More than one-third of union workers in swing states — including Pennsylvania — are backing Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, according to a recent member survey by the AFL-CIO.
But that support is starting to wane, and the percentage of union workers for Trump has fallen by 5 points since the labor federation’s last survey in June.
WHYY/NewsWorks sat down with the AFL-CIO’s national president Richard Trumka, who was at the Oregon Diner in South Philadelphia Wednesday morning to stump for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton at a roundtable with 14 local union workers. The Pennsylvania AFL-CIO has roughly 900,000 members.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: I understand you’re from Southwestern Pennsylvania.
A: I am. I’m from a little mining town called Nemacolin, Pennsylvania, about 1,700 people right in the corner of the state in Greene County. Most of my family is still there as a matter of fact. Many of my cousins are still there. Most of them, if not all of them are union workers — mostly [coal] miners, a lot of schoolteachers that are in the union, one is a lineman and a couple are nurses.
Q: It’s probably not a surprise to you that that part of the state is wary of Hillary Clinton because she has said she would put coal miners out of work. Do you find yourself having to justify your position in favor of Clinton when you go back home?
A: Not at all. Here’s why: There’s only one candidate in the presidential election running now who has a transition plan, who would actually help people who lose their jobs to energy change or to climate change rules that are already on the books, and that’s Hillary Clinton. There’s also only one person who has a plan to invest in clean coal technology that will make the use of coal possible out into the future, and that’s Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump says to everybody, “I’m going to make things great.” We go, “How, Donny?” And he goes, “Just trust me.” Workers are past just trusting him.
They are angry, they are frustrated — justifiably so — because there’s been three decades of having flat wages, having their benefits under assault, their pensions under assault, so they are right. But when you look at who’s going to fix that, Donald Trump would double down on all the policies that got us in trouble and Hillary Clinton will work with workers to rewrite the rules of the economy so that we have shared prosperity.
Q: A recent AFL-CIO survey found 36 percent of your members support Trump. Does that concern you?
A: That’s not unusual. He’s actually a little bit behind where [2012 Republican nominee] Mitt Romney was at this part of the election. Our program is to get the members the facts. When they find out Donald Trump thinks our wages are too high [note: Trump has walked back those comments about wages and now supports raising the minimum wage to $10 an hour], that he supports right-to-work 100 percent, that he thinks outsourcing our jobs is a good thing …
Q: Although he’s campaigned against outsourcing and in favor of bringing manufacturing jobs back from overseas.
A: Donald Trump saw the power of that issue and so he’s changed on the surface. He’s spent his lifetime taking advantage of NAFTA and CAFTA and bad trade rules. He still outsources all of his products: his ties, his furniture, his suits, his socks — everything he makes under the Trump name is still outsourced. So if he really wants to do something about it, without any action other than him signing a piece of paper, he could bring those jobs home. He’s a fraud.
Q: When Hillary Clinton spoke to the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO’s annual conference in Philadelphia back in April, the big applause line was when she promised to give unions “a champion in the White House and a seat at the table.” What does that look like to you?
A: When decisions are going to be made that affect working people — whether they’re tax decisions, whether they’re infrastructure decisions, whether they’re educational decisions — we’ll have a seat at the table and be able to put our perspective in.
What I’ve learned to really appreciate and respect about Hillary Clinton is she really does listen before she makes decisions. And so, when workers or our livelihoods or our education or our pensions or our health care’s involved, we’re going to get a chance to make our case. That doesn’t mean we win every time. It means we get a chance to make our case and, when we have valid points we can support with the facts, we’ll prevail.
Q: During the roundtable just now you said, “The agenda drives our politics.” What is the AFL-CIO’s agenda?
A: It’s everything that affects the ability for our country to raise wages for workers. If you don’t fix the immigration problem in this country, you can’t raise wages.
Q: Why not?
A: Because it won’t allow you. You got 11.5 million people [in the U.S. illegally] that drive down wages because they’re cheated out of wages, made to work in unsafe conditions and their employers get an unfair advantage over real good employers and, second of all, legal immigration drives down wages. You can bring in an engineer from India legally and pay them $21,000. An American engineer makes four times that. Who do you think the employer’s going to buy? They’re going to try to buy the engineer for $21,000, and that drives wages down for everybody, and that’s legal.
The same with mass incarceration and Black Lives Matter. As long as you got one-third of the population that have paid their debt to society and now can’t get back in the game — they have to work under the table for low wages, it drives down wages for everybody.
So when we say raising wages, it’s a whole umbrella.
Q: The Citizens United Supreme Court decision allowed corporations, as well as labor unions to spend unlimited amounts of money as independent expenditures — helping candidates, but not coordinating with them.
The AFL-CIO has put out about $11 million in independent expenditures on 2016 candidates, including Hillary Clinton who has said she wants to overturn Citizens United. How do you square that?
A: How do I square that? First of all, the Koch brothers are going to spend $985 million [note: it’s actually $889 million]. You just talked about $11 million — that doesn’t even register with them.
Once Citizens United was decided, the floodgates of money — and the corruption that comes along with the floodgates of money — have flowed into this economy. What we’re saying is, that shouldn’t be.
First of all, corporations are not people. They’re a fiction that we create and can be regulated, so we would like to see that regulated and get the money out of it. We argued against Citizens United, but if you’re going to do it, don’t say corporations can have unlimited access and we can’t.
So what we spend is a pittance, but we will fight to get Citizens United overturned because it is corrosive to democracy. It is dangerous because it allows very rich people like the Kochs to silence everybody else.
Q: Is the AFL-CIO putting out TV ads?
A: We’ll do some ads, but most of our effort is geared at worker-to-worker conversations, talking to them and giving them facts.
And when we give them the facts about Donald Trump, they come back across the bridge. Just in the last month, he’s lost 5 points among union people and so he’s dropping like a rock.