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What Ohio Unions Want in the Trump Era

photo of Joe Plott and Bob Harper

The Golden Lodge in Canton has long served as a headquarters for the workers at Timken Steel. A TV on the wall is tuned to MSNBC. The topic: President Donald Trump.

Bob Harper, the president of United Steelworkers Local 1123, said many of his members supported Bernie Sanders, but some voted for Trump.

“He told everybody what they wanted to hear,” Harper said of Trump. “You know, the working class in the Midwest, that’s what we are. They call us working-class fools. We go to work, pay our bills, pay a lot of taxes, and it’s on our backs. And he told them what they wanted to hear. We weren’t being addressed by the Democratic Party.”

Trump’s rise to the presidency has left some labor unions in Ohio torn. On one hand, many are sympathetic to Trump’s skepticism of trade deals. On the other hand, they’re wary that Republicans will try to thwart their power to bargain and organize.

Trade and Infrastructure Offer Common Ground
Harper hopes the president follows through on his promise to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement. And while Harper voted for Hillary Clinton, he said he’s an independent looking for candidates who will do right by his union’s members.

“It doesn’t bother me if they’re Republican or Democrat, it’s what they’re going to do for us, our people,” he said. “Same thing with Trump. If he actually fulfills this, I’m going to have a hard time arguing about him. ... NAFTA, it goes away and we get something better in place, would help us a lot.”

Still, there's skepticism that the president can deliver on his promises.

Joe Plott with Local 1123 said a trade war with China, in which each country levies higher tariffs on imports, won’t benefit the U.S.

“How are you going to fix what’s been wrong for 40 years?” Plott said. “Just by stomping your feet and saying, 'Well we’re going to penalize you for this?' That’s not going to happen.”

photo of Tim Burga
Tim Burga, the president of the Ohio AFL-CIO, speaks at a news conference in support of Hillary Clinton in August 2016.

Trump may have another opening with many unions: infrastructure. In January, leaders of building and construction trade unions went to the White House to talk with the administration about plans for roads and bridges

Pressure for More Populist Candidates
Tim Burga is the president of the Ohio AFL-CIO, which endorsed Clinton. Regardless of who’s commander-in-chief, he said in an interview, his union will fight for good jobs and higher pay.

“We’ll work with President Trump where there’s opportunities to do that, and we’ll oppose him when those polices and positions that don’t reflect that are advanced,” Burga said.

Union membership in Ohio has been on the decline for decades, but at 12.4 percent, it’s a higher than the national average of 10.7 percent.

Last November, 54 percent of union household voters surveyed in exit polling cast their ballots for the Republican Trump. Democrats are trying to figure out how to win back support from working-class voters in places like Ohio.

Burga said he held a post-election listening tour with union members this year.

“There’s no question that there’s a desire for the candidates that we support to have a populist, progressive economic message and to understand and believe in working people and the trade-union movement,” he said.

Trump’s Appeal Has Its Limits
Not every union is feeling the allure of Trump.

Sandra Ellington works as a custodian at Cleveland-Hopkins International Airport and is a member of the Service Employees International Union Local 1.

“He didn’t speak anything that mattered to me,” Ellington said of the president. “Maybe it mattered to them, but it did not matter to me.”

Many labor groups are wary that Republicans will support right-to-work laws that would prohibit them from requiring what's called "fair share" dues to cover the costs from which even nonunion members benefit.

photo of Sandra Ellington
Sandra Ellington of SEIU Local 1 in Cleveland said Trump's campaign didn't appeal to her.

Labor has also been flexing its political muscle against the president’s cabinet nominees. Teachers unions opposed Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Unions also united against Andrew Puzder, who withdrew his name from consideration as labor secretary.

The SEIU has pushed for increases in the minimum wage across the country. On immigration, Ellington said people who enter the country seeking work shouldn’t be painted with a broad brush.

“They come here, they work hard, they have families, they’ve built families, they’ve bought homes, they’ve owned businesses, they’ve done all these things,” she said. “They’ve caused no harm. You know what I’m saying? You have to be mindful and very careful when you judge a group of people.”

Ellington said members of her union want good contracts and secure healthcare. She said she doesn’t know whether the Trump administration will help or hurt those efforts, but said she’s hopeful.

“I have hope, yeah,” she said. “Because I’m a fighter.”