Photographer: Andrew Francis Wallace/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Trump's Blue-Collar Populism Is Dividing Unions

  • Embattled movement wrestles with collaboration and resistance
  • Long-running divisions offer chance to ‘divide and conquer’

Donald Trump’s presidency presents unions with the threat that unified Republican governance will bring sweeping, hostile changes to laws they hold dear. Labor has responded with a muddle of denunciation, cautious quiet and, in some cases, even exultation.

Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers and a speaker at the Women’s March on Washington, said last week that “we’ve got to be whistle-blowers for righteousness.” Just the day before, the Laborers’ International Union of North America was gushing over the new president: “He has shown that he respects laborers who build our great nation, and that they will be abandoned no more.”

Long divided over how to save themselves, unions can’t agree on how to handle Trump. The stakes are high: Membership last year slipped to a record-low 10.7 percent of workers -- and just 6.4 percent in the private sector. While making promises that resonated with many members, Trump has tapped as his labor secretary Andrew Puzder, a fast-food executive who has blasted efforts to increase employee protections and talked favorably about replacing workers with robots. The president could be the key decider of anti-union proposals like a national “Right to Work” bill, which House Republicans introduced Wednesday.

“He’s obviously shown a very thin skin,” said Larry Hanley, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union. “Our criticisms are going to be measured, and they’re going to be leveled when they’re important.”

Puzder, the chief executive officer of CKE Restaurants Inc., has been vociferously opposed by organized labor and Senate Democrats, who’ve highlighted alleged labor law violations at Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s stores. His confirmation hearing was delayed for a fourth time Tuesday so that he’d have more time to submit conflicts-of-interest and ethics paperwork. But with 52 Republicans in the Senate, he’s still likely to be approved.

Schism Exposed

Across industries and ideologies, most unions insist they’ll support the good Trump tries to do and oppose the bad. In practice, their dissonant messages reflect long-running disagreements. For years, some unions have sought to get along better with Republicans, whereas others have focused on strengthening and partnering with liberal allies. Some advocate forcefully for causes like immigration reform and environmental protection, while others see job-creating projects like the Keystone XL Pipeline as an urgent priority.

“With every administration -- some more, some less -- but we’ve always been able to find a path to get some business done," fire fighters union president Harold Schaitberger said last week.

“Donald Trump’s Muslim and refugee ban is a deliberate and coordinated attack on our core values as Americans,” the 3-million member National Education Association said a few days later.

Trump is well-poised to exploit such tensions. He campaigned by defying bipartisan support for trade deals that unions despise, and with rhetorical attacks on undocumented immigrants, which some unions heard as a direct threat to members and their families.

“He is trying to be the blue-collar president,” said F. Vincent Vernuccio, director of labor policy at the free-market Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan and a former member of Trump’s transition team. “This may be the start of a schism within the union movement.”

Read more: The debate over the impact of unions -- A QuickTake explainer

White House press secretary Sean Spicer didn’t respond to a Tuesday inquiry about Trump’s union outreach or his views on labor laws.

Restless Base

Part of the challenge for unions is division among their own members, 37 percent of whom voted for Donald Trump in exit polling released by the AFL-CIO, the nation’s main federation of unions.

In December, after United Steelworkers local president Chuck Jones disputed Trump’s claims about how many jobs he’d saved at an Indiana Carrier Corp. plant, Trump personally attacked him on Twitter. Jones later heard from some members worried he was alienating Trump.

“They are very vocal that they want us to keep working with him in any way we possibly can for the betterment of people’s jobs,” said Jones.

Building-trades union leaders, whom Trump hosted in the Oval Office on Jan. 23, said they asked him to oppose fellow Republicans’ efforts to revoke “prevailing wage” rules, which require contractors on government projects not to undercut pay and benefit standards.

Sean McGarvey, president of North America’s Building Trades Unions, said that Trump had listened to his concerns, and that it was “by far the best meeting I ever participated in” over 17 years in Washington.

“With all due respect, I represent construction workers,” McGarvey told reporters when asked about Trump’s Twitter attack on Jones and his nomination of Puzder. “They’re the ones that pay me. They’re the ones that I worry about.”

Probing Defenses

Some union leaders suspect Trump is pursuing a “divide and conquer” strategy, courting unions like the building trades and the National Border Patrol Council even as he moves to harm the broader movement.

“They have a narrow view of who constitutes the working class,” said Hector Figueroa, president of the Service Employees International Union’s East Coast property services affiliate. The White House, he said, is “hoping that unions are going to just be quiet, seeking to have some avenue to pursue their interests.”

For the AFL-CIO, that leaves a fine line to walk if it wants to assert its relevance without alienating its affiliates.

On Friday, the White House announced that federation President Richard Trumka would participate in Trump’s new "Manufacturing Jobs Initiative." An hour later, activists rallied in the federation’s lobby against Trump’s immigration agenda.

"We will resist and we will fight for all working people," said Yves Gomes, a member of the United Food & Commercial Workers International.

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