Unions are growing in Colorado, despite organized labor’s long, slow decline across most of the country. That should be good news for Democrats, who have a long alliance with unions, but last year Donald Trump further blurred the lines that divide billionaires and working-class voters.
For organized labor to help Democrats in next year’s mid-term election, they must reverse decades of fading union political clout and resist the overtures Trump has made about stopping the migration of jobs out of the U.S., putting hundreds of billions into building infrastructure and reinvigorating American manufacturing.
Trump lost Colorado to Hillary Clinton, but his message found a home in the working-class heart of the state. When Trump won Pueblo County, he was the first GOP presidential candidate to do so since Richard Nixon in 1972.
Mary Beth Corsentino, chairwoman of the Pueblo County Democratic Party, pointed to the decline in union organizing and political activity at the local steel mill. There was a time in Pueblo when the steelworkers called the shots from the factory floor to the board room to the halls of government.
Sam Gilchrist, executive director of the Colorado AFL-CIO, still can’t figure out how Trump won the union stronghold. The Southern Colorado Labor Council ran a strong field campaign, but factors beyond their control proved too much, he said.
“Union membership in Pueblo is not what it used to be,” he said. “For years, public rhetoric against working people collectively bargaining has seeped into some of our strongest union states. Trump played into that rhetoric, and much like other states with strong manufacturing bases in the past, Pueblo is feeling the squeeze economically.”
Unions nationally have declined from 20.1 percent of the American workforce in 1983 to 10.7 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics report released last month. Organized labor nationally had a net loss of 240,000 members between 2015 and 2016.
Colorado’s economic recovery has been among the most robust in the country, and the growth in jobs where workers are unionized is related.
Union leaders say they have been working hard to capitalize on that by adding members and more state influence.
Unions at the Capitol
The Colorado AFL-CIO’s agenda at the state Capitol this session includes core issues of the Democratic Party: defending the state health exchange, equal pay for women and parental leave for school activities.
“It’s important that workers have the opportunity to be able to have a voice as it relates to their economic security,” said House Speaker Crisanta Duran, a former lawyer for the grocery workers’ union in Denver.
“It’s also important that worker representation occurs. For me, I think that it is something that is important to continue to make sure that workers have a right to join a union if they’d like to.”
She’s talking about Sen. Tim Neville’s Senate Bill 55, Republicans’ best chance to alienate inroads it’s made with Colorado unions. The bill would do away with union-mandated positions and the requirement that employers deduct union dues from paychecks.
Such a move would be a blow to unions. It passed the Senate on a party-line vote on Feb. 14, but it won’t get past the Democrats’ majority in the House.
“Could you imagine if I was an employer who said, ‘Well, you have to go my church, and you have to donate, and, oh by the way, we’ll make it real easy and take it out of your paycheck’?” Neville said.
He said people are welcome to join unions, but their jobs shouldn’t depend on it.
Spoke with their ballots
The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 113 in Colorado Springs grew by more than 100 members last year, said its business manager, Mike Ham.
“A growing and vibrant membership has the ability to make a positive impression in the political arena,” he said. “When working people are able to bargain for a better life, wages and standards rise across the board. When membership increases we have the ability to pursue better laws for all working people.
“Union members are tasked with educating those in office or seeking office regarding legislation that could have an effect on workers, positive or negative.”
Al Kogler, an organizer for the Communications Workers of America in Colorado, said working-class people made their presence felt in the last election.
“I think what this was was the American people saying the status quo is not acceptable, and I think that’s why Bernie (Sanders) was an appealing candidate, and I think that’s why Trump was an appealing candidate,” he said.
“And I think many American working families feel left behind as the system seems to more and more favor corporate interests and that small group at the top.”
Kogler said unions would try to hold Trump to his words on the campaign trail about helping working families and bringing jobs back to America.
Though there is still a deep philosophical distrust, Kogler said union members see some areas of agreement with Trump.
He opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal with the Pacific Rim, and so did the unions, for example.
Union leaders see a chance for collaboration with Trump if he supports federal legislation to make it harder for American companies to locate call centers outside the U.S.
Drawn to unity
When DirectTV merged with AT&T last summer, Riley Emmons immediately joined the Communications Workers of America.
The 20-year-old works at DirecTV’s call center in Denver. He didn’t like going it alone against the corporate giant in charge of his paycheck.
“The biggest thing for me is have a bit of security, having a voice, being spoken for,” he said. “A community all working for the same thing is what I value most. Assured wages, better medical care, that’s all important, but what I value is the security with all of us in the group together.”
Geoffrey Herrig, a business representative for Pipefitters Local Union 208 in Denver said they had seen five years of growth in membership.
“Whether it’s job security, health (coverage) security, retirement security, those are all issues we consider strong ones for us,” Herrig said.
Pipefitters are a politically diverse bunch, he said.
“We certainly have some members that are excited by some of the things they’ve heard from the Trump administration, particularly as it regards building and construction,” Herrig said. “As a business agent who feels it when those changes happen it’s hard not to hear that language and feel excited.”
Deep union roots
The idea of union members supporting a corporate billionaire flies in the face of the history of organized labor in Colorado.
In 1914, John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s Colorado Fuel & Iron Co. deputized the state militia to break a miners strike at Ludlow in Las Animas County. They terrorized the encampment of 1,200 striking miners and their families.
After they set fire to the tent colony, 13 women and children were found dead in the ashes. Ten days later when the Colorado Coalfield War ended, at least 66 people were dead and dozens were wounded.
“Ludlow!” became a national rallying cry for an era of growth for union membership. Rockefeller’s campaign to remake his bruised public image has been called the birth of corporate public relations, the skills of which Trump has mastered.
The current president might bridge the span from Rockefeller to Trump.
“I think he’s a man of wheelings and dealings, so I will not be surprised if he makes some offer to the trade unions,” said Dr. Kishore Kulkarni, an economics professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver.
The trajectory of union membership in Colorado is hard to predict, he said, but nationally the future for organized labor is not bright.
“If the Trump administration shows any kind of economic successes, there will be a downward trend for unions continuing in the future,” Kulkarni said.
Trump, however, is limited in the good and bad he can do for the economy, he added.
“In the long run, the U.S. economy is driven by private enterprise and the private sector, technology, innovation and labor productivity,” Kulkarni said. “The U.S. economy will not be bothered by small changes in government policy.”