The Coup Threat Does Not Abate – What Way Forward for Labor?


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The U.S. system of governance is facing a qualitative political crisis of a magnitude unprecedented since the Civil War. For the first time ever, a U.S. president has stated repeatedly that he will not concede defeat if he loses reelection. This is not an idle threat and the election is less than two weeks away.

Does Trump have the power to pull off a coup? A lengthy article recently published by The Atlantic points out there is little legally to stop him. Our system presumes a peaceful transition of power. There are no clear procedures to respond to such a threat. If necessary, Trump has threatened military intervention by the armed Homeland Security and border patrol forces he sent into Seattle and Portland to attack Black Lives Matter protesters. When asked to disavow white supremacy, he told racist gangs (“militias”) to “stand back and stand by,” thus sending them a loud dog whistle to engage in violent intervention.

Many are already organizing to intimidate and assault voters on Election Day. And, Trump can count on racist police to back them up when they do. As of now, he does not have the support of the branches of the armed services, the FBI (which has stated that white supremacist militias are the chief domestic terrorism threat), and portions of other federal intelligence agencies. However, it remains to be seen if they would intervene to prevent a coup. Some generals have said they would resign rather than order troops to suppress protests, but that only leaves the way open for others to carry out such orders.

Moreover, the Democratic Party has not mounted an effective resistance. Ultimately, both parties answer to their ruling class corporate funders, not their constituents. It is in the interest of the ruling class to continue the disastrous policies of both Trump and neoliberal warmongers like Biden. If push comes to shove literally, there is a risk that Democrats may concede to Trump in order to prevent more disruption to the economy and to the institutions sustaining the capitalist system. They have already given up on any effective means to block Amy Coney Barrett, Trump’s Supreme Court nominee. As of now, their approach to voter suppression and election theft has been largely legalistic, which could result in the election being decided by a Supreme Court likely to support Trump.

Whatever the ultimate outcome, the next few months will have a decisive historical impact. Our most basic democratic rights could be lost while we battle a life-threatening pandemic, a deepening depression, widespread police brutality and white supremacist attacks, and the continued ravages of hurricanes and wildfires, all of which have a disproportionate effect on those already marginalized. If that happens, we risk civil war and a slide toward actual fascism. This is not something that most U.S. workers would have considered an imminent threat until the last few months, even with cumulative pressures building up over many years. If we lose our democratic rights, defending ourselves becomes far more difficult and dangerous. As capitalism continues to unravel, continuing crises are fully predictable and will worsen. Humanity is literally running out of time to overcome these crises.

Up to now, the pressures of the pandemic, racist attacks, economic survival, and climate disasters have preoccupied most people in this country. Only in the last few weeks, have large numbers of groups prioritized the threat beyond liberal volunteer efforts to sway the vote. Local coalitions of labor, faith, environmental, economic justice, antiracist, and gender justice groups have been springing up throughout the country, as well as national efforts like Protect the Results, a politically diverse coalition that includes the CWA and the SEIU, representing over 2 million workers, and The Frontline, led by the Working Families Party and the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement appealing to left-leaning liberals. A more radical left-wing effort – People’s Strike – has been circulating a pledge to participate in demonstrations, occupations, and rolling strikes between Election Day and Inauguration, with a list of pro-working-class demands. And, there are many promising local efforts.

As labor activists, we recognize that the organized labor movement could play a decisive role in this fight. Thanks to the ability to withhold our labor, we could stop Trump’s power grab. The Labor Fightback Network (LFN) applauds the Rochester (NY) Labor Council’s call for a general strike after the election if Trump fails to concede. However, this is not likely to be implemented without a call from top union officials and thus far, no such call has been made. A more likely scenario is that mass protests, with labor involvement, will escalate into local strike actions and then a mass strike wave that union officials would be forced to support.

AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka did issue a statement claiming that the “The labor movement simply will not allow any breach of the U.S. Constitution or other effort to deny the will of the people” and that the AFL-CIO will “… stand ready to do our part to ensure his (Trump’s) defeat in this election is followed by his removal from office.” But what is “our” part? In LFN’s opinion, mass demonstrations are absolutely necessary, but may not be enough, especially during the current pandemic. The risks of COVID exposure plus violent repression by both government forces and white supremacist thugs could make it difficult to mobilize truly massive numbers of people in the streets for days or weeks at a time. Withholding our labor is not only more effective inherently, but could be far more appealing under these circumstances.

What can we, as labor activists, do during this final week?

First, we must continue to defend the right to vote; encouraging early and mail-in voting and supporting the U.S. Postal Service. If we are not at high risk for COVID, we should sign up to be poll-workers and poll-watchers to ensure that voters who might be racially profiled are allowed to vote and can do so safely.

Second, we must build the demonstrations being called by national or local community coalitions, many already with labor support; organizing internally in our unions to ensure a large turnout. These protests are necessary even if Trump loses and gives up on his coup plans, because Joe Biden must be put on notice that labor will push back against his anti-worker policies. For example, in the middle of a pandemic, Biden won’t even support Medicare for All.

Third, we must do whatever we can to give traction to the calls for strike action. Even small local strikes could grow into a massive strike movement, as was evidenced by the Red for Ed movement two years ago, forcing support from union officials.

Lastly, we must consider the longer-term picture. Defending the basic right to vote and a peaceful transition of power is essential at this moment. But, it is also necessary to continue advocating for a genuine political alternative to the Democrats and Republicans. We urge you to join us in building Labor and Community for an Independent Party (LCIP), an effort to create an alternative to the twin parties of the bosses, both of which have led us to this scary historical turning point.

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