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Trump Tries to Woo Union Leaders Despite His Long Record of Exploiting Workers

Trump, who once said he prefers nonunion labor, has faced numerous complaints for failing to pay minimum wage.

Former President Donald Trump walks to a podium to deliver remarks after meeting with leaders of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters at their headquarters on January 31, 2024, in Washington, D.C.

In late January, Donald Trump met with Teamsters President Sean O’Brien and other leaders of the 1.3 million-strong union to make a hard sell for their support. Shortly afterwards, however, while stopping short of endorsing the Trump’s likely Democratic rival, O’Brien put out a statement praising Joe Biden for his pro-union policy positions.

Trump’s dalliance with the Teamsters follows on from his efforts in September to woo the United Auto Workers (UAW). Back then, he traveled to Michigan, the heart of the auto industry, to lambast the transition to electric vehicles and to criticize the Biden’s administration’s manufacturing strategy. It garnered a number of photo ops but, at least at the level of the union leadership, not too much else.

Ultimately, Trump’s flirtation with the union didn’t succeed; two weeks ago, the UAW publicly endorsed Biden. In his statement backing Biden, UAW President Shawn Fain urged his members to think about which candidate was more likely to stand on the side of labor in the sorts of struggles the UAW — fresh off of a strike against the Big Three — has to engage in to protect the wages, benefits and workplace conditions of workers.

“We’ve spent this week talking about our political priorities and where we’re going as a union,” Fain, part of a crop of new, activist union leaders around the country, declared. “And we’ve shown in our Stand Up Strike that we know how to win against the boss. But there’s a bigger boss out there. It’s the billionaire class and their backers here in Washington, D.C. That’s what we’re up against,”

Fain added: “So, we’re gonna fight like hell for retirement security for the whole working class. We’re gonna organize and mobilize and make our voices heard. This November, we can stand up and elect someone who wants to stand with us and support our cause. Or we can elect someone who will divide us and fight us every step of the way.”

Trump, petulant as ever, promptly took to Truth Social to subsequently prove Fain’s point, urging the union to dump Fain, whom he labeled “this dope.”

The MAGA leader’s efforts to woo grassroots union members with an America First message may, however, be paying off even without leadership endorsements. In 2020, Biden handily won the vote of union households — at the time slightly over 10 percent of the total workforce in the country was unionized, a number that has changed only marginally in the years since. Yet recent polling has shown that in 2024, the pro-Biden margin among union members — who tend to vote at slightly higher rates than do nonunion workers — may have evaporated. When asked how they intend to vote, union members and their households are now split roughly evenly between Trump and Biden. If — and it’s a big if — that still holds come November, it will spell disaster for the Biden campaign, much as the Hard Hat revolt against George McGovern’s Democratic candidacy in 1972 sealed McGovern’s fate and ensured Richard Nixon’s reelection. After all, if one looks at the electoral math, it’s clear that Biden needs to run up large margins among the Democratic Party’s reliable base voters to counter the strength of the MAGA base among nonunion white, working-class voters, and among middle-class and wealthy white suburbanites.

There is, of course, no shortage of irony in Trump’s wooing of the working class and, specifically, of union members. Throughout his adult life, businessman Trump has frequently stiffed workers at his properties, and he has gone so far as to boast about his ability to shortchange contractors and their employees. Over the decades, dozens of companies and workers have sued Trump’s businesses, alleging that he has failed to pay money owed them. His companies have also faced numerous challenges under the Fair Labor Standards Act for failing to pay overtime or to meet minimum wage requirements. And Trump is on record as saying he prefers to work with nonunion labor.

In 2020, reports surfaced that Trump still hadn’t paid all his bills to workers, including carpenters, plumbers and electricians, from back in the day, decades earlier, when he was busy building the Taj Mahal casino-hotel in Atlantic City.

The list of malfeasance when it comes to protecting the rights and financial needs of working-class Americans goes on. When he was president, for example, in an act of sheer sabotage, Trump appointed Mick Mulvaney, who had spent years fighting against consumer protections, as head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, thus ensuring the agency was less effective than it should have been in protecting the financial rights of lower-income Americans. The Republican Party has repeatedly recently stood in the way of making permanent the pandemic-era child tax credits that did so much to temporarily lower poverty. In 2016, Trump came out against the existence of a federal minimum wage, and while president, his administration’s labor secretary set himself against any increases in that minimum wage.

The list goes on, but the point is made. Trump’s anti-labor bona fides are polished to a fine hue. By contrast, his pro-labor credentials largely consist of hot air — promises, never realized, to build a protective wall of tariffs around the importation of products made overseas, so as to encourage a rebirth of U.S. manufacturing; harsh anti-immigration policies that, most experts agree, would do little to raise the economic standing of American workers and an awful lot to hurt the well-being of working-class immigrants and their families; and, perhaps above all, like Nixon a half century ago, a willingness to play bait-and-switch politics around culture war and race issues that may appeal viscerally to some heartland and working-class voters but do precious little to actually improve their security in an increasingly cutthroat economy.

Shawn Fain saw through Trump’s antics pretty quickly, losing no time in shooting down the notion of a UAW concord with the MAGA world; I suspect, when push comes to shove, that, despite his meetings with the GOP boss, ultimately Sean O’Brien will be equally unconvinced by the gold-obsessed Republican’s efforts to portray himself as a working-class hero. The far bigger question, however, is whether the rank and file will be disillusioned with the prospect of another Trump presidency, or whether, at the end of the day, Trump’s extraordinarily divisive messaging will prove effective in reaching out to this vital group of voters.

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