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A working class act in America

Donald Trump’s critics have overlooked the tremendous impact workers and unions had on his election

 

The upcoming elections for the Governor of Alabama are being closely watched because it is a test of President Donald Trump too. Some argue that it is his unconditional support of the controversial Roy Moore that has actually filled, if not billowed, Republican sails. After all, current surveys conclude that Mr. Trump still has the faithful solidly by him. Almost 62% of them believe he has done nothing wrong since his election. All things considered, this is not that much worse than the 66% rating Mr. Barack Obama’s supporters had given him earlier.

Trump’s appeal

Regardless of what most journalists may say of him, Mr. Trump’s appeal is not in imminent danger. In fact, it tends to flourish under fire. According to Reuters, when Donald Trump Jr. was accused of asking for Russian support, the President’s popularity in swing states, like Ohio, actually got stronger.

Mr. Trump won in 30 states with a clear majority, but as Gary Abernathy reported in The Washington Post, in most of these places not a single newspaper supported him. No wonder, people in the U.S. are still puzzling over Mr. Trump’s victory. Some say it’s a fluke, others put their finger on gender bias, finally, there are those who believe that a freshly minted nationalism explains it all.

But all of them, invariably, shut out the tremendous impact workers and their unions have had on this presidential election. It is another matter what Mr. Trump might do during his term for the rich, but a large part of his campaign pitch was directed straight at the blue-collar class. It needed that little bit to tip the scales in traditional unions-soaked Democratic states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, and that is what happened. Enough workers deserted Hillary Clinton, ignored the call of unions, and voted Trump.

Why were workers upset?

Appearances can be deceptive for Mr. Trump’s campaign was not all bluster and boast. In fact, he may have well used his head and carefully held a match to pent up past grievances among workers. These were waiting to explode for over 20 years and Mr. Trump blew the lid off, to perfection, with his incendiary attacks on Mexico and immigrants.

That he pulled this off so remarkably is because the current working class resentment began in 1993 when Bill Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (or, NAFTA) Implementation Act into law. This was a monumental show of bipartisanship, yet NAFTA was causing anger to many. As it allowed a freer movement of capital, and sometimes labour, between the U.S., Canada and Mexico, organised workers, then and now, opposed it. They feared job cuts would take place and that industries would move out -- both happened.

When Mr. Obama became President, expectations were kindled, especially among Black unionists (who are in a majority), that some changes would happen on the NAFTA front, but nothing did. Indeed, animus against NAFTA was so intense that many workers denied Oreo cookies to their children because the company had moved to Mexico.

Yet, big unions formally hung on to the Democratic Party even as it dithered over NAFTA. This is where Mr. Trump made all the difference. He broke rank and opposed NAFTA like no other leader, Republican or Democrat, before him.

What also helped Mr. Trump look the authentic underdog champ was Ms Clinton’s iffy reputation in this department. She was not just vague on NAFTA but also seemed like damaged goods to many because of her long, uncomplaining stint on Wal-Mart’s Board. Unfortunately for her, this was at a time when that enterprise was being accused, right or wrong, of unethical practices.

Black Americans did not warm up to Ms Clinton either. Black icon, Louis Farrakhan, clearly voiced his unhappiness with her, and he was not alone. To complicate matters for Democrats, its solid ally, the working class unions, were losing members fast, from 21% in 1981 to a mere 11% in 2015. In fact, the number falls to a low 4% if we just take those who are below 25 years old. But Mr. Trump did not start this fire. Unions were emptying out long before he began his campaign to be President.

For example, between 2003-2008, in the automobile sector alone, once known for its powerful organised working class, as many as 1,71,066 jobs were lost and union membership dropped by 1,38,653. New industries, such as construction, did not help either. Even here union membership fell from 86% in the 1940s to 13% today. Consequently, unions were left with hardly any heft. In 1937 they had organised 4,740 strikes, but in 2014, they managed to pull off just 11.

Fifty years ago as many as 28% of voters were from union households, but today less than 13% are. This left the large majority of them to vote as they wished. The legal obligation to belong to an union has also now been lifted.

Workers might have felt compelled to back Democrats in the past because the alternative did not exist. The Republicans, if anything, were even worse for they supported NAFTA with a straighter face and a wider grin. Now, at long last, comes Mr. Trump, freely accusing NAFTA, and years of stamped down sullenness suddenly broke free.

Downturn of unions

The best decades for unions were in the 1930s and 1940s. Most memorable of all was the 1936 General Motors strike in Flint in which spies, blacklegs, guns and clubs were in full display. Over a dozen lives were lost, but the union eventually got what it wanted. The workers in the assembly line and shop floor won a 5% wage hike and the right to talk to each other at lunch.

The subsequent downturn of unions not only hobbled the Democrats, but robbed workers of a listening post and a wailing wall as well. This is because unions also contributed to family welfare and counsel. Even children of unionised workers were better educated than the rest. In addition, as the famous Black scholar, W. E. B. Du Bois, noted, autoworkers’ unions helped tremendously in harmonising race relations, particularly in the 1940s.

This trend became stronger with the merger of the two largest unions in 1955. Yet, over the decades, unions kept losing out, primarily because of the advance of disaggregated service industries and the closing down, or migration, of large scale manufacture, such as of automobile production. Nor should we overlook the fact that, with time, fewer workers are needed to produce more. Far back as 1930, workers made about 10 cars in a year, but today it is in the range of 17-20, indicating a rise in skilled labour which may have hurt membership in organisations such as UAW.

According to Marquita Walker of Purdue University, a large number of those who were retrenched in the financial crisis of 2007-08 stayed unemployed, or underemployed. When NAFTA piled on to all of this, it gave the Democrats a hill too high to climb. As a result, Ms Clinton lost in traditional union stronghold states such as Ohio, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, and it is this slide that finally brought about her downfall.

Mr. Trump’s victory was not a fluke, or a crazy outcome of unpredictable events, or pure jingoism. Fortune reports that non-college graduates, who dominate the working class, continue to support Mr. Trump even today. Workers clearly saw in Mr. Trump somebody who can lead, and not just tweet, from the front.

Dipankar Gupta, an eminent sociologist, was a professor at the School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University

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Printable version | Feb 21, 2020 6:08:45 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/a-working-class-act-in-america/article21432336.ece

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