Between the familiar comforts of Mar-a-Lago, the protective bubble of the White House and his trusty TV remote, President Trump doesn't seem to get out much. That's why it was noteworthy a couple of weeks ago when The Donald parked Air Force One on the tarmac at a Boeing Corp. manufacturing plant in North Charleston, South Carolina.
It was perhaps symbolic of the way that Trump turns the conventional wisdom of politics on its head; South Carolina is one of the most staunchly Republican states in the nation and not a place where the president needs to troll for 2020 re-election votes. But the stop was meant to be a showcase for Trump's obsession with American manufacturing and jobs, jobs, jobs. The workers and the national TV audience got "the good Trump" this afternoon, as he read from the TelePrompter and talked about his perhaps contradictory impulses to boost employment but hold down Pentagon costs.
The president also told his Boeing audience that we are going to "create a level playing field for our workers. When there is a level playing field -- and I've been saying this for a long time -- American workers will always, always, always win."
What Trump didn't say was that workers at Boeing had just lost a great opportunity to claw their way back into the middle class. Earlier this week, Boeing's blue-collar workers voted down an opportunity to join International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. In the politically conservative Deep South, management campaigned heavily against the union and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on anti-labor ads, supported by the state's right-wing political establisment.
In a way, the presidential visit was a reward for tamping down labor activism. One of the underreported stories of the new Age of Trump is the battle for the hearts and minds of the American worker -- especially in the South, where the vast majority of blue-collar workers do not belong to a union. Trump won over many of these voters by promising an end to bad trade deals (and partially delivered by killing the Obama-negotiated Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, upon taking office) and to fight manufacturing CEOs who ship jobs overseas.
Union organizers say that can deliver not just a better deal but a better life, including higher wages, better health care and retirement, and a safer workplace. The notion of organized labor winning back a larger piece of the economic pie for the middle class, after years of runaway income inequality, is something that truly terrifies both the Trump administration and his allies in the GOP. Studies show a direct link between the declining clout of unions and the wealth gap in America.
My friend and colleague Mike Elk, who covers union organizing in the South and owns that beat with his publication the Payday Report, says that a strong labor movement threatens Republican control by breaking down traditional political barriers between whites, blacks, and the region's growing Latino population.
"Organized labor is one of the few organizations that is able to bring people together from across the racial divide to bargain for the common good," Elk told me. "The growing unionization movement in the South is so dangerous to Trump because it takes racial issues off the table while educating folks on the real cause of their economic struggle."
Before the recent union vote at the Boeing plant, Elk reported that workers making the company's Boeing 787 Dreamliner jet in South Carolina were earning only half as much as their unionized counterparts at company facilities in Washington State, which meant that many are working second or third jobs to make ends meet.
Boeing fought aggressively against the union vote with TV ads and billboard while requiring workers to attend company anti-union events with tables of groceries representing what they couldn't buy if they were paying $800 in annual dues. That effort, and the powerful anti-labor climate that prevails in one of the nation's most conservative states, spelled defeat for the machinists' union.
Still, one wonders what will happen when workers eventually start waking up to the many ways that Trump and his new team are NOT rewarding the white blue-collar voting bloc that swung Republican in 2016. In addition to radio silence on a higher minimum wage, which Trump paid nominal lip service to as a candidate, the new administration is already working to undermine the regulation of workplace safety.
Nonetheless, both the Democratic Party, still groping for answers not just on November's Electoral College defeat but its years of losses in Congress and America's statehouses, and the grassroots resistance seem slow to grasp the power of unions as an antidote to runaway Trumpism.
With one powerful exception. Bernie Sanders, still riding the sugar high of his surprisingly strong challenge in 2016's presidential primaries, can go wherever he wants these days, and where he went on a Saturday earlier this month was Canton, Mississippi. There, he led a racially diverse crowd of 5,000 on a march supporting the United Auto Workers in its long and contentious drive to unionize a Nissan plant there.
“If you can stand up to a powerful multinational corporation in Mississippi, workers all over this country will say, ‘We can do it, too,’” Sanders told the assembled multitude in a politically blood-red state that nonetheless has also birthed powerful movements for the rights of the downtrodden in the past.
Bernie Sanders gets it, but so do Trump and his minions, which is why they're fighting like hell to sell the American worker on a vision of their future that is union-free, even as they press their real agenda of tax cuts for the rich funded by stripping working-class families of health care. The anti-Trump resistance seems on the road to some remarkable victories, but it won't get all the way there unless it looks for the union label.