The Building Trades
I was very unhappy when the building trades met with Trump and then gloated about the reopening of the Dakota Access and Keystone pipelines. So I wrote about it in The New Republic. Basically, the building trades are aligning with the wrong side on issues for the millionth time and their hostility to the rest of the left means no one will care when Trump signs off on eliminating the Davis-Bacon Act. I also place this in the context of how the rise of industrial unions was how the labor movement came to represent the real interests of all working people and how their decimation due to capital mobility means that the building trades once again have outsized power in the labor movement. An excerpt.
Corporations regained their hold over the nation’s politics by decimating the industrial unions. They closed factories, busted unions, and moved jobs overseas.The United Auto Workers is a shell of its former self. The United Steelworkers has tried organizing in different fields, but its numbers have also fallen precipitously. The United Food and Commercial Workers, the descendant of the CIO-affiliated United Packinghouse Workers, has decent clout with some grocery chains, but has been unable to penetrate Walmart and the other retailers that have transformed the food industry. Most of the old industrial unions—the United Rubber Workers, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, and so many others—are gone, along with the jobs.
The broad-based social policies these unions fought for are now in the process of being repealed by an emboldened Republican Party. Public sector unions such as SEIU and AFSCME have filled some of that political vacuum, fighting for health care, higher minimum wages, and other economic justice programs. But the public sector unions are incredibly diverse, ranging from professors to home health care workers. They lack the common working class culture that would be needed to replicate the mass movements of the New Deal era.
As a result, the building trades once again hold an outsized amount of power within the labor movement. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka is the most politically progressive labor federation leader in American history, with the possible exception of Reuther, but he is beholden to his constituent unions when shaping policy. He cannot take a strong stand in support of protesters stopping the Dakota Access Pipeline without alienating powerful people like McGarvey and O’Sullivan.
In Rhode Island, where I live, there is currently a major political battle over the siting of a power plant that is to use fracked natural gas and diesel oil. The state’s environmental community has come out in force against this project, urging the state to adopt a clean energy future. LIUNA has not only vigorously supported the project, but its members have also stood outside meetings and openly jeered environmentalists. After the meeting with Trump, labor journalist Cole Stangler recalled a previous conversation in which he asked McGarvey if he was concerned about the environmental impact of fracking. McGarvey said no, and Stangler could hear laughter in the background at the question.
But the trade unions seem incapable of realizing that the Trump administration is not their friend. In the meeting with Trump, they asked him to pledge not to repeal the 1931 Davis-Bacon Act. This law requires the federal government to pay contractors a “locally prevailing wage,” as determined by the Department of Labor. It serves to ensure that those workers building American infrastructure are paid a fair wage. Republicans dislike it and Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona has introduced a bill to overturn the law. Trump will almost certainly sign this bill. Trump has routinely refused to pay the contractors he has hired, and has never supported unions except when they can help him. Sadly, the building trades believe that supporting Trump’s projects will pay off for them.
The repeal of Davis-Bacon will be sad. It will hurt workers and hurt unions. On the other hand, what have the building trades ever done for any other progressive group? With some exceptions, the trades have failed to understand the value of solidarity. In doing so, they are facing a situation in which they will have few allies in the fight to keep Davis-Bacon in place. Their short-sightedness is even greater considering the Muslim ban the Trump administration imposed last week. Any organization not fighting for our most vulnerable residents will not receive support from the left for its own goals.
And yes, it is nice to be at the point in my life where something can make me mad and then I can write about it in a magazine. Perhaps I can start writing New York Times op-eds about ketchup next.