Trump wooed the working class. Now labor leaders are worried

John McNesby, president of Philadelphia's FOP chapter, says he believes President Trump's promises to support law enforcement are “smoke and mirrors.”

On a stage in Cleveland last summer, Donald Trump spelled it out for the crowd at the Republican National Convention: "I am the law and order candidate."

The Fraternal Order of Police, the largest police union in the country, was listening. Two months later, it endorsed him for president.

The head of Philadelphia's FOP lodge, John McNesby, had been interviewing the candidates before the union's national board made its decision. It was an unusual election season, the union acknowledged. Hillary Clinton, it said, did not seek its endorsement. Trump, who did speak to the union, had never sought office before.

Nonetheless, FOP president Chuck Canterbury said, the union believed Trump would better support police officers and make "tough choices." But a month into Trump's presidency, McNesby says he believes the president’s promises to support law enforcement are “smoke and mirrors.” 

Like many labor leaders, he said, he’s struggling with fears of what the Trump presidency might mean for unions — and balancing it against a base wooed by the president for the entirety of his campaign.

For some union members, Trump's populist message hit home. Voters in union households still turned out for Democrats — but Clinton won them by only 8 percent, according to exit polling, the smallest margin since President Ronald Reagan’s re-election in 1984. Now, labor leaders are mapping out what to do in the wake of the vote.

“On the law enforcement side, everybody is clapping and waving the flag and banging the chest because Donald Trump is president,” McNesby said. “He says all these great things, but when he sits at the table, it’s a whole different story.”

For McNesby and other labor leaders, some of their biggest concerns are so-called right-to-work laws — laws in 28 states that mean employees in unionized workplaces don’t have to join the union or pay dues.

Proponents say workers should be able to choose whether they belong to a union. Critics say the laws are designed to bust unions by hampering their ability to raise money through dues. The Supreme Court split on a right-to-work case brought by nine California teachers this summer, and several similar cases are working their way through the lower courts.

Trump “believes in right-to-work,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said at a briefing this month. If McNesby's union loses dues under a right-to-work law, he said, “We’re screwed.” 

In a union town like Philadelphia, it’s not an uncommon concern.

Leaders of unions that swing blue say they’re trying to reach out to members who voted for Trump, even if some of them still won’t admit that they backed him. 

“They knew how much we worked to not have him get elected, and they’re still reluctant to talk,” said Pat Eiding, who heads the AFL-CIO in Philadelphia. “We have to make sure we talk to our members — not just the leaders, but to our members. [Trump] made a lot of promises, and people are searching for almost any kind of answers. He was selling a cure for everything, and little by little, folks are going to find it’s not as true as they would have hoped.”

The local AFL-CIO’s annual meeting in Atlantic City, Eiding said, was focused entirely on the Trump presidency and what it will mean for labor. He’s not opposed to reaching across the aisle — he said he would work with anyone who is “going to do some good for working people.” 

But he was concerned that Trump might already be playing politics with labor leaders. The president met with the leaders of several building trades unions a few days into his term. They  are among the unions that stand to benefit most from the infrastructure work promised under a Trump presidency — pipelines and bridges and road repairs could mean jobs for union laborers.

“We can’t start letting Donald Trump separate the building trades from the other unions,” Eiding said. “We’re all together here in Philly.” 

Henry Nicholas, president of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees, said the groundswell of support that elected Trump meant union leaders should prepare for the possibility of two Trump terms and unite accordingly.

“He won’t be a problem if the unions are together and know their responsibility,” he said, adding that his union and other health-care workers’ unions were preparing for a battle over the proposed repeal of the Affordable Care Act. “These are some difficult days ahead, but the election of Trump has made us more organized.” 

Unions have to get through the president’s term — “three years and 10 months,” John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty, head of the 40-union Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council, keeps repeating. “Nobody worked harder to elect Hillary,” he said of his efforts during the election. But he was skeptical of stonewalling the president.

After the election, he wrote an open letter encouraging Democrats to reach out to the working class. “People have been pleasantly surprised about" the invite to the Oval Office, he said. “Where I sit, there’s going to be so many things that are going to be so different that we’re trying to concentrate on the things we have in common.” 

He said the building trades can find common ground with Trump on creating energy and infrastructure jobs and addressing “undocumented workers.” 

“We’ve got three years and 10 months,” he said again, “and I have 50,000 members, plus their families, to keep working.” 

Those members don’t necessarily care about the stories that have dominated national news, such as the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia or liberal social issues, Dougherty said.   “I’ve had not one person in my world talking to me" about Russia, he said. “People are worried about their own issues. Unemployment benefits. Enforcement of work laws.”

Joseph Schwartz, a political science professor at Temple University, said analysts are still waiting on more specific data on the union vote. But Trump's messaging, promising a hard line on immigration and jobs upon jobs, struck a chord with white working-class voters who recent Republican candidates such as Mitt Romney couldn't reach, he said.

"I think it was frustration and stagnation of income — and it's not like Romney was out there criticizing trade" that moved jobs overseas, Schwartz said.

 Some union members who did vote for Trump say they set aside their union’s concerns about the candidate. And others who voted for Clinton said they had seen Trump’s appeal.  

“Oh, he’s out to bust the unions,” said Michael Kos, a carpenter from Pennsport who voted, reluctantly, for Clinton, and called Trump an “egotistical maniac.” But he said he liked that Trump advocated stricter border control and “come out swinging” on Boeing’s spending on a new Air Force One jet. 

Despite the national FOP’s endorsement, McNesby said he tried to tell his members that their powerful union could lose some of that clout under a Trump presidency. When the national union endorsed Trump in September, McNesby said the Philadelphia Lodge 5 supported the endorsement, though he added he thought Clinton "endorsed" Trump for the FOP by never meeting with it.

“He might be a law and order candidate, he might stop when you’re on a detail and shake your hand and salute to you,” he said. “But we have to report to our members what's happening behind the scenes. We’re in Harrisburg, in Washington, in City Council, for different bills we’re in support of or against. We have lobbying firms, experts and actuaries. And all that costs money.” 

The Guardian Civic League, an organization of African American police officers in Philadelphia, sharply criticized the endorsement. But Trump’s praise for law enforcement resonated deeply with other police union members. 

“Trump saw we were taking a beating, and we’re supposed to be the good guys. It’s all about putting in some semblance of law and order and having someone who cares about you,” said one officer.

A police detective who voted for a third-party candidate said colleagues who were on the fence were swayed by the prospect that a Department of Justice under Trump might stop investigating police departments. Former Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey invited the DOJ to investigate the department’s police-involved shootings in 2015, and the department has been working to implement its recommendations since.

One of the few it has not implemented — a plan for an outside agency to investigate police shootings — was blocked by the police union.

“People felt the [Obama] administration was anti-police, so that was it. They voted for Trump,” the detective said. “Do we care about having a union? Of course. But at no point did I ever hear [concerns about Trump's attitude toward unions], in any of the months leading up to the election. Not once.”