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Why Did Trump Win? And What’s Next for Labor in the US?

This article first appeared in Sinistra Sindicale, an internal newsletter of the Confederazione Generale Italiana dei Lavoratori (CGIL), the largest trade union federation in Italy. This article deals with the US election result.


European elites were shocked at the surprising victory of “Brexit” last June. American elites — and especially the pollsters and major media outlets — were similarly shocked by the results of the U.S. elections on November 8.(1)

While Brexit was a straight up “Yes” or “No” vote, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, but lost because of the Electoral College system of electing our national presidents. The Electoral College is an arcane constitutional provision intended to protect smaller states from the population power of larger states and the rule of the “mob” over the perceived wisdom of elite electors.

This is the fifth time in U.S. history that a presidential candidate has won the popular vote, but lost the election because of the anti-democratic Electoral College. The last time was in 2000 when George W. Bush became President after a Supreme Court ruled that he had won the vote in the state of Florida. That state’s electoral college vote gave Bush the election, even though a plurality of the American people voted for the Democratic nominee, Al Gore.

Trump heralded his election as “Brexit on steroids” and appeared at a rally in Mississippi with Nigel Frage from the British Independence Party. Both Brexit and Trump’s triumph tapped into a distraught white working class buffeted by globalization and new demographic realities. In many cases Trump’s appeal was pure and simple racism, attracting alt-right and overt racist elements. Yet while all racists, misogynists and xenophobes most likely voted for Trump, not all of his 60 million votes were racists, misogynists and xenophobes.

The Electoral College system made winning the states of Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin key to either candidate winning the White House. Why did Secretary Clinton lose in these three states that her predecessor Barrack Obama carried in 2008 and 2012? Workers in all three states have suffered huge job losses in basic industry and in the case of Pennsylvania, the closure of coalmines. The sons and daughters of “New Deal” Democrats many of whom supported Obama in 2008 and 2012 were looking to make a statement against the ruling elites and voted for change.

Exit polls in Ohio tell the story. In 2012 when Obama carried Ohio, he won union households by a 23% margin. In 2016, Trump, the New York billionaire, carried union households by a 12% margin. Similar voting patterns took place in the crucial battleground states of Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. In short, many white working class voters simply deserted the Democratic Party.

After the election, a railroad worker from Ohio who is a member of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees (a division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters) and who voted for Trump said, “I didn’t vote for my retirement. I didn’t vote for my healthcare. I didn’t vote for my union membership. I voted for my son. Because I just didn’t see a future for him if we elected Hillary. I actually voted for Obama in the last two elections. Now, I stand here and tell you that if we lose our retirement, I will not bitch. If I lose my healthcare, I will not bitch. If my tax rate goes through the roof, I will not bitch. I cast my vote and I will stand behind it.”

An SEIU member in Massachusetts felt betrayed, “I’m a registered Democrat, but they have let me down,” said Peter Blaikie, a custodian and shop steward in the Somerville Public Schools. “I expect Republicans to screw me, but the Democrats take our money and do worse, so I voted for the lessor of two evils. Clinton just looked like Obama’s third term. She just seemed entitled. And it was also a matter of how I feel about right and wrong. Hundreds of her emails were mishandled. She should have been charged with treason. If you do something wrong with classified information you should be held accountable. Others have been severely punished for lessor crimes. I obey the law, so should she.”

In the run-up to Election Day, pollsters and pundits talked of re-configuring the electoral map because of the anticipated strength of the Latino vote. In the end, Trump polled as strongly among Latinos as the Republican candidate in both 2008 and 2012. The Black vote — without Obama at the top of the ticket — polled below the last two election cycles in cities like Detroit that are crucial to winning industrial states like Michigan.

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After the election, Sen. Bernie Sanders summed up Clinton’s defeat: “Donald Trump tapped into the anger of a declining middle class that is sick and tired of establishment economics, establishment politics and the establishment media. People are tired of working longer hours for lower wages, of seeing decent paying jobs go to China and other low-wage countries, of billionaires not paying any federal income taxes and of not being able to afford a college education for their kids – all while the very rich become much richer.”

Many people believe (including these authors) that Sanders would have won against Trump. The Sanders’ campaign (and many down-ballot victories on 8 November) showed that an explicitly anti-capitalist campaign can succeed.

Now the Neo-Liberal wing of the Democratic Party (the Clintons and their Progressive Policy Institute think tank friends) is completely discredited. The Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren populist wing of the party is challenging its national leadership. Even New York’s Chuck Schumer, the ranking minority leader in the Senate, acknowledged the need for a new approach. He is supporting Congressman Keith Ellison, a Muslim African American from Minnesota, and a supporter of Senator Sanders, for Chair of the Democratic National Committee.

Perhaps more importantly, grassroots activists inspired by Bernie Sanders’ campaign are challenging the leadership of the party at the state and local levels across the country. Sanders is backing a new group, Our Revolution, formed to build on the movement that he started. “Our Revolution” backed over 100 new progressive leaders in the November election and hopes to transform American politics to be more responsive to the needs of working families.

Trump’s victory, although made possible by an angry white working class, has also elevated working class issues to a degree not seen since the 1930s. Ironically, it also led to the defeat of the Trans Pacific Partnership, the trade deal negotiated by the Obama administration with Pacific Rim nations.

“The movement we built has brought down, at least for now, the Trans-Pacific Partnership,” said Larry Cohen, the past president of the Communications Workers and now Board Chair of “Our Revolution”. “This was because of the work of union members and environmentalists, farmers and immigrants. This was the work of the political revolution. Our defeat for now of the TPP is a bright spot in a bleak week for our country. Let’s celebrate our victory, and get ready for the fights to come.”

Going forward, workers and the unions that protect them, will likely be under a heavy attack by Trump and the Republican Party majorities in both the House and Senate. The labor movement will have an opportunity to organize more workers while also attracting more militant leaders if it can offer a “port in the storm” to those who are most vulnerable in the Trump era.

The unions that backed Sanders — and hopefully many others — will help lead the fight against Trump and by doing so, build the strength of a more militant, class conscious wing of the labor movement.

1) For a more thorough discussion of the election’s similarities with Brexit, see, “Democrats, Trump, and the Ongoing, Dangerous Refusal to Learn the Lesson of Brexit,” by Glenn Greenwald, The Intercept, Nov. 9, 2016.

Peter Olney is retired Organizing Director of the ILWU. He has been a labor organizer for 40 years in Massachusetts and California. He has worked for multiple unions before landing at the ILWU in 1997. For three years he was the Associate Director of the Institute for Labor and Employment at the University of California.

Rand Wilson has worked as a union organizer and labor communicator for more than twenty five years and is  currently an organizer with SEIU Local 888 in Boston. Wilson was the founding director of Massachusetts Jobs with Justice.  Active in electoral politics, he ran for state Auditor in a campaign to win cross-endorsement (or fusion) voting reform and establish a Massachusetts Working Families Party.  He is President of the Center for Labor Education and Research, and is on the board of directors of the ICA Group, the Local Enterprise Assistance Fund and the Center for the Study of Public Policy.