Unions And Their Complicated Relationship With President Trump

Feb 15, 2017
Originally published on February 15, 2017 8:18 am
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Now let's ask what labor unions really think of the new president. They plan to protest Andrew Puzder, the pick for labor secretary, when he faces a confirmation hearing this week. But unions also like some of the new president's policies. NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: President Trump won a sizable share of union votes, 37 percent of AFL-CIO members according to the union. In his first week in office, Trump and the leaders of the building and construction unions showed off their cozy relationship. That same week, James Hoffa Jr., the longtime president of the Teamsters Union, told CNBC this.

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JAMES HOFFA JR: He's basically doing things that are not Republican.

NOGUCHI: One of those things is Trump's repeated promise to boost investment in roads, bridges and airports, projects congressional Republicans didn't support under President Obama. Another is his protectionist stance, including his pledge to renegotiate trade agreements and his use of his Twitter account to shame companies moving jobs overseas. Richard Yeselson is a former union campaign strategist and writer for Dissent Magazine. He says over the decades, unions have lost a lot of their political power. They could lose more if big labor is divided on the president's policies.

RICHARD YESELSON: President Hoffa, the Teamsters talked about - oh, we can work with this guy. The sense of, like, undiminished, unqualified opposition is obviously undermined.

NOGUCHI: But in order to maintain support, Trump has to, for example, shepherd an infrastructure spending bill through a tight-fisted Congress and rework trade deals in a manner that workers like.

YESELSON: That's a lot of thresholds he has to cross in order to get to the point when these guys would keep singing his praises and saying - oh, man, he's great.

NOGUCHI: And in fact, some union leaders are already saying they're disappointed. Richard Trumka is president of the AFL-CIO.

RICHARD TRUMKA: The biggest refrain we hear is, this isn't what we voted for when we said we wanted the rules of the economy rewritten. He said that he wouldn't let Wall Street get away with murder and that the American economy works best when it works for American workers. Unfortunately, that's not what we've seen so far.

NOGUCHI: Trumka points to his appointments of Andrew Puzder for labor secretary and former Wall Street banker Steven Mnuchin to head Treasury. Puzder, he argues, isn't likely to actively enforce worker safety and wage theft violations. Under Trump, the National Labor Relations Board, a separate agency, will likely make it harder to organize workers. Still, he says, there may be some common ground.

TRUMKA: What we're doing is just playing it issue by issue.

NOGUCHI: But playing it issue by issue makes party politics more complex for the unions. Michael Strain, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, says in recent decades, unions came to identify almost exclusively with the Democratic Party and against Republicans.

MICHAEL STRAIN: American politics has gotten comfortable with that arrangement. This administration is kind of throwing a curveball into that relationship.

NOGUCHI: Harry Holzer teaches public policy at Georgetown. He says the tenor of the relationship between the unions and Trump will depend on specifics.

HARRY HOLZER: My guess is that in that mix of things the unions like versus the things they don't like, they will see less of what they like and more of what they don't like over time. And I think this will be a short-lived honeymoon.

NOGUCHI: Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.