From the bottom to the top of the labor movement, union officials and workers have begun discussing how to resist President Donald Trump should he refuse a peaceful transfer of power. Some unions are frankly discussing how to resist what they fear may be a “coup”; others are talking about a “general strike.”
This is extraordinary. Most American unions have never talked this way before. But Trump’s refusal to say he would accept the results of the election, his call for his supporters to intervene in the polling places, and the recent right-wing plot to kidnap Gretchen Whitmer, the governor of Michigan, and overthrow that state’s government have made us all wary.
We can expect massive protests to follow the elections, probably mostly led by social movements. But unions will be taking a stand, workers will be mobilizing, and we could see strikes that paralyze some workplaces. Whether or not anything will come of talks of a political general strike, which is so contrary to the history and culture of the American labor movement, remains to be seen, but these discussions are worth our attention.
In most unions, things began with the question of how to get out the vote for Democratic Party candidate Joe Biden, then turned to how to defend members’ right to vote, then to how to protect the voting process, the machines, the ballots, and then to the count. The lawyers will be key at certain points. But if Trump loses the election and refuses to peacefully transfer power to Biden, what should workers do?
On September 25 AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka issued a strong statement, saying:
The AFL-CIO categorically rejects all threats to the peaceful transition of power. The labor movement simply will not allow any breach of the U.S. Constitution or other effort to deny the will of the people. Union members across the political spectrum are united in our fundamental belief that the votes of the American people must always determine the presidency. America’s workers will continue to be steadfast in defense of our democracy in the face of President Trump’s antics, and we stand ready to do our part to ensure his defeat in this election is followed by his removal from office.
The statement promises that “America’s workers will continue to be steadfast in defense of our democracy,” but it does not suggest what they might do to defend it.
What will the unions do if Trump attempts a coup? Many older union activists remember that when in 1981 President Ronald Reagan fired 11,350 members of the union of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers (PATCO), the AFL-CIO unions found themselves divided and unable to act. Some unions are organizing now to prevent that from happening again.
The Rochester Labor Council passed a resolution stating, “that the Rochester Labor Council, AFL-CIO calls on the National AFL-CIO, all of its affiliate unions, and all other labor organizations in the United States of America to prepare for and enact a general strike of all working people, if necessary, to ensure a Constitutionally mandated peaceful transition of power as a result of the 2020 Presidential Elections.”
The Seattle Education Association passed a resolution stating that in the event of interference in the federal election, it would call within a week special meetings of its leadership bodies to recommend “work actions” to be voted on by the membership.
The American Postal Workers Union in Detroit warned its members to be prepared to resist a “coup” and put a leaflet to its membership calling on them to take a pledge that reads:
- We will vote.
- We will refuse to accept election results until all the votes are counted.
- We will nonviolently take to the streets if a coup is attempted.
- If we need to, we will shut down this country to protect the integrity of the democratic process.
While various unions and regional organizations have taken such positions, some national unions such as the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the Communications Workers of America (CWA) are affiliated with a broad-based coalition of NGOs and social movements called Protect the Results, which is planning on organizing events to protect the vote and presumably what comes after.
When there have been massive strikes, like the labor upheaval of the 1930s, the post–World War II strike wave from 1944 to 1949, or the remarkable upheaval of 1970, they were fundamentally economic, not political, in character. The United States has never had a national general strike and only rarely a citywide general strike, such as the 1919 Seattle General Strike or the 1946 Oakland General Strike.
There is practically no history of political strikes in the United States at all. In the twentieth century, one can count them on the fingers of one hand: the United Mine Workers’ resistance to the no-strike pledge of 1943, the West Virginia black lung strike of 1969, and few others. The exception to this is the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) that has carried out political strikes for years: against the US war in Vietnam, against the South African apartheid regime, and a strike on Juneteenth this year in solidarity with the protests against the murder of George Floyd. The ILWU record shows that it can be done.
At the same time, we have never faced a moment like the present when it seems — for the first time since the Civil War — we face a crisis of the entire political system. Even during the Great Depression of the 1930s, the political system did not face such a political crisis, grave as events were.
Some other countries have almost routinely experienced general strikes, especially in Europe and Latin America. And in the twentieth century and quite recently we have experienced political strikes against dictatorship or political tyranny: Senegal in 1946, Hungary in 1956, Poland in 1980, Brazil in the early 1980s, South Korea in the early 1980s, and more recently in Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia, Hong Kong, France, Belarus, Algeria, and Sudan.
Even six months or a year ago one could not have imagined that in the United States unions would be talking about protests and strikes to resist a coup as unions have on every other continent. Is America no longer exceptional on this question? We’ll soon find out.