The Building Trades’ Faustian Bargain

(Photo: AP/Christian Torres)

Workers continue building a taller fence on the Mexico-U.S. border separating the towns of Anapra, Mexico, and Sunland Park, New Mexico, on January 25, 2017.

The first time I ever saw Terry O’Sullivan, he was sporting a T-shirt on a sunny Los Angeles day more than 15 years ago. I remember him shouting to a crowd of workers and activists, making an impassioned case for immigrant rights. Newly installed as the international president of the Laborers Union, O’Sullivan told his listeners in no uncertain terms that the nation needed to give its undocumented immigrants the right to become citizens, to let them live their lives out of the shadows, to stop raiding the places where they worked.

O’Sullivan came by these positions honestly. Of all of America’s current labor leaders, he is the most Irish—he’s a longtime supporter of Sinn Fein, and the chairman of D.C. Friends of Ireland—and knows just how reviled and despised the Irish immigrants who came to this country in the 19th and early 20th century were. He can reel off the indignities that were heaped upon them by the Protestants who’d gotten here first: the exploitation they endured while building railroads, digging ditches and cooking for the gentry; the violence they suffered from crazed nativists.

If all that weren’t enough to instill in him an empathy for immigrants, O’Sullivan also headed a union that had hundreds of thousands of Latino members, some of them immigrants, some of them undocumented, many of them with immigrant and undocumented family members. Unions don’t take a racial census of their members, but Laborers officials have told me they think that their union—which has approximately 500,000 dues-paying members—is roughly 40 percent Latino, and less than 50 percent white. In places like Southern California, Laborers’ locals are well over 80 percent Latino, and in many cities, even those far removed from the Sun Belt, Laborers locals are heavily Latino as well.

At a time when labor rallies for immigrant rights and the undocumented invariably featured the leaders of overwhelmingly Latino unions like the hotel workers and the janitors, O’Sullivan was the stand-up guy from the building trades unions, a number of which—quite unlike the Laborers—still endeavored to keep their memberships as white as they possibly could.

That, however, was then. Fast-forward to Donald Trump’s fourth day as president, and to the meeting he held with five building trades leaders. Trump told them he would build like no one’s built before, and intimated he’d reverse President Obama’s orders that had blocked the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline and the Dakota Access Pipeline (which he did the following day). The labor leaders greeted the announcement rapturously—and then some. “It was an honor that on his first full [week]day in office, President Donald J. Trump called upon leaders and rank and file members of North American Building Trades Unions to solicit our views with regard to his promises to create jobs, rebuild America’s infrastructure, [and] further develop and harness America’s abundant energy resources,” said Sean McGarvey, who heads the Building and Construction Trades Department of the AFL-CIO.   

O’Sullivan’s statement on Trump’s pipeline announcement was no less effusive. Headlined “It is Finally Beginning to Feel Like a New Day for America’s Working Class,” it celebrated Trump’s pipeline announcement, and said that the new president “has shown that he respects laborers who build our great nation, and that they will be abandoned no more.”

I don’t doubt that O’Sullivan knows that last sentence is a more an expression of hope than of fact. (That’s my inference—the Laborers’ president declined to speak with me for this article.) In the meeting with Trump, he heard the president refuse to commit himself to preserving the Davis-Bacon Act, which, since its passage in 1931, has guaranteed decent pay to workers on federally funded construction projects. O’Sullivan has condemned every assault the Republicans have hurled at labor: the right-to-work laws, the court cases endangering public-sector unions. He was a voluble supporter of Hillary Clinton in the last election and didn’t hedge his opposition to candidate Trump.

And he hasn’t said a word indicating he’s backed off on his support for immigrants, documented or not. Nonetheless, his meeting with Trump roused the ire not only of pipeline opponents, but also of many of his own members. And rightly so.

“Our Latino and black members—you can’t even mention the word ‘Trump’ to them; they think he’s the devil,” says one leader of a Laborers local. “They really didn’t like that Terry was in that meeting.”

For a guy who’s been more committed to the cause of labor, broadly defined, than many of his building trades peers, O’Sullivan’s meeting with Trump and the praise he accorded him fell several light years short of the solidarity with all working-class Americans to which O’Sullivan has often given voice. It may be that in his meeting with Trump, the president showed, as O’Sullivan said, “that he respects laborers,” but the president has also vowed to deport immigrants who almost surely include some of those same laborers and their families. The new administration’s “respect” is subordinate to its white nationalist rage, and O’Sullivan must know that.

Just by attending the White House meeting, the building trades leaders fell into a Trump-Steve Bannon trap. By calling the meeting, the new administration’s goal, clearly, was to replicate the split in the labor movement that Richard Nixon endeavored to engineer by cheering on the hard hats who reviled (and now and then physically attacked) the longhaired Vietnam War protesters during his presidency. At the core of their base, Trump and Bannon believe, are white male working-class voters who make things with their hands in factories or on construction sites. As November’s election made clear, Trump and Bannon had already made considerable progress toward solidifying that support. The network exit poll showed that whites with no college degree favored Trump over Clinton by a 66 percent to 29 percent margin. On the other hand, Clinton prevailed in union households by a 51 percent to 42 percent margin.

However—when you break down the union household vote by race, it’s clear Trump had already made major inroads into labor solidarity. Whites from union households preferred Trump over Clinton, 52 percent to 40 percent. Whites from union households with no college degree favored Trump by a 58 percent to 32 percent margin. (To my knowledge, these cross-tabulations have not been previously published.) The eight-point difference between white working-class union households and all white working-class households is a significantly smaller bump than unions have been accustomed to producing for Democratic presidential candidates.

Splitting the union vote won’t do for Trump what it did for Richard Nixon in his 1972 blowout victory over George McGovern, since the white working-class union household vote is many times smaller than it was in 1972. (In November’s exit polls, such voters constituted just 7 percent of the electorate.) But it can nonetheless weaken a labor movement that is barely a shell of what it used to be. (In the Labor Department’s annual survey of union membership released last week, the rate of private-sector unionization was down to 6.4 percent.) And weakening the labor movement has become a central political objective for the entire Republican Party, which sees labor as its chief institutional enemy at election time. Even those building trades leaders who met with Trump understand that.

So why did they go? I’m told they were invited with barely a day’s notice and had no clear idea of what was going to happen. As well, they brought to the meeting a sense that the Democratic Party, at least under Obama, had all but abandoned them. Obama had sided with environmentalists and tribal leaders on the pipeline questions. He had refused to exempt the kind of union health insurance plans that building trades members enjoy from his health-care law’s “Cadillac tax” on generous plans. On this latter issue, progressive Democrats should have taken up the workers’ cause more than they did. The idea that middle-wage workers whose unions have been able to negotiate decent health insurance should be penalized was one of the few moral issues and many political issues on which the Obama administration was tone deaf.

If anything, O’Sullivan found himself in more of a box than his building trades peers. Precisely because the opposition of most contractors to unions is so vehement and pervasive, and because the laws ensuring workers’ right to organize are so weak, most unionized construction has been winnowed down to publicly funded infrastructure projects. For the Laborers, the dilemma is even more acute. “Half of the union’s work is in pipelines,” says one local leader. “Not Keystone, but smaller stuff, laying natural gas distribution lines to new housing developments, projects for local utilities, that sort of thing.”

Keystone itself was never going to generate all that many jobs. The reason the trades adamantly pushed the Obama administration to approve the project, according to one labor official, is that it was “a test of their ability to deliver in a Democratic administration for the groups behind such projects—like the oil industry—who in turn would ensure that future mega-projects would be done by union labor.” (It’s worth noting that among the very few groups in the Democrats’ political universe that endorsed former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson’s nomination for Secretary of State were the Building Trades Council and the Laborers.)

It’s easy for progressives to condemn the trades for their support for the fossil fuel industry. Until the alternative energy industry produces a comparable number of comparable paying jobs, however, that criticism should come (as indeed it should) with an understanding that the economy has not yet created those kind of jobs in those kind of numbers, and that progressive business, economic, and political leaders (like business, economic, and political leaders at all points on the political spectrum) have yet to devise plausible ideas on how to create large numbers of middle-income jobs for workers who build things or make things. A massive (and long overdue) increase in infrastructure construction and repair—provided those jobs are union—is one of the few ways to significantly increase the number of middle-income Americans, as both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton recognized.

“If there’s a massive infrastructure boost, we stand to gain jobs,” says one Laborers official. “But if Trump and the Republicans cut our wages in half, that would kill us.”   

What Terry O’Sullivan has struck is a Faustian bargain—Faustian because there’s no guarantee his members won’t have their wages cut in half, Faustian because Trump’s infrastructure plan relies on financing so cock-eyed it may not amount to much, Faustian because it’s a deal with a devil who may well deport some Laborers and their families, Faustian because the devil may want nothing so much as to split the labor movement on racial lines and thereby kill it, and Faustian, finally, in the same sense that building the autobahns despite all else that was going on in Germany from 1933 through 1939 was Faustian, too.  

And the bargain could quickly get worse. Trump, after all, has committed himself to build not just the two pipelines, but a third massive project as well: the wall on the border. Can a union that is 40 percent Latino and that is committed to the dignity and rights of immigrants support that idea? Can its members actually work on the wall? Will its members who live near the border—in that part of the nation, the clear majority of them Latino—even want to work on the wall?

Earlier this week, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka (who was not in that meeting with Trump; indeed, it was to split the building trades off from Trumka and the bulk of the labor movement that Trump and Bannon convened the meeting in the first place) released a statement condemning three Trump executive orders—the one against Muslims, the one against immigrants, and the one calling for a wall on the border. “The labor movement,” Trumka said, “will adhere to our core principles of solidarity, dignity, and respect for working people of all races, faith traditions and immigration status.”

I don’t doubt that O’Sullivan would dearly love to release such a statement (at least, about Muslims and immigrants), too, if only he didn’t fear the consequences of offending a president who has dangled the lure of massive projects before his members—a president, worse yet, who takes every policy difference personally. After Trumka released his statement, I asked the Laborers if they had a position on the wall. They have yet to get back to me. 

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