Wayne O'Leary

Labor Loses Its Way

It’s been a rough few months for organized labor. Unions, down to 10.9% of the overall US workforce (and just 7% of those in the private sector), made a major push for expanded membership in 2016 — and mostly came up dry.

Early last year, an attempt by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers to organize the 90,000 warehouse employees of virulently antiunion online retailer Amazon was stymied by management misinformation and intimidation tactics of the sort used successfully by Walmart for many years.

And last month, the same union failed in its drive to organize workers at Boeing’s new South Carolina facilities, established by the Seattle-based aircraft manufacturer to capitalize on the South’s low wage structure. This followed on the heels of similar discouraging defeats across the region in recent years, notably the United Auto Workers (UAW)’s inability to win union recognition in 2014 at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga, Tennessee, assembly plant.

There have been some offsetting union successes to be sure. In its last significant pre-Trump action, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that graduate students employed as teaching and research assistants at private universities had the right, under federal law, to unionize. And the movement for a $15 hourly minimum wage, conspicuously supported by labor unions, has led to a number of high-profile local victories around the country. Nevertheless, neither of these achievements, heartening as they are, has yet produced an appreciable upsurge in union membership; the numbers involved have been too small.

In the meantime, there are new players on the scene threatening, in deeds if not in words, to cancel out whatever progress labor has made and effectively foreclose its future. President Donald J. Trump and his newfound Republican allies in Congress are coalescing in a two-pronged offensive aimed at undermining the union movement, ending its organizing effectiveness and political influence.

The president himself is uncharacteristically taking a subtle approach, attacking the unions indirectly by attempting to co-opt their memberships. A preview of this strategy was laid out in December, before the Donald officially took office, when he intervened, to great fanfare, in the announced outsourcing of Indiana jobs to Mexico by air-conditioner manufacturer Carrier, a subsidiary of United Technologies.

The new administration tactic — Trump publicly jawboning Carrier to keep jobs in the US and Vice President Pence, the outgoing Indiana governor, privately negotiating a sweetheart compensation deal for Carrier amounting to $7 million in state tax benefits and incentives — is more a sophisticated form of corporate welfare than a program for saving domestic jobs. But it allows the president to pose as a friend of the working class by outwardly pressuring businesses like Carrier, while surreptitiously offering them immediate financial rewards along with assurances of eased regulations and reduced corporate taxes to come.

In the end, Trump’s intervention “saved” 800 Indiana jobs, but 1,300 (or two-thirds) of the 2,100 initially under threat — 600 from Carrier’s Indianapolis factory and 700 from another nearby United Technologies plant — will still be heading south of the border. The jobs temporarily retained represent, according to the New York Times, a mere 0.2% of Indiana’s manufacturing employment, all of which remains economically at risk. Carrier itself has already announced its intention to move another 1,000 jobs to Mexico before the end of 2017.

Obviously, spot interventions of the Carrier variety (a handful of jobs saved here and there at enormous public expense) don’t constitute an effective industrial policy, but they’re good for show, which is, of course, the point. The message implicit in such PR stunts is that unions are unnecessary, so long as the president is on the case, heroically defending American workers by executive fiat.

Some have seen through the charade; Chuck Jones, head of the United Steelworkers’ local at Carrier, courageously called the Donald on his exaggerated claims as a jobs protector, receiving the usual Trump tongue-lashing for his trouble. And AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka warned labor of Trump’s cynical intention to falsely portray himself as its savior, substituting authoritarian diktats and corporate bribes for democratic organizing activity and collective bargaining.

Remarkably, Trump’s corporatist strategy has not only won over a substantial segment of labor’s rank and file — he garnered a third of the traditionally Democratic union vote last fall — it’s made inroads among union leaders themselves. The hierarchy of the nation’s blue-collar unions has proven especially susceptible to the seductiveness of the Donald’s siren song. UAW President Dennis Williams, who leads the most progressive of the large mainstream unions, has signed on to nationalist Trump’s shortsighted “Buy American” campaign and registered enthusiastic support for the president’s trade policies.

The UAW is thereby preparing to walk a policy tightrope, backing the GOP on some issues and the Democrats on others, such as environmentalism, immigration, and labor law; it’s a tricky posture to maintain, diluting labor’s united front and disrupting longtime political alliances. Some portions of labor have migrated even further toward the Republican camp. Sean McGarvey, president of North America’s Building Trade Unions, hailed Trump’s inaugural address and pledged allegiance to the administration’s positions on energy, trade, and infrastructure; and Terry O’Sullivan, who heads the Laborers’ International Union of North America, followed suit.

Other unions, mostly (but not exclusively) white-collar, are holding firm against Trump, including the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), National Education Association (NEA), and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). So, we’re witnessing a widening split in labor’s ranks not evident since the 1960s, the heyday of the Republican Teamsters, when liberal and conservative unions fought each other — to the ultimate detriment of the working class.

The split is potentially disastrous for labor and the Left. Besides giving aid and comfort to an administration that doesn’t have their best interests at heart — witness Trump’s antiunion cabinet picks — temporizing unionists are in danger of forgetting the other half of the GOP’s two-pronged strategy: the low-road offensive of the Ryan-McConnell Congress. Said to be in the works or under consideration is legislation to create a national “right-to-work” law, and to repeal or weaken the National Labor Relations, Fair Labor Standards, and Davis-Bacon acts.

Now is not the time for organized labor to abandon its longstanding allegiance to the Democratic party, or (equally important) for Democrats to abandon their historic commitment to labor.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He holds a doctorate in American history and is the author of two prizewinning books.

From The Progressive Populist, April 1, 2017


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