On Oct. 23, less than two weeks before Election Day, North America's Building Trades Unions endorsed former Vice President Joseph R. Biden for president. As the presidential election vote count dragged on past Nov. 3—prior to Biden being elected president Nov. 7—building trades leaders acknowledged that their members had not formed a solid blue bloc for the Democratic president-elect.
“We try to educate our members … how they vote is up to them,” said Chris Geronimos, business manager of District Council 57 of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades in Carnegie, Pa. Although the district council officially backed the former vice president against President Donald Trump. “I’m sure we had a mixture of members who supported Biden, and a certain percentage that didn’t.”
One midwest union activist said that from comments expressed to her and posted on Facebook and other social media, "there was a loud voice of Trump supporters, from what I could see mostly male but not exclusively, pushing back against their union's endorsement and individual Biden supporters."
For more than 50 years, building trades unions have exercised pragmatic flexibility rather than party loyalty when it came to politics. Richard Nixon in 1968 won votes of many in the building trades, and early in the Trump presidency, union leaders cultivated connections with the new administration.
But Trump’s management-oriented appointees in key roles at the U.S. Labor Dept., including Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia, son of the late conservative U.S. Supreme Court justice, as well as policies the unions see as a potential threat to apprenticeship approval and prevailing-wage law enforcement, have been a disappointment in the building trades.
In a Nov. 7 statement after Biden's presidential win was clear, NABTU President Sean McGarvey said "American families have suffered too long through broken promises of the current Administration," and that the building trades group "looks forward to the calm, responsible, and forward-thinking leadership of a Biden Administration" that will "represent all working Americans regardless of party."
Despite that, local and district union leaders understand that their members still were attracted to Trump’s style and his America-first policies, and that some of their votes likely contributed to support for the president and other Republicans. NABTU had not responded, as of Nov. 7, to an ENR query on an estimate of members' candidate preference.
“The building trades have the potential to be a significant force in the 2020 election.”
– Steve Rosenthal, union strategist, in a 2019 interview with Politico
As the administration progressed, Trump and his department appointees alienated building trades officials with a proposal, subsequently dropped, to promote more nonunion apprenticeship. Another sore point was last year’s reorganization by Assistant Labor Secretary Bryan Slater of the department office that regulates wage protection.
According to Bloomberg Law and Labor Dept. emails, the reorganization involved scrapping the separate office that enforces prevailing wage requirements on government contracts. Building trades have long been concerned the department would “water down” government project wage protections, Bloomberg said.
Philip Ameris, business manager of the Pittsburgh-based Western Pennsylvania Laborers’ District Council, wrote, in February in an online edition of the Pittsburgh Tribune, that if candidates are not going to protect blue-collar jobs, “don’t expect an endorsement.”
For Ameris, such moves related to prevailing wages pose a potentially devastating economic blow. “It would halve our Pittsburgh members’ earnings—from $41.09 per hour to $20.85 per hour,” he said.
The Laborers’ International Union issued an endorsement of Biden on Sept. 7. But Ameris cautioned against painting union members, whatever their trade, with a broad brush. “We endorse a lot of Republicans locally,” he said.
Some unions continue the hard work of educating members about voting choices and the importance of sticking together and voting as a bloc.
“We tried to go back to the roots of the union, to educate them. We had so many members calling other members and explaining to them [why they should vote with the union],” said Frank Mahoney, spokesman in Philadelphia for the Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters. “We felt that the issues were important and that we should do this.”
The theoretical potential to inspire building trades workers behind a Democratic candidate wasn’t lost on union political strategists.
“The building trades have the potential to be a significant force in the 2020 election,” Steve Rosenthal, a strategist and former AFL-CIO political director told Politico 14 months ago. “The building trades know how to mobilize their members and move votes,” he added.
When the time comes to fill in their ballots, however, official union support doesn't translate into 100% reliable support from members.
“Our membership is very much [like] the makeup of the country,” Mahoney said on Nov. 6 with Biden then leading in the Pennsylvania tally of mail votes. “We’re excited—I’m not calling [the election] ... Joe Biden said he’ll be the best union president there is, and we’re looking forward to working with him if he is elected.”
“Biden wants to do away with fossil fuels and [that's the same as] wanting to do away with my job .”
– John Hughes, business manager, Boilermakers' union Local 154
Pennsylvania has its own political chemistry, however, and Boilermakers' union Local 154 in Pittsburgh backed Trump early in the contest, for obvious business reasons.
Declining coal production, more offshoring of industry, stricter environmental regulations and decades of soft job markets have punished Pennsylvania workers. Development of the state’s Marcellus shale formation and harvesting natural gas through fracking have been huge boons for the state and its trades.
The ongoing construction of the $6-billion Pennsylvania Shell ethylene cracker plant in Beaver County near Pittsburgh, now more than 70% complete, is viewed as a great economic generator rather than as a soon-to-be legacy polluter.
John Hughes, business manager for Local 154, says that an agenda that includes penalties for fossil fuel and coal use would be devastating to the union and for industry. His union has backed Trump all year.
“Biden wants to do away with fossil fuels [and that’s the same as] wanting to do away with my job,” he said two days before the vice president's electoral victory. “We’re still holding on to hope that Trump is going to win this election.”