By Jeremy Brecher and Joe Uehlein - In These Times, March 2, 2017
The Trump presidency presents organized labor with a dilemma.
On the one hand, Trump’s advocacy for fossil fuel, infrastructure and military expansion promises to provide jobs for some union workers. His proposals to end trade deals and put tariffs on manufacturing imports align with long-standing labor opposition to pro-corporate globalization.
On the other hand, Trump and his Republican allies in Congress propose tax, budget and social welfare policies that would impoverish most workers. His Cabinet nominees are proven enemies of organized labor and the rights of workers. And his executive policies, legislative priorities and likely Supreme Court appointments point towards catastrophic restrictions on organized labor.
A portent of the future: Vice-President Mike Pence recently discussed with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker how to go national with Wisconsin’s restrictions on collective bargaining and union rights. Union membership has dropped some 40 percent in the state since Walker’s collective bargaining law passed in 2011. Only 8 percent of Wisconsin’s workers were in unions last year.
Some in organized labor, especially in the buildings trades, have met with Trump, provided photo ops, and advocated that unions try to work with him, particularly on trade, energy and infrastructure. They know that many union members voted for him. Others have called for resistance to the entire Trump agenda.
The effort to embrace and work with Trump is short-sighted at best, and it may be short-lived. The survival of the labor movement depends on denying Trump the power to implement his agenda. The Trump presidency is likely to be catastrophic even for those unions that are currently seeking his favor. If the power of organized labor and its allies is further diminished, governments and corporations will be free to create a “union-free environment” for the building trades as for everybody else.
Trump’s infrastructure proposals are based on tax credits to private investors, private equity, and low-cost construction. The result is likely to be the banning of prevailing-wage rules and union security provisions for construction workers. Case in point: The Republican-led Kentucky legislature recently passed not only “right-to-work” and “paycheck protection” laws, but repealed the state’s prevailing wage law—a crucial support for building trades unions.
The attack by Trump and his Republican allies comes at a time when organized labor is already weakened. Less than 11 percent of all wage and salary workers are in unions, compared to some 20 percent in 1983. Less than 7 percent of private sector workers are in unions. Close to 35 percent of public sector workers are union members, but they are already under attack that will intensify under Trump.
While Trump’s actions will be devastating for organized labor, they may also have a silver lining. The Trump era is seeing the emergence of what has been called “social self-defense,” a massive self-organization of millions of Americans to resist Trump’s agenda. It has been manifested by the millions who participated in the Women’s March, the spontaneous actions against Trump’s Muslim ban, the mass demonstrations and community meetings in cities around the country, the millions of calls that have tied up politicians’ phone lines and myriad other forms of resistance.
The term “social self-defense” is borrowed from the struggle against the authoritarian regime in Poland 40 years ago. In the midst of harsh repression, Polish activists formed a loose network to provide financial, legal, medical and other help to people persecuted by police or unjustly dismissed from work. They organized free trade unions to defend the rights of workers and citizens, and nurtured many of the networks, strategies, and ideas that eventually helped topple the repressive regimes in Poland and other countries.