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Here’s What Trump and the GOP Really Think About the Working Class

Trump polls very well with voters without college degrees. But organized labor polls well with even more voters. Make a move, Democrats.

Trump shushing
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The Republican Party is doing amazingly well with the working class. A New York Times/Siena poll last month found 53 percent of likely voters without a college degree would vote for Donald Trump, while only 39 percent would vote for President Joe Biden, who is the most pro-labor president since Harry Truman. The American Prospect asked earlier this week whether it’s even possible to reverse these numbers; I’ve argued that it is. But to do so, Democrats need to get word out that the GOP is bent on destroying unions, which today enjoy more popular support (67 percent approval) than they have for six decades. Even more than one-third of Republicans agree that labor unions are a net positive for the country.

Republican politicians do not make a secret of their distaste for working people. Every time the GOP retakes the House of Representatives it renames the Education and Labor Committee the “Education and the Workforce” Committee, because Republicans can’t abide even the word “labor.” On Wednesday, the committee held its fifth union-bashing hearing since Republicans regained the House in 2023, this one under the heading “Big Labor Lies: Exposing Union Tactics to Undermine Free and Fair Elections.”

About that pejorative phrase, “Big Labor.” As I’ve noted previously, it’s so out of touch with the reality that union membership has fallen to 6 percent in the private sector that it feels like a taunt, like calling a bald person “Curly.” Even at the peak of union density in 1954, only a third of private-sector workplaces were unionized. Labor used to be a lot more powerful than it is today, but it was always David, and management always Goliath. Lately there are signs, however, that organized labor is starting to revive, including last year’s “hot labor summer” of strikes by unions representing hotel workers, screenwriters, nurses, and so on and last fall’s successful United Auto Workers strike. The GOP strategy is to nip these stirrings in the bud.

Perhaps you think Republicans mean to criticize only labor’s excesses, not labor itself. At Wednesday’s hearing, Republican Bob Good cleared that misconception right up. “The fact is,” he said, “unions are contrary to a strong economy.”

They cause inflated, non-competitive wages; massive cost increases; lower productivity; they cultivate anti-employer or anti-management attitudes, [a] very unhealthy workplace environment; they protect unproductive workers, or worse; in short, the value of unions [has] long expired. We’ve long [ago] passed legislation that corrected former poor working conditions. Healthy competitive market pressures and American cultures make unions unnecessary at best and truly harmful at worst.

What part of this succinct summary don’t Donald Trump’s non-college supporters understand?

Trump hates unions just as much as Good does. As president, he appointed anti-union members to the National Labor Relations Board who made it easier for employers to manipulate the size of a bargaining unit to defeat a union bid; lengthened and complicated union elections to make it harder for unions to win; made it easier for corporations to avoid responsibility for their subcontractors’ labor violations; and allowed employers to prevent labor unions, which already are barred from electioneering on company premises, from contacting workers via company email.

Trump also changed overtime rules to exclude eligibility for eight million workers; failed to raise the $7.25 hourly minimum wage (after promising to do so during the 2016 election, though only in reaction to a backlash after he proposed eliminating it entirely); killed a regulation barring employers from requiring employees to agree never to sue the company as a condition of employment; reduced the number of manufacturing jobs by 75,000 (losing 43,000 the year before the Covid epidemic); and cut federal workplace safety inspections to their lowest level in history. This is very much a partial list. There’s more here and here.

Would a second Trump term be any different? CNBC correspondent Eamon Javers on Tuesday reported that “conservative economic thinkers” have “come up with ... a set of worker-first, anti-corporate elite policy proposals, which are increasingly popular within the party, and in Trump’s economic circles.” Javers supplied a long list of proposals, none of which addressed labor unions or workers’ rights. “To be clear,” Javers wrote, “this is not yet the dominant strain of Republican economic thinking in Washington.” That’s quite an understatement. It will never be the dominant strain.

More representative of what “Trump’s economic circles” think is Trump’s own think tank. The America First Policy Institute is chaired by Linda McMahon, who ran the Small Business Administration under Trump and then a pro-Trump super PAC. She posted an op-ed last June at The Daily Caller that attacked Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer for signing into law a repeal of the state’s right-to-work law. This law had barred unions from collecting “fair share” fees from union nonmembers. Such prohibitions are a clever way to bankrupt unions by allowing workers to enjoy the benefits of collective bargaining without paying for them. Other AFPI writings have attacked unions at the Veterans Administration and the Transportation Security Administration. The AFPI is a breeding ground for future appointees to a second Trump term, and it’s virulently anti-union.

Republicans who denounce unions for restricting workers’ freedom (for instance, by collecting fair-share fees) think nothing of restricting managers’ freedom to decide what to do when workers mount an organizing campaign. I’ve written in the past about a bill, crafted by the Koch-funded American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, that’s been signed into law in Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama. Southern states routinely grant automakers and other manufacturers tax breaks to locate there. The ALEC bill would disallow such tax breaks for any company that recognizes a union voluntarily, i.e., without an NLRB-sponsored union election. Good has introduced legislation (co-signed by, among others, Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida) that would go ALEC one better by barring management merely from agreeing to remain neutral in a union election—as, for instance, Microsoft agreed to do in December. In a press release, Good credited the Trump administration with formulating the idea.

At Wednesday’s hearing, the sole Democratic witness, Lynn Rhinehart of the Economic Policy Institute, made note of another anti-labor bill sponsored by a Republican Education and the Workforce Committee member, Representative Rick Allen of Georgia. Under the bill, it would no longer constitute an illegal unfair labor practice for a business to reject a job applicant on the basis of that person’s being “an employee or paid agent” of a labor union. The goal is to combat something called “salting,” wherein a person gets himself hired so he can organize a worksite. This is, Rhinehart pointed out, “a solution in search of a problem,” given that hiring a single pro-union employee hardly guarantees that other employees will agree to join one. The bill’s true purpose, she said, was to “open the door to blatant anti-union discrimination that has been illegal since passage of the [National Labor Relations Act of 1935].”

The Biden record on labor is entirely different, and it’s a sad comment that the people from whom one is likeliest to learn this are anti-labor Republicans who presume you’ll be appalled. As I’ve noted previously, Democrats outside the Biden administration are criminally reluctant to publicize Biden’s excellent record on working-class issues for fear of scaring off the party’s new college-educated constituency (even though the latter is more leftist on these issues than the proletariat). So it fell to Good on Wednesday to state that Biden “declared his intention to govern as the most pro-union president in history. Well, President Biden has kept his promise, and proven to be the most partisan, Big Labor president since FDR.” You can’t buy publicity like that!

I’m also grateful to Representative Virginia Foxx, who chairs the full Labor and the Workforce Committee, and is possibly the most anti-union legislator ever to do so, for flagging recent efforts by the Biden administration on behalf of the United Auto Workers of which I was previously unaware. “The U.S. government may have reached out to pressure the German government regarding Mercedes’ stance toward the election,” Foxx said. That would be the union election at a Mercedes plant in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, that the UAW lost last week. Foxx got her information from a Bloomberg report by Josh Eidelson that I’d somehow missed. The piece said that unspecified Biden administration officials raised concerns with unspecified German officials about Mercedes’ union-busting activities in Tuscaloosa that may have violated both U.S. and German law. The European Union raised similar concerns with the German government, as did the UAW itself. “We expect them to respect both local law and European values,” Olof Gill, a spokesman for the European Commission (the EU’s international arm), told Eidelson. An investigation is now underway.

The German law in question is the July 2021 Act on Corporate Due Diligence Obligations, which applies not only to any company that’s headquartered in Germany but also to any foreign company that employs one thousand or more people in Germany. It prohibits these companies from engaging in activities (chiefly but not exclusively through their suppliers) that violate human rights, defined (in part) as “disregarding the freedom of association, according to which employees are free to form or join trade unions.” The law states that the “formation, joining, and membership of a trade union must not be used as a reason for unjustified discrimination or retaliation.” This is relevant because the UAW alleges, among other things, that Mercedes fired a union supporter with stage 4 cancer who previously had been exempted from a company rule against cell phones so that he could check on the availability of a certain chemotherapy drug. The union supporter’s supervisor, the UAW said, “has intimidated union supporters” in the past. The supervisor told this gravely ill person, the UAW said, that there was a zero-tolerance policy on cell phones, and got him fired.

It’s desperately important that working-class voters learn about such matters. Unfortunately, few of them follow the news, which in any case doesn’t pay much attention to labor regulation. The nonprofit group In Union and the political strategist Mike Lux this week released a report noting that among working-class voters, a “considerable” number are “double haters” (that is, they hate both Biden and Trump), third-party curious, or undecided. “Most of them voted Democratic in the recent past,” Lux wrote. “These are prime and winnable Democratic targets, and we should focus a great deal of firepower on winning them over.”

The trick is finding someone to communicate this message whom these voters will trust. “That could be friends,” Lux wrote; “it could be organizations they have grown to like and trust, like labor unions, which they regard highly.” If these voters regard labor unions highly, then they need to know how Good, Allen, Foxx, and Trump are working to screw labor unions. Nothing is more important in 2024, because without a working-class majority, Biden can’t win.