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The Union Members Who Voted for Trump Have to Be Organized—Not Ignored

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Although Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump will be leav­ing the White House, pro­gres­sives must reck­on with the fact that 74 mil­lion peo­ple?—?almost a third of whom came from house­holds mak­ing under $50,000—vot­ed for him. It is alarm­ing that so many work­ing-class peo­ple would vote against their class inter­ests, but per­haps most alarm­ing of all are the union mem­bers who were drawn in by Trump­ism. Before the 2016 elec­tion, Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates had long won union house­holds by com­fort­able dou­ble-dig­it mar­gins; but in 2016 and 2020, Trump erod­ed those mar­gins. If the Left is to win pro­gres­sive poli­cies (and the next pres­i­den­tial elec­tion), it needs a mil­i­tant labor move­ment. Unions, after all, are one of the only effec­tive work­ing-class insti­tu­tions in this coun­try that can engage work­ers to build pow­er on the job and in soci­ety at large. We must under­stand who these union Trump vot­ers are, why they vot­ed for Trump, and what can be done to win them back. 

Many on the Left have writ­ten off Trump sup­port­ers as a lost cause or unwor­thy of effort. This response is under­stand­able, par­tic­u­lar­ly for peo­ple of col­or and oth­ers direct­ly harmed by Trump poli­cies. And we should by no means court the vocal sub­set of Trump­ists who are vir­u­lent white supremacists. 

But most Amer­i­cans hold a con­fus­ing mix of polit­i­cal beliefs that will nev­er fit square­ly with­in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic and Repub­li­can par­ties. When the group Work­ing Amer­i­ca held in-depth con­ver­sa­tions with more than 2,300work­ing-class vot­ers in so-called bat­tle­ground states in 2016 and 2017, it found that beliefs didn’t map to par­ty lines: Vot­ers believed in both expand­ing the coal indus­try and pro­tect­ing the envi­ron­ment; in both uni­ver­sal health­care and keep­ing out ?“free­load­ing” refugees; in both ban­ning abor­tion and low­er­ing health­care costs. A 2019 poll from the Kaiser Fam­i­ly Foun­da­tion and Cook Polit­i­cal Report found that, in bat­tle­ground states, 70% of respon­dents sup­port­ed a path­way to cit­i­zen­ship for undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grants and yet 71% felt it was a bad idea not to detain peo­ple who crossed the bor­der with­out doc­u­men­ta­tion. Not every issue dri­ves vot­ing behav­ior: 70% of Amer­i­cans sup­port Medicare for All, and yet the pres­i­den­tial can­di­date cham­pi­oning the pol­i­cy (Sen. Bernie Sanders) came up short. 

If the goal of reach­ing out to Trump vot­ers is to acti­vate their pro­gres­sive beliefs strong­ly enough to influ­ence their vot­ing behav­ior, then union Trump vot­ers should be a promis­ing place to start. A good union nat­u­ral­ly ties the fate of the work­er to oth­ers, a pow­er­ful counter-nar­ra­tive to the rugged indi­vid­u­al­ism our soci­ety (and Trump) pro­motes. Union mem­bers are also (the­o­ret­i­cal­ly) trained and expe­ri­enced in fight­ing their boss­es. Being part of a strug­gle against a boss means reliance on fel­low work­ers, regard­less of race and gen­der and oth­er social divi­sions. Unions them­selves, of course, need to embark on a far-reach­ing pro­gram for mem­ber­ship to put these strug­gles in con­text?—?one that doesn’t shy away from tough ques­tions in fear of upset­ting a (ten­u­ous) sense of unity. 

Dis­cus­sions around immi­gra­tion and racism, for exam­ple, are chal­leng­ing in their own right but have become espe­cial­ly charged since Trump took office. Avoid­ing these top­ics may pre­serve a sense of uni­ty in the short term but dam­ages the long-term abil­i­ty of work­ers to forge sol­id bonds of sol­i­dar­i­ty and orga­nize to fight against racism and social pro­grams like Medicare for All. 

To under­stand how unions might reach the union Trump vot­er, we can look at how sim­i­lar efforts have suc­ceed­ed and failed?—?and get to know union Trump vot­ers themselves. 

The Trump Unionist

Tony Rei­tano, 49, works in main­te­nance at a Bridge­stone plant in Iowa. He is a mem­ber of the Unit­ed Steel­work­ers and vot­ed for Trump in 2016 and 2020. Rei­tano tells In These Times, ?“I liked what [Trump] said about trade deals in 2016; that was a big thing for me … bring­ing jobs back to Amer­i­ca.” He adds, ?“And this time around, [Trump] did, or tried to accom­plish, all of the things he said he was going to do … like back­ing away from the [Trans-Pacif­ic Part­ner­ship].” (The Unit­ed Steel­work­ers, which endorsed Biden in 2020 and Clin­ton in 2016, oppos­es the trade deal, on the grounds that jobs would be lost.)

Trump vot­ers often cite their con­cern with jobs and wages as the rea­son they vot­ed for him. While most vot­ers rank the econ­o­my as one of their most impor­tant issues, 84% of Trump vot­ers rat­ed the econ­o­my as ?“very impor­tant” in 2020, com­pared to Biden sup­port­ers’ 66%.

Lynne (who didn’t want her last name used for fear of social retal­i­a­tion), 62, is a retired teacher and union mem­ber in the sub­urbs of Philadel­phia. A reg­is­tered Inde­pen­dent, Lynne vot­ed for Oba­ma in 2008, moved by his mes­sage of hope and change. Like Rei­tano, she was drawn to Trump in 2016by his eco­nom­ic promis­es?—?and vot­ed Trump again in 2020. ?“You can’t care about oth­er poli­cies if you’re wor­ried about los­ing your house or if your chil­dren don’t have food or if your heat may get turned off,” Lynne tells In These Times. ?“Hav­ing shel­ter and food is everyone’s num­ber one con­cern. And with Trump, we had the low­est unem­ploy­ment rate in this coun­try … for every­one, includ­ing Lati­nos and Blacks.”

Trump clear­ly under­stood that a strong eco­nom­ic mes­sage would be the key to vic­to­ry, boast­ing about the unem­ploy­ment rate on the 2020 cam­paign trail. But the Trump unem­ploy­ment rate only decreased slight­ly before the pan­dem­ic, and like­ly because of Oba­ma-era poli­cies. Mean­while, wage growth has stag­nat­ed or declined for the bot­tom 70% of work­ers since the 1970s and the Job Qual­i­ty Index (a proxy for the over­all health of the U.S. jobs mar­ket) fell sig­nif­i­cant­ly after 2006 and nev­er recovered.

Amid this uncer­tain­ty, Trump par­layed eco­nom­ic con­cerns into his brand of racism to dri­ve white vot­ers. Of course, many Trump vot­ers do not con­sid­er Trump an ardent racist. For exam­ple, Ernie Jus­tice, 76, a retired coal min­er in Ken­tucky, tells In These Times that ?“there’s not a racist drop of blood in Don­ald Trump.” Like Lynne, Jus­tice also vot­ed for Oba­ma and lat­er Trump. Lynne, too, says she ?“doesn’t real­ly see the racism.” Demonstrators at a #StopTheSteal rally line the streets in support of President Donald Trump on November 7, 2020, in Carson City, Nev. Despite no evidence of voter fraud, Trump has insisted since the election that victory was stolen from him by various outside forces. Trump made gains against Democrats by winning a higher proportion of union votes—a former Democratic bastion—than any previous Republican candidate since Reagan. 

But Trump cer­tain­ly asso­ci­at­ed the decline in qual­i­ty of life expe­ri­enced by white work­ers with not only the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, but immi­grants and oth­er peo­ple of col­or. George Goehl, direc­tor of the nation­al grass­roots orga­niz­ing net­work People’s Action, says ?“Democ­rats’ lack of will­ing­ness to name the ene­my?—?run­away cor­po­rate pow­er?—?just left a huge vac­u­um for the Right to use race and immigration.”

While Repub­li­cans authored the so-called right-to-work leg­is­la­tion that has under­mined union orga­niz­ing, Democ­rats are the pro­po­nents of the free trade agree­ments that have decreased wages and off-shored jobs. Decades of eco­nom­ic dev­as­ta­tion?—?includ­ing loss of good union jobs in the Rust Belt, fac­to­ries mov­ing abroad and stag­nant wages— opened a door for Trump to step through. Goehl says peo­ple have ?“clear­ly been punched in the gut tons of times by neolib­er­al­ism”?—?and Trump’s cam­paign cap­i­tal­ized on that by promis­ing to bring back man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs.

This land­scape is dif­fi­cult for both unions and the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. While union lead­er­ship has thrown its weight behind Democ­rats in hopes of bet­ter orga­niz­ing ter­rain, estab­lish­ment Democ­rats are caught between unions and their party’s alle­giance to big busi­ness. And the Democ­rats have a his­to­ry of mak­ing labor promis­es they don’t keep. In 2008, Oba­ma ran on pass­ing the Employ­ee Free Choice Act, which would have made the process of union­iza­tion faster and eas­i­er?—?but didn’t cham­pi­on the bill once elect­ed. And unions, which are no match for lob­by­ing efforts by giant cor­po­ra­tions like Wal­mart or Home Depot, couldn’t win the law alone. Repeat­ed dis­ap­point­ments have led union mem­bers to lose faith in insti­tu­tions they once held dear.

That loss of faith played out in the 2016 and 2020 elec­tions. After unions spent record amounts on cam­paigns to defeat Trump, Hillary Clin­ton won union house­holds by only 8% in 2016 (to Obama’s 18% in 2012), a small enough mar­gin to cost her Penn­syl­va­nia, Michi­gan and Wis­con­sin (and the elec­tion). And after unions broke that 2016 record in 2020, Biden won union house­holds by 16% (and won those three states back), but Trump won union house­holds in Ohio by 12% (which Oba­ma had won by 23%). Unions can spend huge amounts of mon­ey and mobi­lize the votes of a (declin­ing) por­tion of their mem­bers, but to keep those mem­bers from slip­ping away, they’ll need to do much more.

A Bat­tle of Ideas

Each of the three Trump vot­ers who spoke with In These Times for this sto­ry men­tioned jobs and the econ­o­my as big issues, but all inde­pen­dent­ly shared con­cerns about open bor­ders, lat­er abor­tions, and the creep of social­ism and com­mu­nism. These issues are dis­cussed near­ly con­stant­ly on Fox News and by con­ser­v­a­tive radio per­son­al­i­ties like Rush Lim­baugh and Sean Han­ni­ty. And as trust of the media is at an almost all-time low, many Trump sup­port­ers only tune into media that reflects what they already believe?—?just as cen­trist and lib­er­al Democ­rats watch CNN or MSNBC. Nev­er mind that the U.S.-Mexico bor­der wall was start­ed under Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton, lat­er abor­tions are exceed­ing­ly rare and most social­ist orga­niz­ing is about basic rights, like health­care and a liv­ing wage.

The con­stant onslaught of hate­ful mes­sages from rightwing media and the war waged against the work­ing class by the rich has led U.S. work­ers into a fog of con­fu­sion with­out an ide­o­log­i­cal bea­con to help clar­i­fy and fight back. The unions that have sur­vived have become more insu­lar, increas­ing­ly focused on the imme­di­ate issues of their own mem­bers, tak­ing a con­ces­sion­ary approach that treats boss­es like coali­tion part­ners. If the Left and unions hope to make appeals to union Trump vot­ers (and oth­er sec­tions of the work­ing class), this strat­e­gy must change.

Unions need to cut through the right-wing fog of dis­in­for­ma­tion by offer­ing edu­ca­tion­al pro­grams of their own to explain the sys­temic prob­lems caus­ing the decline in work­ers’ con­di­tions. One mod­el, offered by People’s Action, has shown that talk­ing with Trump sup­port­ers about sys­temic issues can effec­tive­ly shift atti­tudes. Begin­ning in 2017, George Goehl and People’s Action embarked on a rur­al and small-town orga­niz­ing project, focused on ?“deep can­vass­ing,” to show white peo­ple how sys­temic racism is real and active­ly harm­ing them and their com­mu­ni­ties. (Some of these peo­ple are union mem­bers, though many are not.) While many (espe­cial­ly non­white) peo­ple on the Left find it dif­fi­cult to have con­ver­sa­tions with Trump sup­port­ers (fear­ing abuse or just afraid of wast­ed ener­gy), Goehl sees the talks as cru­cial. ?“While you are much more like­ly to live in pover­ty if you are Black or Lati­no, the largest group of peo­ple liv­ing in pover­ty are white peo­ple,” Goehl says. ?“And a Left say­ing, ?‘We are not going to be in rela­tion­ship with the largest group of peo­ple liv­ing in pover­ty’ … seems nuts.” 

People’s Action has had near­ly 10,000 con­ver­sa­tions in rur­al areas since the 2016 elec­tion, most­ly with Oba­ma vot­ers who flipped to Trump. While immi­gra­tion is a con­tro­ver­sial issue all over the coun­try (includ­ing inside the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty), objec­tion to a wider immi­gra­tion pol­i­cy is high­er in rur­al areas, pre­sum­ably because of the ease of blam­ing immi­grants for a lack of jobs. Dur­ing their deep can­vass­es, People’s Action orga­niz­ers found that the mos­tused word was ?“lack,” and that eco­nom­ic inse­cu­ri­ty rever­ber­at­ed through all respons­es. ?“When we asked peo­ple who they saw as respon­si­ble for the declin­ing con­di­tions,” Goehl says, ?“peo­ple were able to pick mul­ti­ple answers, and 41% of peo­ple said undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grants, but 81% [said] a gov­ern­ment encap­tured by corporations.”

Onah Ossai, an orga­niz­er with Penn­syl­va­nia Stands Up, which is affil­i­at­ed with People’s Action, tells In These Times, ?“Peo­ple at the top [are] using race and class to divide us so that they can turn around and pick our pock­ets. … Every­one [whose door we knock on] agrees with that.”

Melis­sa Crop­per, pres­i­dent of the Ohio Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers and sec­re­tary trea­sur­er of the Ohio AFL-CIO, echoes Goehl, telling In These Times, ?“It’s hard to get out and have these grass­roots-lev­el con­ver­sa­tions, but we need to invest in grass­roots orga­niz­ers from the com­mu­ni­ties who can have these con­ver­sa­tions and can work [on solu­tions] with the community.”

Unions can fol­low People’s Action by hold­ing more polit­i­cal dis­cus­sions with their mem­bers about how the labor move­ment (and the Left) fights for work­ing peo­ple. But they must also show the path for­ward?—?how work­ers them­selves can join the fight to rein in cor­po­rate power.

Rebuild­ing unions?—?orga­niz­ing more work­ers?—?is the first step toward a broad­er work­er coali­tion. But People’s Action and pro­gres­sive union­ists also believe race and class issues are keys to a coher­ent Left?—?because if we ignore them, the Right will use them to dri­ve a white, reac­tionary, pop­ulist movement.

Tamika Woods and Amir Langhorne, pictured here in Graham, N.C. in 2017, are canvassers with Down Home North Carolina. The group is affiliated with the national organizing network People’s Action and relies heavily on “deep canvassing”—in-depth conversations with voters to shift perspectives on key political issues. PHOTO COURTESY OF PEOPLE’S ACTION

“[Labor lead­ers] have to … explain the con­struc­tion of race and cap­i­tal­ism,” says Bill Fletch­er Jr., exec­u­tive edi­tor of The Glob­al African Work­er and for­mer AFL-CIO staffer. ?“The absence of that, and the reliance on so-called diver­si­ty pro­grams, at best teach­es tol­er­ance but does not get at the par­tic­u­lar role that race plays as a divi­sion of the work­ing class. They need to embark on mas­sive inter­nal edu­ca­tion­al efforts.”

Unions should place a high­er pre­mi­um on build­ing sol­i­dar­i­ty among the work­ing class as a whole, in all of its diver­si­ty. One exam­ple is the 2020part­ner­ship between the Unit­ed Elec­tri­cal Work­ers (UE) and the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca (DSA). The groups formed the Emer­gency Work­place Orga­niz­ing Com­mit­tee to help work­ers orga­nize on the job in the midst of Covid-19. It’s exact­ly the kind of alliance the Left and the labor move­ment should forge, ampli­fy­ing both groups’ impacts by orga­niz­ing new work­ers and engag­ing exist­ing membership.

These types of alliances demon­strate an atti­tude of ?“not me, us” (to quote Sanders’ pres­i­den­tial cam­paign slo­gan)— the key to build­ing work­er trust and tak­ing on the pow­er­ful forces ulti­mate­ly respon­si­ble for the eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty so many expe­ri­ence. Rei­tano believes strong­ly in his union, but he wor­ries that new hires, who are immi­grants, won’t join the union or won’t fight for high­er wages, because they are used to low­er wage stan­dards. ?“If the union can edu­cate these peo­ple so they under­stand that we have to stand togeth­er, I think it’ll be okay,” he says. In a sit­u­a­tion like this, a union polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion pro­gram could not only engage new mem­bers, as Rei­tano sug­gests, but also forge sol­i­dar­i­ty and trust across the old guard/?new guard divide.

Cur­rent­ly, how­ev­er, many unions focus pri­mar­i­ly on mobi­liz­ing their mem­bers to vote, rather than on a more robust polit­i­cal pro­gram. In many cas­es, mem­bers don’t have a mech­a­nism to even offer input on the polit­i­cal endorse­ments of their locals and inter­na­tion­als. Instead, every union shop should have stew­ards who con­stant­ly engage work­ers in edu­ca­tion­al pro­grams and strug­gles on the shop floor. Unions launched cam­paigns like this in antic­i­pa­tion of the 2018 Janus Supreme Court deci­sion, which allowed pub­lic-sec­tor employ­ees in union shops to get the ben­e­fits of the union with­out pay­ing for them. Many unions around the coun­try began proac­tive cam­paigns to talk one-on-one with their mem­bers about the impor­tance of their union. In the con­ver­sa­tions, they stressed the pow­er of col­lec­tive action and exposed the right-wing forces try­ing to under­mine unions through Janus and oth­er mea­sures. They encour­aged mem­bers to recom­mit to being dues-pay­ing mem­bers even though they would soon have the abil­i­ty to become ?“free riders.”

None of this work will be easy, but unless unions com­mit to this edu­ca­tion­al work, Trump­ism will con­tin­ue to grow and the pos­si­bil­i­ty of achiev­ing pol­i­cy that can actu­al­ly help work­ing peo­ple will dimin­ish. (Left unchecked, Trump­ism also could dri­ve an increas­ing­ly vio­lent alt-Right.) The Left must sup­port unions in this work by engag­ing in part­ner­ships (like the DSA/UE part­ner­ship) and encour­ag­ing work­ers to orga­nize and union­ize. 

The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, for its part, must prove itself wor­thy of the union vote. Right now, tens of mil­lions of work­ers (both union and nonunion) are suf­fer­ing through unem­ploy­ment, hous­ing inse­cu­ri­ty, hunger and a lack of health­care in a dev­as­tat­ing pan­dem­ic. The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty lead­er­ship has bare­ly lift­ed a fin­ger to put up a real fight to win relief that is des­per­ate­ly need­ed by so many. They could take exam­ple from Sen. Sanders, who has voiced his oppo­si­tion to the most recent pro­posed ?“com­pro­mise” stim­u­lus bill. While mil­lions suf­fer through the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic with woe­ful­ly inad­e­quate fed­er­al sup­port, Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty lead­er­ship has refused to go big, choos­ing to ignore the pro­gres­sive Dems’ ear­ly push for month­ly cash pay­ments and expand­ed Medicare. With­out these steps, the Democ­rats should not expect work­ing peo­ple to vote for them with­out question.

With­out coun­ter­mea­sures from unions and Democ­rats alike, Repub­li­cans will con­tin­ue to turn the union vote. A 2020 Delaware Sen­ate race between Repub­li­can chal­lenger Lau­ren Witzke and Demo­c­ra­t­ic incum­bent Sen. Christo­pher Coons offers a glimpse of what’s to come. Though she lost (with 38% of the vote), Witzke ran on an ?“Amer­i­ca First” plat­form includ­ing sup­port for unions and col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing, oppo­si­tion to immi­gra­tion (on the basis that migrant work­ers wors­en con­di­tions of all work­ers), and an anti-abor­tion stance.

While Trump’s racism like­ly pro­voked many white pro­fes­sion­als to vote against him in 2020, it did not deter a grow­ing group of peo­ple of col­or?—?and what’s even more alarm­ing than a whites-only right-wing move­ment is a mul­tira­cial one. To counter the appeal of Trump­ism, we need to build a mul­tira­cial, work­ing-class labor move­ment that can arm work­ers with sol­i­dar­i­ty and a renewed com­mit­ment to strug­gle for the world we deserve.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on December 28, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mindy Isser works in the labor move­ment and lives in Philadelphia.


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