Trump won thanks to support from working-class voters in Rust Belt states. He even managed “Reagan-like support,” to use the Washington Post’s term, from union households in particular: he lost them by just eight points, tied with the Gipper’s 1984 performance. George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney all lost union households by about 20 points; thanks to Ross Perot, Bill Clinton’s Republican opponents each fell about 30 points behind.
Trump achieved this without being particularly “pro-labor” in the way that union officials would define it. Certainly, he’s had some nice things to say: in a 2000 book, he wrote that “with the globalization craze in full heat, unions are about the only force reminding us to remember the American family.” But he’s fought unions directly as a businessman, and the labor policies he supports are quite typical Republican fare.
This pleases me as someone with stereotypical right-wing views on the subject, yet it’s an awkward complement to Trump’s populist image.
Trump’s “100 percent” support of right-to-work laws—the bane of private-sector unions’ existence—is a good place to start. Republicans have gained ground in the states, where these laws are typically enacted, and the Republican platform supports right-to-work as a federal, nationwide policy.
In general, when workers vote to unionize, the union must represent all of them when it bargains with their employer—including those who voted no, as well as subsequent hires who don’t want to join. In return, all workers usually have to pay dues or fees to the union. Right-to-work makes those payments optional.
According to the unions, that allows “free-riding,” because they still have to represent the workers who don’t pay. Conservatives respond that people shouldn’t have to pay for something they don’t even want—and that if unions truly see it as a burden to represent non-paying workers, they should organize employees on a members-only basis instead of holding elections and seeking to represent everyone. These are the kinds of unions a free marketeer can love: they represent only those who join voluntarily, and the law doesn’t force employers to bargain with them.
This suggestion doesn’t go over well, though, because unions don’t merely object to representing people who don’t pay. Rather, unions want to represent all employees whether they like it or not, take those employees’ money whether they like it or not, and force employers to the bargaining table under penalty of law—and they don’t think they should have to choose among these priorities. Trump has sided with orthodox conservatives on the question of whether this is a reasonable demand. This means, however, that he has backed a policy that saps unions’ already waning strength in the private sector.
Trump could also undermine unions by stocking federal agencies with right-leaning appointees. Federal labor law is vague on many important details, leaving agencies like the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to set policy as they see fit. President Obama took full advantage of that leeway, and Trump can be expected to as well.
Obama’s NLRB, for example, took numerous controversial steps that could be undone in a subsequent administration. As the Wall Street Journal put it, Obama’s board “has rejected class-action waivers in employment arbitration; made it easier for contract workers and other temporary employees to unionize; paved the way for student unionization on campuses nationwide; [and] potentially made it easier for unions to organize fast-food workers and hold franchisers in a range of industries to greater liability in labor matters.”
It also greatly expanded the use of “micro-unions,” meaning that when a union lacks the support it needs to organize a whole workplace, it can instead organize one small part at a time, like the cosmetics department at a Macy’s store. The board also allowed “ambush” or “quickie” elections, meaning that employers can have as little as ten days to make a case against unionization before workers vote.
Public-sector unions could also become a target. The case Friedrich v. California Teachers Association et al., for example, recently ended in a 4-4 Supreme Court tie, setting no precedent and leaving open the possibility that another case could address the same issue soon. The issue in question: whether it violates the First Amendment to require public employees, as a condition of their employment, to fund an inherently political organization like a union. Judging from Antonin Scalia’s comments at oral argument, the Supreme Court would have struck down this practice 5-4 had he not passed away before the ruling came down. A Court with a new Trump justice would likely reach the same result, allowing public employees to simply opt out of paying their union dues and thereby gutting public-sector unions.
Most, even all, of this is laudable from a conservative or libertarian perspective. But it’s an odd fit for a populist—and while Trump hardly hid his support for these policies during the campaign, he didn’t emphasize it, either. One wonders how his blue-collar supporters might view these changes once their effects become clear.
Robert VerBruggen is managing editor of The American Conservative.