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Hillary Clinton may have to fight to keep union voters

steve carmody
Michigan Radio
On a night featuring union leaders, Bernie Sanders made perhaps the biggest statement against the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal

Union members have been a key voting demographic in Michigan for decades.

Historically, they’ve been a reliable voting bloc for Democrats. But in 2016, the Trump campaign hopes to change that. 

Hillary Clinton can pretty much write off Joe Kinder’s vote. He’s a retired Ford UAW worker.   

“As far as Clinton goes, she can’t be trusted," says Kinder. "I wouldn’t vote for her."

Kinder, like other members of organized labor, believes the North American Free Trade Agreement, signed by former President Bill Clinton, was a bad deal for American workers.

And like her husband, Hillary Clinton has supported trade deals. 

Meanwhile, Donald Trump has spent time on the campaign trail bashing NAFTA and other trade agreements. He says he’ll protect American workers and bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S.

Scott Hagerstrom is the director of Trump’s state campaign in Michigan. He believes the Republican candidate can do well with Michigan’s union members in November. 

“All we have to do is talk about Donald Trump’s position on the issues. His great plan for the economy. Tax cuts for everyone, and lifting all boats," says Hagerstrom. "Everyone will benefit under his plans.”

“Donald Trump is not proposing a plan, but a lot of rhetoric on these issues," says Nikki Budzinski, the Clinton campaign’s point person on labor. 

“I would encourage voters, and in particular union voters, interested in manufacturing and bringing manufacturing back to this country, (to ask:) which candidate has a plan actually do that? And the secretary does," says Budzinski. 

Clinton has changed some of her positions to be more union friendly.

She now opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal she previously supported. And she joined her former rival, Bernie Sanders, in calling for a repeal of the so-called "Cadillac tax" on some Obamacare health plans. That’s something unions have pushed for. 

Jesse Donahue is a political scientist at Saginaw Valley State University.  She believes union voters also want Clinton to do change her free-trade policy. 

“She has to reassure and take up some of Bernie Sanders' language. Back away from the 'free trade' sense … that says it’s always going to benefit people," says Donahue. 

Clinton has been successful lining up union endorsements, even if the union rank-and-file is less solid in its support. 

UAW Vice President Cindy Estrada says between now and Election Day, union leaders will need to make the case for Hillary Clinton and the case against Donald Trump. 

“When he says he wants to bring jobs back, he’s clear that he doesn’t want to bring them back at good union wages. He doesn’t want to bring them back with workers having a seat at the table," says Estrada. 

Trump’s choice of a running mate also complicates his pitch to blue-collar workers.

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence has been at odds with organized labor on issues like free trade and the minimum wage.   

So both candidates have their work cut out for them, assuring union voters that they would be the more reliable ally in the White House.  

Steve Carmody has been a reporter for Michigan Public since 2005. Steve previously worked at public radio and television stations in Florida, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and also has extensive experience in commercial broadcasting.
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