Now entering its seventh day, West Virginian teachers and school service personnel continue to be on strike in every county in their state. Fighting for higher pay, more benefits, and pro-union reform, these teachers demonstrate the power and security of their civil liberties on the national stage. Interestingly, this strike and its political impact – particularly within the state – reveal two undemocratic consequences of Trump’s populism upon labor relations and the public’s appetite for populist rhetoric.
Firstly, I would like to introduce Jan-Werner Muller’s book, What is Populism?, that attempts to identify a comprehensive and universal understanding to: the concept of populism, its appeal to the masses, its effect upon democracy, and potential safeguards to such political actors. Muller constructs populism as consisting of elements of anti-elitism and of anti-pluralism, in which these political figures tend to rail against a supposed political, cultural, and/or economic ‘elite’ through a moral claim upon the representation of the people. Once populists take power, they – according to Muller – tend to “colonize” the state through partisan appointees within the bureaucracy, engage in “mass clientelism” (material favors for political support), and “discriminatory legalism” against political enemies. For the case of the West Virginian teachers, their fiery charges against labor law reform are a product of all three of these steps Muller identifies.
Within the past twelve months of Donald Trump’s administration, he appointed three new members to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) – an independent federal agency that evaluates labor law in relation to collective bargaining and worker grievances. All with law experience representing solely employers, Trump’s appointees Peter Robb, William Emanuel, and Marvin Kaplan have significantly impacted the present and future of union bargaining power in the country. Kaplan, as the past Chief Counsel of the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, rolled back rights for workers to form unions, while Emanuel is currently under investigation for potential ethics violations concerning a recent NLRB decision, in which he is accused of favoring clients of the law firm he used to work for. Upon securing a 3-2 majority within the NLRB, the board has been swift in repealing numerous Obama-era measures that empowered unions and workers’ rights, thus demonstrating Trump’s “colonization” of an aspect of the state.
The board has already instituted a hold on “any expansion of workers’ rights” – most notably, employer record-keeping practices and workplace-use of a mineral linked to a deadly lung disease. Easily the most devastating repeal from this pro-business board, the repeal of a 2015 NLRB decision that allowed, namely, fast-food employees to form unions. Eight federal appeals courts previously affirmed this policy. The board’s recent decision benefits employers who outsourced “management duties to subcontractors or franchisees,” thus removing large corporations from collective bargaining responsibilities. Lastly, the NLRB reversed a previous 2011 decision that formerly affirmed that workers may form smaller unions within a single workplace. For example, 100 welders within a manufacturing plant could not form a union, while colleagues hold job classifications spanning 120 types within the entirety of the plant. Through these major decisions, the Trump administration strengthens its ties with business interests, while also marginalizing the pay and benefits available to union workers across the country. Thus, the NLRB’s actions resemble both Muller’s concepts of mass clientelism and discriminatory legalism. Trump has already expressed his desire to run for re-election in 2020 with his selection of Brad Parscale as campaign manager, which furthers the notion that Trump wishes to seek out continued political support from American employers and business-owners for the next presidential cycle. Trump’s actions and his populist success on the campaign trail also impact the characteristics of congressional hopefuls heading into the 2018 midterm elections.
Today, Politico published a story, He’s JFK with Tattoos and a Bench Press, that introduces readers to Democrat Richard Ojeda, who is running in West Virginia’s most solidly red congressional district. As a state senator, Ojeda works with aggression and conviction by spearheading a medical marijuana bill, firing off against large energy companies, and standing by teachers during this lengthy strike. How does a Democrat survive (and hope to win) in a district that had just under 80 percent of voters in favor of Trump? Well, he is a populist… Or rather, he uses highly populist rhetoric. In The Pipe Dream of Undemocratic Liberalism,
Sheri Berman identifies a vicious cycle in political messaging and reform, in which elitist desires to restrict one’s popular sovereignty results in technocratic approaches to policymaking that ultimately foster more populist demands among the masses. Populism is fueled by the anxieties and passions of everyday citizens. I do not wish to paint Ojeda as a populist agitator, but his colloquial, explicative-filled jargon connects with not only West Virginians, but also rural white working class populations. Ojeda’s meteoric rise may be attributed to Berman’s phenomenon, in which the technocratic establishment, entrenched for the past eight years, facilitated the growth of populist actors and demands throughout the country.