Earlier this month, Donald Trump scored a major victory deep in the heart of red state America — saving two hundred union jobs in the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). At a White House event with the union, Trump declared: “Let this serve as a warning to any federally appointed board: if you betray American workers, then you will hear two simple words: ‘You’re fired.’”
Though the cherished New Deal institution has long stood as one of the Left’s most enduring accomplishments — a sterling example of what the public sector is capable of — here it was the Right who actually stepped up to defend its workers. Even as they were launching an all-out war on the United States Postal Service and its unionized employees.
Now, the Republican Party is raising the reactionary banner of “America First” over the TVA. And even worse, we’ve stood by and let it all happen.
A Political Void
Enshrined into law during the New Deal, the 1933 Tennessee Valley Authority Act has remained a lasting testament to the progressive politics of that time. Instead of offering market incentives through policy, the TVA aimed to modernize the impoverished region stretching across seven southern states through federal government muscle — by purchasing private utilities’ assets and directly employing its own workforce for massive infrastructure projects.
Today, it’s still the largest public utility in the country, and it has remained a stronghold of organized labor in the South, with over half of its 10,000 employees represented by unions.
But earlier this year, TVA management betrayed its historic New Deal mission and chose instead to “leverage the market” by outsourcing jobs to multinational IT consulting firms that rely on cheap labor.
TVA software developer Wendy Turner, who’s worked there almost twenty years, couldn’t believe it. “I was raised in a very poor household over in the projects. I was always told that the way you get out was education. That way you can find you a job. When I got this job at TVA, it was great. Perfect opportunity to allow me a good life, take care of my kids,” said Turner. “Now they’re treating us all like we’re disposable.”
Standing up for these workers should have been a no-brainer for the socialist left — after all, TVA workers literally keep the lights on for ten million Americans with one of the New Deal’s greatest accomplishments. But the union’s struggle went largely unnoticed in progressive circles, even with the recent astonishing growth of organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America and the Sunrise Movement.
Only two Democrats — Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama and Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee — spoke to the union about fighting the outsourcing, the same number as Republicans who did so. Cohen requested that House Democratic leadership include, in a coronavirus relief bill, “language that prohibits federal government agencies, including the TVA, from privatizing federal jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic,” but no such language ever materialized.
Trump and the Right were glad to fill that political vacuum.
What follows is a dark lesson about what happens when the Left ignores its historic commitment to workers. Because not only has the hard right stepped into the void in this particular case — they’ve just scored a material victory for a small but not insignificant number of American workers, and helped symbolically validate a dangerous politics of xenophobia.
Outsourcing the New Deal
On the chopping block at the TVA was 20 percent of its in-house information technology (IT) staff — about two hundred employees. Almost all of them are represented by a union, the TVA Engineering Association, Local 1937 of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE), but management circumvented the union’s contractual process in the decision. And worse still, the layoff notices arrived just as the coronavirus has torn the global economy apart and resulted in tens of millions of American jobs lost.
During the pandemic, white-collar workers around the country have spent months working from home. For approximately half of the TVA IT workers who received pink slips this summer, that long distance work was bogged down with an additional humiliating task: remotely training their outsourced replacements.
On Skype calls, they spent several hours a day training the workers who would soon be taking their own jobs at less pay, without benefits or a union, and no interest in the TVA mission. “It feels bad all the time,” one of them told me earlier this summer. “They’re treating us like we’re all interchangeable and anyone can do everyone’s job,” said another. “It’s very degrading, demoralizing.”
With the outsourcing move, two TVA IT workers I spoke to saw another motive.
“It’s union busting for sure,” one insisted. Once the CEO says the outsourcing can get things done more efficiently, he says, “you’ve privatized a government entity and busted a labor union.” Turner, who’s also a designated union representative, highlighted the fact that over the past year management even successfully shrank the union’s bargaining unit by reclassifying senior developers into managerial positions.
“There’s no doubt they’re busting the union,” Turner says.
Investigations by the union revealed that the IT consulting firms hired by management rely heavily on a controversial and exploitative temporary guest worker visa known as the H-1B. As it would turn out, the union’s fortunes would hinge entirely on that seemingly inconsequential revelation.
How Wealthy Employers Use Guest Worker Visas To Set Worker Against Worker
Intended for highly specialized work, H-1B visas are almost universally requested by employers for run-of-the-mill programming jobs that don’t require an education beyond a bachelor’s degree. Today the United States has almost 600,000 H-1B visa holders, about 10 percent of the entire domestic IT workforce.
An employer can request H-1B visas for jobs without any proof that they could not fill those jobs otherwise. While there is a legal requirement that visa holders earn a prevailing wage — the market rate specific to the job title and region — it’s both unenforced and ineffective.
Research by the Economic Policy Institute reveals how companies use H-1Bs for a discount of up to 34 percent of the market rate for software developers, a major boon to employers. They also benefit from the labor discipline that comes from the burdensome process and deportation risks when an H-1B visa holder wants to switch jobs.
But it’s IT outsourcing firms who are particularly invested in the power of the H-1B visa. These firms use them to bring international programmers into their American offices on a temporary basis. First, they pay them to learn as much as possible about the jobs they’re outsourcing and then, when they’ve soaked up enough knowledge — before their visas expire — reshuffle them back to offices in cheaper countries like India.
For twenty years, outsourcing IT jobs to such firms has been a labor-squeezing tool for businesses spanning a range of industries, like utility Southern California Edison in 2014, Disney in 2015, and AT&T last year.
Two of the IT contractors TVA management hired for the outsourcing, Capgemini and Accenture, placed in the top ten by number of H-1B visa requests in recent years. Last year both companies paid a majority of their H-1B visa holders a salary below what the EPI called the minimum market rate.
The TVA IT workers training their replacements see the H-1B visa for what it is: an exploitative labor regime that helps companies break unions and hire cheap labor.
“It’s holding these people hostage for their immigration,” one TVA IT worker, Brian (not his real name), explained to me. “In reality they’re probably not gonna get their citizenship, so it’s a false promise to them.”
After Trump recently announced new severe restrictions on H-1B visa approvals for employers, billionaire Apple CEO Tim Cook mounted a lofty defense of the H-1B program: “Like Apple, this nation of immigrants has always found strength in our diversity, and hope in the enduring promise of the American Dream.”
Tesla and SpaceX CEO, and fellow billionaire Elon Musk humanized H-1B visa holders by saying “In my experience, these skillsets are net job creators,” while simultaneously violating labor law in order to prevent workers from organizing in his company’s factories.
“Our workers don’t care what race or nationality you are. They are trying to protect themselves and the people of the Valley,” said Turner. “They don’t want those jobs outsourced outside the Valley — that’s part of the TVA’s mission.”
A Strong Union Can Stand Up To Outsourcing
What’s happening to the TVA IT workers is not new. In IT, outsourcing has been the norm for decades now. But unlike most tech workers, TVA workers are union, and that union was ready to fight.
Last spring, after various internal processes stalled out, the Engineering Association took its defense of the IT workers public. The union aimed to build political pressure against TVA management since the TVA’s board of directors — political appointments made by the president and approved by Congress — had the power to intervene.
In June, the union held protests in three cities with TVA offices, in Tennessee and Alabama, drawing increased attention from local media and support from local labor groups, including a few members of the small Knoxville chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.
The union also published video testimonials of their workers on social media concurrently with the protests. But none of that got any love in any nationwide media outlets or even among the major organizations on the Left.
But on the other side of the aisle, some political heavy-weights were paying close attention. And unlike the Left, they saw it as the perfect opportunity to hammer home their own ideological commitments.
The Right Takes the Lead
“Every job in America is subject to being lost due to [outsourcing] if it’s not controlled,” warned former senator and former attorney general Jeff Sessions at the union’s Huntsville, Alabama protest.
Sessions knows that outsourcing is red meat for the “America First” segment of the populist right, a way to pit the interests of liberal elites like Silicon Valley executives — whom he calls “Masters of the Universe” — against hardworking Americans like those in the TVA. Yet, despite this rhetoric, Sessions rarely met a labor-friendly piece of legislation that he wasn’t eager to kill.
This is pretty consistent across the Trumpian “populist” right; for all their valorization of workers against elites, they never seem to have any love for the actual labor movement — the only force throughout history that has enabled working people to take on the concentrated power of the actual elite.
Later, in an interview with conservative commentator Michelle Malkin, Sessions continued to champion the TVA workers, using language that shows how easily the Right can capture a struggle like this one if the Left abandons it. “These people at TVA are talented, good people. They had decent wages, middle class, good salaries for the region. But look, [Silicon Valley executives] act like all these H-1B workers are going to create a new iPad or something. Most of them are smart capable people, but Americans are too.”
Sessions continued: “One of [the Masters of the Universe] said ‘oh, this would impact our diversity program.’ And I say to them, what about having more Hispanics and African-Americans? How about developing diversity through that program instead of abroad?”
Republicans like Sessions, who’s spent his entire career trying to destroy civil rights legislation, are perfectly capable of using even the most liberal-sounding language of “diversity” in the pursuit of their nationalistic project — so long as it wards off a politics of big state intervention, union empowerment, and universal public goods.
Conservative media site Breitbart and anti-immigration group Federation for American Immigration Reform, key outlets for America First, also carried the message of the TVA workers against H-1B outsourcing, reverberating in a constellation of conservative blogs.
But the real MVP for elevating the TVA workers’ struggle in conservative circles is a man named Kevin Lynn.
The Immigration Reductionist Makes His Play
“[In America there is a] cult of neoliberalism, this belief that companies and individuals should be able to freely move people and capital across international borders so as to maximize profit.” Those were some of Lynn’s remarks at the union’s Huntsville protest, just before he introduced Sessions.
Lynn is the founder of US Tech Workers, an NGO spinoff masquerading as a workers’ organization. It serves as his outlet for politicizing trade and immigration policies that hurt domestic tech workers — the H-1B visa in particular. The group is part of the NGO for which Lynn serves as executive director and draws the sole salary — Progressives for Immigration Reform.
Lynn has a particular zeal for restricting immigration and seems to think it’s a solution to every possible political issue from global warming to the problem of American medical students not placing in American hospitals. His interests align with those of the super-wealthy who bankroll his and other NGOs decrying immigration.
Lynn might speak positively of particular unions, like the TVA Engineering Association, but unions don’t actually factor into his political remedies for the problems facing American workers.
In a discussion about Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s original Green New Deal (GND) resolution, for example, Lynn dismissed the resolution’s requirement that the GND “creates high-quality union jobs that pay prevailing wages” as unfairly “picking the unions as winners,” like how the Federal Reserve “picks the bankers and the elites” as winners.
At the Huntsville protest, in his five-minute speech about neoliberalism — decrying globalization, outsourcing, and immigration — Lynn said absolutely nothing about unions or the labor movement.
And yet, with a totally absent left, Lynn would prove an indispensable ally for the union — even if his motives were very different from their own. And when workers are facing the loss of their very livelihoods, they’ll take any friend they can get.
After the union’s June protests, the situation looked grim. Yet another wave of layoffs was announced but still only a few local Congressmen opposed the outsourcing, to no avail. The union’s white whale, President Trump, wasn’t even paying attention.
It was Lynn who managed to spear Trump right in his soft underbelly — with a TV ad that ran on Fox News.
Saving Workers — but on the Far Right’s Terms
US Tech Workers spent more than $100,000 to run a 30-second ad, in the Tennessee Valley and Washington, DC markets, lambasting the outsourcing of federal jobs to foreign workers. (The ad contrasts the outsourcing with the TVA CEO’s $8 million compensation last year, the highest paid federal employee in the country.)
Though Trump initially dismissed the ad as fake news, he eventually relented. On Monday, August 3rd, Trump issued an executive order effectively demanding federal agencies only use contractors that employ US citizens, permanent residents, and green card–holders — not temporary guest workers like H-1B visa holders. (Bloomberg Law reports that it might be more bark than bite.)
The real victory for the union came a few days later — TVA management announced it was rescinding the layoffs and reevaluating the IT contracts in concert with the union. Anyone who’d already been laid off or found another job would get an offer to return.
And just like that, Trump had saved two hundred union workers at one of the last bastions of the New Deal’s legacy, and during an unprecedented global crisis to boot. An easier political victory for such a loathed figure would be hard to find. And worse, for the first time in months, the polls for November’s presidential election are suddenly tightening.
For the IT workers at the TVA — and all others who’ve seen management outsource their jobs to H-1B–dependent contractors — it was proof that there’s power in a union. But that, when it came to all this talk about a rising socialist left in America, they were still very much on their own.
Flying the Banner of “America First” Over the TVA
To commemorate the victory Trump invited representatives from the TVA Engineering Association for a photo op and round table discussion at the White House.
On one side were union president Gay Henson, and a few TVA IT workers and union reps, including Wendy Turner. On the other side were Trump, the vice president, the secretary of labor, a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official, a loyal Trump Republican congressman from Tennessee, and US Tech Workers’ Kevin Lynn.
Their discussion revealed the limitations and agenda of “America First” as a solution to outsourcing.
Practically on a dime, talks shifted towards national security and the need to protect “the homeland” through immigration restriction. The DHS official, whom Trump lauded as “a legend,” spoke about human trafficking and about Border Patrol’s rapid returns of captured migrant workers crossing the Mexican border.
What any of this had to do with the enfeeblement of New Deal–era public infrastructure was not at all clear.
Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia (son of the late anti-labor Supreme Court Justice) talked up a new order compelling, for the first time, the Labor Department to share data on H-1B visa holders with the DHS. As if their exploitative contracts weren’t bad enough, temporary guest workers in America could now have unmarked DHS goon squads like those recently seen in Portland, Oregon to worry about.
All that emphasis on border security highlights the Right’s motivation in this battle: to displace the economic dimension of people’s daily lives with a culture war of xenophobia and nationalist identity. Without the H-1B angle to draw them in, does anyone believe Jeff Sessions or Kevin Lynn will be around for the next round of contract negotiations for TVA workers?
Sadly, it’s not at all clear the Left will be there either.
Fights We Can’t Abandon
Trump is certainly no friend of the kind of social democratic politics inherent in the Tennessee Valley Authority. And his nomination of a new TVA director, announced alongside his executive order, could portend the next battle for the soul of the institution. That nominee founded and ran a “dark fiber” company — private “information highways” which other businesses lease for access — that he later sold to a private investment firm. Who better then to advise the president on his third attempt at privatizing the TVA’s transmission system?
Fortunately, the labor-centered left already has a model for expanding the TVA, fighting privatization of public goods, and standing with workers — and their unions in particular — against outsourcing. Throughout his career Senator Bernie Sanders always understood the importance of fights like these, always keen to deflate the right-wing talking points while advancing a powerful vision of a better world for working people.
The question is — will the young, emerging left follow his lead?
The TVA is a progressive inheritance from a time in which being on the Left meant a politics of public goods and the mass decommodification of essential resources: in this case, electricity. That makes it a key battleground if we want a Green New Deal.
If we’re going to beat the “America First” nationalism on the Right, the Left must return to the kind of mass politics that made the TVA possible in the first place. And that starts with the labor movement.
“Once we established things like 40-hour work weeks and essential protections, I think there’s a whole population who feels like unions are not needed — but they are needed,” says union president Gay Henson. When asked about the waning influence of unions in American politics, Henson told me “our culture in this country is woefully inadequate in this area.”