In mirroring what had previously been done over three decades ago when Ronald Reagan was able to reach this same block of voters, Donald Trump moved states which had voted for the Democratic candidate in recent elections onto his side of the ledger. This included states like Michigan, where the auto industry was once very strong, as well as Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. He also captured almost every "swing state" including the large electoral prizes of Ohio and Florida. Many of the post mortems of the 2016 presidential campaign have concluded that President Trump was able to achieve what none of his recent predecessor GOP candidates were able to do, because he embraced and championed many of the issues that were of vital importance to organized labor. First and foremost among these were his strong opposition to the practice of outsourcing jobs out of the country to nations were cheaper labor is available. He also expressed his dissatisfaction and opposition to international trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). During the election campaign he also promised tariff increases and increased infrastructure spending to create more and better American jobs and to decrease the importation of products from Mexico.
As President, Trump has targeted his appeal to a number of unions, including carpenters, coal miners and autoworkers. He recently invited the president of the United Auto Workers to meet with him to discuss how to invigorate the American automobile manufacturing industry. In his discussions with those in the industry, he has promoted an “America First” message, one that has appealed to voters within many blue-collar industries. The approach is not only in keeping with the President's message throughout the campaign, but is also intended to erode the support that these groups normally give to Democratic candidates, in effect shoring up some of the support that he received in 2016 for his re-election campaign in 2020. In a recent interview with the New York Times, F. Vincent Vernuccio, director of labor policy at the Mackinac Center told the times, "Trump is working to be the blue-collar president. You’re already seeing that in his outreach to unions. Some unions are warming up to Trump because labor leaders are following their members. They saw that in some states a majority of union members voted for Trump."
On January 23, 2017, three days after his inauguration, the president met with the heads of several building trades unions in the Oval Office (shown in the photograph above). Sean McGarvey, president of North America’s Building Trades Unions, was quoted by the Times as saying "It is Finally Beginning to Feel Like a New Day for America’s Working Class."
Unions have also been supportive of President Trump’s plans to proceed with the construction of the Keystone Pipeline and other projects, which promise the creation of over 100,000 new jobs. But he has also incurred some disapproval from some union officials who are unhappy about the President's push to repeal the Affordable Care Act, as well as his elimination of some worker safety regulations.
Today labor union membership has declined in size and in political influence. It is estimated that 10.7 percent of American workers belong to unions. This is a significant reduction from the Kennedy administration when union membership was almost triple that percentage. Labor leaders were shocked when Hillary Clinton narrowly lost in three longtime union stronghold states, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Some were openly critical of Clinton for taking those states for granted and not campaigning aggressively there. In Wisconsin, union membership had declined from 15 percent of all workers in 2009 to 8 percent today, largely due to measures taken by Governor Scott Walker to reduce the size of Wisconsin’s public-sector unions.
President Trump's strategy to win union support has been almost exclusively focused on private-sector unions and workers, such as miners in Kentucky and steelworkers in Pennsylvania. This is similar to the strategy employed by Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984. According to reporter Steve Greenhouse of the New York Times, Trump's support among unions breaks down as follows:
1. Construction trades are the ones in which the President enjoys his strongest union support.
2. Greenhouse says that the strongest anti-Trump unions are includes the Service Employees International Union, the National Education Association and several federal, state and municipal employees’ unions. These unions remain opposes to the federal hiring freeze, the proposed budget cuts and the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Teachers unions are especially opposed to what they perceive as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s antagonism toward traditional public schools. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers is quoted as saying: “The budget they’ve put forward is horrible, and DeVos is on a path to destroy public education.”
3. The middle camp includes autoworkers, steelworkers and machinists unions. These groups apparently support the President's withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact and his vows to bring back factory jobs and renegotiate NAFTA. Unions like the United Auto Workers endorse his tough stance on Mexican trade. But some of these unions have expressed skepticism about whether any gains will be offset by the cost of health care and other erosion of benefits and wages. The main areas of concern expressed by these groups stem from the President's stance on the minimum wage and on right to work legislation. During the campaign, the President said in a televised interview, "Having a low minimum wage is not a bad thing for this country." He has also said that increasing the minimum wage would hurt America's economic competitiveness. However on May 5, 2016, Trump said in an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer that he was considering raising the minimum wage. He has since stated that this is really a matter for the states to consider. These unions are also concerned about statements the President has made supporting right to work legislation. The President has stated, "My position on right to work is 100 percent." Finally, they are concerned that the President has promised to oversee an Occupational Safety and Health Administration that conducts "less enforcement and practically no rulemaking" on issues of workplace safety and health.
President Trump's selection Rene Alexander Acosta as Secretary of Labor was generally viewed to be a positive selection. Acosta was appointed by President George W. Bush to the National Labor Relations Board and later served as Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights and federal prosecutor for the Southern District of Florida. He is the former dean of Florida International University College of Law. But Acosta later resigned in 2019, due to criticism for his part in negotiating a plea bargain in 2008 with notorious sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. His replacement, lawyer Eugene Scalia has recently been the subject of controversy over his statement that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has no role in managing the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States.
In September of 2017, the President said, in one of his famous tweets, "We are building our future with American hands, American labor, American iron, aluminum and steel. Happy LaborDay!" It remains to be seen whether or not President Trump will have the same level of success as Ronald Reagan had in capturing traditional Democratic Party voters from the labor movement and whether the political clout of labor unions will increase or decrease on his watch. It appears to be a new era, or at least a new direction in the history of the relationship between the Presidency and the labor movement. Time will tell whether the shift in the loyalties of traditional labor voters in 2016 was an aberration or the beginning of a change in the direction of the pendulum of the politics of labor in the United States.