Ohio Labor Leaders Are All-In for Clinton; Members Are More Mixed
Union leaders don’t have the political influence they once had in Ohio. And as WKSU’s M.L. Schultze reports, when it comes to this presidential election year, that applies even to a segment of their own members.
Labor leaders have been really hard on Donald Trump this summer.
They’ve been criss-crossing the state, warning he’s a phony populist and bringing along the props that make their points.
“I have a Trump tie right here, a Trump tie made in China."
They recite a litany of Trump’s worst business practices:
“Donald Trump claims to like working people, but he just doesn’t like to pay them."
And they insist Trump uses the little guy.
“Donald Trump cares about one thing: Donald Trump.”
Some aren't listening
But it’s not hard to find union members in the crowds at Trump’s rallies here. Some are members of union families who converted back in the 80s, the so-called Reagan Democrats.
Doug Caughy of Canton is one of those, though he says he was pretty apolitical when he was young. He’s worked for the Hoover Company until it closed. He says he’s gone back and forth in his presidential votes – including for President Obama in 2008 because he wanted a change. Now he wants another change because his kids and the country need steady jobs.
“Don’t you think it may be time to run the country as a business rather than as a charity? Our country’s been a charity forever. It’s time to run it as a business. Make it profitable.”
Caughy dismisses the questions about Trump’s business record as a few blips in an otherwise wildly successful career. As for labor leaders’ message: “Labor is strictly Democrat, always has been, always will be.”
Union not by choice
Matt Hawkins of Louisville is 35, too young to have voted for Reagan, but he voted for John McCain and Mitt Romney and is among the 30 to 40 percent of union members who identify as Republican.
“I love the conservative values, don’t like big government."
He doesn’t agree with labor’s overwhelming endorsement of Democrats. In fact, in his line of work – setting up pop displays at stores -- he doesn’t see a need for a union at all: His company wouldn’t fire him for no reason.
“It wouldn’t make sense for them. They wouldn’t be a company any longer if they just fired people that were good workers. So the union isn’t doing anything for me. So I’m not going to listen to their propaganda.”
Other union members, like Brian Smith of Alliance are brand-new converts lured specifically by Donald Trump. He's worked at PTC, a steel tube manufacturer, for 38 years. But the the steel tube market has been tanking: “China’s killing us on imports. Even the Italians are.."
"Don't complain about the smell, baby girl; that means men are working."
Add to that lost pensions and benefits and the lifelong Democrat decided to give Trump a chance to rework trade deals and the economy.
A bigger disconnect
John Green of the University of Akron says there’s long been some disconnect between labor leaders and members.
“Leaders, of course, are leaders and they look out for the institutional interests of the unions that they head, whereas the rank-and-file members tend to be a much more diverse group and oftentimes are looking to their own interests and their own values.”
A quick look at labor from the Bureau of Labor Statistics: Public-sector workers participate at five-times the rate of private. Public safety, education, training and library occupations had the highest unionization rates Men continued to have a slightly higher union rate Black workers were more likely to be union members than White, Asian, or Hispanic workers. Median weekly earnings of union workers were $980, compared to $776 for nonunion
But he says there’s something unique the Trump dynamic. Blue collar workers beaten down by the economy feel championed by his brash style. Green says Ohio labor leaders have told him they're concerned.
Pushing their case
But labor leaders continue to make their arguments: That Hillary Clinton has consistently been labor's friend, and that Donald Trump is a fraud.
JaladahAslam worked for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees for 23 years. She’s excited about Hillary Clinton, saying she trusts her long history on issues like trade, minimum wage and equal pay.
But she understands the attraction of Trump to people worried about jobs. She remembers the stench of Youngstown’s steel furnaces when she was young.
“And we would always complain, ‘Roll the windows up, daddy, we don’t want to smell that,’ and he’d always say, ‘Don’t complain about the smell baby girl, that means men are working.”
When the stench was gone, she adds “so many people were without a job here.”
But she also challenges Trump supporters on what they think they know about their candidate, raising specifics about substandard conditions at his factories in Honduras, and the lawsuits and liens filed against him by small businesses he didn't pay.
“This how he’s gone from a millionaire to a billionaire, on the backs and on the necks of regular working people and small businessmen.”
Union leaders like Ohio’s AFL-CIO President Tim Burga insist union minds are being changed with face-to-face, door-to-door conversations like that. And he insists, “The entire trade union movement in the state of Ohio, the private sector and the public sector is completely behind Hillary Clinton”
Nationally, Donald Trump’s campaign lists three labor endorsements, including the Fraternal Order of Police. Clinton lists dozens. The fight between now and Nov. 8 is to see how many of those endorsements translate into votes.
This story is part of the WKSU and Ideastream election collaborative.