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The Unions Betraying the Left

By embracing Donald Trump, the building trades are selling out the movement for greater equality for all working people.

Nicholas Kamm/Getty Images

Days after the inauguration, the leaders of several building trade unions met with President Donald Trump at the White House, outraging those on the left who want organized labor to lead the resistance to the president’s anti-worker policies. The building trades cited Trump’s call for infrastructure investment and their warm personal relationship with him as reasons to be optimistic about his presidency. As reported in The New York Times, Sean McGarvey, president of North America’s Building Trade Unions, stated, “We have a common bond with the president. We come from the same industry. He understands the value of driving development, moving people to the middle class.” Laborers International Union of North America (LIUNA) President Terry O’Sullivan talked of Trump’s “commitment to creating hundreds of thousands of working-class jobs.”

The next day, Trump announced that he would reverse former President Barack Obama’s decision to reject the Keystone XL Pipeline and that he would restart construction on the Dakota Access Pipeline. He also said he would go through with his campaign promise to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. The building trades were enthusiastic. O’Sullivan wrote victoriously, “President Trump has shown that it is not difficult to put country above politics and create an energy-independent America. He has shown that he respects laborers who build our great nation, and that they will be abandoned no more.” In the same breath, he lambasted Obama for caving to “environmental extremists.”

The building trades’ support of anything that creates a job, no matter the cost to the nation or the environment, has given the union movement a bad name in progressive circles. The pipeline battles have galvanized the left to fight for indigenous rights and against climate change. From the outset, O’Sullivan has been contemptuous of the rest of the progressive movement. Moreover, he has bullied other unions to stay out of the question of pipeline construction—seemingly forgetting that all of us have to live in a world plagued by dirty energy. And if the building trades keep this up, they will damage themselves by alienating the allies they need to survive the Trump era.

This kind of behavior is hardly new. The building trades have long aligned themselves with racist and exclusionary forces. The labor movement’s first major legislative victory in the United States was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which originated with California workers angry about Chinese competition. The trades consistently supported immigration restriction well after the Immigration Act of 1965 reopened America’s borders to the world’s tired and poor. The Congress of Industrial Organizations, founded in 1935 by United Mine Workers of America President John L. Lewis to organize the millions of workers in the nation’s industrial sectors, was necessary because the trades not only refused to allow women, Asian-Americans, African-Americans, and unskilled workers into their unions, but also opposed any effort by other unions to organize them.

In 1970, the New York building trades organized to beat up antiwar protesters. Richard Nixon rewarded Peter Brennan, who headed the New York building trades, by naming him secretary of the Labor Department. Combined with the AFL-CIO’s refusal to endorse George McGovern in 1972, a decision supported by many of the building trades, this ruined the reputation of organized labor among the left for a generation.

The broader labor movement, of course, has a much nobler history. The pillars of American social democracy were built by Democratic administrations and labor, particularly the industrial unions that were formed from the millions of workers who had joined the movement by the end of World War II. United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther, for example, believed unions would be central players in all post-war economic planning and had staffers working full-time on issues such as nuclear safety. Reuther also was organized labor’s most prominent supporter of the civil rights movement: The UAW paid for much of the March on Washington, even as the AFL-CIO, led by its Cold War–obsessed President George Meany, refused to endorse it.

The difference between the industrial and trade unions on social policy was made clear soon after the CIO organized the industrial workforce. In the Pacific Northwest, for instance, my own research demonstrates how in the late 1930s and 1940s, the CIO-affiliated International Woodworkers of America demanded government regulation of private timber harvests, the end of the ecologically destructive practice of clearcutting, and strict management of the forests to preserve them for future generations, an agenda similar to what environmentalists would demand several decades later. Their building trade rival in the Northwest, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, today one of the unions that met with Trump, responded by redbaiting the IWA and calling for employers to make all decisions on managing the forest.

Industrial unions played a central role in creating the postwar liberal order. They promoted a vision of a broad middle class, lobbied Congress for the money to make the underlying programs work, and provided union votes to politicians who had their back. The building trades played little role in developing these democratic forces, even as their members benefited.

Corporations regained their hold over the nation’s politics by decimating the industrial unions. They closed factories, busted unions, and moved jobs overseas. The United Auto Workers is a shell of its former self. The United Steelworkers has tried organizing in different fields, but its numbers have also fallen precipitously. The United Food and Commercial Workers, the descendant of the CIO-affiliated United Packinghouse Workers, has decent clout with some grocery chains, but has been unable to penetrate Walmart and the other retailers that have transformed the food industry. Most of the old industrial unions—the United Rubber Workers, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, and so many others—are gone, along with the jobs.

The broad-based social policies these unions fought for are now in the process of being repealed by an emboldened Republican Party. Public sector unions such as SEIU and AFSCME have filled some of that political vacuum, fighting for health care, higher minimum wages, and other economic justice programs. But the public sector unions are incredibly diverse, ranging from professors to home health care workers. They lack the common working class culture that would be needed to replicate the mass movements of the New Deal era.

As a result, the building trades once again hold an outsized amount of power within the labor movement. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka is the most politically progressive labor federation leader in American history, with the possible exception of Reuther, but he is beholden to his constituent unions when shaping policy. He cannot take a strong stand in support of protesters stopping the Dakota Access Pipeline without alienating powerful people like McGarvey and O’Sullivan.

In Rhode Island, where I live, there is currently a major political battle over the siting of a power plant that is to use fracked natural gas and diesel oil. The state’s environmental community has come out in force against this project, urging the state to adopt a clean energy future. LIUNA has not only vigorously supported the project, but its members have also stood outside meetings and openly jeered environmentalists. After the meeting with Trump, labor journalist Cole Stangler recalled a previous conversation in which he asked McGarvey if he was concerned about the environmental impact of fracking. McGarvey said no, and Stangler could hear laughter in the background at the question.

But the trade unions seem incapable of realizing that the Trump administration is not their friend. In the meeting with Trump, they asked him to pledge not to repeal the 1931 Davis-Bacon Act. This law requires the federal government to pay contractors a “locally prevailing wage,” as determined by the Department of Labor. It serves to ensure that those workers building American infrastructure are paid a fair wage. Republicans dislike it and Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona has introduced a bill to overturn the law. Trump will almost certainly sign this bill. Trump has routinely refused to pay the contractors he has hired, and has never supported unions except when they can help him. Sadly, the building trades believe that supporting Trump’s projects will pay off for them.

The repeal of Davis-Bacon will be sad. It will hurt workers and hurt unions. On the other hand, what have the building trades ever done for any other progressive group? With some exceptions, the trades have failed to understand the value of solidarity. In doing so, they are facing a situation in which they will have few allies in the fight to keep Davis-Bacon in place. Their short-sightedness is even greater considering the Muslim ban the Trump administration imposed last week. Any organization not fighting for our most vulnerable residents will not receive support from the left for its own goals.

The building trades have a singular obsession with jobs at any cost. That is understandable given the lack of union work in this country. But it also ignores the other concerns of their members—the civil rights of their black and Latino members, the need of their female members to have access to birth control and health care, and the universal need for a livable planet. Environmentalists have failed to reach out to the building trades by not demanding that our green energy infrastructure be union-made. But if LIUNA members are going to taunt environmentalists, and if building trade leaders are going to support Trump’s decision to run roughshod over indigenous rights by building the Dakota Access Pipeline, they bring the hostility of the left down on themselves.

Only a progressive labor movement that sees workers as part of a larger social movement for justice and equality can represent the interests of all working-class Americans, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, or immigration status. The building trades have too often been the enemy of these goals. And by supporting Trump’s actions, they have done so again.