The tweet, from Donald Trump, was pointed.
“If United Steelworkers 1999 was any good, they would have kept those jobs in Indiana,” the president-elect wrote this month, referring to the effort to save Carrier manufacturing jobs in the state.
“Spend more time working — less time talking,” Trump wrote to the union’s leadership.
The blast caused labor leaders across the country to shudder. But those same leaders know that tens of thousands of union voters, angry at stagnant wages, liberal foreign trade and affirmative action, backed Trump against Hillary Clinton.
Clinton won union voters by 19 points over Trump, the AFL-CIO says, citing Election Day surveys. But, by contrast, Barack Obama bested Mitt Romney by 32 points among union members. The difference may have been the margin of Trump’s victory in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
“Hillary failed to give blue-collar voters a reason to vote for her,” said former U.S. Rep. Jim Slattery of Kansas, a Democrat. “Her message was Trump was terrible and dangerous. This did not work in an election where 75 percent of the voters thought the country was heading in the wrong direction.”
Other Democrats have reached a similar conclusion. Their party will not recover, they believe, until labor’s rank-and-file return solidly into the party’s column.
“Don’t know,” said Paul Wrabec, chairman of the Jackson County Democratic Party. “It’s a pickle. … It’s going to take some time.”
Union political leaders say the same.
“Oh, God, I don’t know how to answer that question,” said Darcy Wood, legislative director for the 1,500-member American Postal Workers Local 67. “I’m not sure we can reinvigorate our membership with the Democratic Party.”
It’s an astonishing claim. For decades, union members have formed the backbone of the Democratic Party’s constituency — and Democratic leaders, in turn, have fought to protect union interests in state capitals and Washington, D.C.
That connection, in place since the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, now faces a crisis.
Herb Johnson, who for decades lobbied on behalf of organized labor in Missouri, said that Democrats and unions need to mend “a disconnect between the way ordinary people feel toward a party that seems to be spending more and more of its time with people with money that doesn’t relate to you, the working person.”
In other words, less time at Hollywood fundraisers, more time in union halls.
“Democrats have always been the party of people who take showers after work rather than before work,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat. “I think in this election … folks thought that we were worried about somebody else besides them.”
But the political muscle Johnson and McCaskill once found in unions is gone. In Missouri, Republicans will control the legislature and the governor’s office, and a right-to-work law that unions have successfully fended off in the state for decades is sure to pass, reducing labor’s ability to collect union dues and finance organizing.
The loss of collective bargaining power is nationwide. Thirty-five years ago, one in five private-sector workers was represented by a union. Today, less than one in 10 workers is unionized.
Union membership in Missouri fell 2.4 percentage points in the decade after 2005 to settle at 8.8 percent of the state’s workforce. In something of an anomaly, union membership in Kansas rose 1.7 percentage points over the same period, to stand at 8.7 percent of the state workforce.
Some sectors of the economy — teachers, service employees, government workers — remain heavily organized. But the decimation of unions in manufacturing has hollowed out middle-class Rust Belt states and left a small core of unemployed workers sympathetic to Trump’s populist message.
That’s particularly true in rural areas, where Trump’s appeal is cultural as well as economic. Clinton “showed disrespect for their Second Amendment concerns,” Slattery said, citing a special interest that, for some union members, dictated their votes.
“Our people may say, ‘I love my union,’ but if issue A, B or C is more important to them, that’s the way they’re going to vote,” said postal worker Wood.
John Lamping, a former Missouri state senator and a Republican, said the Democrats’ message made his party’s task easier. “Be it bitter clingers or deplorables,” he said, “the GOP just had to talk directly to rank-and-file and they could be had. And were.”
Democrats said addressing those cultural worries will be the first step for the party, and difficult. Any great departure from commitments to affirmative action or workplace reforms might help bring in union votes, but it might cost support among minority and female voters in cities.
“We’re always going to lose people because of the gun issue,” argued Kerry Gooch, executive director of the Kansas Democratic Party. “And the abortion issue, and LGBT rights.”
Instead, he said, the party should emphasize economic issues like higher wages and better benefits.
“Labor needs to educate its members about what their economic interests are,” agreed Judy Ancel, director of the Worker Education and Labor Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “They need to understand why a Cabinet filled with generals and CEOs isn’t in their best interests.”
And the party must focus especially on job creation, some Democrats said.
“A major infrastructure initiative — roads, highways, bridges, water and sewer systems — could put millions of Americans back to work,” said former U.S. Rep. and Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, a Democrat. “Tax legislation truly focusing on middle-class citizens, giving them a tax package that is beneficial, is something we need to do more of.”
Still other Democrats urged their party to copy Trump’s protectionist approach. Sen. Bernie Sanders has repeatedly denounced trade agreements with foreign nations since the election, often to loud applause from middle-class voters in the audience.
“From this moment on, if people were concerned about the elites, about Wall Street and entrenched people running things, we’re going to point hard to every appointment of Donald Trump as giant steps in the wrong direction for working people,” said Tyler French, Kansas City director for the Service Employees International Union Local 1.
But the most important tactic, some leaders said, will be to simply wait Trump out, loudly criticizing each perceived takeaway from workers.
Trump’s nominee for Labor secretary, restaurant chain CEO Andrew Puzder, for example, is an opponent of a substantially higher minimum wage. He also opposes expanding overtime rules to cover more workers and the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare. Some in the labor community fear Puzder will lead an “anti-labor” department that turns workers’ sentiments against the Republican Party.
Additionally, the president-elect’s promises to bring back jobs in coal, steel production and manufacturing may fall short in an economy that has been vastly changed by technology and globalization. Trump already has criticized spending for the F-35 fighter jet, and shutting down that production could cost thousands of jobs, further angering labor.
Maybe, too, said labor advocate Johnson, it’s the Democratic Party “that needs to refocus who it is they’re appealing to. … It’s hard to believe the party of Roosevelt has lost the working class.”
And, by “working class,” both union and political representatives say they mean more than those who have collective bargaining rights.
With fewer than 15 million union members nationally — including those in the public sector — there’s little political clout for organized labor compared to the power of about 135 million wage and salary workers nationally.
“If they would just listen on TV to see all the stuff Trump is doing … maybe they’re going to wake up and say, ‘Maybe we screwed up. Maybe we didn’t vote for the right guy,’ ” said Wrabec, the Jackson County Democratic Party chairman.