Kevin McCaffrey stood behind a podium at a German beer hall on Long Island and prepared to deliver the bad news. It was October, three months before the Teamsters Local 707 pension fund would run dry, leaving 4,000 retirees with only a third of their promised retirement benefits. McCaffrey quieted the roomful of truckers and dock and warehouse workers. He decided to get it over with quickly.
“I came right out and said that the International had come to a decision and would be supporting Hillary Clinton,” McCaffrey recalls. “I got booed off the stage.” The Teamsters had announced the endorsement in August, but the reminder still chafed.
McCaffrey is not the only local union leader who witnessed the disconnect between the politics of labor leaders, nearly all of whom are headquartered snug in Washington, D.C., and their rank-and-file members back home in the Rust Belt. Frank Sirianni, president of the Pennsylvania Building & Construction Trades Council, says that Trump’s support among the working class is a legitimate political force, one that lay dormant in the opening years of the 21st century. Sirianni, a glazier by trade, represents 136,000 union workers and 3,500 contractors — roughly one-third of the state’s total construction work force. Trump’s nomination intrigued his membership; local union officials, he says, “were telling me throughout the year that there was a lot of support from our rank and file.”
Trump “hit the right triggers to stimulate support from our members,” Sirianni continues. “You look at the list in his [October 22] Gettysburg speech — trade, pipelines, infrastructure, oil and gas — each item benefits our members.”
Trump campaigned as a champion of the working man and traditional manufacturing. Along the way, he cast aside the received wisdom of generations of free-market conservatives and neoliberal Democrats, vowing to renegotiate NAFTA, kill the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, open up the gas and oil pipelines sidelined by the Obama administration, shut down the inflow of cheap immigrant labor, and spend $1 trillion on infrastructure. These promises — all in line with desires organized labor has had for decades — netted him just two endorsements: the Fraternal Order of Police and the Border Patrol union.
Organized labor spent $195 million on the 2016 elections, 86 percent of it going to Democrats, but many rank-and-file members defected. Trump won union households — those with at least one union member — outright in Ohio, gaining 28 points on Mitt Romney in 2012, and closed the Republican deficit by 20 points in Michigan and Wisconsin, according to exit polls. He lost union households by 8 percent nationally, equal to Ronald Reagan’s performance in 1984, and a ten-point improvement on Romney’s national showing.
Trump’s strong performance among union members appears to have made the administration confident that it can continue to make inroads into one of the Democrats’ most loyal constituencies. A senior White House official, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, says that Trump’s first month in office was designed to reassure Rust Belt voters that he will deliver on his populist campaign promises.
“He’s a different kind of Republican,” the White House official says. “There’s going to be outreach to union leaders, but, more so, there’s going to be outreach to the rank and file.”
If you want to understand why this official and other GOP observers are bullish about Trump’s prospects with organized labor, look no further than Trump’s Day One meeting with leaders of several hard-hat unions. The new president opened with his most important policy announcement to date.
“This is a group that I know well whether personally or just because I have hired thousands and thousands and thousands of you,” Trump said. “We just signed, just officially terminated TPP, and I just signed a document, just signed a powerful document.”
The applause was polite. The union leaders stayed for about an hour. Afterward, Sean McGarvey, president of the AFL-CIO’s Building & Construction Trades Department, addressed reporters with the pleasantly baffled look of a Michelin restaurant critic who had just tasted his first McRib.
“We just had probably the most incredible meeting of our careers,” he said. “It was by far the best meeting I’ve had.”
The Washington, D.C., press corps treated union officials’ praising a Republican as a first-in-a-lifetime event, but in fairness many Millennial political reporters have no memory of history before 2008. If only they watched more television, they might know that The Wire’s fictional dockworkers’-union boss Frank Sobotka hated Bobby Kennedy as much as he did “Tricky” Dick Nixon and Ronnie “The Union Buster” Reagan.
Republicans have long courted labor, with mixed success. The Teamsters endorsed former presidents Nixon, Reagan, and George H. W. Bush. George W. Bush made Teamsters president James Hoffa Jr. a guest of honor at his 2002 State of the Union address and also invited Carpenters Union president Douglas McCarron to fly on Air Force One twice in his first 18 months in office. He also celebrated Labor Day at Carpenters headquarters.
“Republican strategists say that if Mr. Bush could win slightly more of the union vote in 2004 — just 27 percent of union voters backed him in 2000 — he could easily win swing states, including Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, that he narrowly lost,” the New York Times reported in 2002.
Bush won 33 percent of union voters and 40 percent of union households in his successful reelection campaign. He lost Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Trump managed not only that elusive duo but Michigan as well, turning what would have been an Electoral College squeaker into a solid victory. His overall levels of union support, however, point to a lack of enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton rather than a lasting working-class shift. Trump won 43 percent of union households, a mere three points better than Romney in 2012, while Clinton fell seven points below Obama’s 2012 performance, and 7 percent of those voters went third-party or did not respond — a five-point jump from 2012.
The very same union leaders who endorsed Hillary Clinton now appear to blame their preferred candidate for losing to a reality-TV star. The United Auto Workers performed an in-depth analysis of Trump’s shocking victory in Michigan. The union ditched its traditional exit poll and sent detailed questionnaires to all 900,000 of its active and retired members, prompting 250,000 responses. Clinton won the votes of those respondents 59–33, while 8 percent voted third party or did not cast a vote for president. UAW president Dennis Williams called the quietistic 8 percent “unusual” in a February conference call with reporters and, without casting aspersions, seemed to imply that they could be trusted in 2020 to vote for any Democrat not named “Hillary Clinton.” “What we find very, very interesting is the 8 percent that didn’t vote for either one of them,” Williams continued. “If you took the 8 percent and put it on the Hillary Clinton column, it followed the same [historical] trend that all other elections followed.”
But to blame Hillary Clinton alone is too easy an explanation and ignores the extent to which Barack Obama’s treatment of unions and their members, particularly in the private sector, created intense dissatisfaction.
At first glance, Obama’s tenure looks good for unions. He backed a substantial increase of the minimum wage, which would have boosted union wages in the service industry. His Labor Department — led by the newly elected Democratic-party chairman, Tom Perez — stepped up enforcement actions against employers on a wide array of work rules. Obama’s National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the federal government’s top labor arbiter, overturned decades of precedent to hold corporations liable for the actions of franchisees and subcontractors, and passed controversial rulings that allowed unions to organize smaller subunits of workplaces in order to boost their chances of winning employee votes.
The Obama-era NLRB also delivered on one of organized labor’s pet projects: speeding up the election process to allow a vote in as few as 14 days after the union’s initial petition. Employers argued that the new process denied them time to present counterarguments to unionization. It was implemented in 2015, and the median union election took place 23 days after initial filing in 2016, down from 38 days in 2014. Union victories rose by 5 percent. Labor leaders in Washington, D.C., were thrilled with such progress; officials and members at the local level, not so much.
“I got frustrated by the lack of change from the Obama administration for labor. I think we got lip service,” says McCaffrey, the New York Teamsters official.
Ask any Washington, D.C., labor observer about Obama’s policies and he’ll tell you that Obama was the most adamantly pro-organized-labor president we’ve had since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. On a policy level, this is undoubtedly true, but workers and union members do not look at the nuances of labor law to assess whether a president is serving their best interests. They look at their pocketbooks, benefits, and job prospects. President Obama appeared to be willing to disregard those concerns if they clashed with the interests of any other part of the Democratic coalition.
The United Mine Workers were apoplectic about the Environmental Protection Agency’s stream rules, which threatened 70,000 coal-related jobs, as were the construction unions about attempts to thwart the Keystone oil pipeline. The Obama administration ignored them to please environmentalists. The Laborers, the AFL-CIO, the Teamsters, and just about every other private-sector group slammed Obamacare for its “Cadillac” tax, which threatened the viability of the health benefits they had negotiated for workers. Every union leader and his mother raised hell over the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Obama didn’t bat an eye.
Trump grasped that he could afford to alienate union leaders on small-ticket items such as union election rules as long as he delivered on the issues that the rank and file care most about. That’s why he eliminated TPP on his first day of business at the White House — even before he had addressed the issues that got him elected: the border wall, the refugee ban, and Obamacare. He followed up by striking down the EPA’s mining rules and approving the Keystone pipeline. The senior White House official I spoke to says that Trump’s first month in office was designed to reassure skeptical union members and leaders that the president would not only follow through on his promises but also give them “a seat at the table.”
“It looked like unions were getting everything they wanted [from Obama],” the Trump White House official says, “but when they asked for something important for them and their members, like the Cadillac tax in Obamacare, they weren’t part of the conversation.”
Giving labor organizations a seat at the table does not guarantee that they will stick around come Election Day. It is worth revisiting Bush’s overtures to labor back in 2002. Bush did not get much in return for all his outreach. The Carpenters remained neutral in 2004. Hoffa Jr. resigned from Bush’s Advisory Committee on Trade Policy and Negotiations at the height of Bush’s reelection campaign after the Central American Free Trade Agreement was signed. He later endorsed John Kerry.
But “the union executives themselves . . . are constrained by the fact that members, many of them, not all, are enthusiastic” about Trump’s agenda, the White House official says.
Union leaders have begun to reevaluate the president in light of his actions, with everyone from AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka to Laborers president Terry O’Sullivan lauding Trump for his trade and energy views. Even when union leaders have denounced Trump, the performances have seemed like perfunctory displays of partisanship executed out of force of habit. Take UAW president Dennis Williams’s February press conference to release the union’s exit polls. The strongest criticism he could muster was that Trump’s refugee order violated the union’s “core principles.” He then praised Trump for his role in scrapping a proposed Ford factory in Mexico and for his trade policy.
“I’m looking forward to [working with Trump]. He’s been the first president that addressed this [NAFTA] issue. I’m going to give him kudos for that,” Williams said. “We’ve been hollering about it for 20 years, and he’s the first one who’s brought it up.”
“I think Republicans should take a less adversarial position with unions. That will make it harder for unions to oppose them,” says McCaffrey, who also serves as the Republican minority leader in the Suffolk County legislature. “Trump has an opportunity to do that right now.”
Even if Trump does not earn labor endorsements, he can at least deny unions the ammunition to hammer him in 2020 — and further expose the disconnect between national labor leaders and the rank and file. After decades of lockstep support for Democrats, labor finds itself confronting a Republican politician who not only makes an effort to connect to union members but delivers on his campaign promises on their most cherished issues. It will be a hard sell for the AFL-CIOs of the world to tell their members to spurn Trump over identity politics or refugees after they spent 30 years telling those same members that free-trade agreements meant Armageddon for the working man.
– Mr. McMorris is a staff writer at the Washington Free Beacon.