WASHINGTON (AP) — Former President Donald Trump met with leaders of the Teamsters Union in Washington Wednesday as he tried to chip away at President Joe Biden’s organized labor support heading into a likely general election rematch.
Trump participated in a roundtable with the union’s executive board, its president and members as he works to win over the blue-collar workers who helped fuel his 2016 victory and who are expected to play a major role in November, particularly in critical Midwestern swing states like Wisconsin and Michigan.
Speaking to reporters after what he called “a very productive meeting,” Trump acknowledged the union typically backs Democrats, but said of a possible endorsement, “Stranger things have happened.”
“Usually a Republican wouldn’t get that endorsement,” he said. “But in my case it’s different because I’ve employed thousands of Teamsters and I thought we should come over and pay our respects.”
“As you know, a big part of the voting bloc votes for me.”
Union members tend to vote Democratic, with 56% of members and households backing Biden in 2020, according to AP VoteCast. And Biden has already received significant organized labor backing with early endorsements from the AFL-CIO and others. But Trump is hoping to cut into that support as he casts himself as pro-worker and tries to exacerbate divisions between union leaders and some rank-and-file members.
Days before the meeting, he called on members of the United Auto Workers to oust their president, Shawn Fain, after the group endorsed Biden.
“Shawn Fain doesn’t understand this or have a clue,” Trump wrote on his Truth Social network. “Get rid of this dope & vote for DJT. I will bring the Automobile Industry back to our Country.”
Trump aides, before Wednesday’s meeting, said the fact that it was taking place was a win in and of itself. For the first time, the union has been holding a series of roundtable discussions with candidates from both parties as it weighs its decision, expected following the summer party conventions.
“Our members want to hear from all candidates of all parties about what they plan to do for working people as president,” Teamsters president Sean O’Brien had said in a statement. “Our union wants every candidate to know that there are 1.3 million Teamsters nationwide whose votes will not be taken for granted. Workers’ voices must be heard.”
O’Brien later described the conversation with Trump as “pleasant” and “direct,” but said the union was a long way from making a decision. He said it has additional questions for Trump and for Biden, who has yet to set a similar meeting. He said the Teamsters will poll members over the coming weeks.
He acknowledged that Trump has the support of many members.
“There’s no doubt about (it),” he said, “there is union support for President Trump. And there’s always union support for President Biden,” But even as he praised Biden’s record he, added: “What you’ve done in the past doesn’t guarantee your future with us. We want to know what you’re going to do for our members moving forward.”
Biden has long billed himself as the most labor-friendly president in history, and went so far as to turn up on a picket line in the Detroit area during an autoworkers’ strike last fall. Campaign spokesperson Lauren Hitt said Biden “looks forward to meeting with the Teamsters and earning their endorsement,” but that the timing of a meeting remains to be announced.
On Thursday, Biden will travel to Michigan, where he plans to meet with United Auto Workers members, according to a campaign official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss details of a trip that had not been formally announced.
Earlier this month, the Teamsters’ O’Brien met privately with Trump at his Mar-a-Lago club, where the two discussed issues including right-to-work laws that allow those in unionized workplaces to opt out of paying dues and fees. They also posed for a side-by-side photo, both flashing thumbs-up signs, that Trump posted online.
In an interview with Fox Business after the meeting, O’Brien said, “We put our cards on the table. It was a very matter-of-fact meeting.”
“He claimed he was, you know, 100% … supportive of unions, but history obviously, you take a look back and there’s certain issues that we have with him,” the union president said.
During Trump’s presidency, the National Labor Relations Board reversed several key rulings that had made it easier for small unions to organize, strengthened the bargaining rights of franchise workers and provided protection against anti-union measures for employees.
The Supreme Court’s conservative majority — including three justices that Trump nominated — overturned a decades-old pro-union decision in 2018 involving fees paid by government workers. The justices in 2021 rejected a California regulation giving unions access to farm property so they could organize workers.
While the Teamsters endorsed Biden in 2020 and Hillary Clinton in 2016, O’Brien stressed the union has “a very diverse membership. And our members vote.”
Art Wheaton, director of labor studies at Cornell University, said that in the past unions almost automatically endorsed Democratic candidates. But this year, he said, unions like the Teamsters have required candidates to outline their positions and show how they will support rank-and-file workers.
The message to candidates: “If you don’t help labor and you don’t help my position, you’re not going to get my endorsement,” Wheaton said.
He estimates about 30% to 40% of Teamsters members voted for Trump in 2020, even though the union endorsed Biden.
“You need to do your due diligence and listen, and let them have the option and ability to say what they want,” said Wheaton.
This is not the first time Trump has tried to woo union members. In September, he traveled to Michigan while his Republican rivals separately held a debate and tried to win over autoworkers by lambasting Biden’s electric vehicles push in the midst of a strike. During his speech, Trump urged the UAW to endorse him, directly appealing to Fain from the floor of a non-unionized auto parts plant.
Fain instead called Trump a “scab,” a derogatory term for workers who cross union picket lines and work during a strike, as he endorsed Biden.
“This November we can stand up and elect someone who stands with us and supports our cause, or we can elect someone who will divide us and fight us every step of the way,” Fain said.
Teamsters members include UPS drivers, film and television workers, freight operators, members of law enforcement and other government workers.
Biden already has the backing of the AFL-CIO, the American Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which rolled out their endorsements together last June.
While overall union membership rates nationwide fell to an all-time low in 2023, the country’s largest unions have nonetheless built sprawling get-out-the-vote efforts, which Biden is counting on to help turn out his supporters in pivotal swing states.
The campaign of former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Trump’s last remaining GOP rival, did not respond to a request for comment about whether she intends to meet with the Teamsters.
O’Brien said they hadn’t received a response from her. Given what he called her past anti-union comments, he said, “It doesn’t surprise at all.”
Krisher reported from Detroit. Associated Press writer Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.