Donald Trump got a higher share of the vote among union members in last year's election than any Republican presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan, helping propel him to victory in key Rust Belt states and to the White House. Since his inauguration, he has continued to sound populist notes. He signed a "Buy American, Hire American" executive order and promised to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement. He has invited labor leaders to the White House for chummy photo ops, and some have praised him in return.
But beyond these symbolic gestures, Trump's actual track record on organized labor is quickly moving in the opposite direction. That's because his greatest impact is likely to come from his high-profile appointments, which appear poised to decimate the power of unions.
Trump's overtures to unions have so far struck labor advocates as hollow. His Buy American order is vaguely worded and unlikely to have much effect on manufacturing and trade. On NAFTA, his stance has seemed to change several times just in the past few days, and he now says he won't scrap it "at this time."
"Those are just sort of optical moves," says Susan Davis, a labor lawyer who has represented national and local unions. "In terms of substance, every single thing they have done and intend to do is damaging to workers and unions."
"On collective bargaining issues, he's following the script from the Chamber of Commerce," says Larry Cohen, former president of the Communications Workers of America union. "Probably literally."
On Thursday, the Senate approved Alex Acosta as secretary of labor, installing a corporate-friendly attorney as unions' chief regulator. Trump had initially nominated fast-food executive Andy Puzder, who was considered rabidly anti-union, but Puzder lost support even among Republicans amid revelations that he had employed an undocumented housekeeper and the reemergence of old accusations of abuse during his first marriage. Labor advocates worry that Acosta's Labor Department could come to resemble the one under President George W. Bush, which dedicated more staff and resources to regulating and investigating unions, required them to file more paperwork, and ramped up audits and investigations of unions.
Still, during a stint on the National Labor Relations Board, Acosta occasionally sided with unions. And so it's unclear how pro-business Acosta's Labor Department will be. In the immediate future, the biggest challenge to labor is likely to come not from the Labor Department but from the Supreme Court. Trump's appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the court could deal a major blow to organized labor as soon as the next court term.