The Western Mass Labor Federation pledged to take action if Trump stages what the group calls a coup and fails to leave office if he isn’t re-elected. We spoke to the group’s field organizer (and former Shoestring author) Lydia Wood about the election and how organized labor plans to fight back.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Will Meyer : Do you want to start by telling us a little bit about the Western Mass Labor Federation, its members and political commitments?
Lydia Wood: We officially formed in February of 2019, so we’re still fairly new. We formed with the merger of the three Western Mass Central Labor Councils, the Hampshire-Franklin CLC, the Pioneer Valley CLC, and the Berkshire CLC, after our members voted to merge. We’re a union of unions. We’re a federation of 65 unions across Western Mass, with basically every industry represented. And we’re really focused on building worker power by fostering solidarity, trying to get greater coordination between unions, so we can start to tackle wider fights, which are broader movement fights that are harder to win at the level of union or workplace.
Our members reflect a pretty diverse subset of union workplaces, so we have a mix of public [and] private sector job sites. We have a lot of local MTA unions, social workers, health care workers, nurses, foodservice workers, bus drivers, building trades, machinists, so a broad swath. Right now we’re working on building up a labor community coalition. So we work a lot with non-unions and labor adjacent groups. We’re starting to focus and beginning to develop an independent political program for labor, which is a longer term project, and one of our strategic goals. And we support workers fighting in their workplaces and for legislation that’s worker-friendly.
WM: On October 19th, the Western Mass Labor Federation passed a resolution declaring intent to take nonviolent direct action if Trump stages what you call a coup. In your formulation what qualifies as a coup? What other actions might the organization take?
LW: So, just to give you a little background, the resolution we passed was inspired by similar resolutions the Rochester Central Labor Council, the Buffalo CLC, and the Seattle CLC all passed. This is the first time in history that a U.S. president has been unwilling to commit to a peaceful transition of power if he loses, and our response really has to match that crisis. So we need to say clearly that we will not stop organizing until all votes have been counted and the winner of the election takes office.
I see the possibility of a coup in three ways. I think it’s really clear that unless the polls are really off that Trump doesn’t have a democratic path to winning this election.
WM: I hope we learned the lesson in 2016 to not put too much faith in the polls.
LW: Yeah. No, that’s true, they can be very off. But it seems like Trump is gearing up to try and halt the vote count, because a lot of the predictions are that Trump will be ahead on election night, since Democrats tend to vote by mail on a much larger level, so many of those won’t be counted on election night. I think there will be an effort to stop the vote count on November 3rd. I think we might see Republican governors appointing Trump electors, who might disregard the votes in their states — like the actual popular vote. And we could see someone who did not get the most votes in the electoral college system being the winner. I think all of those are possibilities. There was just an Axios article that came out basically leaking that Trump plans to declare victory November 3rd if he’s ahead.
WM: Ultimately, the resolution expresses support for a general strike if the election is stolen. Do you think there’s widespread support for a general strike within the broader labor movement?
LW: I think that that’s pretty mixed. Our resolution calls for that because we see it as probably the most powerful tool that the labor movement has, but I think it’s also a last resort; we’re not going to do that first off. Back in 2019 when Trump shut down the government it was ultimately the credible threat of a general strike from Sarah Nelson, President of Association of Flight Attendants, that helped end the shutdown. She went to the media and told them flight attendants were mobilizing immediately for a strike and within a few hours Trump ended the shutdown. It’s an effective tactic. So I think we need to be prepared to say clearly we’re not going to stop organizing until all votes have been counted, and that anything less than that is a coup, and we will not proceed with business as usual. I think because of the magnitude of this threat right now, we’re more likely to see something like a general strike than at any point in recent history. I think the labor movement is mixed on this, but I think that they’re realizing that we’re in a really bad place and we’re fighting for our lives. They realize that the response of the Trump administration to COVID has been an abject failure and people are super angry. They’re realizing that the way we do things might require some rethinking, and we might need to take a more direct action approach. Support for a general strike is still very divided in the labor movement, but I think that you see a growing consensus of the need to mass mobilize, and depending what happens this week I think that support and momentum will grow.
WM: The resolution suggests that this is a historical and unprecedented movement in American history. Yet American democracy is riddled by contradictions and plagued by counter majoritarian institutions. Can you speak to the labor movement’s historical relationship to American politics?
LW: I don’t want to romanticize the U.S. political system as a functioning democracy. It’s important to start off with a realist recognition of the fact that we’re not living in a functioning democracy. It’s rife with corruption, institutional barriers, and it’s basically the 1% that’s setting the agenda and policies. That said, the labor movement has a long and proud history in American politics. It’s not within my personal expertise to give a historic breakdown of that relationship, but on a broad theoretical or tactical level I think it’s the power of working people fighting collectively for things like working-class dignity, systemic change and policies that support the working-class that underlies effective social movements. I think that eras in our history where we’ve seen a lot of progress, the labor movement has always been central to that. Whether it be getting New Deal era reforms, medicare, social security, Civil Rights. The relationship is obviously stronger when it’s independent of any political party, when you have an independent working class movement not taking its marching orders from the Democratic party or any party apparatus. It’s stronger when we’re able to hold elected officials accountable.
WM: The resolution states, “the Labor Movement and trade unions have played a proud and vital role in protecting democracy and opposing authoritarianism in many nations throughout the world.” Can you contextualize this as part of a global struggle?
LW: I don’t think that we have quite the internationalist labor networks to be super effective at building an international labor solidarity network at this moment, but I think there is recognition by many that that’s needed. There are also some amazing examples of international labor solidarity, like the International Longshoreman Union who have shut down West Coast ports numerous times in solidarity with workers internationally. I think that it’s clear that under a globalized system of capitalism that it’s pretty hard to effectively mount a real campaign that’s going to transform working class power that isn’t cross-border. I think we need to be thinking about these things as part of a global struggle against fascism, which we’re seeing [on the rise] in many countries, not just the U.S. We need to be thinking about cross border movements and preparing for those that can tackle issues like climate change, which obviously do not end at our borders. One example of a mass movement that was able to defeat a coup that had labor playing a significant role was what happened last month in Bolivia. There was a coup against president Evo Morales in 2019. People organized, [the coup] was met with massive protest movement, they carried out strikes and roadblocks, and they eventually forced the regime to hold a new election and Luis Arce from Morales’ party won. I think there are a lot of examples we can point to that are hopeful.
WM: Thank you so much, is there anything else you’d like to share?
LW: This is obvious, but these are terrifying and unpredictable times. And I think that no one really knows how the election is going to play out. We have a sense that from looking at history, both nationally and internationally, that power grabs aren’t usually won through legal fights but from mass nonviolent action. So for us right now, we really want to focus on building coalitions, and to be talking to friends and groups and people we trust and people who are committed to joining a movement to defend democracy if needed. I think that’s what we all should be doing. If we have that base we’ll be able to respond where and when it’s needed much more effectively.