Unions ready to fight Trump over rank-and-file voters

Keith Laing, and Jonathan Oosting

Labor unions are gearing up for a 64-day sprint to Election Day that will aim to prevent Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump from getting significant support from their rank and file in states such as Michigan.

The New York businessman has tapped into traditional Democratic issues by decrying the decline of U.S. manufacturing, and promising to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement that he blames for a loss of American jobs. He also has criticized Chinese currency manipulation.

Unions leaders have grudgingly agreed with some of Trump’s trade criticisms but counter he is a fraud because his Trump-branded clothing was made in Mexico, China and other countries he has bashed for stealing U.S. jobs. They back Democrat Hillary Clinton, who supports renegotiating NAFTA with Mexico and Canada and opposes the proposed 12-nation Trans Pacific Partnership pact after praising it as secretary of state.

The labor movement is not monolithic since it has members who vote Republican every election, said former United Auto Workers president Bob King.

“But I think the vast majority, the overwhelming majority of members will vote for Hillary because they understand how divisive, how fear-mongering, how anti-Democratic and anti-union and anti-worker Trump is,” King said.

Trump can win a majority of blue-collar workers this fall despite the union leader opposition — and he already has generated enthusiasm, said Terry Bowman, a Ford Motor Co. worker who is president of Union Conservatives and a recently named statewide campaign co-chair for Trump.

“In my 20 years at Ford, I have never seen so many union workers proudly saying they are not voting for the candidate that the unions choose, and they’re voting for Donald Trump,” said Bowman, who works at the Dearborn automaker’s Rawsonville Plant in Ypsilanti.

“There are some quiet conservatives who have voted Republican in the past, but they’re not usually willing to speak out. This year, they are.”

Fighting for Michigan

The campaigns are visiting Michigan during the traditional Labor Day weekend kickoff to the general election campaign.

Trump visited Detroit on Saturday as part of an effort to broaden his appeal among African-American voters. Two weeks ago, he rallied supporters in the Lansing area and declared Michigan’s manufacturing sector “a disaster,” a statement that Gov. Rick Snyder rebutted Aug. 26 by noting that the Great Lakes state has generated the most manufacturing jobs in the nation during the past few years.

Clinton is planning to spend Labor Day in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Illinois.

Husband and former President Bill Clinton, who signed NAFTA into law in 1993, will participate in the traditional Labor Day parade in Detroit.

Trump has vowed to win Michigan and has made three trips to the state since the Republican National Convention in July. He has criticized U.S. trade deals going back to 2000, when he made a short-lived run for the presidential nomination of the Reform Party.

In an Aug. 8 speech at the Detroit Economic Club, Trump said the TPP deal being being pushed by President Barack Obama will be a “disaster for the auto industry.”

“According to the Economic Policy Institute, the U.S. trade deficit with the proposed TPP member countries cost over 1 million manufacturing jobs in 2015,” said Trump, citing a liberal research group whose board members include a majority of the prominent union leaders. “By far the biggest losses occurred in motor vehicles and parts, which lost nearly 740,000 manufacturing jobs.”

Labor leaders are striking back by emphasizing Trump’s business record of seeking bankruptcy protection for his companies four times and not paying contractors.

“Workers will look at his history and record, how many electricians, pipe fitters and plumbers he really screwed,” King said. “He didn’t pay them the money that they were owed, they did the work for him.”

The problem is Trump is a “con man,” King said, repeating a phrase Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, used during the GOP primaries.

“People can look at his history and see how many people he’s told one story and done the exactly opposite,” King said.

AFL-CIO communications director Eric Hauser said his union group is launching an “aggressive, weekly direct mail program” targeting union members in the states its leaders see as the biggest battlegrounds: Florida, Indiana, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire and North Carolina.

Michigan, home of 16 of the 270 electoral votes that are needed to win the White House, is noticeably absent from the list.

“While he may be touching a vein of understandable anger, Donald Trump is not a friend of the working man and woman,” Hauser said.

Winning the ‘hard hats’

Trump has argued there is dissension between union leaders and rank-and-file members as labor endorsements have piled up for Clinton.

“I am honored that the great men and women of the @Teamsters have created a movement from within called Teamsters for Trump! Thank you,” he tweeted in May.

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters endorsed Clinton less than two weeks ago with Teamsters President James Hoffa saying Clinton “is the right candidate for the middle class and working men and women across the country.”

Bowman, who helped push for Michigan’s new right-to-work law and opted out of the UAW a year ago, said the union is getting more “desperate” because of dissension in the membership ranks.

He noted “labor walks” voter canvassing schedules have been posted at his plant and he has received two anti-Trump UAW mailers in recent weeks.

The activity is not unusual for unions, but Bowman suggested the frequency has ramped up this year.

Washington-based Republican strategist John Feehery said unions have shown they are at least concerned that Trump’s anti-trade pitch may be effective in states like Michigan.

“Trump is following the Nixon strategy of going after the hard hats,” he said. “It worked for Richard Nixon. I’m not sure it’s going to work for Trump, but it might.”

Feehery said Trump has a “message that’s more compelling in Michigan” than 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney, who lost the state despite growing up there while his father was the state’s governor.

“Same thing in Ohio and Pennsylvania,” Feehery said.

The problem for Trump is establishment or moderate Republicans, who are “part of the coalition that could carry Hillary Clinton to the White House,” he said.

Trump has scrambled the calculus on the trade debate in this campaign, said Washington-based Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons, a Detroit native.

“We haven’t had a Democratic presidential candidate come out against a big trade deal since the ’80s,” Simmons said.

“I don’t even know the last time a Republican came out against free trade.”