Donald Trump stunned the political establishment on November 8 with a knockout blow to conventional wisdom and corporate liberalism, delivered by angry working-class voters.
“America’s working class has been frozen out or falling behind for three decades while the upper crust has been partying with Washington insiders and Wall Streeters from both parties,” said ILWU International President Bob McEllrath. “Trump tapped into that anger while his opponent stood for the establishment.”
Would Bernie have done better?
The ILWU backed Bernie Sanders during the primaries because he spoke honestly about working class anger, the loss of good jobs and corruption of the political process. And unlike Trump, Sanders also offered specific proposals to make things better, including Medicare for All, free tuition at public colleges, and ending the corrupt campaign finance system. He made his appeals without the scapegoating, racism and threats of violence that Trump used to manipulate media coverage and tap into dangerous hate politics. Nobody can say for sure whether Sanders would have prevailed over Trump if he were running instead of Clinton, but he did prove it was possible to win big support from working class and independent voters in Michigan and Wisconsin who embraced Sanders over Clinton in both primary elections.
The only vote that counts
The final results show that Clinton won the overall “popular” vote, but she failed to win according to America’s peculiar Electoral College system that gave Donald Trump the White House after winning the decisive “rust-belt battleground” states where working class voters, including current and former union members, chose Trump as their change agent in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Voters were hurting
“I kept meeting people at their homes around Cleveland who told me about the good jobs they used to have that were gone now because of NAFTA,” said Local 6 member Victor Pamiroyan who travelled to Ohio with Erik Ferrel of the IBU and Local 5’s Mark Sailor and Ron Solomon. The quartet hoped to win support for pro-union Senate candidate Ted Strickland, but quickly came to realize how hard their task was to reach voters who had been hammered by decades of job losses. “Seeing all those empty factories as I drove into town from the airport was really shocking,” said Pamiroyan.
ILWU helps in six states
The ILWU sent small teams of union members to six key states during the final two weeks of the election: Florida, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Missouri.
After arriving, each team connected with other union members who were part of a coordinated campaign effort to contact union households and encourage them to vote for pro-union candidates. Each of the six states had a competitive U.S. Senate race where union-friendly candidates were hoping to defeat anti-union incumbents or challengers.
Hoping to tip the balance
The hope was that winning U.S. Senate races in four or five states could change the balance of power in the Senate, to prevent Congress from passing more anti-union legislation.
That effort to elect four new pro-union senators failed, giving Trump a better chance to pass anti-union laws that will hurt working families and union members.
Trump managed to win most of the working class votes – estimated to be 40% of the total – despite his clear record of anti-union behavior.
“Trump’s view about unions is pretty clear,” said President McEllrath. “There were picket lines in front of Trump’s hotel in Las Vegas because workers inside couldn’t get him to negotiate and the National Labor Relations Board just filed charges ordering him to recognize and negotiate a contract. He also exploited immigrant workers on his construction jobs, sent jobs overseas for his clothing line, and told workers here in the U.S. to cut pay and benefits if they want jobs – while promising bigger tax breaks for corporations and the super-rich.”
Turning workers against each other
Trump wasn’t the first anti-union candidate to win working class votes in Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio. All three states were once full of union members, and politicians were dependably pro-union until factories started closing and moving overseas in the 1970’s. The families who remained after losing their jobs and benefits became fertile ground for anti-union politicians who constantly blamed unions for “driving away jobs” while promising to put more money in people’s pockets by cutting taxes, and talking tough on crime with racial undertones.
After years of this scapegoating, it became easier to attack public unions for being “greedy” when they sought pay raises and pensions.
Fertile ground for Trump
By the time Trump arrived in Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio, each state had been pounded for decades by runaway shops and anti-union politicians, including Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Governor John Kasich in Ohio and Governor Rick Snyder of Michigan. Walker and Snyder both advocated “right-to-work” legislation and Walker was able to strip public employees of most union rights – and won public support from many current and former union members for those policies. The final ingredient that secured anti-union political support from working-class voters in the Rust Belt were “wedge issues” including abortion, gay rights, gun control and school prayer. Trump arrived in the Rust Belt prepared with talking points that fit neatly into a narrative provided by anti-union politicians who are skilled at winning working-class votes. Polling by the AFL-CIO found over 40% of union members in these states were willing to vote for anti-union candidates, and claim that number fell to 30 percent after education and outreach work. Bernie Sanders proved that he could win back most of those voters with a positive, pro-union message, but the AFL-CIO and most large unions refused to support him. Hillary Clinton struggled to win working class voters and was easily dismissed as dishonest, entitled and more in touch with Wall Street than Main Street. The Clinton’s history of supporting free trade agreements like NAFTA and hob-knobbing with elites made her damaged goods on November 8.
Fighting the good fight
Despite these challenges, ILWU members went into battle against antiunion politicians and came away with their heads held high.
Florida is a long way from Alaska
“I’m an Alaska native from the Tlingit nation, so traveling to Florida was a long way from home and it was so much hotter there,” said James “Andy” Jackson. “We knocked on doors and talked with people about voting. I didn’t realize we’d be doing that when I signed up, but it was fun and worthwhile.” Pensioner W.C. “Pee Wee” Smith was also from Ketchikan, Alaska, and had a twisted ankle, so he navigated and drove Local 19 team leader Todd Weeks and Andy Jackson to each house on their route. They were warmly welcomed by most residents in the predominantly immigrant neighborhoods of Kendall near Miami.
“Many didn’t speak much English, but their faces really lit up when they saw who we were supporting,” said Jackson.
On a quick road trip they took further south of Miami, they noticed a lot more Trump signs. Senate challenger Patrick Murphy was soundly defeated by anti-union incumbent Marco Rubio, who won by almost 8% and 700,000 votes. “It was amazing to meet all the immigrants from so many different countries, and most of them were supportive,” said Todd Weeks. “It was a good experience and I would definitely do it again.”
Getting out the vote in Ohio
Ohio team leader Erik Ferrel’s group included Mark Sailor from Local 5 and Victor Pamiroyan from Local 6. He said their group was warmly greeted by other union members when they arrived at the North Shore AFL-CIO office in Cleveland. “They were excited to see us and said they had missed our help during the past few years,” he said. “We spent our days knocking on doors and getting commitments to vote early.” Despite the hard work by ILWU members and other union volunteers, pro-union Senate candidate and former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland was crushed by anti-union incumbent Rob Portman, who won by 21 percent and over a million votes.
Wondering about Wisconsin
ILWU Legislative Assistant Bianca Bloomquist and Local 13’s Christine Aguirre both went to Wisconsin feeling hopeful because polls showed pro-union candidate Russ Feingold was expected to win his race against antiunion incumbent Senator Ron Johnson.
When it was over, Johnson, who defeated Feingold six years earlier, was able to keep his seat, winning by 3 percent and almost 100,000 votes. “After our visit, we could see there was lots of work ahead if we want to win back working class voters in Wisconsin, and now after the election results are in, it’s even more true,” said Bloomquist.
Pushing hard in Pennsylvania
“After we were welcomed into the union campaign headquarters in Philadelphia by a big group of our union brothers and sisters, we got right into the door-to-door fight in the neighborhoods,” said team leader Dane Fredericks of Local 5. The PA team included IBU member Gary Bucknum and Local 19 member Alexandra Vekich. The Senate race pitted anti-union incumbent Senator Pat Toomey against union supporter Katie McGinty, who was up in the polls at one point, but lost on election day by 2 percent and 100,000 votes. “We spent our days talking to union members, their families and neighbors. The reception was mixed, as we expected, but it was heartening to be out there trying to make a difference in this important election,” said Fredericks.
Moving votes in Missouri
Missouri team leader Brent Bissett of Local 8 went to the “Show Me” state with Local 5 member Ron Solomon, and Local 10’s Melvin Mackay. Bissett said he was excited to see a new city and immediately went to see the giant arch that spans the mighty Mississippi River. Initial impressions suggested that things might be slightly unorganized and the mood a bit ho-hum, but everything improved as the team got to work and started visiting union households in the surrounding suburbs.
“I’m happy we were able to work with the public, talk about labor issues and promote good people for office,” said Bissett. At one point as he was walking in a neighborhood, Melvyn Mackay encountered a home displaying a prominent Confederate Flag and some anti-union lawn signs. “I avoided that one,” said Mackay. Pro-union candidate Eric Kandor was unable to unseat anti-union incumbent Senator Roy Blunt who won by 3 percent and less than 100,000 votes.
Door-knocking in Nevada
Team leader Regina Shore from Local 19 was joined in the Silver State by co-workers Steve Labbe and Kevin Baldado plus Keith Madding from IBU San Francisco. The Las Vegas operation was large, with many union volunteers coming daily from Southern California to assist the effort. “We saw 40 to 100 electricians from the IBEW arriving each day to help from California,” said Shore. When the team visited voters at their homes, it appeared other volunteers had already been there. “It was almost overkill,” said Shore who added that 20-25% the voters she met had already cast early ballots, and others were being visited by the campaign every day. “We did find one neighborhood full of Trump signs, and an angry supporter followed us around for three hours, tearing up the literature we were leaving at the doors, but we just ignored him.” Nevada was the only U.S. Senate victory among the six states visited by ILWU teams across the country: pro-union candidate Catherine Cortez Masto won over anti-union challenger Joe Heck by less than 3 percent and 3500 votes.”e walked our butts off, are in better shape now, and we’d do it again in a heartbeat,” said Shore. “It was a great experience, and especially nice to see that our efforts paid off with a Senate victory.”
Other election news:
Unlike the rest of the country, elections in California, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii yielded few changes on November 8.
In California, Senator Boxer’s seat was filled by Kamala Harris who easily defeated Loretta Sanchez, despite backing from ILWU Local 13 and District Councils. The Northern California District
Council (NCDC) made a dual endorsement that included Harris.
Both candidates were pro-union. Corporate-friendly “moderate” Ro Khanna defeated prounion
House member Mike Honda in Silicon Valley’s 17th Congressional District. Efforts to unseat four anti-union House members fell short when Darrell Issa, Jeff Denham, David Valadao and Steve Knight were all re-elected. Janice Hahn’s former House seat was won by Nanette Diaz Barragán over Isadore Hall III who was endorsed by Local 13 and the SCDC. Barragán was endorsed by Senator Bernie Sanders.
Janice Hahn won a seat on the LA County Board of Supervisors. State Assembly and Senate races yielded few major changes.
Among the 17 ballot propositions, voters extended an income tax boost for the richest residents, legalized marijuana, made it easier to get parole, continued the death penalty and speeded up the appeal process, required background checks for ammunition purchases and prohibited high-capacity magazines, modified bi-lingual education, expressed opposition to the Citizens United case allowing unlimited political spending by corporations, and rejected a plan to lower prescription drug prices that big pharma spent an estimated 0 million to defeat.
In Washington State, Seattle voters elected strongly prounion advocate Pramila Jayapal to fill the Congressional seat held for 26 years by longtime union advocate Jim McDermott who is retiring. She easily defeated her corporate-friendly challenger. Other House seats remained relatively unchanged, as
did the state house and senate. Voters approved several ballot initiatives, including ones to raise the minimum wage, express opposition to Citizens United, build 62 miles of light-rail, oppose a state carbon tax and temporarily limit guns for those who pose an immediate danger to themselves or others.
Oregon voters saw few changes in their election, with one exception: an open seat for Secretary of State was won by conservative Dennis Richardson who defeated pro-labor candidate Brad Avakian. Despite the loss, Avakian will continue serving in another post as State Labor Commissioner. Progressive Portland City Council candidate Chloe Eudaly won a seat on the City Council. Local 8 Secretary-Treasurer Shanti Lewallen ran for U.S. Senate as a member of the Working Families Party and won 59,000 votes (3 percent) – but he also secured future ballot status rights for the pro-labor WFP. Statewide ballot measures included more funding for affordable housing and defeat of a corporate tax increase.
Hawaii is one of the most pro-worker states in the nation, and that remained unchanged after the 2016 general election. U.S. Senator Brian Schatz, Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, and Congresswoman-elect Colleen Hanabusa all won their races with larger than two-to-one margins over anti-union opposition. Hanabusa also won the special election to fill the remaining portion of the late Congressman Mark Takai’s term. Including Senator Mazie Hirono, Hawaii has an entirely labor-friendly congressional delegation. The Hawaii State Senate became the only all-Democrat legislative body in the nation when Honolulu City Councilman Stanley Chang defeated twenty-year incumbent
Sam Slom. Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell kept his seat, prevailing over conservative Republican former Congressman Charles Djou in the non-partisan race. Hawaii voters also approved a Constitutional Amendment that gives the state legislature the option to, under certain conditions, appropriate excess general fund revenues for pre-payment of general obligation bond debt service or pension/post-employment benefit liabilities for public workers.