Candice Johnson, a veteran spokesperson for the Communications Workers of America, did not know who Andrew Puzder was when she received a notification that President Donald Trump had nominated him to be the nation’s next labour secretary.
But it did not take long before she began formulating the union’s critical response to the fast food restaurant CEO and mobilizing its membership against him.
“He was someone who was really the antithesis of what the labour secretary should be,” Johnson told Business Insider.
Puzder’s nomination was unanimously condemned by union leaders and criticised both on the left, for Puzder’s opposition to raising the minimum wage and worker protections and benefits, including the Affordable Care Act, and on the right, for his support for immigration.
Trump has since done an about-face on his labour pick, selecting Alexander Acosta, an uncontroversial former assistant attorney general, as Puzder’s replacement. Unions have expressed their relief, and, in some cases, are embracing Acosta.
The move was in line with Trump’s recent efforts to cement his popularity among union members, a traditionally Democratic constituency from whom he earned more support in the general election than any Republican since President Ronald Reagan 1984.
Trump’s gains among blue collar workers can be attributed in large part to his unorthodox positions on trade and infrastructure spending and his commitment to repealing regulations some argue hinder economic growth.
Through a combination of outreach from the White House and pressure from union members who support the president, some union leaders are cautiously warming to the prospect of working with Trump.
Courting the labour movement
Just three days into his presidency, Trump met with the leaders of building trade unions to discuss his plans on infrastructure and trade.
The meeting, which included most of Trump’s top advisers, provided a politically valuable photo op for the White House and sent a message to Trump’s union supporters that their leadership is willing to collaborate with the administration.
After dismissing members of the press from the meeting, Trump called them back in to record Douglas McCarron, president of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, praising the president’s inaugural address, which McCarron said was “a great moment for working men and women.”
“We have a common bond with the president,” Sean McGarvey, the president of North America’s Building Trades Unions, added after the meeting. “We come from the same industry. He understands the value of driving development, moving people to the middle class.”
On Fox News, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer characterised Trump’s meeting with labour leaders as “a great act of political larceny,” noting, “that is the constituency [Trump] stole to get elected to the presidency, and as long as he nurtures it, he’s got a leg up on the Democrats.”
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Donald Trump speaking at a Boeing facility in South Carolina
Trump’s rocky history with unions
But while Trump has made inroads in one of the Democratic Party’s most loyal voting blocks, his relationships with union leadership has been rocky.
In December, Trump publicly sparred with Chuck Jones, the president of United Steelworkers Local 1999, who represents the workers at an Indianapolis Carrier plant who were the subject of a publicized deal Trump made with the company in November.
Jones said Trump “
lied his arse off” about the exact number of jobs saved by the deal, in which the air conditioning manufacturer
agreed to keep what Trump said was 1,100 jobs
in Indianapolis that otherwise would have been outsourced to Mexico.
Trump retaliated by tweeting that Jones had “done a terrible job representing workers” and “no wonder companies flee country!” Jones ended up being right about the numbers — only 800 jobs were saved.
As an employer, Trump has long had dealings with unions and will continue to, indirectly, through the Trump Organisation.
In November, the National Labour Relations Board ruled that the Trump International Hotel Las Vegas had violated federal labour law and ordered it to negotiate with the union representing the hotel’s culinary workers. The parties reached an agreement in December, just as the Trump International Hotel in DC settled negotiations with the union representing its employees.
Some are also sceptical of Trump’s motives surrounding unions. These observers see the administration’s union outreach as a shrewd move to divide organised labour, and thereby reduce its collective power.
“I would not be surprised if Steve Bannon and others would be overtly and covertly trying to divide the labour movement,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, told The New York Times.
Illustrating this tension, just the day before Trump visited a Boeing complex in South Carolina, the company’s production workers
voted down a bid to unionize. Trump took the opportunity to emphasise his economic agenda, doubling down on his promise to bring jobs back to “forgotten” communities.
This all comes as unions are at their weakest point in decades. Fifty years ago, one-third of American workers were unionized. As of 2015, it was one in 10.
Karla Walter, director of employment policy at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, says Trump’s gains among organised labour should be understood in the context of years of decline and “concerted attacks on unions.”
“In some of the states where he had the biggest gains what we saw was that these were states where unions were under attack for a number of years and unionization rates had fallen considerably,” Walter told Business Insider.
Donald Trump shakes hands with a coal miner in the White House
Better trade agreements or ‘corporate giveaways’?
Trump’s promise to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, which he has called
“the worst trade deal in the history of the country,” was also key to his appeal among union workers. But the details of this renegotiation remain unclear, worrying union leaders.
“It could be a corporate giveaway — we don’t know,” Johnson, of the CWA, said of the renegotiation. “And that’s basically how we’re looking at the Trump administration, generally.”
Dean Baker, co-director of the progressive Center for Economic and Policy Research, told Business Insider that Trump’s actions on trade won’t amount to anything more than “a lot of silly symbolism.”
Baker agrees with Trump that multinational trade agreements like NAFTA have had a negative impact on the U.S. manufacturing industry. Rejecting this conclusion is “like denying global warming,” he said. “The data is very clear.”
While Baker believes there are changes that could be made to NAFTA that would help bring American manufacturing jobs back, he does not think Trump is savvy enough or willing to make necessary compromises.
“There’s nothing he’s said to date that indicates he has any idea whatsoever of how you would go about bringing the jobs back,” Baker said.
A much-awaited infrastructure plan
Throughout the campaign, Trump called for large-scale investment in American infrastructure, something labour unions have long argued is overdue.
“We are going to fix our inner cities and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals,” Trump said in his victory speech on election night. “We’re going to rebuild our infrastructure, which will become, by the way, second to none. And we will put millions of our people to work as we rebuild it.”
The president reiterated this priority during his speech to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night, calling for a $US1 trillion investment in “a new program of national rebuilding.” For the first time, Trump mentioned public funding would be needed in addition to private investment.
But the details of any proposed legislation remain elusive. So far, the closest thing to a plan is an October white paper co-authored by White House National Trade Council head Peter Navarro and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. The paper essentially calls for the privatization of public works projects, with $US137 billion in tax breaks to businesses in order to stimulate $US1 trillion in infrastructure projects over a decade.
A draft list of 50 infrastructure projects compiled by the administration was obtained and published by the Kansas City Star and The News Tribune in Tacoma, Washington, in late January.
Trump’s calls for massive infrastructure investment have been heeded by his opposition — last month Senate Democrats introduced a $US1 trillion infrastructure building plan that they say will create 15 million jobs over a decade.
Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers have voiced resistance to a large-scale infrastructure plan. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he hopes to “avoid a trillion-dollar stimulus.”
The fundamental tension between Trump and the Democrats’ plans lies in their differing funding schemes. While Trump has said he will pay for his revenue neutral plan through federal tax credits and “public-private partnerships,” which economists across the political spectrum have argued is untenable, Democrats are pressing for a funding scheme that involves
more direct federal spending and closing tax loopholes.
How the plan is funded is key in determining what kinds of projects and jobs are created, Ross Eisenbrey, vice president and policy director of the Economic Policy Institute, told Business Insider.
More direct federal spending pays for repairs to bridges and water treatment plants — projects that don’t attract profit-seeking private investors, Eisenbrey said. Tax credits will encourage projects that generate revenue, such as toll roads and bridges, many of which, like the Keystone XL Pipeline, experts say would happen with or without government funding.
“The more it’s just a tax credit, the fewer jobs will be created,” Eisenbrey said.
Eisenbrey thinks it’s likely Congress will pass a bipartisan infrastructure plan.
“Unless the leadership is just dead-set against it, I think there will be an infrastructure program,” Eisenbrey said. “If this is a signature part of Trump’s program, I don’t see how even a Republican-dominated Congress can resist it.”
Strain says the infrastructure plan is likely already on the legislative back burner and may never earn enough support from Republican lawmakers. According to a recent report from Axios, the administration may push the introduction of an infrastructure plan to 2018, when Democrats will be under more pressure from unions and their constituents to support job-creating investments.
“It’s a lower priority than tax reform, it’s a lower priority than ACA reform and it seems unlikely to me that we would get all three of those done,” Strain said.
Walter said it is up to the American public to hold Trump to his word.
“I think that it’s essential that working people hold him accountable for the fact that this plan needs to create good jobs,” she said. “He’s promised that he’s going to create good jobs.”
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