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Donald Trump and labor unions don’t always get along — but they did today

Supporters of President Trump leave the Mall after Trump's inaugural ceremony on Jan. 20 at the Capitol. Trump won votes with his promise to bring back American jobs. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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Amid tension with the organized labor community, President Trump met with a dozen union leaders and members Monday afternoon at the White House for a “listening session” about American jobs.

Trump started the meeting with a reference to an executive order he had signed hours earlier: scrapping the United States’ participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership — a symbolic move, given the deal had essentially expired in Congress. “We have officially terminated TPP,” Trump said of the trade agreement, according to a White House pool report. “We are going to put a lot of people back to work.”

His audience responded with applause. They came from groups across the country representing carpenters, construction workers, bus drivers and welders. Douglas J. McCarron, general president of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, a national organization, praised Trump’s inaugural address, which three times mentioned the country’s shuttered factories. Some blue-collar workers feel trade has gutted their employment opportunities. 

“It hit home for the people who have been hurting,” McCarron said, per the pool report. Then White House reporters left the meeting — Trump officials allowed them to stay for less than 10 minutes — and the union folks talked to Trump behind closed doors.

Sean McGarvey, president of North America's Building Trades Unions, said later on a conference call that Trump told the group he would hire American workers to rebuild the country’s infrastructure, including bridges, schools, hospitals and oil pipelines. (Trump has proposed investing $1 trillion into such projects with American steel.)

“He intends to do the work on the issues he discussed on the campaign trail,” McGarvey said. “It was by far the best meeting I've had [in Washington].”

Trump campaigned on bringing back American jobs — a promise that largely targeted the manufacturing sector, which has shed roughly 5 million positions over the last 20 years — and Rust Belt voters overwhelmingly pushed him into the Oval OfficeHe made good on one of his promises in November, persuading Carrier, the air conditioning company, to keep some jobs slated for Mexico in Indianapolis. But he has repeatedly clashed with unions, the groups that push for factory workers to earn higher wages.

Monday's White House conversation came less than two months after Indiana union leader Chuck Jones pointed out that Trump had inflated the number of jobs saved at Carrier’s Indianapolis furnace plant, and Trump responded by insulting Jones on Twitter.

“Chuck Jones, who is president of United Steelworkers 1999, has done a terrible job representing workers,” Trump wrote Dec. 7. “No wonder companies flee country!”

Labor leaders rushed to the defense of Jones, who has led the United Steelworkers Local 1999 for about three decades. The 65-year-old Indiana native had been right about the numbers: Trump publicly took credit for saving 1,100 of the Indianapolis factory jobs, but Carrier planned to keep 800.

At the time, Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, said “an attack on [Jones] is an attack on all working people.” Larry Cohen, former president of the Communications Workers of America, said Trump’s bashing of Jones was “repulsive.” The hashtag #ImWithChuck trended for more than a day on Twitter.

Later in December, Trump revealed his top choice for secretary of labor: Andrew Puzder, chief executive of a company that franchises the fast-food chains Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. Puzder’s hamburger joints have been hit with more federal discrimination lawsuits than any of their domestic competitors, and he expressed interest less than a year ago in replacing his human workers with robots.

“They’re always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex or race discrimination case,” he told Business Insider in March.

Ariana Levinson, a labor law scholar at the University of Louisville, called Pudzer “anti-union” because he appears to value profits over employees. “We hear a lot about creation of jobs,” she said. “It’s important for people to question the conditions of those jobs.”

The power of American unions has been fading for decades. In 1980, nearly a quarter of the U.S. workforce belonged to a union. Today, that share stands at 11 percent.

Union leaders partly blame “right to work” laws, which have spread to more than half the country, allowing union-represented employees to opt out of paying union dues. This month, Kentucky became the latest state to adopt the rule, angering labor leaders who believe the measures weaken their power.

Trump has said he supports the right to work movement.

McGarvey, the Building Trades Union head, said the debate about Jones, Pudzer and Trump's support for right-to-work laws has not dampened his enthusiasm for the president's economic agenda.

“We believe that President Trump really is going to put America first,” he said. “I’ve been around this town long enough to know things are said in the heat of battle. The details we just heard from the president, we’ve very excited about.”

More on Wonkblog:

Donald Trump just used his presidential power to advertise L.L. Bean

The public is being kept in the dark about Trump's deal with Carrier

Why Trump would struggle to punish companies that offshore jobs