With the election of Donald Trump as president and Republican majorities in both the House and Senate, we are entering a period of existential crisis for unions and our organized power. The coming months and years are going to call for a spirit of maximum solidarity.
In this short piece I describe the likely form and substance of the attacks. Here I’m limiting my discussion to issues that most directly implicate unions, though there’s plenty more for workers to fear from the incoming administration – including increasing privatization and broad-brush deregulation, as well as efforts to pit workers against one another by fanning the flames of racism, sexism and hostility toward immigrants.
PRIVATE SECTOR ‘RIGHT TO WORK’
The Republican Party platform supports state right-to-work laws and calls for a national version.
“Right to work” means “right to work without a union.” In the 27 states that have enacted these laws thus far, unions have no right to collect representation fees from non-members for whom they bargain contracts.
We should expect that Congress will attempt to amend the National Labor Relations Act to enact nationwide right to work in the private sector. Even if this is resisted in the Senate or proactively rebutted by individual states, more states are likely to pass right-to-work laws.
PUBLIC SECTOR ‘RIGHT TO WORK’
Meanwhile, it is nearly certain that the entire public sector will become right to work within 18 months to two years.
Last spring the Supreme Court was poised to strike down Abood, which grants public-sector unions the right to collect “agency” fees. With the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, unions were granted a temporary reprieve, but copycat cases are queuing up now.
The exact time frame will depend on how fast a new Supreme Court justice is approved and the speed with which the court decides to hear a Friedrichs-like case – but its success is all but assured, as a new justice will restore the conservative majority on the court.
SHRINKING UNION BUDGETS
Right-to-work is a financial hit to unions. The risk is that members will stop paying dues and become “free riders,” gaining the benefits of representation without paying for them.
That said, it’s not a death knell. Nevada, a right-to-work state, has maintained relatively impressive union density (around 14 percent) and its unions exercise robust electoral clout. Unprepared unions will be hurt in the short run, and for some the wounds might prove fatal – but there are paths to vibrant labor militancy.
All unions should be organizing now to keep their members. But even for the most successful, right-to-work will mean decisions about what to do with less money. Do you circle the wagons to protect the members? Give up on new organizing? Pull back on movement work – or double down?
What kinds of resources do you put into policy and political candidates? What about collecting the member donations that pay for political work? Unions typically contribute to Democrats and help to lead local, statewide and national get-out-the-vote efforts. What will that look like after right to work? These are the internal decisions unions will face.
WEAKER AT THE TABLE
Weaker unions also mean weaker workers in the coming rounds of contract negotiations.
Despite economic recovery, average wage increases in union contracts in recent years have hovered near the inflation rate. Two- and three-tier wage systems continue to be introduced, workers are paying more for their health coverage, and pensions have grown much weaker for new employees.
These trends could intensify. In particular, public-sector unions have disproportionately lifted the living standards of African-Americans and women, so we will see racial and gendered impacts in wages, pensions and health.
Workers in right-to-work states are significantly less likely to have employer-sponsored pensions or health care. With the promised gutting of the Affordable Care Act and possible cuts to Social Security, right-to-work promises an even greater crisis in health and retirement across the country.
ATTACKS ON FEDERAL WORKERS
Federal unions will also come under direct attack. A long-standing Republican Party goal is to erode or eliminate civil service job protections and security. The party also wants to cut salaries and pensions.
The House already voted to reinstate a rule allowing it to target individual federal employees for firing or pay cuts – to as low as $1 a year!
Overturning the Davis-Bacon Act, which establishes prevailing-wage rules for federal construction projects, will also be high on their list. Republicans are likely to hinge their support for federal infrastructure spending on repealing Davis-Bacon.
Obama’s executive orders for federal contractors will also likely be overturned, including the $10.10 minimum wage, paid sick leave and the mandatory disclosure of labor law violations.
HOSTILE LABOR SECRETARY
In Trump’s cabinet, it seems most nominees are being sent in with missions to destroy the departments they will lead.
The Labor Department, for example, is in charge of enforcing federal labor laws, such as the minimum wage and overtime. But Labor Secretary nominee Andrew Puzder is CEO of the fast-food conglomerate CKE Restaurants. His Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s franchises have been found to be in consistent violation of wage and hour laws.
Puzder has questioned minimum wage increases – most emphatically the $15 rate in his home state of California – and criticized labor laws such as mandatory breaks for workers.
SCHOOL PRIVATIZATION PUSH
At the Education Department, the promotion of billionaire public education opponent Betsy DeVos to Education Secretary would likely mean linking federal school funding to “school choice” efforts including vouchers and charters, two largely non-union sectors.
DeVos’s radical free-market approach to education has already failed in Michigan, where the poor-performing charter system she promoted with her fortune is one of the least regulated in the country.
LABOR BOARD REVERSALS
Trump’s appointments to the National Labor Relations Board also will certainly undo the progress made in recent years.
In jeopardy are rulings that established corporations like McDonald’s as joint employers of the workers at their franchises (which might have opened up a route for unionization there) and granted private-sector graduate students the right to organize.
So is the rule that enabled faster union elections.
Overall, a dire situation. In the struggles to come, I hope a better movement will be born. But we should be prepared for a marathon of a fight.
Penny Lewis teaches labor studies at the Murphy Institute. This article originally appeared in Labor Notes.