The next four years are shaping up as a disaster for organized labor

Trump is poised to roll back key protections, and the head of the House labor committee doubts whether unions should exist at all.

SEIU Local 1 union members protest for an increase in the minimum wage, Nov. 29, 2016, at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport in Romulus, Mich. CREDIT: AP Photo/Carlos Osorio
SEIU Local 1 union members protest for an increase in the minimum wage, Nov. 29, 2016, at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport in Romulus, Mich. CREDIT: AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

Throughout the early weeks of his transition, President-elect Donald Trump has worked hard to consolidate his public image as tribune of the working stiff. He personally interceded when the manufacturer Carrier threatened to shed more than one thousand jobs in Indiana, he’s boasted of procuring foreign investments that will lead to domestic job creation, and his team has organized a “thank you” tour intended to hit many of the Rust Belt states that delivered him victory.

But give a light tap to Trump’s friend-of-the-working-man act, and you’ll find it rings hollow. His deal with Carrier saved fewer jobs than he claimed, and he shut the union representing employees entirely out of negotiations. He may have had less to do than he claims with a $50 billion domestic investment by the Japanese firm Softbank — and there’s no evidence this investment will produce the 50,000 U.S. jobs that he promised it would.

And anyway, the deals with Softbank and Carrier are stunts involving individual companies, not economy-wide policy. On that level, the early indicators as to how Trump will govern do not look good. In particular, all signs point to a prolonged, all-out assault on organized labor.

“I love the right to work. I like it better because it is lower.”

Trump has yet to select a Labor Department head, but the rumored shortlist for this position does not include any union-friendly names. The name that pops up most frequently is Andrew Puzder, currently the CEO of the parent company that owns fast food chains Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s. Puzder opposes a higher minimum wage, and said last year that he would “like to try” replacing fast food workers with automated kiosks because “government [is] driving up the cost of labor.”

Even setting aside Puzder’s particular views, picking a fast food executive to run the Labor Department would send a clear message regarding Trump’s priorities. Even by the anemic standards of modern private sector unionism, very few fast food workers in the United States are union members; but a nationwide, union-backed campaign called Fight for $15 has spent the past few years trying to raise wages and encourage unionism in the industry through targeted strikes and protests. President Obama’s Labor Department has proven largely receptive to pressure from these kinds of protests, but that probably wouldn’t be the case with a department led by a member of the fast food industry.

Trump has also signaled his hostility toward a number of executive orders signed by Obama, and promised to undo them. He has yet to give many specifics on which orders he would rescind, but they could very well include rules that tightened oversight regarding alleged wage theft in federally contracted workplaces and lifted wages for federally contracted employees.

Whoever Trump selects to replace Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court is also likely to be a major threat to labor power in the United States. Before Scalia’s death earlier this year, the Supreme Court had been close to ruling in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a case with the potential to effectively institute a nationwide, public sector “right-to-work” regime — meaning no U.S. public sector unions would have been able to automatically collect representation fees from workers covered by the contracts they negotiate. It’s impossible to say with total certainty how Scalia would have voted, but observers of the oral arguments said the majority opinion seemed to be leaning toward right-to-work. Trump’s eventual Court nominee will likely be at least as hostile to the union position in Friedrichs as Scalia was.

Even if the Court does not institute nationwide right-to-work, Congress could do it with Trump’s approval. As he said during the campaign: “I love the right to work. I like it better because it is lower. It is better for the people. You are not paying the big fees to the unions.”

The biggest indicator of Republican animosity to labor over the next four years, however, comes from the soon-to-be head of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) said earlier this week that the labor movement has “sort of lost its reason for being.”