With Trump's Election, Is Trade Now The Defining Issue For Ontario Labour?
By Brad James
Just after the dust had settled, Sid Ryan, former Ontario Federation of Labour President, wrote a Huffington Post article about the U.S. presidential election. Characteristically emphatic, he declared that boiling anger against the effects of global trade in the U.S. mid-west was why Mr. Trump won. Mr. Ryan played down the role of prejudice and bigotry and didn’t touch on other smaller factors like third party candidates or the possible taint of FBI pronouncements. It was an anti-trade “rebellion” in the "rust belt" states’ that sank the Clinton campaign.
Mr. Ryan says the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) and NDP have been much too genteel in their opposition to bad trade agreements. The Canadian labour movement must “grow a backbone” and lead a “mobilization of workers and allies” on the trade file.
But with Mr. Trump’s win, is the U.S. really headed for an extensive revival of manufacturing and resource sector jobs (like coal mining)? Instead, the real impact of his campaign’s mendacious appropriation of working class appeal on trade issues looks like it will be the erosion of many Obama-era labour and employment policies. U.S. unions are worried indeed, so Canadian unions should watch very carefully.
Overtime rules and other employment standards look to be the first to be hauled backwards. A new Supreme Court appointment by Mr. Trump could mean a reversal of the current court’s Friedrichs decision and imperil dues payments for public sector employees. Laws that encourage such free-riding (getting the benefits of unions without paying the dues) in the private sector seem likely to spread to more states. Appointments to the National Labour Relations Board will shift toward employer interests, so chances of reforming federal labour law to provide employees with a fair shot in organizing campaigns is off the table for years. Much of this is darkly summed up in a recent American Prospect piece.
Mr. Ryan’s article arrived just days after the election, but since then it has become clear that Ms. Clinton’s loss was not as sweeping as it first appeared. Slowly arriving tallies now show that she won a firm majority of the popular vote, with close to 2.1 million votes over Mr. Trump and more on the way (just how long does it take the U.S. to count votes anyway?). She’s on track to receive more ballots than any presidential candidate in history except Barack Obama. Exit polls indicate that Ms. Clinton did well with voters of colour and those in the lower income levels, among them voters most affected by the recession of a few years ago. Her margin of loss in economically struggling Michigan was less than the number of votes taken by marginal candidates including Green Party candidate Jill Stein. As the editor of the “nonpartisan” Cook Political report put it, if Florida’s panhandle was in Alabama and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula was instead part of Wisconsin, we’d be calling Ms. Clinton the President–elect.
And the effect of racial resentment on ballots cast can’t be easily waved away. A new study shows that the gap between racially sympathetic white voters and racially resentful whites was greater in this election than in either of the past two elections, when one of the candidates was actually African American.
So while intense dissatisfaction about both the very tangible and the perceived effects of trade certainly does exist in key U.S. states like Michigan and Ohio, does that mean Canadian unions must now place tougher anti-trade mobilization at the very top of their to-do lists?
Past efforts by Canadian labour to derail trade agreements have not succeeded. Mr. Ryan might say that labour was too timid in the past and should have tipped much more of its members’ resources into those campaigns.
Wouldn’t a new and enormous union mobilization against trade deals implicitly promise members, their families and their communities that victory will "bring the good jobs back"? Joseph Stiglitz, no spokesperson for the status quo, says that no matter what Mr. Trump does on the trade file, “there is no way Trump can bring a significant number of well-paying manufacturing jobs back to the US. He can bring manufacturing back, through advanced manufacturing, but there will be few jobs. And he can bring jobs back, but they will be low-wage jobs, not the high-paying jobs of the 1950’s.”
Labour should never stop holding governments to much higher standards on sharing the benefits and the costs of trade. But if one is looking for a place for unions and their federations to spend massively more of their members’ dues dollars, how about launching large scale membership growth campaigns to expand labour’s collective bargaining reach?
Last year unions in Ontario welcomed just 10,000 new members through organizing campaigns. Fourteen years ago that number was over 16,000. And in 1994-95, during the brief Bob Rae NDP government, the count was over 32,000 new members.
Unions and their federations need to set priorities and turn that trend around, and fast. And that will take hard choices and the devotion of time and resources that might otherwise be spent elsewhere, like on a colossal expansion of anti-trade efforts.
Brad James is the Organizing Department Leader for the United Steelworkers Canadian National Office. Follow him on Twitter @jamesbrad263. Opinions expressed are his own.