Last fall, Donald Trump won the GOP an unusually high share of union members’ votes. For the first time since 1984, the Republican standard-bearer only lost union households by a single-digit margin — a feat made all the more impressive when one considers that organized labor has become less white, and more concentrated in the public sector, since Ronald Reagan won his second term.
By appealing to the racial grievances and economic anxieties of working-class whites in the Rust Belt — while disavowing his party’s historic opposition to Social Security, Medicare, infrastructure stimulus, trade protection, and universal health care — Trump kicked bricks out of the Democratic Party’s “blue wall.”
Were Trump a more broadly popular — and less wholly incompetent — president, he could have spent the past seven months strengthening the GOP’s grip over Team Blue’s old labor strongholds, while turning the Democratic Party against itself. While Trump’s overt racism and misogyny rendered him instantly toxic to the progressive base, a declining (and freshly humbled) labor movement wasn’t willing to forfeit any hope of influencing the new president’s agenda on trade and labor rights for solidarity’s sake. AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka agreed to sit on Trump’s manufacturing council, in hopes of claiming victories for his membership on trade and infrastructure.
Meanwhile, ten Senate Democrats are looking to win reelection in 2018, in states Trump won last fall. Most of these lawmakers were eager to buttress their bipartisan credentials by working with the new president on the more popular planks for his platform.
If Trump had capitalized on the mainstream media’s eagerness to forgive his campaign’s transgressions and cover him like a conventional president; traded his foghorn appeals to white nationalism for dog whistles; and begun his presidency by pushing bipartisan bills to fix America’s “crumbling roads and bridges,” and strengthen the Obamacare exchanges (while renaming the program Trumpcare), he may have had a chance to build the broad, majority coalition that had eluded him last fall.
“Like [Andrew] Jackson’s populism, we’re going to build an entirely new political movement. It’s everything related to jobs,” Steve Bannon explained in late November. “The conservatives are going to go crazy. I’m the guy pushing a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan … If we deliver, we’ll get 60 percent of the white vote, and 40 percent of the black and Hispanic vote, and we’ll govern for 50 years.”
Bannon’s time in the White House expired last week, but his dream of turning the GOP into a (white) nationalist party — with economic policies populist enough to earn it a measure of cross-racial appeal — has been dead for months.
By the time Trump won the Oval Office, the Republican donor class had invested ungodly sums of money into ensuring that its priorities — and those of the congressional GOP — would be one and the same. It would have taken an immensely skilled and hardworking president to coerce Paul Ryan into putting infrastructure stimulus ahead of tax cuts for the rich — or the health-care needs of working people over the conservative movement’s ideological opposition to Medicaid.
Trump was neither of those things. And so, the elderly billionaire immediately outsourced his legislative agenda to the Republican Establishment, so as to allow himself to continue spending his golden years livetweeting Fox & Friends and playing golf. Congressional Republicans proceeded to push a health-care plan that would have increased the cost of insurance for much of their party’s base, so as to finance a capital-gains tax cut for millionaire investors. While this gambit failed, Ryan & Co. ratified their party’s commitment to the one percent’s class war through other means. By repealing Obama-era regulations, Republicans restored the right of corporations to abuse their workers without jeopardizing their access to federal contracts, and the freedom of financial advisers to scam their clients. At the same time, the Trump administration moved to undo an executive order that extended guaranteed overtime pay to 4.2 million workers.
It wasn’t hard for Democrats to unify in opposition to policies this audaciously unpopular. And when Trump went full Nazi-apologist, there was little incentive for Trumka to remain on a presidential council.
Now, labor leaders are mobilizing to raise awareness among their rank-and-file about how just little Trump has done to advance the interests of working people. As the Washington Post reports:
Labor leaders, once courted by President Trump, are stepping up their campaign to turn workers against the White House if it does not deliver more on jobs and trade — and if it does not stop undoing Obama-era regulations.
The most visible effort, which starts in Indianapolis on Monday afternoon, is a two-week tour organized by the coalition Good Jobs Nation that ropes in labor-friendly politicians. The coalition, launched in 2013 to pressure Barack Obama’s White House on trade and wage issues, is organizing rallies throughout the Midwest through Labor Day.
“Trump ran as a working-class hero, so let’s look at the results,” said Joseph Geevarghese, Good Jobs Nation’s executive director. “We’re seven months into his administration, and wages are flat. People are still getting pink slips.”
Monday’s event in Indiana aims to highlight the fraudulence of Trump’s high-profile promises to workers at a Carrier plant in the Hoosier State. Last December, the then-president-elect announced that he had convinced the company to remain in Indiana, in exchange for $700,000 in annual tax breaks. But Carrier never forfeited its commitment to cutting labor costs. Since Trump’s announcement the company has increased its investments in automation, while laying off 632 workers.
“He made promises to working-class people,” Chuck Jones, who represented Carrier’s employees as president of United Steelworkers Local 1999, told the Post. “He said that if he were president, that jobs would not be leaving this country. Guess what? They still are. He could be signing executive orders. He’s not lifting a finger.”
Jones will join Bernie Sanders in decrying the president’s broken promises at Monday’s rally.
Good Jobs Nation’s ostensible purpose is to pressure the Trump administration to live up to its populist rhetoric. To that end, it is making some concrete asks of the president, including that he sign an executive order discouraging corporations from relocating call centers outside of the U.S. But few involved have much hope that such asks will be heeded. Thus, the primary goal of the tour is to make sure working people understand who their enemies are.
There’s some evidence that working people are already shifting toward such an understanding. In the Rust Belt battlegrounds of Michigan and Wisconsin, a plurality of non-college-educated white voters disapprove of the president, while Trump remains just two points above-water with that demographic in Pennsylvania, according to new NBC/Marist polls. In all three states, a large plurality of voters say Trump has failed to make good on his campaign promise to bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. — and, that they would like to see Democrats retake Congress in 2018.
Seven months ago, Trump had an opportunity to expand his appeal among working-class Democrats. Now, Democrats have a chance to expand theirs among working-class Trump voters. And unlike the president, America’s labor movement isn’t accustomed to taking opportunities for granted.