Trump will attack the unions – just as another authoritarian did Skip to content

Trump will attack the unions – just as another authoritarian did

Don’t be misled – if Trump is reelected, he will work to destroy the labor movement.

“Authoritarian rhetoric has been central to Trump’s political trajectory – and his time as president,” National Public Radio’s Danielle Kurtzleben recently wrote.

She pointed out that Trump likened his political foes to “vermin.” German dictator Adolf Hitler and the Nazis often compared Jews to rats. (At a recent political rally, Trump repeated his claim that immigrants were “poisoning the blood of our country,” remarks that prompted MSNBC’s Mehdi Hassan to post on X, “Let’s be clear: migrants ‘poisoning the blood’ is Hitler rhetoric.”)

Kurtzleben and Hassan are hardly alone in sounding the alarm against the existential threat Trump poses to American democracy. Trump, according to Vox's Zack Beauchamp, has crossed into “fascist territory.”

He added, “Trump is talking like a fascist, planning fascist policies, and staffing up with fascists. ... The fascist ideological positioning is a signal of intent: Trump is coming for American democracy. No one can say they weren’t warned.”

“We’re going to come after you”

Veteran union activist and researcher Don Slaiman is also worried that a second Trump term could doom democracy, a vital part of which is organized labor. “He'll have no compunction against going after and attacking trade unions. He’ll go right at us.”

Trump won’t stop at just slandering his detractors, according to Kash Patel, a Trump loyalist and authoritarian who is likely to become an administration insider again. Trump plans to punish his enemies, real and imagined, “criminally or civilly,” Patel bragged. “We will go out and find the conspirators, not just in government but in the media. Yes, we’re going to come after the people in the media who lied about American citizens, who helped Joe Biden rig presidential elections – we’re going to come after you.”

Adolf Hitler’s “you” included a free press, democratic political parties, and trade unions. No sooner did the Nazi dictator take power in 1933 than he duped, then destroyed, organized labor, one of the fledgling Weimar Republic’s most stout-walled anti-Hitler bastions.

Soon after he ended German democracy and took power in 1933, Hitler had union leaders arrested, thrown into concentration camps and murdered. He replaced the democratic unions with the puppet German Labor Front. Crushing unions “is the first thing dictators do,” added Slaiman, political coordinator for International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 26 in the Washington, D.C. area.

American labor, too, has long been a bulwark against authoritarianism, far-right or far-left. The AFL-CIO has already endorsed Biden’s reelection. “There’s absolutely no question that Joe Biden is the most pro-union president in our lifetimes,” AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler said.

Trump’s hostility to organized labor is well documented. (Here, here, here, here, here, and here.) Thus, in a second term, Trump will doubtless put unions high on his list of “enemies” to be “punished.”

Slaiman said Trump might even try to jail union leaders. “The labor leaders are always a key focal point in building a democracy – and taking out a democracy.”

At the very least, unions can expect a flood of anti-labor legislation — including a national “right to work” law — should the Republicans also hold the House and flip the Senate, said Slaiman. “I like ‘right to work,’” Trump said on the campaign trail in 2016. “I mean, my position on ‘right to work’ is 100 percent.”

Trump, too, will again name an anti-labor secretary of labor and repack the NLRB with union-despisers, Slaiman said.

Hitler and the unions

Hitler had a plan to con German workers. With great fanfare, he declared May 1st a national holiday in their honor. Hitler invited more than 100,000 workers to Berlin’s Tempelhof airport and “pronounced the motto of the day: ‘Honor work and respect the worker.’ He promised that May Day would be celebrated to honor German labor ‘throughout the century,’” William L. Shirer wrote in The Nightmare Years, 1930-1940, the American journalist-historian’s first-hand account of how Adolf Hitler and the Nazis destroyed Germany's post-World War I democracy.

Hitler's trap soon sprang shut, Shirer also wrote. “The next morning, May 2, the trade-union offices throughout the country were occupied by the police, the S.S., and the S.A. All union funds were confiscated, the unions dissolved, and the leaders arrested, beaten, and carted off to concentration camp.”

Soon, the Labor Front turned German workers into industrial serfs, according to Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

Under the Labor Front, the German worker was “bound to his master, the employer, much as medieval peasants had been bound to the lord of the manor,” Shirer wrote. “Hitler decreed a law bringing an end to collective bargaining and providing that henceforth ‘labor trustees,’ appointed by him, would ‘regulate labor contracts’ and maintain ‘labor peace.’ Since the decisions of the trustees were to be legally binding, the law, in effect, outlawed strikes.”

Hitler named Dr. Robert Ley as Labor Front chief. Ley promised “to restore absolute leadership to the natural leader of a factory – that is, the employer." Breaking union power on behalf of his business and industry backers is Trump's goal, too. 

A Trump Labor Front

Hitler replaced the legitimate unions with his own Nazi Labor Front. Could America see a similar organization from Trump? “That’s a good question,” said Slaiman, an authority on German unions. But he acknowledged such an organization is possible.

Slaiman said his father, union and political activist Donald S. Slaiman, a World War II veteran, encouraged him to go to Germany to study German labor and its history. “He understood that [a Hitler] could happen anywhere.”

Nazism, Don Slaiman said, didn’t result from “the German psyche, personality, or nature. We’ve seen it over and over again – it could happen anywhere. It certainly could happen here.”

Hitler knew democratic socialism appealed to many German workers, so he cynically added “Socialist” to his party’s name. The party became the “National Socialist German Workers’ Party,” or Nazi Party for short. “But it was not a socialist party; it was a right-wing, ultranationalist party dedicated to racial purity, territorial expansion, and anti-Semitism — and total political control,” wrote Glenn Kessler in The Washington Post. Many German industrialists helped bankroll Hitler, and they made millions building and feeding the Nazi war machine. Hitler repaid the capitalists not only by eliminating free unions but also by providing slave labor.

Like Hitler, Trump claims that while union leaders may oppose him, rank-and-file workers are with him. “Trump doesn’t like labor unions, but he loves the idea of union members supporting him,” Steven Greenhouse wrote in The Guardian. “Indeed, Trump has repeatedly worked to undermine unions.”

The attacks have already begun

Lately, Trump has attacked Shawn Fain, the UAW president who recently led his union to its greatest contract victory over the Detroit Big Three automakers in years.

“The autoworkers are being sold down the river by their leadership, and their leadership should endorse Trump,” the former president said during the strike that led to the contract win. At the same time, he encouraged UAW members to “not pay your dues” because the UAW leadership was “selling you to hell. You’re going to be going to hell.”

Trump name-checked Fain: “I think he’s not doing a good job in representing his union, because he’s not going to have a union in three years from now. Those jobs are all going to be gone, because all of those electric cars are going to be made in China. That’s what’s happening.”

Fain then name-checked Trump: “Every fiber of our union is being poured into fighting the billionaire class and an economy that enriches people like Donald Trump at the expense of workers. We can’t keep electing billionaires and millionaires that don’t have any understanding what it is like to live paycheck to paycheck and struggle to get by and expecting them to solve the problems of the working class.”

At the recent Kentucky State AFL-CIO convention in Lexington, Fain quipped that while Biden “was out there on our picket line supporting UAW members, the other guy was in a nonunion plant having a union rally.”

A warning

“Workers shouldn’t let Trump take them for fools,” Greenhouse also wrote. “When Trump tells workers he has their back, he thinks he’s a clever wolf trying to reassure a flock of sheep that he has their back.”

And as state AFL-CIO president Bill Londrigan warned at the recent convention:

“This is a pivotal time for this country. ... If we don’t have democratic, free unions, we don’t have a democracy.”

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Berry Craig

Berry Craig is a professor emeritus of history at West KY Community College, and an author of seven books and co-author of two more. (Read the rest on the Contributors page.)

Arlington, KY

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