Organized labor's Trump predicament
President Trump and unions might agree on NAFTA, but in other areas, they’re far apart.
Empty factory floors. High-paying jobs shipped to Mexico and overseas. Once-thriving Rust Belt towns hollowed out and left for dead.
Those are the images Donald Trump painted during his unlikely rise to the presidency. Trump was describing what he saw as the effects of decades of poorly negotiated free-trade deals, presenting himself as an economic nationalist who would bring good-paying manufacturing jobs back to the U.S.
In describing free trade as harmful to the American worker, Trump aligned himself with the longtime view of organized labor, which has fought free trade for decades, even as presidents they endorsed signed new agreements into place.
Now, as Trump pursues his renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, labor unions such as the UAW find themselves in a precarious spot: How do they work with the president to pursue their decades-long goal of overhauling NAFTA while maintaining enough distance to oppose him on a variety of other measures?
The answer could have ramifications for how the UAW approaches Trump over the next four or eight years — and to the potential alliances unions could strike with traditional foes.
UAW President Dennis Williams told reporters this month that he plans to set up a meeting with the president to discuss NAFTA.
“Corporations have been taking advantage of cheap labor here in North America, which is something, quite frankly, the American people are fed up with,” Williams said, echoing critiques Trump has made in the past. The UAW had endorsed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in the presidential race and campaigned against Trump.
“Changes to NAFTA will fundamentally affect the auto industry, and that’s a core interest of the UAW,” said Kristin Dziczek, director of the Industry, Labor and Economics Group at the Center for Automotive Research. “It’s not surprising that they would want to get involved” in discussions with Trump.
Friendliness with Trump on trade, if not elsewhere, even extends north of the border to Canada, where Unifor President Jerry Dias says Trump’s trade talk has blown open the doors to renegotiate NAFTA.
“He ran on an anti-establishment ticket and it resonated,” Dias said. “You know why? Because working class people understood what he said, that trade deals implemented in so many areas have not been good for American workers. And in that respect, and in that respect only, I agree.”
To be sure, Trump’s policy stances aside from trade mostly do not align with traditional labor stances. Trump is opposed to raising the minimum wage, is in favor of a national right-to-work law and has taken steps to kill an overtime rule passed by the Obama administration.
But it was his trade rhetoric, at least in part, that allowed him to score the highest share of union voters for a Republican presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan. That helped him to flip Rust Belt states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania — traditional centers of union power — and win the Electoral College. A third of UAW members voted for Trump, while 8 percent voted for neither major-party candidate, Williams said.
For unions, “Trump is a mixed bag on jobs,” said Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, in an email. “An infrastructure program could be very positive and so could trade policies that reduce the trade deficit. … On wages, he isn’t calling for the things that would help. Rather, he’s mostly doing the opposite.”
Trump has met with building trades unions and the National Border Patrol Council since taking office, groups that tend to be more conservative in their policy agendas than most others.
But Trump has stayed largely silent on labor unions as president during public appearances. That was even true on Feb.17 when he held a campaignlike rally at a Boeing plant in South Carolina that had just rejected unionization.
Some union leaders suspect that is part of a strategy on Trump’s part to “divide and conquer” organized labor, which has been a reliable voting bloc and fundraiser for the Democratic Party for decades.
“They have a narrow view of who constitutes the working class,” said Hector Figueroa, president of the Service Employees International Union’s East Coast property services affiliate. Trump is “hoping that unions are going to just be quiet, seeking to have some avenue to pursue their interests,” he said.
That puts the UAW and other unions in a difficult spot. On one hand, Trump presents an opportunity for leadership to achieve a major goal on trade while reaching out to members that supported him.
But speaking out too hard against policies it deems unfriendly to American labor could provoke a backlash — not only from Trump, but also from membership that voted for him.
Bloomberg contributed to this report.