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Philadelphia — Normally a loyal part of the Democratic party base, blue collar unions find themselves in the unusual role of playing defense this election, scrambling to shield their members from seduction by Republican nominee Donald Trump.

Of all the interest and identity groups that mix together to make up the party base, none of them have been around longer or been more loyal than labor.

Union dollars fill the campaign accounts of Democratic candidates for offices ranging from city council to the presidency. Union volunteers are essential to the party’s get-out-the-vote efforts. And union members are the most consistently reliable bloc of Democratic voters.

But none of the old assumptions can be counted on this election, including who union members are likely to support, much to the dismay of their leaders.

“The choice of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is a no-brainer,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told the party’s Labor Caucus, detailing a litany of reasons working men and women should vote against the GOP nominee. “It is no choice at all. Donald Trump is bad for workers.”

But in a speech earlier in the year, Trumka acknowledged many union workers are struggling with the choice, saying, “Donald Trump is tapping into the very real and very understandable anger of working people.”

Workers like Pete Grusch of Ypsilanti, a United Auto Workers member and team leader at Ford Motor Co.’s Wayne Assembly Plant, who typically follows his union’s lead and votes Democrat. He backed Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Michigan primary, but is now firmly in the Trump camp.

“He’s strong on the Second Amendment,” says Grusch, 49, who believes “neither the Democrats or Republicans are for the working man. But Trump gets it.”

Among his team members at the plant, Grusch estimates 70 percent are with Trump.

It makes sense if you buy the pollsters’ depiction of the typical Trump voter: A non-college-educated white male who works in a blue-collar industry. That describes a lot of miners, truck drivers and auto workers, many of whom are suspicious of Clinton’s industrial policy. (Remember the infamous quote about putting coal miners out of business.)

“They like the idea of his message,” says Phil Erwin, a 60-year-old truck driver from Canton Township who is attending the convention as a guest of his girlfriend, a delegate. “The ‘Make America Great Again’ line.”

Erwin is a liberal who is looking at Green Party candidate Jill Stein, but understands why Trump resonates with his fellow blue-collar workers.

“America is changing so fast for guys in my age group,” he says. “They can’t keep up with it. Trump grabs them.”

Hanging on to those once loyal Democrats is a top priority at the convention.

Prime-time speakers are hammering home the message that Trump’s policies are bad for working people and that, as an employer, Trump was mean to his workers. Claims are repeated that Trump outsources his clothes line to China and other countries, robs pension funds and lays off workers to fatten his own bottom line.

They are reinforced at breakfast meetings of the individual state delegations. U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell of Dearborn Monday tore into Trump as an outsourcer of jobs, and Tuesday U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Lansing reminded delegates that Trump opposed the auto bailout and has advocated moving manufacturing plants out of the country.

Union operatives will spread those themes with their members when they return home.

“We tell them the best choice is to stay with the people who keep them working,” says Darryl Goodwin, assistant director of UAW Region 1A.

As with other Demographic groups, it’s not just about Trump. Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton is a huge factor.

“I’ll take my chances with Donald Trump,” Grusch says. “I know what I’m going to get with Hillary based on her past and her lies.”

The stakes are high. Trump needs, by some estimates, more than 60 percent of the white male vote to prevail in November. Democrats typically capture well over half of union voters.

So far, the only unions that have endorsed Trump are the National Border Patrol Council and the New England Police Benevolent Association. Nearly all the rest are with Clinton. Endorsements are nice, but votes are what counts, and Democrats know they have to keep union voters.

“We don’t win without labor,” Clinton campaign labor outreach director Nikki Budzinski told the Michigan delegation.

nfinley@detroitnews.com

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