Disillusioned by Leadership, Many Union Rank-and-File Turned to Trump

Refusal of union leadership to support Sanders’ political revolution as alternative to the status quo set the stage for Trump

Photo by Darron Birgenheier

PAUL JAY, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.

In the aftermath of the Trump victory, a lot of people are trying to piece together what happened, who’s responsible for those people who aren’t happy about the Trump victory. People are trying to dissect what went wrong. Well I said during our live broadcast last night that I think one of the culprits if one sees this as not a good thing, the Trump victory, one of the culprits in this are most of the major trade unions. It’s not just that they supported Clinton during the primaries and did not support Sanders. It goes deeper and broader than that and that’s part of what we’re going to discuss with our next guest.

Now joining us from San Francisco, California is Michael Lighty. He’s the director of public policy for the National Nurses United and the California Nurses Association. He’s served on the Oakland planning commission and he was the first openly LGBTQ Commissioner for the Port of Oakland. Thanks for joining us Michael.

MICHAEL LIGHTY: Thank you, Paul.

JAY: So what I was saying is that not only did they play this ultra conservative card of a backing Hillary and if you talked to them their main theory for donning this was while Hillary can beat Trump and Sanders can’t, well how’s that working for you guys? But my critique of them goes deeper than that. One is first of all, their allegiance and ties to the corporate democrats. In reality, their alliance with the liberal economics of the Clintons and the Obama administration. But even more than that, the reluctance to not only not organize more vigorously amongst the unorganized and get into sections of the working class that are being influenced by Trump but not even educating their own members very much. You go talk to many unionized places. I have a thing when I go into restaurants or hotels or other places that are unionized, grocery stores. Often people can’t even tell you the name of their union. Never mind are they being educated in some political way. I’ve been on picket lines of strikes being organized by major unions. In the midst of a strike the picketers don’t know what’s going on in their own strike they’re little actual communication education going on. Now Michael you’re with the National Nurses Union and you, the communication workers, what did I miss? There are 4 of you that supported Sanders and I’m not including you in this because you guys are pretty active. But what do you make of - a lot of the blame here goes to the unions that play this cozy relationship with the corporate democrats?

LIGHTY: Well one thing we know Paul is that had the unions that ended up working hard for secretary Clinton endorsed Bernie and gotten out there early for him, he would’ve gotten the AFL​-​CIO endorsement and he would’ve had as the most pro-labor candidate to ever run for president, he would’ve actually had the labor movement behind him. So we know that. What’s possible and didn’t happen because those unions decide that Bernie Sanders wasn’t electable, as you say. In fact what happened was that in Ohio, a majority of the union members voted for Donald Trump. In Michigan, it looked like a majority union members are voting for Donald Trump. That has a long tail and the AFL​-​CIO in the unions has been very successful in past elections in getting those union members to move towards the democratic nominee that we started in 2008, Obama didn’t have a majority of union members when he started and they moved him. So, they figured they could keep doing that. But the problem is the game is up, the jig is up. The workers understand that after another 8 years of a democratic president when there was more trade agreements, loss of more manufacturing jobs, apart from what happened during the great recession, this jig is up for many workers.

So there clearly not able to move. Those unions are not able to move their members in a way that they had in past elections and in fact there was a candidate who was speaking to a lot of these insecurities that result from globalization and injustice and that resonated without a really strong response back. So what we do I think find a labor movement with a great share of responsibility for what happened yesterday.

JAY: Ye​s.​ I was hearing labor leaders, presidents of unions talking to their members defending what really is not defendable. They’re defending the status quo. Defending these 8 years of the Obama administration and the years of the Clinton administration. One leading to deregulation and creating these enormous economic bubbles that then burst eventually in 07-08 and then defending a managing of the 07-08 crash that was totally in favor of the wealthy and the big banks and they become the defenders of the status quo, the union leaders because they have to defend their political allies. The one thing they were promised by Obama, the Employee Free Choice Act, EFCA, the thing – Sweeny told me that I’ll eat my shoe I’m so sure that Obama will get this passed. Then they controlled both houses, they don’t even offer it up and then still they go ahead with tea at the White House and get that fed in there and then they come back with stars in their eyes even though they walk away with nothing.

LIGHTY: That’s right. So, I mean from all that Paul, you can easily see the view that the system is rigged against workers and here’s a guy who’s saying that, who’s calling it out, and who knows the system. So, you can kind of understand it. I think you have to overlook quite a bit to get there for Trump but given the actual situation of a lot of these folks really in dire straits economically or certainly believe that the future looks bleak for them. You can see without a strong politically educated vital labor movement that’s out there saying no here’s an alternative program. We’re going to fight, we’re going to fight capital that’s taking your jobs. We’re going to fight the 1% who’s responsible who’s gotten all the income and wealth since the great recession. A really strong class based fight back program was called for and it wasn’t there and I think we payed a price for it.

JAY: Is there any hope now that some of these labor union leaders who were in the Clinton camp, their worst fears have been realized. The strategy clearly has blown up in their face. Now what do you think’s going to happen in the inner councils of the ​A​FL​-​CIO?

LIGHTY: Well I don’t know. They’re all geared up for a victory parade tomorrow or at least meetings with the new administration and instead its about, we’ve got to make sure that people have hope. That’s kind of the word that’s been getting, that I’ve heard. It’s bee​n​ getting out from labor leaders who say we’ve still got to have hope.

JAY: Well a lot of them are very good with a lot of empty rhetoric. Go on.

LIGHTY: Exactly. It’s all rhetoric. That’s the problem Paul and there’s even the notion that hey America[n] democracy works. But I don’t think that American democracy worked. I think it was overwhelmed by corporate money, by deep pocket money, by Koch brother money in particular. That election was as corrupted by money maybe more than any we’ve seen. So, I don’t think that we’re hearing the right thing. I think what we need to hear is the system is broken, politics as usual has failed us. The solutions of corporate labor management partnerships don’t work. That the working folks in this country have paid the price for bad decisions by economic elites and the 1% specifically.

So, I think those are the kind of messages that we need to hear and hopefully we will. But the public employ​ee​ uni​on​s in particular, all unions face an existential threat now with the potential for national right to work legislation. So, the only thing the labor movement has to rely on is its members and that’s a good thing, if we’re able to educate and mobilize.

JAY: Now your union was very active in supporting Bernie Sanders, very active in what some people called an insurgency within the ​Democratic ​P​arty. I always saw this as an insurgency that in the final analysis could not win in the ​D​emocratic ​P​arty because the money that controls that party I think would have either fled or if we learned some rigging in WikiLeaks, there would’ve been far more rigging if Sanders actually was on the verge or about to win. That being said, it’s one of the biggest breakthroughs that happened in the state allied institution in a long time. So you were very active in this.

What do you think happens next? You know when I talked to you guys in Chicago at a conference you organized, there was a lot of talk about focusing on 2018 and if it was Clinton presidency, even discussing the possibilities of one term president and what a primary might look like in 2020 or if you guys had time to start thinking about all of this.

LIGHTY: Well we still have envisioned 2020. That vision is a vision of social and economic justice rooted in solidarity and collective action. So that vision that animated the people somewhat still exists. I think that what we need to do and in fact this result enables us to do convincingly is expunge Clintonism, expunge neoliberalism from the ​D​emocratic ​P​arty and from the body politic. That’s really what the Bernie movement represents and there again, as we speak Paul, there was a walkout of students in Oakland. High schools that started in Berkley. A walkout of students in Berkley. This young generation is not going to –

JAY: Walkout over what?

LIGHTY: Over Trump’s election.

JAY: In protest of the election.

LIGHTY: Ye​s​ over Trump’s election. This is not a generation that’s going to stand by and let this congress and the fossil fuel industry destroy their prospects for health. It’s not going to happen. The climate crisis is going to overwhelm us unless we address it directly and this young generation understands that. I think that’s where it goes. That this is a movement moment greater than we had anticipated even and that the only response to an attack that would repeal the Affordable Care Act as inadequate as it is, we need to replace it with a guaranteed healthcare, Medicare for all. If we’re going to not pursue the Trans Pacific Partnership, we need a different global order based on Justice.

So, let’s take advantage of the opportunity that this populist opening the very tainted by xenophobia and racism has given us. Let’s try to get that momentum back for a real justice agenda. I think that’s the opportunity we have. It’s not easy and it’s not what where we want it to be. But it is the opportunity we have and I think that it’s pretty obvious what Naomi Klein and others have said, that neoliberalism has clearly exposed its, run its course and the only thing to fight a neofascist, potentially neofascist government is a strong real left movement. That posses an alternative social structure that is based on equality and justice. That’s a real opportunity.

JAY: Okay thanks very much for joining us Michael. Michael’s actually coming to Baltimore soon and we’re going to get into stuff more in depth. You’ll see some of that soon. Thanks Michael.

LIGHTY: Thank you Paul, I appreciate it.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

This article originally appeared on TheRealNews.com.

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