The labor movement is facing an existential crisis on two levels. Most immediate is that posed by Donald Trump, who has already stoked the fuel of white supremacist terror groups, and who has made repeated suggestions that he will not step down from office no matter the outcome of the election. Despite his support from a share of union members, and despite his promises to improve lives for workers, Trump’s regime has been almost an unmitigated attack on worker’s rights. If Trump stays in office by subverting the democratic process, the implications for unions are grave.
To deal with this immediate crisis, a network of union leaders and activists have formed Labor Action to Defend Democracy to begin planning labor actions after November 3 if Trump loses but refuses to step down.
Beyond the immediate danger of a coup, the labor movement must contend with the reality of a world run by billionaires on the backs of workers. Even if Biden wins, the labor movement faces a difficult future. The Wall Street wing of the Democratic Party will claim responsibility for getting Biden elected, and they will use the economy as an excuse to extract further concessions from workers. Biden was not selected by the groundswell of progressive forces active in the party’s primary; his platform is much weaker than those of Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, and history doesn’t give us confidence that he will fight hard even for that.
Workers have been under attack for decades but we are at a critical juncture. Can unions come together to insist on a democratic election and ensure every vote is counted?
We face a tumultuous few months, so we need a short-term, urgent plan. Part I of this article focuses on the immediate crisis. But we also have a long-term fight ahead of us, no matter what happens. That will be covered in Part II (to be published post-election). The points I raise here reflect my own involvement over many years of labor activism as well as discussions with labor leaders, staffers and rank-and-file organizers across the country.
The next few months
Trump and the Republican Party have launched a full-fledged assault on the electoral process, from voter suppression to misleading ballot boxes. We may see violence aimed at keeping people from the polls or just meant to create general fear and chaos. Trump has dropped repeated suggestions that he may try to shut down the election, stop votes from being counted, or refuse to step down even if he loses.
A range of groups have mobilized to fight for a fair election and plan around worst case scenarios. Some unions have been active in a few of these groups, such as Protect the Vote.
According to experts who study coups, the best way to stop an electoral coup is by getting a large turnout and strong victory. The larger a vote for Biden, the smaller the space Trump will have to claim the vote is illegitimate. Unions are doing their part to make this happen. This is a major part of union activity every election cycle. But according to Bob Master, Assistant to the Vice President of District 1 of the Communications Workers, it was tough to get union members to volunteer for Hilary Clinton four years ago. This year, there are hundreds of members signed up to phone bank, some doing it three or four nights a week. It isn’t that they are necessarily Biden fans, he says, but they understand what is at stake.
UNITE HERE is running an intensive “Take Back 2020” get-out-the-vote effort, phone banking and even knocking on doors in Arizona, Florida, Nevada and Pennsylvania. In Philadelphia, for example, over 100 hospitality workers plan to visit 100,000 homes before the election. In Arizona they are partnering with Seed the Vote.
Unions such as the Communications Workers of America, SEIU, AFT and the UAW are looking to connect some of their core activists with local “protect the vote” groupings in key states and cities to show up to polls and fight to make sure every vote is counted.
Unions are increasingly turning attention to possible election scenarios. “There’s some sense in the leadership that in fascist countries, unions are at the top of the list of targets,” Master says. “And it is the role of unions, which are the guarantors of some measure of democracy in the workplace, to ensure that democracy survives in the society.”
A handful of activists have started to organize in their workplace for labor to be ready to respond. Postal workers in Detroit are handing out flyers that ask coworkers to sign a pledge from Choose Democracy, committing to vote then take action if needed to protect the vote.
Are unions ready?
Will unions be ready to strike if Trump won’t step down? The sizable share of union members backing Trump makes it tough for some unions to frame the fight as anti-Trump, or pro-Biden. But if unions commit to the integrity of the democratic process, they have more ground to stand on.
The Rochester Central Labor Council in New York passed a resolution calling for a general strike in the event that Trump loses and does not step down. The resolution calls on the national AFL-CIO and all other labor organizations to “prepare for and enact a general strike, if necessary, to ensure a Constitutionally mandated peaceful transition of power as a result of the 2020 Presidential Elections.” A handful of other labor bodies have followed suit.
Sara Nelson, International President of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO, is also taking a bold stand, stating that in the event of a contested election, labor “has to be ready to mobilize in a series of strikes or leading to a general strike.” Despite high unemployment, workers still have power, she says. She points to how the federal government ended its shutdown last year, after Nelson spoke publicly about the idea of a general strike and a handful of air traffic controllers did not show up for their shifts. “Where can we actually flex that muscle in a series of strikes . . . in a way that is going to be very effective?” she asks. “And frankly, if the planes all stop that is something that will grab everyone’s attention and suddenly there has to be action to fix that.”
Writers following these discussions have described some of the history and challenges of general strikes. We have never had an actual national general strike in the U.S., although some have argued that the 2006 immigration protests were a version of one. And W.E. B. DuBois made a case in Black Reconstruction that up to a half a million enslaved workers held a general strike during the Civil War, by stopping work and leaving plantations.
Strikes are rare in the U.S. Despite the mini-strike wave of 2018-19, most union members have never been on strike, and few unions prepare to do so. And of course, it is illegal for many public sector unions to strike, and in some states the penalties can be stiff. Even in the private sector, most unions also have no-strike clauses in their contracts, meaning to strike during the life of the contract is violating the terms.
Finally, when workers do strike, it is usually for their own wages and working conditions: an economic strike. To pull off a job action in defense of democracy means moving to a political strike: something the U.S. labor movement has even less experience with. “Just getting workers to strike for their own contract is really hard,” says Liz Perlman, Executive Director of AFSCME 3299. “Most people just don’t do it. And we don’t teach strikes, we don’t talk the language of strikes in labor.”
It has happened before
But this does not mean it can’t happen. Despite legal restrictions and stiff penalties, the Transport Workers Union Local 100 in New York City has struck three times in the past several decades. Teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona went out on strike in 2018 even though they do not have the formal right to do so. Postal workers launched one of the largest national strikes in US history in 1970, despite it being illegal.
And we have even seen examples of political strikes in the US. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) has engaged in multiple political strikes, from protest against South African apartheid, against the Gulf War, and in support of Black Lives Matter. Teachers in Wisconsin walked off the job in large numbers in 2011 after Scott Walker proposed his budget bill that would drastically cut union rights.
In 2016 the Chicago Teachers Union held a one-day strike that had wide participation across the city. According to Alex Han, a longtime labor organizer, in addition to almost 100 percent participation by teachers, there were job actions at a few fast-food restaurants, daycare centers, a public university, a Nabisco plant, and more. Workers left their jobs to join actions happening all over the city. They were joined by supporters from other movements, including leadership from the Movement for Black Lives, and over 40 community groups.
Han explains, “There is a tension in organizing between going deep and going wide. With a strike, a job action where people are taking a real serious risk with their livelihood, you have to go deep. But then the question is, how do you go deep in as many places as possible, in some sort of aligned fashion?” The CTU one-day strike showed the possibilities of deep and wide organizing happening altogether. It wasn’t a general strike, but, says Han, “it was an illegal political strike.”
In June 2020, on one day’s notice the CWA called for a national 8 minute, 46 second walkout to protest the murder of George Floyd and voice support for Black Lives Matter. “This was certainly the first time in my 40 some-odd years in the labor movement that I had seen a union essentially call a political work stoppage,” says Bob Master. “Now 8 minutes and 46 seconds is very different than one day or two days or three days of completely stopping work but it did suggest that something that was essentially inconceivable in April happened in June and there was very little hesitation on the part of the leadership.” The leadership, and members, felt that what happened was so outrageous it demanded a response.
In August, unionized professional athletes refused to play in support of Black Lives Matter. A handful of unions signed a pledge in support, committing to job actions and strikes to support the Strike for Black lives.
Not normal times
Political strikes are now on the agenda more than they have been in many years.
In normal times strikes can take years to plan. Alex Caputo-Pearl, NEA Vice-President of the United Teachers Los Angeles, led a large successful teacher strike in 2019. “We knew we needed to strike four years ahead of time, that we wanted to shift the political dynamics,” he says. They spent four years building the support and laying the groundwork necessary to pull off the strike. Still, he says, “We are in a very dynamic period. There are many legitimate demands right now that we should be organizing around, and I would never want to discourage anyone from taking action.”
And while the labor movement may not normally train leaders to strike, over the past two months, thousands of labor activists from 70 countries participated in a Strike School run by organizer Jane McAlevey and sponsored by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung.
While some local-level labor leaders may be willing to take the risks to lead strike actions, others might be able to at least know how to step back and let movements lead when the time comes. “Let’s assume a time comes when workers feel that they need to withhold their labor,” says Lauren Jacobs, Executive Director of the Partnership for Working Families. Union leaders have a responsibility, when they are in elected office, to protect their institutions and this can put a conservative brake on striking. But Jacobs suggests leaders can at least not default to this position. Instead of putting up barriers, leaders must ask: “How do we embrace whatever is unfolding?” Whether their own rank and file members, or others, are taking to the streets, union leaders will need to step in to enable and nurture the movement.
In 2006, when immigrant workers struck and protested around the country, some union leaders held back and tried to rein in strike activity. Jacobs hopes we don’t repeat that approach. The more union leaders have connections with community groups at the local level, and rooted in the local context, they will be better positioned to support whatever emerges. For example, when New York City bus drivers refused to transport protestors to jail this summer, the unions stepped in to support the drivers and support the unplanned action.
Labor action to defend democracy
Anticipating the possibility of electoral interference, a coalition of unions and labor leaders, staffers, and activists have convened “Labor Action to Defend Democracy” (LADD), to coordinate post-election actions. LADD will “plant seeds and stir the pot, make available tools and be ready to do what is needed to protect democracy.”
The initial formation includes leaders from the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU – AFT Local 1); Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way (BMWE – Teamsters); Carl Rosen, president of UE (United Electrical Workers); Sara Nelson, president of the Flight Attendants union; Gene Bruskin, long time union organizer; several ILWU locals; United University Professions (UUP – AFT 2190 for SUNY faculty and staff); and Jobs With Justice. Other labor bodies are joining each day.
“LADD is a network helping unions to connect geographically and help them link to actions by broader fight back network in their area,” Norine Gutekanst from the Chicago Teachers Union explains. “We are sharing resolutions that locals/labor councils have passed, resources (sample resolutions, pledges, petitions, memes) and encouraging unions to act.” LADD is working closely with the non-labor driven coalitions, Protect the Results, led by Indivisible, and the Democracy Defense Coalition, led by the FightBack Table. Unions, including SEIU, CWA, and UNITE-HERE are active in these two coalitions. Protect the Results has a website with a map where people can schedule protests the day after Election Day, November 4th. The groups are prepared to make decisions late November 3 or early November 4th about the plan for action.
For more information and to connect with LADD, email [email protected].