Labor Day has been a national holiday in the U.S. since 1894. Many struggles for workers’ rights that have occurred since then, from the labor movement and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s/early 1940s to the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s. And history not only teaches us that gains in economic justice are incremental—it is also demonstrates that gains can easily be lost when workers aren’t vigilant about protecting them. The Donald Trump era has been a painful reminder of that fact: from Social Security and Medicare cutbacks to anti-union right-to-work laws to an increasingly far-right Supreme Court, the Trump administration and the Republicans who control both houses of Congress are determined to obliterate what’s left of FDR’s New Deal and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society.
Here are ten ways in which, on Labor Day 2018, America’s embattled working class is seriously screwed in the Trump era.
1. Union Membership Has Reached Historic Lows
In 1954, union membership in the U.S. reached 34%, according to the Congressional Research Service; in other words, slightly more than one-third of workers were unionized when Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower was president. But in 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), only 10.7% of salaried U.S. workers belonged to unions. That 10.7% figure includes both public-sector and private-sector workers; in the private sector, only 6.5% of U.S. workers were unionized last year. And it’s important to remember that not only do unions have a positive impact on their members—they promote better working conditions across the board. So the more unions decline in the U.S., the worse it will be for American workers.
2. The Growth of Right-to-Work Laws
So-called right-to-work laws—which are more accurately described as “right-to-work-for-less laws” or “union-busting laws”—were largely a southern phenomenon in the past. But thanks to Republican governors and/or Republican state legislatures, some northern states have become “right-to-work” states in recent years—including Missouri under Republican Gov. Eric Greitens and Wisconsin under Gov. Scott Walker. Some northern states have resisted this terrible trend: Democratic Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, who is seeking reelection this year, has been very outspoken against right-to-work laws—and his running mate, Braddock, PA Mayor John Fetterman, is a Bernie Sander supporter with a very pro-union history. But if Republicans maintain control of both houses on Congress in November, they could pass a national right-to-work law—thus wiping out any pro-union laws at the state level throughout the U.S.
3. Republicans Long to Shred What’s Left of the New Deal and the Great Society
When Donald Trump was putting together his administration in December 2016 and President Barack Obama was weeks away from leaving office, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (an enthusiastic Trump supporter) declared that Trump’s victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton in the presidential election represented a “great effort to break out of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt model.” Indeed, today’s Republicans would love to shred what’s left of FDR’s New Deal and, by extension, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society—and the Trump administration has favored draconian cuts to Social Security and Medicare, both of which House Speaker Paul Ryan would love to privatize.
4. The Trump Administration’s Endless Attack on Health Care Reform
“Medical bankruptcy” is a term that one seldom hears in Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand or Japan; that’s because most of the developed world, apart from the U.S., has universal healthcare. People born and raised in Switzerland, Norway or Italy, in fact, are appalled when they hear the term “medical bankruptcy” and find out that Americans really do lose their life savings, homes, cars and other assets when they have the misfortune of suffering a major illness. For all its flaws and shortcomings, the Affordable Care Act of 2010, a.k.a. Obamacare, did improve the U.S.’ troubled healthcare system somewhat: millions of Americans who lacked health insurance before the ACA have it now. But Republicans, although unable to overturn the ACA so far, have been fighting hard to undermine and weaken it—and the more Republicans are able to roll back health care reform, the more medical bankruptcies the U.S. can expect.
5. The Repeal of Net Neutrality
Net neutrality is the principle that ISPs (Internet service providers) must treat all Internet traffic equally. Under Barack Obama-era Net neutrality rules, ISPs could not treat YouTube, Amazon or Wikipedia, for example, as “premium traffic” and treat them differently from an upstart e-commerce company. ISPs could charge extra for connection speeds under Net neutrality rules: if Verizon wants to charge FiOS consumers more for a 940 megabytes-per-second download speed than a speed of 150 MBps, that’s perfectly legitimate (just as a 55” flat-screen TV is naturally going to cost more than a 32” flat-screen TV). But Net neutrality forbids traffic-based discrimination in the U.S.—or rather, it did before Ajit Pai, head of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) under Trump, abolished Obama-era Net neutrality rules. Effective June 11, 2018, ISPs can now pick and choose when it comes to online traffic—thus putting small online businesses at a major disadvantage.
Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight for the Future, asserted that ending Net neutrality “amounts to a tax on small businesses that they just can’t afford. It allows the largest, most powerful companies to squash their competition by cutting competitive deals with big ISPs, who will become the gatekeepers of the free market, picking and choosing which businesses succeed and which ones fail.”
6. The Trump Administration’s Hostility to Green Energy
Thanks to climate change, the horrific conditions predicted in the 1973 science fiction film “Soylent Green” (starring Charlton Heston and Edward G. Robinson) are turning out to be frighteningly accurate. Weather related-disasters have occurred throughout history, but with climate change, they are occurring more frequently. And while climate change imperils everyone, the rich are better able to cope with its nightmarish effects. The rich can more easily move when sea levels rise; they are better able to afford more heat in the winter or more air conditioning in the summer. Climate change is not only an environmental issue: it is also a class issue—and when Trump favors fossil fuels over green energy, insists that climate change is a hoax and appoints the worst EPA head in the agency’s history (Scott Pruitt), it is the working class who suffer the most.
7. The U.S. Supreme Court’s Move to the Far Right
In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court is much more conservative than it was under Chief Justice Earl Warren in the 1950s and 1960s—and if Trump has his way, it will move even further to the right both socially and economically. Trump’s nominees so far—first Justice Neil Gorsuch, now Judge Brett Kavanaugh—are far-right “strict constructionists” or “originalists” in the vein of the late Antonin Scalia. And with a Scalia-ish Supreme Court, one can expect a lot of anti-working class decisions that are anti-union, pro-corporatist and anti-consumer.
8. The U.S.’ National Minimum Wage Remains Stagnant
In the U.S., the federal minimum wage hasn’t begun to keep up with the cost of living. The federal minimum wage was raised to $7.25 in 2009, and it hasn’t been raised since then. Although Sen. Bernie Sanders and many of his allies have been pushing for a national minimum wage of $15 per hour, that isn’t going to happen as long as Donald Trump is president or Republicans dominate either house of Congress. And even if Democrats managed to retake both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate in the November midterms, Trump could veto any minimum wage increases that Congress passed.
9. Too-Big-to-Fail Is Bigger Than Ever
Ten years have passed since the start of the Great Recession and the financial meltdown of September 2008, which was the worst economic event in the U.S. since the crash of 1929. In 2018, unemployment is much lower than it was in 2009 or 2010; even so, millions of Americans never fully recovered from the losses they suffered during the Great Recession (which ranged from home foreclosures and savings accounts wiped out to periods of extended unemployment or underemployment). And the banksters who were deemed “too big to fail” and received generous bailouts in 2008 and 2009 (from Bank of America to Wells Fargo to Goldman Sachs) have increased in size considerably and become even more potentially dangerous than they were back then. In fact, Nomi Prins (author of “Collusion: How Central Bankers Ruled the World”) has asserted that the next crash could be even worse than 2008.
10. The Rent Is Still Too Damn High
Home ownership was an important element of the New Deal; to FDR, home ownership and the equity that goes with it symbolized a middle class life and the American Dream. But in recent years, becoming a homeowner has become increasingly difficult—especially in large urban areas, where rents and home prices have been soaring. In January, a study by the apartment search website RentCafe.com analyzed U.S. Census Bureau data for 2006-2016 and found that homeowners are now a minority in 22 of the U.S.’ most populous cities. Many Americans are spending way too much on a rent, but they can’t afford a mortgage either. Jimmy McMillan is right: the rent is too damn high.