Trump and the Unions: How Close of a Working Relationship?

President Donald Trump and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka would seem to have nothing in common, save for the first four letters of their last names. Yet each shares a conviction that government must protect domestic industry. This common interest became clear on Monday when Trump signed an executive order withdrawing the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement and later met that day with union officials. Trumka, who during the 2016 campaign had called Trump a “fraud,” now praised his nemesis though without mentioning his name. Teamster President James Hoffa called Trump’s order “the first step toward fixing 30 years of bad trade policies that have cost working Americans millions of good-paying jobs.” One asks: Is there an alliance in the making? The answer: Probably not.

There can be no doubt that Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, unexpected as it was successful, altered some basic “Right vs. Left” assumptions about the American electorate. The New York City-based real estate magnate, without any prior experience as a public officer holder or even as a candidate, ran as a Republican. Yet his views on domestic and foreign policy only fitfully reflected those of the party mainstream, not to mention those of previous GOP nominees. He did not present himself as a “true conservative.” Nor did he seek support from ranking conservatives in his party until the time came to select a running mate. He ran a de facto independent campaign under Republican cover.

Donald Trump, best understood, is an anti-Left populist. That is, while he opposes the welfare state and a “Third World first, America last” foreign policy, he also views our nation as controlled by elites who are oblivious to the conditions of common folk, regardless of political persuasion. This state of affairs, he argues, is eroding our prosperity, identity and sovereignty. His detractors insist that his desire to put “America first” is veiled language for “racism,” “xenophobia” and “right-wing extremism.” This is utterly wrong. First, any nation, if it is to remain a nation for long, must put its own interests before those of every other nation. Does not the Japanese government have an obligation to put Japan first? Does not the French government have an obligation to put France first? Yes they do. Why, then, should America be exempt from the logic of national self-interest, for centuries the basis for political realism? Second, Trump, though a man of the Right, is possessed of a genuine concern for people across the political spectrum. It makes perfect sense that Trump, for example, during his nomination acceptance speech last July in Cleveland, called upon Bernie Sanders and his supporters to join him in opposing his Democratic Party opponent, Hillary Clinton. Though obviously motivated in part by a desire to siphon votes away from Mrs. Clinton, Trump wanted a build a populist coalition. His victory in the November general election has created real possibilities for this to happen.

Unions are a potential bloc in such a coalition. While almost all major labor organizations endorsed Mrs. Clinton, they now accept, grudgingly or not, that Donald Trump is going to be president for the next four years. And closer to their interests, they grasp that Trump is an economic nationalist, a successful businessman’s version of Pat Buchanan. Free enterprise should be our way, Trump emphasizes, but not at the expense of the national interest. At a Monday White House breakfast meeting, he told business executives that if they move or expand operations abroad, they can expect to pay a “very major” border tax. As an incentive for staying, he would try to cut regulations by 75 percent. Protecting American jobs, including union jobs, counts for more than creating jobs in some other nation. Though Trump is not a union man, he does agree with union leaders that U.S. participation in international free trade agreements should be cancelled or reconsidered.

On Monday, January 23, President Trump delivered a victory for them. He issued an executive order canceling U.S. participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement signed last February by representatives of 12 nations in Auckland, New Zealand following seven years of negotiations. The TPP contains a wide range of measures to lower tariff and non-tariff trade barriers. Without U.S. ratification, the proposal cannot go into effect. Trump explained his opposition: “Trans-Pacific Partnership – it’s over 5,000 pages long – every country that’s in that partnership has studied every word, every comma, every sentence, every paragraph. Our guys probably haven’t even read it. This is the way we do business.” Top union leaders, including Laborers President Terry O’Sullivan and Carpenters President Doug McCarron, met with President Trump in the White House that afternoon, citing an “excellent meeting.” Teamster President James P. Hoffa went further, praising Trump’s executive order and expressing the hope that he re-negotiate the NAFTA agreement with Canada and Mexico:

Today, President Trump made good on his campaign promise to withdraw the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. With this decision, the president has taken the first step toward fixing 30 years of bad trade policies that have cost working Americans millions of good-paying jobs. The Teamsters Union has been on the front line of the fight to stop destructive trade deals like the TPP, China PNTR, CAFTA and NAFTA for decades. Millions of working men and women saw their jobs leave the country as free trade undermined our manufacturing industry. We hope that President Trump’s meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto on January 31 opens a real dialogue about fixing the flawed NAFTA.

Donald Trump, in fact, long has been supportive of unionism, despite his real estate career being marked by frequent conflicts with labor leaders. He gained first-hand experience as an Atlantic City hotel-casino owner, dealing with aggressive Teamster and UNITE HERE representatives and, on occasion, highly agitated strikers (see photo). In his 2000 book, The America We Deserve, Trump wrote: “Is Trump a union man? Let me tell you this: Unions still have a place in American society. In fact, with the globalization craze in full heat, unions are about the only force reminding us to remember the American family.” More recently, almost a year ago, with the presidential campaign kicking into high gear, he stated in an interview: “The union people, the people in unions, they seem to really want to vote for me. It’s been amazing.”

Union leaders affirm that Trump’s affinity is real. Richard Sabato, president of the AFL-CIO Building & Construction Trades Council affiliate in northern New Jersey, put it this way a year ago: “He (Trump) has put his fair share into hiring union people. He’s done that in Manhattan, in New Jersey.” He added that his members, even those who voted for Obama, would “march behind” Trump on the issue of illegal immigration. And Ryan Leenders, a member of a Washington State local of the International Association of Machinists, stated: “We like it that he does not support TPP, that he has taken the position that there should be trade tariffs for a company that moves jobs overseas.” He estimated that about a fourth to a third of fellow members were Trump supporters. And a recent survey of more than 1,500 working-class voters in Ohio and Pennsylvania conducted by an AFL-CIO political action committee, Working America, found substantial support for Trump.

All of this stands in contrast to ferocious union opposition to Trump during the presidential campaign. And nobody was more ferocious last year than AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. At a March 3 speech in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. before the Plasterers and Cement Workers union, Trumka called Trump “full of baloney and bluster.” He then offered a standard-issue blast of hard-Left moral preening, calling Trump a “bigot” who is “running on hate.” After that, he launched into a diatribe on Trump’s economic views, pointing to the candidate’s support for Right to Work laws and for Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker’s stand against the state’s aggressive public-sector unions. In a June interview on MSNBC’s “Hardball” program, Trumka told host Chris Matthews that Trump is “a fraud.” He repeated the accusation at a September 1 breakfast in Washington, D.C. But after the election, Trumka offered an olive branch. In an email statement to the press, he indicated his acceptance of the results and offered Trump “our congratulations.” The election, he added, was a referendum on trade, manufacturing and reviving communities. “If he (Trump) is willing to work with us, consistent with our values,” said Trumka, “we are ready to work with him.”

Trump is ready to work with the unions. But does that mean he will make serious concessions to them? Experience and common sense say no. For one thing, he supports Right to Work laws that protect the right of individual workers under union contract to choose whether or not to pay dues. Last February, he remarked, “I love the Right to Work.” He elaborated: “It (Right to Work) is better for the people. You are not paying the big fees to the unions….(It) gives great flexibility to the people. It gives great flexibility to the companies.” Unions long have taken the opposite view. Trump is also unlikely to support such union wish list items as mandatory employer recognition of majority-signature union card checks and a $15 per hour federal minimum wage. This isn’t to say that Trump dislikes unions. But his instincts remain those of a businessman. And he knows that an expansion of government, something unions heartily support, all too often undermines enterprise. As for fighting union corruption, Trump will combat it; even the Obama administration didn’t shy away from conducting investigations and prosecutions. Union leaders, by contrast, would just as soon have federal agents and prosecutors go somewhere else.

Union support for President Trump is not deep. It is a populist episode that may have some long-run possibilities. The fact that Trump and labor leaders are on the same page on free trade agreements doesn’t mean they agree on anything else. If Trump continuously opposes union-backed legislation over the next year or two, even supportive members may shop around for a standard bearer in the Democratic Party, the natural home of organized labor. Fiery progressive populists like Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., are ready and eager to fill that role. Keep in mind that union leaders, like Trump, are well-versed in the Art of the Deal. That’s what collective bargaining is all about. An upsurge in union militancy may produce future White House meetings in which President Trump, rather than play the Trump card, plays the Trumka card instead.