When Donald Trump recently attacked a local union president in Indiana, many political observers wrote off the missive as the president-elect defending his controversial deal with Carrier to keep jobs in the Hoosier state.
But in the process, Trump exposed one of the most important dynamics in American politics: Some union households are now up for grabs.
For decades, union members overwhelmingly voted for Democrats, based partially on the party’s support for the right to organize. Republicans, on the other hand, have often viewed much of organized labor as detrimental to business.
But Trump changed that by deepening the divide between the rank-and-file members, many of whom supported him by historical proportions, and their leadership, many of whom supported Clinton.
Take the Carrier incident.
Earlier this month, the president of United Steelworkers Local 1999, Chuck Jones, appeared on cable news to say that Trump overstated how many jobs would stay at the Indianapolis Carrier plant. Trump responded via Twitter that Jones had done a “terrible job” for allowing jobs to be in danger of going to Mexico in the first place.
Somehow Trump, who claims a net worth of $10 billion, was standing up for the little guy against a union boss.
Now consider the exit polls from Nov. 8: Hillary Clinton won union households by 8 percentage points over Trump. This marked a 20-year low for Democrats running for president. When President Obama was reelected four years ago, he beat Mitt Romney by 18 percentage points among union households.
More to the point, Trump’s inroads with union households could be the single biggest factor why he is the president-elect. In Ohio, exit polls show Trump actually did better than Clinton among union households, 49 percent to 44 percent.
There’s a simple explanation why, after years of aligning with Democrats, union members supported Trump: He opposed certain trade deals such as NAFTA, while Clinton, to many of these voters, represented the globalizing free-trade policies of her husband’s era in the White House.
But it’s important to note that not all union politics are the same. Trump may have done well among workers who are in trades or manufacturing, but the largest unions now are in the service sector like government, hospitals, teachers, and hospitality. And there’s no evidence Trump picked up support among those service unions — many of which are demographically diverse — compared to previous GOP nominees.
In other words, unions still did not trend toward Trump overall —
At the same time, unions are shrinking in size and national influence overall.
In 1980, 30 percent of workers belonged to a union, and they were largely white and male. Now union participation is around 12 percent nationally. Half of those union members are in the public sector in large states such as California, Illinois, and New York — all Clinton country.
It appears that some Democrats understand this shift that’s happening in US politics. On Thursday, a new candidate officially entered the race for Democratic National Committee chairman: US Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez.
But there’s one other explanation for what happened with unions in 2016: maybe they didn’t like either candidate.
Mark Erlich, the executive secretary-treasurer of the New England Regional Council of Carpenters, traveled to the swing state of New Hampshire on several weekends ahead of the election to talk with members, and he found that many didn’t like their choices or the campaign itself.
“I wouldn’t take away that there was a lot of enthusiasm for Trump among my members who voted for him,” Erlich said. “They were really just voting against Hillary. They were even rejecting the Democratic Party given that a lot of those Trump supporters were with Bernie Sanders in the primary.”
Going forward, Erlich says he is interested in what Trump has to say on trade deals and a large infrastructure plan, but he is skeptical that Trump will follow through on such promises.
“The party that wins union voters next time is the one that makes the most convincing case about how they will address income inequality,” Erlich said. “It was the number one issue when we polled members.”
And how about Jones, the president of United Steelworkers Local 1999? The Washington Post reported that he voted for Clinton, whom he called “the better of two evils.”
James Pindell can be reached at email@example.com.