“A paradox of American politics,” wrote the journalist Thomas Edsall in 2014, “is that Republicans take organized labor more seriously than Democrats do.”
This insight has perhaps never been so accurate—or so consequential. Last month, The New York Times reported that Republicans at the state level are moving quickly to crush what is left of organized labor, taking advantage of their unprecedented power in states from Iowa and Missouri to New Hampshire and Kentucky.
Indeed, “move quickly” has become something of a motto for reactionaries looking to make the most of their advantageous position.
Contrasted with the tumult and confusion currently rattling the national Republican party, the Times notes, “rising party leaders in the states seem far more at ease and assertive,” eager to use their “top-to-bottom control in 25 states . . . to enact longstanding conservative priorities.”
While the list of “conservative priorities” in the age of Trump is long, one has consistently remained at the top of the heap.
Though often cloaked in pro-worker garb, the Republican Party’s desire to dismantle the labor movement—thus ensuring the preeminence of corporate power—has, over the last several decades, never faltered.
In his infamous 1971 memo, penned just months before his ascent to the Supreme Court, Lewis Powell urged business to go on the offensive, to meet challenges to its hegemony with sustained force.
He disparaged a state of affairs in which “businessmen have not been trained or equipped to conduct guerrilla warfare with those who propagandize against” what he termed the “American free enterprise system.”
Portraying business as a helpless giant withering under sustained assaults by “Communists, New Leftists and other revolutionaries,” Powell issued a call to arms. Business, he urged, must take on “a more aggressive attitude” and exert its influence on the courts, the media, and the political system.
Powell even recommended that business leaders learn from those they were setting out to destroy. “Lessons can be learned from organized labor,” he wrote. “The heads of national labor organizations have done what they were paid to do very effectively.”
Of course, Powell’s description of corporate America as a cowering victim was self-serving and inaccurate, as was his over-inflation of the strength of progressive forces challenging it. Nonetheless, the memo served as a rallying cry that did not go unheeded.
Since the 1970s, income inequality has soared as tax cuts for the rich, deregulation of finance, and the dismantling of safety net programs dominated the agenda. This was the case not just for Republicans, who have rarely attempted to conceal their allegiance to the business class, but for Democrats as well.
As the historian Jefferson Cowie has observed, “one of the defining features” of the New Democrats, who began rising through the ranks of the party in the 1970s, “was, at best, an ambivalent relationship to organized labor and, at worst, open hostility.”
In the decades that followed, the Democratic Party underwent a striking ideological transformation; “the party of the people” quickly became a party committed to the interests of a burgeoning class of professionals whose economic interests were a far-cry from those of most of the population. And with this transformation came investment from business interests that remain key players in the party today.
All the while, organized labor underwent a striking decline. According to data recently released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the overall union membership rate was 10.7 percent in 2016. In 1983, by contrast, membership was 20.1 percent.
Democrats have remained complacent in the face of these numbers; they have, Edsall concluded, “been happy to get labor’s votes and money, but they have done little to revitalize the besieged movement.” Now their complacency is coming back to haunt them.
Emboldened by their unprecedented strength, Republicans are looking to finish the job. To make matters worse, many union leaders appear to have been charmed by Donald Trump, whose career is littered with displays of outright contempt for unions and workers.
“We have a common bond with the president,” gushed the president of North America’s Building Trades Union Sean McGarvey after just one meeting with Trump.
But here’s the damning point, highlighted by Noam Scheiber: several union leaders “said they went the entire Obama administration without being invited to a similar meeting.”
That someone like Trump—a notorious union buster—could have any success positioning himself as a pro-worker, pro-union president speaks to the failure of Democrats to stand up for the working class and to fight on behalf of what has historically been, in the words of Emmett Rensin, “the most viable and proven rival to the power of wealth.”
The ultimate goal of the Republican Party, as recent reports make clear, is to ram through a national “right-to-work” law, which Hamilton Nolan characterized—likely without exaggeration—as “the union apocalypse.”
Despite these dire circumstances, and despite the energy and resources it will take to rebuild an effective labor movement, Democrats have largely dragged their feet. In the 2016 general election, Hillary Clinton received substantial monetary support from some of the nation’s largest unions, but she refused to endorse a $15 minimum wage and failed to even visit a union hall in Michigan in the days leading up to the election.
If her campaign’s efforts to court workers were as vigilant as her efforts to court celebrities, perhaps the outcome would have been different.
The way forward is clear. Workers across the country, as shown by the recent March on Mississippi—organized by Nissan workers in conjunction with Black Lives Matter, the Sierra Club, the ACLU, and other groups—are eager to fight back against the bosses, to stand strong in the face of long hours, low wages, and unsafe working conditions.
Democrats and progressive groups angered and emboldened by Trump’s victory and eager to channel grassroots energy would do well to learn from the organizers of these efforts, who are working tirelessly despite the strength of corporate forces and threats of retaliation.
“Workers say the company routinely imposes one-on-one meetings, where they are questioned about their views on unionization and have their work histories reviewed,” reports The Guardian’s Mike Elk. “Some say those who support the union are routinely denied promotion. Others say pro-union workers have been unfairly let go.”
If Democrats don’t wake up—if they don’t cease viewing unions as nothing more than a reliable source of campaign cash—the last vestiges of working class power could be dismantled. And much of the blame will, quite rightly, fall on their shoulders.
So, in closing, here’s a bit of advice for struggling Democrats: Forget about the celebrities, and the billionaires, and the galas. Don’t bother asking “if the Oprah effect can beat Trump.” Instead, focus your attention on those struggling for their day-to-day well-being, for those marching for several more dollars per hour and the right to unionize.
It is these fights, and the consequential victories they produce, that create lasting change. They may not be as sexy as an appearance on late-night television or a selfie with Justin Timberlake, but they are infinitely more important.
Jake Johnson is a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter: @johnsonjakep.