Michael Theriault headshot

Donald Trump came to speak to the Building Trades.

You may now have seen the story, here in Organized Labor and elsewhere: Trump spoke 4 April to the annual legislative conference of North America’s Building Trades Unions, the umbrella organization for all Building Trades except (one hopes just for now) the Carpenters. You can find the speech on YouTube.

I was there, wearing the armband of a sergeant-at-arms. Behind me three young white men in suits applauded loudly at every point Trump made. The passes that hung on the lanyards around their necks and that had already gained them admission to the hall were turned blank-side-out, perhaps intentionally. The applause was the hardest work their hands had ever seen.

But Trump did not always need ringers in the crowd. On five points – and when he was done – the General Presidents stood and applauded him, and many in the crowd followed their cues.

There were no few ironies in this, such as their applause when he said we would live by two simple rules, “Buy American, hire American,” as the Canadian maple leaf was displayed on the scrim behind him.

And he reminded us again, as he does in so many speeches, of his victory in the Electoral College.

Before he spoke some Trades representatives left the hall. One whom I knew hurried past me saying, “I can’t stand to listen to him.” Others formed a small knot before the center camera and held up paper signs and cell phone screens that read “Resist.” They were ushered out.

I fulfilled my duty as sergeant-at-arms, stayed by the hall’s entry with Secret Service agents, and kept my hands at my sides.

I would have stayed, in any case, just to observe how our leaders and representatives from around the country responded to Trump.

Trump did goad them. He told us he was sure “almost all” of us had voted for him. When a rumble of disagreement arose, he said, “Would you like to make a change? You wouldn’t be having so many jobs.” And then he claimed that “the workers” had voted for him.

By this, he implied of course that he spoke more truly for the workers than their union representatives.

It may have been in part because of this that when he again pitched his unfunded $1 trillion infrastructure pseudo-plan and advised us to tell our members of Congress and Senators that “America’s Building Trades and its President are very much united,” the General Presidents again stood, others joined them in applauding, and no grumbling could be heard.

He may not have been altogether correct in saying that “the workers” had voted for him, but neither was he altogether wrong. A very considerable number of union Building Trades workers did vote for him, maybe even the majority in some locals represented in the hall. A few representatives even applauded his call for stricter immigration enforcement.

He may pose the representatives of locals whose members backed him an especially acute quandary, but I confess that even I, in all my disgust with him, and while fully acknowledging the necessity of resisting him, am torn as to just where and how.

Many make a good case for resisting him at every turn, on every occasion, in everything he does. To accord him any veracity, to allow him any success, by their understanding, is to risk normalization of his more despicable statements and acts.

But to resist at every turn, instead of selectively, to reject (for example) any attempt to address infrastructure needs simply because it comes from Trump, may be to play into the very Republican tale that government is the problem, rather than the solution.

Complete resistance also ignores the very real grievances of a substantial sector of the working class, and of those we represent. The decline of coal has devastated families and communities. The removal of manufacturing, whether for parts abroad or into the claws of machines, has eviscerated neighborhoods. It has done so even here in San Francisco, well within the memories of my generation. The disappearance of the African American community here may have as much to do with this as with the depredations of “urban renewal.”

While Trump acknowledges these plaints, and while that acknowledgment gained him many votes, no, he has no true answers, but neither does the Democratic Party, not even much-beloved Bernie.

Do we simply resist, then, or do we instead advocate for actions that turn the tables for the communities, of whatever race or culture, we purport to represent?

And just what would those actions be?

These are questions we must continue to ask ourselves, not just during the presidency of Trump, but after, long after, and we must be frank in our struggle for answers.

Organized Labor


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