St. Louis union members react to election results
In this 2015 photo, Gregg Smith, business manager of IUPAT District Council 58, address guests and media and the “Industrial Athlete” launch event in St. Louis as Mayor Francis Slay (left, in red tie) and community leader Demetrious Johnson (right) look on. | Painters District 58 photo

ST. LOUIS — Painting apprentices Emmanuel, 30, and Robert, 31, looked tired and confused upon entering the grey brick building in Southside St. Louis. Election night was filled with interrupted sleep and unexpected emotions for these two students as the country elected Donald J. Trump president.

Taking their seats at the front of the room, the two watched as the projector showed Hillary Clinton’s concession speech.

As she stood there, thanking staff for their hard work and apologizing for not winning, Emmanuel bowed his head and clasped his hands in prayer, while Robert quipped about how much hatred was being shown towards Hillary’s speech on Facebook.

For these two African-American men, this election was just another reminder of the racial and socio-economic injustice they face daily.

In the classroom

“I don’t like Trump at all,” Robert said. “But I don’t like Hillary either. I feel that the Democrats have been letting down Black communities for a long time.”

Emmanuel nodded in agreement.

“I didn’t care for either of them,” he said. “But I don’t remember [Clinton] ever going into Black communities and churches. I know Trump did it probably for all the wrong reasons, but at least he pretended to make an effort.”

Complex motives

What forces drive Emmanuel’s and Robert’s reasoning?

Robert is guided by his desire to create a better future for his son. He’s worked union jobs in the service and construction trades; yet he says he has never felt like a full union member. He says he faced racism and prejudice within an institution he believed was there to protect him.

He left those union jobs and spent time in random temporary positions before entering the Painters’ Union’s Advanced Skill Workforce Center in St. Louis.

His goal is to become a journeyman painter, he told me, but the fear that he will be the first to go on “layoff status” or not get called back to a job site because of the color of his skin is still real.

Unions, as working class institutions, have nearly always supported the Democratic Party. And while organized labor may point to historic victories, it has failed to address the problems of racism and sexism within its halls – a vulnerability that the Trump campaign took full advantage of.

In reality, “working class” doesn’t just mean white. It is a term applicable to all human beings who labor away to live a decent life.

Emmanuel says he is guided by faith and the desire to change the world. Like Robert, he has faced the same issues in the workplace-in union and non-union settings-but it’s not anger that he feels. It’s sadness.

“I don’t think we should destroy the political system,” he said, “we just need to come together in order to fix things. I just wish more time and effort would be spent on organizing and educating our communities. Not just when we are needed to win an election.”

Robert said, “You know Bernie would have beat Trump.”

“I may not like Republicans,” said Emmanuel, “but I have to give them credit for letting the voters choose their candidate. The Democrats lost because they sabotaged Bernie, the candidate people really wanted.”

Robert added that he did not know what Bernie Sanders did during the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s; but said Sanders at least stood with Black people during the Civil Rights Movement. “Unlike Hillary, who started in politics by working on that Republican Goldwater’s campaign.”

“We’re basically voting for two Republicans,” said Emmanuel. “One’s just not as extreme as the other.”

Emmanuel went on: “We’ve been forced to accept things since this country was founded. Do we have to accept this? No, because we’re going to educate our communities, join unions and fight Trumpism from the inside.”

To find out more about how others were feeling, People’s World went to a local healthcare union made up primarily of African-Americans’ working in the largest and toughest industry.

The union hall

An emergency meeting was taking place immediately after the election. Members from different divisions came together to discuss next steps following an election that saw not only Trump elected, but a Republican Governor, Eric Greitens, who plans on making Missouri a so-called right-to-work state.

“I’m so worried about what is going to happen next,” said Paula Jones, 49, an active union member for over 15 years and union representative for the union’s hospital division. “Everything we [members] fought for and won is about go away. I don’t know if we’re ready for the biggest fight of our lives.”

During a break, a handful of members rushed over to give their thoughts.

Jerome, 50, spoke first.

“I’m sad but not surprised,” he said. “It just seems like this was a set-up. The Democrats knew Bernie could beat Trump and they still let Hillary become the nominee. It smells funny but that’s politics as usual.”

Standing 6’3 and calling himself the “big white guy in the room,” Dan, 51, said he wasn’t sure how to feel. “I just don’t know.”

“Everyone is freaking out now and I just think we need to let things settle for a bit,” he continued. “There’s too much work to do in the next 4 years, too many local fights and it doesn’t make sense to waste our energy now. We just gotta organize.”

Barb, 45, said, “I just can’t understand how people voted for him after all those terrible things he said about women and black communities. I guess people just wanted something different and he was the only option.”

They work at the same hospital facing the same problems within their department. Dan said that “as long as we stand up for each other there’s no problem we can’t take on.”

Members of this small union filled with people from all parts of St. Louis seemed confident they would find their own Trump/Greitens antidote in the coming years.

Terry, a 54-year-old union painter, taking his mid-afternoon smoke break in the parking lot, sees it differently.

Disbelief still showing in his eyes, he said that he didn’t understand how hard-working union members outside of St. Louis voted for Trump.

“We [the labor movement] need to get our shit together. If not, we’ll just keep losing.”


Al Neal
Al Neal

Award winning journalist Al Neal is PW associate editor for labor and politics. He is also the chief photographer for People's World. He is a member of the Chicago News Guild, Society of Professional Journalists, Professional Photographers of America, National Sports Media Association, and The Ernest Brooks Foundation.