Ideas & Debates
Workers Against Trump
Class struggle is, as it has always been, the main source of conflict in our society. A month into Trump’s presidency, we need to fight from a working-class perspective.
February 20, 2017
Photo: Huntington News
Donald Trump didn’t wait long to go on the offensive. He wanted to move fast to show resoluteness in his campaign promises (at least, those promises not aimed at “draining the swamp”).
His first month in office made it clear that his agenda is aimed at attacking workers, targeting first and foremost the most oppressed sectors, and not against Wall Street or establishment politicians. His attack on immigrants is primarily an attack on immigrant workers. Silicon Valley and other technology and communication companies complain because these businesses rely heavily on qualified immigrant labor. But it is the poorer, unskilled immigrant workers who would bear the brunt of Trump’s immigration ban and who are already suffering the effects of increased ICE raids.
When abortion rights are put at risk, it is women workers who are the most affected. In the US, as in almost any part of the world, more affluent women access abortions — even when illegal — under safe conditions. When abortion rights are denied, those who pay the price are working-class women — and they often pay with their lives.
Equally anti-worker is the threat to pass a federal “right-to-work” act in Congress. The authorization to resume the construction of the Dakota pipeline, while advertised as a job-creating project, tramples the rights of native peoples gathered in Standing Rock and will poison their water and that of the surrounding areas.
The reaction to Trump’s executive orders was swift and massive—and energizing. The 3 million-strong Women’s March, the widespread protests at airports, and the many actions by immigrant workers showed a willingness to fight not seen in many years. These mobilizations are still somewhat amorphous and largely spontaneous, and yet have been impressive demonstrations of strength.
The chaotic roll-out of the Muslim ban and later its temporary suspension, the abrupt resignation of national security advisor Michael Flynn only 24 days after being appointed, and the many cracks within a GOP that is increasingly in “damage-control” mode all seem to point out to an unstable governing bloc. Trump’s appearance at his press conference on Thursday was a grotesque spectacle. His evasive responses were interspersed with bursts of delusional grandiloquence—an arrogance that is increasingly unconvincing.
The main risk right now is letting the energy of the mobilizations be captured and channeled to reinvigorate the Democratic Party. The truth is that if there is no independent program, the nebulous “Anti-Trump” protests will naturally benefit the Democrats.
Whether the next chair of the DNC is from the pro-Hillary wing or a more left-leaning candidate like Keith Ellison, the Democratic Party will continue to be funded and controlled by capital. Their agenda looks different than Trump’s, but it’s still a 100 percent pro-capitalist agenda. Thus, a movement that is anti-Trump tout court can only fail in the attempt to achieve sustained and significant gains for workers. Democrats can win back the Senate and maybe even the House in 2018, but jobs will continue to be low-wage and precarious, police will go on killing Blacks and Latinxs with impunity, and the bloated prison system will continue yielding lavish profits to the rich while ruining the lives of millions. We’ll be back to square one.
A Workers’ Agenda
The challenge for the anti-Trump movement today is to put forward a set of demands that could consolidate a working-class majority for positive goals. Writing in Jacobin, Alex Gourevitch correctly points out that we need to go beyond resistance. However, his emphasis on “freedom” as a foundational principle for left-wing politics is problematic.
Freedom is one of those vague terms—floating signifiers—with erratic meaning that can be utilized by different, even opposing, political forces to express highly different values. In fact, freedom is the favorite word of neoliberal, “free-market” ideologists. (Von Hayek’s bible “Road to Serfdom” is a negative example of this).
What we need is a program for the working class that defies the Trump administration in the streets and in the workplaces and goes beyond accepting the crumbs that Democrats are willing to offer. Such a program amounts to nothing less than socialism in the long run. But for the immediate struggles, a set of slogans that could rally workers and the fighting youth behind the same banner could be a compass to escape the trap of the Popular Front. As we’ve argued elsewhere, in a multi-class coalition, the owners of capital are the ones who call the shots, and the ones who reap the benefits.
We need to build a working-class pole within the anti-Trump movement, not to divide the ranks, but to struggle for a more radical direction. This working-class pole would explicitly reject both parties of capital and build solidarity across all workers’ struggles.
This working-class pole will fight not only against the most outrageous expressions of sexism that Trump legitimizes but also against the liberal feminism embodied by Hillary Clinton and the Democrats, who failed put up a fight to guarantee reproductive rights, slashed benefits for poor mothers, and put ever more women behind bars
By the same token, we should fight for citizenship and full civil rights for all immigrant workers, something that the Democrats have never and will never pursue. In fact, Obama’s historical record of 2.5 million deportations laid the ground for the anti-immigrant sentiment that Trump exploited and developed. We need to link our arms with workers on both sides of the border.
Workers and the unions can and should fight to end racism oppression and xenophobia. Some examples are the strike by ILWU local 10 to protest police brutality, the resolution passed by Black and Latino caucuses of SEIU local 721 to kick cops out of our unions, or the actions by unions like UNITE-HERE local 7 around the killing of Freddie Gray. Labor for Standing Rock is another good example of how workers can effectively support oppressed people, in this case those identified with the Seven Nations in the Oceti Sakowin camp, in the fight for their land, their culture and their livelihood.
A working-class, anti-Trump front would be able to put forward a set of economic demands such as jobs, a liveable wage and better working conditions; addressing the needs of those workers most heavily battered by financial capitalism (“the losers of globalization”). Those workers who voted for Trump will soon realize that he won’t deliver anything good for them and may be won over to a working-class platform, always on the basis of a relentless fight against racism and sexism. With the right program and through experience in common struggles, workers will see the potential of fighting our class enemy shoulder-to-shoulder with our class brothers and sisters no matter their skin color, gender, sexuality, or nationality.
A Sleeping Giant
Labor has not yet entered the playing field. Only a few unions took part in the inauguration protests, although several thousands of union members attended the protests. AFL-CIO national secretary Richard Trumka and Building Trades’ Union secretary Sean McGarvey have shamefully met with the president and offered their assistance.
However, there are glimmers of hope. Discontent is simmering among workers and some are already walking out. The education unions AFT and NEA organized actions on the eve and the day of Trump’s inauguration, dockworkers of the ILWU local 10 went on strike on Inauguration Day, Unite-Here released a statement and mobilized against the Muslim travel ban and lead several actions against Trump, workers at Comcast in Philadelphia walked off their jobs (albeit with the consent of management).
More impressively, hundreds of thousands of immigrant workers took part in the Day Without Immigrants that swept the nation. It is still unclear what form these mobilizations will take, but we can say with certainty that labor — and particularly its immigrant sector — may be sleeping, but is not dead.
Perhaps the alignment of the union leadership with the president, who is abhorred by the vast majority of workers is what it will take to begin seeing oppositional caucuses growing within the unions. These caucuses could challenge the callous union bureaucracy of all the major unions, which despite repeated betrayals and collaboration with bosses, has managed so far to maintain the status quo and prevent militant rank-and-file insurgencies among their ranks.
At the same time, if the federal right-to-work bill is pushed forward in congress, union bureaucrats will see their sheer personal benefits seriously threatened. A last-ditch effort to prevent a rapid attrition of their base may push them to take bolder actions, like going on strike or mobilizing their ranks in a way they haven’t done in decades. Such a deployment of real forces would set in motion a power that could eventually escape their control. Union leaders know it, so they will try to avoid it, but the Trump administration has shown to be clumsy and overreaching: we may be surprised.
The U.S. Left can work in building these sorts of radical currents within the labor movement. Socialist organizations like as the ISO and Socialist Alternative, the militant IWW and those members of DSA who decide to engage in union activity should push for resolutions in their chapters, contest the union leadership, build solidarity and put forward an active plan of struggle to build a working-class resistance to Trump. These organizations have some shortcomings. For example, DSA’s courting of the left wing of the Democratic Party and the plan to run local candidates on their ballot is precisely the opposite of what is needed. Socialist Alternative’s call to the Mayor in Seattle to “deploy the Seattle police to protect immigrants from ICE raids” flies in the face of class politics and fosters illusions in an institution that exists only to protect capital and the capitalist order. As a general rule, organized left members in unions should take the fight against the union bureaucracy more seriously, because it has strategic consequences.
But despite such important differences, these organizations are today in the best position to forge a militant activism at the workplaces and within our unions that could significantly transform the anti-Trump movement, consolidate a working-class pole and revitalize an ossified labor movement.