Why Unions Are Canvassing Their Swing-State Members Early This Election

June 7, 2016, 4:00 PM UTC
Donald Trump Holds Press Conference At Trump Tower
Photograph by Spencer Platt—Getty Images

With the votes of disgruntled white working-class men a key prize in this fall’s election, union members are fanning out in eight Ohio cities this weekend to spell out to their members and supporters exactly where the political contenders stand on hot-button issues such as right to work, trade, and other issues affecting organized labor.

“We are starting earlier than usual this year because there are so many important issues,” said Jason Perlman, political director for Ohio AFL-CIO. In Cincinnati, Richard Trumka, the union president, will join union members going door-to-door Saturday, June 11, as part of the union’s statewide “Day of Action.”

They will be aiming at Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican who voted to speed congressional approval of the Pacific trade pact, but much of their firepower will be directed at presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who has declared himself in favor of limiting worker organizing rights.

“Donald Trump: Dangerous. Divisive. Unfit to be president.” reads one flyer already circulated among the state’s 2,200 local unions in recent weeks. The AFL-CIO, the largest U.S. federation of labor unions, has some 300,000 members in Ohio.

The AFL-CIO has yet to endorse a candidate, but the union has been outspoken about Trump’s use of non-union labor on construction projects, his promotion of goods that he has had manufactured outside of the U.S., and his endorsement of right-to-work laws, which have helped thin union ranks in states like Wisconsin.

Trump has not been the only target of union unhappiness, however. Expected Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has rolled back her support for the Pacific trade deal, smarting from union criticism that her husband’s support two decades ago of the North American Free Trade Agreement—NAFTA—led to a massive loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs that were relocated abroad.

Recent political polling has shown voters closely divided between Trump and Clinton. A poll from the Wall Street Journal and NBC News showed that white union households were split, with Trump and Clinton each garnering 44% in the campaign for the White House.

A wealthy businessman, Trump has touted his opposition to international trade, a stance that appeals to those in traditionally Democratic areas of Ohio and other states where the election is expected to be hotly contested. At his rallies, which have attracted large numbers of white, working-class voters, Trump has painted himself as the champion of shaking up the political system and restoring thousands of jobs shipped overseas as a result of trade agreements.

Unions are acknowledging that he is a funnel for anger over what’s been lost as the economy continues to shift toward services and technology. As the nation’s manufacturing base has shrunk, it has become harder for high-school educated workers to find jobs that pay a middle-class wage.

“We definitely are not trying to curb people from being angry,” said the AFL-CIO’s Perlman, in Ohio. “[But] we want to make sure that people know what the candidates actually stand for.”

In addition to Cincinnati, the labor federation will be taking their message door-to-door in Akron, Canton, Cleveland, Columbus, Portsmouth, Toledo, and Youngstown on the June 11 “Day of Action.” Already, some efforts are being made at Ohio work sites, such as a Canton steel plant where workers changing shifts were given flyers and an opportunity to ask questions about the candidates’ stances, Perlman said.

Some of the flyers in circulation point out that Trump used illegal workers from Poland in the construction of his signature Trump Tower in Manhattan. Trump has denied being aware of their undocumented status. Other points of contention are Trump’s outsourcing of the manufacturing of Donald Trump-branded products to other countries, and his support of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s efforts to weaken unions.

Trump is described in some flyers as “Another rich businessman who doesn’t care about working people.”


In addition to Ohio, the labor federation is planning to take its case to other battleground states like Florida, Pennsylvania, Nevada, and Wisconsin, which all have large percentages of blue-collar voters.

The labor grouping is also planning to launch digital ads targeting Trump’s positions as anti-union. Trumka told Reuters in a recent interview that, “Donald Trump is nothing but a house of cards, and once we educate people, the house of cards comes crashing down.”

The labor effort builds on a more aggressive approach by Clinton, who has begun to be far more assertive in identifying contradictions and inconsistencies in Trump’s stances.

Early ads in the labor campaign, which is expected to pick up over the coming months, will focus on Trump’s support of right-to-work laws, which say that those workers who benefit from collective bargaining are not necessarily required to pay membership dues.

“I like right to work. My position on right to work is 100%,” Trump said in a recent radio interview.

Although Trump says he has support among union members, he is encountering stiff and open resistance from leaders like Trumka, who has called him a bigot and anti-American for his calls to bar Muslims from entering the U.S.

“Trump has always chosen profit over people,” argues Perlman, who said that the labor federation is aiming to highlight what Trump has actually done so its members can compare his words with his actions.

“The more people understand who he is as a presidential candidate,” he said, “they will get a clearer picture of what he stands for.”

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