American labor unions face a president they scorned | News | DW | 11.11.2016
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American labor unions face a president they scorned

American unions endorsed Hillary Clinton but got Donald Trump. The president-elect connected with workers while campaigning, but his victory is likely bad news for organized labor.

USA Wahlkampf Richard Trumka im Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia (Getty Images/AFP/S. Loeb)

Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, speaks in favor of former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in July.

A week before the election, the US National Labor Relations Board ruled that current President-elect Donald Trump had broken the law by refusing to bargain with a new union at his Trump International Hotel in Las Vegas.

Now the workers have to reckon with the fact that their boss will soon be president of the country.

Almost every US union endorsed Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, spending record sums of money on the election and investing countless hours making phone calls to encourage their members to vote for her.

While Trump's victory represents a defeat for organized labor's political campaigning, what the next president means for labor is still unclear.

Union support for Democrats drops

In his endorsement in July, Lee Saunders, the president of the 1.4-million-member union American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), said the election was a "choice between an unstoppable champion for working families and an unstable charlatan who made his fortune scamming them."

USA Wahlkampf Hillary Clinton mit Lee Saunders im Las Vegas Convention Center (Getty Images/E. Miller)

AFSCME president Lee Saunders raises the hand of Hillary Clinton after she spoke at the union's 42nd International Convention on July 19, 2016.

Union members, however, were less certain that they faced such a clear-cut choice. A CNN exit poll showed that Trump won the support of 49 percent of union households, which includes union members and those who live with them. A Fox News poll showed Clinton with an 8-point margin over Trump. That represents a 10-point drop from the edge Obama had in 2012 and the weakest union support for a Democratic presidential candidate in 20 years.

Trump's appeal to workers

Why did so many union members put their faith in a billionaire real-estate developer whose famous line from his reality TV days was "you're fired"?

Trump made his pitch to both right and left-leaning union members. His anti-immigrant message reached many workers who fear that immigration will flood the market with labor, lowering wages and leading to job scarcity. And he also reached out to workers who had supported Bernie Sanders, the left-wing Democratic candidate and US senator with a pro-immigrant stance. Trump repeated Sanders' criticism of Clinton, pointing out that Wall Street investors and companies made major donations to her campaign and claiming she was beholden to them.

Trump has made his opposition to free-trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership central to his campaign. Both of these deals are major issues for the US labor movement.

What will Trump do as president?

According to Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of Labor Education Research at Cornell University, Trump's appeal to union members was insincere.

"Trump does not support unions," she told DW, adding that she predicted he may reward some of the conservative groups that endorsed him, such as the Fraternal Order of Police Union.

But Trump will not be a friend to the labor movement in general as his anti-immigrant and racist views threaten to alienate a large sector of workers, she said.

"The workforce is soon going to be majority people of color," Bronfenbrenner said."He could try to divide the labor movement."

USA streieknde Mitarbeiter vor dem Trump Taj Mahal Hotel in Atlantic City (picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Evans)

It's not just in Las Vegas that workers have tried to bring attention to Donald Trump's perceived anti-labor practices. Pictured above, employees of the Trump Taj Mahal hotel in Atlantic City went on strike in July, 2016.

Trump's running mate and Vice President-elect Mike Pence could also be an indication of how his administration will relate to unions. As governor of Indiana, Pence was crucial in upholding "right-to-work" legislation that is widely considered anti-union. It allows workers to opt out of paying union dues even if they benefit from union representation at their workplace.

Pence has also been consistent - unlike Trump - in his opposition to raising the minimum wage.

Labor unions will at least have two close allies in the Senate. Senator Sanders, who has had life-life ties to the labor movement, has pledged in a post-election speech to work with the President-elect only "to the degree that Mr. Trump is serious about pursuing policies that improve the lives of working families in this country."

Senator Elizabeth Warren, a left-wing senator from Massachusetts, has taken the same line as Sanders. Speaking at an AFL-CIO executive council meeting on Thursday she said that she will champion Trump's anti-Wall Street message, but warned that she will "fight back against attacks on Latinos, African Americans, women, Muslims, immigrants, disabled Americans - on anyone."

Possibly for workers. But not for unions

Besides an uncommon stance on trade, Trump's labor policies are generally consistent with the mainstream Republican platform. He claimed his policies such as infrastructure development and securing the border with Mexico will benefit workers by creating jobs and at the same time limiting the job market to current US citizens.

Whether Trump will make it harder for unions to represent these workers remains to be seen. How he chooses to respond to the 500 food service workers at his hotel in Las Vegas could be a first sign.

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