CEDAR RAPIDS — Attracted by promises of job creation, infrastructure projects and expanded trade opportunities, more than one-third of American labor union members voted for Donald Trump in 2016.
After nearly three years of what they see as tax cuts for the wealthy, hostile workplace policies and trade wars, Iowa union leaders and rank-and-file members predict Trump won’t get the vote share in 2020 that he scored in 2016.
“There’s a lot of second guessing” among those folks, said Bill Gerhard of the Iowa State Building and Construction Trades.
Many union members voted for Trump “because they didn’t like Hillary Clinton,” Jeff Stephens, a member of Carpenters 308 in Cedar Rapids, said at a Labor Day picnic.
“It won’t be that way this time,” said Richard Julius, a retired Carpenters 308 member from Fairfax. Union members who supported Trump “aren’t talking him up like last time.”
Former union negotiator and Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Jeff Kaufmann doesn’t hesitate to talk up Trump’s record.
“Under President Trump’s leadership, the country and Iowa’s economy are booming,” said Kaufmann, a college professor. More than 500,000 jobs have been created since Trump’s election, and unemployment is at a generational low.
“President Trump continues to push back against Democrat policies that would hurt union members like ending employer-sponsored health care,” Kaufmann added. “The president has made it abundantly clear that he will never stop fighting for American workers.”
Union support for Trump may be waning, but the president’s campaign Monday hailed the endorsement of the International Union of Police Associations, which represents more than 100,000 law enforcement officers.
Trump made inroads with union voters
Given the campaign promises Trump made in 2016, it’s not entirely surprising to Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, President Ken Sagar that he won significant support from union members.
“The irony is that if you look at the message that he ran on, it was about trade, it was about jobs, it was about infrastructure. You know what? That was our message, and it’s been our message for a very long time, and it will continue to be our message,” Sagar said.
Data from exit polling and the Cooperative Congressional Election Study found that as many as 37 percent of union members voted for Trump in 2016. Clinton carried union voters by nearly 17 percentage points, but that was nearly 18 points less than the union vote for President Barack Obama in 2012. Trump’s gains amounted to between 1 and 2 percentage points in the key states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin based on union membership there, according to the website FiveThirtyEight.
Union voters who backed Trump were dissatisfied with the way things were going in 2016 and were attracted by his populist message, said Mike Olson of IBEW 405 in Cedar Rapids.
“They thought he was legitimate, but it’s been proven he’s not,” Olson said.
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AFSCME Council 61 President Danny Homan hopes that his members “are starting to see through the lie ... that negative narrative of baloney” served up by Fox News.
“They thought Trump would give them what they wanted,” said Chelsea Bleuer, an International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers member at Snap-on Tools in Algona. She’s not sure how many members have changed their minds.
“They’re taking an interest” in the 2020 contest, “but I’m not sure they’re fired up yet,” Bleuer said.
Skylar Wessely, a member of the Iowa Postal Workers in Cedar Falls, thinks union voters are realizing the consequences of the Trump presidency.
There won’t be as many Trump voters because “union-busting has become such a big issue. It’s happening all over,” Wessely said. Her preferred candidate, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, “wants to make it easier to unionize.”
Drawing contrasts between words, actions
Homan’s mission now is to educate union members about the cost of the Trump presidency.
“I think people are starting to wake up to realize what we were told is not true,” he said. “(Trump) said steel is up, but they’re cutting 200 jobs. Our economy is great, but he wants to cut payroll taxes because the economy is not doing so good.”
Sagar agrees that talking about Trump’s record will help convince union members that any one of the 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls would be a better choice.
“He has not fulfilled many of his campaign pledges and, in fact, he’s attacked many of the institutions that are important to labor,” Sagar said. “We have an opportunity here to show where the candidates are on the issues versus what he said he was going to do and what he’s actually done.”
Unions won’t change minds by attacking Trump or union members who voted for him, Sagar cautioned.
“I think you’ve got to lay out the information about where the issues are that are important — jobs, education, health care, retirement,” he said. “I think if you give them the information, they will come to similar conclusions.”
Homan is optimistic about labor’s opportunity to help elect a Democratic president in 2020.
“I think we win,” he said with the caveat that “I thought we were going to win in 2016.
“We have five or six candidates — and no, I’m not going to tell you who they are — that I believe are top-tier candidates who any one of them can beat Donald Trump, can make the argument that things have to change,” Homan said. “At a minimum, I want someone who can beat Trump, but I want that bar higher than that. I want to fix some of the other stuff that’s wrong.”