On February 4, 2020, that man-shaped puddle of toxic runoff known as Donald Trump was once again invited to stand at a large podium and serve the nation a big, fat helping of racist word salad. This time, his garbled vocal flatulence was accompanied by an extra layer of pomp and circumstance because it was time for the State of the Union, baby! This annual address has meant many things to many people since George Washington first delivered a progress report to Congress in 1790, giving U.S. presidents an opportunity to share positive news and calm the public’s fears during times of war but also serving as a gift-wrapped bully pulpit to quell dissent during periods of unrest or urge mindless unity on the denizens of a country built on genocide and slavery. Across the aisle, and across the board, presidents past and present have all used the SOTU to lionize that which has never been great.
For Trump, this somber occasion is just another opportunity to do his favorite thing: put on a tie and lie on TV. And lie he did. I do not have the patience nor the wherewithal to outline the broad and awful scope of his lies in their entirety; Politico and various self-important newspapers have helpfully done so already. But given the nature of this column, I wanted to break down exactly how much Trump’s administration has failed the workers he still pretends to respect, and how his nominally “pro-labor” policies have hurt the labor movement as a whole. As much as Trump blubbers over his Platonic ideal of blue-collar workers—i.e. the kind he has spent his career ripping off—he’s managed to screw them over mightily, alongside the rest of this country’s multiracial, multi-gender working class.
The Economic Policy Institute, an independent economic think tank, recently released a primer that digs into the realities of what Trump’s regime meant for working people in 2019. One of the first sections I want to highlight concerns an assertion he made at the SOTU that “the unemployment rate for African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Asian Americans has reached the lowest levels in history.” As usual when it comes to Trump and race, he is lying; the EPI found that black workers are still twice as likely to be unemployed as white workers. Furthermore, they are more likely to be unemployed than white workers at every education level, and only those black workers with some college or a higher educational level have an unemployment rate lower than the overall unemployment rate of white workers. Unlike the president, these graphs don’t lie.
Many of Trump’s boldest claims concerning job creation, outsourcing, and unemployment rates are half-truths or outright bunk. In particular, the ill-considered trade war he launched with China has had a dire impact on farmers and blue-collar workers in regions that predominately supported him in 2016. U.S. consumers have also started feeling the sting. And Trump’s tariffs have not succeeded in reducing our trade deficit with China; in the first two years of his presidency, this deficit cost U.S. workers approximately seven-hundred thousand jobs—many of them in the beleaguered manufacturing sector, which has been in a recession since August. In a press release issued last month, EPI Director of Trade and Manufacturing Policy Research Robert E. Scott called Trump’s recent partial truce with China “nothing more than a gift to Wall Street and Beijing.” A corresponding report found that trade with low-wage countries like China has suppressed wages for roughly 100 million U.S. workers without college degrees, a demographic Trump considers an important part of his base—for now.
Just another day in the life of a champion of the working man!
Despite the overall low unemployment rate and Trump’s insistence that the economy is bigger and more beautiful than ever, 2019 in general was a brutal year for job cuts, with over half a million cuts announced. Factories were hit particularly hard with 70,894 cuts, a 156 percent increase over 2018. And while Trump has trumpeted the return of some factories to U.S. shores as a signature accomplishment, it’s largely the continuation of a trend that began under President Obama and is attributable to several other factors, including the rise of e-commerce and rising wages in China.
One Trump trade deal, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), an update of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), actually came with the blessing of the AFL-CIO. Even more of a rarity under the present administration, it enjoyed bipartisan support and has been touted as a boon for workers. But the United States International Trade Commission’s own USMCA report shows that the agreement will have virtually no measurable impacts on wages or incomes for U.S. workers. In his speech, Trump claimed, “The USMCA will create nearly one-hundred thousand new high-paying American auto jobs.” The highest estimate, via his own U.S. trade representative, places the number at “up to seventy-six thousand,” with the International Trade Commission estimating numbers as low as twenty-eight thousand. And economists have warned that increased auto prices may lead to a downswing in consumption and production.
While the USMCA did get some high-profile support from the house of labor, a number of influential unions—including the United Auto Workers, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, and the United Food and Commercial Workers—have expressed their reservations. UFCW’s statement condemned the deal’s failure to strengthen food safety standards. But their concerns are also more fundamental. As UFCW president Marc Perrone said in a December 2019 statement, “No single trade deal is enough to fix an economy that’s not working for millions of Americans.” The UAW’s statement was even more brusque, calling on the government to “start by ending bad tax laws that reward companies for moving jobs abroad and finally fix our labor laws by passing the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO Act), and other measures, to ensure all workers have a right to have voice on the job.”
The PRO Act, which would provide a badly needed update to the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, could be a game-changer for millions of U.S. workers. Coming with heavy union backing from across the labor movement, the bill would ban so-called right-to-work laws, tackle pressing issues like worker misclassification, and make it easier for workers to organize, strike, and join unions. Should it clear the Senate (though it is unlikely even to be taken up) and make it to Trump’s desk, this worker-fetishizing president would have a chance to make a real difference to the people he claims to represent. Passing the PRO Act could give rise to a real-life version of the fictitious “blue-collar boom” he mentioned during last week’s address. But given how virulently anti-labor Trump’s actual policies are, how deeply he’s beholden to the union-hating capitalist one-percenters who love right-to-work laws and comprise the true heart of his base, and how fastidiously Republicans have worked to crush organized labor at every turn, I’m not holding my breath.
In spite of Trump’s claim that “wages are rising fast—and, wonderfully, they are rising fastest for low-income workers, who have seen a 16 percent pay increase since my election,” his own policies are working to kneecap these very workers. A proposed rule by the Department of Labor would allow employers to “capture” tips from tipped workers like bartenders and other service industry workers, a dastardly move that could cost workers $700 million in stolen wages annually and potentially reduce job opportunities for workers of color. But it’s an entirely unsurprising maneuver from a man whose first pick for labor secretary, fast food baron Andy Puzder, once said that “a $15 minimum wage is something you should be protesting against.” (Puzder withdrew his nomination in 2017.) The current labor secretary, Eugene Scalia, also recently spoke out against raising the minimum wage, and Trump has already signaled his plans to veto the Raise the Wage Act, which would hike the federal minimum wage to $15 by 2025, if it managed to squeak through the Senate. Just another day in the life of a champion of the working man!
It’s not all bad news, though. Public support for unions hit a 125-year high in 2019, and union workers bargained more than $10 billion in wage increases last year. New industries are organizing at a rapid clip, and in many ways, the movement has rediscovered its militant roots. We’re down, but not out, and not even the worst boss—by all accounts, Trump definitely qualifies—can keep us from fighting for what we deserve. Despite this three-penny dictator’s desperate bid to take credit, every iota of progress made toward improving the lives of the working class in 2019 was made by the working class. It always has been.