Islands of Representation

On December 7, 2016, Donald Trump unleashed an attack over Twitter on Chuck Jones, the president of Steelworkers Local 1999 in Indianapolis, for allegedly doing a less than satisfactory job representing workers. Jones, who as a union official represents the workers at the Carrier plant, had accused Trump of misleading union members with a promise of keeping at least 1,000 factory jobs at the plant. In the end, only 730 jobs were saved, many of which were never even slated to leave to Mexico and, as Bernie Sanders pointed out, only after Trump gave in to Carrier’s demands for tax breaks and favorable regulatory changes.

In the aftermath of the attack, Jones continued to stand up bravely against the president-elect in television interviews and in an op-ed in The Washington Post, explaining that union members would need to work for $5 an hour without benefits (the federal minimum wage is $7.25) to match Carrier’s demands. Jones was met with threats but also a wave of digital solidarity embodied in the hashtag #ImWithChuckJones and statements from union locals and state labor federations across the country.

But the Carrier crisis came and went like so many others, differing only in that the vociferous anti-union attacks were personally addressed to a local union official from the nation’s president-elect and not merely from federal judges, Republican governors, corporate boardrooms, and right-wing think tanks. As Steven Greenhouse wrote recently in The Los Angeles Times, such suppression of “outspoken labor leaders” has historically presaged even worse events, from Germany to China.

In the midst of this personalized and brutal attack on a union official, there was a silence that was difficult to ignore. National labor leaders were missing in action from the scene. Labor’s leaders should have seized the moment to descend upon the Carrier plant in a show of unity and call for a renewal of the labor movement’s commitment to solidarity among all working people. Here was an opportunity for the labor movement to recast its declining fortunes and forge an agenda to withstand the Trump years, and perhaps even roll back a few of its defeats.

Unfortunately, it is unsurprising that resistance to Trump’s duplicitous and hypocritical attacks in Indianapolis amounted to a flurry of tweets. With the labor movement resembling more an archipelago of shrinking islands amid a sea of “right-to-work” laws rather than a movement, the practice of labor solidarity has almost been forgotten as membership reaches all-time lows.

Labor’s commitment to solidarity — in essence, the practice of showing up with our voices, resources, and bodies wherever our brothers and sisters are attacked— has fallen victim to various well-documented forces. First, a legal system that forces unions to organize individual employers rather than whole industries and that has outlawed since 1947 unions’ ability to call for boycotts of exploitative employers. Second, a decades-long campaign by the right-wing to paint unions as corrupt. And third, perhaps the most complicated and intractable problem, unions’ own reluctance to use diminishing assets and to divert funds from political lobbying to help other unions and non-members.

As labor attorney and author of Reviving the Strike Joe Burns has written, it is time for unions to move beyond particularized battles and focus on reviving a culture of solidarity:

Solidarity is the heart and soul of unionism — the only force capable of confronting power and privilege in society. To revive unionism, we must recover labor’s long-lost tools of workplace-based solidarity.

This will not be easy. Unions face not only hostile laws, but negative attitudes towards unions in the general population and a fragile economy where jobs are increasingly part-time and temporary. Still, by showing what a culture of solidarity looks like at the local level unions can remake not only their own image but create an agenda for the 21st century focused on providing free education and health care, affordable housing, and living wages to all people. After an election that showed an ascendant racism dividing the United States, the labor movement must also emphasize through solidarity that the “real villains [are] those who are using race to enrich themselves at the expense of poor people of all races,” as Roosevelt Institute fellow Saqqib Bhatti wrote recently in In These Times.

The good news is that some local unions are already leading the way. In particular, teachers’ unions have shown how to “bargain for the common good.” As Rachel Cohen has reported, from Seattle to Chicago, teachers have fought for investments in education and against foreclosure and excessive discipline of black and brown students through their activism and contracts. The 2012 Chicago Teachers Union strike provided a blueprint on how careful, dedicated organizing can garner the support of the public. As many as 66% of Chicago Public School parents supported the 2012 strike though it kept children at home for a week.

Under a Trump presidency, we will not only see inequality rise: public education, immigrant and communities of color, health care, housing regulations, and environmental protections are already all under assault. Practically speaking, union members can push their locals to participate in these battles at the city and state level. By fighting for public education, affordable housing, and police reform, local unions and members can be leaders in forming an agenda based on the challenges faced by the multi-racial working class coalition it must build. This will require resurrecting old habits — regularly and frequently showing up to picket lines and supporting strikes when workers show the courage to undertake them — and learning new lessons from our allies, from debt resisters to Black Lives Mater, in resisting capital, racism, and sexism.

National labor leaders would be wise to encourage union members, locals, and all workers to fight back on all of these fronts, providing a civic and political education to a new generation of activists. Moshe Marvit, a fellow with The Century Foundation, wrote in November that “labor has the existential imperative to reform itself, harness the existing energy, and lead a movement.” But doing so will require more than tweets and rhetoric: it will require showing up.