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 A bill was offered in Congress and then withdrawn, but certainly close at hand.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but as we have seen elsewhere home health care and home daycare membership won by executive orders can easily be withdrawn.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.

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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.

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

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