The state of labor on Labor Day, 2017, is precarious, and can only be rectified by a Left, that reasserts class politics and takes its lead from a “universalizing” anti-systemic labor movement.
Severe problems began with the Reagan revolution, which enshrined a ruthless global capitalism and sought to destroy unions. While the GOP and their corporate allies were destroying New Deal worker protections, the Democrats were doing little to stop them. The Clintons’ centrist Third Way took the Democrats out of a New Deal frame and into an embrace of Wall Street and the corporations, cementing the US as the only advanced Western nation with no party of labor.
Outsourcing and robotics, as well as deep cultural divides among workers, have intensified the problem, but they also have political solutions.
Trump, while elected because of the real crisis among workers, has not offered a solution for his white working class base; his extreme anti-union, austerity, and deregulatory policies will hurt them more.
This opens the door to what we call a “universalizing” strategy in which progressives in unions, the Democratic Party and social justice movements – as well as much of the general public that has turned fiercely anti-Establishment –come together to fight the ruling system and create a new New Deal, one that involves new kinds of unions and political policies –and a new labor focus on the Left – through four key new approaches.
1) Union leaders, working with their political allies, must connect better with their own members’ core interests. This means intensely challenging the global corporate power that is hollowing out the working class here, and requires labor working with political allies to rein in corporate power, build public infrastructure and expand social welfare protecting all Americans. If white workers’ core economic interests are protected, they are far more likely to unite across racial and cultural differences for a better standard of life. European unions, even where they represent less than ten percent of the labor force, as in France, have succeeded for decades in winning support among culturally conservative workers by winning political power and preventing corporate oligarchy. Bernie Sanders attracted many white working class votes, proving that progressive populism here can draw culturally conservative workers, but not enough unions supported him in 2016.
2) As workers are increasingly people of color and female, the labor movement must connect better with other social justice movements, such as civil rights and feminist movements, as well as environmental and peace movements. These movements are all fighting the same systemic nexus of power and can only succeed together. The United Steelworkers has set a model of this by building vigorous alliances between labor and civil rights organizations, showing how to unite racially around shared interests.
3) The Left must move away from its current form of identity politics. We need a strong identity politics – especially in the Trump era where women, people of color, immigrants and other Left “identity communities” are under threat. But since the 1960s, the Left has largely abandoned its focus on labor and class politics, leaving an identity politics stripped of class alliances and awareness. This is a devastating situation for the Left; by giving up on changing capitalism, Left identity politics becomes a strategy for doing better within the capitalist regime, thereby reinforcing it. Only a new strong alliance between identity politics and class politics can create a viable Left; this Labor Day is a crucial moment for the Left to recognize its abandonment of class politics, allowing Trump to capture more and more white workers.
4) Labor must help transform the Democratic Party, especially by connecting with the progressive Sanders wing of the Party and allied social justice movements as well as with the broader population not in unions. Joining with the Sanders “revolution” in politics and on the street, labor can reach a majority of the angry and scared working population by being as systemically disruptive as Trump, but with very different politics, The new politics would make a genuine commitment to creating good jobs and social protections in healthcare, education, and retirement now being dismantled by Trump and the GOP. Unions need to support a new assertive public sector and universalize its aims toward comprehensive social welfare and universal human rights, as seen in European nations. In the US, service unions such as nurses and teachers, as well as traditional industrial unions like the USW, are moving this way.
This is not utopian but urgent and realistic. Labor is already beginning to take these steps as inequality grows, economic conditions decline, and a new anti-Establishment American majority demands major change. Labor Day is now a pivotal political moment for labor and the entire nation and world.