An internal struggle for the soul of America’s labor unions may be the perfect microcosm for the wider contest between the “two Americas” that the 2016 election exposed.
“Two Americas” is a phrase the Left has often been fond of using to fan class warfare, racial divisions, or even regional envy. In reality, the widening gap is between Establishment elites and everyday Americans facing real challenges. A microcosm of that is the union vote, which some analysis suggests might have been stronger for President-Elect Donald Trump than any Republican candidate since Ronald Reagan’s 49-state landslide in 1984.
“Trump probably did better than Reagan with that core group of white union members.”
Unions have their own out-of-touch Establishment, more in league with left-wing activism than with the working Americans they claim to represent. That was on grand display this week when activists took their “Fight for $15” movement to 340 cities, also calling for more union rights and immigration reform, intruding on mostly fast food restaurants and major airports in Boston and Chicago.
More than 200 gathered in New York’s Zucotti Park, the birthplace of the flash-in-the-pan Occupy Wall Street movement, which has almost nothing to do with working Americans. With just 11 percent of American workers unionized, labor leaders are trying to stay relevant. In other disruptions, more than 30 were reportedly arrested in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for blocking traffic near a McDonald’s, while 39 were arrested in Detroit and 49 were booked in Los Angeles.
Community organizing has never been an effective way to win over Middle America, and probably won’t be helpful with persuading what’s left of mainstream dues-paying members.
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The nation’s largest labor unions, as organizations, were near uniform in endorsing and bankrolling Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential campaign, save for a handful of mostly law enforcement unions that backed Trump. Still, on Election Day, just 51 percent of rank-and-file union members voted for Clinton, while 43 percent voted for Trump, according to exit polls. And considering polling this year, that might be low-balling union support for Trump.
A Washington Post analysis asserted Trump’s performance with union households “was the best margin for a Republican since … 1984, the election that gave Reagan his second term,” and crunching union numbers then and now, “Trump probably did better than Reagan with that core group of white union members.” One indicator, according to The Post, is that the percentage of white males making up union membership dropped from 48.4 percent in 2000 to 41.9 percent in 2016. Reagan got 46 percent of union support in 1984, according to the Roper Center.
Union leaders, the labor Establishment, are turning to what the Boston Globe called the “alt-labor,” which marks a shift toward pushing legislation, ballot initiatives, organizing demonstrations that often don’t include union members, and buzz phrases such as the “domestic bill of rights.” Basically, this is shifting the role away from negotiating with management on behalf of employees to being massive issue advocacy groups.
While most union members are not on board with a broad conservative agenda, union members are not in lockstep with their leadership, either. When presented with a choice of a candidate stating he’ll protect and grow jobs, compared to a stay-the-course candidate, a sizable number of union members were keen on growth. It’s also quite likely many union members who followed marching orders on Election Day and cast their ballot for Clinton cringe at “alt-labor” demonstrations and disruptions.
As union membership will almost certainly continue to dwindle — if the new Republican president continues a laser focus on working-class issues, and an an out-of-touch union leadership persists — this will only expand the inroads Republicans have made in the rank-and-file working-class vote.