Democrats have long been the party of choice for workers’ unions in the United States, but recent statements by the AFL-CIO — the largest American workers’ union — show the liberal grasp on union votes may be starting to slip.
The AFL-CIO formed in 1955 after the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations joined together, making the largest union in the U.S., representing 12.5 million American workers. Because of the massive membership, the union’s influence stretches well beyond the contract negotiation room and into the ballot box.
Traditionally, the AFL-CIO has backed Democrats and their policies, but lately, it’s been speaking out against some liberal legislation.
Signs of fracture
During a speech Tuesday morning, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka called out former President Barack Obama for his buddy-buddy relationship with Wall Street and his questionable negotiations on trade.
Trumka specifically slammed the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade deal negotiated by Obama, claiming his negotiation on TPP cost Democrats the White House in 2016.
“He surrounded himself with Wall Street people who didn’t understand working people,” Trumka said, according to the Washington Examiner. “He spent the last year of his administration fighting us on TPP. […] That probably cost [Democrats] the election.”
Beyond condemning Obama, the AFL-CIO penned a lengthy letter in opposition to the Green New Deal — a nonbinding environment resolution that was written by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and backed by several 2020 Democrats.
As IJR previously reported, the AFL-CIO claimed the Green New Deal could cause “immediate harm” to many of its members.
“We will not accept proposals that could cause immediate harm to millions of our members and their families.”
I agree with the AFL-CIO. pic.twitter.com/pEVhr9Ricr
— Sen. John Barrasso (@SenJohnBarrasso) March 11, 2019
“We will not accept proposals that could cause immediate harm to millions of our members and their families,” the union wrote in the letter. “We will not stand by and allow threats to our members’ jobs and their families’ standard of living go unanswered.”
With many top Democrats backing the proposal, the AFL-CIO could be forced to distance itself from some party leaders pushing the proposal.
The AFL-CIO and Trump
President Donald Trump and workers’ unions have had a love-hate relationship, with recent statements showing there is room for the love to grow.
Trumka and Trump haven’t seen eye-to-eye in the past. The president has called him out over policy disagreements, claiming that Trumka’s leadership has driven the decline in union membership — which hit a record low in 2018.
Richard Trumka, the head of the AFL-CIO, represented his union poorly on television this weekend. Some of the things he said were so against the working men and women of our country, and the success of the U.S. itself, that it is easy to see why unions are doing so poorly. A Dem!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 3, 2018
Trump has also vocalized his support for the Supreme Court ruling in Janus v. AFSCME, which found that it was unconstitutional for public sector workers to be mandated to join a union.
Supreme Court rules in favor of non-union workers who are now, as an example, able to support a candidate of his or her choice without having those who control the Union deciding for them. Big loss for the coffers of the Democrats!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 27, 2018
While Trump has made it clear he’s not a supporter of the AFL-CIO, his policies have been helping workers throughout the U.S., with record-low unemployment, rising wages, and growth in manufacturing jobs. During a speech earlier this month, Trumka gave Trump credit for renegotiating trade deals like NAFTA to benefit American workers:
“Look, President Trump gets some credit for putting NAFTA back on the table. George W. Bush didn’t do that. Barack Obama didn’t do that. And let’s be candid: Hillary Clinton wouldn’t have done that. Donald Trump recognized early on…whether through political expediency or actual conviction…that our trade regime needed to be massively overhauled. And we’ve been meeting with his administration nonstop to let them know exactly where we stand.”
The AFL-CIO still regularly criticizes the Trump administration and Republicans, but it cannot help but acknowledge the pro-worker policies coming out of the White House.
The 2020 impact
In the 2018 election cycle, the AFL-CIO spent $3.6 million supporting Democrats and opposing Republicans — with not one penny spent in a way that would benefit Republicans.
But now, it looks like the AFL-CIO could be put in a position where it has to reconsider its campaign spending. According to a report from NPR, union workers are split in their support for Trump.
Following the Janus ruling and the growth of “right to work” states, union workers have been fleeing their unions, in part, because they oppose having a portion of their dues go to fund politicians they disagree with.
It’s highly unlikely that the leadership at the AFL-CIO will be jumping on the Trump train anytime soon, but its public criticisms of Democratic policies and leadership signal that the Democratic Party may be losing grasp of the union votes it’s enjoyed for the past several decades.