Briefing Book

The Myth of a Pro-Union Trump

Following this budget proposal, there should be no lingering doubt about which side Trump is really on.

By Sharon Block

Tagged budgetLaborNLRBTrump Administration

For many years, it had been assumed that the species known as the “pro-union Republican” had gone the way of the dinosaur or the dodo bird. For some, however, the 2016 election resurrected some Jurassic Park-like fantasies of its resurrection. Trump teased us with hints of it during the campaign—he was apparently anti-trade, he claimed he would bring back industries with high union density, like manufacturing and coal, and promised a “yuge” infrastructure-spending plan. Union members responded by coming out to vote for him in higher proportions than they have for any Republican presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan in 1984.

Since actually entering the White House, Trump has continued to fan these fantasies, at least in his rhetoric and during some strategic photo ops. During the first week of his presidency, he held a White House meeting with leaders of several trade unions. He made sure pictures of the meeting in the historic Roosevelt Room were widely shared; he hailed it an “excellent” meeting. In April, he spoke before the North American Building Trades annual convention and promised that, “America’s labor leaders will always find an open door with Donald Trump.” (Perhaps more foreboding, however, was his early meeting with the heads of some of the country’s largest corporations, to whom he promised massive cuts in taxes and regulations.)

Upon review of the President’s budget, it is safe to say that that any remaining pretense of an open door to labor has been slammed firmly shut. Two principle federal government agencies exist specifically to regulate the labor movement; yet they each fare very differently in the upcoming Trump budget. One is the Department of Labor’s Office of Labor-Management Standards (OLMS), which is responsible for enforcing requirements that force unions and their leaders to disclose extensive information about finances and make transparent their election procedures for union officers. The other is the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which is responsible for protecting workers’ rights to collective bargaining. It also oversees those elections in which workers decide whether to form a union. Put simply, you can think of the mission of OLMS as primarily focused on holding unions accountable, whereas the NLRB does the same for employers. For a fair and effective labor movement, it is critical that both agencies have what they need to do their jobs with vigilance and rigor.

Yet the Trump budget makes clear that the Administration considers accountability a one-way street. The budget proposes to increase the OLMS budget by more $8 million, an approximately 20 percent increase over its 2017 baseline appropriation. The NLRB, however, would be subjected to a $16 million budget cut or a 6 percent decrease from its 2017 baseline. That means a bump resources for federal officials looking for union misbehavior while the resources for investigators whose job it is to protect workers from employers who think nothing of firing them for exercising their right to unionize or intimidating them during a representation election would be decreased.

This disparate budget treatment is even more troublesome than it may appear at first glance. Union density in the United States has slid significantly in recent years, declining to less than 7 percent in the private sector, where both agencies have jurisdiction. This decline means that the size of what OLMS must regulate is shrinking. Why would an agency with a shrinking footprint need a 20 percent budget increase? It may be fair to ask, as well, why doesn’t this declining union density also justify the six percent cut for the NLRB? While the path to official union representation runs through the NLRB, the NLRB’s jurisdiction is broader than just protecting the right of unionized workers. It protects the right of all workers—whether union members or not—to stand up for better pay and working conditions.

This has been particularly true in recent years. Many non-unionized workers who had been fired or discriminated against by their employer for banding together to request fair wages or for showing solidarity for each other through Facebook groups, among other things, have turned to the NLRB for help. Take, for example, the NLRB’s recent finding that employees in a clothing store in California were illegally fired for sharing with each other, over Facebook, concerns about their working conditions, including their safety. Essentially, the decline in union density won’t necessarily have the same impact on the NLRB as it will on OLMS in terms of needing resources. Yet the NLRB’s budget is getting cut.

If union leaders or members still held any lingering questions in their mind about which side Donald Trump is on in the battle for labor rights, this should be answered once and for all with a look at his first budget. For this reason, and a whole host of others, we can only hope that it is dead on arrival at the Capitol. Even if this does turn out to be the case, it does not mean that the budget, in its current form, should not warrant our meticulous attention. It is, in either case, critically important, since a President’s budget is a reflection of his values, and of his vision. This budget should make clear, once and for all, to all unions and the workers they represent that this President does not work for them.

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Sharon Block is the Executive Director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School. She formerly served as Senior Counselor to Secretary of Labor Tom Perez, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for Policy, and Member of the National Labor Relations Board. The view expressed here are hers and not those of the Labor and Worklife Program or Harvard Law School.

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