for fast food workers.
Uber’s and Lyft’s smart phone-based application for ride services stormed urban markets threatening the livelihoods of traditional taxi drivers. In May 2016, District 15 of the International Association of Machinists (IAM) signed a deal with Uber in New York City that many labor commentators found to be inadequate at best, a fig leaf, at worst. The deal did not provide for any fixed terms and conditions, only a promise to meet and discuss work place issues.7 The New York City Taxi Workers Alliance (NYCTWA) cried foul and protested the deal as a sell out with absolutely no bargaining teeth. The NYCTWA continues its efforts to organize all ride services and staged a dramatic protest at Uber in New York City when Trump declared his illegal Muslim travel ban in January 2017.
Many efforts to organize these new app-based services focused on legal and regulatory strategies to make the drivers employees or at least to challenge their independent contractor (IC) status. Teamsters Local 117 in Seattle has taken a different approach that involves accepting the employment status of the workers/contractors and organizing them around their felt needs whether it is discrimination because of Muslim religious beliefs or traditional issues of pay and benefits. This creative campaign has actually organized hundreds of new members, mainly African workers, into the IBT local without changing their employment status but by using their political power to affect their working lives. In early August, a Federal District Judge upheld the City of Seattle’s ordinance providing for a mechanism that permits bargaining with ICs. This campaign has creatively taken the position that given that the ICs are not employees and not covered under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), the City of Seattle can act to provide procedures for collective bargaining that are not preempted by the federal NLRA.8
In . . . August, a Federal District Judge upheld the City of Seattle’s ordinance . . . [that] permit[s] bargaining with independent contractors (IC).
Seattle’s approach contrasts with the ongoing efforts of the IBT to organize port drivers and particularly drayage drivers in the twin ports of California: Los Angeles and Long Beach. Although the IBT has won some certification elections at a limited number of companies, their strategy remains one of highlighting the exploitation of drivers because of their status as ICs. A USA Today feature article “Rigged” exposed the sweatshop on wheels that is the work of ten thousand to twelve thousand workers in Los Angeles/Long Beach who transport cargo from port to rail or port to warehouse.9
These drivers have waged long and powerful strikes in the past, even as independents, and many of them prefer that status. None of them prefer their treatment or their scanty pay and total lack of benefits. Some have suggested that the IBT might engage the workers as ICs and over their felt issues and organize from there. Maybe the Seattle approach of organizing the “contractors” regardless of legal status could be considered for these workers.
Finally, in August 2017, the U.S. labor movement suffered a resounding defeat at the Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi. Conducted on August 3 to 4, the balloting was 2,244 “no” votes to 1,307 “yes” votes in a total workforce of about 3,900. This campaign began almost as soon as the plant was established in 2003 and became an active drive in 2012. The UAW did an admirable job of building international support and a broad array of national community allies. Bernie Sanders, Danny Glover, and Reverend William Barber of North Carolina all appeared at support rallies. However, in the end, the ground game lacked enough active committee members to engage in on-the-job battles that steel members for the company’s inevitable counterattack. Many criticized the UAW’s decision to go forward with an election under circumstances where they had less than 50 percent on authorization cards, a clear sign of an impending disastrous loss. However, the UAW should be commended for its commitment and for its decision to respect the decision of its worker committee members and leaders who may have tired of the constant conflict in the plant and wanted resolution once and for all. They also may have felt that many of their friends and contacts in the plant, while unwilling because of fear to publicly support the union, would vote “yes” in the secrecy of the voting booth. Such was not the case, as any union organizer with experience knows, but now a cadre of workers is more the wiser and possibly more committed to the long haul.
Many criticized the UAW’s decision to go forward with an election [at the Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi] under circumstances where they had less than 50 percent on authorization cards . . .
As Labor Day approached in 2017, the country was riveted by the events in Charlottesville, Virginia where the Nazi/Klansmen staged a march on August 12 to preserve the monuments of the Confederacy. The ensuing physical conflict and the death of thirty-two-year-old Heather Heyer who was there to protest the racists fueled a debate over race and the presidency of Donald Trump. This event peeled back the divisions in labor as Richard Trumka resigned from the President’s Manufacturing Jobs Initiative, but only after three corporate chiefs from Merck, Under Armour, and Intel had already done so a day before him. Many wondered why Trumka was on the council to begin with and why it took him so long to get off.
. . . [W]ith fifteen million members, organized labor remains the greatest potential force for economic and social justice in the country . . .
In the aftermath of Trump’s election, the labor movement’s challenges are daunting. Organized labor in the United States faces circumstances comparable to the 1920s. Political conditions, technological changes, and geographic shifts in economic activity have certainly thrown the movement onto the defensive. With private-sector membership hovering below 7 percent density, many commentators—and many practitioners—believe that organized labor is finished as an economic and political force. Still, with fifteen million members, organized labor remains the greatest potential force for economic and social justice in the country. When even a small slice of this membership becomes actively engaged in a campaign, workers can still push back against political attacks (or take advantage of more favorable local or state political conditions) and win. Similarly, with good internal organizing and community support, unions can still succeed at organizing new workers. The Janus and Friedrich attacks will intensify the need for a return to fundamentals. Public-sector unions are already experiencing success in signing up dues-paying members, even in Right-to-Work states or under circumstances where they cannot by law bargain collectively. A balanced appraisal of the situation needs to take into account both the scale of the challenges and the potential of existing members. They remain a vital element of any renaissance to come.
The author wishes to thank Dr. Glenn Perusek for his kind editing and content suggestions. He is a seasoned comrade in the struggle to rejuvenate our labor movement.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
Peter Olney is the retired organizing director of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). He has been an organizer in California and Massachusetts since 1972. He is presently working in Italy investigating the state of Italian labor in the railroad and construction industries. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and blogs on The Stansbury Forum—stansburyforum.com