America’s blue-collar unions just had their best week in years. On his first Monday as president, Donald Trump formally withdrew the United States from what union leaders considered a jobs-killing trade deal, the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). Later in the week, labor honchos met in the White House with Trump to discuss his plans for a massive infrastructure-building program that will likely employ tens of thousands of workers. Trump also signed orders that potentially revived the Keystone XL and Dakota pipelines—two projects that trade unions have heavily backed but that the Obama administration had refused to approve.
The union leaders, whose membership once constituted the core of the Democratic Party, were effusive in their praise of a president who knows their business perhaps better than anyone who’s ever held the office. “We believe that President Trump really is going to put America first,” said Sean McGarvey, president of North America’s Building Trades Unions, after the White House meeting.
Trump, a Republican, continues to scramble assumptions about American political allegiances. Right-to-work legislation that would enable employees to opt out of joining unions is advancing in two states where control recently shifted to the GOP—New Hampshire and Missouri. Trump has said that he’s sympathetic with such laws. Republican governors and legislatures have also been at the forefront of opposing union-backed efforts to raise the minimum wage, and Trump agreed with that strategy during the campaign. But if the president’s party affiliation presented a dilemma for the union leaders who visited the Oval Office, they hardly showed it.
Trump has consistently pushed an optimistic, pro-growth message to blue-collar union workers and their leaders, who have always benefitted the most when the American economy is humming. That’s in stark contrast to the Democratic administration of the last eight years, which championed redistributionist policies at the cost of economic growth, passed health-care legislation that still threatens union insurance plans, and whose alignment with environmentalists clouded the outlook for the opportunity-rich oil, gas, and transportation industries. Not surprisingly, blue-collar unions continued losing members for three years after the 2008 recession ended, and today they remain nearly 1 million members below their pre-recession peak.
In recent years, trade unions have grown increasingly dissatisfied with the Democratic Party. Democrats urged them to support passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, which they did. Three years later, though, the presidents of the Teamsters and two other blue-collar unions fired off a letter to Democratic congressional leaders arguing for Obamacare’s repeal. “We can no longer stand silent in the face of elements of the Affordable Care Act that will destroy the very health and well-being of our members,” they wrote. Similarly, Democrats promised the trade unions a bounty of “green” jobs helping to build “clean” infrastructure as America went about transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Instead, the so-called BlueGreen Alliance led the opposition to Keystone, prompting the head of the Laborers International Union to accuse the group of having “kicked our members in the teeth.”
Behind the trade unions’ dissatisfaction is a simple fact: the modern Democratic Party no longer resembles the one that nurtured the union movement when it was largely composed of blue-collar, private-sector workers. In 1955, George Meany, who was in the process of completing the merger that created the AFL-CIO, wrote in the New York Times that business leaders’ fears that the labor movement was driving the country toward collectivism were overblown. In response to claims that he and his fellow labor leaders were in favor of big government or nationalization, he answered, “Nothing could be further from the truth.” Years later, Meany led a contingent of pro-growth labor leaders to the Kennedy White House to urge the president to stimulate the economy and create jobs by cutting taxes.
Today, however, the union movement pushes a different agenda. Nearly half of all members are government workers, unsympathetic to the concerns of trade unions and favoring bigger government and more regulation. Many other union members are nominally private-sector workers employed in industries, such as health care, that government heavily subsidizes. Of the 14.7 million union members in America, only 4.1 million, or about 28 percent, work in blue-collar industries: construction, manufacturing, transportation, and repair and maintenance. Some of these unions have gradually decided to go their own way. After the disastrous experience with Obamacare, trade unions representing carpenters and operating engineers backed dozens of Republican candidates in the 2014 midterm elections. Republican governors like John Kasich and Chris Christie also won support in their reelection bids from blue-collar unions, even as their public-sector counterparts worked furiously to defeat them.
But none of these departures was as striking as the lavish praise heaped on Trump last week. “The details we just heard from the president, we’re very excited about,” McGarvey said. That Trump managed to elicit such enthusiasm by formally killing TPP, and without repudiating his own party’s domestic economic policies, illustrates how little the new Democratic Party has to offer members of blue-collar trade unions.
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