Worldwide, union leaders grapple with members backing right-wing ‘populists’
Neo-fascist Dutch lawmaker Geert Wilders as he arrived at the right wing GOP convention in Cleveland in 2016. It was hands across the water for him and fellow fascist Donald Trump who won the election that year, forging bonds of love and friendship among right wing extremist leaders on both sides of the Atlantic. Like Trump did, Wilders posed as the friend of the workers of his country. | Carolyn Kaster/AP

WASHINGTON—For years, union leaders on both sides of “The Pond”—also known as the Atlantic Ocean—have faced a problem: Right-wing ideologues’ “populist” rhetoric sways millions of their members to vote against their own interests.

And then once those putative plutocrats achieve public office, they show their true colors, by enacting and enforcing repressive pro-corporate anti-worker laws.

The problem is visible in the U.S., where 40% of union members and their families backed former GOP Oval Office occupant Donald Trump in 2020. But it’s not just Trump.

Over the years, millions supported other right-wing Republicans such as Sens. Mitch McConnell (Ky.),  Ted Cruz (Texas), various U.S. representatives, Gov. Greg Abbott (Texas), and former Govs. Bruce Rauner (Ill.) and Scott Walker (Wis.).

All of them, especially Trump and Cruz, spout populist bombast and claim to represent workers—and then enact edicts benefiting the corporate class.

“Trump’s policies favored the rich and the well-connected. But four in ten union voters wanted to give him a second term” last November, said Knut Pankin, moderator of a late-March panel discussion on Right-Wing Populism As An Anti-Worker Agenda. “Why?”

The dilemma exists in other democracies, too. Some unionists heeded anti-immigrant screeds from Germany’s extreme right Alternative for Deutschland, Marine LePen’s French National Rally (formerly the National Front), Norbert Hofer’s Austrian Freedom Party, Hungarian Prime Minister/strongman Viktor Orban of Fidesz, and Poland’s Law and Justice Party, panelists said.

Once those blocs won power in Austria, Poland, and Hungary, or influenced elections in France, mainstream politicians followed their lead, cracking down on workers as well as targeting migrants. The pols feared they would otherwise lose more votes to the right.

The panel, sponsored by Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, a foundation set up to foster U.S.- German relations, tried to figure out why workers vote that way—and how to reorient them.

That’s not to say panelists Vonda McDaniel, president of the Nashville, Tenn., Central Labor Council, Prof. Federico Finchelstein, an expert on East European politics at New York’s New School for Social Research, and Prof. Thomas Greven of the Free University of Berlin reached a conclusion. They offered some reasons for the rightward shift and some solutions.

All those parties, including the GOP, “started as bourgeois, middle-class, shopkeeper-oriented” organizations, but have since pivoted to right-wing populism, Greven explained.

“Cruz at the Conservative Political Action Conference was trying to be the inheritor of the white working class who supported Trump,” he contended. The Texan proclaimed the GOP “the party of steelworkers, construction workers, police officers, firefighters, and waitresses.”

Nationalism, protectionism, and racism

“But one common denominator” is the GOP and the other right-wing parties, plus the workers they appeal to, “have a radicalized response” that “is nationalist, protectionist and nativist…to all facets of globalization,” he said. Those facets include corporate export of workers’ jobs to low-wage nations and resentment of refugees and migrants, often people of color whom white nativists in Europe and the U.S. view as a threat.

“’Us versus them’ is much easier to sell to working-class constituents. Union status doesn’t inoculate people versus right-wing populism,” Greven said. While populists’ pro-worker rhetoric is “a charade,” and progressives’ answer, “tax the rich,” is not enough, he added.

It’s also not enough for one veteran Rust Belt pro-worker lawmaker, Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, speaking at a panel weeks before on reindustrializing the U.S. Her district, once the greatest producer of auto parts in the world, has been industrially hollowed out by “free trade.”

“There used to be good-paying union jobs that people are yearning for,” Kaptur said. They’re gone, so reindustrialization “is necessary because, without it, our people will continue to radicalize,” just like the Trumpites who staged the Jan. 6 invasion of the U.S. Capitol.

The right-wing charade fools workers, including union workers in the U.S., said McDaniel, and in Europe, said Finchelstein. Ethnocentrism is part of it, said McDaniel.

“I can remember the outrage in my (tire) plant when the ‘A’ for ‘America’ was dropped” when her union, the United Rubber Workers of America, merged into the Steelworkers, she said. The union now represented even more workers in countries outside the U.S. It took “a vigorous education campaign” to dispel those feelings and grow the idea of international solidarity.

It convinced ex-URW members to realize that international solidarity, especially against neo-liberal corporate-driven “free trade” policy, could benefit them “not only in LaVergne, Tenn., but in Brazil and South Africa,” said McDaniel, who now works at a UAW-repped plant.

But even with that knowledge, the education “just didn’t translate into a clear understanding of what was happening to them,” she admitted.

One potential solution, McDaniel said, to problems union leaders face in trying to veer their members away from right-wing populism: “Deep canvassing,” drilling down to individual workers, asking them what issues the union should emphasize—what could draw them away from the Donald Trumps. “Trusted information” must come from trusted colleagues, she said.

Still, it can only go so far, McDaniel admitted. Bosses cut the Tennessee tire plant from 2,000 workers in 2008 to 800 now, and those 800 are subjected in their break room to TV constantly tuned solely to Fox. “That created racial tensions, too,” said McDaniel, an African-American.

And some workers, in the U.S. and in Europe, will never believe their leaders, Finchelstein added. “It’s hard to convince a racist not to be a racist,” he said.


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.