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Labor chiefs called 'emergency' session over Trump's election threats

The scenario-gaming plan — canceled following media reports of the session — reflected union unease about both the outcome and Trump's suggestions that he will not accept losing.
Image: Daniella Levine Cava
Labor officials say they are preparing to counter any attempt by President Trump's camp to interfere with the casting or counting of ballots.Lynne Sladky / AP

WASHINGTON — AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka planned to convene an "emergency meeting" of the heads of major labor unions on Friday to map out election contingency plans.

Labor officials said the session — which was canceled following earlier NBC reporting of the plan, according to a source familiar with the situation — was part of their efforts to counter any attempt by President Donald Trump's camp to interfere with the casting or counting of ballots at a time when the commander in chief's campaign says it is recruiting an "army" of volunteers to monitor polls.

The scenario-gaming reflected a broader and deeper unease among labor unions about both the outcome of the race and Trump's repeated suggestions that he will not accept the results if he loses.

"Trump's threats pose a clear and present danger to the election, our democracy and the future of the country," Trumka wrote in an invitation to the other union presidents that was obtained by NBC.

The group included the leaders of the Service Employees International Union, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the National Education Association, all of which have endorsed the Democratic nominee, Joe Biden.

In 2016, Trump’s victory was fueled by his popularity with working-class white men, many of whom are members of unions that typically back Democratic presidential candidates.

Labor officials say they believe Trump has turned off many union members who had affinity for him four years ago. But they are far from certain about who will win.

“First of all, we're not drinking anybody's Kool-Aid about the polls," Tefere Gebre, executive vice president of the AFL-CIO, said of Biden’s narrow leads in swing states. "We are working our butt off."

He said labor groups plan to push back not only on any ballot interference but also against any "resistance" to the peaceful transfer of power should Biden win.

"We are putting labor councils on notice: The election is not over on Nov. 3,” he said.

And while union officials who spoke to NBC played down the idea that they were preparing for possible confrontation at polling places, some allies of organized labor have been more explicit.

The Working Families Party, a progressive group founded and backed in part by labor unions, is supporting a new initiative called Election Defenders, which is training thousands of people across the country to work the polls because “we can’t depend on anyone else ensuring people are able to vote freely and safely.”

“Election Defenders will be working to provide safe supports for voting (such as PPE and water), and election and voter defense, de-escalating white supremacist intimidation tactics and signaling to a network of groups and lawyers if and where trouble breaks out,” the initiative’s training invitation says.

On Tuesday, a few dozen staffers from major labor unions participated in a staff briefing that officials said was designed to get the organizations up to speed on election and post-election issues.

The topics included:

  • Possible Election Day outcomes
  • Intelligence on Trump's plans
  • Mapping out hot spots
  • Message research
  • Period-by-period threat assessments

In many of the battleground states, blue-collar workers are sharply divided between Trump and Biden.

Mike Mikus, a Democratic strategist based in western Pennsylvania, said Trump will “still get a fairly healthy number of some of the blue-collar unions,” even if their leaders oppose the president. “But I think Joe Biden is in a stronger position,” he said.

“Labor is always critical to elections in Pennsylvania,” he added. “Just like the Democratic Party as a whole, they learned from some of their mistakes in terms of making a point. They're now communicating to every labor member rather than relying on data to assume how people will vote.”

Labor officials and Democratic strategists say that Trump's performance in office has made it harder for him to repeat the success he had in 2016 in making inroads with union voters.

The first union to endorse Biden during the Democratic primary, the International Association of Fire Fighters, is paying particularly close attention after their predominantly white male membership swung heavily toward Trump in 2016.

After voting narrowly for Obama twice, just 27 percent of IAFF members said they voted for Hillary Clinton in a post-election internal survey conducted by the union.

Harold Schaitberger, the union’s president, said the latest internal data shows a big turnaround: 58 percent for Biden to 37 percent for Trump.

“There’s little question they have shifted to Joe,” Schaitberger said. “This is a whole different world where our membership finds itself now.”

Trump’s handling of the coronavirus crisis turned off many union voters who have put their health at risk to keep working.

“Prior to the global pandemic, it's safe to assume that there was some likelihood of a repeat of 2016 — that the Trump rhetoric is still resonant in the so-called Rust Belt states,” said Tracy Sefl, a Democratic consultant whose clients include labor groups. “However, folding coronavirus onto this has changed that dynamic. Has it totally upended it? Certainly not. But it has changed it.”

Gebre called Covid-19 a "nail in the coffin" for Trump's appeal to unionized workers.

"This is about their survival, this is about their families," he said. "We already had our internal polling that showed us workers were figuring out there was no 'there' there in Donald Trump — no 'there' there when it comes to workers."