Republican front-runner Donald Trump took a rare step into less adoring political territory on Wednesday, attending a meeting with the Teamsters union as his campaign hopes expanding support with workers will boost the former president in key electoral battlegrounds such as Michigan and Pennsylvania.
But the overture captured the challenge he faces in convincing voters to look past his own record as a businessman, when he said he preferred nonunion labor, and as president, when his appointees to the National Labor Relations Board consistently sided with management. Trump’s attendance on Wednesday — in response to an invitation that the Teamsters extended to all presidential candidates — drew backlash from some union members. One executive board member refused to attend and called Trump a “known union buster, scab and insurrectionist.”
“They’re wrong about that,” Trump responded in a news conference after the meeting, saying that he has completed some projects with union labor and others without them. “We have a good shot, I think,” he added of the possibility of a Teamsters endorsement. “They never had a better four years than they had during the Trump administration.”
Trump’s sanguine account of the meeting was undercut in remarks that immediately followed from Teamsters president Sean O’Brien, who praised President Biden even as he left open the question of an endorsement to be decided by members later in the year. O’Brien said the meeting did not include any concessions, commitments or surprising answers from Trump. He was joined by two members who identified their top priority as opposing “right-to-work” laws, putting them at odds with Trump’s support of laws that allow employees in a unionized workplace to opt out of financially supporting the union.
“There’s no question the Biden administration has been great for unions,” O’Brien said. “They all say they’re pro-worker or they say they’re going to support workers … We still have some more questions that need to be asked to both candidates.”
Trump has criticized union leaders for consistently endorsing Democrats, claiming they do so against the wishes of rank-and-file members who are more sympathetic to him. Biden won 57 percent of union households in 2020, versus 40 percent for Trump, an improvement over Hillary Clinton’s eight-point advantage in 2016, according to exit polls by Edison Research.
Biden, who is headed to Michigan on Thursday, where he is expected to meet with union workers, has received a stream of earlier than typical union endorsements this election cycle, including a much sought-after seal of approval last week from the United Auto Workers. The AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor federation, endorsed him in June. But a handful of influential unions, including the Teamsters, the American Postal Workers Union and the International Association of Fire Fighters, have continued to wield their endorsements as leverage in Washington.
“Donald Trump pretends to be pro-worker, then sides with management and does nothing while factories close and jobs are lost,” Biden campaign spokesman Ammar Moussa said. “Trump’s long record of attacking unions and shipping jobs overseas while lining the pockets of his rich buddies speaks for itself.”
Trump reacted angrily to last week’s UAW endorsement of Biden, which counts tens of thousands of members in key swing states. During last year’s strike against the Big Three Detroit automakers, Trump threatened that supporting Biden would bring the union’s own destruction. The 46-day strike resulted in wage raises of at least 25 percent.
“Rarely, as a union, do you get so clear of a choice between two candidates,” UAW president Shawn Fain said last week at the union’s annual legislative conference. “Donald Trump is a scab. Donald Trump is a billionaire, and that’s who he represents.”
In media appearances announcing the endorsement, Fain addressed the tension that Trump is trying to stoke in his ranks, maintaining that most UAW members would support Biden. (In an interview on Fox News, he said “a great majority” would not support Biden. A UAW official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly, said Fain said the wrong name, and the union’s internal polling shows majority support for Biden over Trump.)
Biden has long courted union workers and often reminisces about the crucial union support he won in his first Senate race in 1972. Labor allies have applauded the president’s legislative agenda for incentivizing companies to hire union workers and his public support for workers who seek to join unions.
Trump responded to the UAW endorsement by lashing out at Fain on social media. On Wednesday he criticized the Biden administration’s incentives for electric cars, baselessly suggesting that “all” disabled vehicles on the side of the road amid subzero temperatures during the Iowa caucuses earlier this month were electric.
Trump tried to change the dynamic with Wednesday’s visit to the Teamsters. “It’s a win just being here,” said an adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly.
Trump has called himself “pro-worker,” positioning himself as an ally of the working class, but he has supported numerous policies that constricted labor’s power. He installed a leader at the National Labor Relations Board, widely opposed by unions, whose policies and rulings weakened workers’ rights. Trump’s visit to Michigan during the UAW strike this fall featured a rally with autoworkers at a nonunion shop, while Biden joined striking workers on a picket line, becoming the first sitting president to do so. Trump has received few union endorsements outside of law enforcement unions.
In the private sector, Trump’s companies have objected to union drives in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, leading to allegations of violating union rights and not recognizing union contracts. In 1999 Trump settled a lawsuit over hiring nonunion demolition workers to demolish the site for Trump Tower and withholding benefit payments and interest amounting to $4 million.
“This is a complete betrayal of union principles,” said Jess Lister, a UPS employee and Teamsters union steward in Griffin, Ga. “When we talk about being a union, we talk about representing and advocating for the most oppressed group. That is exactly the opposite of everything Donald Trump stands for.”
Teamsters president O’Brien said Biden has committed to a meeting with the union but not yet set a date. He said Trump’s sole remaining rival for the Republican nomination, Nikki Haley, has not responded to his invitation.
After Trump’s meeting on Wednesday he sought to tie his support among workers to one of his signature campaign issues — immigration and border security — at a time when he is discouraging Republicans from reaching a bipartisan deal on new enforcement authorities.
“The unions and the Teamsters, if they don’t have it closed down, they’re not going to exist,” Trump said of the border.
O’Brien, speaking afterward, distanced himself from Trump’s position and cast doubt on Trump’s frequent and unsubstantiated attacks on people crossing the border as coming from prisons and “insane asylums.”
“We are all products of immigration, and the Teamsters union supports immigrant workers,” O’Brien said.