As our nation slowly awakens from its Trump-induced coma, we begin to contemplate what the next four years will mean for our most important issues. For workers, and anyone who cares about inequality, the prospects are terrifying.
It is standard to insert the caveat here that Donald Trump is a somewhat unpredictable man and that it is impossible to say with certainty what he will do. But with a Republican Congress and the outlines of Trump’s cabinet and team of advisors being revealed, what we are in store for is becoming clearer by the day. A useful rule of thumb for non-Republicans is that all of the problems you worried about a week ago are still here; it’s just that the prospect for solving them has gotten dramatically worse.
Reports from inside and outside the new administration have coalesced into a sort of conventional wisdom about Trump’s economic plans: he will pour money into infrastructure and defense spending, slash corporate tax rates and taxes on the rich, deregulate banks, and dismantle Obamacare. This is just for starters. Add in at least one and as many as three new conservative Supreme Court justices and you have the recipe for things to be very bad for the poor and working class for a very long time.
The two real existential issues facing our country are climate change and inequality. Forecasting the near future for climate change is easy: it will get worse. Trump has tapped a climate change denier to oversee the EPA and has vowed to exit the Paris climate agreement. The news is very straightforwardly bad. The same is true about inequality—though there is some prospect for salvation, with the right strategy.
The divide between the rich and the poor in America has been rising since the Reagan era. The Obama administration had some modest success against it. Now, we are set to return to Reagan era economic policies. Trump’s debt-fueled spending and enormous tax cuts may help the middle class a tiny bit, but it will help the rich a whole lot more. The wealth gap is going to grow. Inequality, for all the lip service we have been paying it for the past five years, is about to get worse.
There are only two real ways to fight this inequality. We can ask the government to fight it—that option is out—or, we can increase the power of regular workers and enable them to get a fairer share of this nation’s income. (The share of total income going to labor has been declining for decades.) How, in a hostile political environment, can workers do such a thing? Organized labor. Only a large injection of members into unions will be strong enough to counteract what is about to happen.
Unfortunately, the labor movement has been losing this battle for a very long time. Union membership in America is down to about 11% of the working population—and that is going to get worse. This year, after the death of Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court tied on the Friedrichs case, which had the effect of staving off a massive decline in public union membership. Under the Trump Supreme Court, the issue is sure to come back, and this time public unions will lose. Currently, more than one in three public sector workers are in unions, making up about half of all the union members in America. If the public sector union membership rates were to fall to match the rate in the private sector (less than 7%), it would mean the loss of millions of union members and a devastating blow to organized labor’s status as a political force in this country.
In the new world of Trump, strong unions serve two vital functions. They serve as a counterbalance to rising economic inequality, by getting higher wages and more bargaining power for workers; and, more broadly, they are one of the most important bastions of progressive political power in our electoral system. Without the power of organized labor, inequality gets worse and the right wing gets its way more often. At a time like this, when a million different anti-Trump factions are scrambling to come up with plan to oppose this looming dark future, organized labor is a natural base for the movement. We are all different, but we are all workers. Politically, strong unions are important. Economically, strong unions are important. And without a drastic improvement in organized labor’s strategy, unions are guaranteed to get much weaker in the near future.
Capital letters can be crude and offensive to the eye, but this deserves all of the emphasis we can give it: UNIONS MUST ORGANIZE MILLIONS OF NEW WORKERS VERY SOON OR EVERYTHING POLITICAL AND ECONOMICALLY WILL GET WORSE. UNIONS MUST MAKE ORGANIZING MORE UNION MEMBERS THE VERY HIGHEST PRIORITY. NOW. “The labor movement” is not a thing with intrinsic value; it is a thing that has the instrumental value of being the single best way to ensure that America continues to have a middle class. Labor unions just spent well over $100 million on the presidential election. What did they get in return for that money? Nothing. How many workers could have been organized for that money? Many.
I can easily imagine the following scenario: terrified by Trump, labor unions double down on their electoral politics spending over the next four years. As a result, fewer resources are dedicated to organizing, so union membership continues to decline. Then public unions lose in the Supreme Court, and membership declines even further. We are left with a drastically weakened labor movement that serves only a tiny fraction of workers and is too small to make a meaningful difference in the anti-Trump crusades.
It is hard for unions to recruit millions of new members when nobody knows who they are. As someone who reads news for a living, I can definitively say that organized labor is simply not part of the mainstream conversation in America. It is perceived as an outlier, as a special interest, rather than as the first thing that comes to mind after someone thinks “my job sucks.” That needs to change. If I were to address our nation’s union leaders, I would get on my knees and implore them to try new things. To seek out and listen to the younger, internet-savvy activists who actually know how to reach people in our modern age; to acknowledge that they must turn around the downward trend of union membership, for the good of workers and the country at large; and to accept the fact that whatever unions have been doing for the past three decades has failed. The membership numbers prove it. PLEASE TRY NEW THINGS.
Right now, more than half of America is scared of what the future holds and extremely energized to fight. Four years from now, the labor movement will either be resurgent with the energy and power of thousands of newly organized members; or it will be a depleted shell, left behind as people searching for answers look elsewhere. Labor leaders must swallow their pride and open their doors and embrace any idea that will help make unions the indispensable part of the national conversation that they deserve to be.
Think big or get left behind.