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AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka speaks at a breakfast for reporters, hosted by The Christian Science Monitor on Aug. 30, 2017, in Washington. He said it's been a "good year" for union bargaining on wages, but says more progress is needed for US workers.
Michael Bonfigli/Special to the Christian Science Monitor
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How Big Labor is wooing working-class Trump voters back to Democratic fold

Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, said at a Monitor-hosted breakfast Wednesday that workers, when presented with facts about the president’s promises vs. his actions, are beginning to 'come back across the bridge.'

President Trump kicked off his sales pitch for a tax overhaul Wednesday, speaking in the red state of Missouri where endangered Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill is up for reelection. He was expected to sell his plan as good for the middle class, skipping the details because they haven’t been worked out by Republicans in Congress yet.

His is a populist message on taxes. It’s meant to keep white, working-class voters – and many others – backing his agenda and in his camp as Congress returns to work next week with an eye toward the 2018 midterm elections.

But details matter in the Show Me state. And pointing out what the president says versus what he does is a key strategy for flipping the House back to Democrats, said organized labor leader Richard Trumka at a Monitor breakfast with reporters on Wednesday. Democrats cast themselves as the party of “the little guy,” though Trumka also said he would support anyone who is good for working people.

The former miner and president of the AFL-CIO, whose home county in the southwest corner of Pennsylvania went overwhelmingly for Trump last year, says his federation of unions will focus on existing union members as never before, arming them with the facts about the president’s promises and actions. This, as opposed to a past emphasis on outreach to “persuadables.”

Trump’s promises vs. his actions

Last year, many workers abandoned labor’s traditional Democratic home and instead went for Trump, who won 3 percent more union members than did Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012, according to Mr. Trumka. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton won 10 percent fewer union members than did President Obama – due to people either not voting or voting for a third party, he said.

“They voted for Trump because he was going to do this, do that … and he hasn’t done any of those ‘this’es or ‘that’s,” said Trumka. The way to win them back, he said, is not to “bombard” them for not being “very smart” with their vote, he said, nor to call the president names – though he engaged in some labeling himself when he said some of Trump's White House aides “turned out to be racist.”

“Giving people information is the way to move people,” he said.

That means, for instance, pointing out that while Trump promised health care for everyone, he supported a GOP plan that would have eliminated it for millions, said Trumka. Or that the president’s rollback of regulations has included rollback of worker standards. Or that Trump has yet to get an infrastructure plan through Congress, even while his trade renegotiation efforts on NAFTA are only in their earliest stages.

The vision of former Trump strategist Steve Bannon was to create a kind of working class party, says Kyle Kondik, political analyst and managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball. Common interests motivated Trumka to join the president’s manufacturing council, though he resigned from the council after the president’s controversial remarks about white supremacist protesters in Charlottesville, Va., earlier this month.

“Other than putting the nail in the coffin of TPP [the Asian trade deal], which was slated to happen anyway, and which Hillary Clinton also promised to do, what can Trump point to that is different or pro-worker from what any Republican would offer?” Mr. Kondik asks.

Renewed outreach to union members

Labor leader Trumka was sympathetic to frustration about flat wages and lost manufacturing jobs that drove union members and other working class voters to Trump. But the president has not delivered, he said, while Democrats are now promising higher wages, lower costs, and rights of workers to join unions.

He said his organization would focus on the “blue wall” in 2018 – traditionally Democratic states such as Wisconsin and Michigan that went narrowly for Trump – and that it would, in a sense, come home to its members.

“For a long time, our program stopped focusing on our members and giving them the facts they needed,” Trumka explained, when asked about what’s new in their approach to the coming election. “Now we’re going back and doing it every day.” As workers hear “the simple facts” about Trump’s actions, as he put it, people are beginning to “come back across the bridge.”

Polling indicates that’s starting to happen. A plurality of non-college educated white voters in the Rust Belt battlegrounds of Wisconsin and Michigan disapprove of how the president is doing his job, according to new NBC/Marist polls. In those states plus Pennsylvania, a large plurality of voters say he has not kept his campaign promise to bring back manufacturing jobs, and they want to see Democrats take back Congress in 2018.

US economy posts best growth in two years under Trump

Nevertheless, the president’s base is still largely with him, points out Pennsylvania pollster G. Terry Madonna, director of the Franklin and Marshall College Poll in Lancaster. Unions “have their work cut out for them to go to that base and restore it.”

Big labor’s membership – and clout – have diminished steadily. In 1983, 17.7 million Americans belonged to labor unions. In 2016, it was 14.6 million, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Mr. Madonna points out that many of Trump’s white, working-class supporters are conservative on social issues, like his messages on trade and the economy, and applaud when he takes his finger and sticks it in the eye of the establishment.

The president laid out principles for tax reform on a day when it was reported that the US economy grew by 3 percent in the second quarter – the strongest in two years.

Trump urged both parties in Congress to pass a simplified tax code that cuts taxes for businesses to create jobs and for middle-class families so that millions of Americans can enjoy “a big, fat, beautiful paycheck.”

If organized labor wants to win back working-class voters, says Madonna, “there’s going to have to be a juggling that goes on” says Madonna, referring to organized labor’s attempt to win back working-class voters. They’re going to have to address the needs of workers, he says, while at the same time balancing the support that many of those voters have for the president.

“Unions are going to have to be very cautious about how they do that.”