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The Way Forward for Unions Facing the Trump Era

By Jonathan Rosenblum

Labor protest on Beacon Hill, Boston, Massachusetts
Labor protest on Beacon Hill, Boston, Massachusetts. Photo credit: Flickr user sushiesque

Originally published by Tikkun Magazine www.tikkun.org.

Beginning in 1979 in Seattle, WA, Jim Levitt expertly fabricated custom aircraft parts and tools, helping make the Boeing Company one of the most successful businesses in the world. But in 2013, corporate executives issued a threat: They demanded that Levitt and his fellow machinists surrender their pensions, and that Washington State political leaders hand over a record $8.7 billion in tax benefits. In exchange the company promised to keep production jobs in-state. The Democratic governor of Washington, along with virtually the entire political establishment, caved in to the blackmail. So did Levitt’s international union leadership—they had bargained the deal secretly with the company. The capitulation cost 32,000 Boeing workers their pensions.

“We’ve lost collective bargaining, for all intents and purposes,” Levitt observed in the wake of the corporate blackmail.

In recent weeks we’ve seen no shortage of reasons—and excuses—for why Hillary Clinton blew the election and Donald Trump will be our next president: the Russians, an unfair Electoral College system, FBI Director James Comey, xenophobia/racism/sexism, a weak Democratic candidate, Wikileaks, and faked news. Some Clinton backers even blame the “tough” primary run that Bernie Sanders gave their candidate.

What’s barely given any attention in the mainstream media is the role that decades of destruction of union power played in the 2016 election debacle. But it’s no mystery to Levitt, his fellow Boeing workers, and millions of other workers from all walks of life who’ve justifiably grown cynical about a political establishment that repeatedly has failed them over the years.

Today, overall union membership is at its lowest point in more than 70 years. In the private sector, a paltry 1 in 15 workers holds a union card.

Now it will get worse: Public sector unions are bracing for the inevitable Supreme Court decision allowing “freeloading”—requiring unions to let workers avoid paying any dues while still receiving full union representation and protection. The incoming Congress promises to be hostile to worker organizations, eager to do on a national scale what Gov. Scott Walker has done to Wisconsin unions.

Underscoring labor’s weakness, the election results produced the most anemic union turnout for the Democratic presidential candidate in more than 30 years: Clinton won union households by only 51 to 43 percent, an 8 percent margin. In the previous 7 presidential elections, in contrast, the Democrat won union households by an average margin of 22 percent.

But it would be facile simply to blame Hillary Clinton for failing to inspire confidence and for running a bad campaign, or to credit Donald Trump for successfully tapping into the anger and frustration of working-class white voters and manipulating racism, sexism, and xenophobia to his benefit. That would tell only half of the story.

The other half of the story is that past and present union leaders—like the top Machinist union leadership in 2013—contributed to our current circumstances. The unraveling didn’t just happen suddenly. Over the last several decades, most leaders failed to lead in a bold, visionary direction to inspire millions to build power through collective organizing and action. Instead they clung to outdated assumptions about labor-management relations and remained stubbornly tethered to a political duopoly that has bestowed on us outsourced and exported jobs, stagnant wages, precarious employment schemes, terminated pension plans, rising health care costs, and an eviscerated social safety net. Most unions focused inward, instead of reaching out. Leaders thought their compromises were protecting good jobs, when in fact they were emboldening hostile corporate adversaries.

Today, as union members and leaders, we find ourselves in a dead-end alley, surrounded by thugs brandishing crowbars and long knives. But we didn’t just get chased into the corner; too many unions went here willingly.

To the extent that we recognize how we got here, we can begin to fight our way out of this corner. But it will be a tough fight. It will require us to reimagine the nature and role of unions, to discard failed strategies and assumptions, and to embrace new, deep labor-community-faith alliances.


Go back to the end of World War II: Union membership soared during the war, reaching a third of all workers. In the core of the nation’s economy, the manufacturing sector, fully 69 percent of production workers were covered by union agreements. Militant strikes during and right after the war pushed demands for a greater share of the economic pie along with social demands. In 1946 alone, 4.6 million workers went on strike—about 1 in every 20 in the paid US workforce.

But rather than build on that nascent power, most union leaders determined to make peace with political and business elites, believing—incorrectly—that the tripartite domestic détente of World War II was still alive. Even before Senator Joe McCarthy’s witch hunts, unions started purging communists and other suspected radicals from their ranks, seeking to demonstrate their loyalty to government and business.

The leadership of the labor federation that emerged in the 1950s, the AFL-CIO, steered away from organizing more workers. Federation president George Meany famously declared, “I used to worry about the size of the membership. I stopped worrying because to me it doesn’t make any difference. The organized fellow is the only fellow that counts.” Most union leaders focused on securing economic gains for their members, tamping down militant insurgency in the ranks and pledging allegiance to the capitalist economic system in exchange for collective bargaining agreements.

The bargaining system has worked splendidly—at least for those fortunate to be covered by a union contract. By the new millennium, the average union member could expect to make 25 percent more than a worker not covered by a union contract.

But flip side of the “union difference” touted proudly by so many was that it presented a huge incentive for corporate and political elites to attack union power, motivating them to accelerate union-busting, outsourcing, contracting out, and passing laws to hamstring unions.

Most unions, in turn, focused defensively on protecting what they had, failing to appreciate that the antidote to the business offensive required organizing more workers into union ranks and fighting to raise benefits for all, not just some. Despite organizing initiatives by a few unions in recent years, the overall percentage of union members in the workforce has plunged from a post WWII high of 33 percent to barely 11 percent today.

Worse, as union power ebbed and the American Dream of upward mobility slipped away, most union leaders clung reflexively to the Democratic Party for salvation. In 1976 they backed Jimmy Carter for president, expecting to win labor laws that would make organizing easier. Instead, Carter and an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress handed corporate America the tools to dismantle worker power: Trucking, railroad, and airline deregulation, along with new bankruptcy laws that authorized businesses to break union contracts and eliminate pensions. In 1992 unions counted on Bill Clinton to deliver jobs, but instead he pushed the job-killing North American Free Trade Agreement and eviscerated the nation’s welfare system. Even as workers became more productive, real wages stagnated. In 2008 labor had high hopes that Barack Obama would save workers but instead Wall Street got bailed out while nearly 9 million workers were fired14 million families lost their homes, and the president invested more political capital in promoting another horrible trade agreement—the Trans Pacific Partnership—than in backing modest labor law reform or a raise in the national minimum wage.

Under Obama, union ranks have declined by another half a million workers, and US inequality has reached epic levels. In just the 24 months following the official end of the Great Recession in 2009, the gap in wealth between the richest 7 percent of households and the rest of us grew by $6.6 trillion. Even an immediate national minimum wage hike to $15—obviously fantastical in today’s political reality—would offset just a tiny fraction of that recent growth in wealth disparity.

Given all of that, the 2016 surprise isn’t that workers abandoned Democrats at the ballot box. Rather, the shocker is this: Why the heck didn’t they ditch them a lot sooner?

For the last several decades we’ve had labor leaders who counseled union members to make pragmatic political choices, warning that the alternative to mediocre candidates was a lot worse. That was certainly true this past fall. But if there’s any single takeaway about working class voters in the 2016 campaign—from Bernie Sanders’s remarkable insurgency to Donald Trump’s brutal and ugly win—it’s a rejection of the establishment of both major political parties and the narrow mindset of lesser-evilism.

Workers deserve better.

The salvation of unions, and more generally, of the US working class, resides not in struggling to fix a broken national Democratic Party that repeatedly has betrayed workers, but in joining with allies to fight the coming Trump onslaught—and then to go beyond that to define a bold, unapologetic vision of society and economy, one that inspires millions of workers to engage and take action. This fight isn’t about blue states vs. red states, urban vs. rural, immigrant vs. native-born—all false frames that are intentionally deployed to divide and weaken working people—but about the 99 percent against the billionaire class and their political allies. It’s a fight about power and our societal values.

For those of us in unions, it means we have to use all of the tools at our disposal to defend what we still have—at the bargaining table, on the shop floor, and in legislative halls—but then go beyond to forge new powerful community alliances to demand health care, quality education, civil rights, food and shelter, and fair wages for all. Indeed, the pinnacle achievements of US unions—think social security, minimum wages, safety laws—took place when labor acted not out of narrow self-interest, but as part of a broad social movement; not as a co-dependent of a political party, but as an independent force in politics.

In other parts of the world, particularly among societies in the global south, such formations are called social movement unions: Bold movements that recognize the singular nature of a justice fight spanning workplace and community, and the inseparability of the fights for economic, racial, and social justice.

Here’s some good news: The elements of social movement unionism already are among us, embedded in the leading justice struggles today. Chicago teachers have struck to defend the bedrock principle of quality public education for all, and in doing so have united with parents to push back against the corporatization of our schools. Uber and other rideshare drivers have organized strikes to demand new laws protecting their right to organize. Several unions, including the Service Employees International Union, the Communications Workers of America, and National Nurses United, built important new alliances when they stood with the Standing Rock Sioux’s efforts to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline. In the city of SeaTac, just south of Seattle, low-wage immigrant airport workers, Muslim and Christian faith activists, and community members took on an improbable battle against corporate and political giants to organize a breakthrough $15 ballot initiative, helping to spark a national movement. (I was privileged to have been the campaign director.) In North Carolina and beyond, the Rev. William J. Barber II has united faith leaders, union members, and immigration-rights activists in a powerful Moral Mondays movement to reclaim democracy and raise the call for a moral economy.

What connects these varied efforts is the common awareness that the fight is not just about workplace issues, but is about societal values, and that through unity and struggle a better world is possible. Also common to these fights is the recognition that a potent, sustained movement must rest on more than economic and political principles. It also must draw upon the values that emanate from our deepest human emotions and desires for justice and community. The call for spiritual morality, whether advanced by organized religion or secular humanist yearnings, has played a decisive role in leading struggles throughout history. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s and the abolitionist movement of a century earlier are but two examples of struggles that were propelled forward by powerful calls for spiritual morality. Today, the embryonic movements that fuse direct action with a spiritually based call for justice offer similar promise.

None of these examples, of course, represents a full-fledged social movement union. But each contains at least a rudimentary recognition that the fight is about power, each recognizes the need to build broad alliances of the 99 percent, to disrupt convention and circumvent broken law, and each contains bold strategies that we can employ in building a formidable new labor movement. And, importantly, each of these campaigns challenges unions to think differently about their role in the world—to act expansively, to link arms with new friends, and to articulate a bold vision of justice.

Back at Boeing, Levitt retired right after the 2013 pension debacle but his union colleagues went on to take steps to reclaim power and voice: They forced the retirement of their international union president, who had promoted the pension giveaway; secured a new membership bill of rights within their union; and stepped up organizing at Boeing contractors.

Our job in 2017 and beyond is to nurture and build on these promising movements, challenging ourselves and others to think bigger and bolder, to focus not just on winning discrete campaigns, but on building a movement that has a moral foundation and vision.

Indeed, the gift that Trump’s ascension gives us—perverse as that may sound—is that his victory strips away any illusions about the depth of organized labor’s existential crisis. Now there is no question that our collective backs are against the wall, and the only way forward is to fight back by uniting broadly and reclaiming the movement’s larger social purpose to lift up the dignity and value of all working people.


About the Author 

Jonathan RosenblumJonathan Rosenblum has been a labor organizer for more than thirty years, playing key roles including SeaTac Airport campaign director. His writing has been featured in Tikkun, In These Times, and Yes! Magazine. His upcoming book, Beyond $15: Immigrant Workers, Faith Activists, and the Revival of the Labor Movementwill be released in March 2017. He lives in Seattle, WA. Follow him on Twitter at @jonathan4212