America Needs Unions Now More Than Ever

The labor movement should help lead the fight against Trump, but that's not all it can do.

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May 2 2017, 2:55pm

Photo of protesters in New York by Kholood Eid/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Since Election Day, America has seen massive protest after massive protest against Donald Trump, with every weekend seemingly bringing out a new group willing to join what I guess we're calling the Resistance: anti-fascists, women, immigrants, people of color, and scientists, just to name a few. But what about the unions?

Labor organizations and their members have been involved in all of the above, of course, occasionally doing some of the heavy lifting on the ground. Still, it's striking that most of the larger protests so far in the Trump Era have not put economic inequality front and center. Given the unique dangers posed by the new administration, that unions have been secondary players is strange, at least from a historical perspective. Organized labor has for a long time been a hallmark of a free society. Unions are often crushed when authoritarians come to power—in Chile, Italy, and Germany, for instance—and in America, they had to fight actual battles to win concessions from the bosses. In the last few decades, a Republican-led backlash to labor has gripped America, with Ronald Reagan launching his presidency by busting a public union. As union membership in the US has declined, income inequality has increased, and corporations have grown larger and larger. But if the ascension of a caricature of an arch-capitalist like Trump to the presidency can't inspire union activism, is there anything that can?

"So many people were caught flat-footed on November 8 that it created a vacuum," one former union staffer who worked on labor's response to the Occupy movement told me. "There weren't a lot institutions with a detailed plan B for a Trump victory. American labor has bureaucracy and decision-making processes that were not quick enough to respond."

Monday, May Day, should have been an opportunity to establish the importance of the labor movement in this new political environment. Since at least the 1880s, the holiday has served as a worldwide time of appreciation for workers' rights and everything connected to that cause—the 40-hour workweek, Social Security, basic safety protections like keeping children off factory floors. In the past decade, it also has served as a moment of solidarity with immigrants threatened by nativism. This year, tens of thousands of Americans took to the streets, with excellent turnout in a few western cities like Los Angeles, where large populations of immigrants protesting the president's harsh new policies. (There were also a few dozen arrests in Portland, Seattle, and Oakland, among other cities.)

But in contrast to, say, Brazil, where anti-austerity protests recently paralyzed entire cities, or France, where union protests are known to continue for months on end, it's hard to imagine America's unions did a whole lot on Monday to force economic justice into the national debate for an extended period of time.

In other words, unions are still figuring out how to leave their own stamp on the Trump presidency.

Though organized labor has traditionally been a Democratic institution, and many union leaders campaigned against Trump, he performed way better in union households than any Republican since Reagan. Trump has been either rich or a boss or both for his entire life, and has been accused of not paying contractors, but still got some blue-collar support by trashing free trade agreements like NAFTA and promising to bring jobs stolen by illegal immigration and unfair competition from countries like China. As president, of course, Trump has done virtually nothing to help these voters; on the contrary, he seems determined to bathe the rich with tax cuts, and has installed Neil Gorsuch, a conservative who represents an existential threat to public sector unions and their members, on the Supreme Court.

"Obviously, when workers feel like they have a target sign on their back, it's a challenging context to figure out how to move things forward," said Shannon Lederer, immigration policy director at the AFL-CIO, America's largest labor federation. (VICE editorial employees belong to to the Writers Guild of America-East, which is loosely affiliated with the AFL.)

The problem unions face is that even as public opinion polls show millennials are open to candidates who use words like socialism and willing to embrace the labor movement, actual union membership remains anemic: less than 11 percent nationally, compared to 35 percent at the height of the postwar labor boom. (How many of those marchers on Monday were actually part of a union?) And leaders have struggled, so far at least, to deal with a president who talks like a guy who's been visiting construction and work sites almost his entire life.

"There is a lot of free-floating economic anxiety, but unions haven't figured out where their organic issue template is where they can go after Trump, and go after Trump in a way that would really resonate with the vast majority of their members," said Rich Yeselson, a contributing editor to Dissent and former labor researcher.

For now, that means unions are largely waging rearguard actions: standing up for immigrants brave enough to organize their workplaces, resisting dangerous new rules from the federal government that would make it easier for bosses to abuse their employees, and raising the alarm about every executive action (or appointment to the National Labor Relations Board) that threatens their recruitment.

"We have taken a clear, clear stand from what had been the case many decades ago, of not being clearly on the side of immigrants," Maria Elena Durazo, a UNITE-HERE official who was re-elected DNC Chair at the party's last winter meeting, told me from a boisterous May Day rally in downtown LA. "We are there—whether they're undocumented or not, we're developing programs to assist them. If. one day, they [decide] they need and want a union, great, we know that's the best way to go."

Most organizing does not happen in the streets, however, but in workplaces, after-work bars, and just about any place people can meet up out of earshot of management. And there are promising trends on that front, with some industries—digital media among them—increasingly moving toward unionization as the best way to cope with an unequal global economy. The union-backed Fight for 15 (a.k.a. the campaign for a $15 minimum wage) has also won victories in some cities. And individual corporate executives are finding that taking anti-union stances can stain their public image.

But the goal of a union isn't to shame any particular boss or get a particular politician out of office, or even support a political party. It's to improve the daily lives of workers. Trump will (actually) be gone in four or eight years, and there will still be battles for unions to fight. Unions probably won't determine the fate of the Resistance, but if they can figure out how to make themselves more relevant to this presidency, they might shape what kind of country we all live in.

Follow Matt Taylor on Twitter.

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