This article first appeared in The Washington Post.
As Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin—states that once were the stronghold of the nation’s industrial union movement—dropped into Donald Trump’s column on election night, one longtime union staff member told me that Trump’s victory was “an extinction-level event for American labor.”
He may be right.
A half-century ago, more than a third of those Rust Belt workers were unionized, and their unions had the clout to win them a decent wage, benefits, and pensions. Their unions also had the power to turn out the vote. They did—for Democrats. White workers who belonged to unions voted Democratic at a rate 20 percent higher than their non-union counterparts, and there were enough such workers to make a difference on Election Day.
That’s not the case today. Nationally, about 7 percent of private-sector workers are union members, which gives unions a lot less bargaining power than they once had, and a lot fewer members to turn out to vote. The unions’ political operations certainly did what they could: An AFL-CIO-sponsored Election Day poll of union members showed 56 percent had voted for Hillary Clinton and 37 percent for Trump, while the TV networks’ exit poll showed that voters with a union member in their household went 51 percent to 43 percent for Clinton, as well. In states where unions have more racially diverse memberships, Clinton’s union vote was higher (she won 66 percent of the union household vote in California).
In states where union membership is predominantly white, Trump did better—actually winning the Ohio union household vote with 54 percent of the vote to Clinton’s 42 percent. The very economic and social wreckage the unions had warned against when they had opposed NAFTA and permanent trade relations with China ended up diminishing their own numbers and that of Democratic voters, and helped spur Trump to victory.
Now, Trump, the Republican Congress, and the soon-to-be Republican-dominated Supreme Court are poised to damage unions—and the interests of working people, both union and not—even more. Indeed, within the GOP, the war on unions engenders almost no dissent. Since Republicans were swept into office in a host of Midwestern states in the 2010 elections, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin have all effectively eliminated collective-bargaining rights for public employees and subjected private-sector unions to “right-to-work” laws that enable workers to benefit from union contracts and representation without having to pay their union any dues. Previously, such laws were largely confined to Southern states, whose respect for worker rights has improved only somewhat since they were compelled to abolish slavery. As the GOP has become steadily whiter and more right-wing, those Southern norms have become national.
The advances that workers and their unions have made under the Obama presidency came chiefly as a result of executive orders and departmental regulations, which Trump can reverse with the stroke of a pen. Obama’s Labor Department rules that extended eligibility for overtime pay to millions of salaried employees making more than $22,000 a year, and that compelled federal contractors to offer paid sick leave to their employees, may well be struck down. National Labor Relations Board rulings that employers cannot indefinitely delay union representation elections once their employees have petitioned for a vote, and that university graduate students who work as teaching and research assistants are employees who can elect to unionize, will probably be undone.
The most devastating blow to unions may come from the Supreme Court, once a Trump-appointed conservative wins confirmation to the seat that the late Justice Antonin Scalia occupied. It was only Scalia’s death that kept the court from ruling in the Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association case that public employee unions no longer have the right to collect partial dues payments from the nonmembers they represent in disputes with employers and for whom they bargain contracts.
Unlike their private-sector counterparts, who’ve seen their organizing drives stymied by employers able to violate the laws safeguarding workers without incurring significant penalties, public employee unions have largely retained their strength, still representing more than 30 percent of workers in the public sphere. The two national teachers unions, as well as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and the Service Employees International Union, each have well over a million members; their combined membership comes to a little more than half the total membership of American unions. These are also the most potent unions come election time, mobilizing not merely their own members but also waging major get-out-the-vote campaigns in minority communities.
Within the next 18 months, a court ruling in Friedrichs or a similar case will almost surely decree that members of these and other public employee unions can receive full benefits from union representation without having to pay their union so much as a dime. Such a ruling will present a huge challenge to these unions, although they’d already embarked, while Friedrichs was still before the court, on efforts to build closer ties with their members.
Although the unions’ future looks anything but bright, they will continue—at least, for a time—to wield considerable power in Democratic Party circles and wherever liberals govern. However much their treasuries are reduced, they still will have more resources than any other progressive organization. They will remain the linchpin of the liberal coalitions that govern in nearly every large American city, the key groups behind the campaigns that have seen cities and some states raise the minimum wage and mandate paid sick days.
Even among centrist Democrats previously indifferent to labor’s plight, increased awareness of the nation’s stratospheric economic inequality has also brought about a new appreciation of the need for strong unions—one reason why a range of Democratic think tanks have turned out study after study in recent years calling for laws making it easier to form unions.
This month’s election should also make those centrists realize the Democrats’ political need for unions, most of which remain the nation’s only multiracial mass organizations. A larger, more powerful movement, articulating labor’s core principle—Workers’ Lives Matter—might have kept the Democrats from backing such economically and politically disastrous policies as normalizing trade relations with China.
Polling shows that most Americans still think unions play a positive role in the nation’s economy. Support for unions is strongest among millennials, who, as the Bernie Sanders campaign made clear, are among the most vehement and clear-sighted critics of American capitalism.
But the growing appreciation by progressives, centrists, and millennials of the indispensability of unions won’t deter an all-Republican government from seeking to destroy them; to the contrary, it will only encourage them to slash more deeply. Unions were already facing existential challenges from worker-replacing technology and the increasing number of nonstandard (temp, part-time, subcontracted, independent contractor, and gig) jobs. That Republicans now have the power to further decimate them only makes their challenges more daunting. While struggling to maintain their power, unions must simultaneously seek to address changes in the broader economy by incubating new forms of worker representation in terrains—chiefly, cities—where they retain political support.
One thing is certain: If Trump’s victory does indeed become “an extinction-level event for the labor movement,” it would also extinguish any prospect that America could ever become “great again.” No country in history has ever achieved decent working-class living standards (and the social and political stability they engender) absent a vibrant labor movement. Anyone who hopes for American greatness must also hope that labor has the strength and smarts to survive what’s coming in the Trump years.
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