In the last few months, Richard Trumka, president of the national AFL-CIO, resigned from a key Trump advisory board after Charlottesville; unions nationally are rallying with progressive Democrats to stop Trump’s anti-union appointees to the National Labor Relations Board; graduate students at Harvard, Boston College and many universities are fighting to unionize; and Bernie Sanders has introduced a “Medicare for All” bill. This is the beginning of the “universalizing” resistance to the right wing seeking to destroy unions, end social protections, including the Affordable Care Act, and return to a Gilded Age plutocracy.
Workers are beleaguered. Wages have been stagnant for 30 years, benefits such as health care are eroding, the middle class is dwindling. The compensation of the average Fortune 500 CEO has ballooned to 347 times that of the average US worker. Workers’ hopes to secure the “American dream” are diminishing. Labor unions have shrunk to only 10.7 percent of workers, half the rate of 33 years ago.
That decline is a result of unrelenting attacks by right-wing politicians. Wisconsin is a sad example. First Gov. Scott Walker kneecapped public sector unions; then he went after private sector labor organizations.
As soon as Republicans took over the state, they passed a law requiring public sector unions to re-certify every year by winning a majority of those eligible to cast ballots, not just those who actually voted. The 2011 law also limits what public sector unions can bargain about, including wages.
Then, in 2015, Walker and his Republican-controlled legislature passed a law forbidding labor agreements under which all workers must help pay the cost of collective bargaining and other services that unions provide. These laws, pushed by right-wing politicians and corporations nationally, bankrupt unions.
In the five years since the first anti-union law took effect in Wisconsin, the number of union members there declined by 132,000.
Anti-worker groups now are pushing to make the union-bankrupting law a national standard. They’re behind an Illinois lawsuit, Janus v. AFSCME, which is on its way to the Supreme Court, where the right-wing majority is expected to compel all public sector unions to provide services to all workers, including those who refuse to pay for them.
And the anti-worker groups are pushing right wingers in Congress to pass a federal union-bankrupting law that would cover both private and public sector labor organizations.
Private sector unions joined to preserve public sector union rights in Wisconsin because they knew that private sector rights would be next on the chopping block. And they were. Realizing the stakes, the workers of all races were joined by a universalizing coalition of farmers, students, religious and social justice groups called the “Wisconsin Wave.”
In building such an alliance, workers must see that the adversary is not each other. It’s not immigrants. It’s not people of different skin colors or religions. The real adversary is multi-national corporations that drive down wages and undermine worker solidarity by threatening to close or offshore.
After decades of losses for labor, in the Gilded Trump era, reversing that may seem daunting. But workers and their allies can win by melding the identity politics now dominant on the left with a class politics led by multi-racial unions seeking to end the new Gilded Age. Unions are connecting to Sanders-style Democrats and grassroots movements fighting against our new robber barons to empower not just workers, but the undocumented, the poor, single moms, millions of people without health care and the targets of bigotry. Unions partnered recently with environmentalists, consumer and faith groups to defeat the Trans-Pacific Partnership, while also allying to win a $15 minimum wage in many cities, and are now seeking to defend the health care.
Workers still have power, but must band together with civil and human rights groups in a sustained national “Wisconsin Wave.” That can only be achieved by a universalizing progressive politics to end Gilded Plutocracy and create rule of, by and for the people.