What Trump’s State of the Union says about the state of the world

By Phillip Jennings, General Secretary of UNI Global Union

There’s a time for leadership, for inspiration, for big ideas, and Donald Trump clearly does not think that time is now.

Over the past week, Trump has delivered two significant speeches, first at the World Economic Forum and then the State of the Union, that relied on hollow slogans and discredited conservative orthodoxies, rather than a forward-looking vision.

US President Donald Trump at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

“America is open for business,” Trump declared in Davos. He rhapsodised about his administration’s regulatory rollback, which has, among other things, robbed fair overtime pay from millions of hard-working employees, made workplaces more dangerous, and legalized wage theft for waiters and waitresses.

His crowning legislative achievement, we heard during the State of the Union, has been an unpopular tax law that concentrates its benefits at the top while making middle-class Americans an afterthought. For example, corporations get billions in permanent breaks while, middle-class households get no tax cut in the long run. In fact, many would pay more.

These trickle-down, regressive policies might be good for juicing the stock market and skyrocketing CEO pay, but they do little to help working people make ends meet. A rising stock market does not lift all boats. Fewer rules for corporations and lower taxes for the wealthy have failed before, and they will fail again. Contrary to his proclamations, job and wage growth from the Obama era has slowed in Trump’s first year.

This is not what Trump promised to working people, many of whom were Trump voters. These men and women had seen their economic prospects evaporate and their quality of life diminish. They desperately wanted change and felt the established institutions had failed them. They were looking to be heard, and they were looking for answers.

This story has played out in the United States as well as in the United Kingdom, France, Austria, and other countries where populist leaders rode a wave of discontent.

Trump’s latest speeches show how empty the populist promise is. There is no answer to the ravages of inequality. There is no answer to the challenges posed by digitalisation and the rise of a platform economy. There is no answer to problems of environmental degradation. There is nothing there to address increasing polarisation of the populace.

That is where we come in. The global labour movement, alongside our brothers and sisters standing for peace, for planet, for immigrant rights, for gender equality, for racial justice, must be bold with our responses to a world in crisis searching for solutions.

A transition to the future of work will not be just without unions. At UNI Global Union, we have put forward the first-ever comprehensive principles on worker data protection and ethical AI. We recognize that as the world of work changes — right now, one in every five jobs in America is held by a sub-contractor or freelance worker — we must create a new social infrastructure for a new economy.

UNI Global Union’s Top Ten Principles for Ethical AI provides unions, shop stewards and workers with a set of concrete demands on the application of AI.

Far from seeing unions as a relic of the industrial revolution, today’s workers believe forming a union is necessary in the information age. The labour movement added 260,000 new members last year in the U.S. alone. Young workers — people under 35 — are joining unions at an unprecedented rate.

We have pushed for global agreements with some of the largest multinational corporations in the world to ensure that workers have the basic human right to freely and fairly organise. Unions are an engine for economic opportunity and equality.

Along with IndustriALL and non-governmental organisations we have launched, implemented, and strengthened the Bangladesh Accord, a legally binding and enforceable agreement between unions, NGOs and brands designed to make all garment factories in Bangladesh safe workplaces.

The Bangladesh Accord is saving lives and changing the rules of the game in the global supply chain.

In contrast with Trump’s, bellicose “fire and fury” stance, labour has stood tall with the peace movement to face up to this posed by the growing threat of nuclear war. We have taken a stand for peace and global nuclear disarmament and are long-term partners of Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

UNI GS, Philip Jennings with peace activist and prominent member of the Movement for the Abolition of War (MAW), Bruce Kent.

It’s true that another world is possible, and it’s up to all of us to make it happen. The time for leadership, inspiration, and big ideas is, indeed, now.

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UNI Global Union

UNI Global Union, based in Nyon, Switzerland, represents more than 20 million workers in the fastest growing sectors in the world — skills and services.