Union leaders see no evidence of migration to Donald Trump

Union leaders see no evidence of migration to Donald Trump
© Greg Nash

Local union leaders across the Rust Belt are voicing confidence that their members will stick with Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump touts economic agenda in battleground Ohio The Memo: Campaigns gird for rush of early voting Trump's pitch to Maine lobstermen falls flat MORE over Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden says his faith is 'bedrock foundation of my life' after Trump claim Coronavirus talks on life support as parties dig in, pass blame Ohio governor tests negative in second coronavirus test MORE in the race for the White House.

Trump has courted organized labor aggressively, staking out hard-line positions against free trade and immigration that resonated with blue-collar voters in the GOP primary.

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Yet in interviews with The Hill, 58 local chapter leaders representing 19 unions in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin said they believe their members are overwhelmingly backing Clinton, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. The leaders represent local chapters with membership ranging from dozens to more than 1,000.

While many of their members have reservations about Clinton, the union leaders don’t see signs of a groundswell toward Trump, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee.

“There’s nothing about Donald Trump that entices us when it comes to the construction industry,” said John J. Dougherty, business manager of the Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council,  a local branch of North America’s Building Trades Unions. 

There is no way to predict definitively what individual union members will decide in the privacy of the voting booth, but local leaders often have their fingers on the political pulses of their groups. And while polls show Trump has the support of GOP-leaning union households, polls do not show him with an advantage overall in the union vote.

Jason Barlow, president of United Auto Workers Local 402 in Springfield, Ohio, said his chapter contains some Trump supporters and that “religion, immigration and guns” remain “hot-button issues” that could benefit the Republican.

Still, he noted his chapter is racially and religiously diverse and leans Democratic, with many members having supported Bernie SandersBernie SandersOn The Money: Pessimism grows as coronavirus talks go down to the wire | Jobs report poised to light fire under COVID-19 talks | Tax preparers warn unemployment recipients could owe IRS Senators introduce bill to block Trump armed drone sale measure Sanders offers bill to tax billionaires' wealth gains during pandemic MORE in the primary.

He said his members care more about what the candidates will do for “jobs and supporting organized labor” than other issues.

Trump has repeatedly talked about support for his campaign from union households and has made specific appeals to the Teamsters. There is even a “Teamsters for Trump” page on Facebook.

“The policemen, the firemen, the construction workers, the lathers, the sheetrock workers, the electricians, the plumbers. That’s where my support is — every poll shows it,” Trump said at a New Hampshire town hall in February.

Trump’s Rust Belt GOP supporters say they’re witnessing a wave of union members, even traditional Democrats, drawn to the billionaire’s populist platform. Some compare Trump’s appeal among their supporters to when Ronald Reagan won over blue-collar workers and created a wave of “Reagan Democrats.”

“These are blue-collar, hard-working people who feel left behind by today’s Democratic Party,” said Rep. Lou BarlettaLouis (Lou) James BarlettaBottom Line Ex-GOP congressman to lead group to protect Italian products from tariffs Head of Pennsylvania GOP resigns over alleged explicit texts MORE (R-Pa.), who has endorsed Trump for president.

“Donald Trump is representing them in a way that extremely liberal politicians like Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBiden's immigration plan has serious problems Hearing for Twitter hack suspect Zoom-bombed by porn, rap music Read: Sally Yates testimony MORE and Hillary Clinton cannot,” he said.

Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.), a Trump supporter, said she has heard from auto workers, laborers and trade union members drawn to Trump “because he is talking about issues that resonate with them.”

She pointed out immigration, border security, currency manipulation and other unfair trade practices as appealing to union workers.

“And, quite frankly, they just don’t seem to like Hillary or trust her,” she said.

Local leaders admit their members do not appear highly enthusiastic about Clinton.

Although 16 of the unions contacted by The Hill have endorsed her at the national level, distrust lingers among many local union members that Clinton’s embrace of past free trade deals makes her an unreliable ally. 

President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonGiuliani says Black Lives Matter is 'domestic terrorist' group We have the resources to get through this crisis, only stupidity is holding us back Biden needs to bring religious Americans into the Democratic fold MORE’s support for the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada is an open wound, and Hillary Clinton backed President Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership before turning against it as a
candidate for the White House.

During the Democratic primary, a number of union members backed Sanders, whose positions on trade are similar to Trump’s. The Vermont senator is a democratic socialist who has long counted organized labor as a part of his political base.

But local union leaders said support for Sanders isn’t translating to support for Trump.

Patrick Welch, business manager from Local 47 of the International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Allied Workers in Grand Rapids, Mich., said his members were split roughly 50-50 between Sanders and Clinton. Any support for Trump, he added, is sparse.

“The concerns with Hillary is that she seems very corporate-y,” Welch said, shortly before the California primary. “[Trump] says a lot, but he’s got no substance behind what he says. … He hasn’t told us about his policies besides telling us that they are great.”

Katie Kelley, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1039 in Lansing, Mich., said Clinton has “got some baggage.”

But she says her members will back her if faced with the decision of Clinton or Trump.

“Trump will take away jobs,” she said. “He does not believe in $15 minimum wage, and he has no understanding of the middle class.”

Trump has tried to win over supporters of Sanders, inviting them to join his candidacy and stoking accusations on the left that the Democratic establishment tilted the primary in Clinton’s favor.

He has also promised he would make states that Republicans have lost for years in general elections competitive again.

Although Ohio is the consummate swing state, no Republican has won Pennsylvania or Michigan since 1988. No Republican has won Wisconsin since Reagan in 1984.

Trump’s strongest local union support appeared to be in Ohio, with leaders from the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers and the Communications Workers of America saying their members were either evenly split between Clinton and Trump or, in one case — the Communications Workers of America local 4322 in Ohio — favoring Trump.

In those pockets of union support, Trump’s biggest selling points, local leaders say, are his support for gun rights and his tough stances on immigration and trade.

“They think Hillary is going to take their guns,” said Fred Frederickson, from Local 845 of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades in Michigan, explaining why members of his local group are roughly divided between Clinton and Trump.

A good number of his members, Frederickson says, support Clinton simply because they “say the worst Democrat is better than the Republican.”

Democratic strategists say they worry about Trump’s populist appeal and know Clinton needs to watch her back among organizaed labor.

One such expert, Brad Bannon, said his polling indicates that roughly one-third of building trade union members are already sympathetic to the Republicans in any election season, but Trump’s populism and outsider status could push the number higher this time. 

“This year, it’s more of a problem. … Trump has an appeal that [2012 GOP nominee] Mitt Romney never had,” said Bannon, a Democratic strategist who’s worked with unions. 

“These just are angry guys. They think the economy’s screwed up beyond belief and they want to shake things up,” he added. “Trump’s mood matches theirs. They’re angry, and Trump is the angry candidate. It’s more about attitude than ideology.”

A rare example of a local leader who said he had witnessed significant Trump support is Tobin Boyle, the business representative for locals 3 and 4 of the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers in Wisconsin.

Boyle estimated about 25 percent of his members in a strongly Democratic area are for Trump. But even Boyle believed more of his members backed Clinton. Sanders had been their favorite.

“There’s plenty of union members [supporting Trump], especially when it comes to immigration issues and the issues of illegal Mexicans,” Boyle said.

“A lot of people in the trades echo the sentiment, albeit it’s probably not a factual statement [that they’re taking their jobs].”

There is also little evidence yet of support from police unions for Trump.

Local leaders from the Fraternal Order of Police told The Hill that both they and their national union are withholding presidential endorsements until they see more details from Trump and Clinton.

Trump has courted police unions aggressively by siding with police officers over Black Lives Matter protesters, saying law enforcement officials are mistreated and unequivocally on the right side of these protests.

Another opportunity for Trump could be among the International Association of Fire Fighters, whose local leaders declined to talk to The Hill. In October, the union reportedly backed away from a planned Clinton endorsement because internal polling showed its rank and file didn’t support the former secretary of State.

Luke Torrance, Jenn Marshall, Diana McElfresh, Andrew Balluck and Maria Rachal contributed.