Without question, the most widely discussed by-product of the 2016 election cycle was the measure of strength that Donald J. Trump enjoyed among blue-collar, working-class Americans, including a sizable number of building trades and other rank and file union members.
In fact, his campaign promises were rather explicit.
During the campaign, President Trump said, “Five, 10 years from now—[it will be a] different party,” he said. “You’re going to have a worker’s party. A party of people that haven’t had a real wage increase in 18 years, that are angry.”
And the President’s strategic advisor, Steve Bannon, went even further in describing the goal of the “entirely new political movement” that the Administration is leading:
“It’s everything related to jobs. The conservatives are going to go crazy. I’m the guy pushing a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan. With negative interest rates throughout the world, it’s the greatest opportunity to rebuild everything. Shipyards, ironworks, get them all jacked up. We’re just going to throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks. It will be as exciting as the 1930s, greater than the Reagan revolution — conservatives, plus populists, in an economic nationalist movement.”
But there are already troubling clouds forming on the horizon, which could spell deep trouble for the Trump Administration, and by extension the Republican Party in general, in terms of its current fragile alliance with working-class American voters.
As pollster Guy Molyneux recently conveyed via recent focus group research he has conducted with working-class Americans, there is a deep-rooted skepticism among Trump’s base of support that comes from “their profound distrust of, and alienation from, the political system.”
These voters believe that our nation’s political elite “are not serving the country well, and the notion that politicians of either party might care about their economic situation feels inherently implausible (if not laughable).”
In other words, the political support enjoyed by President Trump among working-class Americans is tenuous at best. In the parlance of a horse gambler, these voters took a “flyer” on his candidacy in 2016, and unless he demonstrates a concrete understanding of their concerns via his own political appointments and policy proposals, or pushes back against congressional and state-level proposals that are detrimental to the wages and economic interests of working class Americans, that support will prove to be as fleeting as a summer teenage romance.
To date, President Trump has in no way divested these voters from their hard belief that our nation’s economic system is “rigged.” In fact, they are now watching with an even more jaundiced eye to see if the new Republican majority in Washington, DC (as well as GOP majorities in state legislatures) will actually find a way, through policy, to speak to the economic concerns of the forgotten middle of Americans who are neither fabulously rich or impoverished to the point of receiving governmental assistance.
In fact, Molyneux’s working-class focus group participants eagerly rallied around the message from a fictional politician that read, in part:
Too many politicians have given in to the power of corporate lobbyists instead of doing what’s best for our nation’s economic future. CEOs and billionaires keep getting tax breaks, while our bridges crumble and our schools fall behind. Our economy is weakened because politicians put their political careers first, instead of making investments that benefit all Americans. We must grow our economy, so we can create the jobs our county needs and improve incomes for average people.”
Now, that sounds a lot like what President Trump said time and time again on the campaign trail.
But, the key question now will be whether this President stands and fights, as he promised in 2016, for the economic interests of his base of support, or stands by silently while radical conservative lawmakers at the federal, state and local levels work to annihilate his 2016 campaign promises, and undermine his already fragile credibility with blue-collar American voters.
The interrelated issues of infrastructure investment and prevailing wage standards are an informative case in point.
As a candidate, Donald Trump campaigned upon the twin promises of creating jobs via infrastructure spending and lifting the long-stagnant wages of America’s working families.
Infrastructure investments would be a boon to creating jobs in the U.S. construction industry, where today construction payrolls still remain nearly one million workers below their levels in 2006, right before the onslaught of the great recession.
Yet, construction firms in many parts of the nation (particularly in the South and Southwest) are struggling to fill available jobs right now. Why? Because average wages in the U.S. construction industry have taken a huge plunge since the 1970s, thanks to the spread of a “low road” business model that is predicated upon the creation of a low-wage, low-skill, easily exploitable workforce. In the latter part of the 70s, the average wage for a construction craft professional, adjusted for inflation, was over $30 per hour. Today, it’s less than $25 an hour.
Prevailing wage statutes, including the federal Davis-Bacon Act, are designed to prevent such “low road” contractors from utilizing disreputable means (including the misclassification of employees as “independent contractors” or the use of undocumented labor) to lower their labor costs, destroy community wage and benefit standards for construction workers, and thus secure “low bid wins” taxpayer-funded contracts.
All construction workers, union and non-union alike, are looking to President Trump to exhibit strong leadership before politics as usual takes root.
One needs to look no further than US Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ), who believes, via his bill to deny prevailing wage coverage for federal highway investments, that construction workers in America are being paid too much. Or, the state legislatures throughout the country that are placing ideology above sound economics in advocating for construction workers to receive a pay cut.
Without strong leadership, like that which is being demonstrated via the workings of the bi-partisan “Congressional Building Trades Caucus,” this will send an unmistakable message to blue-collar, working class Americans that once again, their interests are being undermined by think tanks and out of touch politicians.
And that message will only serve to reaffirm the inherent skepticism of working-class voters who already possess a fundamental belief that American society as a whole, and our political elites in particular, do not respect or value people that work with their hands.
And that is a recipe for dismantling an already-fragile coalition before this Administration ever gets off the ground.
Sean McGarvey is President of North America’s Building Trades Unions