Why many unions haven’t come out for impeachment
Randi Weingarten is president of the AFT, a large national union that has come out for impeachment of President Trump. | Damian Dovarganes/AP

WASHINGTON—Following explosive testimony which definitely exposes GOP President Donald Trump’s plan to literally bribe the Ukrainian governmentusing $391 million in taxpayer dollarsfor his own political advantage in next year’s campaign, the Democratic-run House is on the verge of drafting and voting on impeachment articles against him.

A string of credible witnesses, led by career workers and decorated military officers from the National Security Council and the diplomatic corps, directly quoted Trump as demanding the Ukrainians dig up political dirt on former Vice President Joseph Biden, now a leading Democratic presidential hopeful, in return for the cash to buy U.S.-made weapons.

Progressives, including MoveOn and Credo, are demanding lawmakers impeach Trump for “treason, bribery and other high crimes and misdemeanors,” to use the U.S. Constitution’s language. Don’t be surprised to see an obstruction of justice count added on to the bribery, given Trump’s orders to present and former staffers to, in Richard Nixon’s words, “stonewall it.” Whether he can enforce such edicts is being hashed out in federal court.

Meanwhile, right-wingers egged on by Trump, venom-filled “talk radio,” the alleged news show “Fox and Friends,” and websitessuch as Breitbart and other hate groupswhich spout lies and pro-Trump propaganda, respond with his pet phrases: “Witch hunt,” “fake news” and now, “nothing happened.”

But in all this, where are the nation’s unions on impeachment?

Unions and union leaders have not been afraid to speak out on issues ranging from right to work laws (against) to reproductive rights, often strongly challenging the positions advocated by Trump.

But some seem to treat impeachment like they treat strong and comprehensive gun control, including semi-automatic weapons bansby not taking a strong public position.

The notable exceptions are National Nurses United, the Teachers (AFT) and the Service Employees. All three endorsed pursuing impeachment as soon as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., bent to the possibility.

The National Education Association and the Communications Workers issued strong resolutions condemning Trump’s policies. So did their two presidents, Lily Eskelsen-Garcia (NEA) and Chris Shelton (CWA) in convention keynote addresses.

But neither advocated impeaching Trump. Both conventions passed resolutions censuring his racism and his policies. But when California teacher Mark Airgood offered an impeach-Trump resolution on the NEA convention floor, he lost.

Airgood at the NEA wanted to go farther. “The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress,” he said, quoting the great abolitionist orator Frederick Douglass. “NEA should lead the Resistance to Trump and his attacks on democracy. That requires Trump’s impeachment now.”

The NEA board opposed it, on financial grounds, saying an impeachment campaign, which it calculated would cost $13,250, didn’t fit into the union’s 2019-20 budget.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, given the chance to talk about Trump at the pre-Labor Day Christian Science Monitor breakfast, had much the same reaction: Denouncing the president’s anti-worker policies, then stopping. He never uttered the word “impeachment,” either for or against.

“Working people are rising to meet this moment in history because we know something is deeply wrong,” he said.

“Our nation is being poisoned by hateful rhetoric and divisive tactics at the highest levels of government. People of color are being scapegoated, minimized, dehumanized, and told to go back where they came from. Racist dog whistles have been replaced with megaphones.

“Women are openly degraded and discriminated against. And America’s welcome mat, long a beacon of hope for immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers, including my parents, is being bulldozed and paved over, replaced with a clear message: ‘You’re not welcome here.’”

That’s a description of Trump, to a “T,” but Trumka did not actually speak his name.

“Meanwhile, the rich continue to hoard unprecedented money and power, while the people who build that wealth are working harder and longer, for less money, with less dignity, in harsher, more dangerous workplaces. Faced with the reality of historic inequality and rising bigotry that goes all the way to the top, the labor movement is offering a path forward lit by solidarity,” he declared.

There are other reasons for union silence on the specific issue of impeachment.

Federal worker union members are hamstrung by the Hatch Act, as Trump’s White House offices issued an edict early this year saying talk of impeachment, the resistance or similar issues would violate the law’s ban on talking politics on the jobat least among career employees. The Government Employees (AFGE) promptly called that plan too broad, but that’s as far as it could go.

Other unions face internal political problems: High proportions of (a) registered Republicans (b) 2016 Trump voters or (c) both.

Go back to AFGE, for example. It protested the “gag rule” Trump’s White House imposed on federal workers talking about impeachment, the resistance, or similar topics. That ban, Trump’s agencies implied, could extend off the job, too.

AFGE, the Treasury Employees and other federal worker unions sued to overturn Trump executive orders trashing workers and unions, including banning individual worker communications with Congress. And, in federal appeals court in D.C., they lost.

But AFGE also has a high proportion of retired military personnel in its ranks, and they lean Republican. It also includes the one union sectorits unit representing Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officersthat openly endorsed Trump in 2016. They loved his anti-immigrant screeds and his command to, in so many words, deport every undocumented person in the U.S.

The same point about high proportions of registered Republicans applies to other, older-male-dominated unions, plus the NEA, which is majority-women. Unlike AFT, whose members are concentrated in the nation’s citiesand in blue statesNEA is nationwide. In deep “red” states, such as Eskelsen-Garcia’s home, Utah, NEA still must act more like an association than a union. Which didn’t prevent her from calling Trump “a threat to democracy.”

Other unions, such as the two big postal unions and the Fire Fighters, also include high shares of retired military personnel. The highly male unions include the Mine Workers, which stayed neutral in 2016 due to former Democratic President Barack Obama’s environmental policies, IAFF, and building trades unions.

As Sean McGarvey, president of North America’s Building Trades Unions, pointed out after the 2016 election, unionists and their families voted 50-50 between Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in the key industrial Midwest states where Trump narrowly won the electoral votes he needed to attain the Oval Office. In traditional swing state Ohio, McGarvey said, 52% went for Trump.

Those politics didn’t faze unions who took a pro-impeachment stand.

“In the face of persistent bullying by President Trump and his surrogates, it has taken political and personal courage for [House] Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and the House Democrats who have been repeatedly vilified, to initiate an effort to take a stand for the rule of law,” said NNU co-President Deborah Burger, RN. “The future of law and democracy are at stake.”

The House “should properly investigate whether the president has violated the Constitution and federal law in an appeal to a foreign government to intervene in the U.S. elections. That would be an attack on our sovereignty and a threat to our democracy.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.