The Worker’s Friend? Here’s How Trump Has Waged His War on Workers

Evan Vucci/AP Photo

Workers listen to President Donald Trump speak at the International Union of Operating Engineers International Training and Education Center in Crosby, Texas. 

When it comes to wowing workers, Donald Trump is an absolute magician. Through some mysterious sorcery, he has convinced millions of American workers that he is their true friend, fighting hard for them, even though he and his appointees have taken one anti-worker action after another—dozens of them.

Yes, it is perplexing to many of us that so many workers are still wowed by President Trump even when his administration has rolled back overtime protections for millions of workers and made it easier for Wall Street firms to rip off workers’ 401(k)s (to cite just two of many such actions).

A labor leader recently explained to me, with considerable dismay, how Trump performs his magic on workers. Day after day, Trump pounds and pummels China over trade, and his macho trade war often dominates the headlines. That, this labor leader said, convinces many workers that Trump is their guy: While previous presidents refused to stand up to China, he alone has bravely launched this trade war to make sure that China stops cheating America—and American workers. The media trains its spotlight on this trade war day after day, while paying scant attention to the continuous stream of anti-worker and anti-union actions that Trump and his administration have taken. Not surprisingly, millions of Americans have little knowledge of Trump’s flood of actions undermining workers.

I once went to a Broadway theater to see a magician famed for his card tricks—and that has helped me understand how Trump works his magic. With his strong voice and with one hand in the spotlight, that magician dazzled and did amazing tricks. But with his other hand, which was in the dark, he performed all but invisible sleight of hand that made those tricks and successes possible.

That’s Trump: With one hand he enchants the crowd, while the other hand, outside the spotlight, steadily pushes down on and squeezes workers day after day.

Think tanks and worker advocates have compiled lengthy lists of Trump’s anti-worker and anti-union actions—some more than 50 items long. Herewith, a representative sample:

Trump has effectively scrapped the “fiduciary” rule that required Wall Street firms to act in the best interests of workers and retirees in handling their 401(k)s—a move that could cost many workers tens of thousands of dollars. Trump erased a rule that extended overtime pay to millions more workers, a move that will deprive many workers of thousands of dollars per year. While Trump boasted that he is the best friend of miners, his Labor Department pushed to relax rules for safety inspections in coal mines, but was stopped by a federal circuit court. Trump has made it easier to award federal contracts to companies that are repeat violators of wage laws, sexual harassment laws, racial discrimination laws, or laws protecting workers right to unionize.

Trump has reversed a ban on a toxic pesticide, chlorpyrifos, that causes acute reactions in farmworkers and does neurological damage to children. He has greatly relaxed requirements for employers to report workplace injuries, making it harder for workers to know how dangerous their workplace is and what hazards need correcting. His administration is hurting gay, lesbian, and bisexual workers by urging the Supreme Court to rule that federal anti-discrimination laws don’t cover them, which would give employers a green light to fire them. His administration has rolled back rules that sought to prevent payday lenders from preying on financially strapped workers.

Trump has repeatedly pummeled federal employees—he precipitated a 35-day government shutdown that left many dedicated federal workers desperate, without paychecks. He ordered a pay freeze for federal workers, only to have Congress reverse that move. His administration has also maneuvered in myriad ways to weaken federal employee unions.

In a bizarre, pro-corporate twist, Trump’s Labor Department is even allowing many employers who violate minimum wage, overtime, and other wage laws to avoid any penalty by volunteering to investigate themselves. In a blow to workers of color and women, the Trump administration scrapped a rule that let the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission collect pay data from large corporations so it could obtain insights into possible pay discrimination by gender and race.

Trump’s appointees have eased safety requirements for oil and gas drilling workers. His administration has even relaxed child labor rules, allowing 16- and 17-year-olds who work in nursing homes and hospitals to operate power-driven patient lifts without supervision—even though thousands of experienced adult health care workers get injured each year moving and lifting patients.

The list goes on and on.

As I explain in my new book, Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor, Trump has done next to nothing to make good on his campaign promise to invest $1 trillion in infrastructure—a promise that had excited many workers. Nor has he lifted a finger to raise the federal minimum wage, which hasn’t been increased in a decade, the longest stretch without such an increase since Congress first enacted the federal minimum wage more than 80 years ago. Nor has Trump done anything to enact a paid sick day law or to increase the earned income tax credit. But, of course, he pushed repeatedly to gut the Affordable Care Act, a move that would jeopardize millions of workers and their families by leaving many more Americans without health coverage.

Trump’s appointees to the federal courts and federal agencies have moved aggressively to undercut workers and unions. Trump’s first Supreme Court appointee, Neil Gorsuch, cast the deciding vote in the Epic Systems case, which went far to gut workers’ ability to enforce their rights against wage theft, sexual harassment, or racial discrimination. That ruling gives companies the court’s blessing to prohibit workers from bringing class action lawsuits and instead lets employers require workers to resolve their grievances through closed-door arbitrations, which, according to numerous studies, greatly favor employers. Gorsuch also delivered the deciding vote in the 5-4 Janus v. AFSCME case—the most important anti-union decision in decades. In that 2018 decision, the court’s conservative majority ruled that teachers, police officers, and other government workers can’t be required to pay any fees or dues to the unions that bargain for them.

Trump’s National Labor Relations Board has also moved to weaken unions and undercut workers’ ability to band together. By making it harder to define companies like McDonald’s as joint employers, the NLRB has made it far more difficult for workers employed by subcontractors and franchised companies to unionize

Trump’s NLRB appointees have said gig economy workers like Uber and Lyft drivers should be considered independent contractors and not employees, thus blocking any possibility for them to unionize under federal law. And now Trump’s NLRB appointees seem intent on stripping graduate student workers at private universities of their right to unionize and bargain collectively.

Nor has Trump hidden his disdain for unions and union leaders. Last September, he attacked—and insulted—AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka in a tweet, writing, “Some of the things he said [on television] were so against the working men and women of our country and the success of the U.S. itself, that is easy to see why unions are doing so poorly.” In another anti-union tweet, Trump absurdly blamed Dave Green, the president of the UAW local in Lordstown, Ohio, for the closing of GM’s huge auto assembly plant there, even though no one worked harder than Green to keep that plant open. In yet another ugly tweet, Trump savaged Chuck Jones, the president of a steelworkers local in Indianapolis. Jones had criticized Trump for not making good on his promise to save all the jobs at a Carrier plant there after Carrier announced plans to move the Indianapolis operations to Mexico. Trump wrote that Jones “has done a terrible job representing workers. No wonder companies flee country!” (I have interviewed Richard Trumka, Dave Green, and Chuck Jones many times, and I can assure you that they have fought very hard to lift and defend American workers.)

Trump repeatedly boasts that he’s created the “best economy ever”—although the day Trump was inaugurated, the economy was on third base, and Trump thought he had hit a triple. Under President Obama, the unemployment rate fell from a peak of 10.0 percent to 4.8 percent when Trump took office. Under Trump, the jobless rate has fallen to 3.7 percent. And while Trump has roared about how great the economy has done under him—it was goosed slightly by $1.5 trillion in unnecessary tax cuts to corporations and the rich—average monthly job growth was higher in Obama’s second term (217,000 a month) than it has been under Trump (191,000).

Any president who cared the least bit about workers would have demanded that business agree to something—for instance, a federal law that guarantees paid parental leave and paid sick days—in return for the trillion-dollar tax cut he bestowed on corporations at a time when they already had record profits.

Trump appears to have made good on one promise to workers: that he would be a warrior on trade, that he would fight to improve NAFTA and battle against China’s trade violations. That, however, is somewhat illusory, because Trump has fought his trade battles so unwisely and ineffectively. One problem is that in negotiating a revised NAFTA, Trump utterly failed to do the most basic thing that U.S. unions were demanding: ensure that NAFTA had an effective enforcement mechanism to stop Mexico and Mexican companies from violating workers’ rights and union rights.

As for China, it was good that a president finally stood up to China’s stealing trade secrets, demanding technology transfers, and improperly subsidizing its industries. But every American worker should realize that Donald Trump has blundered hugely in his trade war with China. As any ten-year-old could tell you, if you’re going to go up against a powerful opponent, it’s best to have some strong allies line up at your side. To maximize pressure on China, to maximize the chances that a powerful country like China would make concessions, Trump should have lined up America’s traditional allies—the European Union, Canada, Japan, Australia—to join the U.S. in pressuring China. Instead, Trump has needlessly angered and alienated nearly all our allies, compelling the U.S. to take on China all by itself. As a result of Trump’s strategic blunder, China’s retaliatory countermeasures are doing far more harm to America’s farmers, workers, consumers, and industries than they would have if Trump had lined up a broad alliance of countries against China. Had he done that, China could not have singled out America’s farmers, workers, and consumers for harm.

Indeed, Trump—who held himself out as a champion of workers during the 2016 campaign—seems close to single-handedly pushing the industrial world into recession, which would, of course, do serious harm to workers in the U.S. and around the world. With a friend like that, America’s workers need no enemies.

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