Understanding the Existential Threat Trump Poses to a Beleaguered Labor Movement

Barry Eidlin July 10, 2017

U.S. President Donald Trump arrives for the morning working session on the second day of the G20 economic summit on July 8, 2017 in Hamburg, Germany. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

This arti­cle first appeared in Jacobin.

As nativist right-wing pop­ulism surges across the Glob­al North amidst the exhaus­tion of social democ­ra­cy and Third Way” lib­er­al­ism, the Unit­ed States finds itself at the fore­front. Else­where, right pop­ulist par­ties have led in the polls, as with the Front Nation­al in France and the PVV in the Nether­lands, or played key roles in seis­mic polit­i­cal events, as with UKIP and Brex­it. But so far, only in the US has the right pop­ulist wave cap­tured a major polit­i­cal par­ty and rid­den it to pow­er. The improb­a­ble elec­tion of Don­ald Trump reflects deep crises with­in the US polit­i­cal sys­tem, but also this broad­er cri­sis of mod­ern lib­er­al­ism.

The ear­ly months of the Trump admin­is­tra­tion have been chaot­ic, but one thing remains clear: despite Trump’s rhetor­i­cal appeals to the work­ing class, actu­al work­ers and unions have rea­son to be wor­ried. His pub­lic pro­nounce­ments about bring­ing back coal and man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs are based on pure sophistry, while his less pub­lic moves to gut labor reg­u­la­tions and work­ers’ rights will hurt work­ers. Labor’s dire sit­u­a­tion pre­dates Trump by decades, but it is like­ly that his acces­sion to the Oval Office will fur­ther embold­en labor’s foes, much as Ronald Reagan’s elec­tion did in the 1980s.

An Anti-Work­er Cabinet

Ear­ly indi­ca­tions have con­firmed these sus­pi­cions, as the can­di­date who por­trayed him­self dur­ing the cam­paign as a tri­bune of the work­ing class has packed his cab­i­net with bil­lion­aires and busi­ness leaders.

Of par­tic­u­lar con­cern for work­ers are his picks to head the Depart­ments of Labor and Edu­ca­tion. While per­son­al con­tro­ver­sies and pop­u­lar mobi­liza­tion derailed Trump’s first choice for Sec­re­tary of Labor, CKE Restau­rants CEO Andy Puzder, his replace­ment, R. Alexan­der Acos­ta, presents more con­ven­tion­al but still trou­bling chal­lenges for labor. His record while serv­ing on the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board in the ear­ly 2000s sug­gests an employ­er-friend­ly atti­tude towards labor pol­i­cy com­mon among main­stream Repub­li­cans. Mean­while his Sec­re­tary of Edu­ca­tion, Amway bil­lion­aire Bet­sy DeVos, has made her name pro­mot­ing school pri­va­ti­za­tion and attacks on teach­ers’ unions in her home state of Michi­gan and elsewhere.

Pol­i­cy-wise, Trump has run into trou­ble imple­ment­ing much of his agen­da, most notably with his fail­ure thus far to repeal Oba­macare and courts block­ing his Mus­lim trav­el ban. How­ev­er, he and his Repub­li­can coun­ter­parts in Con­gress have had much less dif­fi­cul­ty rolling back a slew of work­er pro­tec­tions pro­posed or enact­ed under the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion. These include an effort to raise the thresh­old above which salaried work­ers can­not receive over­time pay, reg­u­la­tions requir­ing fed­er­al con­trac­tors to dis­close pay equi­ty and work­place safe­ty vio­la­tions, rules on mine safe­ty and expo­sure to beryl­li­um, and man­dates for pri­vate sec­tor employ­ers to col­lect and keep accu­rate data on work­place injuries and illnesses.

On the judi­cial front, Trump has nom­i­nat­ed two reli­ably anti-union attor­neys, William Emanuel and Mar­vin Kaplan, to fill vacan­cies on the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board (NLRB). They are like­ly to reverse recent pro-labor rul­ings hold­ing par­ent com­pa­nies liable for the labor prac­tices of their fran­chisees and allow­ing stu­dent work­ers at pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties to organize.

More sig­nif­i­cant­ly, after Jus­tice Antonin Scalia’s death last year pre­vent­ed the Supreme Court from over­turn­ing decades of legal prece­dent and allow­ing right to work laws through­out the pub­lic sec­tor via the Friedrichs case, a new case called Janus v. AFSCME has been filed in Illi­nois which will allow a Supreme Court now sup­ple­ment­ed by the con­ser­v­a­tive Neil Gor­such to revis­it the issue.

At the state lev­el, labor’s sit­u­a­tion con­tin­ues to wors­en. On top of recent labor set­backs in Indi­ana, Michi­gan, and Wis­con­sin, the first months of 2017 saw Ken­tucky and Mis­souri become the twen­ty-sixth and twen­ty-sev­enth right-to-work states. In Iowa, law­mak­ers passed House File 291, which, like Wisconsin’s Act 10, restricts pub­lic sec­tor unions’ abil­i­ty to bar­gain over any­thing but wages, elim­i­nates work­ers’ abil­i­ty to have their union dues deduct­ed auto­mat­i­cal­ly from their pay­checks, and requires reg­u­lar union recer­ti­fi­ca­tion votes.

For its part, labor remains stuck in an orga­ni­za­tion­al and polit­i­cal rut. Total union den­si­ty cur­rent­ly stands at 10.7 per­cent, and 6.4 per­cent in the pri­vate sec­tor. This is a lev­el not seen since the Great Depres­sion, and well below lev­els reached in the mid-twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, when one third of US work­ers were union members.

Eco­nom­i­cal­ly, union decline is a key rea­son that inequal­i­ty has risen to lev­els also not seen since the Great Depres­sion. Polit­i­cal­ly, it has under­cut labor’s orga­ni­za­tion­al clout. Not only are there few­er union vot­ers, but unions are less able to edu­cate and mobi­lize their exist­ing members.

In the 2016 elec­tion, despite unions spend­ing mil­lions of dol­lars and deploy­ing major vot­er mobi­liza­tion pro­grams to sup­port Democ­rats, Trump won 43 per­cent of union house­holds, and 37 per­cent of union mem­bers. In some of the deci­sive Rust Belt states, Trump won out­right majori­ties of union households.

All told, it’s a grim pic­ture. Some of the details may be new, but they are part of a decades-long pat­tern of union decline that is quite famil­iar at this point. As we enter the Trump era, we are not enter­ing unchart­ed ter­ri­to­ry. We’ve been here before.

Dead Ends

The ques­tion is how to respond. For at least the next few years, two of labor’s well-worn tac­tics are off the table.

First, labor law reform is not hap­pen­ing, and anti-labor mea­sures like a nation­al right-to-work law are almost cer­tain. Sec­ond, with Democ­rats now shut out at the fed­er­al lev­el, and Repub­li­cans in con­trol of either the governor’s house or state leg­is­la­ture in forty-four states, with full con­trol in twen­ty-five, labor can­not rely on favors from sym­pa­thet­ic Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty politicians.

Leav­ing aside the deep crises the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty cur­rent­ly faces, or the extent to which such a reliance has ever been a good idea, this inside strat­e­gy” is sim­ply not avail­able now. Even less viable is a strat­e­gy of cau­tious engage­ment” with Repub­li­cans, which is what AFL-CIO head Richard Trum­ka and Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers Pres­i­dent Ran­di Wein­garten seem to be promoting.

At the same time, as fright­en­ing as the sit­u­a­tion seems, now is not the time for labor to retreat. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, that is pre­cise­ly the approach that some unions seem to be taking.

Most notably, SEIU’s response to Trump’s elec­tion was to plan for a 30 per­cent bud­get cut. Instead, labor should fol­low the advice that SEIU Pres­i­dent Mary Kay Hen­ry gave in 2015, when unions were antic­i­pat­ing an adverse deci­sion in the Friedrichs case: You can’t go small­er in this moment. You have to go bigger.”

Under­stand­ing and address­ing the threats that the Trump admin­is­tra­tion pos­es to work­ers is a chal­lenge. First, it requires ana­lyz­ing the par­tic­u­lar­i­ties of labor’s cur­rent chal­lenges in the Unit­ed States with­in the broad­er con­text of what has hap­pened to labor move­ments and pol­i­tics in the Glob­al North in recent decades. Sec­ond, it requires address­ing a prob­lem that goes deep­er than unions’ declin­ing num­bers and bar­gain­ing pow­er: their erod­ing abil­i­ty to shape and mobi­lize work­ers’ polit­i­cal identities.

Much about Trump and his admin­is­tra­tion is unique, some say unprece­dent­ed. His pre-dawn tweets, his dis­re­gard for notions of truth and evi­dence with which he does not agree, his lack of con­cern with han­dling much of the basic day-to-day mechan­ics of gov­ern­ing, and much more, has dumb­found­ed his crit­ics on the left and right alike.

At the same time, much of his pol­i­cy agen­da and his method of gov­ern­ing has a long lin­eage. His bud­get pro­pos­al repris­es the com­bi­na­tion of tax cuts for the wealthy, com­bined with mas­sive increas­es in defense spend­ing and mas­sive cuts to social wel­fare pro­grams, sci­en­tif­ic research, and fund­ing for the arts and human­i­ties that Pres­i­dent Rea­gan and sub­se­quent Repub­li­can pres­i­dents have long championed.

Equal­ly Rea­ganesque is his pen­chant for appoint­ing cab­i­net mem­bers whose pri­ma­ry qual­i­fi­ca­tion involves attack­ing the mis­sion of the agency they are tasked with lead­ing. Mean­while, his Amer­i­ca First” eco­nom­ic nation­al­ism goes back fur­ther, echo­ing a per­spec­tive preva­lent in the pre-World War II era, and which lives on today in var­i­ous Buy Amer­i­can” cam­paigns.

Like­wise, many of the fac­tors under­ly­ing Trump’s vic­to­ry are par­tic­u­lar to the US con­text. Leav­ing aside the con­tin­gen­cies sur­round­ing the elec­tion itself, these include insti­tu­tion­al fac­tors like the entrenched two-par­ty sys­tem and the dis­pro­por­tion­al­i­ty of the Elec­toral College.

The first ensured that Trump’s pop­ulist mobi­liza­tion was expressed with­in the con­fines of the Repub­li­can Par­ty, as opposed to a sep­a­rate far-right par­ty as is com­mon in Europe, while the sec­ond allowed him to win the pres­i­den­cy while los­ing the pop­u­lar vote. Also par­tic­u­lar is Trump’s elec­toral alliance with evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tians, as com­pared to either the res­olute sec­u­lar­ism or revan­chist Catholi­cism of the Euro­pean far right.

At the same time, Trump’s suc­cess is part of a broad­er right-pop­ulist trend that extends far beyond the Unit­ed States. Glob­al­ly, these move­ments share sev­er­al com­mon traits, includ­ing charis­mat­ic lead­ers; a focus on mobi­liz­ing around racial and eth­no-reli­gious divi­sions, par­tic­u­lar­ly Islam; and a deep skep­ti­cism of experts and elites. Look­ing beyond the present moment, his­tor­i­cal research sug­gests that such move­ments tend to grow in the after­math of major eco­nom­ic crises such as that in 2008.

Impor­tant­ly for labor, right pop­ulism has emerged in response to a polit­i­cal vac­u­um on the Left.

Part of this has been the result of a cri­sis of third way” social democ­ra­cy, where­by the tra­di­tion­al par­ties of the Left adopt­ed the poli­cies of finan­cial dereg­u­la­tion and fis­cal aus­ter­i­ty that led to eco­nom­ic cri­sis, aban­don­ing, attack­ing, and alien­at­ing their tra­di­tion­al work­ing-class base in the process. Equal­ly impor­tant has been a glob­al decline in labor union pow­er, which has both giv­en employ­ers the upper hand while leav­ing more work­ers with­out any form of col­lec­tive organization.

The result­ing dis­ori­en­ta­tion of the Left has cre­at­ed fer­tile ground for the upsurge of the pop­ulist Right. Beyond sim­ply oppos­ing labor and the Left, it seeks to replace them as the nat­ur­al” polit­i­cal home for a (white, native-born) seg­ment of the work­ing class.

These twin crises of work­ing class rep­re­sen­ta­tion have hit par­tic­u­lar­ly hard in the Unit­ed States. Polit­i­cal­ly, social democ­ra­cy was nev­er as estab­lished as in Europe, and while the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty was unable to serve as a func­tion­al equiv­a­lent to the social demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ties of Europe, its Clin­tonite turn in the 1990s did pro­vide a blue­print for the rest of the Third Way.

Social­ly and eco­nom­i­cal­ly, unions are espe­cial­ly weak in the Unit­ed States, with union den­si­ty among the low­est in the Glob­al North. And while Euro­pean unions have gen­er­al­ly tak­en a strong stance against the far right, US unions have been far more frag­ment­ed in their response to Trump, as evi­denced by Trumka’s above­men­tioned pol­i­cy of cau­tious engage­ment” and the build­ing trades unions’ out­right endorse­ment of Trump.

The Spe­cial Inter­est” Trap

Tak­en as a whole, today US labor faces today a cri­sis of legitimacy.

For all the prob­lems that US unions had in their post-World War II hey­day, they were a force to be reck­oned with. They nego­ti­at­ed mas­ter con­tracts in auto, steel, min­ing, and truck­ing that set wage and work­ing con­di­tion pat­terns for entire indus­tries. Labor lead­ers like Wal­ter Reuther, John L. Lewis, and Sid­ney Hill­man were house­hold names whose opin­ions were wor­thy of reg­u­lar news coverage.

That is no longer the case. Today, few labor lead­ers get atten­tion out­side a small cir­cle of labor schol­ars and activists, and far from set­ting indus­try wages and work­ing con­di­tions, they are more like­ly to cite non-union com­pe­ti­tion as a ratio­nale for get­ting their mem­bers to accept con­ces­sions. Mean­while, labor’s con­cerns are por­trayed as those of a nar­row, par­a­sitic spe­cial interest.”

Par­tial­ly this is the result of decades of sus­tained anti-union attacks, which have now pen­e­trat­ed tra­di­tion­al labor strong­holds like Michi­gan, West Vir­ginia, and Wis­con­sin. But that is not the whole sto­ry. After all, labor has with­stood far more vicious attacks in the past, includ­ing fac­ing down state, fed­er­al, and mer­ce­nary armies. A key part of the prob­lem is that the spe­cial inter­est” label tends to stick. Even with­in pro­gres­sive cir­cles, unions are pegged as one among many spe­cial inter­est groups,” albeit one with deep pock­ets and a knack for get­ting Demo­c­ra­t­ic vot­ers to the polls.

Per­haps most indica­tive of this prob­lem is the care with which unions like SEIU and UFCW have sought to down­play their involve­ment in recent cam­paigns like the Fight for $15, the fast food strikes, and Wal­mart orga­niz­ing, even as these cam­paigns have won remark­able vic­to­ries. Pre­sum­ably the unions fear that these broad-based cam­paigns might be taint­ed if they are too close­ly linked to labor.

The result, as Jake Rosen­feld notes, is that even as labor scores big wins for large swaths of the work­ing class, few are aware of labor’s role. Mean­while, unions are main­ly thrust into the spot­light over polit­i­cal attacks like right-to-work laws that boil down to argu­ing over tech­ni­cal lan­guage about union mem­ber­ship require­ments, or con­tract dis­putes that are vital­ly impor­tant for the mem­bers involved, but can seem dis­tant from the gen­er­al welfare.

Iden­ti­ty and Organization

Fun­da­men­tal­ly, labor today lacks its own core identity.

To be sure, any com­pe­tent labor leader or orga­niz­er can rat­tle off a list of labor’s accom­plish­ments, as well as the tan­gi­ble ben­e­fits that come with the union advan­tage.” More sophis­ti­cat­ed labor lead­ers and orga­niz­ers can dis­cuss and imple­ment smart orga­niz­ing tac­tics and strate­gic campaigns.

But as any sea­soned orga­niz­er knows, move­ments aren’t built on cost-ben­e­fit bal­ance sheets and clever tac­tics. They are built on vision and rela­tion­ships. Togeth­er, these cre­ate pow­er­ful col­lec­tive iden­ti­ties, a sense of being on the same side, of shar­ing a com­mon fate.

Col­lec­tive iden­ti­ties are cru­cial because they bring groups of rel­a­tive­ly pow­er­less indi­vid­u­als togeth­er and change their assess­ment of where they stand, what is pos­si­ble, and what they are capa­ble of. With­out that reassess­ment process, work­ers will quite ratio­nal­ly con­clude that orga­niz­ing is too risky and too like­ly to end in defeat, and not get involved.

At the same time, the lack of a pow­er­ful self-defined col­lec­tive iden­ti­ty gives move­ment oppo­nents space to define the move­ment. In the case of the US labor move­ment, that’s what has allowed the spe­cial inter­est” iden­ti­ty to stick.

It hasn’t always been this way. US labor has a long and sto­ried track record of forg­ing pow­er­ful col­lec­tive iden­ti­ties. Going back to the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, ear­ly unions like the Knights of Labor orga­nized around pow­er­ful ideas of labor repub­li­can­ism” and the coop­er­a­tive com­mon­wealth” to artic­u­late a broad vision of indus­tri­al democ­ra­cy. In doing so, they high­light­ed the con­tra­dic­tion between their sta­tus as for­mal­ly free cit­i­zens in the polit­i­cal realm, and their sta­tus as wage slaves at work.

In the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, it was the Indus­tri­al Work­ers of the World’s vision of One Big Union” that mobi­lized hun­dreds of thou­sands of work­ers. In the 1930s and 40s, the CIO’s vision of indus­tri­al union­ism and the spec­ta­cle of the sit-down strikes gal­va­nized mil­lions. As an exam­ple of how con­ta­gious this CIO vision was, soon after its found­ing in 1935, tens of thou­sands of work­ers north of the bor­der in Cana­da flocked to the CIO ban­ner, even though nobody in the CIO lead­er­ship was aware of what was going on, let along lend­ing any kind of mate­r­i­al support.

In the 1960s, as an explo­sion of pub­lic sec­tor orga­niz­ing accom­pa­nied the grow­ing civ­il rights move­ment, strik­ing san­i­ta­tion work­ers in Mem­phis cap­tured the con­flu­ence of both move­ments with their slo­gan I Am A Man.” More recent­ly, we can think of the slo­gan Part-Time Amer­i­ca Won’t Work,” which unit­ed part-time and full-time Team­sters at UPS in their vic­to­ri­ous 1997 strike against the ship­ping giant, or the Chica­go Teach­ers Union’s fram­ing of their suc­cess­ful 2012 cam­paignas fight­ing for the schools our chil­dren deserve.”

While these exam­ples show­case the gal­va­niz­ing poten­tial of col­lec­tive iden­ti­ties, it is impor­tant to rec­og­nize that they have a down­side. Iden­ti­ties work by cre­at­ing divid­ing lines that define who is on which side. Depend­ing on how those lines get drawn, col­lec­tive iden­ti­ties can divide as well as uni­fy work­ers. We need only think of the sor­did his­to­ry of divi­sions based on race, nation­al ori­gin, gen­der, or craft with­in the labor move­ment to see how this has worked.

Sim­i­lar­ly, unions’ efforts to forge part­ner­ships” with employ­ers, or to pro­mote pro­tec­tion­ist buy Amer­i­can” strate­gies, can divide work­ers by com­pa­ny or coun­try, while blur­ring divi­sions between work­ers and man­age­ment. The result­ing iden­ti­ties can help or harm labor’s fight­ing capac­i­ty.

It is also essen­tial to rec­og­nize that durable col­lec­tive iden­ti­ties, the kind that can cre­ate deep and last­ing social change, are made up of more than words. They are not the prod­uct of prop­er mes­sag­ing” or fram­ing” of issues. Rather, col­lec­tive iden­ti­ties are cre­at­ed, main­tained, and reshaped through sus­tained, orga­nized col­lec­tive action.

More than any­thing, it’s this com­bi­na­tion of gal­va­niz­ing ideas tied to durable, deep orga­ni­za­tion that is miss­ing from today’s labor movement.

We can cer­tain­ly find ele­ments of each. Despite decades of decline, unions still have plen­ty of orga­ni­za­tion­al infra­struc­ture at their dis­pos­al. But this is not tied to a com­pelling idea or col­lec­tive identity.

Leav­ing aside for­get­table efforts at doing so like AFL-CIO’s Union Yes!” and Voice@Work” cam­paigns, the ide­o­log­i­cal work of even more sophis­ti­cat­ed cam­paigns like SEIU’s Jus­tice for Jan­i­tors has not been aimed at cre­at­ing a sense of col­lec­tive iden­ti­ty among its mem­bers. Rather, it has been aimed at cre­at­ing pub­lic dra­mas” using script­ed con­fronta­tions to shame cor­po­rate tar­gets into mak­ing deals with union lead­ers. Work­ers in such a mod­el func­tion not as the col­lec­tive force dri­ving the cam­paign, but as what Jane McAlevey refers to as authen­tic mes­sen­gers” dis­patched by union lead­er­ship to influ­ence media cov­er­age and pub­lic opinion.

We have also seen gal­va­niz­ing ideas take hold in recent years. These include the afore­men­tioned Fight for $15 (and a union, which usu­al­ly gets dropped), the pow­er­ful coun­ter­po­si­tion of the 99 per­cent” ver­sus the one per­cent” that ani­mat­ed the Occu­py move­ment, and Bernie Sanders’ mes­sage of work­ing-class jus­tice and sol­i­dar­i­ty that fueled his improb­a­ble run for the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party’s pres­i­den­tial nomination.

These, how­ev­er, have lacked firm orga­ni­za­tion­al links. In the case of Fight for $15, the real orga­ni­za­tion­al tie to unions was delib­er­ate­ly hid­den. Occu­py, for all its accom­plish­ments in forc­ing eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty back onto the polit­i­cal agen­da, foundered on its inabil­i­ty to build last­ing orga­ni­za­tion. As for Sanders, not only was his cam­paign ham­pered by most unions’ ret­i­cence to back it, but there is lit­tle infra­struc­ture beyond email and fundrais­ing lists to orga­nize the mil­lions of peo­ple who backed him.

Strikes, Work­places, and the Future of Democracy

His­tor­i­cal­ly, unions have used two meth­ods to link ideas and orga­ni­za­tion: strikes and shop floor organization.

The first has got­ten plen­ty of atten­tion, grab­bing head­lines and fill­ing the pages of labor his­to­ry books. The sec­ond, while often over­looked, has been equal­ly impor­tant, a nec­es­sary build­ing block for the first. Labor schol­ars, not to men­tion any sea­soned orga­niz­er, know the painstak­ing, day-to-day work that goes into build­ing a strike. Even in cas­es where strikes seem spon­ta­neous, there is always orga­ni­za­tion lurk­ing behind.

But beyond strike prepa­ra­tion, shop floor orga­ni­za­tion has been what gives sub­stance to the well-worn slo­gan we are the union.” Not only has it pro­vid­ed a nec­es­sary check on management’s author­i­ty, but it has cre­at­ed the set­ting for the every­day inter­ac­tions that build trust, sol­i­dar­i­ty, lead­er­ship, and the con­fi­dence that mem­bers can act col­lec­tive­ly. It was an essen­tial part of union build­ing efforts from the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry to the CIO and lives on in cer­tain pock­ets of the labor movement.

For the most part though, strikes and shop floor orga­ni­za­tion are things of the past. Not only are strike rates are near an all-time low in the Unit­ed States, but evi­dence sug­gests that they are no longer as effec­tive as they used to be. Mean­while, cor­po­rate con­sol­i­da­tion, finan­cial­iza­tion, and restruc­tur­ing means that pow­er and author­i­ty have moved not just fur­ther up the orga­ni­za­tion­al chart, but have dis­ap­peared into a hazy thick­et of invest­ment funds, shell com­pa­nies, and merged mega-corporations.

In this new envi­ron­ment, many argue, work­place orga­niz­ing can only have lim­it­ed effects. Unions’ lever­age must be exert­ed else­where, either in pol­i­tics or cap­i­tal mar­kets. Almost by def­i­n­i­tion, that means that unions’ pri­ma­ry activ­i­ties must hap­pen at the staff lev­el, in the strate­gic research and leg­isla­tive action depart­ments — not in the work­place. Unsur­pris­ing­ly, unions that sub­scribe to this analy­sis, most notably SEIU, have trans­formed them­selves in ways that make their work­place pres­ence even more remote.

With­out deny­ing that these changes are real, and that glob­al strate­gies that reach beyond the work­place are nec­es­sary to con­front glob­al­ized cap­i­tal, giv­ing up on the pos­si­bil­i­ty of work­place orga­niz­ing has trou­bling impli­ca­tions for labor, pol­i­tics, and democ­ra­cy more broadly.

If labor has no way of tying glob­al lever­age strate­gies to work­place orga­niz­ing, then it is unclear how what­ev­er agree­ments are worked out between cor­po­ra­tions, gov­ern­ments, and unions can actu­al­ly make dai­ly life on the job bet­ter for work­ers. Agree­ments mean lit­tle with­out enforcement.

At a basic lev­el, work­place orga­ni­za­tion is nec­es­sary not only to make sure that cor­po­ra­tions abide by their agree­ments, but to pro­vide a check on management’s unbri­dled author­i­ty. Jan­ice Fine’s work on the co-pro­duc­tion of enforce­ment” offers some ideas as to how this might hap­pen, but labor needs to pri­or­i­tize work­place orga­ni­za­tion for these ideas to reach the nec­es­sary scale.

More broad­ly though, if labor aban­dons the work­place, it implies that work­ers have no hope of shap­ing their own des­tiny; that they remain at the mer­cy of forces beyond their con­trol, and that they must rely on oth­ers to do bat­tle on their behalf. If this is the mod­el of orga­ni­za­tion and social change that labor has to offer work­ers in the age of Trump, then the future is indeed dire. If unions are no longer capa­ble of orga­niz­ing work­ers on a mass scale to make their voic­es heard col­lec­tive­ly, then that leaves work­ers vul­ner­a­ble to dem­a­gogues like Trump who pro­claim that I am your voice.”

For­tu­nate­ly, there is anoth­er way. We saw it in the mas­sive majori­ties of Chica­go teach­ers who struck against May­or Rahm Emanuel in 2012, and then forced him to back down again in 2016. We saw it in the CWA strik­ers who struck against Ver­i­zon for forty-five days last year to beat back the company’s con­ces­sion­ary demands and win pen­sion increas­es and pro­tec­tions on outsourcing.

Polit­i­cal­ly, we saw it in the work of the Las Vegas Culi­nary Union, UNITE HERE Local 226, which man­aged to get even white work­ers in a right-to-work state to reject Trump this past Novem­ber. We also saw it in the work of the Mass­a­chu­setts Teach­ers Asso­ci­a­tion, which orga­nized against both major par­ties and bil­lion­aire-fund­ed char­ter school PACs to defeat Ques­tion 2, which would have dra­mat­i­cal­ly increased the num­ber of char­ter schools in the state.

These are iso­lat­ed exam­ples and do not yet approach the scale need­ed to respond to the chal­lenges that labor faces in the com­ing years. But they show that it is still pos­si­ble to strike, and it is still pos­si­ble to win. In each case, build­ing work­place union cul­ture and orga­ni­za­tion was key. Broad­en­ing this mod­el out­wards could pro­vide ways of revers­ing labor’s fortunes.

In a recent mes­sage to sup­port­ers, Sen­a­tor Bernie Sanders stat­ed that The great cri­sis that we face as a nation is not just the objec­tive prob­lems that we face…. The more seri­ous cri­sis is the lim­i­ta­tion of our imag­i­na­tions.” In bring­ing work­ers togeth­er and chang­ing their assess­ment of what is pos­si­ble and what they are capa­ble of, labor has the capac­i­ty to tran­scend that lim­i­ta­tion. To sur­vive Trump, that work is more nec­es­sary than ever.

In These Times is proud to fea­ture con­tent from Jacobin, a print quar­ter­ly that offers social­ist per­spec­tives on pol­i­tics and eco­nom­ics. Sup­port Jacobin and buy a four-issue sub­scrip­tion for just $19.95.

Bar­ry Eidlin is an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of soci­ol­o­gy at McGill Uni­ver­si­ty, a for­mer head stew­ard for UAW Local 2865 and a found­ing mem­ber of Aca­d­e­m­ic Work­ers for a Demo­c­ra­t­ic Union.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH