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In bashing union boss, Trump went too far

Chuck Jones, United Steelworkers President, Local 1999
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Chuck Jones, United Steelworkers President, Local 1999

President-elect Donald Trump's use of Twitter as a bully pulpit and way of connecting immediately with his supporters has been a shrewd and effective practice. But his latest tweets blasting a local union boss may have gone too far.

Trump made the excellent decision during the election to bash big targets like Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama, but never Democratic voters. He rarely even used the word "democrats" at all. This was in contrast to the infamous, "basket of deplorables" comment Clinton was caught making about the Trump voters that so galvanized their opposition to her.

Since his election, Trump has attacked big companies like Boeing, dictators like Fidel Castro, and even Alec Baldwin and "Saturday Night Live" on Twitter. What those targets all had in common is they were all household names whose lives and livelihoods could not be destroyed even by a president-elect. In other words, these are big kids who have at least the wealth to absorb the storm.

To some extent, United Steelworkers 1999 President Chuck Jones is in the same boat. He's no Alec Baldwin or Fidel Castro, but he's at least a public figure in his local area who has to be prepared to be attacked for his positions. And Jones should have expected some kind of serious pushback from Trump after he went on national TV to basically call the president-elect a liar for allegedly exaggerating the number of jobs he and Carrier agreed to keep in Indiana.

Still, Trump and his team need to realize that they went right to the edge of the line with this attack because Jones still has a relatively small-time stature. That means he's a lot more likely to garner sympathy from the public in a "David vs. Goliath" way even if he is connected to a major national union. It doesn't help him reduce the stranglehold Democrats have on union support.


"No matter what the final number of jobs saved truly is from Trump's Carrier deal, the unions need to start asking themselves if their near-100 percent political support for the Democrats makes any sense."

Trump's tweet would have been just as effective had he directed it at the United Steelworkers Union and not Chuck Jones or Local 1999 by name. Though I am a supporter of trump's use of twitter, these latest tweets barely make it under the wire as a good move. For Trump, it comes too close to insulting rank and file union workers who may not like their national leadership, but are much more likely to know and support their local presidents. This could hit too close to home.

But the unions aren't in the clear here either. Union bosses need to look at the bigger issue here: their blind support of Democrats in the face of what appears to be a movement of the rank and file away from the party as this election showed.

No matter what the final number of jobs saved truly is from Trump's Carrier deal, the unions need to start asking themselves if their near-100 percent political support for the Democrats makes any sense.

Check the numbers from the universally respected OpenSecrets.org website and you'll see that 12 of the biggest donor organizations in the 2016 election cycle were unions.

Five of them gave 100 percent of their donations to Democrats and the most "balanced" of them all was the Operating and Engineers Union that gave 91 percent of its $10 million in donations to the Democrats.

The United Steelworkers were not big donors in this cycle, giving just about $181,000, but 100 percent of its donations went to Democrats or anti-Republican election causes. This has basically been par for the course for many decades.

And what have the unions received in return for this die hard, lucrative support? Over the last 50 years, union membership in America has declined from about 33 percent to about 10 percent. More importantly, almost every analyst and expert from conservative and liberal sources agree that unions have lost most of their economic and political clout from their post-World War II peak.

Increasing union membership and the number of union jobs would be the clearest way to regain that influence, but that's a lot easier said than done. What would be a lot easier is to effectively double unions' political clout by balancing donations among the major parties instead of pigeonholing themselves with the Democrats time after time.

Doing so would also likely help the unions quiet down some of their own internal problems, as several cases have sprung up in recent years brought by conservative or apolitical union members suing to keep their union dues from being spent for political campaigns. Politics is like sports sometimes in that it usually pays off better to be a free agent.

Trump's singular attack on a local union leader like Chuck Jones is dangerously close to the line. It's a path the President-elect would be wise to retreat from right away. But the enduring danger in this scenario is on the unions as long as they keep on insisting on backing the same horse.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.