In his first official press conference on Monday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer dedicated significant time to promoting what he called Donald Trump’s “pro-worker agenda”.
Spicer boasted that a meeting the President held with several union officials is a sign that Trump has and will continue to have a favorable attitude toward the interests of labor unions, making it clear that the President hopes to raid the Democrat’s old base of unionized industrial workers. But there are concerns that despite the unverified claims of labor backing, the rhetoric may not match the reality.
On Monday afternoon Donald Trump, an NBC executive producer who lives part time in Washington, hosted a meeting in the White House with representatives from unions including the United Brotherhood of Carpenters (UBC), Sheet Metal Workers Union, the Laborers’ International Union of America (LIUNA), and the United Association.
Spicer told reporters that “the President has been honored to receive tremendous support from union working men and women on election day, and he’s dedicated to growing and deepening their support.”
But the only labor organizations to endorse Trump’s presidential campaign were in border control and law enforcement. The unions at the meeting have been openly opposed to many of the institutions and policies that Trump’s cabinet appointees support, while some present have challenged Trump himself for his alleged history of payroll fraud and anti-union practices.
LIUNA officially endorsed Hillary Clinton’s presidential run last year. The UBC, who also endorsed Clinton’s campaign, explicitly cited her platform’s inclusion of “protecting collective bargaining rights” and legislating against payroll fraud. The Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters, a large local unit of the UBC, said in April that “Donald Trump’s claims of union support are not supported by the facts or his business practices”.
Last Friday, LIUNA’s official Twitter page linked to an article called “Behind Donald Trump’s $1 Trillion Infrastructure Promise”. And the UBC has voiced concern over recent years that Washington’s trade policies “have cost millions of U.S. jobs in the last decade”. Unions are making it clear they consider Trump’s promises to labor – such as job protection through renegotiated trade deals, and Spicer’s reiteration that “infrastructure continues to be a high priority” for the White House – as worth holding him to.
“I think the unions agreed to the meeting because they have some important issues they would like to discuss with Trump,” labor economist Mark Price told the Leveller. “Given that range of issues, a meeting with Trump probably seemed like a good opportunity for the building trades to signal directly to the President their concerns.”
Price commented on the potential this has for the GOP to raid the Democrat voting base, saying that “for Trump it could be an opportunity to split off a key group of support.” But, he added, “that hinges entirely on his decisions on the issues that matter most to the unions.”
But Spicer’s grand claim that Trump’s “pro-worker” stance has “tremendous support” from unions falsely assumes that simply by talking to the President, a union necessarily backs his agenda. Price warned: “the unions generally respond better to action than talk.”
The United Steel Workers told Reuters that “we are always interested in such discussions given that 100,000s of our members work in manufacturing” – but the USW wasn’t invited to Trump’s meeting, possibly due to the President’s fragility following a spat with the union’s leader in which Trump “lied his ass off” about the number of jobs he had saved at the Carrier plant.
Unions have already demonstrated deep skepticism for Trump’s appointees to key federal government positions. Department of Labor pick Andrew Puzder, CEO of CKE Restaurants, has a history as a “habitual violator” of labor laws. And the administration is tipped to fill the National Labor Relations Board (which handles collective bargaining disputes) with similar appointees.
“The new president has selected a Secretary of Labor nominee who is hostile to labor regulations generally,” said William Gould, former chairman of the NLRB. “And so I think once appointees are in place at these regulatory agencies we’ll see appointees who contain a similar philosophy.”
The potential appointment of James Sherk to head the administration’s Domestic Policy Council to advise on labor is one such example. Sherk is known for having lobbied hard against instituting a living wage. “Assuming this is true, it’s a signal that Trump’s relations with the trades will not be good,” Price said.
Spicer’s only offering was a claim that the President has “appointed a tough and smart number of trade experts who will fight on behalf of American workers”.
One incident during the press conference quickly drew widespread ridicule when Spicer was asked point-blank what the national unemployment rate was – and refused to answer, instead blustering for several minutes about how Trump is “not focused on statistics”.
“He filibustered for 3 minutes rather than answer”, tweeted CBS’s Jamelle Bouie.
Mark Price told the Leveller that the unemployment rate incident “was probably the most bizarre exchange of the day. President Trump has been quoted saying rather strange things about the labor market and I believe Spicer was trying not to contradict the President.” He added: “In a normal country in normal times it should be straight forward to acknowledge that the U.S. economy is quite strong generating wage and income gains, but there remain groups of workers that have less employment than they would like, or that have yet to see robust growth in their earnings.”
“Of course these are not normal times, so answering simple questions about facts is an exercise in generating what the Trump administration has coined ‘alternative facts’. It’s all very disheartening.”
Speaking to the press after the event, union bosses praised Trump’s powerful gesture and told reporters that being invited into the Oval Office right at the start of the new presidency was “nothing short of incredible”. But when Spicer was asked to give policy details on Trump’s promises, Spicer shook questions off by repeatedly saying “it’s day one” and declined to comment further. Unions are now waiting with interest to see whether the President’s promises on job protection will be honored, or if they will instead turn out merely to be more alternative facts.
Image: Karl-Ludwig Poggemann