April 11, 2017 / 8:32 PM / 4 months ago

Review: The demise of unions and the rise of Trump

A U.S. flag flies in front of the blast furnaces at the now-closed Bethlehem Steel mill in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, U.S. April 22, 2016.Brian Snyder

NEW YORK (Reuters Breakingviews) - The most insightful work about President Donald Trump now showing doesn't mention him by name. That's because “Sweat,” Broadway's newest hit play, first opened in 2015. As pundits were earnestly profiling presidential hopefuls such as Marco Rubio, Lynn Nottage's steel-town drama offered a nuanced look at the economic and racial resentment stirred up by the loss of American manufacturing. The critics have signed on: "Sweat" has just won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for drama. Its new run in New York offers those who initially missed the trend a chance to catch up.

The United States has lost approximately 5 million manufacturing jobs since 2000. “Sweat” starts at the beginning of that period, following the lives of employees at a steel-tubing plant in Reading, Pennsylvania. The action is set at a local bar where they meet after work to talk union politics and gossip. When the union is locked out by management looking to squeeze costs, they convene at midday to drink harder and curse the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Racial tension simmers but is trumped by union solidarity. That changes when Cynthia, a black woman, is promoted to management above her peer and friend Tracey. The announcement of layoffs puts them on either side of the picket line. The dispute turns bar-hand Oscar into a scab and elicits white nativism befitting of a Breitbart column from Tracey and her son Jason. Undergirding this is how the power of striking workers has declined since Ronald Reagan. The characters in “Sweat” have little faith the guild will succeed.

Even though four out of every five voters in Reading turned out for Hillary Clinton last year, "Sweat" still feels relevant to the Trump era. Barack Obama’s support was 4.5 to one in 2012. More to the point, Reading is the seat of Berks County, which voted overwhelmingly for Trump. It is a town hit hard by deindustrialization: it was the poorest city in America as of the 2010 census. Trump's campaign promises to impose a 45 percent tariff on China and pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership were designed to curry favor with disenfranchised workers like those in "Sweat." The strategy worked: Trump swept the Rust Belt.

Since the election, Trump voters have been portrayed as globalization's losers who voted against their own interests or satirized as corn-fed Nazi yokels. The characters in "Sweat" fall somewhere in between: Jason gets white supremacist face tattoos, but he’s just looking for fellowship after the union’s defeat. Nottage and director Kate Whoriskey spent three years interviewing locals before writing the script. That helps explain why their characters can sometimes feel like composites and are prone to excessive exposition. If the play is something of an artistic failure, however, it is an achievement of political nuance.

The emergence of white resentment and the scapegoating of immigrants and people of color when economic conditions become difficult is the play’s most urgent theme. While a vein of racial tension throbs through the first scenes, black, white and Latino characters are friends - they are members of the same community and the same union. The threat of losing their livelihoods brings racism to the fore and takes "Sweat" to its violent climax. Trump's presidential campaign felt that resentment and appealed to it.

Unions are not an antidote to racism. Even so, job security and regular experience of a diverse, democratic movement can go a long way to preventing the sort of racial fear-mongering seen in 2016. As historian Timothy Minchin shows in a recent paper, the AFL-CIO union played a big role in the 2008 election of Barack Obama. The candidate wasn't particularly popular among white members until union president Richard Trumka endorsed him. White men in unions ended up voting for Obama, while those not in unions voted for John McCain. That phenomenon was reflected in Berks County, which swung to the Democratic candidate in 2008.

While unions were involved in the anti-Trump movement, they were not successful in quelling his appeal. And American unions no longer have the power they once did: while one in three workers belonged to a guild in the years after World War Two, only one in 10 does so today.

The decline of organized labor in the United States is often thought to go hand-in-hand with the demise of manufacturing. But this ignores the extent to which the power of striking workers has been diminished by legislation. Bringing back manufacturing to states which place restrictions on union membership would not necessarily help those who feel disenfranchised by globalization. They might do better, however, if America made unions great again.

Breakingviews

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