Labor Has a Narrow Window To Build Power Before Trump’s Agenda Takes Hold

Dave Kamper January 11, 2017

We need to act while the window of opportunity is still open. We have precious months in which to build power to fight. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

This arti­cle was first post­ed by Jacobin.

Accord­ing to a recent report, the Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union is imple­ment­ing an imme­di­ate 10 per­cent cut in spend­ing, ris­ing to 30 per­cent by the begin­ning of 2018. Bloomberg’s Josh Eidel­son writes that SEIU pres­i­dent Mary Kay Hen­ry told staffers in a memo that the assaults on labor expect­ed of a Trump pres­i­den­cy and an anti-work­er Con­gress require us to make tough deci­sions that allow us to resist these attacks and to fight for­ward despite dra­mat­i­cal­ly reduced resources.”

This is an under­stand­able deci­sion — a Trump pres­i­den­cy will undoubt­ed­ly be dis­as­trous for both work­ers’ lives and union bud­gets. But sig­nal­ing such a retreat before Trump is even in office is also a sig­nif­i­cant strate­gic error and one that will do great harm to unions’ abil­i­ty to fight for work­ing peo­ple in the face of right-wing headwinds.

Now is not the time to tight­en our belts. Labor must invest in mem­ber pow­er now if we’re going to save our­selves later.

Calm before the storm

We do have a crit­i­cal weapon here: we know what’s com­ing. We know exact­ly what is going to hap­pen to the work­ing class under Pres­i­dent Trump: an assault on work­er rights the likes of which we have nev­er seen. But we also know this: the Amer­i­can labor move­ment will not cease to be on Jan­u­ary 20. And what we do right now will affect just how bru­tal that assault will be.

It will take a while for the Trump admin­is­tra­tion and its con­gres­sion­al allies to get things into place and imple­ment their agen­da. It will take months, even years, for a new NLRB to begin to roll back recent pro-work­er deci­sions, just as it took a pro-work­er NLRB years to undo the work of the Bush administration.

Any new Friedrichs deci­sion will have to wait until a new Supreme Court jus­tice is appoint­ed and con­firmed, and then the right case needs to find its way to the Supreme Court dock­et (the like­li­est can­di­date, Janus v. AFSCME, is still await­ing a hear­ing before the sev­enth cir­cuit Court of Appeals). The Sen­ate Democ­rats may delay for a while and could fil­i­buster a nation­al right-to-work law.

The ques­tion before us, then, is: how much stronger can unions make them­selves before the full force of the onslaught hits us?

In my esti­ma­tion, we have about eigh­teen months until the worst comes. None of the attacks unions will face amount to a death sen­tence, but they will hurt. How much they hurt will depend on how ready we are to face them.

Time to spend

To make our­selves stronger, we must spend our resources. Union pow­er comes from orga­nized mon­ey and orga­nized peo­ple; now is the time to spend the for­mer to increase the latter.

SEIU is right to be wor­ried that the finan­cial resources of unions are going to be con­strained in the com­ing years. There will indeed be a time when unions at all lev­els need to have hard con­ver­sa­tions about where to spend pre­cious dol­lars and what to cut (con­ver­sa­tions that unions should have been hav­ing all along).

Of course, this us not a sur­pris­ing deci­sion from SEIU, giv­en their mod­el of orga­niz­ing in recent years. While many SEIU locals are doing inno­v­a­tive orga­niz­ing work, a key nation­al strat­e­gy of SEIU has been polit­i­cal deal-mak­ing with friend­ly state gov­er­nors to win orga­niz­ing rights for large groups of home-based care­givers. While this has result­ed in win­ning unions for thou­sands of work­ers, such a polit­i­cal strat­e­gy will bear lit­tle fruit in the face of GOP dom­i­nance in both fed­er­al and state governments.

Where SEIU is wrong is in think­ing that sav­ing a few dol­lars now will make any gen­uine dif­fer­ence down the road. SEIU’s deci­sion to cut its bud­get now sug­gests that it believes hold­ing onto mon­ey is more impor­tant than using the mon­ey to build pow­er. The force mul­ti­pli­er for unions is, and always has been, peo­ple pow­er. This isn’t an expres­sion of sen­ti­ment, but of cold log­ic. Unions can nev­er match glob­al cap­i­tal dol­lar for dol­lar. When we win, we do so by using our finan­cial resources to lever­age greater mem­ber power.

SEIU’s now-pub­lic deci­sion to slash its bud­get will send a mes­sage to union lead­ers around the coun­try that aus­ter­i­ty — not build­ing pow­er — is the order of the day.

When unions spend resources to build mem­ber pow­er, amaz­ing things can hap­pen. The Chica­go Teach­ers Union is near­ly everyone’s favorite exam­ple of a union that has turned itself around and built real pow­er in the work­place. That didn’t just hap­pen — once their rank-and-file cau­cus took pow­er, CTU mem­bers made con­scious efforts to use their dues income to build mem­ber pow­er. They cre­at­ed an orga­niz­ing depart­ment and spent mon­ey to staff it with good orga­niz­ers. They dou­bled their mon­ey for mem­ber training.

The CTU wasn’t just trans­formed through a change of mind­set by its lead­ers and activists — they put their mon­ey where their mouth was, and it paid off.

Now is the time for unions to spend. The high­est pri­or­i­ty for spend­ing dur­ing these pre­cious months must be work­er lead­er­ship, devel­op­ment, and edu­ca­tion. Soon­er or lat­er unions are going to have few­er paid staff, and mem­ber-lead­ers will need to be able to do more of a union’s rou­tine tasks on their own.

Mem­ber-lead­ers can and in many places in the Unit­ed States do han­dle griev­ances, nego­ti­ate con­tracts, and do all the oth­er things that staff nor­mal­ly do. But in many unions, espe­cial­ly pub­lic-sec­tor unions in blue states that col­lect fair-share fees and there­fore have plen­ty of mon­ey, it is com­mon prac­tice for those roles to be played by staff. If labor is to avoid com­plete dec­i­ma­tion under Trump, now is the time to edu­cate and train union mem­bers them­selves to car­ry out that activity.

Unions often do mem­ber train­ing on the cheap. Now is the time to do more. Some­times mem­bers can’t afford to take time off of work to get union train­ing; unions will need to pay mem­bers for their time. Unions will need to spend resources on trans­porta­tion, child care, and food to set up train­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties. Those costs add up, but the mon­ey needs to be spent.

Unions should, per­haps para­dox­i­cal­ly, pre­pare for a future with few­er union staff by hir­ing more staff in the short term. When I became a union staffer, I was told repeat­ed­ly that it was my job to work myself out of a job. Many union staff believe this, but the iner­tia of estab­lished insti­tu­tions and the pres­sure to expand a union’s bureau­crat­ic struc­tures makes this eas­i­er to say than to do. Adding staff is an easy way for a union to feel like it has added capac­i­ty, but that will only be suc­cess­ful in the long term if work­ing your­self out of a job” ceas­es to be a cliché.

Many peo­ple with orga­niz­ing expe­ri­ence and left­ist polit­i­cal views are look­ing for work in the wake of the 2016 elec­tions. They should be hired into the labor move­ment to teach orga­niz­ing skills to members.

This is also the time to work on the unglam­orous aspects of union infra­struc­ture. Does a union have the mem­ber­ship data­base tech­nol­o­gy it needs? Does it have peo­ple who are trained to get the most out of that data­base? How much is a union spend­ing on rent, and is it worth it to buy prop­er­ty so as not to have to pay rent when income flows are low­er? Is a union mak­ing do with aging tech­nol­o­gy, which will only cost more to replace the longer it waits?

It would also behoove unions to raise dues rather than cut back. Call it a cri­sis levy or a sol­i­dar­i­ty assess­ment. We need every­thing we can raise and spend to take max­i­mum advan­tage of the win­dow before us. Rais­ing dues would also send a pow­er­ful mes­sage to both friends and ene­mies of the labor move­ment that we aren’t back­ing down or knuck­ling under — we’re gear­ing up for the strug­gle, and we intend to win.

This is eas­i­er said than done. Too many unions have (con­scious­ly or not) adopt­ed neolib­er­al fram­ings of union dues as a cost that should be min­i­mized rather than a tool to build pow­er. These unions often brag about keep­ing dues low, seem­ing­ly unaware that want­i­ng a union to use its resources effi­cient­ly isn’t the same as want­i­ng a union to have few­er resources. These unions will have a hard time doing an about-face and chang­ing their tune on dues.

This is why SEIU’s deci­sion to cut can trig­ger a nation­al neg­a­tive feed­back loop that spi­rals down to dis­as­ter. Accord­ing to their LM‑2 fil­ings with the Depart­ment of Labor, SEIU has more than $150 mil­lion in cash and invest­ments. Once the new Friedrichs hits, those assets are going to trick­le away. Is it bet­ter to let them drip out year after year, as the union fights an increas­ing­ly des­per­ate rear­guard action to stay alive, or is it bet­ter to spend it now to build pow­er, when pow­er can still be built?

Around the time of Gov­er­nor Scott Walker’s anti-union bud­get repair” bill, I knew orga­niz­ers in Wis­con­sin who asked what they could have done between the Novem­ber 2010 elec­tions and the intro­duc­tion of Act 10 in Feb­ru­ary 2011. There was much they could have done, but labor lead­er­ship in Wis­con­sin didn’t believe the worst was going to hap­pen. Nation­al­ly, we know for cer­tain that it is.

We need to act while the win­dow of oppor­tu­ni­ty is still open. We have pre­cious months in which to build pow­er to fight.

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.

Dave Kam­per is an orga­niz­er and writer in the Twin Cities. He can be reached on Twit­ter @dskamper.
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