Donald Trump’s Working Class “Populism” Leaves Big Labor Divided

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Stewart Lawrence Stewart J. Lawrence is a Washington, D.C.-based public policy analyst who writes frequently on immigration and Latino affairs. He is also founder and managing director of Puentes & Associates, Inc., a bilingual survey research and communications firm.
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You’ve heard the contemptuous laughter from American liberals.

Donald Trump, a “friend” of labor? The man who employed thousands of undocumented construction workers on so many of his job sites? Who fought the efforts of culinary workers to form a union at the Trump International Hotel?

Who’s already signed off on the GOP’s fiercely anti-union, “right-to-work” agenda?

Sure, Trump won support among blue-collar workers in the Rust Belt, critics admit. But just how did he do it? By stoking xenophobic fear and racism toward “foreigners,” they say. Trump may be a “master showman,” as Bernie Sanders conceded recently, but he’s also a “total fraud” when it comes to the rights and interests of workers.

The problem? These criticisms aren’t really resonating inside America’s beleaguered trade union movement. While Democratic Party ideologues outside of organized labor may rail against Trump, there are strong divisions within labor’s ranks over how to respond to his presidency.

And it’s hardly new.

Despite their history of labor militancy, trade unionists for years have been divided over how to respond to Republican administrations. The overall national union structure, led by the AFL-CIO (formed in 1955) includes the powerful building-trades unions, which represents workers on major government and private sector infrastructure projects and traditionally leans conservative on foreign policy and social issues like abortion. Many of its members have long identified with and voted Republican, in fact.

During the Vietnam War, these workers were the “hard hats” that supported Richard Nixon and railed against “welfare cheats” and students protesting the war.

But that’s the union old guard, which includes remnants of major industrial unions in coal and steel that have all but winnowed away. Today’s AFL-CIO also includes some of the fastest growing public sector unions, including the AFSCME and SEIU, which often compete fiercely with each other to represent office workers as well as janitors. These unions, which have seen their membership balloon as large numbers of African-Americans and Hispanics have joined their ranks, tilt sharply Democratic and have pushed the union leadership to adopt a broad-based “progressive” agenda on issues ranging from health care to immigration reform.

Despite these divisions, you might think that Trump’s nomination of fast-food CEO Andrew Puzder as Secretary of Labor would be an obvious rallying point. After all, Puzder has blasted efforts to increase employee protections, opposes an increase in the minimum wage (which Trump supports) and has even talked favorably about replacing workers with robots.

But labor’s leadership knows it’s risky to be caught in full-scale opposition to the new president this early in his administration.

In fact, much of Trump’s stated agenda, opposition to free trade agreements, and pressure on big companies to reinvest in the American economy – and American workers – is turning out to be more than just “populist” rhetoric.

Trump has already issued an executive order cancelling the TPP, a symbol of the bipartisan American globalism on trade that often disadvantages domestic workers. He may very well withdraw the United States from NAFTA, or force it to be renegotiated.

And Trump has cut a string of deals with major American manufacturers, including Carrier and Ford, to keep some of their planned overseas production at home.  He’s even threatened to punish companies that insist on relocating without trying to reach a deal to stay put.

Undoubtedly some visible and vocal elements of labor will join in full-throated protests against at least some Trump administration policies. But labor’s top leadership has done the math:  the percentage of the workforce that is unionized fell to 10.7% last year – with just 6.4% in the private sector — its lowest level in generations.

And 37% of union households voted for Trump last November.  The rank-and-file is desperate for new manufacturing jobs and many want the AFL-CIO leadership to work with Trump.   Even if it means making enormous concessions on collective bargaining, wages and benefits as besieged auto workers did under Obama to “save” General Motors from bankruptcy.

So, with far fewer allies in Congress, don’t be surprised if Big Labor continues to look to the White House for help – and even a measure of salvation — and decides to play “wait and see,” even cracking down on those within its ranks tempted to push confrontation too far.

[dcquiz] In fact, out of the glare of the media spotlight, the new president hosted the leaders of North America’s Building Trades Unions in the Oval Office on January 23. They pressed Trump on their top issue: threats to the “prevailing wage” standard, which prevents workers from being undercut by non-unionized workers.

Sean McGarvey, the group’s president, called it “by far the best meeting I ever participated in” in over 17 years in Washington – a period that covers the last two administrations, one Democratic, the other Republican.

Trump is a deal-maker, and many unions know it.  They also know that without working class support, he might never have made it to the White House.

And so does Trump. He may need that support to fend off a growing challenge from the liberal left as he moves to jumpstart the “jobless recovery” he inherited from his predecessor.