How to Fight a Coup: The Role of the Workers’ Movement

“It can’t happen here.” That is the complacent mantra that societies with long-standing “democratic” institutions cannot possibly succumb to authoritarian dictatorship. Sinclair Lewis used the phrase as the title for his 1935 novel about the rise of a fascist dictatorship in the United States. Even as the aspiring dictator rises in prominence, and mobilizes a paramilitary army to deliver him to power, many of the novel’s characters ignore those who try to raise the alarm, refusing to believe that such a dictatorship could ever take power in their country. The relevance of the novel to our own times is not lost on those who have read it.

Today, there is ample cause for alarm. The current president of the United States and Republican Party candidate in the upcoming election, Donald Trump, has repeatedly threatened—in word and in deed—to retain office by authoritarian means. The Trump administration has made unfounded predictions of widespread electoral fraud, claimed that mail-in ballots would especially be characterized by fraud, attempted to interfere with postal delivery, suggested that mail-in ballots be thrown out altogether, refused to commit to the “peaceful transfer of power,” incited supporters (far-right armed groups among them) to engage in voter intimidation, and more.

Fortunately, all this has not just been dismissed as empty bluster, nor met with the complacent mantra that “it can’t happen here.” Activists in various movements have initiated discussions about how to respond to a coup attempt, including large-scale street protests. Some unions have recognized the threat and begun discussions about possible responses as well, including calls for a nationwide general strike, should it be necessary.

The size and strength of U.S. unions, as we all know, are not what they once were. The labor movement, however, still has significant resources that could strengthen an anti-coup movement: a total membership of nearly 15 million people, existing organizational structures at local, state, and national levels, the ability to disrupt “business as usual” through workplace action, and recent experiences of worker militancy and large-scale collective action.

Step 1: Take the Threat Seriously

It is very hard to estimate the probability of an attempted coup. Politics is not a roulette table, where the exact probabilities of all outcomes can be known ahead of time. Failing to prepare for all significant possibilities, however, would be something like playing Russian roulette—with the very real danger of a hole in the head. The administration has exhibited a consistent pattern of envelope-pushing. Its rhetoric has to be understood as laying the groundwork politically for a potential coup—gauging the degree of outrage at the flouting of electoral norms, delegitimating election results in order to justify a coup, and inciting followers (including those who would support a coup by violence or intimidation). Far-right groups have clearly taken the rhetoric seriously, including a plot (thwarted) for a violent coup at the state level. The administration has not, moreover, limited itself to words. It has made concrete plans, for example, to throw out electoral results in entire states (substituting electors appointed by Republican legislatures).

All this should be more than enough to take the scenario of a coup out of the realm of highly improbable events that do not make sense to plan for, and move it to the realm of events for which we have to prepare. Whatever contingency plans we develop might prove unnecessary (and hopefully will) in the short run. It is possible, for example, that the actual election results will be sufficiently tilted that—even if Trump and his followers were still game for a coup attempt—the actions required to “steal the election” would be so large and brazen that other key actors would be unwilling to go forward. It would be extremely misguided, however, for us to do nothing now—to keep our fingers crossed and hope that everything turns out alright.

The authoritarian threat is not likely to just disappear, regardless of the political outcomes over the next few months. At the very least, the workers’ movement can sound the alarm that the threat is serious, proclaim loudly our devotion to democracy as a core value, and pledge concrete actions to oppose authoritarianism at any turn. If a coup attempt does not end up materializing right now, the organizing that we do can prepare us for any threats that are around the corner. Moreover, it can help mobilize the labor movement for the democratization of a U.S. political system that is highly undemocratic in many ways.

Step 2: Don’t Count on “Someone Else”

It makes no sense to assume that someone or something will, in the absence of mass resistance, prevent a coup attempt or even a successful coup. Trump and other members of the administration do not have any democratic or constitutional scruples. Rather, they delight in the idea of Trump as dictator and in flouting mainstream political norms (including the rule of law, sanctity of elections, etc.). There is very little evidence of willingness by Republican legislators or party officials to oppose Trump. Even his refusals to respect election outcomes or to condemn white supremacism have led only to tepid “distancing” statements on their part. There is no indication that Trump would lose support from his base—who have proved steadfast in their support for him through his many outrages—if he attempted to carry out a coup.

We can expect Democratic politicians to condemn a coup attempt, but they are likely to vary in the kinds of action they call for. Some may call for mass resistance, others only for legal challenges. In the event of an attempted coup, counting on action by the courts would be very misguided. Judges are political actors, like everyone else. In such a high-stakes situation, we cannot afford to bet that they would act as we would wish, nor that coup plotters would abide by their decisions. We should reject out of hand any calls to hold off on mass resistance and instead count on the judicial process (to “wait for the courts to do their work”).

Step 3: Mobilize the Forces We Have

Back in 2004, then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously said, “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want.” There is a useful lesson in this quotation for all sorts of conflict situations. The U.S. labor movement has both real strengths and very serious limitations. The limitations are not reason to stay out of the fray. The timing of conflicts is not up to us. We have to intervene with whatever strength we have at the moment. What we can add to an anti-coup movement right now, based on our current forces, can make a meaningful difference. Moreover, it is only by mobilizing—certainly not by standing on the sidelines—that we can draw in more people and build our strength.

Labor unions are still among the largest membership organizations in the United States. As we all know, union membership is down to barely 10% of the U.S. labor force. However, that still translates into a membership of nearly 15 million. Five U.S. unions have more than a million members each. Labor union organizational structures connect workers in hundreds of thousands of workplaces, through their locals, to broader organizations at the metropolitan, state, and national levels. If even a fraction of union members mobilized, they would represent a large contingent in mass protests. A strong labor movement presence in an anti-coup movement, moreover, could draw in non-union workers who are, of course, much more numerous. Indeed, unions and other labor movement organizations should call on all workers to join in anti-authoritarian protest actions.

The frequency of strikes in the United States dropped off dramatically in the 1970s and 1980s, and remains at a very low level to the present. This means that the vast majority of U.S. workers has never participated in a strike. For the first time in decades, however, we can point to a wave of recent large-scale strikes and resulting victories. In 2018 and 2019, there were statewide strikes by teachers and other public education workers in eight different states, and additional ones in several major cities. In many, workers fought for and won not only economic gains like pay raises but also broader demands like class size reductions or rollback of austerity budgets. The 485,000 workers taking part in major work stoppages in 2018 was the highest number in over 30 years. (Lest we exaggerate the magnitude of the change, this was still less than one third the average for 1947-1979, when the U.S. labor force was much smaller.) Political strikes, in which workers press demands beyond their own conditions of labor, are not nearly as familiar in the United States as in other countries. It is one of the encouraging signs, however, that calls for a nationwide general strike are already circulating within the labor movement.

Strikes are by no means the only methods of struggle, but they are among the most important that the labor movement can deploy. They require a high degree of commitment, since the costs and risks to participants are significant, so signal to those in power that the protestors are really serious. They can inflict significant costs on those in power. Political strikes may work as a bank-shot form of pressure—employers who bear the direct costs (in lost production and profits) may pressure politicians to appease the protestors. Widespread strikes can contribute to making the society “ungovernable”— creating unsustainable conditions that ruling elites can only bring to an end by conceding to the protestors’ demands.

Step 4: Transform Our Own Organizations

Enough about the strengths that the labor movement can bring to bear in this struggle. Nothing is ever gained, in a conflict situation, by living in denial about one’s own weaknesses. The impediments to effective labor mobilization today (whether participation in street protests, protest strikes, or some other kind of action) are serious. Building the strength of the labor movement will require not just an increase in its membership, but also the qualitative transformation of our organizations.

The total union membership of nearly 15 million does not mean that anywhere near that number would actually mobilize for anti-coup actions. There are measurable differences in attitudes between union members and other comparable workers. Political scientists Paul Frymer and Jacob Grumbach find, in a recent study, that union membership is associated with a reduction of white workers’ “racial resentment” by about 5% on the scale they developed. Exit poll data show that union members were less likely to vote for Trump in 2016 than non-union workers of the same demographic groups. However, the figures also showed an alarming shift of union-member voting toward Trump in 2016 compared to their support for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012. This suggests that large numbers of union members were at least not bothered by Trump’s relentless racist and nativist rhetoric, while some were surely attracted by it.

Unions are generally low-involvement organizations. Labor activists have long recognized and bemoaned the member passivity that predominates in most unions. The prevalent “business unionism” or “service” model puts most decision-making responsibility in the hands of leaders and paid staff. Members are passive recipients of union services like collective bargaining and grievance resolution, paid for by their union dues. That sounds more like paying premiums to an insurance company than being part of a membership organization and social change movement.

The weaknesses of the labor movement certainly extend to its national leadership. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka has followed a zig-zag course when it comes to Trump. In the lead-up to the 2016 election, he denounced Trump as a racist, misogynist, and immigrant-hater. After Trump assumed the presidency, however, Trumka praised elements of Trump’s nationalist economic agenda—including on immigration. Trumka endorsed the canard that immigration drives down wages and proclaimed the AFL-CIO’s willingness to “partner with [Trump] to rewrite the immigration rules of the country.” Trumka even joined the Trump administration’s American Manufacturing Council in early 2017, only quitting after Trump’s infamous “very fine people, on both sides” statement about Charlottesville in August 2017 (after a white supremacist murdered a counter-protestor and severely injured several others). In the years since, the AFL-CIO has issued statements denouncing various Trump administration moves (including racist and nativist positions). But it is impossible to trust the political judgment or principles of a labor leadership that vacillates in this way.

The AFL-CIO recently issued a statement criticizing the Trump administration’s coup-posturing and declaring the labor movement’s commitment to democratic political norms, though without pledging any concrete action. The national leadership had planned a meeting with the heads of several major unions to discuss plans for labor action in response to various election scenarios, including if Trump were to “dispute a loss.” On the eve of the scheduled date, however, they canceled the meeting. Again, this hardly inspires confidence that the labor movement leadership is up to the task at hand. This is a time for urgent action, not for dithering.

In this, as in virtually everything, the revival of workers’ movement strength requires a dramatic transformation from within, including much higher levels of worker mobilization and new leadership. The best hope for this will be through the emergence of dissident and insurgent currents —committed to a fighting strategy and a broad social change agenda founded on principles of democracy, equality, and solidarity. Today, we are already seeing insurgencies transform some unions into democratic and fighting organizations. This would have to happen on a much larger scale, however, to transform and revitalize the labor movement as a whole.

Step 5: Transition From Defense to Offense

In the current moment, we are facing an attack on formal democratic norms. This is not a remote threat, to which we can be sure there will be time to respond later. The conditions for labor organization are already very difficult in the United States, largely due to the imbalance of political power between workers and employers. These conditions would only get worse (possibly much worse) under an authoritarian government. Scapegoating attacks on people of color, immigrants, women, and others would only intensify. This calls for a fierce defensive response.

The authoritarian threat clearly comes from the current administration and its supporters, but opposing it should not be framed in partisan terms. The point is not to do whatever will bring about a preferred partisan outcome, but to oppose attempts to seize or maintain political office by throwing out election results, by voter disenfranchisement, by intimidation, and the like. We should condemn such actions regardless of the scale or whether they tip the political outcome. People who are disenfranchised are gravely wronged no matter the outcome.

Our position should not be framed in a way that equates current U.S. constitutional and legal structures with “democracy.” The current U.S. political system is undemocratic in many ways, to a very great extent by design. The U.S. electoral system makes some people’s votes count for vastly more than others. California’s population is larger than the 21 lowest-population states combined. California has two senators; these 21 states get a total of 42. California has more than 700,000 people per electoral vote; Wyoming, less than 200,000. Millions of people are legally disenfranchised. The United States is home to over 20 million people who are not citizens, and who are barred from voting in any federal or state election and virtually any local election. Laws disenfranchising people with past felony convictions strip over 6 million of the right to vote, over 2 million of them African Americans. Political power is concentrated in the hands of the economic elite. Political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page have found that, across a wide range of issues, the opinions of average-income people have “little or no independent influence” on policy outcomes. “Economic elites and organized groups representing business interests,” in contrast, have “substantial independent impacts.” None of this should be taken as a call for cynicism, nor an argument that there is nothing worth defending. The successful defense of the elements of formal democracy that actually do exist, however, could be a springboard to fight for urgently needed democratizing reforms.

Far too often, the U.S. labor movement has treated the interests of our organizations and members as the limits of our responsibility. At their best, however, workers’ movements in this country and elsewhere have acted not only as defenders of these particular interests, but also as champions of democracy and equality in general. We should demand no less of ourselves today.

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