It is now common knowledge that President Donald Trump owes much of his electoral victory to union members and working-class families.
Exit polls suggest that Hillary Clinton won union households by only eight points last November, the worst showing by a Democratic candidate for president since Jimmy Carter edged Ronald Reagan by a mere three points in 1980.
Compare Clinton’s struggles to her husband’s first race and that number becomes more glaring — Bill Clinton crushed George H.W. Bush in union votes by a whopping 30 points.
Much has been made of Trump’s unique appeal to the heartland. Despite being America’s most famous boss, Trump cobbled together an enticing sales pitch for many workers, promising at various points in his campaign to shred NAFTA, sprout jobs and pour upwards of a trillion dollars into infrastructure spending.
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But with regards to organized labor — including unions members in Kentucky — these promises were always a deceptive siren song. Trump recently nominated a pair of business-friendly lawyers to fill the two open seats on the National Labor Relations Board. The nominees, William Emanuel and Marvin Kaplan, would give Republicans a three-seat majority on the five-member board.
While NLRB picks don’t receive near the fanfare of Supreme Court nominations or even most Justice Department appointments, they are pivotal in the landscape of American labor law. Board members decide hundreds of union-related legal cases per year and interpret vagaries under the National Labor Relations Act in either a union or employer’s favor.
As an example, Barack Obama’s board picks were seen as particularly favorable to organized labor, having authored a slew of opinions in recent years that expanded employee rights in the workplace (at the expense of managers’ wishes).
Thus, a president’s intentions are revealed by the backgrounds of the labor lawyers he nominates to these posts. Obama’s picks were all “union-side” — attorneys that represent unions as counsel or in litigation.
Conversely, both of Trump’s nominees are “management-side” lawyers. Kaplan is a veteran of Republican workforce policy committees as a counsel for conservative House members and drafter of anti-union legislation, and Emanuel is a corporate attorney who specializes in “challenging state laws that allow labor unions to trespass on the private property of employers” (per his law firm’s bio).
When confirmed, both will undoubtedly interpret the law in ways that unilaterally favor employers. The board will consider numerous significant issues in the coming years, including the standard for determining which companies are joint employers, the use of work email and electronic resources for union-related purposes, and the question of whether graduate students are employees and capable of collective bargaining.
Obama’s picks ruled in favor of unions in each of these matters, and the business interests who recommended Emanuel and Kaplan’s selections are eager to reverse those decisions as soon as possible.
Of course, these nominations are not the smoking gun that tipped Trump’s hand; several of his decisions since taking office are directly hostile to labor. Trump’s first pick to head the Department of Labor, former Hardee’s CEO Andrew Puzder, opposed virtually all minimum wage and overtime rules and openly favored automating his fast-food chains, and Trump’s budget proposal includes deep cuts to regulatory agencies and job training programs that protect against exploitation in the workplace.
But Trump’s board nominations represents a transfer of power to big business in the barest and simplest terms, where cases are usually decided by a single vote.
Unions are currently facing a slew of structural difficulties, both in the spread of right-to-work legislation and the changing face of the American economy. If Trump were truly a friend of organized labor, he would take note of these struggles and attempt to bolster unions’ chances with favorable NLRB picks. Instead, he’s shown his true colors by placing boss-approved lawyers at the top of labor’s food chain.
Kentucky union members should recognize that the president is not their friend.
Brandon Magner is a student in the University of Kentucky College of Law.