Labor Center Conference Addresses Labor in the Age of Trump

On March 2-3, the Labor Center called together 200 leading labor scholars and labor and community activists to document the impact of the Trump-era policy changes on workers and their union and to chart the way forward. Following the presentations, on Saturday, March 3, these scholars met in an all day workshop with union and community activists to discuss ways forward.

Presenters addressed causes of the current political challenges facing the labor movement. Nancy McLean detailed the long-game by the right to move their agenda forward, despite overwhelming opposition by the public. Gordon Lafer who focused on the rise and political lobbying of corporations concurs, “While corporate power may be more impressive than ever, there is one key battle that the country’s business elites have failed to win: they have not been able to convince the voting public that their platform makes sense.” Donald Cohen addressed the current wave of privatization, part of a longer-term agenda of neoliberalism.


Presenter at Labor Center Conference

Shannon Gleeson presents on immigrant rights and labor. Photo: Paul Shoul. 

The looming threat of a Janus era was a ubiquitous theme in conversations throughout the conference. The Supreme Court is currently considering the open case Janus v American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council (AFSCME). In doing so, SCOTUS is reconsidering a 40-year-old precedent on First Amendment protections for unions. If SCOTUS rules against AFSCME in the Janus case, it would allow for employees under a collective bargaining agreement to opt-out of union membership.

MaryBe McMillan, President of the North Carolina AFL-CIO, outlined how Southern organizing has proceeded even in a right-to-work state. McMillan reported that labor leaders across the country are looking to the South for strategies to fight back in a post-Janus world. She argued that “starting small, not thinking big” was central to organize new workers and to build power in communities.

MaryBe McMillan presents on organized labor in a right-to-work state. Photo: Paul Shoul.

Right-wing policies related to immigration and the environment were highlighted. Lara Skinner addressed the intersections of the environmental and labor movements on issues related to climate change and renewable energy, finding possibilities for united action by unions and the environmental movement, where these have been and remained strained. Shannon Gleeson discussed immigration, the rights of migrants, and the labor movement in a moment when attacks on immigrants have increased.

Other on-the-ground reports of successes of and challenges to organized labor were presented. Jon Shelton presented on fight against Scott Walker’s policies in Wisconsin that connect with recent struggles against Trumpism. Kyla Walters reported on the factors behind why teacher’s unions and their allies were able to defeat a Massachusetts referendum to permit the expansion of charter schools. Jennifer Klein presented on the struggled against the gendered exploitation of home health-care workers.

In panels on the rise of the radical right and the recent wave of right-wing policy, several presenters addressed the rise of populism and the persisting relevance of race to labor struggles. Sarah Jaffe critiqued the “white working class” trope, prominent in reports on the ascendency of Trumpism. She explains, “If ‘white’ and ‘working’ go together, the corollary is that nonwhite people are not working.” This framing denies nonwhites a class descriptor, and casts them as nonworking, dependent on “handouts” provided by white workers—entitlements that Trump and his legion are poised to slash as they usher in a new wave of austerity policy.

Bill Fletcher Jr and Jose La Luz supplied several interrelated explanations for the growth of right-wing populism, as well as solutions to resist it. They argued that unions must prioritize democratic, worker-centered education that counters right-wing populism. They went on to discuss the centrality of engaging with issues of race and gender. Cedric Johnson addressed the limited capacities of liberal anti-racism to respond to continued assaults that drive a wedge through the working class along the color line.


Sunday workshop on the ways the right-wing organizes. Photo: Paul Shoul.

Workshops on Saturday, March 3 explored these themes through lively conversation. Panels included “How the Right Wing Organizes,” “Which Way for Working-Class Politics?,” “Labor Confronts Globalization, Immigration, and Climate Change,” and “Dismantling the State?: Unions Fight the Attack on the Public Sector.”

The Labor Center is organizing an edited collection of papers written for this conference, with anticipated publication in 2019.