|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Issue 206 March 2017
Trump targets union rights
The election of Donald Trump sent a shiver down the spine of every progressive working person across the USA. Behind the façade of ‘making America great’ and creating jobs, lies an administration of, by, and for the billionaire oligarchy determined to eliminate any restrictions to corporate profits. Every gain working people made in the past that still stands – occupational safety, health and environmental protections, the minimum wage, Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare – is under direct threat by Trump’s gangsters.
Emboldened politicians like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell could eviscerate the Fair Labor Standards Act and equal employment protection. Above all, there is the threat of national ‘right-to-work’ legislation along the lines of what Scott Walker did in Wisconsin – although the Supreme Court, with a new Trump appointee, might beat them to the punch.
The unions have continued to be weakened by decades of false policies from a leadership that touted collaboration with the employers and reliance on corporate Democrat politicians as the only ‘realistic’ way forward – not class struggle to build union power. The results are now in front of us: overall union membership fell by another 500,000 under Barack Obama, while inequality continued growing to the point where over 40% of working people are now at or near poverty levels (AlterNet.org, 14 December 2016).
Obama – after bailing out Wall Street from the 2008 economic crisis – rewarded working people with ten million families losing their homes to the foreclosure crisis (National Center for Policy Analysis, 15 March 2015). He promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), another free trade agreement to further eviscerate workers’ rights and environmental regulations. The vast majority of the new jobs created during the Obama years were low-paid. In the private sector, only one in 15 workers is in a union. Plant shutdowns, outsourcing, two- and three-tier contracts, precarious employment and healthcare costs are escalating alongside a serious crisis for those workers who had union pensions. Overall union membership is at a 70-year low.
It was these trends that contributed to Hillary Clinton receiving the lowest union turnout for a Democratic presidential candidate in more than 30 years. She was correctly perceived to be in the pocket of big business, and failed to motivate or inspire against the demagogic, racist and xenophobic campaign of Trump. Union households went 51-43% for Clinton – an 8% margin for the Democrats, far lower than the typical 15-20% in previous presidential elections.
These attacks on unions, health care, pensions and wages were already happening under the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations. Now, after Trump’s inauguration, unions and working people are facing a grim reality. We are confronted by a gang of criminal sociopaths brandishing baseball bats and switchblades. The question is how to counter this threat and what policies can effectively defend working-class people. This will be the instinctive conclusion of millions of working people, women, minorities and immigrants, as Joe Hill famously said, "Don’t mourn, organise!"
The good news is that millions of people have rejected the calls by many Democrats, and even some union officials, to ‘work with Trump’. Instead, they have got out in the streets, showing they are ready to fight back. To preach peace when the other side is preparing for war is complete foolishness, if not open betrayal. How can an "unstable charlatan who made his fortune by scamming working families", as Richard Trumka of the AFL-CIO called Trump, be trusted to defend workers? Trump’s criticism of awful trade agreements like the TPP and NAFTA – promoted by Democrats as well as Republicans – has nothing to do with defending workers’ jobs. It is centred on a vicious attack on wages and regulations in the US so that companies will invest here.
Trump fraudulently claimed in December to have stopped Carrier from moving its plants to Mexico from Indiana. In reality, 1,300 workers are losing their jobs – Carrier simply took advantage of tax write-offs to keep some jobs in the US. "Hey, it’s not Mexican workers we have got an issue with. They are being exploited, too. They are not making out on the deal. The corporations are!" explained Chuck Jones, president of Steelworkers Local 1999 in Indianapolis.
The attacks on unions by Trump and the employers will likely start immediately, with executive orders directed at public sector workers’ unions. Trump has imposed a hiring freeze in federal agencies, which could be the first step to attacking the pay, benefits and union rights of federal employees. This can then lay the basis for going after the rights of public sector workers more generally, using Wisconsin as a model. It is critical to use the momentum from the mass rallies and protests against Trump to build a broad movement to defend workers’ rights on the streets, alongside defending immigrants, Muslims and women’s rights.
While Trump won the election, it should be remembered that 2016 saw an increase in workers’ struggles on a number of fronts, from further gains in the fight for $15 an hour to the Verizon workers’ strike, which was the biggest strike in nearly 20 years. We saw the explosive rise of the Bernie Sanders movement and the call for a political revolution – a mass awakening by millions of discontented workers and young people. While this was defeated by the intrigues of the pro-capitalist Democratic Party and Bernie’s failure to launch a new left party, the campaign radicalised millions. For the first time in decades, socialism became a popular idea alongside a rejection of Wall Street and the billionaire class.
The debates in society about how to fight Trump will play out inside unions, as well. Labor for Bernie exploded against the leaders of major unions who rushed to endorse Clinton, despite her coziness with Walmart and Wall Street. Tens of thousands of union members registered their anger and frustration with union officials on social media.
It is urgent that unions and workers across the country link with immigrants, communities, students and socialists to prepare to build solidarity and defend ourselves against the attacks. These will include appointing a conservative to the Supreme Court, opening the door for attacks on women’s and public sector workers’ rights. The renewal of the Dakota Access Pipeline and Keystone XL are just the beginning, as big business drives to further undermine and even smash union rights across the board.
Union members should move resolutions in their locals to demand meetings to mobilise for mass protests against the Trump regime. Unions have the resources and can, alongside other forces, provide the backbone for taking immediate action, including mass rallies, boycotts and mass media campaigns, as well as strikes and civil disobedience, against attacks on immigrants, public education, etc.
This type of movement could spread like wildfire across the country and disrupt the plans of Trump and the Republicans. We need to end the disgrace of labour giving millions of dollars to politicians who do not fight for working people. We need a union leadership that is prepared to fight back. Let’s make sure that labour is at the forefront of the resistance at the next big rallies, on International Women’s Day, and on May Day 2017.
The Sanders campaign showed that millions of working people are prepared to start taking action and to support a challenge against the dictatorship of capitalism and the Trump oligarchs. After decades of misleadership, setbacks and defeats, the unions have to be transformed into fighting and democratic organisations. They need to discover what it means to become a social movement for justice, in the way that the abolitionist or civil rights movements were in their day, bringing together working people around the vision of a new society based on solidarity, equality and justice, as opposed to the nightmare of capitalism.
Alan Jones, Socialist Alternative