WASHINGTON ― When Donald Trump moved into the White House in January, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka hoped that labor leaders like himself would find common ground with the new president. Several union officials from the building trades even met with Trump for a photo-op during his first week in the Oval Office.
But seven months later, Trumka says there is little hope left that unions will have a fruitful relationship with Trump.
“I think a significant amount of the optimism has faded away, because we haven’t seen an infrastructure bill, we haven’t seen the renewal of manufacturing, we haven’t seen the things that we were hopeful about that we could work with him on,” Trumka said Wednesday at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.
“There’s no question that the optimism of a lot of people ― our members, of all the sectors, not just the building trades ― a lot of the optimism is fading,” he added.
For all Trump’s talk about the working class on the campaign trail, his domestic policy agenda so far has looked a lot like a wish list for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. His agencies have been busy stalling or repealing regulations at the behest of the industries they are supposed to police, including many worker protections important to the AFL-CIO.
Trumka said the White House has done little that his union federation would approve of so far.
He pointed to a few of the regulatory rollbacks that have bothered him most, like the silica standard protecting construction workers, or the stalled overtime reforms that would affect millions of salaried employees. Trumka said he has had several meetings with administration officials in which he tried to lobby in favor of these regulations, to no avail.
He offered his own theory on why the prospect of favorable policy for organized labor has soured.
“You had two factions in the White House. You had one that actually had some of the policies that we would have supported on trade, on infrastructure, but [they] turned out to be racist,” Trumka said. That was likely a reference to members of the Steve Bannon-nationalist wing of the administration, many of whom agreed with the AFL-CIO that trade deals like NAFTA have been a raw deal for U.S. workers.
“On the other hand, you had people who weren’t racist, but they were Wall Streeters,” Trumka went on. “And the Wall Streeters have come to dominate the administration, and moved his agenda back to everything that I think they fought against in the election.”
When Trump was inaugurated, Trumka said he would give the president a fair shake and call “balls and strikes” on his policy initiatives. (In Trumka’s analogy, Trump is the pitcher.) So far, he said, “the bases are loaded with walks.”
Trumka added that his union federation is already taking that message to its members, including the union workers who cast ballots for Trump last year.
“What we have done since day one is tell the truth: Here’s what he promised, here’s what he did,” he said. “You’re beginning to see a lot of people come back across the bridge.”