Trump’s Assault on Labor

Donald Trump’s bait and switch with American workers is his greatest fraud of all. While uttering meaningless platitudes about fighting for workers, he is setting back the labor movement in ways that previous administrations could never do.

Donald Trump speaks during an event at the Sharon L. Morse Performing Arts Center in The Villages on October 3, 2019 in The Villages, Florida. Joe Raedle / Getty

I know these people well, you wouldn’t believe it. I know them too well. I know them too well. They cost me a lot of money. (Laughter.) I spent a lot of money, but I love them, and they’re great, and their people are fantastic … And it’s time that we give you the level playing field you deserve.

This kind of pro working-class banter from Donald Trump, speaking to the North American Building Trades Union in 2016, was a common feature throughout his presidential campaign. Sorely lacking from the Clinton campaign, this rhetoric and demeanor helped Trump position himself as an insurgent candidate who would fight for the working class once in office.

Unsurprisingly, the Trump administration’s first term has failed working people. Besides not delivering on certain grand promises, he has managed to launch a multifaceted assault on the labor movement that is achieving what many Republicans and neoliberal Democrats have been wanting for years with the help of the Supreme Court, the NLRB, executive orders, and deregulation.

Beyond the ridiculous headline-grabbing tweets and the continuous culture-war baiting, Trump represents an existential threat to the labor movement and the institutional means through which working-class people can fight back against ramped-up neoliberalism.

Fighting Trump on the level of decorum, discourse, or impeachment political theater will not shift the terms of debate in the Left’s favor. It certainly won’t reveal the truly insidious features of this administration and the actual stakes involved in fighting him. A comprehensive assessment of this administration’s record on labor is in order as we prepare for a tough, protracted battle to expand workers’ horizons in 2020 and beyond.

Federal Deregulation

Trump has wasted no time in rolling back many of the rather mild labor regulations that are in place to give workers some level of protection. He supported the repeal of Obama’s Fair Play and Safe Workplace Executive Order that protected workers from wage theft. Before Trump, workers had to earn over $23,000 a year before the requirement of overtime pay kicked in. Now that requirement has been moved to $35,000, eliminating that opportunity for the growing number of low-wage workers in the American economy. For these same low-wage workers, Trump ran on supporting a $10/hr minimum wage and has yet to take any action on it.

Worker health and safety has perhaps suffered the most under Trump’s regime. Among the many things workers give up when they go to their job each day is a guarantee of physical and mental safety. 5,147 workers died on the job in 2017 alone. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is being severely attacked and undermined, as their number of workplace safety inspectors has fallen to the lowest ever in the agency’s existence.

To further add to the damage, Trump removed a rule requiring corporations to keep records of worker injuries from year-to-year. In order to save the industry some $11 million a year, the Trump administration canceled a requirement for training for construction and shipyard workers to avoid exposure to beryllium, a known carcinogen.

Besides executive orders, Trump can use the various levers of the state and appoint personnel to do the bidding of the corporate sector. We’ve already seen the damage that can be done in this realm with the Janus decision against public sector unions.

Trump has left no doubt about his intentions towards workers by appointing Eugene Scalia as the new Secretary of Labor. Eugene is following in the footsteps of his father Antonio Scalia, whose dream was always to make the United States a right-to-work country. On behalf of corporate behemoth Walmart, he cut his teeth as an attorney arguing against a Maryland law that would’ve required them to spend more money on employees’ health care. The Wall Street Journal described him as “one of the industry’s go-to guys for challenging financial regulations.”

Despite the usual right-wing propaganda, the Trump administration’s actions on labor law and regulation are not an example of less government intervention in our lives. These are targeted interventions that tip the scales even more in favor of capital against labor.

Federal Workers

Perhaps the biggest front in Trump’s war on labor is his vehement attacks on federal workers. With private sector unions largely decimated, federal workers represent an important bloc in the last bastion of union density — the public sector. Trump seems to have a personal stake in this and has issued a series of executive orders targeted at these workers.

His first executive order outlines limits on the use of “progressive discipline” for workers in federal agencies and instead calls for the allowance of more immediate dismissals. This is a clear attack on due process and can easily be used as a way to get rid of troublesome union activists.

The second executive order restricts the use of “official time” employees are allowed to spend on union duties while still on the clock. As an intended outcome, this scheme has led to a formal eviction of union officials from their office. Notably, this usually happens to unions of government agencies he is already hostile to, such as the EPA. Trump has also rescinded the Obama-era “persuader” rule, which required employers to reveal their relationships with union-busting law firms.

A third executive order calls for a fast-tracked contract negotiation period, with lingering disputes to be settled by the politically appointed members of the Federal Service Impasse Panel (FSIP). If you think the FSIP sounds like a nice neutral mediator, you’re wrong. All seven members of the FSIP were appointed by Trump, and the FSIP sided with management in ten of the twelve disputed cases they’ve heard.

Due to these rapidly declining conditions, not eased by Trump’s cancellation of a 2 percent wage increase, many government workers are fleeing the job. There are 45,000 vacancies in the Department of Veteran Affairs alone. To fill these vacancies, Trump has turned to temp workers with low wages and meager benefits. Federal spending on temp services has doubled to $1.7 billion in the current fiscal year, 47 percent being for health care services.

David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), explains the impact of these policies:

Outsourcing federal jobs to contractors, particularly those that exploit workers by offering only temporary assignments, results in higher costs, less accountability, and lower quality. Rather than hiring full-time, career federal workers to care for our veterans and treat our service members, the Trump administration is outsourcing that work to costly and unaccountable temp agencies as part of an insidious plan to privatize health care.

This multilayered attack is prompting more federal workers, who are usually seen as less militant, to take action. EPA workers have staged protests in many cities over the closing of their union offices, as well as the need to increase funding for the agency in the age of climate change. Veterans Health Administration staff organized “National Day to Save the VA” rallies on June 5. We should expect that Trump’s war on federal workers will continue unabated, and that action from federal workers could be an unlikely flash point.

Friends Become Enemies

The building trades are often unfairly portrayed as conservative and reactionary across the board. Though this is an oversimplification, many of these unions did in fact support Trump in 2016. With his promises of a grand infrastructure program, it didn’t seem like there was much to lose. However, in typical Trump fashion, he has gone back on his promises and picked a fight with a powerful bloc that could have big implications for 2020.

In June, the US Department of Labor (DOL) proposed regulations to implement Industry-Recognized Apprenticeship Programs (IRAPs). The new IRAP system will give employers and trade associations the ability to create new watered-down standards and self-certify programs.

This proposal is in direct conflict with union Registered Apprenticeship Programs (IRAPS) that provide more strict skills and safety training. IRAPs will undermine the union and create a supply of cheap labor for developers. Building trades unions run more than 1,600 training programs that allow thousands of apprentices to earn as they learn. This relieves apprentices of crushing student loans and allows them to immediately step into secure, well-paid union jobs after they graduate. This new effort from Trump should be seen as yet another attack on working people’s standard of living and hope for a decent future.

James Monroe, an official with the North American Building Trades Unions, says, “It would lower standards, it would put workers at risk, it would put projects at risk, it would put communities at risk. All the features that make ours successful, to undermine that is to undermine the veracity of the system at large.”

While the administration is busy with this, absolutely nothing has come of the promise for an infrastructure bill. With complete control of the executive branch and Congress for two years, there is simply no excuse for this. A jobs program that actually strengthens unions was simply never in the cards for Trump. Instead, our nation’s increasingly pathetic infrastructure will continue to crumble.

Good Old Tax Cuts

Some of Trump’s antics are out of step with how Republican presidents have conducted themselves in the past. Many Republicans in Congress probably wish in private that he would just cut some of it out. But when it comes to substantive political matters, Trump has steadily advanced a quite traditional Republican agenda. There is no better example of this than the Trump tax cuts.

Far from stimulating positive economic activity, these tax cuts have (predictably) been used by corporations to further consolidate their wealth and power. AT&T’s CEO Randall Stephenson promised to create 7,000 jobs if tax cuts were passed. AT&T got a tax windfall of $21 billion and has eliminated 23,328 jobs since the law was passed, while reducing capital investments by $1.2 billion. In total, only 4 percent of the workforce has seen any pay increase or bonus from tax cuts. Corporations have used tax windfalls to buy back $1 trillion of their own stock.

General Motors, now being hit by a massive strike, announced in November 2018 that it would cease operations in five plants, resulting in a loss of more than 14,000 jobs. As they close plants they have $10 billion in stock buybacks since 2015. GM has not used the tax cuts to accommodate modest demands from the UAW for decent wages, benefits, and full-time jobs. They are instead digging in to set a dismal precedent for the next generation of private sector workers.

Wells Fargo has been among the most blatant in using the tax cuts for their own gain. They bought back shares worth $22.6 billion in 2018 and increased CEO salary by 36 percent. This was followed by an announcement of plans to eliminate at least 26,000 jobs over the next three years. As one Wells Fargo office worker describes, “Nobody here saw any of that benefit; if anything, quite the opposite. They changed our healthcare plans in 2019, so the costs for everyone went up, the costs for prescriptions went up.”

Labor in 2020

Earlier this year, Shell workers were essentially forced to attend a Trump campaign rally. They were told they would not be paid if they didn’t attend, and there could be no acts of protest during it. This example highlights Trump’s overall approach towards the US working class. They are simply props to be used cynically for advancing a fundamentally anti-worker political agenda.

However, it won’t be a simple game of just revealing these contradictions and the troops will all rally against him. Trump can still point to decent enough economic figures and jobs numbers. This is where the idea of raising expectations comes into play.

In 2018, Marriott Workers in Unite Here went on strike with the slogan of “One Job Should Be Enough.” This harkened back to the great 1997 UPS strike and their “Part-time America Won’t Work” mantra. This needs to be our rallying cry. It is not enough to point to more lousy low-wage jobs being created, or accept that people will need to patch together a few jobs just to get by.

No presidential candidate has a campaign that represents raising expectations more than Bernie Sanders. The far-reaching reforms of his Workplace Democracy Act have been well-documented and analyzed. If enacted, these policies would put the working class in the strongest position it has been in for generations. The Sanders vision goes beyond having a few low-wage factories return in exchange for tax breaks.

The progressive movement, however broadly defined, needs to turn its attention to the insidious ways the Trump administration is attacking the institutional labor movement and setting dangerous precedents. Fighting Trump on these terms puts us more in step with our desired base and connects more to people’s everyday core concerns. The pageantry of impeachment proceedings gives the Democratic Party establishment a convenient out. Through centering impeachment, they can sidestep addressing the fundamental economic and social issues that surround the Trump phenomenon.

Trump’s bait and switch with American workers is his greatest fraud of all. While uttering meaningless platitudes about fighting for workers, he is setting back the labor movement in ways that previous administrations could never do. Even on trade, where Trump can at least point to some action, there is little the administration can honestly sell to workers as a victory. Absent a more comprehensive approach to trade that puts unions in the driver’s seat, the tariffs are leading to stalemate at best and the loss of jobs in certain industries (such as lumber) at worst.

As the institutional frameworks through which workers can fight back and make sense of the world around them erode, the search for answers will become ever more desperate. The Left can either rally around this cause and the candidate best poised to reverse the trend, or watch a rare opportunity to create a more just society pass us by.