Donald Trump Wants to Poison the Soul of the Labor Movement

Trump is trying to court union members by saying he’s a “friend” to labor—but he’s actually a billionaire scab out to strip workers of their rights.

Jeff Schuhrke

Trump is trying to court union members again. Don't fall for it. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

As the United Auto Workers (UAW) carried out its historic stand-up strike at the Big Three automakers last fall, messages of solidarity poured in from workers all around the world.

In Mexico City, members of the Independent Union of Goodyear Mexico Workers held a protest in front of General Motors’ local offices, saying in a video message to the UAW: We stand in solidarity with your demand for a salary increase, and we think that these corporations should provide a wage increase in every country they operate, such as Mexico.”

Thousands of auto workers in Curitiba, Brazil also held a series of rallies to express their support for the UAW strike. It is a shame that executives of [the Big Three], who produce nothing, have their salaries and benefits skyrocket while those of the workers, who are the ones who actually produce, do not keep up with the same pace,” said Sérgio Butka, an official with Brazil’s Metalworkers’ Union. ​“This fight is global and so is our solidarity.”

Letters and statements of solidarity also came from unions in South Africa, Germany, Venezuela, Malaysia, Italy and elsewhere. The world is watching,” said UAW President Shawn Fain, and the people are on our side.”

Amid this inspiring display of international worker unity, on September 27, Donald Trump came to Michigan to spread his message of division. I want a future that protects American labor, not foreign labor,” the former president declared—all but giving the middle finger to the working people around the globe cheering on their fellow workers with the UAW.

Trump was speaking at a campaign rally held inside a non-union auto parts facility, which he reportedly paid $20,000 to rent. In the crowd were non-autoworkers holding signs reading Autoworkers for Trump” and non-union members with signs saying Union Members for Trump.”

In his remarks, the former president had nothing to say about how the Big Three’s corporate executives were underpaying workers, ripping off consumers, and lining their own pockets with exorbitant salaries and outrageous stock buybacks. But he made sure to blast the UAW, telling its members not to pay their union dues.

Luckily, UAW autoworkers didn’t listen to Trump. Instead, by sticking with their union and choosing working-class solidarity over division, they secured 25% general pay increases, eliminated wage tiers, restored cost-of-living adjustments, and even re-opened a shuttered plant in Illinois, saving thousands of jobs.

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With Trump all but certain to be the Republican nominee in this year’s presidential election, he is ramping up his attempts to convince workers they have no better friend” than him, including by courting International Brotherhood of Teamsters General President Sean O’Brien in an attempt to secure the union’s endorsement. Speaking to reporters inside Teamsters’ national headquarters immediately after a meeting with O’Brien on January 31, Trump characteristically spewed vitriol at migrants. I can tell you, they come from jails and prisons, they come from mental institutions and insane asylums, and they’re terrorists. They have a lot of terrorists coming too. And we don’t want them,” the former president said, standing in front of a Teamsters flag. The unions and the Teamsters, if they don’t have [the southern border] closed down, they’re not gonna exist. They’re not gonna be able to exist.”

If Trump’s failed ploy to undermine the UAW strike last year wasn’t enough evidence of his anti-worker convictions, his presidential track record tells a similar story.

During his four years in the White House, Trump stacked federal agencies and courts with corporate lawyers, union busters, wealthy donors, corrupt CEOs, and anti-labor judges who, among other things, made millions of workers ineligible for overtime pay, made workplaces less safe, made it harder for workers to unionize and advocate for themselves, and made it easier for bosses to cheat their employees out of tips and wages. He opposed any increase to the minimum wage, celebrated a massive tax giveaway to the rich, and never offered a word of support to workers on strike. By shutting down the government for 35 days in 2018 and 2019 in what was widely seen as a political stunt, he forced 1.8 million federal employees and contract workers to go a month without pay.

But besides Trump’s clearly boss-friendly policies, he is bad for workers on a deeper level. As his response to the UAW’s stand-up strike illustrates, Trump is determined to poison the soul of the labor movement itself through his relentless efforts to impede working-class solidarity.

Just as more and more U.S. workers are correctly identifying the billionaire class as the source of their economic woes, Trump tells them their real enemy is their fellow workers from other countries, like migrants desperately seeking asylum, or Chinese workers making electric vehicle batteries.

Similarly, just as U.S. workers are rapidly organizing, using their collective power to take on corporate greed and urging peace and diplomacy in world affairs, Trump tells them to stand down because all they really need is his protection against foreigners through high tariffs, sealed borders, and an ever more bloated military budget.

Trump’s mendacious appeals to working-class voters are designed to pull key segments of the labor movement backward

During some of the ugliest chapters in its history, the mainstream of the U.S. labor movement embraced xenophobia, racial exclusion, jingoism, and militarism to benefit a small, privileged stratum of the working class at the expense of the vast majority of workers, both at home and abroad. But thankfully, organized labor in this country has gradually become more inclusive and dedicated to social justice, while socialists and progressives continue pushing the movement in a more class conscious and internationalist direction—including by successfully pressing major unions to call for a cease-fire in Gaza.

Trump’s mendacious appeals to working-class voters are designed to pull key segments of the labor movement backward — particularly union members in manufacturing — by blaming their troubles not on the rapacious greed of multinational corporations and the politicians who give them free rein, but rather on China, immigrants and efforts to protect the planet from ecological disaster.

That’s why it’s important that union organizers and labor leaders not only call out Trump’s obvious lies about his supposedly pro-worker positions, but also challenge the underlying premise of his message. Just as UAW members disregarded Trump’s faux pro-worker posturing last year and struck a blow against unequal wage tiers at the Big Three, U.S. labor more generally should stand with workers everywhere to fight against an unequal global economy that pits workers against each other to the advantage of wealthy bosses like Trump.

Fain recently put this approach on display, telling UAW members, Donald Trump is a scab. Donald Trump is a billionaire and that is who he represents. If Donald Trump ever worked in an auto plant, he wouldn’t be a UAW member, he would be a company man trying to squeeze the American worker.”

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Jeff Schuhrke is a labor historian, educator, journalist and union activist who teaches at the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. School of Labor Studies, SUNY Empire State University in New York City. He has been an In These Times contributor since 2013. Follow him on Twitter @JeffSchuhrke.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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