The Right’s War on Unions Will Finish Us Off

Of course the Republicans are going to launch a new assault on unions, and it’s going to be devastating. Unions are a key pillar on the left, especially among progressives. It took me a little while to learn this. I grew up in Princeton, New Jersey in a family filled with professors. My progressive values stemmed not from firsthand knowledge of the plight of the coal miner or steel worker or government bureaucrat, nor from any personal experience of being a racial or religious minority, or even a woman. The scientific ethos of academia was my point of entry to opposition to the right-wing in this country. Everyone starts from some place.

When I left my hometown, I moved to Los Angeles where I found an even more diverse community than the one I had grown up in, and one with a wider chasm between the rich and poor. I went on to work for ACORN and expand my knowledge about what the urban poor and minorities face in terms of our criminal justice system, local governance, education, and employment opportunities.

Working with labor was my last stop along the way. I didn’t originally see unions as necessarily my natural allies or see their causes as my causes. There was overlap in many areas, but maybe we didn’t see eye to eye on the importance of the environment, for example. It was only when I realized how essential they were to getting political power that I began to understand that I needed them to be strong and motivated and effective.

It was then that I understood that academic progressives don’t have the option of picking and choosing which labor issues to support, but we need to have their backs so that they’ll have our backs.

When our own Charlie Peters wrote his Neoliberal Manifesto in 1982, he said:

If neo-conservatives are liberals who took a critical look at liberalism and decided to become conservatives, we are liberals who took the same look and decided to retain our goals but to abandon some of our prejudices. We still believe in liberty and justice and a fair chance for all, in mercy for the afflicted and help for the down and out. But we no longer automatically favor unions and big government or oppose the military and big business. Indeed, in our search for solutions that work, we have come to distrust all automatic responses, liberal or conservative.

In retrospect, I don’t think progressives had the option of not automatically favoring unions.

We’ve all seen the statistics. White working class men who are unionized will vote for Democrats. Those who are not unionized favor the right in huge numbers. The Republicans understood this and they went about severing the ties between white working men and their unions.

And then 2016 happened, which brought a collapse of even union household support for the left.

The threat to labor unions and their political power comes after decades of a gradual but steep decline in union membership.

At the same time, union households, once a pillar of the Democratic coalition, are an increasingly inviting target for Republican candidates looking for new votes. In 2008, President Obama won 59 percent of the vote among union households, according to exit polls. In 2016, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton won just 51 percent of those votes.

At the state level, many districts Republicans won in 2016 were driven by votes from working-class people, precisely those most likely to be members of a union.

I’ve called this the Southification of the North because we’ve gone from a Rust Belt split in white working class communities to a complete rout. Counties that have voted Democratic for generations moved over to Trump, and other traditionally red counties went from giving the Dems 35% of the vote to giving them more like 20% of the vote.

It no longer mattered much whether these voters were unionized or not, they had come to the conclusion that the Democratic Party was hostile to them, their culture and their values.

People have explained this as a reaction to deindustrialization. They’ve seen it as a backlash against identity politics and the left’s push for police accountability, gay rights, gun restrictions, and so on. They’ve seen it as an outright racist response to Trump’s prompting for a more traditional white nation. I think it’s all of those things, but it’s also a result of a successful decades-long attack on unions. Unions and union values are what kept these communities divided politically, and they explain why the Northern white working class did not vote like the white working class in the Deep South. In 2016, we reached the tipping point where labor was so weakened that the left lost its foothold and even the pretense of a compelling argument in county after county after county in traditionally blue states.

Now that the left is culturally alienated from these communities, they will be killed off for good.

Republican leaders in New Hampshire, Missouri and Kentucky are planning in the coming months to take up and pass so-called right-to-work measures, allowing workers to opt out of joining a union and out of paying union dues.

Twenty-six states currently have right-to-work laws on the books, and governors-elect in both Missouri and New Hampshire campaigned on pledges to implement those laws in their states.

Those new governors-to-be, along with Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R), have hinted that they plan to reform collective bargaining laws as well, similar to a push made by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) five years ago…

…Republicans in Missouri have already filed legislation addressing collective bargaining agreements between the state and public employee unions. Gov. Jay Nixon (D) has vetoed anti-union legislation in the past. But come next year, Nixon, who faced term limits, will be replaced by Gov.-elect Eric Greitens (R)…

Republicans in Iowa, led by Branstad, are considering stripping unions of the right to bargain over employee health insurance. The GOP captured control of the state Senate in November’s elections, giving the party total control of state government.

“Every little piece of good working-place policy that we’ve put in place over the last 20 years, I expect Republicans to begin picking away at,” said Iowa state Rep. Marti Anderson (D). “I expect to have bargaining units be decimated.”

There’s really only one hope for the left in this country, and it’s this:

At the state level, many districts Republicans won in 2016 were driven by votes from working-class people, precisely those most likely to be members of a union.

“Many of the areas where [Republicans] beat incumbents are in working-class districts,” [Joni] Jenkins [a Democratic state representative in Kentucky] said. “A lot of our middle-class voters wanted change because they wanted change, and it’s not getting any better.”

Yesterday, the Washington Post ran an article on the people of in the Buckhannon area of West Virginia. They are excited and hopeful about a Trump presidency, but less pleased that he’s chosen Wilbur Ross as his Secretary of Commerce. Ross was the owner of the local Sago Mine that blew up on January 2nd, 2006.  As explained in Wikipedia, “in 2005, the mine was cited by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) 208 times for violating regulations, up from 68 in 2004. Of those, 96 were considered S&S (significant/serious and substantial).”

Take a look at what Del. Bill Hamilton has to say:

Upshur County’s delegate to the state legislature, Bill Hamilton, calls himself “an oxymoron Republican,” because he’s closely bound to the unions. Like many here, his skepticism of the big businesses that own many mines sits deep in his bones, and the Sago disaster only cemented that doubt. One miner who was killed was Hamilton’s client at his insurance agency, another was his lockermate from junior high school and a third was a family acquaintance.

Hamilton never worked in the mines, warned away by his father, who toiled underground until he was drafted to fight in World War II, and who lost two brothers to mining. Still, he finds himself fervently hoping Trump will reopen the coal fields and invest in technology to diminish the environmental damage. Coal, he said, remains the state’s lifeline.

But although Hamilton came around to Trump after initially supporting Ohio Gov. John Kasich, he wonders if the selection of Ross means Trump might not really be a friend to miners. Hamilton has been pushing Congress to pass a bill to preserve pension benefits that thousands of miners are set to lose next year because so many coal companies have gone belly up.

“Ross bought companies and then severed the benefits to make more profit,” Hamilton said. “So do you think that bill’s going to go anywhere now?”

The Republicans never have been a friend to miners, and they’re only perceived that way right now because the entire industry is collapsing and the GOP says that they can do something about it. At some point, it’s going to become clear that destroying unions and devouring pensions is what’s really on the Trump menu.

But disillusionment will only go so far if these communities perceive that the Democratic Party has written them off, doesn’t care about or even like them, and doesn’t respect their culture or way of life. Unions have traditionally been the way that the Democratic Party has been wedded to these communities politically and culturally, and when they collapse, a lot more collapses with it.

This is a political problem that progressives need to see as existential. And the neoliberal or New Democrat or academic Democrats who serve in affluent lightly unionized suburbs and college towns needs to understand that they can’t afford to treat the Labor Movement as some intellectual policy debate.

It seems to me like the Republicans knew exactly what they hoped to achieve by weakening unions, and it went far beyond making the industrial bosses happy. It was how they planned to destroy the left.

Somehow, we allowed ourselves to ignore what was happening and instead have debates about the bureaucratic smugness of public sector unions or the rigidness of education unions or the supposedly unreasonable demands of auto workers.

While we were busy trying to be open-minded and flexible and reality-based, the other side was preparing to hand us our asses.

If you can tell me how to win the Pennsylvania state legislature or control of the U.S. House of Representatives while getting only 20-25% of the vote in most counties and only 51% of the vote in (all) union households, then you should probably start working on cold fusion next.

Things are going to get much worse, and my fear is that they simply will not get better.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.