Labor Leaders Deserve Their Share of the Blame for Donald Trump’s Victory

Micah Uetricht November 10, 2016

Leaked emails showed that AFT's Randi Weingarten promised to act as an attack dog for Hillary Clinton against another union that had endorsed Bernie Sanders in the primary. (STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)

Don­ald Trump is going to be the next pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States. I feel a wild urge to scrub my hands with steel wool and bleach after typ­ing those words — my fin­gers feel filthy.

If we want to avoid a sim­i­lar night­mare in the future, we have to parse this election’s lessons and fig­ure out who is to blame — not for cheap point-scor­ing, but to make sure we don’t make the same mis­takes again. That means we have to talk about how Amer­i­can union lead­ers helped hand this race to Trump.

It was­n’t on pur­pose, of course. It’s no secret that a Trump pres­i­den­cy will be absolute­ly dis­as­trous for labor. A nation­al right-to-work law, Wis­con­sin’s vicious­ly anti-union Gov. Scott Walk­er as Sec­re­tary of Labor, a pro-cor­po­rate Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board — all could be in the cards under Trump.

Union lead­ers want­ed to pre­vent this. But their idea for how to do so was­n’t any dif­fer­ent from the rest of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty estab­lish­ment: going all-in for a cen­trist, safe” can­di­date like Hillary Clin­ton at a time when the elec­torate was hun­gry for some­one who would shake up the polit­i­cal sys­tem and who spoke to the pain so many Amer­i­cans feel.

Labor lead­ers should have been in touch with this sen­ti­ment bet­ter than any­one. Their mem­bers — whether school teach­ers in big cities or laid-off fac­to­ry work­ers in the Rust Belt — have suf­fered immense­ly in the age of aus­ter­i­ty. There were warn­ing signs. Unions haven’t released their own inter­nal polling data, but Work­ing Amer­i­ca said in Jan­u­ary that Trump’s anti-free trade mes­sage was res­onat­ing in Ohio and Penn­syl­va­nia, states hit par­tic­u­lar­ly hard by dein­dus­tri­al­iza­tion. On Elec­tion Day, exit polls var­ied wide­ly, but many showed union house­holds vot­ing for Clin­ton by either slim mar­gins (CNN put it at just 51 per­cent) or by nowhere near as large a mar­gin as they did for Barack Oba­ma in 2012

Yet rather than act­ing as clar­i­on voic­es cut­ting through Belt­way sta­t­ic to insist on choos­ing a can­di­date who spoke to work­ing-class suf­fer­ing and dis­sat­is­fac­tion with the sta­tus quo, labor lead­ers echoed the myopic vision of the pun­dits who insist­ed it was her turn.”

That the Demo­c­ra­t­ic king- (and queen-)makers would do this is mad­den­ing but unsur­pris­ing. It’s con­sis­tent with the par­ty’s right­ward drift over the last few decades. What makes union lead­ers’ actions so astound­ing is that they reject­ed a stal­wart cham­pi­on of their agen­da who raged against the bil­lion­aire class, walked pick­et lines with work­ers and spoke obses­sive­ly about widen­ing inequal­i­ty. Instead, they opt­ed for a mil­lion­aire for­mer Wal­mart board mem­ber with a check­ered past on labor issues whose cam­paign refused to endorse a $15 min­i­mum wage and couldn’t even muster a tweet in favor of low-wage workers.

Some union lead­ers’ sins are greater than oth­ers’. Ran­di Wein­garten, pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers (AFT), has long been engaged in what edu­ca­tion schol­ar Lois Wein­er has called a pub­lic love fest” for the Clin­tons. As I not­ed recent­ly, the AFT has giv­en the Clin­ton Foun­da­tion some­where between $1 mil­lion and $5 mil­lion under Wein­garten for rea­sons that remain unclear. Her name was float­ed in some labor cir­cles as a poten­tial Clin­ton cab­i­net member.

In July 2015, AFT was the first nation­al union to endorse Clin­ton—much ear­li­er than the AFT had endorsed can­di­dates in the past and like­ly over the objec­tions of large num­bers of its mem­bers who backed Sanders. From emails released by Wik­iLeaks, we know that Wein­garten promised to act as an attack dog for Clin­ton against anoth­er union that had endorsed Sanders in the primary.

Tom Buf­fen­barg­er, then-pres­i­dent of the Machin­ists, even helped secret­ly move his union’s pres­i­den­tial endorse­ment up to endorse Clin­ton as soon as pos­si­ble — despite the protests of some of the union’s mem­bers who pre­ferred Sanders. The Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union was all-in for Clin­ton since the begin­ning, despite the fact that she refused to endorse a $15 min­i­mum wage that it had made into a nation­al bat­tle cry.

To be sure, not all union lead­ers blind­ly went with her.” The Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of Amer­i­ca polled its mem­bers and found rank-and-file sup­port for Sanders. The union endorsed him. Nation­al Nurs­es Unit­ed (NNU) also played a key role in the Sanders’ cam­paign. Its exec­u­tive direc­tor, RoseAnn DeMoro, was often on the cam­paign trail and NNU played a key role in orga­niz­ing the People’s Sum­mit con­ver­gence in Chica­go after Sanders lost the pri­ma­ry, where activists debat­ed next steps for the move­ment that he helped spur.

The Amer­i­can Postal Work­ers Union, under recent reform lead­er­ship, also endorsed Sanders. Sen. Bernie Sanders stands above all oth­ers as a true cham­pi­on of postal work­ers and oth­er work­ers through­out the coun­try,” the union’s pres­i­dent, Mark Dimond­stein, said then. Pol­i­tics as usu­al has not worked. It’s time for a polit­i­cal revolution.”

Yet these lead­ers were in the minor­i­ty. Why? Most union pres­i­dents are far removed from the sen­ti­ments of rank-and-file mem­bers. Labor lead­ers like Wein­garten hang out in elite cir­cles, see­ing them­selves less as lead­ers of social move­ments whose every­day actions are guid­ed by their mem­bers and more as peers of the kind of cen­trist Wash­ing­ton insid­ers that made up the top brass of Clinton’s campaign.

Rad­i­cals have long argued that Amer­i­can labor lead­ers are not only iso­lat­ed from their rank and file, but actu­al­ly have a set of inter­ests that are dis­tinct from their mem­bers. No pres­i­dent wants to see their mem­ber­ship rolls dec­i­mat­ed, but they also don’t want to see an empow­ered rank and file inde­pen­dent­ly orga­niz­ing actions like strikes or cam­paigns on behalf of strong­ly pro-work­er pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates. Work­ers who are empow­ered to wage fights at work and in pol­i­tics can also get togeth­er with their cowork­ers to boot con­ser­v­a­tive, cor­rupt or incom­pe­tent lead­ers out of office. And if labor is going to avoid such astro­nom­i­cal blun­ders as Trump’s vic­to­ry in the future, rank-and-file work­ers will have to lead the charge against their Clin­ton-back­ing leaders.

It will go down as one of the great ironies of Amer­i­can polit­i­cal his­to­ry: faced with a moment of record inequal­i­ty and sear­ing eco­nom­ic pain, a deeply unpop­u­lar, wealthy dem­a­gogue told vot­ers he under­stood their mis­ery and would reverse it. To take him on, lead­ers of the orga­nized work­ing class opt­ed for the can­di­date whose ties to Wall Street were far stronger than her sup­port for labor and argued that things real­ly weren’t that bad out there. To do so, they reject­ed a wild­ly pop­u­lar, diehard union-back­ing eco­nom­ic pop­ulist, think­ing the cen­trist was the safe bet. She wasn’t. Now, the work­ing class will pay the price.

Full dis­clo­sure: In These Times staff are mem­bers of the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of Amer­i­ca, and the union is a spon­sor of the mag­a­zine. Spon­sors play no role in edi­to­r­i­al content.

Mic­ah Uet­richt is the deputy edi­tor of Jacobin mag­a­zine and host of its pod­cast The Vast Major­i­ty. He is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor and for­mer asso­ciate edi­tor at In These Times. He is the author of Strike for Amer­i­ca: Chica­go Teach­ers Against Aus­ter­i­ty (Ver­so 2014), coau­thor of Big­ger Than Bernie: How We Go From the Sanders Cam­paign to Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ism (Ver­so 2020), and is cur­rent­ly at work on a book on New Left­ists who indus­tri­al­ized.” He pre­vi­ous­ly worked as a labor orga­niz­er. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @micahuetricht.

Limited Time:

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