Breaking down Trump’s union appeal
Julie Jacobson/AP

Donald Trump is the first recent Republican to reach out directly to working people and our unions.

Trump’s anti-TPP, anti-establishment rhetoric found union members to be a ready audience.   Wasn’t he saying exactly what we believe, in fact, what unions have been saying for decades?  The system is rigged against working people.  Whether it was attacking trade deals like NAFTA that gutted whole sectors of our economy, or Wall Street pulling Congress’ strings, Trump was giving voice to a generation of working people suffering through stagnating wages and diminished opportunity.  Working people know that the rug has been pulled out from under our standard of living and security.

Trump said he would get, “many, many union votes.”

So, in June, when we polled union members in Trump target states, we found that 41 percent supported him.  But today, only 33 percent support him, even as working people constitute the greatest share of his base.

–          In Ohio, his support declined from 44 percent to 33 percent.

–          In Pennsylvania, his support declined from 43 percent to 34 percent.

–          In Florida, his support declined from 37 percent to 30 percent.

Trump is actually running behind Mitt Romney with union members.  And bear in mind that about a third of union members self-identify as Republicans.

How did this happen?  The answer is straightforward.  Most working people learned first about Trump from television or the Internet.  Television coverage has focused almost entirely on the circus dimension of the election.  As a ratings magnet, Trump received wildly disproportionate coverage, with cable networks broadcasting his rallies live.  At those early rallies, Trump raged against a system that is broken for working people.

But then union members experienced something more.  Yes, they’ve seen those rallies too.  But because they are in unions, they also get the facts.  With the facts in hand they realized that Trump’s blue collar rhetoric is just a con.  Union members now know that Trump outsources his products and uses low-quality Chinese steel in his buildings.  Union members now know that Trump has routinely stiffed people working for him, and he won’t negotiate with newly unionized workers at his property in Las Vegas.  Union members now know that he surrounds himself with notorious union busters like Carl Icahn.  And union members now know that Trump is “100 percent” for “right to work”.

Union members have more than facts, we have each other.  Facts spread through union workplaces like wildfire.  And information has more credibility coming from trusted co-workers than they do from political ads or TV news.  Union workplaces have always been empowering democratic institutions that foster critical thinking.  In non-union workplaces, employers impose an environment where it’s everyone for themselves.

But union members understand the power we have when we act together.  We understand that the economy doesn’t just “happen” to us.  We understand that our fortunes depend on writing fair rules for the economy.  Today those rules favor the wealthiest few, but union members know it doesn’t have to be that way.

So, what are union members teaching us? That unions breed meaningful democratic discourse and political engagement – the very definition of citizenship. Unions are many things, and one of them is a powerful defense against demagogues like Donald Trump. The millions of conversations in union workplaces about this election should be a model for the nation.

Union members will vote for Hillary Clinton, and a better future.

Michael Podhorzer is the political director of the AFL-CIO.


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