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Ready to Strike

Contested election? Labor has a plan for that.

Tomorrow night, the 2020 presidential election will finally—finally—be over. Millions of people have already voted, and while it will likely take days for the full results to be counted, someone will win this metaphorical coin toss. The United States will have a chief executive, and voters will be able to return their collective attention back to the panoply of horrors that characterize modern American life on the 364 other days of the year. At least, that’s what is supposed to happen—but that doesn’t mean that is what will happen. If Donald Trump fails to clinch a decisive victory over Joe Biden, an outcome that the polls hint is strongly likely, the current president of the United States has already laid the groundwork to contest this election—and even if Biden pulls off a landslide, that doesn’t mean Trump will make a graceful exit.

His intimations on the subject have not been subtle. Rather, Trump has seized multiple opportunities to blare out his desire to hold onto power by any means necessary. America’s half-assed, homegrown strongman has no intention of going gently into that good night, and in lockstep with his party, he has worked to systematically suppress votes, dismantle voting infrastructure, intimidate voters, and generally sow chaos and misinformation around the voting process. He has capitalized on the Democrats’ pathological aversion to action and stacked the Supreme Court with craven loyalists (two of whom have a little experience when it comes to manipulating elections for embattled Republicans, along with Chief Justice John Roberts). He’s openly encouraged armed far-right extremist groups to patrol the polls in his name—and to be ready to act if he doesn’t like what those polls say. Whether it happens under the guise of legitimacy or not, we are teetering on the precipice of something very dark, and even the few politicians who aren’t actively leading us to hell will not save us. It all seems rather hopeless for the future of what passes for democracy in this country.

The AFL-CIO warned that “we cannot depend on our institutions to guarantee that our votes will determine the next president.”

But there are still some leaders who are willing to put up a fight to defend it. Instead of haunting the halls of Congress, they’ve been hunkered down in regional union halls, making plans for after November 3. A huge swath of the labor movement has already mobilized to get out the vote, but even with Biden enjoying the endorsements of basically every major union, labor leaders are still feeling nervous about the outcome, especially if traditional labor strongholds like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin are slow to tally votes. (Just last week, the Supreme Court ruled to invalidate absentee ballots in Wisconsin that arrive late even if they are postmarked and sent in time, and Republicans have attempted to force similar maneuvers in Pennsylvania.) On October 19, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) issued a statement addressing Trump’s efforts to suppress and mangle the voting process. “The survival of democracy depends on the determination of working people to defend it,” it read. “We will not let you take our democracy away from us.” In an internal presentation obtained by Bloomberg News, the AFL-CIO warned that “we cannot depend on our institutions to guarantee that our votes will determine the next president.”

The AFL-CIO has still not so much as whispered the words “general strike” in any of its public-facing communication, but it stands to reason that the notion has come up behind closed doors. The U.S. labor movement has persevered through centuries of unrest, exploitation, and political repression, and for all its faults, has proven time and time again that the power of collective action is instrumental in forcing real change in this nation. The past several years have also seen a resurgence of interest in the idea of a mass direct action in which workers from multiple key industries refuse to work and take to the streets. It came to a head in 2019, in the midst of a brutal government shutdown that was bleeding workers dry, when Association of Flight Attendants-CWA President Sara Nelson called upon her fellow labor leaders to think big—and to end the shutdown with a general strike. By invoking labor’s nuclear option, Nelson called for the kind of militancy that once characterized the labor movement . . . and it worked.

By the next day, the shutdown was over. The mere threat of a strike that big and that powerful had helped bring the government to heel, and that precedent has not strayed far from many organizers’ minds as the devastation and fascist violence of the Trump administration continues to intensify and his attacks on democracy become more blatant. Add in his disastrous Covid response; an economic freefall that has left millions of workers unemployed; and the lack of a new stimulus bill, which is already causing hemorrhaging in heavily unionized industries like the airlines and hospitality, and it’s no wonder that organized labor has been increasingly galvanized to more radical action. Now, with the threat of a blatantly rigged election hanging over their heads, labor leaders knew they had to act.

The AFL-CIO Rochester Labor Council was the first out the gate. On October 8, the council passed a resolution calling on the AFL-CIO, its affiliate unions, and every other U.S. labor organization 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 national AFL-CIO’s October 19 statement could be read as a lukewarm response to the Rochester resolution, which was quickly followed by like-minded resolutions from the Troy Area Labor Council and Seattle’s MLK Labor Council (they hold the distinction of being the only regional labor council to expel police from their ranks in 2020). The Seattle Educators Association (SEA) is also calling an emergency meeting a week after the election to strategize potential responses, and rank-and-file American Postal Workers Union members in Detroit have been distributing flyers urging their fellow workers to prepare to shut down the country if necessary.

The Western Massachusetts Area Labor Federation released its own resolution condemning Trump’s “neo-fascist tactics” and echoing the call for a general strike. As Lydia Wood, a field organizer for the WMALF, explained in an interview, the potential of an illegitimate second term from a historically anti-labor, anti-worker administration like Trump’s presents an existential threat to the entire movement. “Labor is realizing we are in a fight for our lives,” she told me. “The response of the U.S. government and our institutions to Covid-19 has been such an abject failure, and people are angry. Our elected leaders aren’t doing nearly enough to protect the public, establish and enforce workplace safety, expand social services, fight evictions, and support working families. It’s become clear to many that we need a new plan, and I think people are more open to taking a more direct-action approach. Organized labor has the skill set and the base, so we really should take a lead on this work.”

The Vermont AFL-CIO has taken an even more militant stance and is prepared to bypass the national AFL-CIO entirely if it has to. Instead of calling on the AFL-CIO and its affiliates to make moves on a national level, the Vermonters will be bringing a strike authorization vote directly to their own members at a November 21 convention—a measure that VT AFL-CIO President David Van Deusen is confident will pass. “And if we call for a general strike, we’re going to be calling on our union brothers and sisters from every corner of the state, from every union, union and non-union, to put down their tools and walk off the job in order to defend the basic premise upon which this country at its best is built,” he explained.

It may be unsurprising that Senator Bernie Sanders’s adopted home lays claim to what is undeniably the furthest left labor council in the United States, and the VT AFL-CIO is steadfast in its commitment to radical change. Its members’ alarm over the Trump regime’s voting machinations has been building for months, but as Van Deusen explains it, recent escalations have forced their hand. “The flag was raised for us when Senator Sanders publicly expressed grave concerns that there are scenarios where Trump would lose this election, and yet would not leave power and would essentially seize power through a coup, one way or another,” he said. Van Deusen also cited Trump’s call for the Proud Boys to “stand by” and his insistence that the only way he’ll lose is if the vote is “rigged”: “We’re being proactive in Vermont on that, and we’re ready to do whatever it takes to defend democracy.”

For now, the VT AFL-CIO is not alone in their fight. Vermont may be a small state, but it has found allies in other union locals and labor groups across the country, as well as in Sara Nelson herself, who has remained vocal about the necessity of harnessing workers’ power in the face of a potential right-wing takeover. As she told listeners during a webinar hosted by the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee, “Get ready, because 2021 is going to be a helluva year.”

Rank-and-file American Postal Workers Union members in Detroit have been distributing flyers urging their fellow workers to prepare to shut down the country if necessary.

The Vermonters have also been working in coalition with several groups in their own state, including Migrant Justice, Rights and Democracy, and 350 Vermont, a climate justice organization, to plan a series of actions for this first week of November. “Work stoppages, mass demonstrations, non-cooperation with an illegitimate federal government, civil disobedience, whatever it takes—and if we see problems with armed groups, or vigilante type situations, we have to be prepared to defend ourselves, too,” Van Deusen explained. He says that he’s been in contact with other regional and national labor leaders about the issue and will be closely monitoring the events of November 3. Only time will tell whether or not the council’s planned November 7 vigil ends up as a celebration—or something else.

“We have to be ready to do our part,” he said. “And we have to look at all the tools at our disposal. The most powerful tool we have is the strike. This society doesn’t work without our labor. So if we decline to provide our labor, we have the ability to shut the United States of America down.”

Of course, there remains the very real possibility that Biden will secure an overwhelming victory despite a decades-long project of Republican-manufactured voter suppression and a conservative Supreme Court poised to intervene on Trump’s behalf. If that happens, a general strike is decidedly unlikely; labor will be pulled back into the room to help clean up messes left by the previous administration, and to help their members weather the looming economic depression. After the candidates no longer need its votes, the labor movement risks being relegated back to a mere special interest group. But as the massive mobilization around this election and the increased appetite for radical action among the rank and file show, labor doesn’t have to settle for table scraps anymore. In the words of Big Bill Haywood, “If the workers are organized . . . all they have to do is to put their hands in their pockets and they have got the capitalist class whipped.”

Whether its leaders can manage to channel all of this energy into real, tangible victories for the workers of this country under a hypothetical Biden administration remains to be seen. Whoever occupies the White House next January, though, would do well to remember that administrations change and governments crumble—but the power of the working class is eternal.