Monday, Sept. 5, 2016 | 2 a.m.
“The policemen, the firemen, the construction workers, the lathers, the sheetrock workers, the electricians, the plumbers. That’s where my support is,” Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump said this year at a New Hampshire town hall. “Every poll shows it.”
The polls do show strong support for Trump from working-class whites, especially white men without college degrees. But a survey of union households by NBC/Wall Street Journal in May didn’t show Trump performing better than Republican presidential candidates have for the past four decades or so, typically garnering around 40 percent of the union vote.
At the same time, union support for Hillary Clinton has waned compared with past Democratic candidates. CNN recently reported that, while Democrats typically receive 60 percent of union members’ votes, only 50 percent has declared for Clinton. “That suggests many union votes are still up for grabs,” the network noted.
That matters in Nevada, not just because it’s a crucial swing state, but also because its population has one of the highest shares of union members in the country: 16.5 percent, based on 2015 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. It beats Pennsylvania and Ohio — industrial swing states where Trump has courted unions — and the 11.1 percent national average.
Though the number of union members/voters has steadily declined for several decades, they are highly engaged in the political process and still overrepresented among the voting population, making up about 17 percent of voters nationally in the past three elections, according to statistics blog FiveThirtyEight.
In Nevada, service-industry workers, their union and others typically play a key role in electing Democrats up and down the ballot and, despite Clinton securing most major union endorsements — including from the biggest labor federation in the country, the AFL-CIO — analysts see some evidence of a disconnect between leadership and membership.
Apparently, so do the candidates. The Clinton campaign has a labor director in Nevada, and numerous events, including rallies, have been staged at local union halls: Clinton rallied supporters before the caucus at the Laborers union; former President Bill Clinton stumped for her in February at the Carpenters union; and Clinton’s running mate, Tim Kaine, recently campaigned at the Plumbers and Pipefitters union.
Trump’s positions on immigration and free trade garnered strong support from blue-collar voters in Republican primary contests, and he has used those arguments to try to win over not only Republican union members but traditionally Democratic ones, particularly across America’s Rust Belt. The response may not be as “tremendous” as he boasts, but Trump’s pitch could appeal to some Nevada workers, said UNLV political science professor David Damore.
Damore noted that industrial unions with clout in other swing states are overshadowed here by those representing service workers and public employees. The Culinary Union, the state’s most politically powerful, represents 57,000 resort workers. Its members are 55 percent female, 56 percent Hispanic and hail from 167 countries — not exactly the stronghold of white male workers from whom Trump draws most of his union backing, according to national polls.
That’s not to say Trump hasn’t found support in Nevada. Local union members planning to vote for him detailed their frustration with the economic recovery post-recession, their skepticism about the Democratic Party, and their belief that Trump has great business acumen that will translate into him being a great commander in chief.
The Trump supporters asked to remain anonymous or to be identified only by first names for fear of workplace retribution.
Unions have long supported the Democratic Party, as they’ve organized together around issues such as health care, minimum wage and retirement. But these particular union members felt Democrats hadn’t done enough to help working people, and that economic recovery would only come through job creation by companies and entrepreneurs, not government stimulus packages.
One in the entertainment industry explained that he used to be a Democrat, even supporting Clinton’s primary campaign in 2008. However, he said the party became too liberal. Now a registered Republican, he likes Trump because he sees him as a “change agent” who can “get the whole economy humming again.”
Another Trump supporter, Jim, an electrical worker, lamented the lack of any big construction projects on the Strip since CityCenter was completed in 2009. “When the Luxor was being built, MGM, Treasure Island — it was just booming,” Jim said. “And all the guys that were working were the guys that were in the union halls.”
He liked that Trump was a businessman, and he pointed to the 8-year-old Trump International Hotel in Las Vegas as an example of the candidate creating construction jobs while the hotel was being built and permanent service jobs afterward.
Several Trump supporters referenced that hotel as proof of his success, even as opponents seek to use an ongoing dispute between the hotel’s management and workers to drive a wedge between Trump and rank-and-file union members.
Workers at the property voted 238-209 in December to join the Culinary Union and the local Bartenders Union. The National Labor Relations Board has certified the results and rejected an appeal from the hotel, whose management has not yet started negotiations with either union.
On Aug. 26, the same day Trump visited his Las Vegas hotel for a meeting with leaders of the Hispanic community, Culinary leadership, hotel workers and members of the Ironworkers union (in town for a convention) protested in front of the gold tower, calling on Trump to negotiate.
“What we feel is he is running for president saying he’s going to make this country better, going to make progress in this country, going to make America great again, but he doesn’t want to start with the 500 families here,” said Culinary’s secretary treasurer Geoconda Arguello-Kline.
Pushing back, Trump’s Nevada state director, Charles Munoz, said in a statement that Trump had “consistently maintained excellent relations with employees in all of his businesses. … There are thousands of current and former employees of Trump ventures who are supporting his candidacy, and millions of union members across the country are backing Mr. Trump because he represents real economic opportunity and jobs rather than Hillary’s promise of continued economic stagnation under a third Obama term.”
A request for comment from a Trump hotel representative in Las Vegas was passed along to the New York office and never answered.
One union member backing Trump admitted he found the dispute compelling.
“God bless Culinary local,” the entertainment worker said. “Culinary can be a bit of a bully sometimes, but they do represent a lot of minority workers, and those ladies work so hard.”
He added that he didn’t think Trump had the strongest stance in support of labor but that he couldn’t imagine the candidate undercutting it. “I believe he’s got bigger fish to fry.”
Union leaders hope to turn that into an argument countering Trump’s overtures.
“He’s tapped into the anger and frustration that have existed for the past three or four decades because the rules of the economy have been geared toward workers losing and the very rich winning,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said. “But when you look at what he does, he’s a fraud.”
Trumka pointed to statements Trump has made that wages are too high and to his history of overseas outsourcing as signs he isn’t really supportive of workers.
Mike Guerrissi, American Federation of Government Employees Local 1978 president, said he’s run into only a handful of Trump supporters while knocking on doors for the AFL-CIO’s voter contact program. “All I try to do is educate the people, try and put the facts out there,” Guerrissi said. “My biggest thing is use your brain. That’s the biggest tool God gave us all. Look through the facts, weed through the rhetoric on both sides.”
For her part, Clinton’s platform includes robust promises to bolster unions, such as investing in infrastructure and manufacturing, restoring collective bargaining rights and raising the minimum wage. And she has maintained a consistent presence in front of Nevada workers.
“We know the union members of Nevada helped build this state and keep this state running,” said Michelle White, the campaign’s deputy state director. “Hillary Clinton understands that union members’ voices deserve to be heard as they are the backbone of our economy.”
They will be heard Nov. 8, and it’s hard to say which way they’ll lean in the privacy of the voting booth.