Sad to say, a rift is under way in the progressive movement.
The AFL-CIO, main federation of the American labor movement, favors Trump’s tariffs. Our allies in the Democratic party, desperate to win in November, are pretty much united in the belief that Trump can do no right.
On July 12, the AFL-CIO conducted a webinar led by Celeste Drake, their trade specialist. Even though there were a lot of “we don’t mean this” and “we don’t mean that,” the essence of the discussion was that labor thinks tariffs on steel and aluminum are good policy and should have been done decades ago.
I’ve tried to make this clear several times: labor unions represent our members. It’s the best and the worst thing you can say about us. We do not represent other people’s members, and we do not represent humankind, we do not represent abstract ideals. We represent our members, and our members want job security. Some of them, most notably the Steelworkers, think they can get it, or get more of it, with Trump’s tariffs.
Unions lamented the fact that many unionists in the “rust belt” voted for Trump. This is why.
So, the AFL-CIO position is sure to alienate some of our Democrat friends. It’s going to alienate some unionists, too. For example, the autoworkers probably don’t like tariffs on steel because it means that autos produced in America will cost more and be at a disadvantage in world markets. Aerospace workers won’t like tariffs on aluminum for the same reason.
But, here’s the irony of it, if Trump carries out his threat to put tariffs on foreign-made automobiles, the auto workers will probably be doing handsprings. If he put tariffs on foreign-made aircraft, the aircraft workers would be glad. That’s the way it works.
But Will It Work?
I think the AFL-CIO has taken a wrong turn. I think it’s possible, maybe even likely, that they will reconsider before very long. My opinion doesn’t come because I love Democrats, or even because I hate to see controversy and divisions within the working class. The fact is that the government of the United States does not function on behalf of working people.
We’ve seen that in all of the so-called “free trade” and “globalization” deals over the past few decades. Those deals, as the AFL-CIO is first to say, were for the big transnational corporations and at the expense of working people and the environment. We fought them at every turn. We said we weren’t isolationists, we weren’t for protectionism, we didn’t want to alienate other countries, but we knew we had to fight the transnationals. That made sense.
So why would anybody think that Donald Trump’s stance on “America first” is going to benefit American workers? I guarantee that, whatever comes of Trump’s international policies, including his trade policies, it will not benefit American workers.
What drives the big corporations today is international competition. American corporations try to out-sell, for example, Chinese producers. The main way they compete is to drive down their production costs. That’s us. Workers. We are their main production costs. That didn’t change when Trump got elected.
What’s the Answer?
Ultimately, American workers need international solidarity. Within our unions, we often say that we aren’t trying to bring everybody down to a common level, but we are trying to bring everybody up to the highest level. Why shouldn’t we apply that to foreign workers as well?
We need to work with foreign workers against our common enemy — transnational corporations and their stooges in government. It won’t be easy, but it’s the only way to win.
The old Congress of Industrial Workers (CIO), before it capitulated to the American Federation of Labor (AFL), was more internationalist. They formed an international organization for trade unionists — the World Federation of Trade Unionists — at the end of World War II. In my reading of history, it sounds like they were seriously trying to bring all workers together and fight the corporations that are our common enemy.
The right-turn of 1947 changed all that. Anticommunism became the new union religion, and anti-internationalism is part of anticommunism. The CIO joined the AFL in 1955 and both of them joined the CIA. The great progressive turn of 1995 started putting the American labor movement back on a good solid progressive course. Since 1995, the AFL-CIO has hardly made a single decision that didn’t inspire me to join their cheering squad.
Until this one. I hope it doesn’t last long.
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