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Trump tries to woo Bernie's union backers on trade, but they're not swayed

Supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders at a rally in Washington, D.C.
Tom Williams | CQ Roll Call | Getty Images
Supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders at a rally in Washington, D.C.

For the past 44 years, Chuck Jones has been a consistent voter for Democrats. But this election cycle, the president of United Steelworkers Local 1999 is having a hard time getting excited about the party's presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton.

His Indianapolis-based union endorsed Bernie Sanders in the run-up to the Indiana Democratic primary, but now that the Vermont senator has all but dropped out, Jones said the choice between Clinton and Republican Donald Trump is like "trying to choose the better of two evils."

Citing Clinton's mixed record on trade deals, Jones said he was not sure if he could trust the former secretary of state, but on the other hand he said Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump presents an even worse choice.

"He's trying to appeal to the working class people, and he's full of [expletive]," Jones said. "Probably what I'll do, I'll probably hold my nose and I'll vote Hillary."

In an unusual election cycle, trade has emerged front and center in recent days as Trump tries to appeal to working class voters by promising to renegotiate free trade deals and pull the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership before it is ratified. The New York businessman has also specifically reached out to supporters of Sanders, who was a favorite among progressive Democrats and many union members.

"There is one thing that Bernie Sanders and I are in complete accord with, and that's trade," Trump said at a Wednesday rally in Maine. "He said we're being ripped off, I say we're being ripped off. I've been saying it for years, he's been saying it for years."

Jones is certainly not alone in his ambivalence toward Clinton. Spurred by distrust of Clinton's seemingly wavering stance on free trade, some labor leaders embraced Sanders and have cautioned Clinton cannot take the labor vote for granted. However, with Sanders now all but out of the race, they say there is small chance Trump draws significant support away from Clinton in the general election.

Rand Wilson, a coordinator of Labor for Bernie, a network of roughly 50,000 members, said he is confident most union members will do everything they can to defeat Trump, but that Trump's play for Sanders' supporters was "brilliant."

"Trump is no friend of the working person. I think that's been well articulated by just about every labor leader in the country," Wilson said. "But if the Democrats don't wake up on trade, it's kind of like the Brexit vote. This phenomenon is not unique to the United States, and people are going to vote because they're pissed off and fed up."

According to the Clinton campaign, at most recent count there were more than 30 national and international unions that had endorsed her. Clinton has drawn strong support from many unions, but her primary opponent Sanders also drew a fair share of union endorsements to his insurgent campaign.

"During the primaries, she was being hit from the left on trade by Senator Sanders and that was a significant reason why he did so well. And now, unprecedentedly, she's being challenged again on trade, [for] which the Republican is usually an unabashed free-trader." -Philip Dine, author of "State of the Unions"

Philip Dine, an author who has written extensively on labor, noted the unique challenge Clinton has faced this cycle.

"During the primaries, she was being hit from the left on trade by Senator Sanders and that was a significant reason why he did so well," Dine said. "And now, unprecedentedly, she's being challenged again on trade, [for] which the Republican is usually an unabashed free-trader."

Labor leaders acknowledge that Trump's tough talk on trade will likely draw some support from their membership, but they question his commitment to the issues and are planning extensive member outreach.

Rafael Navar, the national political director for the Communication Workers of America, a 700,000-member union that endorsed Sanders in the Democratic primary, said his union — which has not endorsed Clinton — is planning an education program leading up to the election and that CWA "will do everything to defeat Trump."

"We supported Sanders, but that does not mean there's not many things to lift up with Secretary Clinton," Navar said. "Nobody is at all going to allow for a President Trump to happen."

The AFL-CIO, a labor federation that represents more than 12 million workers, endorsed Clinton in mid-June. Michael Podhorzer, the AFL-CIO's political director, said his group is also planning extensive outreach to his membership, and that he is less concerned about union members voting for Trump compared with others.

"I'm less concerned about it with union members than I am with folks who are not hearing the other side," Podhorzer said. "We're really focused on the fact that despite some of Trump's rhetoric, his history is extraordinarily anti-worker."

Indeed, fears on the left that Trump may garner significant support from union members may be overblown. Kent Wong, the director of the UCLA Labor Center, predicted that "union members overall will turn out in large numbers in support of Hillary Clinton."

"Overall, the union members tend to be more politically engaged than the public at large," Wong added. "There's tremendous opposition to Donald Trump's message and his style, and I think that there will be significant energy and support for the Clinton campaign."