In May 2016, journalist Joshua Green asked Donald Trump, who had just clinched the Republican presidential nomination, to envision the future of the party under his leadership. “Five, 10 years from now — different party,” Trump predicted. “You’re going to have a workers’ party.”
The notion that Trump, with his record of callousness and corruption, would ever seriously address the challenges facing working people was always ridiculous. As president, Trump has demonstrated that his interest in workers begins and ends with his ability to profit, both politically and financially, from their anger and pain. He spent much of his first year in office traveling to his own business properties at taxpayers’ expense, and his only significant legislative achievement is a massive tax break for corporations and the rich. This is plutocracy on steroids, not economic populism. It’s not simply that Trump has failed to live up to his lofty promises to protect factory workers and negotiate better trade deals. Since taking office a year ago, Trump has presided over a systematic assault on the rights of American workers that is poised to intensify in 2018.
The attack is being waged on several fronts. Among other destructive steps, Trump’s Labor Department abandoned an Obama-era rule to expand overtime pay and recently proposed a new rule that would enable employers to legally steal workers’ tips. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that the rule would rob tipped employees of $5.8 billion annually. In December, the National Labor Relations Board also issued a series of pro-corporate rulings, including one that will make it more difficult for smaller groups of workers within large organizations to unionize. Meanwhile, after a year in which the number of coal miner fatalities across the country doubled, the administration is reportedly considering doing away with regulations intended to prevent miners from contracting black lung.
The gravest threat to workers’ rights today, however, may be the presence of Trump-appointed Justice Neil M. Gorsuch on the Supreme Court. In the coming months, the court could strike a devastating blow to public employee unions in Janus v. AFSCME, a case that has the potential to yield “the biggest anti-union judicial pronouncement in 40 years.” In a lesser-known case that involves three separate lawsuits, businesses are asking the court to roll back protections for low-wage and non-union workers that date all the way back to the New Deal. In both cases, Gorsuch, whose record of pro-corporate judicial activism is well-documented, could cast the deciding vote.
Although it is a disaster for the country, Trump’s anti-worker crusade gives Democrats a major opening to earn back the trust of working people who in recent years have felt neglected by the party. And Democrats made some important strides in 2017. The “Better Deal” agenda that party leaders unveiled in July includes worker-friendly policies such as a $15 minimum wage, paid sick and family leave and a crackdown on corporate monopolies. In November, they added a series of explicitly pro-labor measures to the platform, including federal legislation protecting the collective bargaining rights of public employees and a proposal championed by Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) to prohibit anti-union “right-to-work” laws.
Announcing the Better Deal’s labor plank, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), long associated with the party’s pro-Wall Street wing, signaled that perhaps Democratic leaders have been motivated by the temper and movements of the times. “Democrats are redoubling our commitment to working men and women with these proposals,” he declared. “We’re offering the middle class and those struggling to get there a better deal by taking on companies that undermine unions and underpay their workers, and beginning to unwind a rigged system that undermines every worker’s freedom to negotiate with their employer.”
Those are encouraging words. Still, as the midterm campaigns begin, Democrats need to prove that not only speaking for but actually serving the interests of working people is a real priority. In exposing Trump’s broken promise, they should also finally give American workers a party to call their own.
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