Organizing the Alienated: Take the Skinheads Bowling- to the Union League

Long-term Union Organizing is the Only Likely Route to Overcoming the Deep Alienation of Trumpist GOP Voters

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In the 1990 documentary, American Dream, we see the rural meat-packing factory town of Austin, Minnesota launch an audacious strike that would captivate the nation – and then crash in defeat as union-busting tactics and the Minnesota national guard breaks the strike.  Beyond the economic impact of this defeat, we see a town where the union bound the community together – and where that community itself comes apart as strikers and strikebreakers literally square off in brother-against-brother raging anger that looks never likely to heal. 

The movie is a prophetic metaphor for what would happen in rural factory towns all over the nation, as anti-union attacks and deindustrialization ripped their communities asunder.  And the political change was just as striking.  In the 1988 election, the Minnesota county (Mower) where the meatpacking strike was launched voted 62.5% for the Mike Dukakis, the Democratic Presidential candidate, a higher Dem percentage that major cities like Minneapolis and St. Paul. But by 2016, only42% voted for Hillary Clinton, as Trump swept up similar rural and small factory town areas throughout the nation.

In 2020, despite over $2.3 billion spent by Democrats to try to convince Trump supporters to instead support Biden and Democratic candidates, a higher number of total voters turned out to support Trump & allied GOP Senate candidates than for the GOP in any previous election. Only the mobilization of massive numbers of Dem-leaning voters in response, led by grassroots groups like Stacy Abrams Fair Fight, meant that Biden received more votes - and the Senate was just barely taken back.

Multiple studies (including my own) have shown embedded racism and religious fundamentalism driving political polarization in our politics. While progressives must continue to invest in mobilizing the core Dem base, long-term change means reaching at least some part of that Trump voting bloc to cement a long-term progressive majority that can overcome a hostile Supreme Court and an undemocratic U.S. Senate.

While some on the economic left have hoped that policy appeals on economic self-interest would overcome that polarization, what’s clear is that driving the core of the new Trump voters is a deep personal alienation, manifesting as a racism that is far harder to overcome with simple political messaging.  What is needed is not policy promises but deeper investments in personal organizing, particularly labor organizing, to build social ties to address the alienation driving the political changes we have seen in places like Austin, MN.

The Alienated Masses of Trump Voters

Within the Republican Party primary in 2016, conservative writer Timothy Carney crunched the numbers and found Trump appealed to the most alienated Republicans even within the party itself: the less frequently primary voters went to church, the more likely they were to vote for Trump.  Only 32 percent of weekly church attenders supported Trump, while those who rarely attended church gave Trump 62 percent of their votes.  This latter group claimed religion was very important to them, but, in Carney’s analysis, tended to live in areas with not just dying economies but shuttered physical churches. Trump’s victory, in Carney’s analysis, is less about the collapse of the economy in his strongest voting strongholds than the collapse of “strong institutions” and breakdown of “social trust.”  Substitute union halls for churches and you see how that same alienation leaves progressives with little traction to build trust to recruit voters in those communities. 

Carney’s observations are backed by other more recent studies showing that Trump support was highest among those polled who had fewer social connections than non-Trump supporters.  And in data from the General Social Survey that I generated for this article, the greatest movement to Trump from Obama among white voters in 2016 was among voters with few friends, meaning those who socialize either only a few times a year or never.  In fact, younger whites who socialized more actually were less likely to vote for Trump in 2016.  (See first graph)

If you add in the variable of racist viewpoints - defined here using a GSS question about whether racial discrimination is recognized as a factor in black-white economic inequality or whether the respondent denies its impact- you see whites with racist views as a whole moving towards Trump.  But those with racist views who also had few friends were the voting population that moved most decisively to the GOP (see second graph).

Reflecting another measure of alienation, Trump received the most votes from communities where opioid addiction was highest, according to one study. Even accounting for demographic and socioeconomic measures, the voting map showed significant voting correlations with opioid use. "When we look at the two maps, there was a clear overlap between counties that had high opioid use ... and the vote for Donald Trump," says Dr. James S. Goodwin, chair of geriatrics at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston and the study's lead author. This fits another study finding higher rates of illness in general was correlated with Trump’s vote MORE than even educational differences in the population.

This alienation in much of Trump country associated with illness and opioid use has translated into middle-age whites in the U.S., as documented by this study by Anne Case and Angus Deaton, suffering rising mortality rates in the last few decades, a reversal of falling mortality rates seen nowhere else in the developed world.  As this chart reflects, that rising death rate derives from alcohol-driven liver disease, suicides and drug overdose “poisonings” that have exploded in this Trump demographic over the last two decades. [In 2013, the Austin Daily Herald would report that the county’s suicide rate was fifty percent higher than the state average.]

Organizing the Alienated and Friendless

Before many on the right will be able to even hear a positive political message, we need to bridge the social fabric that has left so many communities pulverized and individuals without real social networks. “Take the Skinheads Bowling” is a nonsensical song from 1985 by the alt-rock group Camper Van Beethoven but may capture at least part of what is needed. Probably coincidentally, that song came out the same year as sociologist Robert Putnam’s â€śBowling Alone” essay, which outlined the decline of social networks that he warned was having dire social impacts.  The rise of social media, which the lonely are most likely to depend upon, has been shown to only reinforce those negative feelings of alienation.

So if messaging has largely failed to penetrate that alienation and mobilization of our base just barely allowed progressives to hold their own in 2020, what is needed are investments in longer-term community and union organizing that go beyond existing political networks to build one-on-one human relationships that can reach the alienated parts of the Trump movement. Some try to do this through individual therapy-like approaches to folks in racist networks, highlighted in filmmaker Peter Hutchinson’s documentary, Healing from Hate: Battle for the Soul of a Nation.  But that is a slow process and we ultimately need ways to reach far larger numbers.

Unions are not a panacea but there is solid evidence they build community and reduce racism among members. While the economic impact of union growth in the 1930s is often emphasized, their community-building role in creating the New Deal coalition should not be underestimated, especially in bringing Americans of different races together in a common endeavor. In a country of segregated neighborhoods and churches, for most people in the 20th century, sharing a union affiliation was one of the only multi-racial affiliations most people had.  Social networks cemented by good jobs and a union hall were destroyed in the union-busting of the 1980s, followed by the rise of the Trumpist vote in their wake.

A recent paper titled “Labor Unions and White Racial Politics,” published in the American Journal of Political Science, added to the evidence that unions do transform white workers’ attitudes about race.  White union members on average have less racist views than white workers in similar industries who are not in a union.  Partly this is sharing a vision but partly it stems from what organizers do in the workplace – converting an employer-dominated space meant to divide workers into one that deliberately creates organic links between them. 

As labor organizer Jane McAlveney describes the process, union organizers chart every social relationship in the workplace to identify who in turn can reach other workers to strengthen the workplace community: “As you talk to them, you ask them a series of questions that help you assess who their actual organic leaders are in each department and shift.  [This process creates] a topography of all the relations among and between the workers, and it gives the organizer an increasingly precise and accurate understanding of how power moves in the workplace.” And what this means is that every person, however friendless they might have been before, should, in the ideal, end up with people assigned to pull them into that new union community.   

Losing that broad unionized community across the economy has driven not only rising economic inequality but also the racist political polarization we have seen in recent decades.

If there is any route to neutralizing some of the despair and ensuing hate in parts of the Trump base, a revival of the labor movement in red states is one of the only likely routes to doing so.

The problem is that, as union numbers have dropped, the financial resources for new organizing have also dropped.  Progressives outside the labor movement need to recognize the key importance of labor organizing to overcome right-wing extremism and invest in its revival. Democrats spent $6.9 billion in 2020 on political campaigns overall, $1.7 billion of that from small donors.  $140 million went to support the failed campaign of Cal Cunningham in North Carolina, $156 million went to Jaime Harrison’s campaign in South Carolina.  Those were at least plausible wins, but a portion of that money spent on organizing would likely bear longer-term fruit in those states.  Heck, if just the $103 million spent on the always-doomed campaign of Amy McGrath in Kentucky had instead gone to union organizing campaigns, that would likely be close to TEN TIMES the amount the AFL-CIO is currently spending on new organizing- and likely more than all its affiliates combined are currently spending. 

Instead of dumping ungodly amounts into short-term hail-Mary political campaigns in unwinnable red-state political campaigns, progressives need to step back and recognize that investing over the longer-term in real organizing that will build permanent labor institutions and real community in red states across the nation is a far better bet for building a progressive future.

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Labor Links Roundup

Featured in Dems’ Newest Budget Draft: A Transformative Labor Law Proposal • OnLabor Highlights ambition of House labor committee (HELP) in seeking to ram much of the PRO Act’s provisions through reconciliation.

Apple reportedly banned a Slack channel employees created-Marketwatch— With a new NLRB, Apple may be inviting a precedent protecting cybercommunication between employees about pay issues on the job.

Latinos in non-union jobs were seven times more likely than Latinos in labor unions to fall into unemployment during three key months early in the pandemic, * ScienceBlog.com Unionized workers of all races and ethnicities were less likely than non-union workers to experience job loss during the height of the economic downturn, but the report found that the effect was most pronounced among Latinos.

California Senate passes landmark bill taking aim at Amazon's labor practices * CNBC - California lawmakers passed bill aimed at Amazon’s use of productivity quotas in warehouses. Bill would require employers to disclose productivity quotas to employees and government agencies, among other provisions.

Union Veteran Takes Over at Emily’s List as Abortion Fights Loom * The New York Times— A labor leader turned political strategist will become first woman of color to lead the Democratic fund-raising powerhouse.

NLRB GC directs staff to seek expansive remedies for workers * Reuters - NLRB exploring non-traditional remedies, including compensation for losing health insurance or the loss of a home or car that results from an unlawful discharge.

A public letter from a union leader in jail [HKCTU] As China moves to dissolve all independent labor unions in Hong Kong, this letter is a bit