Trump Shrewdly Exploits the Labor Movement Divide

President Donald Trump poses with labor leaders on January 23, 2017 in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, DC.Getty Images

New Orleans   Depending on what papers you read, you might have seen a picture of President Trump meeting with business executives or on the other hand a picture of him meeting with union leaders. All of the pictures featured grinning, older white men in nice suits, so please read the captions carefully so you know who you looking at, even if you can’t see much difference in what they are saying.

Trump’s big play yesterday was removing the United States as a signatory to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal with Japan, Canada, and a number of other countries. This has been a contentious issue for labor and the left. The AFL-CIO and particularly legacy manufacturing unions like the UAW and Steelworkers have long opposed the TPP and similar trade deals as job killers for workers and unfair dumping grounds for cheaper products. It was a signature platform promise of Senator Bernie Sanders as well. Interviewing Larry Cohen, former president of the Communication Workers on the radio, he maintained that his participation in Sanders’ campaign and his union’s maverick endorsement of Sanders over Hillary Clinton was largely prompted by Sanders’ opposition to TPP.

The labor leaders in the White House yesterday were giddy after their meeting with Trump. One, on exiting, described the meeting as the best he had ever had in his career with the union. Reports of the meeting, including glowing remarks about Trump from the Teamsters’ Hoffa and the Carpenters’ McCarron, leave little doubt that this was a meeting that focused on something that Trump knows something about and where, as a New York City based builder, he has long experience with unions, and that is construction. Discussions about infrastructure expenditures for constructing pipelines, bridges, airports, highways, and other big ticket items are the bread-and-butter of the building trades’ councils and their member unions, meaning happy members paying working dues. The membership of the trades, like their leadership, are still, even in the 21st century, mainly white and mainly men, so this is right in the Trump wheelhouse. In the age of Trump, we may read a lot about new right-to-work legislation, but we’re not hearing a peep about repealing Davis-Bacon, which is the building trades’ life-support system on higher, prevailing wages for construction.

Manufacturing unions have been bleeding from the downsizing of automation, trade, and disinvestment, but that doesn’t change the fact that building trades unions are the smallest part of the shrinking labor movement and often at odds with both the manufacturing unions as well as the service unions that have become the major driving force of the labor movement. The divide between service-sector unions in healthcare, public service, education, retail, and elsewhere and the construction unions is huge, and no matter how masked by claims of ongoing solidarity, this distinction and the lingering political and cultural separations were at the heart of the division into competing labor federations. In service unions the membership and many of the unions are led by women, immigrants, and the non-white, and diversity of all kinds is their watchword. The building trades’ unions impulse is to protect what they have for their existing members so that there are fewer workers sitting on the bench at their hiring halls, and many times they see their charge as keeping other workers out of their industries. The workers outside the hall are largely irrelevant to them, if they can hold on to their work, while service workers have to grow or be overwhelmed by the unorganized, and construction workers try to build a fort with a moat around them.

Trump may not have formally declared war on all unions or all of labor, but he’s been around the blocks of Manhattan, and he knows full well how to divide the already sagging house of labor. With the enthusiasm of the construction unions, we’re about to watch him do so.

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