An Unholy Alliance to Boost America’s Workers

This op-ed column was originally published at

Rick Berman, CUF Executive Director

‘Will we partner with [President Trump]? Absolutely.”

These words were spoken not by a conservative Republican, but AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka — America’s most prominent labor leader and a Hillary Clinton backer.

Describing President Trump’s first address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday as “one of his finest moments,” Trumka recently reaffirmed his support for the president’s $1 trillion infrastructure plan, renegotiated trade agreements and other pro-worker policies. The union leader famously met with Trump prior to his inauguration and is expected to attend regular meetings with the new White House.

I am generally as critical of union leadership as can be, but this budding unholy alliance between the president and the labor leader is the most promising development for union households — 43 percent of which voted for Trump — in recent memory, not to mention the rest of the country.

Transcending party lines, a Trump-Trumka tandem can simultaneously encourage bipartisanship on Capitol Hill and pursue common-sense reforms to strengthen the US workforce — securing both construction jobs and workplace rights.

Consider energy independence. Much to the chagrin of environmental activists, the White House recently revived the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines as a way to create jobs in the Midwest. Both initiatives are backed by Trumka, who argues that “pipeline construction and maintenance provides quality jobs to tens of thousands of skilled workers.”

He’s not wrong. The Dakota Access project, a pipeline from North Dakota to Illinois, has already created roughly 12,000 jobs during construction and is a critical link from the Bakken formation in North Dakota, which supports more than 80,000 jobs in the state. Finishing the project could result in as many as 12,000 new jobs.

Similarly, the completion of the Keystone XL pipeline, which runs from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, would produce about 20,000 jobs. The national impact of such projects is even more striking: The construction of new oil pipelines in 2015 increased total US employment by more than 164,000 jobs.

Trumka’s alignment with a Trump White House is significant in that it can soften the partisan blowback to a Republican environmental agenda.

In 2016, the AFL-CIO donated over $16 million to Democratic campaigns — more than 2008 and 2012 combined — and helped launch a $50 million super PAC to elect liberal candidates in 2018 and beyond. As a top financial backer of the party infrastructure, the AFL-CIO is in a unique position to rally Democrats behind the Trump agenda and support job creation.

The same can be said of the president’s $1 trillion plan to rebuild America’s crumbling infrastructure, which Trump claims will create “millions of new jobs,” and fairer trade with China, both top priorities for Trumka.

The labor leader also has a unique opportunity to support workplace rights. Under current labor law, employees are not guaranteed secret-ballot union elections or scheduled recertification votes to reassess their union representation. This leaves union members silenced on the job and yearning for more workplace freedom.

Well over 70 percent of those in union households support both secret-ballot elections and periodic re-votes, which led the 114th Congress to reintroduce the Employee Rights Act. The ERA — which is supported by 170 members of Congress and the overwhelming majority of union members — would update American labor law to protect employee privacy and hold union leadership accountable to its membership.

As Trumka knows, there are plenty of local union officials who do not operate with the best of intentions. And so far, he has yet to publicly oppose the bill.

Taking a cue from the last Congress (and millions of union members), Trump and Trumka can support pro-employee legislation and substantially update labor law for the first time since the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947.

Union members are desperate for a stronger labor market and more democratic workplaces. With President Trump and Richard Trumka working together, desperation can finally become optimism.