Donald Trump And Organized Labor’s Death Wish

Over at Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi makes note of a distinctive and troubling feature of modern American political life, the seeming death wish of American organized labor:

Every four years, some Democrat who’s been a lifelong friend of labor runs for president. And every four years, that Democrat gets thrown over by national labor bosses in favor of some party lifer with his signature on a half-dozen job-exporting free-trade agreements.

It’s called “transactional politics,” and the operating idea is that workers should back the winner, rather than the most union-friendly candidate.

This year, national leaders of several prominent unions went with Hillary Clinton – who, among other things, supported her husband’s efforts to pass NAFTA – over Bernie Sanders….Trump is already positioning himself to take advantage of the political opportunity afforded him by “transactional politics.” He regularly hammers the NAFTA deal in his speeches….

Unions have been abused so much by both parties in the past decades that even mentioning themes union members care about instantly grabs the attention of workers. That’s true even when it comes from Donald Trump….You will find union members scattered at almost all of Trump’s speeches. And there have been rumors of unions nationally considering endorsing Trump….

Indeed. Never mind that the candidates unions would consider endorsing would then want to distance themselves as much as possible from organized labor. (As Taibbi also notes, Trump thinks Michigan autoworkers are paid too much and that in general, “wages are too high.”)

I have written before on this blog about the self-destructive, seemingly self-hating antipathy that American workers have to organized labor. The phenomenon Taibbi points to is another matter altogether. Here, unions themselves are engaged in behavior which is willfully, inexplicably self-destructive.  Perhaps this behavior reveals a particularly virulent strain of Stockholm Syndrome (it is very hard, after all, to leave abusive relationships and seek help); perhaps it’s a manifestation of the thing Freud called a ‘todestrieb.’

Consider for instance, the news that Jeff Johnson, the head of the Washington State Labor Council–affiliated with the AFL-CIO, which has not yet endorsed anyone for president–was allegedly pressured by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) to not speak at a Bernie Sanders’ campaign event. The AFSCME, one of the largest public-sector unions in the U.S. and a member of the AFL-CIO, endorsed Clinton for president in October. As the article linked to above notes, the AFSCME is perfectly within its rights to slap down on a state labor federation pending approval from national AFL-CIO. Still, it might be asked, why endorse candidates who send union jobs overseas to non-unionized workplaces?

Desperate political times call for desperate actions. Unions are under assault everywhere; membership is shrinking nation-wide. One might ask though, of all the actions available to organized labor, why would it endorse candidates so damaging to its members’ short-term and long-term interests, both economic and political? Especially when the decline of unionization in the American workplace has so extensively been identified as a primary cause of falling wages and rising economic inequality?

Narrowing the American Dream to Exclude the American Worker

My sister-in-law works as a labor organizer for the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). I’m proud of the work she does and remain resolutely convinced that her efforts to facilitate the unionization of workers count among the most important contemporary attempts to reform the American workplace and reduce income inequality. But because she works on behalf of organized labor, she also encounters, on occasion, some of the knee-jerk, reflexive, unthinking hostility toward unions that is so common among American workers and the American middle-class, who seem determined to ignore, marginalize, and sometimes actively work against, the one entity that could do the most to rescue them from their ever-worsening economic decline. Last week or so, on telling someone she worked for the AFSCME, her interlocutor baldly said to her face, ‘That’s like working for organized crime.’

Right. You could call that ‘false consciousness‘ and move on. But what I find most revealing about that kind of remark–and it is not that different from the standard hostile missive sent organized labor’s way–is its straightforward exclusion of the worker-who-wants-to-unionize from any aspiration to a supposedly common ‘dream’, the ‘American’ one. For in that dream, everyone is an entrepreneur, doing the best for himself, scraping out, by any means possible, the best possible configuration of economic and material affairs for themselves and theirs.  Those that succeed at this combination of hustle and hard work, always supposedly achievable by chutzpah and the nose to the wheel, are the American ideals, the success stories to be recounted, and the idols to be built for future generations to venerate and cherish.

Everyone, except, it seems, for the worker. When he does the best for himself, by ensuring a regulated workplace that pays attention to his health and safety, or by monitoring the hours worked, and asking for overtime or compensation pay for hours worked over those contracted for, or by ensuring appropriate pension schemes, health benefits and vacation times, he is castigated and described as a leech singularly responsible for the decline of the American economy. Budgets fail to be balanced and crisis stalks the land. Turns out, everyone can be an entrepreneur and do whatever they can to meet the bottom line, except for those that work for bosses.

So for now, in the grab-bag of tricks and tactics that are allowable to the worker in his effort to play the part of the American hero doing the best for himself, he is to be studiously denied access to worker collectivity. Rather, workers must place themselves at the mercy of the entity that manages and manipulates them, who are then free to give the fullest expression to their entrepreneurial spirit. Praise is theirs alone; the castigation, the calling-out, the vilification are reserved for the unionizing (or unionized) worker.

Note: Linda Greenhouse reminds us of the Supreme Court’s role in marginalizing labor unions. Of course, these decisions are easier to make within a particular social context, one created by the attitudes described above.