By Don McIntosh
In 2016, 42% of union households voted for Donald Trump, according to exit polls. That’s a bit higher than the 40% that voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 and 37% for John McCain in 2008. Trump in 2016 campaigned as a different kind of Republican, pledging to rewrite NAFTA, invest $1 trillion in infrastructure, and slash tax loopholes and deductions for the rich. Union voters who backed him based on those pledges now have a four-year record to judge him by.
Trade wars and a new NAFTA
At Trump’s initiative, NAFTA was renegotiated and renamed USMCA. When the first version was declared unacceptable by House Democrats and the AFL-CIO, Trump’s trade negotiator went back to the table and got Mexico and Canada to agree to further improvements. The final version—the first big trade agreement in decades to have the AFL-CIO’s endorsement—commits Mexico to reform its labor law and allow independent unions, mandates that at least 40% of Mexican auto content be made by workers earning over $16 per hour, and scales back NAFTA’s controversial Investor-State Dispute Settlement process. The rest of Trump’s trade agenda has been less successful. He launched trade wars with China but also with nations considered close allies, imposing on-again off-again tariffs. But the annual deficit in trade in goods with China actually rose in his first two years, from $346 billion to $418 billion, before dropping to $345 billion in 2019. In July 2020, the overall trade deficit surged to its highest level since 2008.
Tax cuts for the rich
Arguably Trump’s most important first-term legislative achievement was the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. It included temporary cuts in tax rates for individuals, and permanent cuts in tax rates for corporations. Working people earning under $200,000 saw a tax rate cut of around 2%, but 83% of the savings from the tax cut law went to the top 1% of income tax payers: Individuals earning over $500,000 a year saw their top marginal income tax rate drop to 37% from 39.6%.
Infrastructure promise broken
During his 2016 campaign, Trump repeatedly pledged to invest $1 trillion on America’s neglected infrastructure. It never happened. A year into his presidency, the White House released its proposal—$200 billion — in the form of grants that states would have to match four to one. The Trump infrastructure proposal also involved selling off publicly owned federal government assets including Ronald Reagan International Airport and parts of the Bonneville Power Administration. No one in Congress from either party took it as a serious proposal. This summer, amid catastrophic unemployment and recession, the Trump administration conjured up a new $1 trillion infrastructure proposal. This time, they’d take Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio’s proposed five-year $500 billion highway funding reauthorization, cut it by one-fifth, add back about the same amount for rural broadband, then double it to 10 years, to be able to call it $1 trillion. Democrats didn’t want to play that shell game: On Sept. 30, a day before federal highway funding was to run out, they negotiated a one-year extension of existing federal highway spending levels.
Attack on apprenticeship
Since 1937, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) has regulated apprenticeship training programs, with a role for both employers and labor in setting standards for apprenticeship programs. But in 2017, without any law giving him authority to do so, Trump directed the DOL to develop “industry-recognized apprenticeship programs” (IRAPs)— a new kind of apprenticeship program designed and overseen solely by employers. Building trades unions mounted a massive campaign to keep IRAPs out of construction, where they would compete with and undermine highly successful existing apprenticeship programs. In March 2020, the DOL backed off, and agreed there’d be no IRAPs in construction.
Public sector ‘right-to-work’
In its 2018 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that no public employee in the nation has to pay union dues or fees. Lawyers for the Trump administration argued in favor of that anti-union decision.
Stripping workers union rights
In 2018, a trio of Trump executive orders eroded longstanding federal worker job security protections, made it easier to fire federal workers, and limited the use of official time for union activities by stewards and officers. A federal judge struck down parts of the orders, saying they violated the spirit and letter of the 1978 federal law governs labor relations in the federal civilian workplace.
Trump appointed corporate executives and anti-union lawyers and lobbyists to lead the Department of Labor and the National Labor Relations Board, agencies in charge of protecting workers rights. Since then, the NLRB has made it slower and harder to unionize, and is even trying in court to prevent unions from using Scabby the inflatable rat. At OSHA, Trump left the top administrator job vacant the first time ever. OSHA inspections have fallen to a 45-year low, and when COVID-19 hit, OSHA refused to issue temporary rules to protect workers.