When Donald Trump was elected president of the United States on November 8, all my assumptions about our country—that we were slowly becoming more tolerant, progressive, diverse, and economically just—suddenly seemed like terrible delusions. My faith began to be restored on January 21, when I had the honor to speak at the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. The more than three million people who participated in 400 marches around the country, and the million others who protested around the world, gave me heart.
Still, as a union president, I am deeply fearful that the far-right takeover of the White House, Senate, House of Representatives, Supreme Court, and the majority of state governments is an existential threat to the labor movement.
Labor has endured a long, grinding decline and now only about 11 percent of U.S. workers are union members, with just over six percent represented in the private sector. Connected to this drop in union membership, there has been a decline in middle-class incomes, and a tremendous increase in wealth inequality. The richest .1 percent now own about as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent of Americans, the worst inequality since the 1920s.
Under President Trump, this decline in the size of the labor movement, and the middle class, could get much worse.
The biggest hit to unions could come from the U.S. Supreme Court, which last year deadlocked on a case which would essentially allow public employees to freeload off their unions and reap the benefits of membership without paying dues. Trump’s appointee to the high court could push this through.
Because public employees make up almost half of the American labor movement, this could decimate the size, resources, and power of major unions, dragging overall membership to well below 10 percent, the lowest in more than 100 years.
Then there’s the “Right-To-Work-For-Less” laws that the majority of states have passed, which allow private sector workers to freeload, weakening their unions. Republicans in Congress have already introduced a bill which would apply nationally.
The Trump administration will make anti-worker appointments to the National Labor Relations Board and change a wide range of rules to favor corporations, such as allowing employers to indefinitely delay contract negotiations once workers have voted to join a union.
Workers’ incomes also face threats from larger economic trends, including automation and the move toward the “gig economy” of part-time, temporary, and subcontracted work. The advent of self-driving cars and trucks alone could mean more than four million lost jobs within the next decade.
American workers are rightfully worried and fearful about the future, and are searching for explanations, outlets and targets for their anger. These seismic shifts in the economy threaten to increase the sense of insecurity amongst workers and, without strong viable progressive organizations and analyses, could drive more Americans toward Trump’s xenophobic, divisive, and hateful message.
Some union leaders believe that in the face of increasing attacks, we need to double-down and use our diminishing resources in a narrowly-focused, last-ditch attempt to defend our members’ pay and benefits.
I believe this is the exact opposite of what our approach should be. Only by uniting with community members and progressive coalitions can we have any chance of remaining relevant and protecting our own members’ economic interests.
We need to open our arms to the widest swath of American workers, embrace a much broader spectrum of issues, and completely rethink the purpose, strategies, and vision of the union movement.
Unions must become hubs, conveners, unifiers, facilitators, connectors, innovators, incubators and supporters of progressive alliances. Despite our shrinking size, we are still among the best-funded and best-organized progressive forces in the country. Our union brought more than a thousand members to the Women’s March, and we have been hosting local organizing meetings for the next People’s Climate March on April 29. Unions need to also actively support the plight of immigrants and refugees, justice system reform, voting rights, the LGBTQ community, and other vital issues.
Besides welcoming and supporting progressive coalitions, we must make it easier for non-union workers, especially youth, to unite and fight for their rights. Just like joining any other organization, working people should be able to go to a website and click to join a union. Interactive online platforms could enable people to find local actions and meetings, organize events, pay their dues and political action contributions, connect with other workers, and contact their elected officials. We could hold workshops, both online and in-person, which disseminate workplace organizing skills to as many people as possible. Joining together to press corporations and government for better wages, benefits, rights and working conditions can be a first step toward bargaining collectively with employers.
We must also broaden our vision and, like the Fight for $15, clearly articulate how we can build a new, just economy and raise up the quality of life for all working people. Such a vision should not try to simply reiterate the demands of the labor movement of the past, but rather anticipate the needs and pressures that working people will face in the near future. For
example, as workers experience increasing economic disruption, we should consider supporting the concept of a universal basic income, a monthly payment for all working people that is now being promoted by mainstream economists.
In addition to our current campaign to protect affordable health care, we must continue to advocate for other benefits that the majority of working Americans support, including paid family leave, no-cost job training and higher education, minimum sick days and childcare benefits. To counteract the loss of jobs from automation, we should push for public and private investment in the creation of new jobs which help society, such as clean energy jobs for local communities.
There are reasons for hope.
Just a few years ago, the idea of a $15 minimum wage was unfathomable. Since then, at least 40 cities and states have increased their minimum wages—including many states that voted for Trump—raising pay for more than 12 million workers. These kinds of concrete victories have increased support for unions to 58 percent among Americans overall, and that number has jumped to 66 percent for young people.
The Fight for $15 is one powerful example of how unions are going through a process of dynamic adaptation, and are mobilizing vast, diverse coalitions to win real gains for working people. The union movement needs to think differently, dream big, broaden our vision, and open up our organizing to rapidly include millions of non-union workers and community members. If there is a single positive aspect to Trump’s election, it is that he has lit a four-alarm fire under us to unite and mobilize like never before.
George Gresham is president of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, the largest healthcare union in the nation.