Trump campaigned for the blue-collar worker, but did he really mean it?

President-elect Donald Trump campaigned on a promise to put American workers first. Democrats want to test him on that promise.

Robert Galbraith/Reuters
Coal mining boots are shown above miners' lockers before the start of an afternoon shift at a coal mine near Gilbert, W.V., May 22, 2014.

Coal-country Democrats in the Senate were leading their party on Friday afternoon in an attempt to secure a broader health-care and pension package for retired union miners, blocking a stopgap spending bill featuring a scaled-back Republican plan in the hours before the deadline.

The push could precipitate a government shutdown, as Republicans say they won’t renegotiate the bill. Democrats are calling on President-elect Donald Trump to live up to his campaign promise to help miners and pressure his fellow party members on the issue.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) of Ohio, one of the Democrats at the forefront of the effort, told the Associated Press that he hoped that Mr. Trump, "in his words about Buy America and his talk about workers, will help us convince Republicans."

The tactic seems to illuminate how the cause of workers is being newly contested in national politics following Trump’s ascent to the presidency, even as organized labor prepares for an administration that could be unprecedentedly hostile to its interests.

Ileen DeVault, a professor of labor history at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, compared Trump’s campaigning to Richard Nixon’s support for construction workers who demonstrated in favor of the Vietnam War – even donning a hard hat to show his solidarity with them following a riot that saw left-wing protestors beaten.

“We’ve seen this happen before,” she told The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. But the influence of Republicans in Congress, she added, may suggest that many of the industrial workers whom Trump so successfully courted on the campaign trail “are not going to find their cause supported at all” by the president-elect.

“They have a very different line on miners and blue-collar industrial workers than Trump appears to,” she said. “The shutdown over miner benefits is a perfect example of that.”

There are indications that the coal industry itself, if not the question of workers’ benefits, will remain a key one for the president-elect. Sen. Joe Manchin (D) of West Virginia, who has helped lead the Democratic effort for miners’ benefits but saw his state turn deep red in 2016, has been floated as a possible Trump administration pick for secretary of Energy (though he has delayed a planned meeting with the president-elect on Friday in light of the potential shutdown, according to the Hill). And Trump’s pick for Environmental Protection Agency chief, Scott Pruitt, is no champion of climate regulations of the sort that have helped precipitate coal’s decline.

That may reflect a different kind of offer to workers than Democrats are used to making – one that dangles the prospect of an all-boats-buoyed economic flourishing in the place of security and benefits, and doesn’t depend on the support of organized labor, whose members voted for Trump at only slightly higher rates than they did for Mitt Romney in 2012.

Trump’s nomination for Labor secretary, fast-food restaurant chief executive officer Andy Puzder, was widely greeted by labor advocates as confirmation of the administration’s intention of aggressively undermining the limited advances made by workers’ groups during the Obama years.  

In a statement, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman called it a “cruel and baffling” choice, recalling wage-theft scandals involving Hardee’s, which Mr. Puzder owns. And some union leaders speaking to The Washington Post on condition of anonymity said they feared that a Republican Congress and a Trump White House could fail to enforce wage-theft and occupational safety laws while launching investigations into union finances.

“The assault on unions, as institutions, is indeed unprecedented in scale,” Georgetown University historian Michael Kazin told the Post in an email. “Even in the 1920s, conservative Republicans did not argue against their very legitimacy.”

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