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 A bill was offered in Congress and then withdrawn, but certainly close at hand.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but as we have seen elsewhere home health care and home daycare membership won by executive orders can easily be withdrawn.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