“[Mr. President] Your address on Friday [Inauguration Day] was a great middle class address. It hit home for the working class people who have been hurting. You said it. People here in Washington have [unintelligible]. The working class people had to hear something like that. At that venue—being up there at your inauguration and laying it down—that was a great moment for working men and women in the United States.”
–Doug McCarron, International President, Union of Carpenters and Joiners of America
Jan. 25 had to be the best day yet for Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer. Surrounded by some key leaders of North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU), their boss was relaxed and smooth. In a silken tone, Trump thanked the Sheet Metal Workers for work they did on his hotel down the street (even as an electrical contractor was suing his company for allegedly getting stiffed on the job). Union leaders clapped loudly as Trump announced he was trashing the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Trump told the leaders their members would soon be building new Ford plants and pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities for companies like Johnson and Johnson and they would be needed to complete a load of new projects as he terminates “disastrous” trade policies that had sent jobs out of the country. The regularly combative president even cut his predecessor some slack, saying bad trade policies preceded President Obama.
According to some blogs, Sean McGarvey, president of the NABTU, asked if the new administration would continue wage protections of construction workers who work on federal projects, provisions of the Davis-Bacon Act. Nonunion contractors had sent a letter to President Trump on Jan. 10 asking him to set the law aside. Trump said he “knew a lot” about Davis-Bacon. But he made no commitment to continue to protect construction workers wages from a race to the bottom.
As participants got up to leave the room, Doug McCarron, president of the Carpenters, said he had one more message for the president. Trump said, “I love Doug.” The president called everyone back in the room, asked a member of the press covering the event to join them and handed the floor to McCarron who gushed about Trump’s inaugural address, calling it a “great moment for working men and women in the United States.” McCarron looked pleased. The meeting was over.
Conway and Spicer, sitting directly behind the president, beamed like newlyweds on a honeymoon who just rolled out of the sack to find they had hit the lottery. In short order, a Fox News anchor asked a colleague: “Did anyone ever think for a minute that a Republican president would be inviting unions into the White House on his second official day of business?”
For Sean McGarvey, visiting the White House was like a kid’s first hour at Disney World. “The respect that the President of the United States just showed us… was nothing short of incredible,” he told the media. “He took the time to take everyone into the Oval Office and show them the seat of power in the world.”
Then McGarvey went further than McCarron in giving Trump his imprimatur. A press release from NABTU stated, “In politics, there are people of words, and people of deeds. North America’s Building Trades Unions are grateful that President Trump is a man who puts actions behind his words.”
On the blogosphere, NABTU leaders were immediately criticized for praising Trump. Erik Loomis, a blogger on “Lawyers, Guns and Money,” posted a story, “Building Trades Allow Themselves to be Played Like Fools,” contending that the leaders not only failed to secure any concrete guarantees on Davis-Bacon, but—in their effusive praise of Trump—further isolated themselves from political progressives. Loomis outlined the “deeply cultural” gulf between a large swath of building trades’ members and members of the wider progressive movement on issues from immigration to the environment.
“The problem,” says Loomis, is that “McGarvey, Terry O’Sullivan (president of the Laborers) and some of these other union leaders aren’t trying to educate their members on these issues.”
Hamilton Nolan, a blogger on The Concourse, posted a story, “Unions Don’t Do This” about the White House Meeting. Nolan listed topics Trump chose not discuss with the leaders: “His avowedly anti-union Labor Secretary nominee; his stated support for ‘right to work’ laws that could decimate union membership in America; his tax plan that will primarily benefit the very rich and exacerbate economic inequality; his statement that American wages are ‘too high,’ or the actual union busting campaign that his company ran against its workers in Las Vegas.”
“Don’t credit the guy who reacted to the jamming without giving a shout-out to the jammers.”
Now, I don’t pretend for one minute any labor leader’s job is easy after the defection of so many union members to a Republican Party that has never buried its animosity toward unions.
Trump brilliantly exploited the Democratic Party’s support for neoliberal trade policies, NAFTA and the TPP and drove the stake in deep. And, since the election, Trump has even hired guys like Robert Lighthizer, who had previously worked closely with AFL-CIO economists intent on strengthening the Obama administration’s trade negotiations.
It would make a big mistake for any labor leaders who oppose the Republican’s anti-worker agenda to take pot shots at Trump’s trade agenda as Les Leopold states so well in his article, “If Progressives Want to Defeat Trump They Must Win Back Workers.”
But McGarvey’s and McCarron’s fawning over Donald Trump’s attention to trade and infrastructure mimics the Democratic Party’s failings on those issues—the illusion that by treating your adversaries well, you can bend them to your agenda. It can get ridiculous.
Members of the Laborers International Union of North America (LIUNA), have said that International President Terry O’Sullivan, who was also in the White House meeting, was very worried about LIUNA members who participated in the “Women’s March on Washington” were wearing their bright orange union T-shirts. Better, he thought, for them to bury their union identity.
And why the hell would union leaders praise Trump without simultaneously crediting the years of struggle by the nation’s best trade union activists, lawyers and economists to turn around trade policy? Trump and Pence, for instance, scored a load of points cutting a deal to keep some jobs that were destined for outsourcing at Carrier in Indiana. What was soon forgotten was the excellent media work done by the United Steelworkers (USW) and the YouTube video of union members shouting down the executive who told them their jobs were going to Mexico. Don’t credit the guy who reacted to the jamming without giving a shout-out to the jammers.
My original anger over this stuff has turned to sadness. Thirteen years ago, after 30 years as USW activist and local union leader, I went to work for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) hired as a communications specialist in the union’s Washington, D.C. headquarters.
I marveled at the strong identification members in the union’s construction branch had with their trade and their union. But I also learned that this pride sometimes came with the evil twin of nepotism and exclusivity. So I gained even greater respect for the inspirational and courageous IBEW activists and leaders who were working to broaden the union’s reach and diversify its base.
I was honored to write stories about former gang members in South-Central L.A. recruited by the building trades, transforming their lives and contributing to their communities. I took pride in helping promote the work of apprenticeship instructors who were incorporating the principles of solidarity and fairness into their curriculums. And, while I had deep differences with the IBEW on fossil fuel policy, I took heart in the work of locals unions that promoted jobs and training in renewable energy and working with, not against, environmental advocates.
These forward-looking IBEW activists are not alone. They exist within O’Sullivan’s LIUNA and McCarron’s Carpenters. Members of both unions have worked to reach out to and recruit tomorrow’s workforce and mentor new leaders, including large numbers of Latino workers. In fact, McCarron built his reputation supporting Latino dry-wall installers in his native California, bringing them into the Carpenters. There is so much fertile ground for growing the building trades’ density in previously ignored or excluded sectors.
When McGarvey, claiming to speak for all the trades, kowtows to a president who launched his political career attacking the legitimacy of the nation’s first black president and stereotyping Hispanics as “rapists and murderers,” he undermines the work and the morale of dedicated activists and potential members, the future of the U.S. labor movement.
I would hope a critical re-assessment of NABTU’s messaging and strategy toward the new administration might turn around these problems. But I know that will take a struggle and much courage on the part of other building trade leaders and activists.
Sometimes internal polarization is necessary for a movement to win. McGarvey and McCarron have compelled this reality.