Can Donald Trump win over big labour?

People hoping to attend a rally held by President Donald Trump line up along James Robertson Parkway on March 15, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee.
People hoping to attend a rally held by President Donald Trump line up along James Robertson Parkway on March 15, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee. PHOTO: AFP

Like Ronald Reagan, Donald Trump racked up the support of millions of blue-collar white voters in Midwestern swing states, and like Reagan, the 45th president is pushing to nail down more blue-collar support to ensure a lasting Republican majority.

In doing so, Trump has championed many issues straight out of organised labour's wish list - he is pressing manufacturers not to ship jobs overseas, he has promised US$1 trillion (S$1.4 trillion) in infrastructure spending, he has threatened a 35 per cent tariff to slow Mexican imports, and he has vowed to overhaul Nafta.

While Reagan lined up support from only a few unions, Trump is seeking to go him one better; he is wooing many unions and their members directly, from carpenters to coal miners to autoworkers. At a recent discussion on how to expand auto industry jobs, Trump invited the president of the United Auto Workers to sit close to him on the dais.

Trump and his advisers know that his America First message resonates with autoworkers and other blue-collar workers. The Trump team also knows that if it can win over some of the nation's major labour unions - they're usually a pillar of Democratic campaigns - that will badly weaken the Democrats for years to come.

"Trump is working to be the blue-collar president - you're already seeing that in his outreach to unions," said F. Vincent Vernuccio, director of labour policy at the Mackinac Center, a free-market think tank in Michigan.

"Some unions are warming up to Trump because labour leaders are following their members. They saw that in some states a majority of union members voted for Trump."

Just three days after his inauguration, the president courted labour by inviting the heads of several building trades unions to the Oval Office. Afterward, they sounded almost giddy, with the president of the labourers' union issuing a news release headlined, "It is Finally Beginning to Feel Like a New Day for America's Working Class".

Sean McGarvey, president of North America's Building Trades Unions, came away applauding Trump's plans for the Keystone Pipeline and other projects, which could mean more than 100,000 new jobs.

"So far so good - our concern is basically the economic trajectory of our membership," McGarvey said. (Although when Trump spoke last week to the construction unions' legislative conference, some union officials - unhappy about his push to repeal Obamacare and his rolling back of some worker safety regulations - booed him and held up signs saying, "Resist".)

Although labour unions have declined in size and might - just 10.7 per cent of US workers belong to unions, down from 30 per cent under President John F. Kennedy - they still pack plenty of political punch.

Many labour leaders were mortified that Hillary Clinton narrowly lost in three longtime union strongholds, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin; they say that if she and labour had campaigned a bit smarter in those states, she could have won them, and the White House.

One reason she lost Wisconsin is that union rolls there have plummeted - from 15 per cent of all workers in 2009 to 8 per cent today. A big reason: Gov. Scott Walker moved aggressively to shrink Wisconsin's public-sector unions.

Trump has focused his attentions on private-sector unions and workers, like miners in Kentucky and steelworkers in Pennsylvania.

"Trump is doing what both Nixon and Reagan tried to do: pick out a few of the likeliest unions and see if you can make nice with them," said Joseph McCartin, a labour historian at Georgetown University.

He noted another similarity - while the Reagan administration had numerous officials interested in working with unions, it, like the Trump administration, also had fiercely anti-labour officials eager to weaken unions.

The nation's unions are divided into three camps regarding Trump.

The construction trades are the most pro-Trump. Many liberals have criticised McGarvey's enthusiastic words for the president, but he said it's smart to work with politicians.

"We're working on creating a building trades majority, Democratic and Republican, whether state or national," he said. "We never want to be in a position where losing an election changes the economic trajectory of our membership."

The strongly anti-Trump camp includes the Service Employees International Union, the National Education Association and several federal, state and municipal employees unions. These unions oppose the federal hiring freeze, the proposed budget cuts and repealing Obamacare and are aghast at Education Secretary Betsy DeVos' antagonism toward traditional public schools.

"The budget they've put forward is horrible, and DeVos is on a path to destroy public education," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

Then there's the ambivalent, middle camp, including the autoworkers, steelworkers and machinists unions. They applaud Trump's withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact and his vows to bring back factory jobs and renegotiate Nafta.

Dennis Williams, the UAW's president, applauds Trump's tough stance on Mexican trade - "We've been hollering about this for 20 years" - and at the same time slams his policies on immigration and Obamacare.

Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University, said some unions have accepted a Faustian bargain.

"Aside from somehow creating jobs for some members, what do you get in return?" he asked. "You can forget about having any labour law reform to make it easier to unionise, and you can kiss goodbye a $15 federal minimum wage."

Chaison said union leaders understand Trump's type of personality. "That's the reality they deal with every day - CEOs who are often arrogant," he said. "They know how to deal with them."

Still, the language many labour leaders use towards Trump is more modulated, not their usual muscular talk. Perhaps they are scared of his wrathful tweets or his history of retaliating against critics.

Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, said that labour is not nearly as divided as some say. Her union is working closely with the steelworkers to promote environmental protection and green jobs, and numerous unions banded together to try to block Neil Gorsuch's nomination to the Supreme Court and to battle Republican efforts to pass right-to-work legislation in Missouri (where it was enacted) and in New Hampshire (where it was defeated).

"The Trump administration is just another step in a 40-year attack that's been waged against unions," Henry said. "The American labour movement is bound together by our deep desire to create good-paying union jobs. We're not going to support any agenda that seeks to divide unions from each other."

Chuck Jones, president of the steelworkers local in Indianapolis, was a target of the president's Twitter wrath after he said Trump had exaggerated the number of Carrier jobs in Indiana that he had helped to save.

"I'm grateful he was able to keep 730 Carrier jobs here in this country," Jones said.

Some union members challenge his skepticism that Trump will be a friend of blue-collar workers.

"He's fought against unions," Jones said. "He's filled his Cabinet with big-business people."

But he acknowledged he was pleased with Trump's comments on manufacturing and trade, although he wants to see what the president does next. "I'm encouraged that he pulled out of TPP, but it was pretty much dead anyway," he said.

Jones said he wasn't surprised that many union members backed Trump.

"He was singing the right message on jobs and manufacturing," he said. "Hillary didn't have a message for labour. People bought into Trump." "They people who support Trump say to me, 'Give him a chance,'" Jones continued. "I hope at one point in time I can say, 'I was completely wrong, he's good for working people.'"