Whatever your opinion of recent political events, I think we can all agree on one thing: we live in interesting times. Volatility, in both the economic and political spheres, is the new norm. Economic spikes and shocks have led to crippling recession and all-time highs on the stock market. And we’ve gone from Barack Obama to Donald Trump – two individuals with extremely different value sets and life experiences, who exist on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum.
I personally believe that economic uncertainty is what has led to the volatility we’re seeing in the political space – and I am sorry to say that for right now, and perhaps for the next four years, that volatility is going to negatively impact our members.
The early days of Trump’s presidency have been telling: he may have campaigned as a populist, but he is governing like a hard-right billionaire. His presidency is shaping up to be the most virulently anti-union in modern times, and there is no check on his power – he will meet little resistance in the legislative branch, and is close to having the judicial branch sewn up as well.
Here is what we must prepare for:
- National right-to-work legislation. Anti-union forces have been pushing so-called “right-to-work” policies for decades, and, not surprisingly, the new U.S. Congress wasted no time re-introducing a national right-to-work bill, knowing that Trump has voiced support for right-to-work. Currently, 27 states, including Nevada, already have right-to-work laws, and not coincidentally, those states also have lower median wages, higher poverty rates, more workplace fatalities and fewer workers with key benefits like health insurance and defined benefit retirement plans. There’s no question that a nationwide right-to-work policy would severely weaken the U.S. Labor Movement, and could have dire consequences for our members and our contracts.
- An anti-worker Supreme Court. Just before U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died, the Court was set to rule on Friedrichs vs. California Teachers Association, a case that would have mandated a constitutional right-to-work rule in the public sector. Our hope was that Scalia’s replacement would appreciate the value that unions and their members contribute to the government and to society – but there is almost no chance of that now. Trump recently nominated Neil Gorsuch, a far right judge whose record indicates that he is more conservative than Justice Samuel Alito. Several cases similar to Friedrichs are now moving through the lower courts – and Gorsuch’s ruling could be devastating to our union and others. And that’s just one example of how the courts could impact our rights and wages.
- An unfriendly Labor Secretary. Andrew Puzder, Trump’s original nominee for Labor Secretary, was a chief executive at Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. He came down hard against the fight for a $15-per-hour minimum wage, which we were proud to support. A Labor Secretary should, at the very least, understand the value and experiences of American workers and advocate on their behalf. But workers at his companies have said they often struggled with low wages, faced rampant discrimination and were routinely asked to work through breaks or take on extra hours without being paid overtime. When given an opportunity, Mr. Puzder put profits before people. But thanks to a concerted effort by working people and unions nationwide, Puzder withdrew his name for consideration. It’s unclear whether Trump’s new pick, Alexander Acosta, will wind up being better for working families, but his background in public service indicates that he will bring a different perspective to the job than Puzder would have.
- A hostile NLRB. The National Labor Relations Board sets policy and mitigates disputes between employers and workers. President Trump can appoint two new members, tilting the balance from pro-worker to pro-employer during his term. The new NLRB will have its choice of regulations to rescind, and can even repeal decisions that allow workers to organize in the first place. For example, last year the NLRB ruled to give researchers at private universities such as Harvard and Stanford the right to join a union – a right they had not had before. The repeal of that ruling appears to be imminent.
We are in an industry with accelerating technological and competitive challenges. Change is coming fast and furious – we are managing it where we can, and taking a hard line in other areas. For example, when the economics of sustaining the San Onofre Nuclear Generator ceased to make sense for the state, we negotiated a deal that kept our members on the job for years longer than was thought possible, and improved pay. And as Community Choice Aggregation spreads to municipalities across our service territory, we are introducing and passing ballot measures that shape the policies to our members’ advantage.
In other areas we are taking a hard line. To fight back against load loss, we are opposing net energy metering and standing up to anti-worker employers. But when you add a hostile political environment to our long list of challenges, it becomes clear that we are facing an existential crisis.
So what do we do?
Prepare. Organize. Fight like hell and don’t give up. We are at a disadvantage in the current climate, but we have a couple things on our side. First of all – you. This union has higher engagement, a more knowledgeable membership and a bigger financial reserve than almost any other. We know how to stand up for ourselves, and when we fight, we win.
After all, we are the people who unionized PG&E, who fought back against overwhelming odds to seize control our own future. No one gave us our power – we had to take it. And we have held on to it for 120 years. If I know you, I know you won’t let go of it now.
Second, we have spent years – decades, really – cultivating relationships in Sacramento, Carson City, and other state capitols. Because of your willingness to support the union, politicians know what a lineman is, why it’s important to have trained and experienced gas workers, the difference a good clerk can make to someone in trouble. They know 1245 workers are the best in the business, and their doors are open to us. We can and will activate these leaders to fight back against the federal government when they try to weaken us.
In many ways, unions are an antidote to the volatility of the modern era. We exist to provide stability – to ensure predictable wage increases and benefits, to fight against job loss as the economy ebbs and flows, to create a strong middle class that supports communities. And we act as a check on corporate power. For the good of our members and for the good of the country, we cannot cede our power to Donald Trump, to our employers, or to anyone. We must remain in control of our own future.
So we’re going to anticipate federal attacks on our right to exist, and plan for them. We’re going to embrace new technologies and use them to our advantage. And we’ll fight for our lives when it comes to keeping the work. This may be a time of dizzying change, but one thing is assured – we will not give up.
–Tom Dalzell, IBEW 1245 Business Manager