Could the US Labor Movement Lose 3 to 5 Million Members Under Trump?

Sheffield   Visiting with a British union organizer in touch with colleagues in the United States, I was shocked, though perhaps I should not have been, when he told me he had been hearing of worst-case scenario meetings of labor strategists meeting after the election estimating that the American labor movement could lose 3 to 5 million members based on policies and initiatives that might be unstoppable at every level under a Trump Administration. Needless to say, such a mammoth disgorging of union membership would be crippling, not just for existing unions, but for the entire array of progressive forces throughout the country.

In the last 35 years, union membership density in the US has already fallen from slightly over 20% of the organized workforce to barely 11%. There are somewhere around 14.5 million members of unions, so a loss of even 3 million would deplete membership by more than 20%. A loss of 5 million would rip away over one-third of US union membership. The private sector membership of unions is now less than 7%, and even without Trump, organizing strategists for 20 years have warned that without major restructuring of organizing programs and significant organizing initiatives and policy shifts, labor was on a path to only 5% density or one in twenty American workers enjoying union membership. The current jet fueled conservative assault is likely against the more than 35% public sector membership that remains in unions.

We already can see the attack unfolding on several fronts. Republican-controlled legislatures and statehouses have already eviscerated union security provisions in Kentucky and Missouri is likely to fall with the house already having acted and the senate approving after current contracts expire with the governor’s signature seemingly inevitable. Other states are on the list. A bill was offered in Congress and then withdrawn, but certainly close at hand. The other major front already manifesting itself is more broadly aimed at public sector workers. Memorandum attacking paid union leave time in the federal sector for grievance handling and contract enforcement is already proceeding. The defeat in Wisconsin, which had been the birthplace of public unionization, provides a road map for other states to follow, but as we have seen elsewhere home health care and home daycare membership won by executive orders can easily be withdrawn.

Antonio Scalia’s death provided temporary relief when the Supreme Court split on the issue of withdrawing union security provisions for public workers in California and one or two Trump nominees, barring another miracle, means that even in staunch labor redoubts public union membership at the city, county, state, and educational level could be devastating, as we have seen in Wisconsin. Powerhouses of progressive labor like the teachers, service employees, government workers, and even industrial and private sector unions like the communication workers, auto workers, and teamsters which also represent significant bargaining units of public workers would all be hit hard.

Some unions are reportedly taking steps to prepare for these losses, both in their organizing and servicing programs, but lessons from not only Wisconsin but also from the British labor movement where union security was lost under Prime Minister Thatcher, indicate the losses under any reckoning will be severe. Never make the mistake in believing this will be a crisis only for American workers and their organizations. Conservatives know well what progressives should never forget, crippling institutional labor will have a seismic impact on all progressive organizations and capacity.


They’re Coming After Unions at Every Level

The Great Philadelphia Textile Strike of 1903

The Great Philadelphia Textile Strike of 1903

New Orleans    There is little question that the conservatives are coming after unions, even while they make the outrageous claim that they are now the workers’ party in the wake of the recent election.

Since the Wisconsin counterrevolution when the right was successful in eliminating union shop for public employees, the drums have been beating all over the country. Most observers believe that the challenge in California to union security provisions allowing dues or servicing fees to be collected for teachers would have prevailed on appeal at the US Supreme Court level if Justice Antonin Scalia had not suddenly passed away, leaving a tie vote and saving union security for another day. With Trump likely to nominate a hard right conservative justice as soon as he sits in the Oval Office swivel chair, there will be new challenges wending their way to the Court as quickly as they can be filed, and there are likely challenges already in process.

Kentucky Republicans tried an end around by allowing local counties to adopt so-called right-to-work laws eliminating union shop provisions, since they couldn’t get it done on a statewide level. The US Sixth Circuit Court of Appeal unanimously overturned a local federal court that had nixed that maneuver. Right now that means this is possible in that court’s jurisdiction where Kentucky and Ohio are still union shop states, while it is still amazing to write that Michigan is a relatively new right-to-work state and Tennessee has long had right-to-work on its books. The Koch Brothers’ Americans for Prosperity is touting the fact that this is also the strategy for the far right Illinois governor, and should be a precedent. They don’t mention that according to research, “Decisions issued by the Sixth Circuit were reversed by the United States Supreme Court 24 out of the 25 times they were reviewed in the five annual terms starting in October 2008 and ending in June 2013 — a higher frequency than any other federal appellate court during that time period.” With the new Supreme Court maybe they don’t need to do so, but it’s not a slam dunk since the issue is whether home rule provisions within a state can preempt the ability of a state to prevent patchwork measures like this.

Reportedly, there are going to federal bills for a national right-to-work. It might not make it through the Senate of course, and perhaps despite the huge wall that Trump will build between himself and his buildings, construction unions can drop their tools until the kids figure out a way to send smoke signals or something down to DC until he gets the message.

Meanwhile this will all be Koch Brothers everywhere you look, which means bills re-introduced in Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, and elsewhere to eliminate all payroll deductions for unions. I’m not sure the United Way and insurance companies are going to save us, and an equal protection suit could be dragged out for years while local unions starve to death.

It won’t be the end of the world for unions, but it could be the end of the world as we know it now.


Gil Scott-Heron and his Amnesia Express sing “Three Miles Down” from March 14, 1990 in London, UK. A song for the Coal Miners.


Meth, Mailings, Tax Exemptions, and the National Right to Work Committee

2016-Right-To-Work-26-States-MapNew Orleans   The National Right to Work Committee has long been the bane of the labor movement’s existence, as it campaigns from state to state, courthouse to courthouse, and, more recently in Kentucky, county to county, to make it as difficult as possible for union members to pay dues to their organizations. The Committee was founded in 1955, largely to mount campaigns to eliminate union-shop provisions at the state legislative level where it was very successful in the Southern and Western states. The Committee is unsurprisingly registered as a 501c4, tax exempt with the IRS, which also requires as part of that status that the organization eschew any direct political activity. Such a status also allows them to maintain the mystery of their corporate and individual donors by not disclosing the names. Needless to say they claim to be apolitical.

Those claims may be cast aside by the fact though, since the AP reports that the veil has been pierced in a most unusual way:

Montana began to investigate Right to Work’s involvement in past elections when boxes of state candidate files, surveys, mailers and bank statements turned up in 2012 in what authorities described as a Denver “meth house.” LeFer [a Committee worker] said the documents had been stolen. The files were later featured in a “Frontline” documentary that suggested the Right to Work-affiliated group American Tradition Partnership illegally coordinated with candidates.

We can only imagine how the records ended up there, but several states found that candidates, often first-timers, had been solicited and received help, ostensibly at free or reduced price, from the Committee or its affiliates offering a series of “late stage” mailings to advance their campaigns and appeal to conservative voters. This had been the case in Montana, Iowa, Indiana, Kentucky, and Nevada in the 2010 election cycle. Although the organization has not been formally charged, Montana has jumped on this like a dog on a bone, filing civil cases on illegal collusion and failure to report contributions against 9 of the 14 candidates in their state who had received the package.

Needless to say none of them had declared the benefits in their legally mandated election reports anywhere else either. As the Associated Press also reports:

Montana, Iowa and Kentucky had bans against direct contributions from corporations such as Right to Work to candidates in 2010, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Indiana had a $2,000 corporate contribution limit to legislative candidates and Nevada’s limit was $5,000.

Montana seems to have caught these folks “dirty as dishwater,” but six years on, the other states don’t seem to be moving quickly or at all to straighten up this mess. Some of the higher ups in the Kentucky who were working for the Committee were part of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul’s recently abandoned campaign for President, so they may have had the juice there to stop anyone from looking too hard to clean this up.

The charity division of the Internal Revenue Service can’t be oblivious to all of these shenanigans, yet there is also no sign that anything has changed given these events concerning the tax status of the National Right to Work Committee. As bad as all of this is, one of the morals of this story has to be that if you are fighting unions by hook or crook, you can pretty much get away with anything, except maybe in Montana.


The History of Right to Work

Right+to+Work+signDenver    We are running an interesting piece in the current issue of Social Policy that looks at the historical antecedents of right-to-work legislation in the Midwest in places like Indiana and Michigan. Dan Kaufman, writing of the New York Times Magazine, a couple of weeks ago in a piece largely about Wisconsin called “Fate of the Union,” actually gave a good historical snapshot of the real roots of his ongoing movement against workers and their unions in Texas, Arkansas, and the South.

“In 1941, when the [labor] movement was still ascending, William Ruggles, 40-year-old editorial writer for the Dallas Morning News, coined the slogan “right to work.” Ruggles was alarmed by the growing strength of the labor movement, which in his view was intent on forcing all workers into unions. He proposed a constitutional amendment that would prohibit workers from having to pay dues to a union in order to hold a job in a ‘union shop.’ ‘ If the country does not want it, let us say so,’ he wrote. ‘If we do want it, adopt it and maintain forever the right to work of every American.’

The day after the editorial was printed, a Houston political activist named Vance Muse called Ruggles to ask permission for his organization, the Christian American Association, to pursue the proposal. Ruggles agreed and suggested to Muse that he call it a “Right to Work Amendment.” Muse, an avowed racist – he told a United States Senate committee in 1936, ‘I am a Southerner and for white supremacy’ – held a special animus towards unions, which he believed fostered race-mixing. In Southern Exposure, a 1946 book about racism in the South, the muckraking journalist Stetson Kennedy quoted Muse’s pitch on the need for right-to-work, in which he said: ‘White women and white men will be forced into organizations with black African apes, whom they will have to call ‘brother’ or lose their jobs.’

But Muse was an effective fund-raiser – he received support from General Motors and the du Pont family, among others – and lobbyist. In 1944, the Christian American Association sponsored the amendment that made Arkansas one of the country’s first right-to-work states. By 1947, 10 more states, most of them in the South, had become right-to-work, embodying the growing national backlash against labor brought on by the Red Scare. That same year, over President Harry Truman’s veto, Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act, which undercut the Wagner Act by placing numerous restrictions on unions, among them a clause granting states the power to become right-to-work. Muse died in 1950, but his campaign had already been taken over by more mainstream proponents.”

Make no mistake when you are hearing about right-to-work for less legislation from its advocate, the history is clear. They hated unions and the prospect of workers organizing, but their hate was broad and ecumenical and their hate and fear of integration of any kind or equality between the races was only seen through the black colored glasses of Southern racism. This civil war is more recent, but the roots seem much the same.


India and China’s Devolution Strategy to Contain Workers and Unions

Prime Minister Narendra Modi

Prime Minister Narendra Modi

New Orleans      India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi from the conservative Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP swept into power largely due to his ability to convince Indian voters that the economic progress in his state of Gujarat was worth ignoring many other parts of his record including the communalist riots killing thousands of Muslims there that led to him being barred entry to the United States for many years.  One target of the new regime was expected to be a drastic reduction of labor rights that India’s small but sometimes militant labor movement was expected to resist.  Modi has pulled a trick from his sleeve that has been a policy preference in the West for years by using devolution as his stalking horse on this campaign.

Federally, he has reduced the powers of the already overworked and undermanned federal labor inspectors, cut down on some paperwork, allowed women to work at night, eased regulations on hiring apprentices and loosened rules on overtime.  These so-called “reforms” were mainly about getting even more work from the huge Indian working class.  The sleight of hand for more serious moves Modi and his confederates devolved down to one of the BJP politically controlled states, Rajasthan, which one analyst called “reform by stealth.”  The heart of the action here was making it easier for big companies hiring more than 300 workers to fire workers and avoid other laws designed to protect workers.  A national Labor Ministry official quoted in the Wall Street Journal was clear about the government’s intent saying, “The Rajasthan changes can be seen as a pilot.  It will create healthy competitiveness among states and will also give us a chance to study the gains of such amendments.”  Seeing the way states in the USA compete with economic incentives, right-to-work legislation, and look-the-other-way labor regulations and wage rates, we don’t need a crystal ball to follow this strategy and see the dark clouds ahead for the already beleaguered workers of India.

Almost as interesting is a similar strategy though different intention of the government in China in reaction to the doubling of strikes last year in that country and the increasing militancy of Chinese workers over stagnant wages, factory pollution, and horrid working conditions.  The province of Guangdong, the southern, coastal industrial and manufacturing powerhouse and its largest city Guangzhou, formerly known as Canton, the 3rd largest city in China, has been the hotbed for this activity.  Unions are not independent in China though they are huge, but in reacting to the increased worker militancy the Chinese government is also trying a pilot of sorts allowing new regulations there to codify the rights of workers to collectively bargain and negotiate terms and conditions of employment through their representatives.  The reforms continue to be exclusively routed through the officially approved unions, but the government seems to want to put a lid on the outbreaks and channel the anger back towards the approved unions and the bargaining table where agreements can enable the unions to better police their members.  The government seems to hope that more aggressive organizing and collective bargaining will also help push out some of the sketchier, lower tier manufacturing outfits and the pollution nightmares that are vexing in the province.  They also don’t want the workers to get out of hand and come after them of course, and there’s nothing like endless bargaining sessions to sap the strength from even the strongest.  We’ve also seen how successful and debilitating that strategy can be when used on workers in the United States as well.

We wrote the book, so I guess we shouldn’t be surprised to see huge new powers like India and China writing new supplementary chapters to the story.


One labor-friendly lawyer, Caren P. Sencer, a shareholder of the California law firm Weinberg, Roger & Rosenfeld P.C. The firm’s website offers a selection of favorite pro-union songs


Right-to-work and the Making of the American Precariat

6a00e54ef168098833014e867c6776970d-400wiEdinburgh       Ok, I’ll admit it.  Having stumbled on this term “precariat” recently in conversations in London, referring to an emerging class of workers and families, vital to the neo-liberal business model but unmoored from the current economy and lacking any income or job security, I’m noticing it everywhere.  Most recently I read a piece in Labor Studies Journal by Joseph Varga, a professor at Indiana State, called “Dispossession is Nine-tenths of the Law:  Right-to-work and the Making of the American Precariat.”  Varga looks at the successful organizational and political fight labor waged in Indiana to turn back right-to-work legislation in the 1950’s compared to the butt whipping taken in the re-establishment of right-to-work in 2010 and labor’s inability to overturn that legislation in 2012.

Remember that right-to-work in the USA is a misnomer referring to the fact that unions cannot negotiate union security agreements where nonmembers pay some fees for services provided by the union under collective agreements, thereby creating a situation forcing unions to do the work, while many workers are financially “free riders.”  Coupling right-to-work with precarity is interesting as well, since the surge in precarious employment in Britain also follows open shop membership conditions forced on the UK labor movement in the Thatcher run and allowed to stand under New Labor’s Blair and Brown therefore maintaining to the current time.

I’ll spare readers all of the pain of Varga’s retelling of this defeat in Indiana, but none of us can dodge the gut punch in this conclusions and what they augur for our collective future:

Most importantly, the passage of RTW [right-to-work] in Indiana and Michigan is indicative of a larger trend among blue and white collar workers, whose connections to organized labor are already tenuous at best.  While demographic trends at the national level indicate that anti-worker Republicans may have increasing troubles winning national office, trends in the states with redrawn electoral maps may lock in pro-business, deregulatory majorities that continue to dismantle the thin safety net and force workers at the lower end of the wage and salary scale into precarious positions.  This contemporary workforce, operating without the labor market securities that encouraged political coalitions based on maintenance of living standards, may be continually fractured and drawn into new political alliances and formations, with some segments attracted by nationalisms or reactionary populism and others by anti-statist, anti-systemic radicalisms.   Nothing can be said for certain about what will emerge, but organized labor’s relative lack of strength in Indiana and Michigan does seem to indicate that the old coalitions are indeed over, and nothing has emerged as a viable replacement for working-class politics.


Scary enough for you?   The 40% drop in union membership in Indiana in the 20-year period between 1990 and 2010, plummeting union density from 21% to 11%, set the table for this disaster.   Varga’s interviews found that by 2012 overturning right-to-work was poorly understand even as a critical issue by workers, both formal and informal, and even seemed a yawner and someone else’s problem to progressives in the state, mired and distracted in an eroded culture of defeat.

Without an extensive organizing effort to build collective formations to fight and win among precarious workers, we will also not be able to get the political traction from the most imperiled, but numerically significant, part of our base to resist being forced into even further retreats on the political front.  Without embracing new organizing and political strategies, we’re seemingly locked in a death spiral, where unions are weakening so severely that it allows coalitions with our allies to crumble with the knowledge that we can no longer protect them politically with our diminished numbers, moving them to run for other cover, and simultaneously encouraging our opponents to come after all of us even more fiercely.

With the inadequacy of our defense, we have to have a more aggressive, organizing offense.


As Station Manager of KABF, we get new releases from time to time, please enjoy John Mellencamp signing Robert Johnson’s Stones in My Passway from Trouble No More Live at Town Hall.