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We Can’t Abandon the Building Trades Unions to the Right

Both Richard Nixon and Donald Trump have made cynical but shrewdly strategic appeals to building trades unions and their members. The Left needs a plan to win those workers back.

US president Donald Trump speaks to a crowd gathered at the Local 18 Richfield Facility of the Operating Engineers Apprentice and Training on March 29, 2018 in Richfield, Ohio. Jeff Swensen / Getty

“The educated people and the leader class no longer have any character, and you can’t count on them,” Richard Nixon snarled in the summer of 1971. “When we need support on tough problems, the uneducated are the ones that are with us.” I thought of that quote after Trump said to a crowd of building trades union members in 2016, “I love them [the building trades], and they’re great, and their people are fantastic … And it’s time that we give you the level playing field you deserve.”

The list of differences between the political styles of Richard Nixon and Donald Trump is long. But the similarity they share is perhaps the most important feature of their political careers: both figures had a keen understanding of the importance of appealing to blue-collar working-class voters and how to do it effectively. The building trades were the focal point for both presidents and seemed to encapsulate their vision of the type of “working man” they wanted on their side.

Their strategies went beyond simply wanting more votes in order to win. Both recognized — Nixon in a more coherent way — that building this support disorients the traditional working-class base of loyalty usually enjoyed by the Democrats. Nixon was exploiting the cracks in the New Deal coalition, and Trump is looking to deliver the final nail in the coffin.

Examining Nixon’s and Trump’s strategic appeals can help us on the Left recognize how we’ve lost ground and how we can win it back. Failing to do so, in a time when so many working-class people feel forgotten and abandoned by mainstream liberal politics, will doom our chances of building a viable, mass socialist movement.

Nixon’s Strategy

In the 1968 presidential election, the insurgent George Wallace campaign garnered significant support among blue-collar northern white workers, many of them union members. The Alabama governor’s populist rhetoric was steeped in racist and anti-establishment sentiments. Speaking in opposition to civil rights legislation, Wallace said, “I believe the American people have been pushed around long enough and that they, like you and I, are fed up with the continuing trend toward a socialist state which now subjects the individual to the dictates of an all-powerful central government.”

The potential for such sentiments to be used for his own ends was fascinating to Richard Nixon. His advisor Kevin Phillips believed Nixon’s narrow victory in 1968 and the Wallace phenomenon were the beginning of a major ethnic and regional realignment. In his book The Emerging Republican Majority, Phillips argued, “Successful moderate conservatism is also likely to attract to the Republican side some of the northern blue-collar workers who flirted with George Wallace but ultimately backed Hubert Humphrey.”

It became one of Nixon’s all-consuming passions on the domestic front to create a “New Majority” by breaking apart the New Deal coalition that had organized labor as its backbone.

Liberal journalist Pete Hamill’s New York article “The Revolt of the White Lower Middle Classes” further encouraged Nixon in his ambitions. He claimed that northern blue-collar support for Wallace was less about race and more about the idea that workers were not respected. Simply put, society’s attention and resources were going to other groups that got more publicity. Hamill stressed that it was critically important for “politicians to begin to deal with the growing alienation and paranoia of the working-class white man … Any politician who leaves that white man out of the political question, does so at a very large risk.”

Nixon sought to appeal to the working class mainly on the grounds of culture. But he couldn’t make that appeal with an open assault on unions. Nixon thought it was “vital that we continue to recognize and work with workers and that we not attack unions which represent the organized structure of the working man.” The new enemy he would direct them towards was the supposed liberal cultural elite, rather than the economic one.

What followed from this perspective was a surprisingly sophisticated strategic approach to the trade unions on the part of the Nixon administration. Pete Hamill’s article elicited an array of responses from different elements within the administration.

Incredible as it is to consider now, the Department of Labor drew up a proposal for a set of New Deal–style social policies to address working-class grievances. More conservative aides like Tom Hudson opposed this, arguing the administration needed to “develop a rhetoric which communicates concern for the legitimate claims of this class,” but without material policies to address them.

The infamous “hard hat riots,” in which a group of New York City construction workers violently attacked an anti-war demonstration called after the Kent State killings, with some workers even beating protesters with their hard hats, were a gift from the political gods to the Nixon administration. Cheered on by hundreds of Wall Street employees, the workers stormed City Hall and Pace University, injuring seventy anti-war protesters in the process.

What seemed like a clear example of stereotypically reactionary construction workers overwhelmingly supporting the war was more complicated in reality. Historian Penny Lewis has unearthed the more specific dynamics at work during the day and afterwards: workers were encouraged by their shop stewards to leave their job sites for the rally and ensured they would still receive pay. A poll afterwards found that most building trades workers disapproved of the violent actions.

Still, many in the building trades did support both the war and the attack on anti-war protesters. This seemingly spontaneous outbreak of support was consolidated on May 20, 1970, when the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York sponsored a rally of 100,000 in support of the war. Many blue-collar workers weren’t especially pro-war but resented what they considered the approach and privilege of the protesters. College students had a draft deferment, not available to working-class kids since college was out of their reach. The protestors seemed to have a lack of respect for the sense of duty and sacrifice their kids were displaying by going to war.

Peter Brennan, head of the New York Building Trades, articulated the appeal Nixon had with the members: “What is winning their political loyalty is their admiration for your masculinity … The image of being strong, forceful and decisive will have a powerful personal appeal with the alienated voter.”

Let the Courting Begin

Nixon did not just rely on a vague cultural appeal he had with a segment of unionized working-class voters. The president met with twenty-two New York union officials at the White House, who presented him with a hard hat labelled “Commander in Chief.” In the summer of 1970, he invited AFL-CIO president George Meany and sixty other labor leaders to the White House on Labor Day. Afterwards the administration developed a strategy of picking off labor leaders one by one to cultivate relationships with.

Nixon aide Chuck Colson suggested an array of tactics like appointing labor representatives to every commission, having an administration official at every labor convention, and fixing possible indictments of friendly labor leaders. In Colson’s eyes, “The more the rank and file read that we are winning the labor vote, the more they are psychologically adjusted to getting on the bandwagon.”

The 1970 midterm elections were disappointing for Republicans, as unemployment was ticking up and the General Motors auto strike paralyzed industry. The administration had a heated debate on the validity of the labor strategy. Acting Treasury Secretary Charls Walker stated in a memo that the administration could not attain its goal of combating inflation without “reducing the power of some major unions.” For Walker the time had come to “take off the gloves and enter into open battle.”

The blue-collar vote was volatile and varied by state, so it was difficult to gauge whether they were having success. Speechwriter James Keogh suggested they focus on the rank and file and try to exploit divisions between them and the leadership, instead of trying to court the leaders. Keough wrote, “I hold the belief that even the rank-and-file union member tends to look with suspicion on the big labor leaders, having transferred to them a considerable portion of the dislike that goes towards the bosses.”

Nixon had to balance this courting of labor leadership with his other priority of fighting inflation, which he believed was caused by unreasonable wage demands from unions. In February 1971, the president suspended the Davis-Bacon Act, the law that mandates geographically determined living wage levels for federally supported construction. It was put back in place after a month because of the feared backlash from labor.

Nixon then declared a ninety-day wage freeze in August 1971, which hardened labor towards the administration because they anticipated corporations raising prices beyond the level wages were pushing them up. When over a million workers were not given scheduled wage increases that they were supposed to get before the pay freeze, UAW president Leonard Woodcock declared, “If the Administration wants war, it can have war.” A Pay Board was established that included AFL-CIO president George Meany and other labor leaders, but they eventually walked out in protest under Meany’s leadership. Nixon was left to grumble about “all those free breakfasts I gave that son of a bitch.”

Nixon accepted a pro forma invitation to the AFL-CIO convention in Florida, hoping to gain the favor of the rank and file. Nixon planned to read from a run-of-the-mill speech and then dramatically toss it away to speak to workers from the heart. As it turned out, Meany had set a clever trap for him.

The day before he had slammed the administration in the keynote address, and instructed the audience to not applaud Nixon. He introduced the president with a stiff, one-sentence announcement. The band had been removed so they could not play “Hail to the Chief” as he entered. As Nixon finished his speech and tried to shake hands with convention attendees, Meany slammed his gavel to continue proceedings and rushed him out. The embarrassing episode showed Nixon that the lack of actual material benefits he was willing to give labor put a limit on the level of support from the officialdom he could expect.

As the 1972 presidential campaign swept into full gear, the administration still thought they had a lot to gain by making cultural appeals to the working class against the liberal elite. Nixon’s internal campaign plan document said, “We should increasingly portray McGovern as the pet radical of Eastern Liberalism, the darling of the New York Times, the hero of the Berkeley hill Jet Set; Mr. Radical Chic … By November, he should be postured as the Establishment’s fair-haired boy, and RN postured as the candidate of the Common Man, the working man.”

But Nixon still did not want a frontal assault on the labor leadership, and even intervened in the Republican Platform Committee to make sure no overt attacks on labor were included. Such an attack could jeopardize his working-class support by elevating the material concerns of workers over the cultural discontent to which he was appealing.

A symbolic incident during the final push of the campaign revealed the hollowness of Nixon’s supposed concern for blue-collar workers. The administration had ordered 100,000 Nixon hard-hat stickers for New York City construction workers. However, a memo scribbled on the stickers revealed the problem: “NO UNION BUG. They’re useless.”

Of course, the question of the sincerity of Nixon’s sentiments toward the working class is not the point. The 1972 election represented a big step toward his ultimate goal of breaking unionized workers off from the New Deal bloc that dominated US politics. Despite his tense relationship with AFL-CIO leadership, he won 57 percent of the manual worker vote and 54 percent of the union vote. Though not brazenly attacking unions, he was able to marshal this support without offering much in the way of a concrete program for working people.

The Nixon team relished this feat during the postelection celebrations. Cabinet member Charles Colson wrote, “The ordinary folks from the heartland — the shop steward, the electrician, the farmer — were the honored guest of an American president for the first time in generations.”

Whether they continued to support Republicans did not matter as much as the fact that they were alienated from politics and no longer voting Democrat. With a demobilized working class, the ruling class found it much easier to carry out its agenda.

Trump and the Building Trades

Trump’s solid support from many building trades unions is a memorable theme from the 2016 election and will be an important factor in 2020. His strategy towards the building trades has not been as sophisticated as Nixon’s was. But the Left needs to assess how he has gathered this support and what weaknesses can be exploited going forward.

Three days after Trump’s inauguration, he invited heads of the building trades to the Oval Office for a meeting. Leaders from several important building trades unions such as the Laborers, Carpenters, Plumbers, and Sheet Metal workers were in attendance. North America’s Building Trades Union thanked Trump for the “respect that he demonstrated not only to us, but to the three million construction professionals that we represent, by inviting us to the White House for such a frank and thorough discussion.” Incredibly, no similar type of meeting took place during the eight years of the Obama administration.

Trump’s biggest overture to the building trades during the 2016 campaign was the grand promise for a job-creating infrastructure bill. The idea is to use $200 billion in federal spending to attract $800 billion in investment from private companies and local governments. But this promise has failed to materialize, despite Republicans having control of Congress during the first two years of his term. The initiative cannot be, or perhaps was never meant to be, fulfilled in the way Trump has proposed it. State and local governments simply don’t have the capacity for this, and much of the Republican Party is resisting the scale of spending required (unsurprisingly).

There are other clear signs that Trump and the forces around him will not follow through and their continued support from the building trades could be in jeopardy. He has refused to take a clear position of the Davis-Bacon Act, which ensures living wage levels for construction workers (and, ironically, the same act Nixon suspended in 1971). Richard Burr, who Trump appointed to the Department of Labor, spent seven years as the vice president for government affairs at the Associated Builders and Contractors. This group is a fierce opponent of Davis-Bacon. Trump’s labor adviser, James Sherk, wrote articles calling for the Davis-Bacon Act’s repeal in his previous job as a Heritage Foundation fellow.

Beyond the rhetoric, the Trump administration’s bad intentions towards the building trades are clear. Such vulnerabilities need to be highlighted in our efforts to erode his support in that sector.

Perhaps the most important attack on the building trades, still playing out in the courts, has been the Department of Labor’s proposed regulations to implement Industry-Recognized Apprenticeship Programs (IRAPs). The new IRAP system will give employers and trade associations the ability to create new watered-down standards and self-certify programs that will undermine building trades unions and create a supply of cheap labor for developers.

Building trades unions run more than 1,600 training programs that allow thousands of apprentices to earn as they learn. This relieves apprentices of crushing student loans and allows them to immediately step into secure, well-paid union jobs after they graduate. Trump’s proposed change would put this crucial safety net in jeopardy — and severely weaken building trades unions. The fact that Trump is pushing these changed regulations offers us a key opportunity to make the case to the building trades that Trump is their enemy, not their ally.

The Left and the Building Trades

Richard Nixon and Donald Trump are two of the more class-aware presidents in recent US history. They understood the importance of a working-class bloc not just for the sheer number of votes, but also for the projection of credibility and mass support for their political projects. Both operated in times when working-class people felt their grievances and concerns were being ignored by the liberal establishment. Both offered a listening ear and gave voice, however incoherent, to the frustrations of their daily lives. The building trades were the most powerfully symbolic base in which to anchor this strategy, but it applied to working-class people across the board.

The question all of this begs is how the Left can respond. First, we need to drop all simplistic and demeaning generalizations about building trades unions as institutions and their membership. As in all corners of the labor movement, we have to contend with frustrating and reactionary elements. But perhaps we need to take a page out of Nixon’s book and recognize that all is not static, and success depends on being attuned to the opportunities that open up to win over building trades workers and how we make our appeals.

Of course, our appeals are not in the form of reactionary cultural nostalgia. We know that a Sanders-style program has much more to offer the building trades than an administration packed with billionaires and anti-union officials. Now is the time to make this potential materialize in an effective political approach.

There are some encouraging signs of what effective appeals to the building trades can look like when it comes to the Green New Deal. The Green New Deal is necessary to adequately deal with the climate crisis and has been correctly framed by Bernie Sanders as a massive jobs program. Still, for many workers the plan can come off as pie-in-the sky or too massive in scale to really wrap their heads around. Fortunately, the Worker Institute collaborated with New York state unions and drew up a climate jobs program that should be seen as a model for how we talk about the Green New Deal to the building trades.

The report is clear, specific, and realistic. A wide range of options are presented for climate jobs such as retrofitting buildings, public transportation, wind, and solar. Retrofitting New York public schools alone could create between 12,800 and 18,400 jobs. Over 61,300 full-time jobs would be created from the development of onshore wind with nearly $4 billion in earnings in wages, services, and supply-chain impacts during construction. A ten-fold increase in offshore wind generated would result in 7 GW of electricity — nearly half of New York State’s annual electricity demand — and the creation of 170,000 job-years and $10 billion in wages.

The reports also highlight the initiatives that are already working and how unions are benefitting. For example, most of the utility-scale solar construction in California was organized under collectively bargained contracts or project labor agreements. The 10,200 construction jobs created were good jobs with family-sustaining wages, on average $78,000 annual income, and health and pension benefits.

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) has long seen the potential for solar installation, and Local 569 in California established a solar training course back in 1999. In addition to training hundreds of new members from the local community, Local 569 developed partnerships with electrical contractors and environmental organizations, such as the Sierra Club.

While Nixon and Trump appealed to blue-collar workers mostly on the symbolic level of culture and nostalgia, the Left has real things to offer. The political terrain is quickly shifting and realigning, with the frightening prospect of a working-class base being consolidated by an increasingly reactionary right wing. This trend cannot be stopped unless we set priorities on the desired base for social-democratic politics and develop effective appeals to them.

The Sanders campaign is one of the few thin lines keeping many working people committed to an agenda for progressive change. If we don’t take this moment and the people who stand to benefit from it seriously, our dreams of a mass working-class politics will remain just that.