Support American Conservative Unions and Workers

"In a position of vulnerability"

How do the trade unions in the USA relate to the new President Donald Trump?

Katy Fox-Hodess: There are unions, especially in the construction and infrastructure sectors, that support Trump. That has something to do with the fact that projects like the gas pipeline in Alaska or the Wall to Mexico create jobs for these industries. That is why they would like to see these projects implemented. These are the unions, which historically have been more conservative in any case. Trump's attempt to renegotiate the NAFTA (Free Trade Agreement between the United States, Canada and Mexico, editor's note) was also supported by several other industrial unions because it is an old union demand that NAFTA be terminated or renegotiated.

How does Trump manage to address workers?

Fox-Hodess: The way Trump presented himself as a populist definitely helped him gain support from the working class. But if you look at the whole spectrum of the unions, you can see that most of them are more against Trump.

Where does this negative attitude come from?

Fox-Hodess: I think one of the actions of Trump that affects the unions most directly is his appointments to the National Labor Relations Board. This agency is something like a Supreme Court that regulates and governs industrial relations in the United States. The agency's actions are very dependent on its members, as they are political envoys. Since Trump's appointments, it is now predominantly rights that occupy important positions. And, of course, any social cuts that Trump causes will affect union members and workers in particular.

To what extent do the unions play a role in protesting Trump?

Amanda Armstrong: One important project is Labor Rising Against Trump, a group of union groups that are mainly active in and around San Francisco. This movement is led by dock workers, including unions for employees in the academic sector. This movement was very involved in mobilizing for demonstrations against Trump. From the Women’s March (protest march for women), right after his first day in office, to actions at the port. So it is a dynamic that varies from region to region when one thinks of the participation of trade unions in the mass demonstrations against Trump.

What is the general position of the trade unions when one thinks of their mobilization potential and their membership figures?

Fox-Hodess: At the national level, the unions are currently rather weak and immobile. That has in part to do with your relationship with the Democrats. The Democratic Party is not really showing any strength in embodying the opposition to Trump and is not taking a leadership role. I think the union movement does not dare to push the Democrats forward or take positions that go further than what the Democrats are signaling. But I think there is another important aspect that actually has nothing to do with Trump.


Fox-Hodess: It's a Supreme Court decision that will likely be made this year. The expectation is that this regulation will be very negative for the unions and will ultimately result in all state unions losing a large part of their financial resources. This is particularly significant in the US because there are very few unions in the private sector: only about five percent of those employed in the private sector are unionized, while in the public sector it is about a third of those employed.

What exactly is this decision about?

Armstrong: So far there is a law that stipulates that public sector workers who are represented by a certain union must pay part of the membership fee even if they choose not to join the union. The Supreme Court could annul this law. That would mean that non-members no longer have to pay any money to the union that represents them.

How are the unions preparing for the decision?

Fox-Hodess: You are frozen in wait for the verdict and are absolutely unprepared for what will come after that. You are therefore in a position of vulnerability.

How did the subject get on the Court's agenda in the first place?

Armstrong: Although this upcoming decision is not the initiative of the Republicans, it shows a process that we see more often in the Supreme Court: When there is a new president, we see that there are campaigns afterwards for certain cases about which that Supreme Court should decide. This is intended to drive the president in a certain direction. As for the specific decision, it is definitely one such campaign, waged by right-wing groups to undermine the political work of unions.

How is it that the restrictive policy against unions is so on the rise?

Fox-Hodess: Right-wing politicians were very strategic in the last few years leading up to the presidential election. As a result, many states now have this right-to-work legislation. That sounds very positive, but in fact these are laws that are directed against the formation and action of trade unions. To understand why workers voted for Trump, one has to see that these laws were passed in states where unions were historically strong and where Democrats were more likely to win the elections.

What do these laws contain and in which states did they come into force?

Armstrong: The laws bypass the federal law that employees pay membership fees for the union they represent. They only work in the states in which they were adopted, but undermine the federal system. They are a foretaste of the Supreme Court decision.
Fox-Hodess: Such laws have already come into force in Michigan and Wisconsin, which voted for the Conservative candidate for the first time in these elections and otherwise voted for the Democrats. I think that this aspect was not given enough consideration in the analysis of Trump's success. The restrictive trade union policies that have been implemented from state to state play an important role in the long run. This is particularly true of the Democratic electoral repertoire, for whom union members are one of the main target groups.

If the unions are so weakened, how did they successfully fight to raise the minimum wage in 2015 in Seattle?

Fox-Hodess: It's important to understand that the situation varies greatly from state to state. There are states like California or New York where there are still very strong unions and a high proportion of employees are unionized, comparable to countries in Western Europe. In contrast, the situation in other states, in the center of the USA or in the south, is completely different: The laws are very restrictive and in some states only one to three percent of employees are unionized. In states where the legal situation is more positive and where unions are historically more firmly anchored, workers can still achieve success, despite Trump's policies. But the national situation of the trade unions looks very bleak.

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