Has Donald Trump ended Democrats’ monopoly on the union vote? Exit polling from the 2016 election shocked union leaders, as 48% of their members backed the Republican. The rise in union households’ support for Republicans was accompanied by a steep dive in support for Democrat hopeful Hillary Clinton.
“Once it was hard to find a Republican who was a union member. The working man was a Democrat. It is not so much that today,” said Jim Ziska, business agent for Teamsters Local 30 in Jeannette, Pa. His international union is backing Joe Biden for president in 2020, but “if I come out and say we need to rally around Biden, Trump supporters say no,” he grumbled.
It’s a shift reminiscent of the 1980 “Reagan Democrat” groundswell, when Ronald Reagan attracted unprecedented Rust Belt union support and won 489 electoral votes. But post-Reagan, these numbers have declined, partly because of changing union demographics.
Four years ago, Pennsylvania’s Cambria County provided a snapshot of Trump’s appeal among traditional Democrat voters. Steel and coal workers whose jobs were offshored or stifled by regulations voted Republican in numbers that far outpaced their support for Reagan in 1980.
After Trump’s 2016 victory, the loyalty of Rust Belt union members has only intensified, despite Joe Biden touting his big labor bona fides. As Politico reported last month, union members in the building trades form an especially strong Trump base in the Midwest and Northeast.
Some union families have gone Republican over Democrats’ hard left turn on social issues. Others approve of Trump’s focus on jobs. During a visit to Latrobe, Pa., in August, Trump touted his endorsement from Local Boilermakers 154, whose members operate industrial mills and power plants.
John Hughes, the boilermakers’ business manager, explained the endorsement succinctly: “He’s a coal guy. I’ve met him. I’ve talked with him. He supports us.”
Some national labor leaders have approved of Trump’s trade deals, like Teamsters President James Hoffa Jr. He commented: “[Trump] is basically doing things that are not Republican.”
But most union bureaucrats still support Democrats. Nearly all the biggest public-sector unions – Service Employees International Union, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, United Food and Commercial Workers, National Education Association -- have officially endorsed Biden. Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, endorsed Biden all the way back in April 2019. At an IAFF convention that year, Biden spoke to a crowd of hundreds chanting “Run, Joe, run,” and hinted that he would seek the nomination.
But Biden’s “victory by acclamation” may have been premature, according to Frank Ricci, retired battalion chief and former president of a local IAFF in Connecticut. “The union bureaucrats shouting ‘Run, Joe, run’ in the Hyatt ballroom weren’t representative of the rank-and-file,” he said. “Most firefighters and police are now backing Trump.”
Ricci notes that Schaitberger’s endorsement sparked an uproar among the 300,000 IAFF members who weren’t consulted. When Schaitberger later came under federal investigation on charges of raiding members’ pensions and other embezzlement allegations, that spark became a blaze.
Now, two IAFF local presidents have announced they are going a different direction. The largest IAFF affiliate, New York City Uniformed Firefighters union, wants to break away from the IAFF, according to President Andy Ansbro. "We are spending upwards of 25% of our dues going to the international, and a lot of members just fail to see value in that.”
The president of Philadelphia’s IAFF Local 22, Michael Bresnan, has broken ranks to officially endorse Donald Trump. His defiance of Schaitberger comes as the Biden ally beats a hasty retreat from the public eye. Despite the controversy over endorsements, union leaders have not shied away from them -- or from canvassing members. Calls, commercials, digital outreach and mailers have provided constant background noise for union families this year, as during the 2018 midterms and other elections.
But this year they’ve rubbed many union members the wrong way. “They’ve been sending me emails and other advertisements nonstop since April,” said Bill Frye, a retired Pennsylvania State Education Association member from Westmoreland County, Pa. “It’s all Democrats, Democrats, Democrats. They’ve energized me to vote, all right -- but maybe not for who they think.”
Jason Kohute, an AFSCME member from Harrisburg, Pa., plans to resign his membership over his union’s partisanship, among other reasons. “They just don’t care what we members think anymore,” he said. “It’s all a power game to them.”
The last four years should have been a time of political soul-searching for union leaders—and especially a time to take the pulse of membership. But the opposite has happened, with union leaders doubling down on a strategy that’s already failed once. A second defeat for Democrats among their members could break the old political monopoly for good.