X Close

Graduate infiltration of labour unions angers blue-collar base

Which way will the unions lean? Credit: Getty

June 20, 2024 - 7:40pm

The Teamsters, one of the largest labour unions in the US, has been flirting with Republicans in an apparent effort to appeal to its increasingly conservative membership base, most recently by requesting to speak at the GOP convention this summer, as well as that of the Democratic Party.

The union has yet to make an official endorsement in the upcoming election, an unusual move in an industry which has historically sided with the Democrats. Its appeal to the Right arrives as a chasm opens up between rank-and-file workers and the union leaders who represent them.

Blue-collar workers in heavily unionised trades such as manufacturing have moved to the Right in recent years, in tandem with the rise of Donald Trump. This realignment, particularly in the Rust Belt, was less a shift in voters’ beliefs and more a rethinking of political parties’ priorities. As the GOP embraced populist talking points that reflected the interests of the working class, including economic isolationism and restrictive immigration policies, Democrats adopted energy policies which gutted jobs in blue-collar fields and became more radical on social issues.

While the households of white union members once sided with Democrats over Republicans by a margin of more than 2:1, the two parties reached parity in 2020, the American Enterprise Institute recently found. The Republican Party has been generally hostile toward unions for decades, both for ideological reasons and because of their massive contributions to Democrats. The Trump-era realignment of the working class has thus put unions in an awkward position, only exacerbated by the political activism of its members who work in academia.

United Auto Workers, one of the country’s largest labour unions, has more than one million members, about 10% of whom work in higher education. Its members include graduate students at Harvard, and its various chapters have been enmeshed in controversy over its advocacy on the Gaza war.

The UAW chapter representing graduate students at the University of Southern California is presently filing unfair labour practice charges after students were charged for protest activities. The union chapter’s president accused the schools of inflicting “rampant violence” against students, some of whom had been arrested after participating in an illegal encampment.

As disputes over the war embroil the academic world, the UAW is faced with a chasm between its increasingly conservative blue-collar base and its progressive graduate student members, the New York Times reported. Union members pay dues out of their paycheques, so are in effect paying for the activities of their union — political and otherwise.

Several UAW members in New York are suing the union after it accused Israel of genocide and allegedly blocked them from resigning their union membership in violation of the law. The UAW chapter representing graduate students at the University of California is currently in a legal battle with the state over a strike involving 48,000 graduate students protesting the war in Gaza. The public spectacle of the protests, as well as the $500 per week in strike pay the union is paying out to protesters, may be counteracting the measures union leadership have taken to court conservative workers.

Unions have long been on the decline in the US for a variety of reasons, including globalisation and the outsourcing of American manufacturing. But a growing interest in unionisation among low-level university faculty has presented an opportunity to gain new members, who are generally a better ideological match for the typical labour union.

This is especially true for the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, a historically Left-wing organisation which has seen a surge in interest from academics in recent years. UE represents faculty at several prestigious universities including Johns Hopkins. Of the last ten videos shared to the union’s website, four were about the war in Gaza, and more than a third of the posts on its political action page since 7 October have been about the war, including several boasting about the union’s role in promoting a ceasefire. “UE Members Take Action for Palestine Ceasefire,” one post reads. The union called for a ceasefire in late October.

Labour unions have been making overtures to conservatives, including a $45,000 donation to the Republican National Committee from Teamsters, while a handful of populist Republicans including J.D. Vance, Marco Rubio and Josh Hawley have been supportive of union workers. Yet the continued fixation on Gaza demonstrates an unwillingness to concentrate on the economic issues most important to its blue-collar members. Just as unions are unlikely to throw major support behind Republicans while the party remains hostile to unionisation, less affluent workers are unlikely to pledge support when labour leaders promote progressive causes at odds with their populist beliefs.


is UnHerd’s US correspondent.

laureldugg

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

11 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
J Bryant
J Bryant
1 month ago

That’s a really interesting article, imo. The one issue the author didn’t explain is how the United Auto Workers Union came to represent graduate students and other higher education workers.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
1 month ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Ya. It seems like an odd pairing.

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
1 month ago
Reply to  J Bryant

“United Auto Workers” is in many respects a misnomer, as the union represents a number of different industries, not just workers in the automotive industry.

T Bone
T Bone
1 month ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Because unfortunately a trade union is the perfect target for Marxists to infiltrate. All the pieces are there. Full collectivization. All they need to do is capture the board, it’s agenda and expand outwards.

John Taylor
John Taylor
1 month ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I think it was the university workers initiating contact with the UAW and not the reverse, because the grad students thought the UAW had more muscle behind it than the typical campus professional associations.

B. Timothy S.
B. Timothy S.
1 month ago

I was working at a gas plant next door to a coal plant when their union, the IBEW, endorsed Hillary Clinton for President.
This is the same Hillary who openly promised to put coal plants out of business if elected. It’s like they were signing their own layoff slips when they paid their dues.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
1 month ago

Someone oughta’ spray something with “powder paint”. That’ll fix things right up!

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
1 month ago

in late April, Democratic activists crowded into the basement of the Teamsters Chicago HQ,
to hear organizers from all over the country describe their plans to disrupt the Democratic National Convention this August. ..
The leader of Anti-War Committee Chicago, taught participants how to chant “death to Israel” and “death to America” in Farsi.
“Marg bar Israel,” he chanted, with the crowd joining in.
“Can we get a ‘marg bar America’?”.“We can get a ‘marg bar America,’ ” Rizvi replied. He raised his hand in the air, leading the crowd like a conductor and “Marg bar America,” they cheered.

Pip G
Pip G
1 month ago

Fascinating. 150 years ago the Democrats were the party of the slave owning South, and the Republicans for the industrial North. It changed around the 1960s-70s (No, I do not mean the Dems favour slavery) as Reagan made Reps acceptable and Dems turned to minority social liberalism.

If the Dems candidate in 2020 had been Hilary (‘Deplorables’) Clinton, Trump would have won; Biden understanding the working class.

It would be unthinkable for a British TU to treat with the Conservatives. It is disappointing that some TUs in USA are involved in foreign affairs politics (How is Gaza a concern of a representative of US workers?). In Britain we are fortunate that, fairly recently, the 2 largest TUs had new General Secretaries, both women, who concentrate on representing their worker members rather than playing at national politics and buying hotels (Exhibit A – Len McCluskey).

Betsy Warrior
Betsy Warrior
1 month ago

The international Brotherhood of Teamsters endorsed Richard Nixon in 1972.

0 01
0 01
1 month ago

No surprise here, Middle management parasites have been infiltrating every major societal institution. Organized labor is no exception. The whole point of these organizations is not perform the task of which they were created for, but instead to protect the personal interest of those who run the organization all the wile giving lip service to whatever goal they serve. The reason why they’re getting into activism because it suits their interest, that means they want to impress people in the same social economic class as well as use the the said issue create a problem they can exploit to justify their power and privileges. The iron law of oligarchy 101.