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The Union Members Who Voted for Trump Have to Be Organized—Not Ignored

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Although Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump will be leav­ing the White House, pro­gres­sives must reck­on with the fact that 74 mil­lion peo­ple?—?almost a third of whom came from house­holds mak­ing under $50,000—vot­ed for him. It is alarm­ing that so many work­ing-class peo­ple would vote against their class inter­ests, but per­haps most alarm­ing of all are the union mem­bers who were drawn in by Trump­ism. Before the 2016 elec­tion, Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates had long won union house­holds by com­fort­able dou­ble-dig­it mar­gins; but in 2016 and 2020, Trump erod­ed those mar­gins. If the Left is to win pro­gres­sive poli­cies (and the next pres­i­den­tial elec­tion), it needs a mil­i­tant labor move­ment. Unions, after all, are one of the only effec­tive work­ing-class insti­tu­tions in this coun­try that can engage work­ers to build pow­er on the job and in soci­ety at large. We must under­stand who these union Trump vot­ers are, why they vot­ed for Trump, and what can be done to win them back. 

Many on the Left have writ­ten off Trump sup­port­ers as a lost cause or unwor­thy of effort. This response is under­stand­able, par­tic­u­lar­ly for peo­ple of col­or and oth­ers direct­ly harmed by Trump poli­cies. And we should by no means court the vocal sub­set of Trump­ists who are vir­u­lent white supremacists. 

But most Amer­i­cans hold a con­fus­ing mix of polit­i­cal beliefs that will nev­er fit square­ly with­in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic and Repub­li­can par­ties. When the group Work­ing Amer­i­ca held in-depth con­ver­sa­tions with more than 2,300work­ing-class vot­ers in so-called bat­tle­ground states in 2016 and 2017, it found that beliefs didn’t map to par­ty lines: Vot­ers believed in both expand­ing the coal indus­try and pro­tect­ing the envi­ron­ment; in both uni­ver­sal health­care and keep­ing out ?“free­load­ing” refugees; in both ban­ning abor­tion and low­er­ing health­care costs. A 2019 poll from the Kaiser Fam­i­ly Foun­da­tion and Cook Polit­i­cal Report found that, in bat­tle­ground states, 70% of respon­dents sup­port­ed a path­way to cit­i­zen­ship for undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grants and yet 71% felt it was a bad idea not to detain peo­ple who crossed the bor­der with­out doc­u­men­ta­tion. Not every issue dri­ves vot­ing behav­ior: 70% of Amer­i­cans sup­port Medicare for All, and yet the pres­i­den­tial can­di­date cham­pi­oning the pol­i­cy (Sen. Bernie Sanders) came up short. 

If the goal of reach­ing out to Trump vot­ers is to acti­vate their pro­gres­sive beliefs strong­ly enough to influ­ence their vot­ing behav­ior, then union Trump vot­ers should be a promis­ing place to start. A good union nat­u­ral­ly ties the fate of the work­er to oth­ers, a pow­er­ful counter-nar­ra­tive to the rugged indi­vid­u­al­ism our soci­ety (and Trump) pro­motes. Union mem­bers are also (the­o­ret­i­cal­ly) trained and expe­ri­enced in fight­ing their boss­es. Being part of a strug­gle against a boss means reliance on fel­low work­ers, regard­less of race and gen­der and oth­er social divi­sions. Unions them­selves, of course, need to embark on a far-reach­ing pro­gram for mem­ber­ship to put these strug­gles in con­text?—?one that doesn’t shy away from tough ques­tions in fear of upset­ting a (ten­u­ous) sense of unity. 

Dis­cus­sions around immi­gra­tion and racism, for exam­ple, are chal­leng­ing in their own right but have become espe­cial­ly charged since Trump took office. Avoid­ing these top­ics may pre­serve a sense of uni­ty in the short term but dam­ages the long-term abil­i­ty of work­ers to forge sol­id bonds of sol­i­dar­i­ty and orga­nize to fight against racism and social pro­grams like Medicare for All. 

To under­stand how unions might reach the union Trump vot­er, we can look at how sim­i­lar efforts have suc­ceed­ed and failed?—?and get to know union Trump vot­ers themselves. 

The Trump Unionist

Tony Rei­tano, 49, works in main­te­nance at a Bridge­stone plant in Iowa. He is a mem­ber of the Unit­ed Steel­work­ers and vot­ed for Trump in 2016 and 2020. Rei­tano tells In These Times, ?“I liked what [Trump] said about trade deals in 2016; that was a big thing for me … bring­ing jobs back to Amer­i­ca.” He adds, ?“And this time around, [Trump] did, or tried to accom­plish, all of the things he said he was going to do … like back­ing away from the [Trans-Pacif­ic Part­ner­ship].” (The Unit­ed Steel­work­ers, which endorsed Biden in 2020 and Clin­ton in 2016, oppos­es the trade deal, on the grounds that jobs would be lost.)

Trump vot­ers often cite their con­cern with jobs and wages as the rea­son they vot­ed for him. While most vot­ers rank the econ­o­my as one of their most impor­tant issues, 84% of Trump vot­ers rat­ed the econ­o­my as ?“very impor­tant” in 2020, com­pared to Biden sup­port­ers’ 66%.

Lynne (who didn’t want her last name used for fear of social retal­i­a­tion), 62, is a retired teacher and union mem­ber in the sub­urbs of Philadel­phia. A reg­is­tered Inde­pen­dent, Lynne vot­ed for Oba­ma in 2008, moved by his mes­sage of hope and change. Like Rei­tano, she was drawn to Trump in 2016by his eco­nom­ic promis­es?—?and vot­ed Trump again in 2020. ?“You can’t care about oth­er poli­cies if you’re wor­ried about los­ing your house or if your chil­dren don’t have food or if your heat may get turned off,” Lynne tells In These Times. ?“Hav­ing shel­ter and food is everyone’s num­ber one con­cern. And with Trump, we had the low­est unem­ploy­ment rate in this coun­try … for every­one, includ­ing Lati­nos and Blacks.”

Trump clear­ly under­stood that a strong eco­nom­ic mes­sage would be the key to vic­to­ry, boast­ing about the unem­ploy­ment rate on the 2020 cam­paign trail. But the Trump unem­ploy­ment rate only decreased slight­ly before the pan­dem­ic, and like­ly because of Oba­ma-era poli­cies. Mean­while, wage growth has stag­nat­ed or declined for the bot­tom 70% of work­ers since the 1970s and the Job Qual­i­ty Index (a proxy for the over­all health of the U.S. jobs mar­ket) fell sig­nif­i­cant­ly after 2006 and nev­er recovered.

Amid this uncer­tain­ty, Trump par­layed eco­nom­ic con­cerns into his brand of racism to dri­ve white vot­ers. Of course, many Trump vot­ers do not con­sid­er Trump an ardent racist. For exam­ple, Ernie Jus­tice, 76, a retired coal min­er in Ken­tucky, tells In These Times that ?“there’s not a racist drop of blood in Don­ald Trump.” Like Lynne, Jus­tice also vot­ed for Oba­ma and lat­er Trump. Lynne, too, says she ?“doesn’t real­ly see the racism.” Demonstrators at a #StopTheSteal rally line the streets in support of President Donald Trump on November 7, 2020, in Carson City, Nev. Despite no evidence of voter fraud, Trump has insisted since the election that victory was stolen from him by various outside forces. Trump made gains against Democrats by winning a higher proportion of union votes—a former Democratic bastion—than any previous Republican candidate since Reagan. 

But Trump cer­tain­ly asso­ci­at­ed the decline in qual­i­ty of life expe­ri­enced by white work­ers with not only the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, but immi­grants and oth­er peo­ple of col­or. George Goehl, direc­tor of the nation­al grass­roots orga­niz­ing net­work People’s Action, says ?“Democ­rats’ lack of will­ing­ness to name the ene­my?—?run­away cor­po­rate pow­er?—?just left a huge vac­u­um for the Right to use race and immigration.”

While Repub­li­cans authored the so-called right-to-work leg­is­la­tion that has under­mined union orga­niz­ing, Democ­rats are the pro­po­nents of the free trade agree­ments that have decreased wages and off-shored jobs. Decades of eco­nom­ic dev­as­ta­tion?—?includ­ing loss of good union jobs in the Rust Belt, fac­to­ries mov­ing abroad and stag­nant wages— opened a door for Trump to step through. Goehl says peo­ple have ?“clear­ly been punched in the gut tons of times by neolib­er­al­ism”?—?and Trump’s cam­paign cap­i­tal­ized on that by promis­ing to bring back man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs.

This land­scape is dif­fi­cult for both unions and the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. While union lead­er­ship has thrown its weight behind Democ­rats in hopes of bet­ter orga­niz­ing ter­rain, estab­lish­ment Democ­rats are caught between unions and their party’s alle­giance to big busi­ness. And the Democ­rats have a his­to­ry of mak­ing labor promis­es they don’t keep. In 2008, Oba­ma ran on pass­ing the Employ­ee Free Choice Act, which would have made the process of union­iza­tion faster and eas­i­er?—?but didn’t cham­pi­on the bill once elect­ed. And unions, which are no match for lob­by­ing efforts by giant cor­po­ra­tions like Wal­mart or Home Depot, couldn’t win the law alone. Repeat­ed dis­ap­point­ments have led union mem­bers to lose faith in insti­tu­tions they once held dear.

That loss of faith played out in the 2016 and 2020 elec­tions. After unions spent record amounts on cam­paigns to defeat Trump, Hillary Clin­ton won union house­holds by only 8% in 2016 (to Obama’s 18% in 2012), a small enough mar­gin to cost her Penn­syl­va­nia, Michi­gan and Wis­con­sin (and the elec­tion). And after unions broke that 2016 record in 2020, Biden won union house­holds by 16% (and won those three states back), but Trump won union house­holds in Ohio by 12% (which Oba­ma had won by 23%). Unions can spend huge amounts of mon­ey and mobi­lize the votes of a (declin­ing) por­tion of their mem­bers, but to keep those mem­bers from slip­ping away, they’ll need to do much more.

A Bat­tle of Ideas

Each of the three Trump vot­ers who spoke with In These Times for this sto­ry men­tioned jobs and the econ­o­my as big issues, but all inde­pen­dent­ly shared con­cerns about open bor­ders, lat­er abor­tions, and the creep of social­ism and com­mu­nism. These issues are dis­cussed near­ly con­stant­ly on Fox News and by con­ser­v­a­tive radio per­son­al­i­ties like Rush Lim­baugh and Sean Han­ni­ty. And as trust of the media is at an almost all-time low, many Trump sup­port­ers only tune into media that reflects what they already believe?—?just as cen­trist and lib­er­al Democ­rats watch CNN or MSNBC. Nev­er mind that the U.S.-Mexico bor­der wall was start­ed under Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton, lat­er abor­tions are exceed­ing­ly rare and most social­ist orga­niz­ing is about basic rights, like health­care and a liv­ing wage.

The con­stant onslaught of hate­ful mes­sages from rightwing media and the war waged against the work­ing class by the rich has led U.S. work­ers into a fog of con­fu­sion with­out an ide­o­log­i­cal bea­con to help clar­i­fy and fight back. The unions that have sur­vived have become more insu­lar, increas­ing­ly focused on the imme­di­ate issues of their own mem­bers, tak­ing a con­ces­sion­ary approach that treats boss­es like coali­tion part­ners. If the Left and unions hope to make appeals to union Trump vot­ers (and oth­er sec­tions of the work­ing class), this strat­e­gy must change.

Unions need to cut through the right-wing fog of dis­in­for­ma­tion by offer­ing edu­ca­tion­al pro­grams of their own to explain the sys­temic prob­lems caus­ing the decline in work­ers’ con­di­tions. One mod­el, offered by People’s Action, has shown that talk­ing with Trump sup­port­ers about sys­temic issues can effec­tive­ly shift atti­tudes. Begin­ning in 2017, George Goehl and People’s Action embarked on a rur­al and small-town orga­niz­ing project, focused on ?“deep can­vass­ing,” to show white peo­ple how sys­temic racism is real and active­ly harm­ing them and their com­mu­ni­ties. (Some of these peo­ple are union mem­bers, though many are not.) While many (espe­cial­ly non­white) peo­ple on the Left find it dif­fi­cult to have con­ver­sa­tions with Trump sup­port­ers (fear­ing abuse or just afraid of wast­ed ener­gy), Goehl sees the talks as cru­cial. ?“While you are much more like­ly to live in pover­ty if you are Black or Lati­no, the largest group of peo­ple liv­ing in pover­ty are white peo­ple,” Goehl says. ?“And a Left say­ing, ?‘We are not going to be in rela­tion­ship with the largest group of peo­ple liv­ing in pover­ty’ … seems nuts.” 

People’s Action has had near­ly 10,000 con­ver­sa­tions in rur­al areas since the 2016 elec­tion, most­ly with Oba­ma vot­ers who flipped to Trump. While immi­gra­tion is a con­tro­ver­sial issue all over the coun­try (includ­ing inside the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty), objec­tion to a wider immi­gra­tion pol­i­cy is high­er in rur­al areas, pre­sum­ably because of the ease of blam­ing immi­grants for a lack of jobs. Dur­ing their deep can­vass­es, People’s Action orga­niz­ers found that the mos­tused word was ?“lack,” and that eco­nom­ic inse­cu­ri­ty rever­ber­at­ed through all respons­es. ?“When we asked peo­ple who they saw as respon­si­ble for the declin­ing con­di­tions,” Goehl says, ?“peo­ple were able to pick mul­ti­ple answers, and 41% of peo­ple said undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grants, but 81% [said] a gov­ern­ment encap­tured by corporations.”

Onah Ossai, an orga­niz­er with Penn­syl­va­nia Stands Up, which is affil­i­at­ed with People’s Action, tells In These Times, ?“Peo­ple at the top [are] using race and class to divide us so that they can turn around and pick our pock­ets. … Every­one [whose door we knock on] agrees with that.”

Melis­sa Crop­per, pres­i­dent of the Ohio Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers and sec­re­tary trea­sur­er of the Ohio AFL-CIO, echoes Goehl, telling In These Times, ?“It’s hard to get out and have these grass­roots-lev­el con­ver­sa­tions, but we need to invest in grass­roots orga­niz­ers from the com­mu­ni­ties who can have these con­ver­sa­tions and can work [on solu­tions] with the community.”

Unions can fol­low People’s Action by hold­ing more polit­i­cal dis­cus­sions with their mem­bers about how the labor move­ment (and the Left) fights for work­ing peo­ple. But they must also show the path for­ward?—?how work­ers them­selves can join the fight to rein in cor­po­rate power.

Rebuild­ing unions?—?orga­niz­ing more work­ers?—?is the first step toward a broad­er work­er coali­tion. But People’s Action and pro­gres­sive union­ists also believe race and class issues are keys to a coher­ent Left?—?because if we ignore them, the Right will use them to dri­ve a white, reac­tionary, pop­ulist movement.

Tamika Woods and Amir Langhorne, pictured here in Graham, N.C. in 2017, are canvassers with Down Home North Carolina. The group is affiliated with the national organizing network People’s Action and relies heavily on “deep canvassing”—in-depth conversations with voters to shift perspectives on key political issues. PHOTO COURTESY OF PEOPLE’S ACTION

“[Labor lead­ers] have to … explain the con­struc­tion of race and cap­i­tal­ism,” says Bill Fletch­er Jr., exec­u­tive edi­tor of The Glob­al African Work­er and for­mer AFL-CIO staffer. ?“The absence of that, and the reliance on so-called diver­si­ty pro­grams, at best teach­es tol­er­ance but does not get at the par­tic­u­lar role that race plays as a divi­sion of the work­ing class. They need to embark on mas­sive inter­nal edu­ca­tion­al efforts.”

Unions should place a high­er pre­mi­um on build­ing sol­i­dar­i­ty among the work­ing class as a whole, in all of its diver­si­ty. One exam­ple is the 2020part­ner­ship between the Unit­ed Elec­tri­cal Work­ers (UE) and the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca (DSA). The groups formed the Emer­gency Work­place Orga­niz­ing Com­mit­tee to help work­ers orga­nize on the job in the midst of Covid-19. It’s exact­ly the kind of alliance the Left and the labor move­ment should forge, ampli­fy­ing both groups’ impacts by orga­niz­ing new work­ers and engag­ing exist­ing membership.

These types of alliances demon­strate an atti­tude of ?“not me, us” (to quote Sanders’ pres­i­den­tial cam­paign slo­gan)— the key to build­ing work­er trust and tak­ing on the pow­er­ful forces ulti­mate­ly respon­si­ble for the eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty so many expe­ri­ence. Rei­tano believes strong­ly in his union, but he wor­ries that new hires, who are immi­grants, won’t join the union or won’t fight for high­er wages, because they are used to low­er wage stan­dards. ?“If the union can edu­cate these peo­ple so they under­stand that we have to stand togeth­er, I think it’ll be okay,” he says. In a sit­u­a­tion like this, a union polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion pro­gram could not only engage new mem­bers, as Rei­tano sug­gests, but also forge sol­i­dar­i­ty and trust across the old guard/?new guard divide.

Cur­rent­ly, how­ev­er, many unions focus pri­mar­i­ly on mobi­liz­ing their mem­bers to vote, rather than on a more robust polit­i­cal pro­gram. In many cas­es, mem­bers don’t have a mech­a­nism to even offer input on the polit­i­cal endorse­ments of their locals and inter­na­tion­als. Instead, every union shop should have stew­ards who con­stant­ly engage work­ers in edu­ca­tion­al pro­grams and strug­gles on the shop floor. Unions launched cam­paigns like this in antic­i­pa­tion of the 2018 Janus Supreme Court deci­sion, which allowed pub­lic-sec­tor employ­ees in union shops to get the ben­e­fits of the union with­out pay­ing for them. Many unions around the coun­try began proac­tive cam­paigns to talk one-on-one with their mem­bers about the impor­tance of their union. In the con­ver­sa­tions, they stressed the pow­er of col­lec­tive action and exposed the right-wing forces try­ing to under­mine unions through Janus and oth­er mea­sures. They encour­aged mem­bers to recom­mit to being dues-pay­ing mem­bers even though they would soon have the abil­i­ty to become ?“free riders.”

None of this work will be easy, but unless unions com­mit to this edu­ca­tion­al work, Trump­ism will con­tin­ue to grow and the pos­si­bil­i­ty of achiev­ing pol­i­cy that can actu­al­ly help work­ing peo­ple will dimin­ish. (Left unchecked, Trump­ism also could dri­ve an increas­ing­ly vio­lent alt-Right.) The Left must sup­port unions in this work by engag­ing in part­ner­ships (like the DSA/UE part­ner­ship) and encour­ag­ing work­ers to orga­nize and union­ize. 

The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, for its part, must prove itself wor­thy of the union vote. Right now, tens of mil­lions of work­ers (both union and nonunion) are suf­fer­ing through unem­ploy­ment, hous­ing inse­cu­ri­ty, hunger and a lack of health­care in a dev­as­tat­ing pan­dem­ic. The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty lead­er­ship has bare­ly lift­ed a fin­ger to put up a real fight to win relief that is des­per­ate­ly need­ed by so many. They could take exam­ple from Sen. Sanders, who has voiced his oppo­si­tion to the most recent pro­posed ?“com­pro­mise” stim­u­lus bill. While mil­lions suf­fer through the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic with woe­ful­ly inad­e­quate fed­er­al sup­port, Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty lead­er­ship has refused to go big, choos­ing to ignore the pro­gres­sive Dems’ ear­ly push for month­ly cash pay­ments and expand­ed Medicare. With­out these steps, the Democ­rats should not expect work­ing peo­ple to vote for them with­out question.

With­out coun­ter­mea­sures from unions and Democ­rats alike, Repub­li­cans will con­tin­ue to turn the union vote. A 2020 Delaware Sen­ate race between Repub­li­can chal­lenger Lau­ren Witzke and Demo­c­ra­t­ic incum­bent Sen. Christo­pher Coons offers a glimpse of what’s to come. Though she lost (with 38% of the vote), Witzke ran on an ?“Amer­i­ca First” plat­form includ­ing sup­port for unions and col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing, oppo­si­tion to immi­gra­tion (on the basis that migrant work­ers wors­en con­di­tions of all work­ers), and an anti-abor­tion stance.

While Trump’s racism like­ly pro­voked many white pro­fes­sion­als to vote against him in 2020, it did not deter a grow­ing group of peo­ple of col­or?—?and what’s even more alarm­ing than a whites-only right-wing move­ment is a mul­tira­cial one. To counter the appeal of Trump­ism, we need to build a mul­tira­cial, work­ing-class labor move­ment that can arm work­ers with sol­i­dar­i­ty and a renewed com­mit­ment to strug­gle for the world we deserve.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on December 28, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mindy Isser works in the labor move­ment and lives in Philadelphia.


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Trump Is Waging War on the VA’s Union, and Workers Are Living in Fear

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As Don­ald Trump cam­paigns for reelec­tion by declar­ing his love for the mil­i­tary and its vet­er­ans, the union that rep­re­sents more than a quar­ter of a mil­lion Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Affairs (VA) employ­ees says that the Trump admin­is­tra­tion has cre­at­ed an atmos­phere of fear and retal­i­a­tion among the peo­ple tasked with tak­ing care of America’s veterans.

More than 250,000 VA work­ers are rep­re­sent­ed by the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Gov­ern­ment Employ­ees (AFGE), and the union says that the VA’s con­tract is the largest sin­gle pub­lic sec­tor union con­tract in the coun­try. Nego­ti­a­tions for a new con­tract are cur­rent­ly mired before a “Fed­er­al Ser­vices Impasse Pan­el,” which is tasked with resolv­ing bar­gain­ing dis­putes. (AFGE also filed a law­suit against the pan­el itself, charg­ing that its anti-union pres­i­den­tial appointees were improp­er­ly installed. Regard­less, the union expects the pan­el to ren­der a deci­sion on its con­tract in a mat­ter of weeks). The bureau­crat­ic maneu­ver­ings sur­round­ing the con­tract are just the lat­est man­i­fes­ta­tion of a years-long cru­sade by the Trump admin­is­tra­tion to crush fed­er­al unions—one that VA union lead­ers say is push­ing their mem­bers to the break­ing point. 

In These Times spoke to the pres­i­dents of three AFGE union locals, who rep­re­sent thou­sands of VA mem­bers across the coun­try. They paint­ed a pic­ture of an agency in which employ­ees live in fear of retal­i­a­tion from man­age­ment if they speak out about injus­tice in the work­place. And they say that the effects of a set of 2018 Trump admin­is­tra­tion exec­u­tive orders that dras­ti­cal­ly restrict­ed the union’s rights—in par­tic­u­lar by slash­ing the “offi­cial time” pro­vi­sion giv­ing access to union rep­re­sen­ta­tives at work, and by kick­ing the unions out of their long­time office space inside VA build­ings—have weak­ened the VA itself and made work­ers’ lives hard­er, even jeop­ar­diz­ing safe­ty in the midst of a pan­dem­ic. The real­i­ty for VA employ­ees is quite dif­fer­ent from Trump’s rhetoric about valu­ing vet­er­ans above all. 

Keena Smith, the pres­i­dent of AFGE Local 2192 in St. Louis, says that the Trump administration’s orders have evis­cer­at­ed the union’s last con­tract, strip­ping out health and safe­ty pro­vi­sions and whistle­blow­er pro­tec­tions, and severe­ly cut­ting back employ­ees’ rights to fight back against dis­ci­pli­nary actions. She describes a work­place in which VA employ­ees who process claims are “ter­ri­fied” that they will be fired for fail­ing to meet unre­al­is­tic quotas. 

“It’s def­i­nite­ly changed how we work and how we’re able to ser­vice our employ­ees. Over 80% of the employ­ees [here] are vet­er­ans them­selves,” says Smith, who is also a U.S. mil­i­tary vet­er­an. “These attacks become per­son­al… this is the thanks that you give those vet­er­ans who have already done their time. You put on fear tac­tics, and stan­dards that are almost impos­si­ble to make.” 

Smith seems gen­uine­ly stag­gered by the con­tempt with which the admin­is­tra­tion has treat­ed her union mem­bers, who process ben­e­fit and com­pen­sa­tion claims for vet­er­ans. “We lit­er­al­ly got evic­tion notices” for union offices in VA facil­i­ties,” she says, still incred­u­lous. “They said, ‘You have to get out or pay rent.’ What?” 

For the past three years, Lin­da Ward-Smith has led AFGE Local 1224 in Las Vegas, rep­re­sent­ing about 3,000 work­ers at a VA hos­pi­tal. “Pri­or to the Trump admin­is­tra­tion tak­ing over, I can attest to you that man­age­ment and labor had cor­dial rela­tion­ships,” includ­ing week­ly labor-man­age­ment meet­ings to dis­cuss work­ing con­di­tions, she says. That has all changed since Trump’s exec­u­tive orders. Now, she says, man­age­ment is so unre­spon­sive that it has left many of the union’s mem­bers dispir­it­ed and ques­tion­ing the point of the union’s existence. 

“We’d hear rumors like, ‘the union isn’t here any more, there’s nobody for us.’ Espe­cial­ly when we got kicked out of the office and our equip­ment got tak­en away,” says Ward-Smith. Though she still tries to meet with man­age­ment as she can, “I feel like I’m at their mer­cy. I have to some­times bite my tongue and do things on behalf of the mem­bers. But now the man­agers feel empow­ered as if they’re Superman.” 

Christi­na Noël, a press sec­re­tary for the VA, says of the ongo­ing con­tract bat­tle, “AFGE has con­sis­tent­ly fought for the sta­tus quo and opposed attempts to make the VA work bet­ter for Vet­er­ans and their fam­i­lies. It’s no sur­prise that AFGE has tak­en the same approach with its refusal to accept com­mon­sense improve­ments to its col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agreement.”

For Bar­bara Whit­son Casano­va, who has led AFGE Local 2054 in Arkansas for two decades, deal­ing with the Trump admin­is­tra­tion “was like wak­ing up in a for­eign coun­try.” As the VA has become almost com­plete­ly unwill­ing to work with the union unless it is legal­ly required to, a con­se­quence has been that the union is oblig­at­ed to use the legal arbi­tra­tion process to address minor dis­putes that in the past could have been solved with good faith dis­cus­sions. Casano­va says that before Trump, her local might have only filed one arbi­tra­tion case per year; now, it has 17 arbi­tra­tion cas­es in process, each one cost­ing the gov­ern­ment itself thou­sands of dol­lars to litigate. 

“We feel like our Com­man­der in Chief has waged war on his troops,” she says. “The staff is burned out and liv­ing in fear.” 

All gov­ern­ment employ­ees now have “right to work” sta­tus, mean­ing that the union is oblig­at­ed to rep­re­sent them, but can­not make them pay dues if they don’t want to. Nor do the VA’s work­ers have the right to strike, by law (a right that not even pub­lic sec­tor union lead­ers are will­ing to spend the polit­i­cal cap­i­tal to fight for). Those legal restric­tions, com­bined with the Trump administration’s bat­tle against labor rights of fed­er­al work­ers, have left AFGE strug­gling for ways to assert its pow­er. “It’s a bat­tle not to give up and feel total­ly hope­less,” Casano­va admits. 

The VA’s union holds infor­ma­tion­al pick­ets and ral­lies to pub­li­cize its plight, and is enmeshed in law­suits against the gov­ern­ment, but it is unwill­ing to vio­late the law with more aggres­sive labor actions. Boxed in by reg­u­la­tions designed specif­i­cal­ly to lim­it its pow­er, the union lead­ers inside the VA say that the bal­lot box is their only promis­ing route back to nor­mal­cy. AFGE has endorsed Joe Biden, who has said he will roll back Trump’s exec­u­tive orders. Ward-Smith believes that every­thing hangs in the bal­ance on Elec­tion Day. 

“If we con­tin­ue the way we are,” she says, “the union will not be in existence.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on September 24, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. You can reach him at [email protected]


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What’s at Stake for the Labor Movement on Election Day? Everything.

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Amer­i­ca is in cri­sis. There can be no doubt about that. All of our imme­di­ate crises—the pan­dem­ic and the unem­ploy­ment and the eco­nom­ic col­lapse and the death spi­ral of var­i­ous pub­lic insti­tu­tions—have lent the upcom­ing pres­i­den­tial elec­tion an air of emer­gency. For work­ing peo­ple in Amer­i­ca, though, the emer­gency is noth­ing new at all. What is at stake for labor in this elec­tion is every­thing. Noth­ing, there­fore, has changed. 

Don­ald Trump and the coro­n­avirus, the two fac­tors infus­ing this elec­tion with urgency, are of recent vin­tage. But the cri­sis for work­ing Amer­i­cans has been grow­ing worse for at least four decades. Since the Rea­gan era, eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty has been ris­ing, union pow­er has been declin­ing, and glob­al cap­i­tal­ism has been widen­ing the chasm between the rich and every­one else. 

Orga­nized labor has been fight­ing a los­ing—and some­times inept­ly fought—bat­tle against these trends in every elec­tion since 1980. The once-in-a-cen­tu­ry cat­a­stro­phe sur­round­ing the 2020 elec­tion may be what it needs to final­ly reverse two gen­er­a­tions of dis­re­spect and defeat. 

Labor unions, which rep­re­sent work­ers in a work­place, have always includ­ed peo­ple of all polit­i­cal stripes. The labor move­ment—the broad­er uni­verse of groups pur­su­ing the inter­ests of work­ing peo­ple—will con­tin­ue to lean left, in the direc­tion that val­ues labor over cap­i­tal. (See­ing police unions endorse Trump, whose admin­is­tra­tion is deter­mined to crush labor rights, is an exam­ple of the fact that indi­vid­ual unions and their mem­bers can act in self-inter­est­ed ways that go against the labor move­ment as a whole.) 

For rough­ly the past half cen­tu­ry, union house­holds have tend­ed to vote Demo­c­ra­t­ic by about a 60–40 mar­gin, but that mar­gin has fluc­tu­at­ed. In 1980, Ronald Rea­gan nar­rowed the gap to only a few points. Barack Oba­ma took the union vote by 34 points in 2012, but in 2016, that gap shrank by half. Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee Joe Biden, tout­ing his Oba­ma con­nec­tions and fac­ing an out­right incom­pe­tent racist, will like­ly expand that mar­gin again. 

Since Con­gress passed the Taft-Hart­ley Act in 1947, unions have been oper­at­ing in the frame­work of a set of labor laws designed to rob them of pow­er. The state of those laws today is abysmal. The right to strike is restrict­ed, and com­pa­nies have been able to clas­si­fy large swaths of their work­ers as “inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors,” who lack the right to union­ize. More than half the states in the coun­try have passed “right to work” laws, which give work­ers the abil­i­ty to opt out of pay­ing union dues, mak­ing it extreme­ly dif­fi­cult for unions to orga­nize and main­tain mem­ber­ship. The 2018 Supreme Court deci­sion in the Janus v. AFSCME case made the entire pub­lic sec­tor “right to work” as well, which is sure to eat into that last bas­tion of strong union den­si­ty. The unful­filled desire to achieve some sem­blance of labor law reform has been the pri­ma­ry rea­son that unions in Amer­i­ca have poured mon­ey into the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty for decades, despite get­ting decid­ed­ly mod­est leg­isla­tive wins in return. 
“It’s critical that in the new administration, labor doesn’t just get siloed: ‘What’s the thing we can do to make the unions happy’ It’s got to be an approach to looking across everything, especially in light of the economic situation.” —Sharon Block, former Labor Department official in the Obama administration

Ear­li­er this year, Sharon Block, a for­mer Labor Depart­ment offi­cial in the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion who now heads the Labor and Work­life Pro­gram at Har­vard, and labor expert and Har­vard pro­fes­sor Ben­jamin Sachs spear­head­ed the assem­bly of the “Clean Slate for Work­er Pow­er” agen­da—some­thing of a union-friend­ly labor law plat­form for Democ­rats in exile dur­ing the Trump years. That agen­da is a fair sum­ma­tion of the labor movement’s wish list. It calls for a swath of reforms that make it eas­i­er for all work­ers to orga­nize and exer­cise pow­er. Its pil­lars include sec­toral bar­gain­ing, which would allow entire indus­tries to nego­ti­ate con­tracts at once; a much broad­er right to strike; work­er rep­re­sen­ta­tives on cor­po­rate boards; stream­lined union elec­tions; more labor rights for inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors and oth­er gig work­ers; the end of statewide “right to work” laws; and stronger enforce­ment of labor stan­dards. Biden’s own labor plat­form, while not quite as rad­i­cal—it con­spic­u­ous­ly does not include sec­toral bar­gain­ing—does include the major­i­ty of the Clean Slate agen­da. Biden’s plat­form also says there will be a “cab­i­net-lev­el work­ing group” of union rep­re­sen­ta­tives, which could pre­sum­ably push his plat­form even fur­ther left. Though Biden was among the most cen­trist of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry can­di­dates, the party’s cen­ter has moved so much in the past four years that he has the most left­ist labor plat­form of any nom­i­nee since the New Deal. 

While Biden is regard­ed by many as very pro-union, his­to­ry has taught the labor move­ment that its great­est chal­lenge will be get­ting him to actu­al­ly pri­or­i­tize labor if he assumes pow­er. “I had the priv­i­lege of see­ing Joe Biden in action. When he walked into a room where we were dis­cussing pol­i­cy, we knew that the inter­ests of work­ers, their col­lec­tive pow­er, and the labor move­ment was going to be on the table,” Block says. But, she warns, “It’s crit­i­cal that in the new admin­is­tra­tion, labor doesn’t just get siloed: ‘What’s the thing we can do to make the unions hap­py’ It’s got to be an approach to look­ing across every­thing, espe­cial­ly in light of the eco­nom­ic situation.”

In oth­er words, the new admin­is­tra­tion must treat orga­nized labor not as a spe­cial inter­est but as the key to chang­ing our increas­ing­ly two-tiered econ­o­my. That point is key to under­stand­ing the divide between the part of the labor move­ment that sup­port­ed left-wing can­di­dates like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Eliz­a­beth War­ren (D-Mass.), and those that sup­port­ed Biden. While Sanders’ back­ers will speak of his fanat­i­cal moral devo­tion to pro-work­ing class pol­i­cy, Biden’s allies will speak of the per­son­al rela­tion­ship they have with him. It is the divide between those who see unions more as part of a greater effort to improve con­di­tions for all work­ers, and those who see them more as a prac­ti­cal tool for mem­bers. “Joe Biden had an open door pol­i­cy. That was the biggest thing. That was the crux of the rela­tion­ship,” says a spokesper­son for the Inter­na­tion­al Asso­ci­a­tion of Fire Fight­ers, the first big union to endorse Biden when he entered the 2020 race. “With Joe Biden at the White House, our voice is heard. We get pri­or­i­ty access.”

This trans­ac­tion­al, loy­al­ty-cen­tric approach is unsur­pris­ing for a career politi­cian like Biden, but it can leave out labor lead­ers who don’t have such a long his­to­ry of back­ing him. Most major unions did not endorse in the 2020 Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry, pre­fer­ring to focus on back­ing who­ev­er became the nom­i­nee to oppose Trump. And Biden—though he has many union allies—is not a cru­sad­er, but a politi­cian with decades of strong cor­po­rate back­ing, lead­ing many in labor to won­der how much he real­ly means what his plat­form says. The Biden cam­paign tried to mit­i­gate that wor­ry by includ­ing mul­ti­ple pro­gres­sive union lead­ers in the Biden-Sanders “Uni­ty Task Force,” which was explic­it­ly set up to uni­fy the left and cen­trist wings of the par­ty, in part by get­ting pro­gres­sive poli­cies into the Demo­c­ra­t­ic plat­form. That task force prod­ded Biden mod­est­ly to the left but not so far as to endorse core pro­gres­sive ideas like Medicare for All. The unions clos­est to Biden, par­tic­u­lar­ly the fire­fight­ers, are opposed to Medicare for All because they want to keep the health­care plans they nego­ti­at­ed for themselves.

The biggest labor unions often have strong pro­gres­sive fac­tions but most­ly plant them­selves firm­ly in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party’s main­stream. In fact, four major union lead­ers who serve on the plat­form com­mit­tee of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Com­mit­tee vot­ed against includ­ing Medicare for All in the party’s plat­form. One was Ran­di Wein­garten, pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers, who also served on the Biden-Sanders Uni­ty Task Force. She says the DNC plat­form vote was a result of a pri­or agree­ment among those on the Uni­ty Task Force to vote for its rec­om­men­da­tions, in the way you might vote for a union con­tract that was imper­fect but the best you could get.

The wretched­ness of the Trump admin­is­tra­tion has pushed unions to view the elec­tion as a mat­ter of sur­vival. “What Trump has done with his abysmal han­dling of Covid, and his even worse han­dling of racism, is to have sobered up every­one that this is an elec­tion like no oth­er,” Wein­garten says. “That this elec­tion needs to be won by Biden to make sure that our democ­ra­cy, as imper­fect as it is, stays in place. … Yes, it’s aspi­ra­tional about how we need to do bet­ter. But it’s also very pri­mal, about what the stakes are right now.” 

The bru­tal real­i­ties of the pan­dem­ic mean that many unions are forced to focus on their imme­di­ate needs more than on long-term ide­o­log­i­cal goals. In the Feb­ru­ary run-up to the Neva­da cau­cus, Joe Biden and the oth­er Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry can­di­dates bat­tled to win the endorse­ment of the pow­er­ful Culi­nary Union, which has orga­nized the state’s casi­no indus­try. (The union ulti­mate­ly did not endorse, and Bernie Sanders won the cau­cus.) Less than two months lat­er, the unem­ploy­ment rate for the union’s mem­bers was close to 100%. Geo­con­da Argüel­lo-Kline, the union’s sec­re­tary-trea­sur­er, says the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion is now framed in relent­less­ly prac­ti­cal terms: The refusal of Repub­li­cans to deal with the pan­dem­ic and the eco­nom­ic cri­sis show that only Biden can make the gov­ern­ment sup­port work­place safe­ty leg­is­la­tion, pro­tect health insur­ance and pen­sions, and fund ade­quate unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits until Las Vegas is back on its feet. 

“The gov­ern­ment real­ly has to pro­vide every­thing that the work­ers need dur­ing this pan­dem­ic,” Argüel­lo-Kline says. Her union is adapt­ing its leg­endary get-out-the-vote machine for a social­ly dis­tanced era, rely­ing on phone bank­ing, text mes­sag­ing and dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tion more than door-knock­ing and ral­lies. She’s con­fi­dent that Trump will not car­ry Neva­da. “Every­body in the coun­try sees how he’s being oppres­sive to minori­ties over here. How he’s attack­ing the Lati­no com­mu­ni­ty. How he doesn’t want to have any­body in this coun­try who doesn’t look like him,” she says. “We know work­ers nev­er have an easy road.” 

Across the coun­try, unions that typ­i­cal­ly would be spend­ing the sum­mer and fall months focused on elec­tion­eer­ing are forced to bal­ance that with the work of triag­ing the needs of mem­bers fac­ing very real life-and-death sit­u­a­tions. The Retail, Whole­sale and Depart­ment Store Union rep­re­sents front-line retail work­ers who have been sub­ject­ed to wide­spread lay­offs that now appear to be per­ma­nent. It also rep­re­sents poul­try plant work­ers in the South who have con­tin­ued to work through­out the pan­dem­ic with des­per­ate short­ages of pro­tec­tive equip­ment. It is hard to tell whether the work­ing mem­bers or the unem­ployed mem­bers of the union face more dan­ger. Stu­art Appel­baum, the union’s pres­i­dent, has been a mem­ber of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Com­mit­tee for decades, but he has nev­er dealt with an elec­tion year that com­bines such dire cir­cum­stances for work­ers with such logis­ti­cal chal­lenges to mobi­lize them to fight. 

If there is any sil­ver lin­ing, it is that the val­ue of unions is clear­er than ever before. Their pub­lic pop­u­lar­i­ty is near a 50-year high. Trump’s car­toon­ish class war lent the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­maries a strong pro-union fla­vor, and the work­place inequal­i­ty exposed by the pan­dem­ic has only sharp­ened the recog­ni­tion of the need for work­place pro­tec­tions. “We heard more talk about unions and sup­port of unions than we’ve heard in any oth­er cam­paign that I can remem­ber,” Appel­baum says. “There is more of a recog­ni­tion in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty now and in soci­ety as a whole as to the impor­tance of work­ers hav­ing a col­lec­tive voice. I remem­ber when Bill Clin­ton was first elect­ed, and I’d go to union meet­ings where peo­ple would say, ‘Is the pres­i­dent ever going to men­tion the word union?’ That’s not a ques­tion we have now.” 

That, of course, is no guar­an­tee that things will work out in unions’ favor. The right wing’s long attack on orga­nized labor has sapped some of the basic abil­i­ty of unions to exer­cise pow­er. No employ­ees have been more direct­ly sub­ject­ed to that attack than the work­ers of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment itself. The Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Gov­ern­ment Employ­ees has butted heads with the Trump admin­is­tra­tion inces­sant­ly over issues such as the lack of pay­checks dur­ing the gov­ern­ment shut­down, efforts to take away col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights from hun­dreds of thou­sands of employ­ees at the Defense Depart­ment, and work­ers at fed­er­al agen­cies being forced back into the office before the pan­dem­ic is under control. 

“For us, this elec­tion isn’t about par­ty affil­i­a­tion. It’s not about the dai­ly out­rages from Twit­ter. It’s about our very liveli­hoods. It’s about our rights and our lives at work,” says Everett Kel­ley, pres­i­dent of the 700,000-member union. “The issues that our mem­bers are fac­ing are real­ly the same issues that face labor as a whole—our mem­bers just work in a sec­tor where the Trump admin­is­tra­tion has the widest lat­i­tude to imple­ment its anti-labor poli­cies. But there’s no doubt that they want to export their union-bust­ing play­book from the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to the broad­er pub­lic and pri­vate sectors.” 

All of the mon­ey, email blasts and vir­tu­al get­ting-out-the-vote that unions are engaged in on behalf of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty will, if suc­cess­ful, result in mil­lions of mail-in bal­lots. And all of it will be worth­less if those bal­lots are not deliv­ered and count­ed prop­er­ly. Sav­ing the post office—and, who knows, per­haps democ­ra­cy itself—is a job that has fall­en in the lap of the labor move­ment. Unions have been key play­ers in pub­li­ciz­ing the threat to the postal ser­vice. They have ral­lied polit­i­cal sup­port behind postal work­ers and the pop­u­lar insti­tu­tion as a whole. What may have been seen as just anoth­er under­fund­ed gov­ern­ment agency a few years ago is now an avatar of every­thing wrong with Trumpism.

The U.S. Postal Ser­vice is, like many oth­er insti­tu­tions, fac­ing a pan­dem­ic-induced loss of rev­enue. It is also the tar­get of the Repub­li­can Party’s long-term desire to pri­va­tize mail deliv­ery and allow cor­po­ra­tions to take over its oper­a­tions. Add to that the president’s appar­ent desire to sab­o­tage the postal ser­vice before the elec­tion to pre­vent mail-in bal­lots from being count­ed, and sud­den­ly, the hum­ble post office finds itself at the cen­ter of a nation’s sense that the entire gov­ern­ment may be tee­ter­ing on the edge of irre­triev­able corruption. 

“Pri­va­ti­za­tion usu­al­ly means three things. It means high­er prices for the con­sumer, less ser­vices, and low­er wages and ben­e­fits for the work­ers,” says Mark Dimond­stein, head of the 200,000-member Amer­i­can Postal Work­ers Union. “This is cer­tain­ly the fork in the road of whether we’re going to have a pub­lic insti­tu­tion that belongs to every­body, serves every­body and is the source of good, liv­ing-wage union jobs—or a pri­va­tized, bro­ken-up gig econ­o­my postal service.”

With tens of mil­lions of Amer­i­cans unem­ployed, a dead­ly dis­ease rag­ing and an incum­bent pres­i­dent who appears not to care very much about either cri­sis, unions and their allies find them­selves pushed into a famil­iar cor­ner: Fight like hell for the less-than-ide­al Demo­c­rat—main­ly because there is no alter­na­tive. Joe Biden is an imper­fect ally. His record is busi­ness-friend­ly, and his labor plat­form, though strong in the­o­ry, is not as aggres­sive as those of some of his pri­ma­ry rivals. Labor move­ment vet­er­ans remem­ber 2008 well, when the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion swept in with promise but failed to deliv­er on the Employ­ee Free Choice Act, which would have enabled “card check” orga­niz­ing (a method of form­ing a union with a sim­ple major­i­ty vote) and was labor’s main (rel­a­tive­ly mod­est) wish. Biden is sell­ing him­self as Obama’s suc­ces­sor. It is up to the labor move­ment to ensure that a Biden admin­is­tra­tion does not take them for granted.

“We have to look at a Biden vic­to­ry not as an end to our work, but a begin­ning,” Dimond­stein says. “The his­to­ry of this coun­try is, it’s always been the peo­ple and the move­ment, includ­ing the work­ing class move­ment, that have cre­at­ed change in Con­gress. Not the oppo­site way.”

That, in fact, is the task that the labor move­ment—shrunk­en, bat­tered and divid­ed though it is—should be pour­ing most of its ener­gy into, even now. Union den­si­ty in Amer­i­ca has fall­en by half since the ear­ly 1980s. Bare­ly one in 10 work­ers are now union mem­bers. That exis­ten­tial decline must be turned around, or labor will nev­er have enough pow­er to win the eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal gains that work­ing peo­ple need. No new pres­i­dent can do this for the labor move­ment—they can only remove some bar­ri­ers to make it eas­i­er for the move­ment to do it for itself.

Biden looks strong in the polls, but there is no cer­tain­ty about what lies ahead. Few union lead­ers want to engage seri­ous­ly with the ques­tion of what hap­pens if Trump wins. The answer is always some vari­a­tion of “Just keep fight­ing.” But anoth­er four years of Trump would be grim, and sur­viv­ing it would require a fero­cious turn toward rad­i­cal­ism. After 2016, some fac­tions of the union world toyed with the the­o­ry that the way to meet the moment was to cater to the minor­i­ty of “white work­ing class” union mem­bers who felt left behind and embraced Trump. That approach was always flawed—Trump’s base is the upper, not low­er class—and sub­se­quent events have ren­dered it a moot point. The labor move­ment has loud­ly allied itself with Black Lives Mat­ter and pledged to join the fight for social jus­tice. Liv­ing up to that pledge means mak­ing a choice to oppose Trump. If he is reelect­ed, orga­nized labor should expect to be one of many tar­gets of his vindictiveness.

All of which points to the fact that nei­ther elec­tion out­come will mean auto­mat­ic sal­va­tion for work­ing peo­ple. The past 40 years of his­to­ry demon­strate that. Con­trol of the White House has gone back and forth, but through it all, the rich have got­ten rich­er, the wages of work­ing peo­ple have stag­nat­ed, union den­si­ty has declined and labor law has remained bro­ken. The worst-case sce­nario for the labor move­ment is to see more of the same.

“I don’t real­ly look to the Democ­rats for lead­er­ship; I look to the labor move­ment,” says Sara Nel­son, the head of the Asso­ci­a­tion of Flight Atten­dants and one of labor’s most promi­nent pro­gres­sive voic­es. “And we have the pow­er to change this right now if we choose to do so. That pow­er is not an appendage of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. It’s our labor. It’s our sol­i­dar­i­ty,” she says. “As long as we out­source our pow­er to politi­cians, we are nev­er, ever going to get what work­ing peo­ple need.”

The views expressed above are the authors’ own. As a 501©3 non­prof­it, In These Times does not sup­port or oppose can­di­dates for polit­i­cal office.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on September 22, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. You can reach him at [email protected]


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Business groups fear Trump’s extended curb on foreign workers will backfire

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Business, trade and free market groups say the restrictions will stymie job creation, decrease competitiveness, and perhaps slow economic recovery.

Business leaders fear that President Donald Trump’s extension of restrictions on foreign worker visas could backfire on the limping economy.

Business, trade and free market groups contend the restrictions — which took effect Wednesday — will stymie job creation, decrease competitiveness and potentially slow the recovery, despite the administration’s predictions that they would free up 525,000 jobs for Americans over the remainder of the year.

“It’s going to be very disruptive to a whole lot of companies. … This is going to be bad for job growth, it’s going to be bad for economic growth,” said Jon Baselice, executive director of immigration policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Visa recipients help drive growth and create jobs, he said, “and that’s going to help get us out of the economic situation that we find ourselves in.”

Trump on Monday announced he was extending restrictions that bar most categories of foreign workers through the end of the year, citing “expanding unemployment and the number of Americans who are out of work.”

Critics say the move is shortsighted.

“This order will have catastrophic negative economic consequences on the United States … and generally slow the economic recovery,” Alex Nowrasteh, director of immigration studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, told POLITICO, specifically citing H-1B visas for skilled workers.

“H-1Bs are much more likely to patent, and to innovate,” he said, which creates “new businesses, new productivity, [and] new job opportunities for Americans.”

But in the other corner, anti-immigration groups, like the Federation for American Immigration Reform, have hailed the move as Trump putting American workers “first.”

The executive order applies to H-1B visas, a program frequently used by the tech industry that allows U.S. employers to temporarily hire non-immigrant workers in high-skilled specialty occupations, as well as H-4 visas for spouses of H-1B workers. It also applies to L visas, which allow companies to transfer a manager or specialized worker from a foreign office to a U.S. office; most J visas for work- and study-exchange programs; and most H-2B visas for temporary non-agricultural workers.

Attorneys say the administration’s targeting of the H-1B and L visa categories is creating anxiety within the business community as it struggles to climb out of the pandemic-induced recession.

“These are the people who ultimately create jobs, entrepreneurial people,” said Mark Koestler, an immigration attorney at Kramer Levin. “In a time when our economy needs to recover and needs a boost, we’re cutting out an important part of the workforce that will really help the recovery,”

“These are C suite people and to keep out a president of a company that employs hundreds if not thousands of U.S. citizens makes zero sense,” he added.

The critics say the types of workers who will be frozen out by the order — those with specialized skills, foreign executives and seasonal workers who work in industries such as landscaping, housekeeping and construction — are in jobs that won’t be easily filled by American workers.

Andrew Greenfield, a partner at the immigration law firm Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy, said his clients, which include large tech companies, are still struggling to find university-educated professionals to fill jobs, despite the 13.3 percent unemployment rate notched in May.

“Notwithstanding some of the economic devastation that we’re facing with high unemployment,” Greenfield said, “they’re not seeing the technical professional-level workforce impacted the same way.”

The unemployment rate in parts of the tech industry is far below the national jobless rate, according to some statistics, indicating a tight job market.

An analysis by the nonpartisan National Foundation for American Policy found that the share of some unemployed tech workers has actually declined during the pandemic.

Workers in computer occupations saw a 2.5 percent unemployment rate last month, a decline from 3 percent in January, NFAP’s analysis of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics found.

But in total, the BLS estimates 21 million Americans were unemployed in May, a figure the Trump administration and its anti-immigration allies have seized on to justify the additional restrictions.

One such group, NumbersUSA, contends American employers could use the executive order to “broaden their recruitment efforts into historically underserved communities and prove that Americans will do those jobs.”

Business groups fear ramifications beyond just filling jobs. They say the freeze could decrease America’s competitiveness, because the restrictions on L visas mean foreign-based companies will no longer be able to easily send their executives to the U.S. when those companies invest here.

“American companies, American executives are all over the world, and we would not want to see reciprocal action that would prevent an American executive from running the division in a foreign country,” said Robyn Boerstling of the National Association of Manufacturers.

“From our vantage point, it is really tying the hands of employers and those of those who support job creation,” she said of the order. “We want talented individuals to come to our country, and we want to have a competitive advantage in the United States.”

The order only applies to those seeking visas from outside the United States. So applicants who were still waiting for approval when the order went into effect Wednesday morning will be out of luck unless they are already in the United States, attorneys say.

“If you weren’t in the United States as of June 24 or already had a visa as of June 24, you’re banned from getting that visa and coming into the United States by the end of the year,” Greenfield explained.

However, Daniel Costa, director of immigration law and policy research at the Economic Policy Institute, notes that a high rate of H-1B visas were issued to individuals already in the U.S. in 2019. He suggests that program may see less of a reduction under the order, because of that trend.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on June 25, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rebecca Rainey is an employment and immigration reporter with POLITICO Pro and the author of the Morning Shift newsletter. Prior to joining POLITICO in August 2018, Rainey covered the Occupational Safety and Health administration and regulatory reform on Capitol Hill. Her work has been published by The Washington Post and the Associated Press, among other outlets.


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Trump attacks public education and pushes school privatization in State of the Union

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Donald Trump continued the campaign against public education as a public good in his State of the Union address, with a reference to “failing government schools” and a push for a federal education privatization plan in the form of “Education Freedom Scholarships.” That’s a giant voucher program that would give tax credits to people who give money for scholarships at private and religious schools—schools that may discriminate against LGBTQ kids or exclude kids with disabilities and special needs, for starters.

“Tonight, Donald Trump once again put the agenda of Betsy DeVos, the least qualified Secretary of Education in U.S. history, front and center in his State of the Union by renewing his push to divert scarce funding from the public schools that 90 percent of students attend into private school voucher programs,” National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García said in a statement.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on February 5, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.

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Donald Trump Flat Out Lied About the Economy In His State of the Union

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Robert E. ScottIn his State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Trump extolled the “blue-collar boom” in the economy along with his purported “great American comeback.” He made this claim based in part on two recent signature trade deals—the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) and a “phase one” deal with China. Unfortunately, both agreements will likely to lead to more outsourcing and job loss for U.S. workers, and the facts just don’t support Trump’s claims about the broader economy.

Trump comes from a world that has ardently championed globalization, like many of his predecessors. However, that approach has decimated U.S. manufacturing over the past 20 years, eliminating nearly 5 million good factory jobs as shown in Figure A, below. Nearly 90,000 U.S. factories have been lost as well.

Trump has not brought these jobs back, nor will his present policies change the status quo. Globalization, and China trade in particular, have also hurt countless communities throughout the country, especially in the upper Midwest, mid-Atlantic, and Northeast regions. The nation has lost a generation of skilled manufacturing workers, many of whom have dropped out of the labor force and never returned. All of this globalized trade has reduced the wages of roughly 100 million Americans, all non-college educated workers, by roughly $2,000 per year.

In addition, more than half of the U.S. manufacturing jobs lost in the past two decades were due to the growing trade deficit with China, which eliminated 3.7 million U.S. jobs, including 2.8 million manufacturing jobs, between 2001 and 2018. In fact, the United States lost 700,000 jobs to China in the first two years of the Trump administration, as shown in our recent report. The phase one trade deal will not bring those jobs back, either.

In the State of the Union, Trump claimed that he’s created a “great American comeback” and generated a “blue-collar boom” with strong wage gains for lower-income workers. As shown in Figure B, below, globalization has generated huge wage gains for those in the top 20% and especially those in the top 10%, top 1%, and top 0.1% of the income distribution. Average wages for the top 20% increased $15 per hour (33.4%) over the past two decades. Wage gains for the bottom 80% ranged from $1.39 to $2.46 per hour (13.5% to 16.4%).

Donald Trump has failed to reverse these trends, and in many ways, has made them worse. In the past three years, the vast majority of wage gains have gone to workers in the top 20%, continuing the inequality that has been well-established in the era of globalization as shown in Figure C, below. Over the past three years, workers in the top 20% enjoyed average real wage gains of $2.61 per hour, five times the gains of workers in the bottom quintile and nearly 3.5 times the gains enjoyed in the middle 60%.

Wage gains were significantly larger for workers in the bottom 20% than they were for middle-class workers, due largely to measures such as higher minimum wages that took effect in 13 states and the District of Columbia in 2018 and 19 states in January 2019. These are policies that were implemented by state legislatures and local governments around the country to help offset the effects of a decline in the real value of the federal minimum wage. They also helped offset the negative effects of dozens of efforts by the Trump Labor Department to weaken labor standardsattack worker rights, and roll back wages.

Globalization has reduced wages for working Americans by putting non-college educated workers into a competitive race to the bottom in wages, benefits, and working conditions with low-wage workers in Mexico, China, and other low-pay, rapidly industrializing countries. The Trump administration’s two trade deals don’t change that reality. Workers counting on Trump to deliver a “great American comeback” have been left waiting at the station.

This piece was first published at the Economic Policy Institute.

This article was published at InTheseTimes on February 5, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Robert E. Scott joined the Economic Policy Institute in 1997 and is currently director of trade and manufacturing policy research. His areas of research include international economics, the impacts of trade and manufacturing policies on working people in the United States and other countries, the economic impacts of foreign investment, and the macroeconomic effects of trade and capital flows and exchange rates. He has published widely in academic journals and the popular press, including in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, the International Review of Applied Economics, and the Stanford Law and Policy Review,  the Detroit News, the New York Times, Los Angeles TimesNewsdayUSA TodayThe Baltimore SunThe Washington TimesThe Hill, and other newspapers. He has also provided economic commentary for a range of electronic media, including NPR, CNN, Bloomberg, and the BBC. He has a Ph.D. in economics from the University of California at Berkeley.

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Trump Labor Department gives big companies the go-ahead to exploit franchise workers

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The Trump Labor Department is taking action to protect massive corporations from their low-wage workers seeking justice in court, because the Trump Labor Department, currently headed by Eugene Scalia, is all about putting a boot on the neck of workers. The department is finalizing a rule making it more difficult for workers at franchise businesses or contractors—like fast food workers or warehouse workers technically employed by staffing agencies—to sue the companies they actually work for for wage theft and other such violations.

The Labor Department is tightening up the joint employer standard that the Obama administration had made more worker friendly. Under Obama, companies would have counted as joint employers if they substantially set the terms of employment even if they only exerted indirect control over any individual worker. So McDonald’s, which exerts incredibly tight control over every detail of its franchisee-owned restaurants and has even told some franchisees they were paying workers too much, would count as a joint employer of McDonald’s workers. Under Trump, McDonald’s is off the hook unless it directly hires and fires workers, directly supervises the workers and sets their schedules, directly sets their pay, and manages their employment records.

But that’s the point—McDonald’s and other big companies that want to keep wages and working conditions at rock bottom while maintaining plausible deniability have gotten really good at getting franchisees and contractors to do their dirty work. They claim—and the Trump administration will back them up on this—that it’s not McDonald’s or Walmart engaging in wage theft and forcing workers into unsafe working conditions, even as the wage theft and working conditions are found across dozens of franchisees and contractors with McDonald’s or Walmart as the common factor. The common employer, in fact, exerting significant control over the places where its business is conducted.

This is a plan to let major companies abuse and exploit their workers without any legal risk for the labor law violations involved. Or, in Republican-speak via Scalia, “This final rule furthers President Trump’s successful, governmentwide effort to address regulations that hinder the American economy and to promote economic growth.” Economic growth for multi-billion-dollar companies at the expense of low-wage workers, that is.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on January 15, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.

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Trump labor board’s drive to hurt temp and fast food workers hits another conflict-of-interest snag

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Donald Trump’s National Labor Relations Board and its counsel have made it their mission to roll back every advance for workers from the Obama years. The joint-employer rule—which makes companies responsible, under certain circumstances, for workers employed through franchises and staffing agencies—is a major piece of that. In the rush to roll back the joint-employer rule, ProPublica’s Ian MacDougall reports, the NLRB hired a staffing agency with a major conflict of interest to help make it happen.

This is actually the second time the Trump-era NLRB has run into a conflict-of-interest problem on this exact issue, the first being in 2018 when a board member voted on a case despite his prior work for a law firm that had represented a company involved. So what did the NLRB do when taking another run at making it easier for major corporations to evade responsibility for abuses happening on their premises, involving workers whose conditions the corporations largely control? It … hired a legal staffing agency to provide temporary lawyers and paralegals to review public comments on overturning a rule that applies to staffing agencies. “In essence,” MacDougall writes, “the NLRB hired temps whose bosses have a stake in the outcome to review and potentially summarize the public comments.”

Not only that, but NLRB chair John Ring told Congress that the contractor hired wouldn’t do “any substantive, deliberative review of the comments but will be limited to sorting comments into categories in preparation for their substantive review,” even though internal documents show that the plan all along was for the temporary staff to do substantive review. House Committee on Education and Labor Chair Bobby Scott and Rep. Frederica Wilson, chair of its labor subcommittee, have some questions about this.

That’s the Trump administration, and the Republican Party more generally: so in bed with big business that it’s a conflict of interest every time they try to do something. But their determination to screw workers keeps driving them forward.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on September 17, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.. Laura at Daily Kos

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Trump has a habit of hiring people with histories of sexual misconduct. Herman Cain is the latest.

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President Donald Trump has recommended another man who has been accused of touching women without their consent for a major government position.

Trump announced last week that he has settled on Herman Cain, a former Godfather’s Pizza executive, for a seat on the Federal Reserve Board. Cain ended his 2012 presidential bid after four women came forward with sexual harassment allegations against him.

One of the women, Sharon Bialek, said Cain asked her for sex when she sought his help finding a job in 1990s. According to Bialek, he said, “You want a job, right?” as he ran his hand up her skirt. Karen Kraushaar, another woman who publicly spoke out, said Cain groped her in the 1990s.

Cain, who hasn’t yet been officially nominated by Trump, has denied these allegations. On Friday, he said in a since-deleted video on Facebook that he would “be able to explain [the allegations] this time, where they wouldn’t let me explain it the last time. They were too busy believing the accusers,” according to Marketwatch.

Cain’s nomination fits into a disturbing pattern for Trump. He has repeatedly nominated men who have been accused of sexual assault, sexual harassment, and intimate partner abuse to top positions in his administration. Others have enabled sexual violence and harassment even if they did not personally commit it themselves.

During the Obama administration, significant negative media reports and criminal accusations about cabinet nominees “would be flagged for further scrutiny,” and sexual assault allegations “would be a serious red flag,” a former Obama staffer who vetted appointees told ProPublica in 2017. But this White House has nominated and hired so many people accused of sexual violence and abuse to top positions that it’s not clear the Trump administration is taking the same approach.

The failure to take sexual assault and intimate partner abuse seriously is also evident in the administration’s policy decisions. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has taken steps to loosen accountability for accused rapists on college and high school campuses, for example, and the administration’s current immigration policies make victims of intimate partner too scared of deportation to come forward.

Brett Kavanaugh

Despite at least three accusations of sexual misconduct, Brett Kavanaugh was nominated and confirmed to the Supreme Court last year.

After Trump tapped Kavanaugh to fill the seat vacated by Anthony Kennedy, Christine Blasey Ford canme forward to accuse Kavanaugh of forcing her into a bedroom, along with his friend Mark Judge, at a small gathering in the 1980s. She told The Washington Post that Kavanaugh pinned her down to the bed while he tried to remove her bathing suit and other clothing and that when she tried to scream, he covered her mouth with his hand. After Judge jumped on them, Blasey Ford said she managed to escape the room.

Other women then came forward with similarly troubling stories. Deborah Ramirez told The New Yorker that Kavanaugh thrust his penis in her face at a party when the two attended Yale University. Julia Swetnick said in a sworn declaration that when Kavanaugh was in high school, he participated in “abusive and physically aggressive behavior toward girls” such as grinding against girls without their consent, trying to remove or shift girls’ clothing to expose private body parts, and making crude sexual comments.

Swetnick also said Kavanaugh was among the boys lined up to participate in gang rapes at house parties. She said she was once the victim of a gang rape; she said Kavanaugh was present when she was assaulted, but did not say he participated in it.

Though he was confirmed by one of the slimmest margins in history, Kavanaugh is now sitting on the nation’s highest court, where he can shape laws that affect victims of sexual assault.

Rob Porter

White House aide Rob Porter resigned last year after the media reported on his alleged spousal abuse.

Porter struggled to obtain a security clearance to work at the White House because of allegations of domestic violence, according to CNN. Two of Porter’s ex-wives, Colbie Holderness and Jennifer Willoughby, told CNN they experienced abuse at his hands.

Holderness, who married Porter in 2003, said the physical abuse began during their honeymoon. She said he would later being to choke her and punch in her the face, and she pointed to a 2005 photo of her bruised face as proof.

Willoughby, who married Porter in 2009, said he yelled at her and was emotionally abusive. A year after they first got married, she said he pulled her out of the shower by her shoulders so he could yell at her.

A third woman, who contacted Holderness and Willoughby in 2016 claiming to be a girlfriend of Porter’s, said he also abused her.

Porter publicly re-emerged in March when he wrote an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal praising Trump’s trade policies. The Wall Street Journal did not acknowledge why Porter left the administration. In response, Willoughby wrote in The Washington Post that although she supports rehabilitation for men who commit intimate partner abuse, “Rob has yet to publicly show regret or contrition for his actions. Giving him a voice before he has done that critical work elevates his opinions above my and Colbie’s dignity.”

Steve Bannon

Steve Bannon, who led Trump’s presidential campaign and served as White House Chief Strategist for the first seven months of Trump’s term, faced charges of domestic violence in 1996.

According to police department documents published by Politico shortly before the 2016 election, while Bannon was seated in the driver’s seat of his car, he grabbed his wife’s wrist and “pulled her down, as if he was trying to pull her into the car over the door.” He then “grabbed her neck, also pulling her into the car.” When she escaped and went inside the house to call 911, Bannon allegedly took the phone from her and threw it across the room, which she said later found in pieces. The police officer who responded to the incident wrote that “she complained of soreness to her neck” and “I saw red marks on her left wrist and the right side of her neck.”

Bannon was charged with misdemeanor domestic violence, battery, and dissuading a witness. The case was later dismissed. His ex-wife said in a divorce filing that Bannon persuaded her to leave town and told her that if she went to court, he and his lawyer would “make sure that I would be the one who was guilty.”

Bannon left the administration in 2017, but many of the policies he pushed for are still in place.

Andrew Puzder

Trump nominated Andrew Puzder for secretary of labor, but Puzder dropped out after a video resurfaced of his ex-wife, Lisa Fierstein, appearing on a 1990 episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show called “High Class Battered Women.”

“Most men who are in positions like that don’t leave marks,” Fierstein said on the show.
“The damage that I’ve sustained, you can’t see. It’s permanent, permanent damage. But there’s no mark. And there never was. They never hit you in the face. They’re too smart. They don’t hit you in front of everyone.The judicial system would say that. Were there any witnesses? No, come on. They know better.”

After Politico reported the story, Fierstein sent a letter to members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in February. She said she regretted leveling abuse charges against Puzder and going on television.

“What we should have handled in a mature and private way became a contentious and ugly public divorce,” Fierstein said. The attorney who represented her at the time, Dan Sokol, said that Fierstein described an “ongoing pattern with several episodes of physical violence.”

Although Politico reported in 2018 that Puzder would possibly be offered a new White House role, there have been no new reports that he is under consideration for joining the Trump administration.

Steven Muñoz

The Trump administration hired Steven Muñoz for a State Department job as assistant chief of visits, which he began in January 2017. Muñoz was tasked with organizing visits for foreign heads of state, and sometimes their meetings with Trump himself.

According to a ProPublica story published in 2017, five men who attended The Citadel military college said Muñoz sexually assaulted them. One student said he woke up to Muñoz on top of him and said Muñoz kissed him and grabbed his genitals. More than a year after he graduated, Muñoz was banned from campus.

In 2012, BuzzFeed News and Huffington Post also reported on the allegations against Muñoz.

Muñoz, who previously worked for Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum’s presidential campaigns, still lists himself as assistant chief of protocol for visits on his LinkedIn page.

President Trump

Trump has been accused of multiple incidences of sexual predation stretching back to the 1970s — many of which line up with the behavior toward women that Trump himself has described engaging in.

“You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful—I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait,” Trump said in a 2005 tape for Access Hollywood that was published just a few weeks before the 2016 election. “And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”

At least 23 women have come forward with allegations of Trump’s sexual misconduct, many of whom decided to publicly come forward during his presidential campaign. They include a woman who says Trump touched her vagina through her underwear at a nightclub, a woman who says Trump forcibly kissed her during a brunch at Mar-a-Lago, and many other women who say Trump groped and kissed them without their consent.

Trump picks who perpetuate systems of violence and abuse

There are many other Trump nominees and hires who have not personally been accused of sexual harassment, sexual violence, or intimate partner abuse, but who have nonetheless enabled a culture that condones it.

Labor Secretary Alex Acosta — Trump’s second pick after Puzder — signed a secret plea agreement with billionaire sex offender Jeffrey Epstein while serving as U.S. attorney for southern Florida. In February, District Judge Kenneth A. Marra ruled that Acosta’s decision to not make Epstein’s accusers aware of the plea deal was unconstitutional. A House appropriations panel grilled him about the deal in April, but Acosta continues to lead the department.

In 2018, the White House hired Bill Shine, a former Fox news executive, as the president’s top communications aide. Shine landed in the Trump administration after leaving Fox News amid a sexual harassment scandal at the network. He was accusedof trying to cover up a culture of harassment at Fox and mishandling allegations.

Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, whom Trump chose as his national security adviser in 2017, was also accused of mishandling a sexual assault case. After the Army investigated the incident, McMaster received a rebuke in 2015 for his oversight of the situation.

Barry Myers, whom Trump nominated in 2017 to lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, was the chief executive of a family weather company called AccuWeather. An investigation into AccuWeather conducted by the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs found that the company subjected women to sexual harassment, and the company paid $290,000 as part of a settlement. Myers’ initial nomination to head NOAA expired after the Senate failed to confirm him last year, but he’s now up for the same position again.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on April 9, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Casey Quinlan covers policy issues related to gender and sexuality. Their work has also been published in The Establishment, Bustle, Glamour, The Guardian, Teen Vogue, The Atlantic, and In These Times. They studied economic reporting, political reporting, and investigative journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, where they graduated with an M.A. in business journalism.


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The longest shutdown in U.S. history will have lingering consequences for federal workers

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Though President Donald Trump and Congress finally brokered a deal to end the longest federal government shutdown in U.S. history, members of the federal workforce are still left dealing with the financial pain it caused.

The partial shutdown stretched on for 35 days, depriving government employees of two paychecks. Although President Donald Trump said on Friday that federal workers will receive back pay “as soon as possible,” about 800,000 workers — many of whom have had to take out loans and find part-time work — will have to wait late into next week to receive their pay. Contract workers aren’t eligible for back pay at all.

Randy Erwin, the president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, said in a statement that the record-breaking shutdown “caused irreparable harm to working families across the country,” calling it a “shameful chapter in American history.”

“Federal workers and others have resorted to selling their possessions, and many have defaulted on loans and mortgages in order to afford heat, medicine, and food,” Erwin said.

The 35-day partial government shutdown exposed the reality that many Americans are living in financially precarious situations.

Seventy-eight percent of full-time workers say they live paycheck-to-paycheck, according to a 2017 CareerBuilder report. And 40 percent of adults say they would struggle to take on an unexpected $400 expense, reporting they would be forced to sell their belongings, borrow money, or forgo paying the bill at all, a 2017 Federal Reserve report found.

The people who make up the federal workforce often face specific financial constraints.

Federal worker salaries on average fall behind the salaries of their private sector counterparts by 31.86 percent, according to a 2018 Federal Salary Council report. In an executive order issued in December, Trump said pay rates for federal civilian employees would remain stagnant in 2019, claiming that approving a pay raise for federal workers would be “inappropriate” given the financial challenges facing the government.

The federal contractors who won’t receive back pay to compensate them for their missed hours of work are particularly vulnerable. Some estimates find that 40 percent of the entire government workforce is made up of contract workers, totaling 3.7 million people.

“I think [contractors] get lost by the wayside in the concentration on the 800,000 people who are direct employees of the federal government,” said Ken, a contractor for the Federal Aviation Administration who is based in New Jersey, during a Wednesday protest against the shutdown at the Hart Senate Building. 

Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN) — along with Sens. Mark Warner (D-VA), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Tim Kaine (D-VA) — introduced legislation earlier this month that would require federal agencies to work with contractors’ companies to secure back pay for those workers.

While the government was partially shuttered, unpaid workers still needed to figure out what to do about their bills. This month, unpaid federal workers owed about $438 million in mortgage and rent payments — which breaks down to $189 million in rent payments and $249 in mortgage payments — according to a report from the real-estate firm Zillow.

Federal workers told ThinkProgress that the shutdown forced them to take out loans, file for unemployment, take on part-time work, and even consider leaving town. Some of the choices they made over the past month may have lasting financial repercussions.

Patricia Floyd-Hicks, a furloughed worker for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) who attended Wednesday’s protest at the Hart Senate Building, told ThinkProgress that she had to dip into her savings as she prepares to retire.

Federal workers also worry that the shutdown could damage their credit scores, since workers only need to miss one credit card payment to have points taken off their credit score. Credit-scoring experts told CBSNews that it isn’t easy for a company like FICO to adjust its model in response to an event like the shutdown.

Although the government has reopened for at least the next three weeks, it’s unclear what will happen once lawmakers reach the February 15 deadline for the short-term spending bills that passed Friday. The uncertainty and financial instability is too much for some employees.

Several federal workers told ThinkProgress they are seriously considering whether they should leave the federal government altogether. According to research from the employment-related search engine Indeed, they fit into a bigger trend, as furloughed workers have been searching for jobs at an increased rate during the shutdown.

Indeed’s director of economic research, Martha Gimbel, compared job searches on the Indeed platform among employees in agencies across the government. She found that TSA workers’ job searches were up about 30 percent compared to the same time last year, while IRS workers’ job searches rose about 50 percent. Department of Health and Human Services workers’ searches were up 80 percent over this period last January.

The government watchdog group National Taxpayer Advocate estimates it will take about a year for the IRS’ operations to return to normal, according to the Washington Post — and one of the reasons for the delay, the group says, is that many of the agency’s workers have already decided to leave for the private sector.

Financial struggles can affect people’s mental health in serious ways, as research has shown. University of Southampton researchers published a 2013 report finding a significant relationship between debt and mental disorder, including depression. Findings from a 2016 study on U.S. households “suggest that short-term debt may have an adverse influence on psychological wellbeing.”

Many federal workers have now experienced this strain firsthand. When President Donald Trump threatened to keep the government partially shut down for months or even years, Jordan — who works for the U.S. Department for Housing and Urban Development, and who asked to withhold their full name and gender out of fear of retaliation for speaking to the press — said the “real shock” of hearing this remark “led me to some crazy thoughts.”

“There is a bit of fear that raged through my body,” Jordan said.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on January 26, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Casey Quinlan is a policy reporter at ThinkProgress covering economic policy and civil rights issues. Her work has been published in The Establishment, The Atlantic, The Crime Report, and City Limits.


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