Now union leaders face a huge, embarrassing question: Why, after unions spent more than $100 million to defeat Donald J. Trump, did Mrs. Clinton win only narrowly among voters from union households, 51 percent to 43 percent, according to exit polls? In a further indication that union leaders were not on the same wavelength as the working-class whites who tipped the election to Mr. Trump, Mrs. Clinton lost among union households in Ohio, 49 percent to 44 percent.
“We underestimated the amount of anger and frustration among working people and especially white workers, both male and female, about their economic status,” said Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and chairman of the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s political committee.
Like many inside the Washington Beltway, union leaders generally thought things weren’t so bad — the unemployment rate has dropped to 4.9 percent, and median household income jumped by a record 5.2 percent last year. But many union officials didn’t adequately hear the anger and pain felt by many working-class whites: that they were stuck economically, that Washington wasn’t addressing their problems, like disappearing factories and good jobs.Continue reading the main story
One official with the United Steelworkers said his Pittsburgh-based union had urged members to back Mrs. Clinton, but many preferred Mr. Trump, largely because of his tough talk on trade with Mexico and China. Many lapped up his promises to bring back manufacturing jobs, hinting at a return (an improbable one) to the 1950s and ’60s, when manufacturing boomed and unions were mighty. (Mr. Trump’s G.O.P. allies are spoiling, however, to further hobble labor unions, which are far weaker than in the ’60s.)
Many steelworkers, the official explained, disliked Mrs. Clinton because of her ties to Wall Street, because her husband had championed Nafta and because she had supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership before coming out against the trade pact during the campaign.
Leo Gerard, the steelworkers’ president, sent a letter to his union’s 600,000 members, acknowledging that its ranks “were divided this election season.” While the economy has grown, he wrote, “the growth has failed to stimulate the manufacturing sector because of our nation’s failed trade policies.” Maintaining that Mr. Trump had appropriated his union’s message, he wrote, “Trump used our own words to speak to these problems, and to the real suffering, fears and anxieties that so many feel.”
Most labor leaders viewed Mr. Trump far more harshly than his union backers did; they often attacked him as a con artist and a threat to unions and workers. Mrs. Clinton would have prevailed had she adopted a more muscular pro-worker message, union leaders lament, more like Bernie Sanders’s message attacking trade deals and inequality.
With Mr. Trump’s victory and with Republicans now controlling both houses of Congress, unions are expecting a series of stinging blows. Even as Mr. Trump talks of spending $1 trillion to improve infrastructure, many Republicans are eager to repeal an 85-year-old law requiring that contractors pay union-level wages on federal projects. Congressional Republicans are likely to take up nationwide “right-to-work” legislation, which would sap union treasuries by barring any requirement that workers pay union dues or fees. And even if Senate Democrats manage to block such a law, Republican gains in Kentucky and Missouri mean those states are likely to enact their own right-to-work laws.
Mr. Trump will most likely scrap most of Mr. Obama’s executive orders on labor, including ones requiring federal contractors to disclose labor law violations, provide paid sick leave and pay a $10.10 minimum wage. He may also erase a regulation that lets four million additional workers qualify for overtime pay. (Last Tuesday, a federal judge in Texas suspended that regulation.) And the National Labor Relations Board under Mr. Trump will no doubt overturn numerous union-friendly moves by the Obama board, among them ones speeding up unionization elections and giving graduate research and teaching assistants at private universities the right to unionize.
Whoever Mr. Trump names to the Supreme Court to fill Antonin Scalia’s seat will help to re-establish a conservative majority, boding ill for labor. In a closely watched case, a California public-school teacher asked the court to rule that any requirement that she pay union fees violated her First Amendment freedom of speech. Last March, the court deadlocked, 4-4, in that case, but with a Trump appointee the court will probably rule that government employees can’t be required to pay any fees to support the union that represents them. That would be a sharp blow to the nation’s public-employee unions and their treasuries.
Just 11.1 percent of American workers belong to unions, half the level when Ronald Reagan became president and down from 35 percent in the 1950s. However, businesses and Republicans remain wary of labor’s power. “Unions are a small minority of the work force, but they still have a strong war chest that can be used for political purposes,” said Randel K. Johnson, a senior vice president at the United States Chamber of Commerce.
Yet with each new step weakening unions, organized labor will become less of what John Kenneth Galbraith called a “countervailing power” to balance corporate might. Labor won’t be able to put up as big a fight to raise the minimum wage or prevent cuts in Medicare and tax cuts for the rich.
Jacob S. Hacker, a political-science professor at Yale, said the shrunken movement, which represents just 6.7 percent of private-sector workers, faces “an existential crisis.”
“There’s an irony here,” he said. “Unions are probably the most consistent voice for the broad middle class of any organization today, yet the voice of the middle class was seen as an important part of Donald Trump’s victory. The further decline of labor is going to hurt many members of the middle class.”
Unions are brainstorming how to weather a Trump presidency. Some will no doubt work with Mr. Trump on rebuilding infrastructure and overhauling trade agreements, while other unions will do battle with him — on his plans to repeal Obamacare, deport millions of immigrants and much more.
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