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Trump's Presidency Poses Potential Threat To Labor Unions

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Organized labor is trying to recover after last week's election. Unions have been a driving force in Democratic politics for decades, especially in the industrial Midwest. And they had poured tons of money and manpower into stopping Donald Trump, a candidate who appealed to blue-collar workers by opposing trade deals and promising to bring back lost jobs. NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Union leaders took Trump seriously early on. They saw his attack on trade deals and complaints about jobs lost to Mexico and overseas and knew it had traction. After all, those are things unions have long decried.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICHARD TRUMKA: Hi everyone, I'm Rich Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO.

GONYEA: This is a video message to union members from this past summer. Trumka hoped to counter Trump's promises with a reality check.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMKA: He supports legislation to destroy unions. And he's consistently outsourced American jobs to line his own pockets. Trump wants our vote, so he'll say just about anything to get it.

GONYEA: Then came Election Day. Most union households still voted Democratic for president, but exit polls show that the numbers were way down. Where President Obama won these voters in 2012 by nearly 20 points, Hillary Clinton won them by less than half of that. And in Ohio, she actually lost union households to Trump.

DAVID COHEN: Union labor did what it always does in presidential elections.

GONYEA: That's David Cohen of Akron University.

COHEN: They were the ones that were doing the phone banking. They were, you know, knocking on doors, organizing rallies. And labor does a great job of doing that.

GONYEA: Except this time it didn't work. Here is how the AFL-CIO's Richard Trumka put it at a meeting of union leaders last week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMKA: I believe the outcome of this election is an indictment of politics as usual.

GONYEA: But it appears that many voters saw their own union leadership as part of that same politics as usual. Far from the industrial Midwest, D. Taylor is a Las Vegas-based union leader who says labor needs to learn from this. First, Trump seized upon a key union issue - the portrayal of trade deals like NAFTA as job killers.

D TAYLOR: Absolutely, he did.

GONYEA: And he doesn't blame union members who saw in Trump someone who finally heard them. Taylor heads the growing Unite Here! union, which represents culinary and hotel workers, including the Las Vegas hospitality industry. And that's a key difference. This is the service industry, so Trump's anti-trade deal positions don't have the same resonance. And while many in the Midwest who went for Trump were white union members, the demographics of Taylor's union are already where the U.S. population is going in the future.

TAYLOR: Our union is probably the most diverse in the nation, we really are. We're a majority color, majority female, sizable immigrant. But we're white, we're African-American.

GONYEA: Union efforts helped turn out Hispanics in Nevada, which Clinton won, and enabled Democrats to hold on to the Senate seat there. Still, it's a relatively small bright spot for the labor movement this election. And Taylor says the threat to unions posed by Trump gets worse with him as president. Losing the election was one thing. Now unions must fight his policies. Don Gonyea, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.