American trade unions face a dilemma – how close should they get to Trump?

Unions have long campaigned against NAFTA and other trade deals


During his election campaign Donald Trump stole the clothes of US unions on job creation and on the issue of free trade agreements.

US unions have long fought against bad trade deals such as NAFTA, which saw jobs sucked into low cost regions of Mexico. They ran an effective campaign against Obama’s attempts to push through the Trans Pacific Partnership with eleven Pacific Rim countries and along with European unions including the European TUC, our own TUC, Unite (with its US steelworkers ally in Workers Uniting) opposed TTIP, the Canadian agreement CETA and the services agreement TiSA.

Trump has sunk TPP. TTIP is on ice and TiSA appears to be on a slow track. Trump says he will now renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico.

US unions now have a dilemma: how do they work with the President who is avowedly anti union and yet is pursuing their aims of re-negotiating NAFTA?

Last week Trump called a major meeting on manufacturing, but didn’t invite unions to the meeting.

He is opposed to raising the minimum wage; is in favour of a national right-to-work law and has taken steps to kill an overtime rule passed by the Obama administration which benefits millions of workers.

US union leaders took a pragmatic view that they would have to work with Trump – United Autoworkers President Dennis Williams says he plans to set up a meeting with the president to discuss NAFTA.

‘Corporations have been taking advantage of cheap labour here in North America, which is something, quite frankly, the American people are fed up with,’ he says.

In Canada Jerry Dias, President of Unifor, the union which represents manufacturing and auto workers says:

“Trump ran on an anti-establishment ticket and it resonated. You know why? Because working class people understood what he said, that trade deals implemented in so many areas have not been good for American workers. And in that respect, and in that respect only, I agree.”

It was this kind of rhetoric, that helped Trump to win big in unionised states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

‘Trump is a mixed bag on jobs,’ said Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of Economic Policy Institute. ‘An infrastructure programme could be very positive and so could trade policies that reduce the trade deficit. On wages, he isn’t calling for the things that would help. Rather, he’s mostly doing the opposite.’

Trump has stayed silent on unions during public appearances so far, even at his bizarre rally at the Boeing plant in South Carolina where workers had just voted against unionisation with the Machinists union.

Some unions believe Trump is following a ‘divide and conquer’ policy. His strategy appears to be to play to his support among blue collar manufacturing workers on trade, infrastruture and job creation at the expense of others.

At his Boeing rally he promised — again — to re-open steel mills and mines, and that the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines would be made of US steel, something the Steelworkers union are sceptical about as many of the companies who could make the pipes shut down during the oil crisis and there is a glut of cheap Chinese steel available.

Intrestingly, the US State Department has estimated that Keystone would support 42,000 temporary jobs, but for just two years. 3,900 would be in construction and the rest in indirect support, like food service. Just 35 would be permanent jobs.

Hector Figueroa, of the Service Employees International Union who represents many low paid service industry workers said:

“They [Trump’s administration] have a narrow view of who constitutes the working class. Trump is hoping that unions are going to just be quiet, seeking to have some avenue to pursue their interests”.

Tony Burke is assistant general secretary of Unite responsible for manufacturing

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