Clinton got union money, but Trump won many workers' hearts and minds

Increasing number of laborers favored Republican president-elect

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On Thursday, after Democrats’ bruising losses on Election Day, members of several powerful labor unions swarmed a Washington, D.C., park a stone’s throw from Senate offices. They waved signs with slogans such as “Stop Corporate Trade Deals,” “Tax Wall Street” and even “Bernie 2020.”

Most prevalent: signs opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, whose prospects for approval have now been declared null.

“TPP, RIP!” the crowd shouted at one point. 

Strikingly, unions — long a cornerstone of the Democratic party — were celebrating the death of a trade agreement negotiated by Democrats and that Hillary Clinton praised before changing her tune and advocating against it. It’s now clear that Republican Donald Trump’s anti-trade deal message resonated with many union members, and Clinton’s support among them was weaker than expected.

Clinton’s underperformance among union members came despite union bosses spending tens of millions of dollars supporting Clinton’s bid. Union-related political action committees, for example, gave more than $17 million to Priorities USA Action, the main super PAC boosting her candidacy, and more than $21 million to For Our Future, another super PAC focused on convincing Americans to vote for Clinton and other Democrats.

The AFL-CIO stressed that Clinton won more union member votes than Trump despite Trump’s efforts to appeal to workers. The union released exit poll numbers showing Clinton won union households by 51 percent to 43 percent, and she carried union members by 56 percent to 37 percent.

Nonetheless, Clinton’s support from union households was 10 points lower than President Barack Obama’s support four years ago, according to exit poll data released by Fox News.

In the end, labor supported Trump more than it did 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney — 3 percentage points better among union households and 4 percentage points better among union members.

With nearly 15 million union members in the United States, this shift from election to election translated into hundreds of thousands of votes for Trump.

Trump “used our rhetoric on trade and keeping jobs in America,” the AFL-CIO said, adding, “he forged a personal connection with working people by acknowledging their resentment about the rules being written to marginalize them.”

Several union leaders in recent days said the signs of many members’ reluctance to support Clinton were visible before the election, and the Democratic Party must reconsider its approach to working-class voters. 

Harold Schaitberger, the general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, said its politically active union didn’t endorse either Clinton or Trump because internal polling showed its members were too divided. It was the first time since 1976 that the union has failed to endorse in a presidential election. 

“We were going to do significant harm to our union” by endorsing a presidential candidate, he told the Center for Public Integrity.

Instead, the International Association of Fire Fighters gave to committees supporting Democratic congressional candidates. Since the election, Schaitberger said he’s had “candid” discussions with other members of the AFL-CIO’s executive council.

“I’m not going to speak for anybody else, but I can tell you this: It wasn’t just my members that were part of a number of the votes behind Trump,” he said.

Schaitberger also said he found it “disturbing” that “some of the Democratic voices speak about blue-collar workers, white working-class non-college educated whites, almost in a disparaging way.”

The reality now, Schaitberger said, is a Democratic party that lost the White House, both houses of Congress, hundreds of state legislative seats and governorships.

“There needs to be a lot of soul searching,” he said, and discussions about how to maintain a progressive, diverse coalition without ignoring “blue-collar white union members who have felt disenfranchised and angry and in many ways left on the sidelines.”

The International Longshoremen’s Association endorsed Clinton’s bid early, in October 2015.

Nonetheless, James McNamara, a spokesman for the union, said the membership was probably evenly divided between Trump and Clinton.

“If we posted something up on Facebook … you had comments that were calling our endorsement into question. You had just as many supporting our endorsement,” he said.

At the rally in Upper Senate Park Wednesday, other union officials, too, acknowledged some of their members had found Trump’s message appealing.

“As I traveled around the country campaigning for Hillary Clinton, no doubt, many of our members voted for Donald Trump,” said Oscar Owens, the international secretary-treasurer for the Amalgamated Transit Union. “Based on what he was saying he is going to do for America, to do for working people.”

John Costa, an international vice president for the Amalgamated Transit Union, agreed, and said he had sensed a lack of excitement for Clinton.

“The Democratic party needs to do a better job in their process,” he said. “They have to listen to the people. They have to listen to the young people and the workers, not the lobbyists.”

One prominent Democrat who agrees? Vice President Joseph Biden.

In October, he sounded a warning note about working-class voters, saying on MSNBC that “we don’t associate with their difficulty anymore.”

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