It was early December, just a month after Donald Trump had been elected president, and, according to the liberal blog TomDispatch.com, “The war between Donald Trump and the nation’s labor unions is on.”
After labor spent tens of millions of dollars against Trump in the election, the hostile rhetoric was slow to subside. After all, Trump had appointed a fast food executive who opposed the minimum wage and has toyed with the idea of automating his restaurants to lead the Department of Labor and vowed a hiring freeze for federal workers.
“This is standard practice … when a new administration comes in, you run things by them before you update the website.”
“They want to do away with democracy,” said RoseAnn DeMoro, who leads a nurses union.
“This pick is about pulverizing the working class,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
And many union chiefs representing federal workers were even more against Trump. He had trashed them generally and, in the case of the CIA and others, specifically. He had campaigned on his hiring freeze and, in general, reducing the size, scope and cost of government.
But it’s now the end of January, and many in the organized labor community are starting to come around.
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It started on Trump’s second day on the job, which he had told reporters would be a part of a weekend off before he hit the ground running on Monday. The president visited the CIA, which he had accused of embracing Nazi tactics only weeks earlier. The bosses fumed — outgoing Director John Brennan said Trump should “be ashamed of himself” for using the wall of heroes as a backdrop for his comments.
But one former agent told NBC the media doesn’t understand.
“The critics hate this president so much they cannot get past it,” the former agent said. “The truth of the visit was in the face-to-face meetings — people were happy to talk to him. That assuaged a lot of concerns and a lot of anxiety.”
Then, Joe Davidson of The Washington Post wrote last week that in his eight years writing his column on the federal workforce, he had never received so much email as he has from people concerned about Trump and the future of federal employment.
But he admitted the reaction was not all negative.
“I hope that the bureaucratic red tape and overgrowth will get a severe pruning under Trump,” said Peggy Richter, who worked at the Department of Defense. “If done correctly, it will end with more, not less, effective government.”
“Although I’m not a Trump supporter, I do agree with a few of the proposed initiatives relative to reducing the federal workforce,” said Michael Thompson of DeKalb, Illinois, who noted he had just retired from a career in which he “personally witnessed a lot of waste and abuse when it comes to federal resources.”
Then word got out the Trump administration had ordered a number of federal agencies, including the EPA, the National Park Service, and the Department of Energy, to stop issuing press releases, finalizing contracts, or commenting via the agencies’ social media outlets.
“Trump silences government scientists with gag orders,” read a typical headline.
But the federal workers who only a day earlier had learned they would be subjected to a hiring freeze by the new president nevertheless stepped up to defend him.
“This is standard practice,” one employee said. “And the move with regard to the grants, when a new administration comes in, you run things by them before you update the website.”
“I’ve lived through many transitions, and I don’t think this is a story,” added an unnamed senior EPA employee. “I don’t think it’s fair to call it a gag order.”
And those unions that were at war with Trump in December managed to stay in the room with him for a meeting that lasted more than an hour last Monday — and came away impressed.
“We can work with him on trade, infrastructure, and energy policy,” said Sean McGarvey, head of the North America Building Trades Union, who noted Trump took the union leaders on a mini-tour of the Oval Office. “He understands our industry.”
Conservative commentator Matt Lewis went a step further. “Trump meeting with labor leaders was big,” Lewis told CNN. “They like this deal. They like this order. This could lead to a reordering of the coalition. Democratic-leaning labor unions are more in the Trump camp.”
It’s premature to say Trump has won over the labor movement or federal and blue-collar union workers. But he has made a concerted, high-profile effort to meet with them, hear their concerns, share his views, and look for common ground.
Yet another thing he has done that few expected.