Unions Can Keep Workers From Falling Prey to the Far Right

The center has no convincing way to account for unemployment and low wages. Workers are compelled to choose between the solutions provided by the Right and the Left — and unionization can make all the difference in how they choose.

Union representatives for a factory in Marcq-en-Baroeul, Hauts-de-France. (Denis Charlet / AFP via Getty Images)

In 2017, far-right politician Marine Le Pen symbolically ended her ultimately unsuccessful presidential campaign in the small town of Ennemain. Nestled between the northern industrial cities of Amiens and Saint-Quentin and surrounded by crop fields, it’s the type of place Le Pen calls “forgotten France.”

Workers from a nearby foundry were present in the crowd that day with blue roses, the symbol of Le Pen’s campaign, tucked into the buttonholes of their work jackets. A local woman told the Guardian that Le Pen “understands our misery. She has come to the heart of real France, she knows our anger when shops and businesses close down, when people can’t find jobs. She is the only one who can save France.”

Not very far from Ennemain is the setting of Émile Zola’s famous 1884 novel Germinal, which depicted the harsh conditions faced by striking French coal miners. Zola was writing at a time of growing militancy among northern French industrial workers, and the novel predicted that they or their children would soon lead a socialist revolution. “Men were springing forth, a black avenging army, germinating slowly in the furrows, growing towards the harvests of the next century, and their germination would soon overturn the earth,” Zola wrote.

That revolution never came to pass. Instead, writes Cole Stangler in Jacobin, while the northern Hauts-de-France region “was once a bastion for organized labor and the Left,” more recently it “has struggled heavily with deindustrialization and has seen growing support for the far right.” Le Pen and her party National Rally (formerly National Front) have performed particularly well in Hauts-de-France, where unemployment is high and wages are low.

Le Pen has just announced that she’s running another presidential campaign in 2022, and her chances of defeating Emmanuel Macron this time are not exactly slim. She will no doubt rely on votes from her northern stronghold once again. It’s vexing to consider that the setting of Germinal has become the cradle for the French far right. But it’s no coincidence that the National Rally enjoys the support of workers in a region once brimming with left-wing organization and militancy.

A paper in the journal Economic and Industrial Democracy, titled “The Radical Right, the Labour Movement and the Competition for the Workers’ Vote,” provides insight into why the same demographic that harbored revolutionary socialist aspirations in one era is inclined to support far-right parties in another.

The paper’s authors, Nadja Mosimann, Line Rennwald, and Adrian Zimmermann, argue that workers, not just in France but everywhere, are essentially presented with two competing and mutually exclusive “political offers,” one from the radical right and the other from the labor movement.

Both provide strong answers to workers’ concerns about unemployment and low wages. And because these answers are diametrically opposed, workers must choose between them. Unionized workers are more likely to choose the labor movement’s offer, the paper finds, whereas nonunionized workers are more often convinced by what they hear from the far right.

Offer and Counteroffer

Far-right parties all over the world, but especially in Europe, are consumed with the issue of immigration. Their concerns are largely cultural, but between worrying that immigrants will import strange customs and cause traditional ways of life to disappear, these parties never hesitate to insist that immigrants are taking jobs that would otherwise go to native-born workers — not only contributing to unemployment, but also lowering wages and working standards for those who remain employed.

When Marine Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie Le Pen was at the helm of the National Front, the party put up posters reading, “Two Million Unemployed Is Two Million Immigrants Too Many!” His daughter has sought to clean up the party’s image from her father’s literal fascism, hence the rebranding to National Rally. But her rhetoric is virtually indistinguishable from his on this issue. “We have millions of unemployed and cannot afford any more immigration,” Le Pen has said.

Marine Le Pen in 2012. (Rémi Noyon / Flickr)

In Amiens, in Hauts-de-France, a retired worker at a Le Pen rally captured the general sentiment when he said about immigrants, echoing the party line, “They are going to invade us. Then, there really will be unemployment. There is more help for them than for us, the French.”

The far right, in other words, has a very clear explanation on hand for workers who are concerned about low wages and unemployment. Neoliberal centrists like Macron are less clear, primarily relying on technocratic ideas like setting up accounts containing small amounts of money that workers can spend on vocational training. It’s little wonder that workers in economically depressed regions are more inclined to the former.

But the radical right is not the only force in society ready with a concise explanation and a convincing solution to the problems that native-born workers face. The labor movement — not always and everywhere, but at its best — proposes that employers, not immigrants, are responsible for disappearing jobs, shrinking wages, and worsening conditions. The labor movement also proposes that workers regardless of national origin should unite against those employers to make it impossible for them to continue practices like low pay and outsourcing.

At its best, rather than pit native-born and immigrant workers against each other, the labor movement — and its political allies, so long as those allies are not too closely allied with the neoliberal center — seeks to raise the floor for both groups simultaneously. It is the exact opposite solution to the far right’s, one necessitating solidarity and the other demanding division. Workers can’t have them both. They must choose.

Unionization as Immunization

As for which choice workers make, unionization rates make a major difference. Where union density is high, the far right finds greater obstacles to convincing workers of its divisive explanations and anti-solidaristic solutions.

“Our empirical analysis of elections across Western Europe since the start of the Great Recession shows that union members display signs of resistance to the strategy of the radical right,” write the authors of the paper in Economic and Industrial Democracy, concluding that “unionization immunizes voters overall against the radical right.”

That doesn’t mean that every union worker is immune to the far right’s political offer, nor even that large groups of unionized workers will always resist the overtures of right-wing xenophobes. If, for example, a unionized minority lives in a region dominated by nonunionized workers who are vulnerable to messaging from the right, that region may over time develop a strong political culture that can influence unionized workers. This is likely the case in France’s industrial north, where union jobs exist but are a minority and continue to disappear as outsourcing takes its toll.

The last half-decade has made it plain that deindustrialization, declining union density, and the rise of right-wing populism go hand in hand — from the Rust Belt to the Hauts-de-France. To convince workers to turn down the political offer coming from the right, the Left must build adequate organizational infrastructure, chiefly unions and affiliated parties, that can make a strong counteroffer. If it doesn’t, the Trumps and Le Pens will be only the beginning.