Let’s assume that Alexander Acosta is confirmed as secretary of labor, having been nominated by President Trump on Feb. 16 after the withdrawal of his first candidate, Andrew Puzder.
That would mean that the secretary of labor is the first white man since the first term of Bill Clinton. That’s the longest stretch among Cabinet positions, by a wide margin.
Acosta would be the first Hispanic in Trump’s Cabinet, a Cabinet that we’ve noted otherwise looks more like Trump’s voting base than the United States on the whole.
It’s perhaps fitting, though, that it’s the Department of Labor that has so consistently been the Cabinet post represented by a woman or a person of color.
Trump’s campaign success was heavily credited to white working-class voters, particularly white men without college degrees. That was deserved; white voters without degrees backed Trump by a 39-point margin. They’d supported Mitt Romney in 2012 by only 25 points. The more whites without college degrees in a county, the more that county voted more heavily Republican.
That support often overlapped with the stereotype of a member of a labor union. The president’s campaign trail rhetoric highlighted people holding traditionally union and traditionally male jobs: people working in coal mines or in manufacturing plants. Trump ended up doing better with union members than any Republican since Ronald Reagan in 1984.
But that picture of labor unions is outdated.
Over the past several decades, the composition of union membership has grown less heavily white and less heavily male.
In 1994, 60 percent of union members were men. Now, 46 percent are women. It’s still the case that most union members are white, but while 81 percent were white in 1994, only 76 percent were in 2016, according to data from the Department of Labor. Over that period, the population of the United States has similarly grown less white, thanks in large part to an increase in the Hispanic population. That’s the case within labor unions as well. The density of Latinos in unions has steadily ticked upward. Acosta, we will note, would be the third Hispanic secretary of labor in a row.
The nature of the work that’s unionized has also changed, along with the broader economy, shifting away from manufacturing and toward service and government jobs. Considering only demographics, though, that the secretary of labor has consistently not been a white man makes sense. The changing face of labor, you might say, mirrors the diverse face of the Labor Department.