With Workers Split Over Trump, Unions Look to Bridge the Divide

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President Donald Trump at the North America's Building Trades Unions Legislative Conference in Washington in April, 2017.

With Workers Split Over Trump, Unions Look to Bridge the Divide

Organized labor faces crisis as White House draws blue-collar workers’ support, service workers’ opposition

At the largest meeting of organized labor next week, U.S. unions are shutting out politicians so they can determine who their friends are.

The question for labor unions is how to deal with a Republican White House that many of its members oppose but whose policies also appeal to significant elements of the labor movement.

President Donald Trump has peeled support from workers who say they’ve felt the sting of globalization. He has pushed policies—including on energy and trade—that appeal to blue-collar workers in fields such as construction, manufacturing and mining.

But what’s become the majority of organized labor—service unions such as those for teachers, government employees and health-care workers—opposes administration policies such as immigration restrictions and an overhaul of the tax system.

Worker advocates must decide how to proceed next week in St. Louis during the AFL-CIO’s once-every-four-year convention. There the nation’s largest labor federation will bring together 56 unions, including the American Federation of Teachers and the United Mine Workers, to set the policy tone and pick leadership through the next presidential election.

In a show of a political independence, the AFL-CIO didn’t invite lawmakers of either party or members of the administration to speak at the convention, a break from past protocol. In recent conventions, President Barack Obama and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) were featured speakers.

“The labor movement is at crisis point,” said Greg Junemann, president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers union and a member of the AFL-CIO’s executive council. “We need to strategize a plan for the next four years, and how we intend to come together.”

 

During last year’s presidential election, many unions formally supported Hillary Clinton, but union members voted for the Democratic candidate at the lowest rates since 1980. Unions are grappling with diminished political influence. In 1976, nearly 30% of voters came from union households. Last year, it was just 18%, according to Cornell University’s Roper Center.

Mr. Trump’s administration has welcomed certain unions with open arms. The president hosted leaders of construction unions during his first week in the Oval Office and was the featured speaker at North America’s Building Trades Unions conference in April. That AFL-CIO division represents about a quarter of 12.5 million total members.

“Did you ever think you’d see a president who knows how much concrete and rebar you can lay down in a single day? Believe me, I know,” Mr. Trump said in his speech. He went on to salute trade workers group by group—ironworkers, plumbers, electricians—each to a round of applause.

Mr. Trump’s outreach echoes that of Ronald Reagan’s . Mr. Reagan performed relatively well with union voters, and sought to court them, including speaking at an AFL-CIO convention. He was a former union president, leading the Screen Actors Guild, but he sparred with unions during his presidency, most notably when he fired more than 10,000 unionized air-traffic controllers who were on strike in 1981.

The current White House has been slower to engage with unions outside of manufacturing and construction. It has made no high-profile outreach to unions representing federal government workers, which protested the federal hiring freeze and intent to shrink the size of government, or to the Service Employees International Union, one of the largest unions outside of the AFL-CIO. The SEIU, for example, has called Mr. Trump’s ending of the program that protected undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. as children “cruel” and “racist.”

A White House spokesman said it is open to working with anyone interested in helping the president fulfill his agenda.

Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta said: “This administration cares deeply about job creation and opportunity for all Americans, and hearing from all stakeholders—including business, labor and community groups—is part of delivering for the American workforce.”

Meanwhile, United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams was given a place of honor near Mr. Trump during a visit to a historic auto plant this year in Ypsilanti, Mich. “They had me sitting right next to him, which was surprising,” Mr. Williams told reporters in July.

Mr. Williams says he has spoken with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer about changing the North American Free Trade Agreement, and found them to be supportive. Mr. Trump has promised to withdraw from the pact unless a better deal can be negotiated for U.S. businesses and workers.

Mr. Acosta impressed apprentice carpenters last month when he quizzed them on the proper fasteners for framing roofs during a tour of a training center, said William Waterkotte, leader of the carpenters union in the Pittsburgh region. “We’re going to support those who support working class, blue-collar Americans,” Mr. Waterkotte said.

The Mine Workers praised the administration this month after it announced the withdrawal from Mr. Obama’s Clean Power Plan and worked with a Republican-controlled Congress to secure health care for its retirees in the spring. “Labor unions assume we can’t convince Republicans to help, and I think we’ve demonstrated that they will,” said Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts.

Other unions aren’t as encouraged by the results.

Mr. Trump has “been a disappointment, even to those who voted for him,” said Teachers Federation President Randi Weingarten. “Infrastructure spending never got off the ground ... and his first economic move was to strip people of their health insurance.”

The leadership of the AFL-CIO is longtime Democrats, said Gary Chaison, a Clark University professor emeritus of labor and industrial relations. But Mr. Trump’s message resonated with rank-and-file members, which weakens union’s leverage with either party.

“The AFL-CIO might prefer an old-fashioned enemy,” he said. “Someone they could hate.”

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, himself a former coal miner, is now in the position of attempting to unify disparate unions as he seeks re-election to the post he has held since 2009.

Mr. Trumka has had an uneven relationship with Mr. Trump so far. He said in April he was ready to work with the president and accepted a spot on the president’s manufacturing council. But he resigned from that council in August over Mr. Trump’s response to protests and violence in Charlottesville, Va., and is a vocal opponent of tax-overhaul plans. Mr. Trumka couldn’t be reached for comment.

“My members, like most Americans, are angry that the system isn’t working for them,” Mr. Trumka said in late August. “As a result, they were willing to take a risk on Donald Trump.”

Mr. Trumka said those voters aren’t getting what they hoped for because the “Wall Street wing” of the administration has won out.

“Instead of a bold, new direction, workers have gotten broken promises,” he said. “You’re beginning to see a lot of people come back across the bridge.”

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