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Labor braces for reversals under Trump

Nicole Grant's blackboard still shows the causes the M.L. King County Labor Council fought for this year and won. Then, Donald Trump won the election and the labor movement risks setbacks.
KUOW Photo/Carolyn Adolph
Nicole Grant's blackboard still shows the causes the M.L. King County Labor Council fought for this year and won. Then, Donald Trump won the election and the labor movement risks setbacks.

The labor movement is preparing for conflict with the new Trump administration. The president-elect recently picked a fast food mogul as labor secretary who says the federal minimum wage should stay low, but labor’s fears extend much further than that.

At the heart of the conflict is the question of what workers need. Unions say their protection guards a middle class way of life. But Donald Trump rode to power on the promise of helping “forgotten” workers whose jobs have been lost to open borders, government regulation and technological change.

Already there are some signs about how Trump intends to proceed. Labor unions are not the only ones concerned with what they've seen since the mixture of messages from voters on election night.

“On every single issue that we fought for as a labor movement, we won,” said Nicole Grant, head of the M.L. King County Labor Council, the largest labor group in King County. Voters in Washington state approved a $13.50 minimum wage. Seattle voters agreed to protect hotel workers. And regional voters said yes to a generation of unionized construction work through Sound Transit 3.

But as these results flooded in, so did the national results: Trump would be president, and the Republicans would control Congress.

“It was impossible to enjoy yourself on election night,” Grant said.  “Such was the shock and such was the pain.”

In other quarters, there was also surprise. “Our mouths are hanging open, just like everyone else,” said Paul Guppy, vice president of research at the Washington Policy Center. It's a conservative think tank in Seattle’s Sodo neighborhood that pushes for free markets and less government.

Labor’s state success and national-level setback were noted there:  “I’m sure organized labor is very unhappy,” Guppy said. “They are losing the influence that they had before.”

But that’s labor, not workers. “I think that workers, broadly speaking, should be optimistic about economic growth and opportunity,” Guppy said.

However, there's something about Trump that gives the Washington Policy Center pause. The concern was revealed over the Carrier deal the other week. Trump offered tax incentives to save jobs at Carrier, and that is not right according to Guppy. “It doesn’t work as national policy because it cuts special deals for people who have political influence and that’s not real free market capitalism,” Guppy said.

So not even free marketers are completely happy with Trump so far.

Labor unions are genuinely worried. Trump will choose the next Supreme Court justices. Cases are coming that are all about union power.

And Trump's new labor secretary can easily undo the Obama administration’s worker protections, like making it possible for more workers to claim overtime. They were generally done by executive order, since Obama did not succeed with a divided Congress.

Michael McCann, a political science professor at the University of Washington, says incoming Labor Secretary Andrew Puzder “hates unions and unionization. He’s been an opponent of many of these things the Obama administration has done.” The administration can kill a rule with a stroke of a pen “or just by not enforcing it,” McCann pointed out.

But Washington’s unions are powerful inside Washington state. In unionized workplaces, workers must join and pay dues or be fired. In about half the states in the union – the "right to work" states – that’s not true.

McCann says that could change: “If there was a piece of legislation that would be disastrous for the labor movement it would be national 'right to work' legislation.”

That would erode the power of unions in Washington state, and Nicole Grant of the M.L. King County Labor Council says the labor movement is starting to expect it.

“I would say the worst-case scenario I’ve heard is that there could be serious threats to collective bargaining as soon as two years. It’s prudent to be ready to fight in earnest for our rights as workers,” Grant said.

Workers helped bring Trump to power and gave him a mandate to make change.