How to Fight a Coup: The Role of the Workers’ Movement
“It can’t happen here.” That is the complacent mantra that a society with long-standing “democratic” institutions couldn’t possibly succumb to authoritarian dictatorship.
Sinclair Lewis used the phrase as the title for his 1935 novel imagining the rise of a fascist dictatorship in the United States. Even as the aspiring dictator rises in prominence and mobilizes a paramilitary army, many of the characters refuse to believe it.
Today there is ample cause for alarm. President Donald Trump has repeatedly threatened to retain office by authoritarian means. His 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 (including far-right armed groups) to engage in voter intimidation, and more.
Fortunately, not everyone is assuming that “it can’t happen here.” Activists in various movements are discussing how to respond to a coup attempt, including with large-scale street protests. Some unions, too, have recognized the threat and begun to discuss possible responses, even up to 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 the 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, is like playing Russian roulette—with the very real danger of a hole in the head.
The Trump administration has exhibited a consistent pattern of envelope-pushing. Its rhetoric has to be understood as laying the groundwork for a potential coup—gauging the degree of outrage it provokes, floating justifications for its coup plans, and inciting its followers. Far-right groups have clearly taken the rhetoric seriously—there was even a plot (thwarted) for a violent coup at the state level, in Michigan.
And the administration has not limited itself to words. It has made concrete plans—for example, to throw out electoral results in entire states and substitute electors appointed by Republican legislatures.
All this should be more than enough to move the scenario of a coup into the realm of possible events for which we have to prepare. Whatever contingency plans we develop might prove unnecessary in the short run. It’s possible, for example, that if the actual election results go against Trump by a wide margin, the actions required to “steal the election” would be so large and brazen that key actors would balk. We would be extremely misguided, however, to do nothing but keep our fingers crossed.
At the very least, the workers’ movement can sound the alarm that the threat is serious, proclaim our devotion to democracy as a core value, and pledge concrete actions to oppose authoritarianism at any turn.
The authoritarian threat is not likely to just disappear. If a coup attempt doesn’t materialize 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 to fight to democratize a U.S. political system that is highly undemocratic in many ways.
Step 2: Don’t Count on ‘Someone Else’
Short of mass resistance, including the labor movement and other mass movements, we can’t expect anyone else to prevent a successful coup.
There is very little evidence that Republican legislators or party officials are willing to oppose Trump. Even his refusals to respect election outcomes or condemn white supremacism have prompted only tepid “distancing” statements.
There is no indication that Trump would lose support from his base if he attempted a coup. Their support has held steadfast through his many outrages.
Democratic politicians will condemn a coup attempt. But only some will call for mass resistance; others may call only for legal challenges.
Counting on action by the courts would be very misguided. Judges are political actors. We can’t afford to bet that they will 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 “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. But these 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. Our current forces, added to an anti-coup movement, can make a meaningful difference.
Unions are among the largest membership organizations in the United States. As we all know, union membership is down to barely 10 percent of the labor force. But that’s still nearly 15 million people. Five U.S. unions have more than a million members each.
Union 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.
Also, by mobilizing we can draw in more people and build our strength. The labor movement should call on all workers, including non-union workers, to join in anti-coup protests.
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. The vast majority of U.S. workers have 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 eight statewide strikes by teachers and other public education workers, plus strikes in several major cities.
Political strikes, where workers press demands beyond their own working conditions, are not nearly as familiar in the U.S. as in other countries. But it’s an encouraging sign that calls for a general strike are already circulating in the labor movement.
Strikes are among the most important methods of struggle available to us. They can inflict significant costs on those in power. And since the costs and risks to participants are significant, they signal that the protestors are really serious.
Political strikes may work as a bank-shot form of pressure—employers who bear the direct costs may pressure politicians to appease the protestors. And widespread strikes can contribute to making the society “ungovernable”— creating unsustainable conditions that ruling elites can bring to an end only by conceding to our demands.
Step 4: Transition from Defense to Offense
We are facing an attack on formal democratic norms. This is not a remote threat, against which we will can be sure there will be time to respond later.
The conditions for labor organizing are already very difficult in the U.S., due largely to the imbalance of political power between workers and employers. These conditions would only get worse, and possibly much worse, under an authoritarian government. Scapegoating attacks against people of color, immigrants, women, and others would intensify. This calls for a fierce defensive response.
The authoritarian threat should not be framed in partisan terms. The point is not to achieve 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.
Our position should not be framed in a way that equates current U.S. constitutional and legal structures with “democracy.” Our 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—yet California has two senators, while these 21 states get a total of 42. California has more than 700,000 people per electoral vote. Wyoming has fewer than 200,000 people per electoral vote.
Millions of people are legally disenfranchised. The U.S. is home to more than 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 more than 6 million of the right to vote, including more than 2 million 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 means we have nothing worth defending. But defending the elements of formal democracy that actually do exist 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 members as the limits of our responsibility. At their best, however, workers’ movements in this country and elsewhere have acted as champions of democracy and equality in general. We should demand no less of ourselves today.
Step 5: Transform Our Own Organizations
While the labor movement does have strengths to bring to this struggle, nothing is gained by denying one’s own weaknesses.
The total union membership of nearly 15 million does not mean that anywhere near than number would actually mobilize for anti-coup actions.
The labor movement, like the working class as a whole, is politically mixed. 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 percentage points. Post-election surveys 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, with a larger percentage of union members voting for Trump in 2016 compared to Mitt Romney in 2012. This shows that large numbers of union members were at least not deterred by Trump’s relentless racist and nativist rhetoric; some were surely attracted by it.
Unions are generally low-involvement organizations, with most decision-making in the hands of leaders and paid staff. Labor activists bemoan the passivity that predominates in most unions. The prevalent “business unionism” or “service” model treats members as 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 zigzagged 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, he 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.” He even joined the administration’s American Manufacturing Council, quitting only after Trump’s infamous “very fine people on both sides” statement, in August 2017, after a white supremacist murdered a counter-protestor and severely injured several others in Charlottesville, Virginia. In the years since, the AFL-CIO has denounced various Trump administration moves. But it is impossible to trust the political judgment of a labor leadership that vacillates this way.
The AFL-CIO national leadership recently planned a meeting among the heads of major unions to discuss a labor response to various election scenarios, including if Trump were to “dispute a loss”—then cancelled the meeting. This is a time for urgent action, not for dithering.
Reviving our movement strength will require a dramatic transformation of unions from within. 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, of course, to transform and revitalize the labor movement as a whole.
This kind of change will not happen overnight. Nor will we be able to complete such a transformation behind closed doors and only then—fully prepared—take the field. The process of forging the kind of movement we need will only happen in the heat of the fight.
Alejandro Reuss is an instructor in Labor Studies at UMass Boston and former co-editor of Dollars & Sense.
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