WASHINGTON—What do American labor unions plan to do if Donald Trump makes a serious effort to steal the election, such as by trying to cut off the counting of mailed-in ballots after election night?
Several major unions have passed resolutions that they will defend democracy and the peaceful transition of power. But they are vague about what actions they might take if, for example, Trump declares himself the victor while mail-in ballots were still being counted in states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, or North Carolina.
Meanwhile, the Rochester Labor Council voted unanimously Oct. 8 to call on the national AFL-CIO “to prepare for and enact a general strike of all working people, if necessary.” Local labor federations in Seattle and Western Massachusetts have endorsed similar resolutions.
“This is all on the what-if,” Rochester Labor Council President Dan Maloney told LaborPress. “If somebody’s out here trying a coup against the very fiber of American democracy, we have to take drastic action.”
The AFL-CIO Executive Council said in a statement Oct. 19 that “the survival of democracy depends on the determination of working people to defend it,” and that it is “determined that the next president of the United States will be the person who is the choice of the people of these United States through the process our Constitution and laws provide.”
However, it expressed confidence that “the democratic process America’s people have counted on for more than 200 years will once again work in an orderly fashion.”
The American Federation of Teachers executive council declared in a resolution Oct. 27 that it would “organize and participate in peaceful, nonviolent mass protests against any efforts to thwart free and fair elections” and “do whatever it takes to stand by our commitment to reject election interference, threats, tampering, stealing, acts of violence or other actions that undermine the will of the people.”
An AFT spokesperson said the union was not revealing any more specific plans.
The Communications Workers of America, along with the SEIU, the New York State Nurses Association, and United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770 in Southern California, have joined the Protect the Results coalition, which plans to hold actions around the country Nov. 4 and Nov. 7 “if Trump takes action to undermine the results.” Protect the Results says that for safety reasons, it “opposes any events beginning after dark or planned at ballot-counting locations.”
“It is critically important that election officials count every vote,” CWA spokesperson Beth Allen told LaborPress. “While we hope that President Trump and his allies won’t attempt to stop the counting of votes, he has said that he intends to interfere and we are taking him at his word. CWA members are working with coalition partners in key states to plan for peaceful protests if necessary.”
The United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, a 35,000-member union not affiliated with the AFL-CIO, has also endorsed Protect the Results.
The Trump administration and Republican strategists, UE officials declared Oct. 29, have explicitly stated “that they may attempt to disrupt the full counting of ballots, dispute the legitimacy of the results, or even try to get a state legislature to send a set of electors to Washington, DC, for the candidate who lost the vote in their state.”
“It is necessary for the labor movement to play a leadership role in affirming our democratic institutions,” they added. “We have material resources, we are organized, and we have the ability to withhold our labor.”
That is “the ultimate power” workers have, says Dan Maloney. “It gets the attention of capital and the political machine.”
The Rochester council raised the idea of a general strike, he adds, to remind workers and union leaders that they have that power. If trucking, rail, airline, and dockworkers’ unions all went on strike together, it would shut down transportation across the nation.
“We know it’s the nuclear option,” Maloney explains. “It’s mutual destruction.” But if that’s what’s necessary “to take back democracy from a wannabe authoritarian dictator,” he adds, “we stand ready.”
Relying on the courts would be futile, he believes. “We saw what happened in 2000.”
If Trump tries to retain power despite losing the vote, he would use a much-intensified version of the strategy Republicans used to get George W. Bush selected President in 2000: a combination of public-relations bluster, intimidation, and control of the courts. Bush lost the national popular vote by more than 500,000 votes, but held a 537-vote lead in Florida, whose 25 electoral votes would have put him one over the 270 needed for a majority.
Florida’s voting machines had rejected thousands of ballots they were unable to read, yet the Bush campaign mocked Democrat Al Gore as a “sore loser” for requesting a recount. On Nov. 22, 2000, in what became known as the “Brooks Brothers riot,” a gang of more than 100 Republican Congressional staffers and political operatives pounded on the doors and windows of the office where Miami-Dade County elections officials were trying to count 10,750 unread ballots, shouting “Stop the count, stop the fraud” and punching two Democratic party officials in the hallways.
The Miami-Dade canvassing board halted the recount and never resumed it. On Dec. 12, 2000, with recounts in other counties having brought Bush’s lead down to 154 votes, the Supreme Court ordered the Florida recount halted on a 5-4 party-line vote.
The unsigned opinion offered the rationale that continuing the recount would violate Bush’s constitutional right to equal protection, because different counties would use different standards to determine whether the voter’s intent was clear on ballots the machines couldn’t read. Former Los Angeles prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi angrily noted that the decision violated the right of thousands of people to have their votes counted.
This year, absentee ballots have been the primary area of election litigation, as the COVID-19 epidemic has led to more than 90 million being requested. States including Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and North Carolina consider mailed ballots that arrive up to three to nine days late valid as long as they’re postmarked by Election Day. Trump is demanding that counting be stopped cold on Election Night: Registered Democrats have been far more likely than Republicans to request mail-in ballots.
“We already know what we’re facing here,” says Maloney. The Trump campaign has already “put out a gaggle of lawyers,” and Postmaster General Louis DeJoy has cut services in a way that will inevitably delay the arrival of ballots.
“If you like American democracy, you can’t just sit on the sidelines,” he says.