Back in January, the labor group Working America raised an alarm for Democrats: Their canvassing near Pittsburgh and Cleveland suggested Donald Trump had undeniable appeal in areas with high union membership. His outsider message, built on assailing trade deals such as NAFTA, was resonating with white folks with union cards who might normally vote Democratic.
That became the conventional wisdom. But as time passed and the summer wore on, unions said that Trump’s support among union members was overblown. The AFL-CIO union federation, which rarely releases its own internal poll numbers, produced some data from Midwestern states showing Trump’s strength with union workers falling off a cliff. They said he was polling worse than Mitt Romney was among that demographic in 2012.
The message: Everybody relax. Union workers won’t be there for Trump at the end of the day. But like so many other polls and prognostications (including ours, and just about everybody else’s), that one didn’t look so hot on Nov. 9. Turns out Working America’s early read was the right one, and unions had plenty of reason to fear Trump’s draw with working-class union households.
Caveat: There are no completely reliable data on the votes of union members specifically. But Tuesday’s exit polling, which deserves a grain of salt, suggests that Hillary Clinton did worse among union households than the Democratic candidate has done in recent elections. (”Union household” is different from union member ― the designation includes not only union members but voters who live with one.)
But those would still be weak performances compared with other recent candidates. Exit polls from 2012 showed Obama taking union households by 18 points.
Trump did something unheard of for a modern Republican presidential candidate: He made a direct appeal to union workers and claimed to be their champion. When the AFL-CIO announced its endorsement of Clinton ― the federation went on to send millions of dollars to her and other Democrats ― Trump predicted that “their members will be voting for me in much larger numbers than for her.”
That probably wasn’t true, but Trump likely took a much greater bite out of union households than your typical Republican. Otherwise, it would have been tough to win the union-dense states that he did, like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and, as of this writing, likely Michigan. (The AFL-CIO had a press conference on the election slated for Wednesday morning, but canceled it after Trump won.)
That’s some bad news for organized labor, and not just because their chosen candidate lost.
Faced with efforts to roll back collective bargaining rights, unions badly wanted a Democrat in the White House, and ideally a Democratic-controlled Senate, to keep those attacks at bay. And the AFL-CIO now sees itself as part of a broad, progressive coalition that cares not just about workers’ rights, but also the environment and racial and criminal justice.
“The presence of racism, misogyny, and anti-immigrant appeals caused damage in this campaign and we must all try to repair it with inclusion, decency and honesty,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a statement Wednesday.
As unions of all kinds made clear all year, they viewed Trump as anathema to those causes. Union leadership made their case for why rank-and-file members should vote against Trump. But it looks like a lot of those members were on a different page.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that CNN’s exit polls gave Clinton a 2-point lead over Trump in union households and that, in contrast, ABC’s exit polls gave Clinton a 18-point lead. In fact, CNN and ABC drew their numbers from the same set of exit polls. Those polls showed Clinton with an 8-point lead among union households nationally and a 18-point lead among union households in Michigan.