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Donald Trump isn’t the union legend he’s pretending to be

Trump is exaggerating his union support.

Former President Donald Trump Speaks to a factory facility full of workers.
Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally at Drake Enterprises, an automotive parts manufacturer, on September 27, 2023, in Clinton Township, Michigan.
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Christian Paz is a senior politics reporter at Vox, where he covers the Democratic Party. He joined Vox in 2022 after reporting on national and international politics for the Atlantic’s politics, global, and ideas teams, including the role of Latino voters in the 2020 election.

Donald Trump has long made it clear that he sees himself as not just the true voice of the working class, but also the rightful standard-bearer of the union vote. His rally Wednesday night in a Detroit, Michigan suburb just reconfirmed that. “Tell your UAW leadership — no problems with them — but they have to endorse Trump because if they don’t, all they’re doing is committing suicide,” he said. He was talking to a crowd of auto workers, some unionized, but mostly not, at a nonunion manufacturing plant about why he deserves both the union vote and the support of auto workers in general.

This is the crux of Wednesday’s rally: Trump doesn’t care about the specific demands of the striking United Auto Workers members — he wants their votes, and because he says he supports manufacturing jobs and opposes electric vehicle development, that should be enough to back him. But union voters, including in Michigan, have long sided with Democratic candidates — UAW’s leadership itself refused to meet with Trump but joined President Joe Biden 50 miles away a day earlier, when he became the first sitting president to join a picket line.

Trump’s track record with unions isn’t as simple as he’d like to paint it. Though he spent much of the 2016 campaign railing against free trade deals and neoliberal economic policies that contributed to the decline of the American manufacturing sector and the outsourcing of blue-collar jobs, that’s just about the limit of his union-friendly perspective. As president, he sided with capital and managerial interests over labor at nearly every turn, appointing corporate-friendly lawyers to the National Labor Relations Board, supporting right-to-work laws that limited union organizing and dues collections in Republican states, and promising to veto the PRO Act, a bill that would override those state laws and boost labor organizing rights. Even at his rally, he talked up the tax cuts he passed in 2017, without mentioning that they disproportionately benefited corporations and corporate leaders.

Nevertheless, Trump has branded himself as a union champion, claiming that the rank-and-file have flocked to his cause. But a close examination of voting trends over the last few presidential cycles, as well as the changing nature of the labor movement, show that Trump’s standing union voters is mainly a product of his own mythmaking.

Yes, he’s had some success with union voters before — his 2016 presidential victory was buoyed in Midwestern swing states in part by making gains in union households. But union voters aren’t a monolith; they’re a far more diverse group than what Trump (and the nation’s popular conception) would have you believe. And while Trump made gains in 2016, Biden took much of them back in 2020 — suggesting that maybe Trump was never the union whisperer he’s claiming to be.

Democrats have long counted on union support — though 2016 was different

The idea that Trump can make gains among union voters in 2024 has its roots in 2016. That election was defined by two unpopular presidential candidates: in Hillary Clinton, the epitome of an establishment, pro-free trade, and neoliberal politician; and Trump, who pitched himself as a populist outsider who’d renegotiate the nation’s trade deals to save manufacturing jobs.

Much was made about Trump’s appeal to white, working-class voters, and his ability to flip the Midwestern states that made up the so-called Blue Wall that was expected to deliver Clinton the White House. News analyses after the fact explained one key reason: “Donald Trump Got Reagan-Like Support from Union Households,” read one Washington Post headline, while HuffPost declared “It Looks Like Donald Trump Did Really Well With Union Households.”

Those headlines aren’t wrong: Clinton did better among union households than Trump, but it was the smallest margin of victory for a Democrat since 1980, according to exit polls. [First, an aside: There isn’t very good data to track how union voters specifically have voted (believe me, I tried hunting it down), so the best data we can use to understand recent elections is from the exit polls collected by Edison Research for the National Election Pool. They ask respondents if anyone in their household belongs to a union, and track that metric. It’s imperfect, but it’s the best we have.] While Clinton still won the national union household vote (51 percent), Trump posted a two-percentage-point improvement compared to Mitt Romney in 2012 (from 40 to 42 percent). For context: Obama’s margin of victory over Romney was 18 points; Clinton’s was just 9.

But that doesn’t mean Trump posted tremendous national gains. “Trump kind of simply continued a slight slow upward trajectory of Republicans making inroads in the union household that dates back to Bill Clinton’s first race in 1992,” Jake Rosenfeld, a sociology professor at Washington University in St. Louis and labor author, told me. “Roughly speaking in recent elections, Republicans get about 4 in 10 voters in unionized households. That’s down from Ronald Reagan’s successes in 1980 and ’84.”

That trend, of Republicans winning about 40 percent of the labor household vote goes back to 1976, with dips in 1992 and 1996 due to Ross Perot’s third-party candidacy.

Trump’s gains among union household voters, however, didn’t prove sustainable. In 2020, Biden restored the Democratic-union household margin back to double digits, with 56 percent to Trump’s 40 percent.

That rebound suggests something unique happened in 2016: a combination of an appealing Trump message to unionized and nonunionized blue-collar voters in the Midwest, a fumble in the Clinton campaign’s organizing and mobilization in the region, and, most importantly, flaws in Clinton’s candidacy itself, unable to convince voters to ignore her close alignment with her party’s free-trade wing.

The picture gets even more complicated when you zoom in on state-level data. In 2016, Trump cut into Democrats’ union household support significantly across the Midwest. He won a significant majority of union household voters in Ohio: 54 percent to Clinton’s 41 percent according to exit polling. He then held that majority in 2020. It’s a similar story in Pennsylvania, where he made gains in 2016 and held them in 2020.

But in Wisconsin and Michigan, Trump’s 2016 gains were erased in 2020. Biden nearly doubled Clinton’s showing in 2016, winning the union household vote 62 to 37 percent; similarly, in Wisconsin, Biden won the union vote by 19 points, up from the 10 points Clinton won in 2016.

Those differences complicate the question of whether Trump has some unique appeal among union voters, or if 2016 was driven more by the flaws of the Clinton campaign.

White, working-class voters are not the same as union voters, since unions themselves are changing

Aside from his track record, there are two important pieces of context to understand why Trump isn’t likely to inherit the mantle of union hero: Private-sector union membership, the kind he is going after, has been on a decline over the last few decades. At the same time, public and private sector union membership has been diversifying over that same time — making them much less male and white than they have historically been.

Those trends explain why it’s important to not conflate union members, and especially auto union workers, with the category of “white working-class American” that Trump claims to be a champion for, and which media and politicians often use interchangeably with “union worker,” Rosenfeld told me. As private sector unionization rates have declined (that rate sits at a historic low of 6 percent of workers), including in manufacturing and industrial occupations, public sector unionization rates, among school teachers and police officers for example, have remained higher (at about 33 percent nationally). And both sectors are much more female and more Black and Latino than in previous decades.

“In a lot of politicians’ minds, when they talk about the importance of unions, they’re conjuring up images of a UAW auto worker. But that’s just not who your typical union household is, and it’s certainly not who your typical union member is today,” Rosenfeld said. “Today, it’s much more likely that your union household is comprised of a public school teacher than it is an auto worker or manufacturing worker.”

He told me that this moment, with the UAW strike, shows the paradox of how much attention is given to a shrinking subset of voters. “Overall, auto union membership today is something like 16 percent … and that contrasts with about 60 percent back in the early to mid-1980s,” he said. That same dynamic applies to Michigan, as well, where private manufacturing jobs used to be an anchor of the labor movement. While about 4 in 10 manufacturing workers belonged to unions in the 1980s, less than 20 percent do so now. Even the union at the center of this week’s dueling Michigan visits isn’t as monolithic as it used to be, or as Trump thinks of it. Four in 10 UAW members work outside the automotive industry, and that growing segment is now being fueled by unionizing researchers, university workers, and other academic student workers.

The growing diversity in profession, gender, and race among union members is another defining feature of the modern labor movement, one that experts told me has benefitted Democrats and poses a challenge to Trump and Republican candidates.

“If you took the union movement of 1950, and kept it the same — it was still mostly construction, industrial, white men — it would probably be a pretty conservative movement today,” Paul Frymer, a political scientist focused on labor and political movements at Princeton University, told me. “A lot of what has contributed to the longevity of the Democratic Party with it is the shift of demographics, both race and gender, and the shift to the public sector and the service industry.” Frymer and his colleagues have also found that increasing diversity among public and private sector unions also has effects on racial animosity: that class solidarity can help white people feel less racial resentment against nonwhite counterparts — and aligns with traditional Democratic messaging.

Why Biden and Trump are headed for a union showdown

So why are Biden and Trump set to duel over a shrinking pool of voters that are still more likely to vote for Democrats — and simply don’t have the same numbers they did in their heyday?

It hasn’t always been this way, Frymer told me. “2023 is a different moment. There is competition for the labor vote. When was the last time that happened? Trump doing this is going to push Democrats to do the same, and getting Biden to march in a protest,” he said. “There hasn’t been a Democratic president who really saw themselves as a union supporter since maybe Truman. The union movement was taken for granted a lot in the Democratic Party. They were an important part of the party, but they weren’t the group that presidents and senators were worried about.”

The bipartisan desire for union support is amplified by how important small margins are in battleground states, where labor voters are still crucial in delivering victory to Democrats — or defecting in numbers large enough to boost a Republican. As Michael Baharaeen at The Liberal Patriot has analyzed, shoring up union household support in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin offers Democrats a clear pathway to hold those states in 2024 — and an opening for Trump to neutralize a Democratic advantage.

The changing partisan affiliation of union members also creates ripe ground for a contest: Polling data aggregated and analyzed by Gallup for Vox over the last 20 years show that though Democrats still hold an edge (31 percent of members) in the number of union members who identify as Democrats, Republicans have seen an increase in affiliation since Trump’s election (27 percent today, compared to 20 percent during the 2016 election). More union members identify as independents — and when asked to which party they lean, Democrats still hold an advantage, though it has shrunk.

Adding to this moment is the historically high popular support for organized labor among Americans nationally — nearly 7 in 10 Americans approve of labor unions, according to Gallup’s most recent surveys, a number not seen since 1960. That offers ripe ground for candidates of both parties to campaign as pro-labor, even if, in the case of Trump, that doesn’t mean passing legislation or enacting policies to materially help labor unions specifically.

The specifics of Trump’s speech Wednesday night lend this theory more credence. Trump allies and much of the political press have characterized the Michigan visit as an attempt to persuade working class and union voters, even though the address was hosted at a nonunionized facility, to a crowd of mostly nonunion or former union manufacturing workers. An anti-free trade, anti-electric vehicle, and nominally pro-worker speech seems more like an attempt to use the aesthetics of the traditional labor movement than a serious attempt to help union workers.

It’s disingenuous of Trump to pretend to be a union champion, but his success in selling that image — or Democrats’ success in dispelling it — is likely to have a significant bearing on who wins the next election.