U.S. Labor Movement Confronts Historic Challenges, Opportunities

Interview with Jackie DiSalvo, an associate professor of English at Baruch College and longtime labor activist, conducted by Scott Harris

On Labor Day, the nation pauses to remember and celebrate the hard-fought victories of the U.S. labor movement over the decades which include: establishment of the 8-hour work day, overtime pay, weekends off, minimum wage laws, paid vacation and paid sick days, workplace safety standards, health benefits, retirement security and unemployment insurance.
But in 2018, labor unions are under severe attack by corporations, the Republican party and allied right-wing political organizations, such as the billionaire Koch brothers-funded Americans For Prosperity. Twenty-seven states across the U.S. already had so-called “right to work laws,” which prevents public sector unions from collecting fair share fees from non-union members who benefit from labor-management negotiated contracts. But on June 27, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against labor in the Janus v. AFSCME case by a 5-4 vote, overturning a 40-year-old high court precedent, extending this prohibition to all 50 states.
However, against this bleak backdrop a wave of militant teachers union strikes were launched across the nation this year in conservative states including: West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona – along with major teacher protests in North Carolina, Kentucky and Colorado. To many labor supporters, this demonstrates that the U.S. labor movement is capable of a rebound, despite a decline in union membership from more than 20 percent of the workforce in 1983 to only 10.7 percent in 2017.  Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Jackie DiSalvo, an associate professor of English at Baruch College and delegate to the Professional Staff Congress union at the City University of New York.  Here, DiSalvo assesses the state of the U.S. labor movement in 2018.

JACKIE DISALVO: Well, the labor movement is really in a very weakened, disastrous state right now. I mean, one figure that gives you a sense of it: In 1954, 34 percent of the workforce was unionized, now it’s 10.7 percent. And that is mostly public sector, which is why teachers are so important, because the private sector has been devastated by globalization, basically just shifting manufacturing abroad and immigration to the extent that immigrants are threatened to the point where they’re afraid to join unions or engage in struggle.

So we’re under all kinds of attacks right now. Trump just arbitrarily cutting the raises won by public employees. And of course, the most dramatic thing that we saw was years ago – not that long ago – when (Gov.) Scott Walker in Wisconsin, canceled collective bargaining and as a result the teachers took over the state Capitol. I went out there because I happened to have been in Wisconsin when the first Graduate Assistant Union was organized and it was the graduate assistants took over the Capitol and then sent out a call and the teachers and eventually workers of all kinds occupied the Capitol demanding collective bargaining rights. So there have been a number of fightbacks.

We’ve heard about all kinds of levels of inequality of wealth and income that are occurring, but one of the ones relevant to workers is that in 1965, the relative (proportion) of CEO to workers’ income was 20 to 1. Now it’s 295 to 1, so inequality of workers vis-à-vis management has increased dramatically.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Jackie, what was interesting in the 2016 election was that you had a number of union households voting for Donald Trump. People talked about labor union members’ frustration with a stagnating wages and Donald Trump’s populist rhetoric, as well as his focus on scapegoating immigrants for people’s economic issues here in this country did persuade a lot of union families to vote for Donald Trump. Tell us a little bit about what you think the the psychology was then in 2016 and what if anything, has changed in 2018?

JACKIE DISALVO: Trump, although he’s very ignorant about many things, he’s pretty smart politically and he was pretty smart to put his focus on jobs in two ways. One was he was going to fight the trade pacts and the other was he was gonna fight immigrants. And workers heard jobs, jobs, jobs.

And they knew that Hillary Clinton and the neoliberals were doing nothing for them in terms of their economic income or their employment. And they’re also one of the reasons people vote for Trump – they want to vote against the neoliberals, but there’s no progressive force to vote for. There’s no third party. There’s no strong labor left.

The labor movement hasn’t created any kind of independent movement independent of the neoliberals, so workers really had no place to go. Now, I’m not saying there was nothing negative. There was a lot of racism and anti-immigrant feeling among the sector of workers. Not all workers for sure, but I think a big part of it we have to recognize it and unless labor begins a fightback that includes an independent political movement, that’s what’s going to happen.

One of the interesting things about the strikes in places like West Virginia is that they refuse to tell the politicians. The union itself was going in negotiating with the politicians, which offered them a paltry increase and the workers said, “No, we’ll stay on strike. We’re not gonna follow the politicians.” And they did and they won.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Well, just a final question, Jackie. When you look at the leadership of the AFL-CIO, Richard Trumpka and other leaders of major unions in the country, do you note any changes, any new thinking, maybe lessons learned from these recent, militant teacher strikes they’ve seen born across the country? The mindset of labor certainly has to change if there’s going to be a turnaround and the loss of membership that’s gone on and on – the hemorrhaging of membership year after year.

JACKIE DISALVO: There are beginning to be class-conscious movements such as the Poor People’s Campaign. The Poor People’s Campaign is trying to unite environmentalism, anti-racism, anti-militarism and economic justice and by doing it, linking up people across races, across geographic areas and I think that the labor movement should be doing that. That’s what it should be doing.

It should be forming militant, politically independent coalitions that support unions and workers and the minimum wage and Medicare for All and free tuition for colleges. I mean, we need a movement with a progressive program. And where’s the labor movement? It hasn’t been doing that because it’s so servile to the Democratic party and it will support any Democrat, no matter how neoliberal.
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