Is trade more complex than union leaders have said it is?
Harley Davidson bosses say that Trump tariffs are forcing them to make their iconic American product overseas. Union workers are not so sure. | M.L. Johnson/AP

From 2002 to 2013 I served as sole editor of Wisconsin’s second largest home-delivered newspaper, the monthly Milwaukee Labor Press, during a roiling temper tantrum in the state. Many of our stories were about disputes among unions even more than the out-reach articles about politics and health coverage. This was before and during Obamacare and Gov. Scott Walker’s Act 10 – a hot time.

The union love-hate relationship with the corporate bosses at Harley Davidson was something frequently covered. They and the USW cooperated vigorously in United Way while the steelworkers and machinists sorted out problems or flat disagreed with the corporate profit maneuvers. But at least there was lip service between the sides.

Trump’s taxes – also known as tariffs – have broken the disputes out in the open, in ways many did not expect.  Corporate is opposing Trump’s tariffs while many workers support them though it may cost their jobs.

Harley has for years built motorcycles in offshore plants, to the anger of American workers. But Harley’s own figures anticipate a genuine financial hardship in Europe, their second largest market for cycles.  Building at existing plants in Brazil and India avoids the crippling tariffs on cycles built in the US.  The financial difference? Tariff style costs would rise from 6 percent to 31percent, adding about $2,200 per motorcycle shipped to Europe, unless the US was removed from the equation.

Yet many Harley workers suggest in national media and my own local interviews that they side with Trump imposing tariffs even if at Harley it’s going to cost them their jobs. The hardship of the trade wars, which could cost thousands of US jobs versus the hundreds initially gained from tariffs on Chinese steel and aluminum, doesn’t seem to matter to them – not as long as the general economy remains good.

Veteran union leaders quietly wonder if some of that pro-Trump attitude – for a president whose distastes for union strength is palpable —  is their own fault.  They are musing about how they motivated these workers over 30 years – certainly by attacking NAFTA and other trade deals and pleading for tariffs on Chinese goods.

Is that now part of today’s embedded mistrust for politicians and embrace of a maverick celebrity? Did we, they are asking themselves, put emotional vindication ahead of sensible steps for the national economy?

Did their take about imposing tariffs on Chinese steel and aluminum, which were undercutting the US market and American jobs, give rise to satisfaction even when a hatchet was applied to the concept rather than the surgical scalpel envisioned?

In Ohio, Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, an ardent union supporter who has been fighting for tariffs, is caught up in the dilemma, facing re-election in a state with strong Trump ties. He supports the tariffs but longed for a carve-out for allies like Canada and Europe, who are now retaliating with tariffs of their own.  The scalpel he envisioned was not employed. A butcher took over for the surgeon.

Issues of the environment versus jobs, or of futuristic desires versus harsh realities, have long troubled the labor movement. Unions are first of all about protecting jobs of members by pushing for higher wages and decent working conditions.  The power of that effort is obvious in the right wing fears – the surge toward “right to work” laws in many states attacking those gains.  The campaign from the right has also played a part in recent horrible decisions – evolved over four decades of hiding the facts from American voters — by the US Supreme Court, which ruled that the provider of negotiating services should not be paid for that labor.

But recent history is suggesting some problems in how unions sold their members on their idealism, worries that it was more about the Democrats than solidarity and collective bargaining.  At least that was how it came out to some white workers worried about patriotism, their own families, their own jobs. The right has made a lot of hay about the tendency of union members to push their own acquaintances forward when union openings arise, leading to criticism about selfishness. Yet for decades, many unions, particularly public service ones, have done a far better job on this issue, reaching out to the African American and Hispanic communities where they may not have had legacy members.

There is also the issue of education on economic issues. “We made such a big deal about the horrors of NAFTA,” mused one retired state union leader, “that I wonder if we didn’t educate voters enough about the nature of global trade.  There were nuances we shrugged off.”

Why, he continued, didn’t we better explain our insistence on higher wages in other countries if they wanted a trade deal – that was intended as solidarity and lifting up foreign workers, today often painted as a barrier to global trade rather than a valuable condition.

Why didn’t we want any president to have lone authority over trade deals?

Several union leaders contacted are asking themselves these questions. “Did we unintentionally open the door a crack to a Trump?” one asked me.

My reaction was how unusual it was to hear that criticism from these sources.  In my experience, union leaders are cautious about talking about social issues – especially to the press.  Their main job is to defend their workers and even if they don’t like some developing attitudes, they are closer to the ground and the human feelings of the workers.

Mostly they insisted to me over the years that when it comes to voting their members are self-correcting – and indeed a surprising number of Harley workers who supported Trump on tariffs told me they were “no” votes for Scott Walker as governor and for many of Trump’s other policies.

So the picture of support is not as clear as Trump trumpets.  But there remains for white union workers in particular a question — whether the unions haven’t a role in the stubborn simplicity they cling to in government policies.


Dominique Paul Noth
Dominique Paul Noth

Dominique Paul Noth for the past decade was editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press and website, He now writes as an independent journalist on culture and politics.