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CSPAN-Trump in 2017 at the Building Trades Conference

Biden Can't Count on the Union Vote

An unsurprising poll shows the building trades split between Biden and Trump

Kris LaGrange's picture
Sep 22, 2020

Both Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden tout themselves as the candidate of the working man. While Biden has gained many union endorsements, Trump is hoping to repeat his wins in Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania with the support of white working-class men, many of them in unions.

While many unions have spent the past four years talking to their members about how Trump has attacked unions and made it more dangerous to go to work, it appears that little has changed since 2016. According to a new poll commissioned by North America’s Building Trades Unions of their members in six key swing states, Biden and Trump are essentially tied with Biden getting 48% of the vote and Trump getting 47%. The poll, which was obtained by Politico, did show one piece of good news for Biden though. Trump’s support has dropped 7 points since March, largely due to his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While union voters are historically strong Democrats, exit polls showed that they decided to support Trump in greater numbers than in past elections. Hillary Clinton won union voters by less than half of what President Barack Obama won them by in 2012. FiveThirtyEight even said that this swing in votes was enough to swing three, key, blue wall states to Trump. All three of the states are essential for Biden to win if he wants to be elected President.

Although union density continues to stagnate or drop, union voters still represent a sizable number of voters in many states including Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. According to the Gallup poll from earlier this month, 1 in 6 voters will either be a union member or live in a union household. In a state like Michigan, that number increases to 1 in 4.

Even in the face of constant attacks on prevailing wage, safety standards, and the right to organize, union officials say that many of these building trades members are still supporting Trump. “He has a very, very, very solid foundation of our members,” said James Williams, a vice president of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, to Politico. He said surveys of his members painted a similar picture to the Building Trades survey. “They connect with his messaging and a lot of the fear-mongering going all the way back to when he was first elected with, ‘Be afraid of the immigrant. The immigrant’s here to take your job.’ That resonated with our membership. They feel like their way of life and their way of living is under attack and without really understanding the dynamics at play. I mean, the immigrant worker is being abused by employers.”

This leads to a bigger question that UCOMM may have to answer in a future story; why are union leaders afraid to advocate to their members for their endorsed candidate, Joe Biden? All of organized labor has endorsed Biden for President, but then some local union leaders fail to include casting a ballot for Biden in their GOTV communications. UCOMM knows this first hand which leads us to believe that the union endorsement isn't as powerful as it used to be. Some savvy politicians know that a union endorsement is only as good as the PAC check that it writes. Since union leaders are elected by their members', some inexperienced labor leaders chose to watch their nation burn rather than lose union re-election. It's a sign of our times.

Midwest voters may also be less likely to support Biden because he previously supported the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). However, Trump doesn’t get off scot-free here. Trump has started a trade war with China and tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs have been lost. He also failed to stop the closing of the Carrier plant in Indiana and the Lordstown, Ohio GM plant.

Local unions may also be at a disadvantage this year in making sure that their members get out and vote for Biden. Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, many have scaled back their famed door-knocking campaigns which are meant to inform and turnout their members. According to Politico, UNITE HERE is the only union that is doing canvassing on a large scale. Instead, the unions are phone banking, texting and using digital tools to talk to their members, but it just isn’t the same as having a one on one conversation in person.

“It’s such a different dynamic now, the lack of actually getting out and hitting the streets,” said Shawn Reents, an international representative for the IBEW and Wisconsin political coordinator. “Some locals are really jumping in with both feet. They’re in constant communication with their members, identifying unregistered or dropped voters, taking all the right steps.”

Labor voters in Wisconsin showed their power when they came out in huge numbers to defeat Governor Scott Walker who had spent two terms taking away their rights and passing Right to Work for both the public and the private sector. If Biden is to win these important swing states, he will need another surge in union voters coming out for him.


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