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                           Many Labour Households Voted For Trump 

                               But He's Governing For Their Bosses


By Brad James

In the 2016 U.S. election, Donald Trump won more support from union households than any Republican contender since Ronald Reagan.

But ten months after the new president’s inauguration, organized labour’s situation in the U.S. looks bleak. Any faint hopes from a few pundits that Mr. Trump’s populist appeals during the campaign contained a hint of genuine affinity for working people’s issues must surely now be gone. Instead, the campaign themes that have informed Mr. Trump’s attempts to govern are his fidelity to the concerns of employers and his empathies with xenophobes.

The new reality for U.S. unions and their members are President Trump’s conservative judicial picks, multiple erosions to workplace regulations, shackling of the National Labor Relations Board and a tax plan that comforts the better off. At the same time, though it did excite some union support, his threat of a sweeping pro-U.S. protectionist response on steel trade has been deferred.

Next, the U.S. Supreme Court will soon return to the issue of how U.S. law affects union security – the capacity of unions to fund their operations and services via dues and fees. If the Court rules for the plaintiff in the upcoming Janus case, public sector unions in the U.S. will no longer be able to collect fees from all the employees they are required to represent.  President Trump’s new appointment to the Court, Neil Gorsuch, is very likely to tip the balance of the Court in that direction.

And now some are encouraging Trump to go harder on the labour front, to gut the National Labor Relations Act with the artfully named Employee Rights Act, which would slow the already lengthy process required for union formation and set voting thresholds that would make union wins scarce.  After the administration's failure to advance its main goals, such as its repeated attempts to get rid of Obamacare, such actions might prove achievable and therefore tempting.

In hindsight and from our relatively comfortable perch north of the border, it is easy to pronounce that unions in the U.S. should have seen all of this coming.  But when faced with President Trump actually in the White House, what should U.S. unions have done – engage or oppose?  Consult or resist? Or both?

Some craft-based and construction unions seemed almost giddy to be noticed by the new president and pronounced themselves in tune with where they thought he was going. Other unions - teachers, nurses, and service sector workers - were fittingly distrustful and oppositional right off the bat.

Soon after the new president’s inauguration, the central U.S. labour federation declared an umpire’s stance. “Balls and strikes” would be how the Trump administration would be judged, said AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka.  But this summer Mr. Trumka very publicly jumped off of the Trump engagement track.  In a response to President Trump’s stance on the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Mr. Trumka loudly quit the White House’s manufacturing jobs council. He cited the federation’s conclusion that some key White House aides had in fact “turned out to be racist”. Not noted in the news reports was why this was at all a shocking discovery, given candidate Trump’s dog-whistle campaign and his past public record.

In contrast, consider some recent developments in Canada.

British Columbia’s new minority government is moving on labour law reform. Rachel Notley in Alberta has significantly chipped away at her province’s reputation for having some of the weakest labour legislation in Canada. In Quebec, labour has recently helped to slow Uber’s growth. At the federal level, some Stephen Harper era rollbacks to labour law have been repaired.

In Ontario, Bill 148 proposes some modest but likely durable gains for employee rights. Aside from the policy justifications for these reforms, the provincial Liberals hope to blunt NDP support in next spring’s Ontario election.

Still, unions in Canada should be wary of spillover effects into our politics from the U.S.  Twenty eight states, including Michigan, Ontario’s neighbor and biggest trading partner, now use "right to work" to attract investment and weaken labour’s bargaining leverage.  Union density in the U.S. hovers around 6% in the private sector, with some recent high profile organizing losses such as the UAW’s campaign at Nissan in Tennessee. 

Unions in Canada might soon need to consider getting over rivalries, pooling resources and coordinating smart efforts toward long-term growth.


Brad James is the Organizing Department Leader for the United Steelworkers Canadian National Office. Follow him on Twitter @jamesbrad263. Opinions expressed are his own. 

Posted date : October 02, 2017 NEWSROOM
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