In both the US and the UK, political strikes are illegal. Nevertheless, US trade unionists are discussing the possibility of strikes to oppose attempts by far-right president Donald Trump to sabotage the upcoming election.
We republish an interview with David Van Deusen, president of the Vermont State Labour Council, the local organisation of the AFL-CIO, the US equivalent of the TUC. The interview was first published in Solidarity here.
There’s a real possibility that Donald Trump will lose this election, outright, but manipulate the process and use his powers as President to refuse to go. This is not a fringe idea – our United States Senator, Bernie Sanders, is rightly banging the drum about it too. It’s a real possibility, and no joke.
There’s various ways it could happen – there could be attempts to discount certain ballots, with so many mail-in votes this year, and ballots could be destroyed. And if for instance Trump loses Pennsylvania, they have a Republican legislature which could choose to send pro-Trump delegates to the electoral college. Trump may have support from within the Department of Homeland Security, in addition to the non-AFL-CIO police unions supporting his candidacy, and the extreme right-wing groups.
I don’t know how quickly things would unfold. The US system of elections means there are various benchmark dates. 14 December is when the electoral college votes. It may be a slow roll into crisis or it may happen rapidly.
Vermont AFL-CIO is the first state labour council to come out for a general strike if Trump attempts a coup. We’ll be taking that position to our state convention on 21 November, and asking for authorisation to call strikes if it comes to it. Our leadership is ready to do whatever it takes to defend democracy, but we want a mandate from the rank and file as we head into uncertain waters. I’m confident we’ll get one. [See their public statement here.]
We’re not going to let this country flip into dictatorship without using every weapon to stop it, and the strongest weapon we have is withholding our labour.
What kind of discussion and debate have you had in Vermont?
In addition to our elected leadership, we have a wider advisory committee made up of rank-and-file leaders from different unions. In the debate there, there hasn’t been any disagreement about the need to organise in resistance to a coup. As we get closer, if it becomes more concrete, I’m sure there will be more debate. A general strike is really outside the political experience of labour in the US, with the partial exception of some city general strikes and those were long ago.
Last year we elected a new, progressive leadership in our state AFL-CIO. Our caucus is called United and we’re clearly on the left. We have the most progressive programme of any state labour council in the US; we’re committed to fundamental changes in the labour movement. We have DSA [Democratic Socialists of America] members like me, former ISO [International Socialist Organization] members, people involved in the Movement for a People’s Party. We have a strong relationship with the Vermont Progressive Party, a social democratic organisation which is a significant force in the state.
There is no pro-Trump voice within our leadership. There is a range of views, from people who are excited to elect Biden to probably more who think he’s not likely to go anywhere like far enough.
No one is arguing for anything less than defeating Trump, but our main focus is defending democracy. Once we’ve secured that we need to fight for a labour-oriented Green New Deal-type recovery program, and that will be a fight whoever wins.
What about your membership? Are there pro-Trump voices?
We only have 10,000 members, but that’s a significant part of the workforce in Vermont. We have people all across the state.
Of course some of our members hold political views which are not as left-wing as our leadership, or not left-wing at all, but I don’t think pro-Trump views will be a major obstacle to mobilisation. I’d be surprised if he gets 30% of the vote in this state, and among union members it will be much less. Even our Republican governor is critical of Trump.
The hardest challenge will be the unfamiliarity of using strike action as a political tool. But even in 2016 when Trump was installed we had 20,000 protest in our capital Montpelier, whose population is less than 8,000. There is a large well to draw on. If there is a coup I would expect much larger numbers, and if we call a general strike larger still.
What’s the law in the US regarding political strikes?
Political strikes are illegal under federal law. But coups are illegal too! If the right seeks to disregard the constitution and have one of their own remain in power despite the will of the people, all bets are off. We will do what we have to do.
If we have to go above and beyond normal legal procedures, opposing a coup and defending democracy is more important than whether we have an “unfair labour practice” charge filed against us.
Where is the discussion at more widely, across the US?
A number of significant local union bodies have passed resolutions calling for a general strike if a coup takes place, including the local labour councils in Troy and Rochester in New York state and in Seattle. Those plus Vermont is not a general strike, but it’s a start. I think the discussion will spread, and if it becomes clear the Trump administration intends to reverse or negate the outcome, it will spread exponentially.
Obviously my state labour council only has jurisdiction in Vermont, and others have to have their own discussions, but we are engaging in as many conversations as we can. A number of local leaders from outside the state will be attending our convention on the 21st.
National AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka has said the federation will do all in its power to resist a coup. We take that at face value and we look forward to coordinating with the AFL-CIO nationally too.
Are the Democrats likely to try to prevent or restrain workers’ action?
There’s two different layers to that: the national Democratic Party, and local state parties. Yesterday I contacted pro-labour leaders from the Vermont state house to discuss how we can support each other. I think there will be support, and in fact in Vermont there may also be some Republican leaders and officials who want to defend democracy – I would not count that out at all. At a national level I have less faith in the Democratic Party and how it operates. That conversation is something the national AFL-CIO will take up, but for sure in Vermont we want to coordinate with everyone who really wants to defend democracy.
If there’s a coup and you resist, do you expect clashes with right-wing activists and militias?
I don’t think that would be a major issue in Vermont. There aren’t any well-organised paramilitary groups here. But of course if we come under threat we will take appropriate steps to provide for our security and the security of labour and democratic forces generally. In other areas of the country it could be a much more serious problem. These extreme right-wing groups are in many cases well-armed, and the labour movement and left need to be prepared for self-defence. If it was in Michigan or Pennsylvania that would be one of the first issue on my agenda. Here we are considering it in a cautious way.
If Biden wins and takes office, and there’s right-wing protests or resistance, what then?
No doubt this is possible. Donald Trump is a sort of third rate Mussolini; he’s given neo-fascist groups real encouragement on various levels, and helped them build up a real movement. Even the lone wolf actions we saw in the past were dangerous, but that was one thing; now we are seeing actions by organised groups. Regardless of the outcome I would anticipate violence in certain areas of the US, even if not Vermont, and the left has to be prepared for that.
Strike action, certainly the call for a general strike, might play a different role from if there’s a coup from above, but there will certainly need to be push back and strikes are an important part of that.
Have strikes and work actions around Black Lives Matter impacted the consciousness of union members about all this?
To a certain extent yes. There have been a range of actions, the most important being the longshoremen on the West Coast, who are one of the few bastions of labour with a long tradition of political strikes. They struck over Mumia Abu-Jamal and South African apartheid. I think more broadly the Black Lives Matter movement has compelled labour to look inward and consider our relationship to the black liberation struggle, and obviously that has implications for our attitude to Trump.
In the wake of George Floyd’s killing Vermont was the first state labour council to come out with an unequivocal position that we support black self-determination. We have made a number of practical and financial contributions to black liberation groups.
The labour movement needs to discuss and build up its relationship with oppressed peoples in the US to help overcome that oppression. Racism wasn’t fixed by these protests, obviously; there is a long road ahead.
• For Vermont State Labor Council’s public statement, see here
• For more on discussions in the US labour movement, see this article on Labor Notes and this video from the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee.