Michael Theriault headshot

Our national organization, North America's Building Trades Unions (NABTU), will in January find itself paddling the choppy waters of a Trump administration. Locally, we will find our little canoe in the same chop not long after.

Trump has promised a trillion dollars of infrastructure work. Most of this would be Trades work. But how will Trump pay for it, and will those Trades be union or not?

Trump has been clear in his hope to grow the economy through tax cuts. These will favor the wealthy. Money in the hands of the poor would certainly find its way into the American economy, even if only through workers for the Walmarts and other middlemen selling them foreign-made goods and the longshoremen, railroad workers, and truckers getting the goods to these middlemen. Money to the wealthy hasn't even so limited a guarantee; it could as readily flow into undeveloped land, foreign vacations, and overseas investments. Trump's hope to grow the economy through tax cuts enough to finance major infrastructure investment, then, will likely be ever just a hope.

If he cannot fund infrastructure with fresh tax revenue from a growing economy, he might instead with borrowing through sale of bonds. The Chinese have been major investors in our bonds. Trump has said he'll drive tough bargains with the Chinese on trade. The former manufacturing communities of the upper Midwest and Northeast that were so critical in his election will want to hold him to this promise. If he has to borrow heavily from the Chinese to fund infrastructure, however, he loses leverage in his negotiations on trade. They will likely want the opposite of what Trump has promised those manufacturing communities and demand greater access for their steel, their wood products, their railway and construction equipment. Trump, then, may not be able to fund much infrastructure through borrowing.

Some commentators have already remarked that he will have to privatize infrastructure to fund it. Under such a scenario, roads now free could become toll roads. Water and sewer systems could be run by private companies and not public agencies. Public transit could revert to what it was here early in the last century, the domain of competing private enterprises.

If a Trump government itself funds infrastructure, the NABTU will need to ensure somehow that prevailing wage applies and that project labor agreements are not precluded, as they were under President George W. Bush. Even if the Republicans the NABTU has cultivated in Congress work with a Democratic minority to ensure this in legislation to fund infrastructure, the NABTU will have to engage with Trump, if only to fend off vetoes.

If Trump moves to privatize infrastructure, the NABTU will face even rougher chop with a smaller paddle; it will need to extract from an unfriendly Congress and President some guarantees for us in the privatized work.

President Obama, in his gracious reception of President-elect Trump, has given the NABTU some moral cover in engaging with him.

This cover may not endure.

Many of the Midwestern and Northeastern voters who helped elect Trump voted in the two prior elections for Obama, as some commentators have pointed out, and so may not themselves be bigots. No matter how hard they pinched their noses in this election, however, they demonstrated a capacity to tolerate the most disgusting bigotry we have heard from any candidate for national office in more than a generation.

Trump can have arrived at spouting such bigotry only two ways: Either it is genuinely a part of his thought, or he believed he needed to express it to get elected. If the former, under the inevitable strains of his office sooner or later his bigotry will crawl back into the light. If the latter, then we could see him slow to respond to attacks of various kinds and degrees on minorities, or even elevation of obvious bigots into his administration. Fear of offending his other voters will not restrain him in either case.

Such eventualities would – or should – make continuing engagement with Trump impossible to stomach. The NABTU might have to leave prevailing wage and project labor agreements entirely subject to presidential whim and revenge, and so to drop two of the strongest tools we have to ensure that work is ours and that it can sustain our members and their families.

In San Francisco we may see challenges to existing project labor agreements and obstacles to expanding them or obtaining new ones. We may – if Trump fulfills his immigration pledges – see deportations from our members' families and even raids on union halls and jobsites. We may have members informing on each other, particularly if the economy takes a downturn under Trump and work gets tight. We may find our normal protests deemed obstructions to a Trump economy and curtailed and may have to fight in new, more clever, or possibly more dangerous ways.

And we know from our past here and – as I noted in another column recently – from labor's present elsewhere that even darker possibilities exist.

We are in for four years of ugly.

Organized Labor


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