In the days leading up to the Brexit vote I was in the United Kingdom, first in London and then some of the smaller cities and towns of southwest England in the days that followed.
The morning after the vote, my well-informed and politically active friends were in shock. Sitting at the kitchen table in a flat in London’s Hackney neighborhood, they stared at their laptops in disbelief as we watched one region of the country after another going solidly for Brexit, despite the opposition of both the Conservative and Labour parties. It seemed no one had seen it coming.
Cosmopolitan London went into collective mourning that day. People were weeping and hugging in the cafes and shops. They roundly cursed the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and chalked up the unexpected outcome to reactionary forces—an anti-immigrant and nationalist backlash they had underestimated—combined with a botched Remain campaign.
In the towns and cities beyond London, however, white middle-aged men and women were quietly celebrating. Far outnumbering the skinheads in Doc Martens and anti-immigrant campaigners, they seemed to convey a grim satisfaction. They had the carriage of a people who had sent a message. Over and over, people told me that theirs had been a vote against a distant, unresponsive, and arrogant European Union, a rejection of a set of rules they felt had gravely damaged British workers and businesses.
By the time I returned home, Donald Trump had won the Republican nomination and seemed to be moving steadily into the mainstream by tapping into similar sentiments on this side of the Atlantic.
For me—a former organizer and now labor studies professor—the narrative that Trump was carried to victory last week on the broad shoulders of the white working class has been especially painful. But it is more or less true.
That they came to see Donald Trump—a racist, Islamophobic, misogynist, xenophobic, bloviating billionaire charlatan—as their best option indicates just how alienated they feel from Hilary Clinton and the Democratic Party. That much is clear. The Democratic Party long ago since ceased to be the party of the American working class. I will leave most of the telling of that story in the able hands of George Packer and Thomas Frank. I want to talk about what happened to the labor movement.
The Democratic Party long ago since ceased to be the party of the American working class.
Unions, more than any other institution of American life, have been the vehicles through which working-class people, often across boundaries of gender, race, and ethnicity, have organized to have their say, assert their power, and ensure their share of the economic pie. For these reasons, aside from the New Deal interregnum, they have come under unceasing attack.
With the decline of manufacturing, workers no longer inherited union membership when they arrived at the shop. Instead unions had to undertake massive new organizing in other sectors of the economy. But employers resisted them at every turn and repeated attempts at labor law reform fell short. Attempting to organize a union often got workers harassed, threatened, fired, or deported. Even when they won elections, many employers just refused to come to the bargaining table until the clock ran out. Going on strike got workers locked out and permanently replaced. Between 1978 and 2000, the unionization rate among workers with high school degrees fell from 37.9 percent to 20.4 percent.
The Democratic Party, hugely reliant on union money and volunteers, fell increasingly in thrall to the corporate elite and the free trade consensus. It seldom made defending the right to organize a priority in recent years. Today unions represent just 6.7 percent of private-sector workers, and the forces of the right are tireless in their effort to consign public-sector unions to the same fate.
In 2009 the number of union members in the public sector outnumbered those in the private sector for the first time in American history. Public-sector workers have a union membership rate (about 35 percent) which is more than five times higher than private-sector workers. They were a main reason organized labor continued to fight above its weight class in politics. Thus, attacking collective bargaining rights and ending labor’s ability to have union dues deducted from members’ paychecks rose to the top of the right’s political agenda.
Grover Norquist, one of the top strategists of the conservative movement since the Reagan era, wrote after the election of George W. Bush that in order to maintain Republican control, the Bush administration needed to gut unions. To do so, Norquist urged Bush to focus on ending labor’s ability to have dues deducted from member paychecks. “Every worker who doesn’t join the union is another worker who doesn’t pay $500 a year to organized labor’s political machine,” he argued.
ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council), the powerful think tank that formulates and promotes corporation-friendly conservative legislation at the state level, embraced the anti-union agenda, crafting and disseminating bills to cripple public-sector unions. Consider Wisconsin. Coming out of the Great Recession at the start of 2011, Wisconsin was one of the few states facing only a very modest budget shortfall. Immediately after his inauguration, however, Governor Scott Walker made a calculated decision to villainize public-sector unions as preventing the state from achieving solvency, while simultaneously pursuing an aggressive campaign of tax cuts, especially for businesses and the wealthy.
While corporate profit margins are at an all-time high, wages are at an all-time low.
Wisconsin’s “Budget Repair Bill,” passed in the second month of Walker’s administration, largely eliminated collective bargaining rights for the state’s 175,000 public employees. Unions are now required to hold an annual referendum and gain support from a majority of all eligible employees, not just those who vote, in order to remain in existence. Members cannot be required to pay union dues, and even those who volunteer to pay can no longer do so through the state payroll system. Participation in any type of job action is grounds for immediate dismissal.
Since the bill’s passage, the percentage of public-sector employees in Wisconsin who are union members has fallen from well above the national average to well below, going from over 50 percent to about 25 percent, a loss of tens of thousands of members. Most public-sector unions also saw their budgets from dues collection more than halved. And Wisconsin is not alone: more than half of all U.S. states now have so-called “right to work” legislation that seriously curtails unions’ ability to bargain, collect dues, and in some cases to even exist.
Unions and collective bargaining tend to raise the pay of less educated employees in lower-paid occupations, thereby reducing pay differentials and income inequality within industries and across the economy. While corporate profit margins are at an all-time high, wages as a percent of the economy are at an all-time low. Why? Because companies are paying employees less relative to the GDP than they ever have—because they can.
• • •
Just when we need them most, the main institutions that have fought for decent jobs are a shadow of their former selves. Unions that have played a singular role in forging solidarity across racial, ethnic, and gender lines can now do so only for a diminishing number of Americans. Adding insult to injury, it is not just the right that has hastened their demise; liberals have been dismissing unions for years.
Unions matter for all the reasons described above, but more than anything, they are critical to the functioning of our democracy because of the role they have played in shaping working-class political consciousness and ideology. It has been largely through unions that American workers have developed an understanding of which side of the fence they are on, who is there with them, and who is on the other side. Of course they have had stiff competition, especially in recent years, from Fox News, Breitbart, the National Rifle Association, and now from Donald Trump. But this is precisely the reason it is so important for them to have the rights and the resources to organize and build real local structures. Union locals were once citizenship schools for the working class. When unions were weakened, working-class people lost a central means through which they could develop an understanding of the world—of who was to blame for the decline in their standard of living and how to take action to correct it.
Working-class people of all races and ethnicities have reason to be furious. Both liberals and the right have been dismissing unions for years.
Working-class people of all races and ethnicities have reason to be furious. Barack Obama extended unemployment benefits during the recession, bailed out the auto industry, expanded healthcare for millions of people, and extended overtime pay to millions, but for eight years he put investment bankers in charge of the nation’s economic policies, declined to break up big banks, and preached the advantages of free trade. He froze federal salaries, extended the Bush tax cuts, worried about the deficit, and skimped on the stimulus package. His narrative of recovery conflated a rising stock market and soaring corporate profits with an improving economy for regular people.
While millions of mid-wage jobs were lost during the Great Recession, including many in the public sector, few have been added back in the recovery. The optimistic tenor of the monthly jobs report conceals a bitter truth: the economy is adding jobs, but they are disproportionately low wage. Our nation today is an especially brutal place for older workers.
Ironically, who represented the greatest challenge to market fundamentalism in the general election? Donald Trump. After Senator Bernie Sanders lost the Democratic primary, Trump was the one asserting that the decline of decent blue-collar jobs in the United States was not some irreversible law of nature. Secretary Clinton’s nod toward economic populism was not believable. Maybe this is why she did not campaign on it.
Let’s be clear: unions are not perfect. Historically some indulged in shameful racist and sexist practices, some pursued their own narrow self-interests at the expense of the greater whole, some became bureaucratized, even sclerotic, and a very few became corrupt. But unions have been at the forefront of the fight for Social Security, unemployment insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, civil rights, affordable healthcare, occupational safety and health standards, and quality public schools. Today they are the backbone of the fight for immigrant rights, higher minimum wage, and paid sick days.
More than any other institution of American life, unions have been the vehicles through which working-class people, often across boundaries of gender, race, and ethnicity, have organized to have their say.
It often seems that liberals think all we need do is make a good argument or speak truth to power. They disdain confrontation and the messy nature of mass-based, democratic, working-class unions. They may support some policies, such as raising the minimum wage, but not the powerful—and, yes, complicated—institutions that have made them achievable.
Lots of people are concerned about growing inequality. But some of those who are concerned do not like unions. What they are not facing up to is the simple truth that, without unions, the fight against inequality is pretty much bound to lose.
In the absence of unions, no other institutions have arisen that have elevated the voice, needs, and aspirations of working-class people and organized at the scale they once achieved. In the absence of collective institutions, people have been known to look to charismatic men who promise to make their countries great again.
While finding meaning in the election results is by definition a complex and complicated task, no one can credibly argue that Trump’s voters felt adequately listened to in the months and years leading up to last Tuesday’s political earthquake. It is unlikely that their lot will improve in a nation’s capital under Republican rule. Had they had strong institutions to express their collective voice, I, for one, believe the outcome would have been much, much different.