WASHINGTON -- Dozens of senior European labor union officials gathered this week at the AFL-CIO, the largest U.S. federation of labor unions, to trade ideas for fighting a xenophobic far right ascendant on both sides of the Atlantic.
The conference on Monday and Tuesday, jointly organized by the AFL-CIO, Working America, the federation’s outreach arm to non-union workers, and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, a social democratic foundation funded by the German government, illustrates the extent to which progressive movements across the developed world have begun to view the far right as a common, and urgent, threat.
But if the business-friendly wings of the Democratic Party and its European equivalents are hoping that the specter of Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, or the rise of the Front National in France, or the U.K. Independence Party in Britain, will draw organized labor to their side, they are in for a disappointment. American and European participants in Tuesday’s panel discussions place a sizable share of the blame for the far right’s rise on mainstream center-left parties’ drift to the center (think Bill Clinton’s New Democrats and Tony Blair’s New Labour).
Those parties’ embrace of “neoliberalism,” a market-driven ideology that includes privatization and fiscal austerity, the labor stalwarts argued, diminished the public’s faith in the ability of labor unions and progressive politics to deliver for them -- paving the way for far-right populism.
Instead, the American and European participants more or less agreed on the need to double down on the social-democratic economic policies that dominated the Western world in the decades after World War II.
“We must insist that the candidates and political parties we support back an ambitious program for broad-based economic growth driven by rising wages,” said Damon Silvers, director of policy at the AFL-CIO. “The labor movement must demand that the politicians we support offer, in place of neoliberalism and austerity, a global New Deal.”
While Trump is the best-known -- and arguably most successful -- right-wing demagogue on the world stage, Europe’s refugee crisis and prolonged economic slump are inspiring a new generation of reactionary xenophobes on the continent.
In fact, many have argued that Trump is a quintessentially European type of demagogue, marrying anti-immigrant xenophobia with looking-out-for-the-little-guy economic populism with a theatrical style. In addition to contemporary comparisons to Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, there are more ominous parallels to figures like the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, who the real estate mogul re-tweeted in February.
“We in Europe are really used to the right. It is not something new for us,” said Luca Visentini, general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation, before narrating a history of European reactionary movements since the 1920s.
We in Europe are really used to the right. It is not something new for us. Luca Visentini, European Trade Union Confederation
Labor unions view themselves as the front line against far-right populism movements, since Trump and his European analogues often draw from working-class, ranks. These demagogues channel white working-class anger at non-white foreigners, rather than at the oligarchs who were traditional targets of their ire.
In the United States, as in Europe, unions have historically relied on mutually supportive relationships with mainstream center-left parties to survive and thrive.
But the AFL-CIO has already begun sounding the alarms about the prospect of its members voting for Trump -- and it wants the Democratic Party to return to its New Deal roots to avoid that outcome. (While the AFL-CIO has not endorsed a candidate in the Democratic primary, it will undoubtedly back the Democratic nominee in the general election.)
Silvers argued on Tuesday that liberal democracy cannot thrive without the kinds of social democratic policies unions champion, because authoritarians prey on economic despair and distrust in civic institutions.
“We guard the door behind which waits the imprisoned monster of the right-wing authoritarian response to the injustice of market societies,” Silvers said.
Still, he and other panelists called for reaching out to union members who might find far-right populism appealing, while taking an uncompromising approach to racism and illiberal governance.
“If we are going to guard the door, we must guard the door,” Silvers added. “But at the same time ... we have to engage in conversations with those among us who are thinking about supporting the authoritarian right out of frustration with a political system that seems to have no interest in their economic pain.”
Antonia Bance, head of campaigns and communications for the U.K.'s Trade Union Congress, hailed Labour candidate Sadiq Khan’s victory in the recent London mayoral race as an example of how a progressive politician can appeal to those same disenfranchised voters while celebrating multiculturalism.
Khan spoke proudly about his identity as a Muslim and a son of immigrants, she said, but was unafraid to campaign in whiter and less friendly neighborhoods.
“Identity and culture has to be ours, otherwise we leave our flank undefended,” Bance concluded.
Thorben Albrecht, a state secretary in the German labor ministry, which is controlled by the Social Democratic Party, expressed a similar sentiment. Albrecht argued that progressives should emphasize membership in a common national workforce as a form of community and identity that transcends race, gender, national origin or age.
“We really have to offer some form of identity from a progressive politics and that is the most important answer to the threat of the right-wing parties,” Albrecht said.
Editor's note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims -- 1.6 billion members of an entire religion -- from entering the U.S.