Unions Are The Answer You Are Looking For
Everyone is consumed in a conversation about white economic insecurity versus racial animus and what caused this catastrophe.
There is, of course, plenty of blame to go around. The key is to focus on what has changed since 2012, when Obama won the states naively referred to as the Blue Wall – the ‘Rust Belt’ deindustrialized states of Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. These are states that once belonged to the Democratic coalition which emerged in the post-Roosevelt era as a stronghold for working class and African-American voting power. They stood in opposition to the former Confederacy, which switched allegiance to the Republican party following the enactment of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts in the 1960’s, and provided the basis for a long term Democratic advantage in the electoral college. Obama won these states handily against both McCain and Romney, capturing a large share of working class whites as well as wealthier suburban women, all with decent voter turnout among minorities and the young. And with good reason.
In 2008, President Obama took perhaps the most consequential action of his entire presidency, and surely his most lasting one – he ‘bailed out’ the automotive industry.
As that once great engine of the American economy sputtered to a stop because of depressed consumer spending, corporate mismanagement, and financial turmoil that put major pension funds into a sudden and long term bankruptcy, President Obama took an unprecedented step to put public funds at risk to rescue a major employer at a critical moment. The federal government had taxpayers take an equity stake in Chrysler and General Motors, lending tens of billions of dollars to those companies to get them over the hump. This bold action stopped not only the parent companies from going out of business and firing their thousands of employees, but also rescuing all the downstream businesses like parts distributors, dealerships, and repair shops that would have similarly folded in the wake of a total collapse. The auto bailout kept the Great Recession from turning into a complete and permanent disaster for the country, and particularly saved the jobs and livelihoods of working class people (and state government budgets) in Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
The people of those states did not forget. The unions did not forget.
While in many cases, these folks voted in state governments that were hostile to these actions, including anti-union conservatives like Scott Walker and Rick Snyder, when the 2012 election came around they remembered the actions that the Obama Treasury Department took to save the industry. The slogan of “Bid Laden is dead, and General Motors is alive” was the strongest possible argument for reelection that could have been uttered, and it worked. Working class whites and blacks voted for Obama like they did before, in nearly every state he won in the previous cycle. He even won in the (contra-trend) increasingly white state of Ohio, where Romney should have had a strong advantage in an economically down year.
Hillary Clinton had no analogous message to those voters in 2016, because Obama and his party were not able to make the same kind of impact on the American industrial workforce during his second term. This time around the track, he wasn’t handed a crisis to solve. But more importantly, the state governments and national legislature that have been working against this workforce for decades didn’t budge, despite a recession that should have shaken them loose, and the Democrats have done little to fight them in any meaningful way. “Right-To-Work” bills and the dismantling of collective bargaining rights for public workers (except cops, of course) have been taking solid root since 1980. And while Republicans have made constant progress against the interest of workers on behalf of corporate interests and anti-tax advocates, they have simultaneously captured the minds of those workers to blame immigrants and rich cosmopolitans for the impact of their own policies. It worked. And this week, a New York billionaire who is anti-labor somehow convinced them that the Democratic party didn’t have their best interests at heart, and won the presidency.
So should we let white voters off the hook for supporting bigotry? No.
White voters who dismiss the horror of authoritarian racism and sexism that comes from Trump and his neo-Nazi supporters must be rebuked, but with a caveat; the message that intolerance is unacceptable must come with an alternative. And that alternative must be that all people, regardless of their religion, race, or circumstance, have a common interest to thrive in the richest nation on Earth. That the poor work harder than the rich and share a common purpose: to benefit from our country’s immense consumer power in equal measure, and to stop the elites from sucking this country dry through unbounded capital growth and ever shrinking wages. This is a message that people of every stripe can get behind, and it used to be the message of the Democratic Party.
Politics is the art of the possible, not the parsing of what is right and true. And while white voters in deindustrialized states were happy to ignore the dangerous and racist rhetoric of Trump’s campaign, they did it because the party that used to represent their interests, in good times and bad, had done little to help them in the previous four years. Democrats have jumped in with both feet to represent Wall Street, Silicon Valley, globalism, and have accepted the incremental destruction of workers rights in the United States. They may toss a bone now and then to the completely destitute, with raises to the minimum wage, and promises to expand maternity leave and women’s pay. But none of this addresses the vast majority of the work force, white, black and brown, that is unable to earn a decent wage with their labor. Folks don’t want to live in ever slightly less degrading poverty. They want a stable income, housing, vacations and leisure time, education for their kids, and the security to know that all of that will be there in the next generation. And they’re happy to share that with people of all colors and creeds if it means a rising tide for all boats. White consciousness can be battled with class consciousness. It has worked before and it will work again.
And one inclusive social mechanism can actually secure that for them: Labor Unions.
The union movement in the United States is the most successful long-term apparatus for worker security and welfare the world has ever seen. Every advance for regular people claimed by conservatives on behalf of capitalism was actually earned through strikes, collective bargaining, and anti-trust legislation organized by labor unions. Labor unions emerged from the socialist and anarchist movements of the late 19th century to provide a basis for real gains in worker safety regulations, the abolishment of child exploitation in the workplace, the 8-hour work day, the weekend, the minimum wage, the living wage, retirement pensions, Social Security, and every other thing that the average American looks to when they say ‘if you work hard in America, you can get ahead.’ Labor unions at their best are inclusive, multi-ethnic and multi-racial, they support the efforts of women to achieve equality in the workplace, and they unite the working class against the people who would otherwise exploit them for economic and political gain. And they are the answer to what is wrong with America and the Democratic Party today.
The Democratic Party lost their most valuable ally in the country and will not win again until they get it back.
And they won’t get it back until they put union and workers rights back at the center of the Democratic platform. The party must put labor’s right to organize and strike first, at the state and national level, in ways that have not been seen since the early twentieth century. Activists and politicians must encourage the re-unionization of industries that have lost their bargaining power, and workers and consumers alike have to find new ways to use the old tactics of boycott, strike and sit-ins to force change in all sectors of the economy. This is a movement that can be taken hand-in-hand with efforts for racial justice and immigrant rights as well. For too long, the interests of higher-income workers has been pitted against the rights and humanity of immigrants as if the two are diametrically opposed. But both of these groups have the same rival – capital – and we are just a personal short conversation from showing migrant farm workers in Colorado and machinists in Indiana that the person keeping them from a good livelihood is the man who signs their checks, and not the man or woman who buys their bread, cleans their home, or the drives the car they manufacture.
Reviving the union movement in this country, through the establishment of new labor exchanges, the mass recruitment of new workers in old and new industries, and the rejection of milquetoast centrist economists in the Democratic party who think financial technology and the ‘gig economy’ bring anything but ruin for the nation’s working people.
Solidarity is the answer. Unions are the tool.