Union workers for…Trump?

Self-proclaimed artist of the deal Donald Trump peddles himself as the most qualified candidate to “make America great again” because of his business bona fides.

He would have us believe his success in business and entertainment translates into the ability to manage an entire economy and, above all, to make our lives materially better–from the quality of our employment to the level of our wages.

Have these promises played like the sound of music to the ears of American workers?

The fact that Trump has been dismissed by many as a serious candidate and even sometimes labeled a fascist might lead one to believe his ascension to the role of working class hero an absolute impossibility. Nonetheless, the New York Times recently reported that Trump’s brand of putative populism has proven attractive to–you may be surprised to learn–unionized workers.

Service Employees International Union president Mary Kay Henry was cited as acknowledging Trump’s appeal to a layer of her brothers and sisters, explaining, “There is deep economic anxiety among our members and the people we’re trying to organize that I believe Donald Trump’s message is tapping into.” A Teamsters for Trump Facebook page underscores the reality of this dynamic.

So perhaps we need to look more closely at what kind of day-to-day economic life would be in store for working Americans should Trump or, frankly, any Republican assume the presidency. In other words, what would it look like for a businessman to be in charge of working people’s economic lives, to the extent a president can be? And what does Trump really stand for?

Trump flip flops

It can be hard to know if we just pay attention to his statements. It’s true that last December he tweeted, “Wages in are [sic] country are too low, good jobs are too few, and people have lost faith in our leaders. We need smart and strong leadership now!”

Prior to that, however, he had repeatedly and with great bravado declared variously that there should be no minimum wage, that it was too high, or, as he said quite clearly in the fourth Republican debate, that it should remain at $7.25 per hour.

Given these flip-flops, how do we understand Trump’s position?

But wait–there’s more. We also need to remember Trump’s statements to the Detroit News last August when he made clear his economic plan was about driving wages down. He notoriously revealed his ideas for assaulting the wages of supposedly overpaid autoworkers by closing and re-locating plants: “You can go to different parts of the United States and then ultimately you’d do full-circle–you’ll come back to Michigan because those guys are going to want their jobs back even if it is less. We can do rotation in the United States–it doesn’t have to be in Mexico.”

The objective is to make American workers so desperate and disempowered that they’ll work for even fewer crumbs from the proverbial cake corporate America eats but which the working class bakes.

Judging Trump by his deeds

But at which word should we take the so-called “populist” Trump? Luckily, we don’t really have to judge him by his words; we can judge him by his deeds.

Does Trump want to bring back the manufacturing jobs which have been exported to China, Mexico, and other countries? It has been well-documented that his line of ties is produced in China, and his signature line of menswear is manufactured in Mexico. Even as he rails against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Trump’s own behavior undermines U.S. workers by exploiting cheaper labor abroad.

Moreover, his hardline stance on immigration, which according to the Times has been reassuring to anxious union members worried about competition for jobs, is also more appropriately understood as anti-labor.

Where does Trump really stand on higher wages? Consider that workers at the Trump International Hotel in Las Vegas make three dollars less per hour than unionized workers at other hotels in town. And they have such poor health insurance (for which they pay) that many find themselves swamped in medical debt, according to Alice Ollstein‘s reporting for ThinkProgress. The unionized workers at other hotels, meanwhile, receive health insurance benefits as part of their compensation packages.

Art of the deal or anti-union zeal?

But might Trump support his workers’ efforts to engage in the “art of the deal” and collectively negotiate higher wages?

Well, no.

When they voted to unionize last December, the hotel’s management, of which Donald Trump’s son Eric is an executive vice-president, refused to recognize the union and demanded a federal labor board throw out the vote. Furthermore, they brought in the Lupe Cruz and Associates consulting firm, which boasts of its ability to preserve “a union-free workplace.” It has busted union campaigns at American Apparel, Conway Trucking, and a number of Hilton Hotels.

“They intimidated us a lot,” hotel worker Marisela Olvera told Ollstein. “I know I can’t speak ill of the place where I work, but I’m allowed to speak the truth, and the truth is that they pressured us a lot. They told us the union only wants our money, that if we supported the union we’d lose our jobs, that the company would put our names on a blacklist and no other hotels in Las Vegas would hire us. They told us to think of what our children would do if we were out of work. Everyone was very stressed. People were afraid. But bendito sea Dios, we still won.”

It’s hard to see from this example how Trump favors increasing wages or creating quality jobs. Rather, these business practices suggest an effort to make workplaces repressive, jobs unpleasant, and wages and benefits as negligible as possible. This anti-union stance suggests a lack of understanding–or perhaps a complete lack of care–about how to create quality jobs and bring workers into the middle class.

Strong unions, by contrast, clearly play a role in doing just this. As the New York Times has reported, the largest union in Las Vegas, Culinary Union Local 226, has catapulted thousands of dishwashers, maids and other workers into the middle class. “In most other cities,” the paper reports, “these workers live near the poverty line. But thanks in large part to the Culinary, in Las Vegas these workers often own homes and have Rolls-Royce health coverage, a solid pension plan and three weeks of vacation a year.”

Clearly then, unions play a clear and crucial role in improving jobs and wages. And they do it not with the willing cooperation of businesses like Trump’s, but through persistent struggle against the unrelenting resistance of corporate power.

Sick of “conventional politicians”

But what about government? This is where many of the union workers supporting Trump seem to place their disaffection. According to the Times, they like Trump because of his “unapologetically populist positions on certain economic issues, particularly trade; a frustration with the impotence of conventional politicians; and above all, a sense that he rejects the norms of Washington discourse.”

The issue in the minds of these workers isn’t on one of unions vs. business, but rather a choice between a businessman and the “conventional politicians” they believe have failed them.

Despite the fact that Trump has worked “cordially” with unionized construction workers in New Jersey, his behaviors demonstrate a clear antagonism to unions. How will this attitude translate to presidential politics?

Well, consider these facts: The federal minimum wage of $7.25, a result not of the willing cooperation of business but of hard-fought legislation, is far less in real wages than it was in 1968. Had the minimum wage kept pace with inflation since that time, it would now stand at $10.90. This means workers earning the minimum wage have effectively taken more than a 30 percent pay cut! At the same time, the CEO-to-average-worker pay ratio has increased from 20 to 1 to 300 to 1.

Left to their own devices, businesses have not felt the need to adjust wages despite soaring corporate profits and CEO salaries. Rather, we have seen a redistribution of wealth to the top rather than a sharing of the prosperity. The rising tide has clearly not lifted all boats.

Arguably, the government has not acted frequently enough to ensure prosperity is shared and workers are protected. It needs to be stressed, however, that President Obama’s administration and the Democratic leadership overall, at state and federal levels, have been the political forces pushing to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 (some local governments have legislated more, most notably Seattle) and also to ensure equal pay for women–even if the push isn’t forceful enough for some of us.

If not for Democratic legislators, and even more the grassroots mobilizations that have forced their hand, we would probably see no movement to raise wages from the business community. Indeed, we haven’t.

Thus, it is not the ineptitude or lack of care of “conventional politicians” that is failing workers and unions. It is Republican leaders in the government that are in league with and backed by corporate interests.

Whom would Trump appoint?

We also need to keep in mind the important role the president plays in determining the composition of the U.S. Supreme Court. The Friedrichs case currently in the justices’ hands, for instance, threatens to deal a substantial setback to unions and their ability to give the working class a voice in American politics.

Unions could be prohibited from collecting fair share dues from all the workers they represent, undermining their economic viability and hence their political strength. Early whispers are that the five ideologically conservative justices seem poised to overturn a 1977 decision that upheld the right of unions to collect fair share dues, or agency fees.

This delicate balance of power on the Court demonstrates how crucially important it is for workers to have a president who recognizes the rights and importance of unions in ensuring democracy and a fair economy.

The idea that Trump would do so because he runs a business strikes me as questionable, given that a CEO typically works to maximize profits by decreasing labor costs as much as possible. Running a business for the interests of shareholders and bosses is far different from running an economy designed to meet the needs of all.

Never mind the fact that managing a global political-economic system is a vastly more complex undertaking than running a business, requiring not just an ability to negotiate a deal but some deft diplomatic skills. Is it not clear that Trump woefully lacks such skills?

Moreover, his corporations have had the luxury of declaring bankruptcy on multiple occasions, a fact he tends to omit. If he asks for such a mulligan with the U.S. economy–and his track record suggests this likelihood–the result would be another Great Recession or Depression.

Obviously, the reality of Trump’s record of economic mismanagement poses a major threat to our national well-being should he get anywhere near the White House.

More to the point, though, I believe the record of his behavior provides more than a glimpse into how a Trump presidency–and frankly any anti-union presidency–would seek to shape American economic and political reality.  This reality would feature ever-diminishing democratic rights for citizens, fewer economic and political rights for the mass of ordinary Americans, and social and work environments ruled through terror and intimidation.

And, of course, lower wages.

Photo: Wayne Parry/AP


Tim Libretti
Tim Libretti

Tim Libretti teaches in the English Department at a public university in Chicago where he lives with his two sons.