SEIU President on Donald Trump and the ‘Fight for $15’ Movement

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Demonstrators in the "Fight for $15" wage protest are joined by social justice activists at a rally in downtown San Diego on November 29, 2016. The union behind the "Fight for $15" campaign is hoping to expand its reach in 2017. Mike Blake/REUTERS

President Donald Trump hosted a “listening session” with American labor union leaders Monday, but some central players in the labor movement didn’t get the invite. In a sign of how Trump may seek to split organized labor as president, he limited the gathering to representatives of the construction and building trades unions, organizations that represent the type of blue-collar, manufacturing sector workers he championed in his campaign. Left out were the public sector and service industry unions that have been some of the most powerful supporters of Democrats in recent elections.

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU)—the nation’s second largest—was one of those excluded from Monday’s meeting. But even before that, the union was girding for war. “We are battening down the hatches,” President Mary Kay Henry said in an interview.

Henry spoke to Newsweek shortly before Trump was inaugurated last week, and she acknowledged the challenges his election presents to her union, which represents 2 million health care workers, public sector employees, food and hotel workers and others. But she insisted that the threats from a Trump White House are “not existential from our perspective.” And the SEIU is preparing to fight for those same blue-collar voters Trump successfully wooed in 2016. It’s a brewing political battle that could define the midterm elections in 2018 and the president’s re-election effort in just under four years.

Henry tacitly acknowledged the union’s need to expand its reach, promising to broaden the “Fight for $15” movement, one of its signature successes in recent years. The campaign to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour has notched some major victories—19 states and cities are now on track to have that as the minimum wage, more than double the $7.25 federal minimum wage, including California and New York. Many private companies have also raised their wages unilaterally as public pressure has increased.

Most of the activism, however, has focused on the fast-food industry, the health care sector and other service industry jobs, not the struggling manufacturing sector, whose decline was a central narrative in Trump’s campaign. And the labor campaign has had its biggest impact in the country’s urban centers, far removed from many of the small-town, predominantly white voters who fueled Trump’s 2016 upset victory.

Henry said the SEIU and “Fight for $15” organizers plan to target sectors that include autoworkers—a key Rust Belt constituency—and truck drivers in 2017. “And we want to get into white urban and exurban and rural areas and figure out how to mount a fight to get good jobs back in their communities,” she added. At the same time, the SEIU plans to make clear to workers that Trump is not the populist ally he styled himself as on the campaign trail. “Our key job is to keep exposing the contradictions in his actions and words,” Henry said, pointing to Trump’s nomination of Andy Puzder, an opponent of minimum wage increases, as secretary of labor, and his promises to revoke Obamacare. “And then organize.”

They’re going to have to do so on a smaller budget. Bloomberg reported in late December that the SEIU was preparing to slash its budget by 30 percent over the next year, including a 10 percent cut effective January 1. Henry said the spending decision was the result of a “threat assessment” related to Trump. One of the biggest of those threats: that the new president’s pick to fill the vacant Supreme Court seat could swing the court against unions in future labor-organizing challenges, causing them to lose members and the dues they bring in. Henry noted the SEIU made a similar budget decision after the Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that government-funded home health workers could not be required to pay union dues.

There’s been a “systemic attack on unions for the last 40 years,” Henry said, and she believes this helped pave the way for Trump’s victory. “When unions formed in the last century, auto, steel and rubber jobs became good jobs.... That essential, basic bargain—that when you work hard for a living, you can help your family get ahead—has been broken.” And Trump, she said, tapped into the angst that has come out of that development.

Henry was actually one of the few people in Washington taking his chances seriously as far back as January 2016, before the primary races had even kicked off. In a podcast interview with former Barack Obama adviser David Axelrod, the SEIU president warned that Trump was speaking to the “terrible anxiety” America’s working families felt about the future. At the time, Henry said the SEIU was reaching out to “every one of our members” about Trump and the stakes in the 2016 election. It didn’t stop the billionaire businessman from winning historically high numbers of voters from union households—the most since 1984, The Washington Post pointed out. Trump’s early steps to pull the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement negotiations and bully American companies into not moving jobs abroad are just the sorts of moves that will affirm their support.

Trump, however, also faces pressure from Republicans in Congress and some of his own advisers to move away from his promises on health care reform and entitlement cuts. His tax proposal is set to benefit the wealthy far more than the working class. And his promise to roll back Obama-era regulations could mean curbing worker rights and benefits. The SEIU and other labor organizers plan to highlight these types of policies to paint the new president as a hypocrite, someone who’s not living up to the hopes his working-class supporters have pinned on him.   

Henry predicted the SEIU can score political victories in 2017 and beyond by driving home that point while also tapping into the backlash Trump’s election has provoked from large pockets of America. The predictions of organized labor’s impending demise, she insisted, are overstated. “Working people being able to join together is not something a president, a Supreme Court justice or a law…can stop.”