Divide and Conquer?

Donald Trump Woos Organized Labor, and Hardhats Are Swooning

The President’s master plan to flip union members in time for his reelection is off to a dangerously successful start — but Democrats still have time to counterpunch.

Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast

You may not have noticed, what with the President’s barrage of attacks on Muslims and immigrants and people trying to exercise their right to vote who aren’t blond German golf professionals, but Donald Trump met with five union leaders Monday in what was by all accounts a pretty lovey-dovey session. This was Phase One in what people in and around the labor movement I’ve spoken to acknowledge is part of a master plan by Trump, likely egged on by Steve Bannon, to “flip” labor by 2020 and get the movement, or at least significant chunks of it, in his corner.

Can it work? Alas, maybe it can.

First, let’s look at who Trump met with and how many workers they represent. The five unions at the meeting and their rough membership numbers are: Laborers (700,000), Carpenters (520,000), Plumbers and Pipefitters (325,000), Building Trades (150,000), and Sheet Metal Workers (150,000). That’s about 1.85 members. Not close to a majority of the roughly 7.4 million private-sector workers in a trade union, but not chump change either.

These are traditionally some of your more conservative unions, at least culturally. They’re the hard-hats. Back in the day, some of them split with the bulk of the labor movement over civil rights and other matters. They’re still mostly white, although the Latino membership in particular has grown recently in some of them.

They endorsed Hillary Clinton, most of them pretty early on, before Trump had quite converted himself into the working man’s agent of vengeance. But most of their memberships likely backed Trump over Clinton (unions don’t officially release these figures, typically, but indications after the election were in that direction). They undoubtedly liked the way Trump talked on trade, and they surely just related to the way Trump presented himself, but it was more than that. These are unions that, quite understandably, see their futures as tied to big construction projects. The building trades union, for example, has gotten close to the energy industry. So when they hear Trump talk about the Keystone/XL and Dakota pipelines, their eyes light up. The day after he met with the union chiefs, Trump signed executive orders reviving both projects.

The other thing that has some of these people provisionally excited is Trump’s talk of infrastructure investment. The plan he released during the campaign, which is still the plan as far as anyone knows, is bogus and was torn to pieces by critics. It’s basically a set of tax credits to builders who want to erect projects that will produce their own revenue streams (toll roads and bridges, say). But these unions are precisely the ones most susceptible to the snake oil Trump’s selling, so it’s clever of him and Bannon to tee them up, get some good press that feeds the Dems-in-disarray storyline, and hope momentum builds from there.

Clinton beat Trump among unionized voters, according to exit polls, by 51-43. That was the lowest figure for a Democrat since Walter Mondale in 1984, when he beat Ronald Reagan by just three points. To give you some perspective, here are the margins for the Democrat over the Republican in every recent election: 1992, +31; 1996, +30; 2000, +22; 2004, +18; 2008, +20; 2012, +18.

So as you can see, Democratic presidential candidates in this century have basically been winning the union vote by about 60-40. Unions don’t release vote breakdowns by race, but generally speaking you’d expect Democrats have won huge among African American and Latino union members and managed about a split among whites. We can surely infer from Clinton’s eight-point margin that she lost white union households.

The numbers were similarly down in some key swing states. Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney among union households in Michigan by 33 points; Clinton won them by just 13. The Obama margin over Romney in Ohio was 23 points; Clinton lost them by nine.

It’s no secret what happened—Trump spoke their language, and Clinton didn’t hammer home an economic message, especially in the campaign’s final weeks. The question is whether Trump can coopt more union voters and leaders, maybe even snag a few endorsements next time, or whether things will revert to the mean if the Democrats have a candidate who has a harder-edged economic message and isn’t sabotaged by an FBI director and, maybe, isn’t a woman, which may have hurt her more than we know among some union voters.

Four years is a long time. If the economy’s strong in 2020 and unions have gained some membership as a result, Trump will get some endorsements, the five he met with Monday being among the most likely. There are many unions, of course, he’ll never get—teachers, public employees, SEIU. It’s also next to impossible to imagine the AFL-CIO, the umbrella organization that represents about 12 million public- and private-sector workers, endorsing a Republican. It never has, not even in 1984, when Jackie Presser of the Teamsters backed Reagan. (It was neutral in 1972.)

But Trump doesn’t need a lot of endorsements. Last November’s vote showed that members obviously weren’t following their boss’ orders when it came to the voting booth. So Democrats winning union voters back in big numbers won’t be a matter of endorsements. It’ll come down to two factors.

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First, the stuff they do between now and 2020. Senate Democrats have countered Trump with a more traditional $1 trillion infrastructure proposal, which includes money for old roads and bridges, water and sewer systems, ports, the electrical grid, and other items. Most of the money is to fix existing things instead of building new things. They’re obviously not going to get it passed. But if they can win the p.r. battle and convince union households that their plan would really do something and Trump’s won’t, that would be a start.

There’s also the fact that Trump leads a party that’s ferociously hostile to unions. Certain conditions unions will demand as part of any infrastructure bill, like Davis-Bacon wage protections, are anathema to Trump’s party. When the union leaders who met with Trump asked about Davis-Bacon, he equivocated.

In addition to that, Trump is going to be nominating a Supreme Court justice, and a lot of other federal judges, who will presumably be uniformly anti-union. The right-to-work interest groups have a pipeline of cases through which they want to chip away at unions. When those decisions are handed down, what is President Trump going to say about them, as every other Republican cheers?

The second factor will be the candidate the Democrats nominate. Sherrod Brown can get the Democratic percentage back up to 60, and probably 65, by just standing there in his Ohio-made suits. But he has a Senate race to win first, and a wide-open presidential primary to fight, if he even decides to run. But that’s a long way away. In the meantime the Democrats need to do things to win back white union workers’ allegiance no matter who the candidate is.