Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump greets supporters during a rally. Credit: Rick Wood/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel via USA TODAY Network

A union man is watching his son play football. It’s a late summer Tuesday in Northeast Philly, and perhaps 100 kids on several teams scurry around in mesh shirts, helmets and pads on a field off Holme Avenue. He’s relaxed now, dressed in a sleeveless shirt and shorts, the faint smell of beer from a happy hour with friends on his breath, but the union man has had a rough week.

A close family member entered rehab for heroin addiction Monday. An aunt died a few days ago, and the funeral is scheduled for Wednesday. Things aren’t much better at work. He claims he’s been blackballed lately by the trade union to which he belongs.

He does some independent work so things could be worse, but it still stings, especially given the reason. The union man, who asked his name not be used out of fear of other job repercussions, let it be known he’s a Republican supporting Donald Trump. That’s a no-no in a work culture closely intertwined with the Democratic Party.

He admits: “I caught a raft of shit.”

But here’s the thing: The union man knows he’s not alone. Plenty of other union members in Philly, he believes, will do the same as him. They’ll go against the usual voting patterns and their Democrat-endorsing leadership and vote Trump. They just don’t want to tell anyone about it.

The Trump possibility

Signs of union support abound for Trump. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll suggested more union members are undecided about who to vote for than usual, and a study commissioned by a labor-related group shows working class and union men are favoring Trump for his personality despite what has in many ways been an anti-union record.

That study, conducted in Ohio and Pennsylvania, featured interviews with more than 1,600 working class and union men about their presidential preferences. About 25 percent of those who are Democrats said they wanted Trump to be president. Most who supported him said they liked him because he spoke his mind.

Despite the decline of unions in the last 30 years, they still carry weight in elections, particularly here. About 13 percent of Pennsylvania’s total workers belong to a union – 2 percent more than the American average. And, as they say, Philadelphia is a union town. Unions were invented here. Currently Philadelphia has about 150,000 union workers and 700,000 employed individuals. So one of every five Philadelphia workers belongs to a union. They’ll play a role in what could be Pennsylvania’s closest election in some time.

Around 60 people turned out to protest Donald Trump's meeting with Black community members on Sep. 2, although a few people came to support the candidate instead. The protest was peaceful and lasted about six hours.
Around 60 people turned out to protest Donald Trump’s meeting with Black community members on Sep. 2, although a few people came to support the candidate instead. The protest was peaceful and lasted about six hours. Credit: Kaylee Tornay/Billy Penn

Recent polls illustrate what had been a double-digit lead for Clinton tightening to single digits. The Franklin & Marshall poll went from a 49-38 Clinton in July to 47-40 in August. The race was even tighter in an Emerson University poll, at 46-43, but it surveyed only land-line users, i.e. old people. In the crucial Philly-area suburbs, according to F&M, Clinton’s lead went from 40 percentage points in July to 14 percentage points in August.

These gains delight Republicans, who have been speaking of a Trump effect since March. That’s when it was revealed about 3,500 Philadelphians had switched their voter registration from Democrat, Independent or third party to Republican. Statewide, 63,000 voters did the same.

Local Republican leaders say they know exactly who made the change: the white working class, including union guys. Joe DeFelice, chairman of the Philadelphia Republican Party, claims he converted a union member who was working on his house. He showed him how to switch from Democrat to Republican on his iPad.

DeFelice says Trump’s message — and what he regards as a lack of respect for police shown by Mayor Jim Kenney and other Democrats — has resonated with union members. He’s talked with many local union leaders and thought before the national Teamsters endorsed Clinton the Teamsters Local 830 would go Republican or at least not endorse Clinton because of her support of the soda tax (Local 830 followed the national Teamsters’ lead and endorsed Clinton). He’s still hoping the FOP could endorse Trump and noted Clinton’s campaign didn’t even fill out a questionnaire for the FOP (the FOP didn’t return a request for comment).

Seth Kaufer, a ward leader, says some of the 100 people he registered as Republican this spring were union members. He knows many more who will vote Trump but stay Democrat.

“That’s the only way,” Kaufer says, “to avoid the union boss coming down on them.”

Why Trump appeals to unions

See all the cranes in the Philly skyline? Those new, sometimes ugly row houses popping up on neighborhood blocks? Yes, life’s great right now for many building and trades union members. With residential and commercial building permits reaching peak levels, work is plentiful. They are not the out-of-work, forgotten Americans Trump has continuously spoken about in his campaign.

Our union man acknowledges the boom.

“This is a new borough,” he says, repeating a variation of everyone’s least-favorite New York Times trend piece. “It’s going to keep a union guy working for a while.”

Union man voted Democrat when he was younger before becoming a Republican a few years ago. He then switched back to Democrat in time for the 2011 election to help support Councilman Bobby Henon, a fellow Northeast Philadelphian he considered a friend. But even before the FBI raided Henon’s office, he grew unhappy with the Councilman’s performance. In 2014, a methadone clinic opened on a busy commercial stretch of Frankford Avenue in Holmesburg. He blames Henon for not doing enough, though Henon helped finance a lawsuit against the owners of the clinic.

“Bobby Henon shit the bed,” he says. “He hasn’t done anything for our neighborhood. He got that office position and turned his back toward that part of the city.”

When union man talks about the Northeast, he talks about change and not in a positive way. It’s not just the methadone clinic that bothers him. He says new arrivals to Philadelphia have caused an exodus of people from neighborhoods surrounding Center City into the Northeast.

“I don’t want to say they’re bad people,” he says. “They’re people that aren’t free thinkers and pushing them into our nice, middle class neighborhoods. They’re pushing out all these people and ruining our neighborhoods.”

His opinion sounds like it’s been ripped directly from the Make America Great Again playbook. And experts say issues like race, policing and America’s changing demographics could tempt union members to vote Trump, even though they might be doing just fine financially.

“There’s a prolific amount of work out there,” says Sam Katz, the former mayoral candidate and Philadelphia documentarian, “but there’s also been a significant cultural shift that could still fuel anger even if the union member is gainfully employed and keeping busy and taking home good money.”

There’s also a part of Philadelphia easy to forget. Far outside Center City, in aging factories and plants, 20,000 manufacturing workers cling to jobs that vanish a little more with each passing year.

In 1990, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 70,000 people were employed in manufacturing in Philadelphia. That number fell to 44,000 by 2000 and 30,000 by 2006. While Pennsylvania’s manufacturing sector has actually experienced slight growth since 2010, Philadelphia’s has continued to nosedive.

The decline of Philadelphia's manufacturing sector.
The decline of Philadelphia’s manufacturing sector. Credit: BLS

The manufacturing life is the only life Greg Sadowski has known. He’s been a factory worker for 32 years. For the last two years, he’s led BCTGM Local 492, taking over shortly after the Mondolez crisis erupted.

In 2014, Mondelez International announced it would shut down the former Nabisco plant in Northeast Philly. Union leaders as well as politicians like Councilman Brian O’Neill and Congressman Brendan Boyle had tried to convince Mondelez to stay with tax incentives and credits, but nothing worked. It closed for good last summer, 300 jobs gone. Local 492 believes those jobs will eventually land in Mexico.

That’s where 1,300 other manufacturing jobs are going from Cardone Industries. The auto parts remanufacturer announced it would terminate workers from two Northeast Philly plants beginning this summer as it shifted its brakes division south of the border. Even Trump paid attention to the news. He posted about the layoffs on Facebook, saying he was the “ONLY one who can fix this!” (He failed to mention the majority of Cardone workers affected were immigrants).

Sadowski blames free trade policies for much of this decline. So imagine his distaste when BCTGM’s national leaders endorsed Clinton.

“Her old man, her husband signed off on NAFTA,” he says, “and jobs are leaving this country left and right because of it. How can we as union guys stand there and support her when…her husband did (what he did)?”

Sadowski voted Obama in 2008, expecting him to be “the real deal.” He soured on Obama over the failure to rally Democrats to pass the Employee Free Choice Act early in his tenure. Given the choice between Clinton, who he blames for free trade, and Trump, who he considers a “complete moron” and a supporter of businesses over workers, Sadowski has made his decision: He won’t vote this year.

Feeling disrespect from Dems

Since coming to prominence in the 20th century, Pennsylvania unions, particularly those in building, trades and the public sector, have tilted Democratic. Their influence has been enormous.

Here’s an example: From 1860 to 1932, Pennsylvania’s electoral votes went to the Republican presidential candidate. In 1936, Pennsylvania went Democratic and became a swing state for the next 50 years. The shift had plenty to do with unions, which The New York Times described in 1936 as having reached newfound political solidarity and unity.

Union support for Democrats has been obvious in Philadelphia. Aside from a few exceptions like Representatives Martina White and John Taylor, Democrats get the bulk of union endorsements. IBEW Local 98 leader John Dougherty and his powerful union backed Tom Corbett and Rick Santorum not long ago, but, as Katz says, has essentially become “a link to the Democratic Party.”

Mayor Jim Kenney, a close ally of Johnny Doc, appointed Local 98 friend Jim Moylan – whose house was raided in connection with the FBI’s investigation of Doc – to chair the Zoning Board of Adjustment and reached a new contract with AFSCME Local 33 this summer with little contention. He goes so far as to promote for unions on Twitter.

But Sadowski isn’t the only one feeling disenfranchised with the Dems. They haven’t always been good to unions in recent years. Look no further than Mayor Michael Nutter. Some contracts weren’t renewed until long after they expired, and unions protested one of his budget addresses. Nutter won election without union support, so his loyalty shouldn’t have been expected. But union members question whether other Democratic leaders they endorsed were doing enough.

A key member of a local AFSCME chapter recalls a meeting with former Congresswoman Allyson Schwartz in 2012. She was at the union’s Center City headquarters, seeking an endorsement in her race for the 13th District. At the time, AFSCME District Councils 33 and 47 had lacked a contract with the city for three years, and leaders wanted assurances from Schwartz she would talk to Nutter about the negotiations. Schwartz, who didn’t respond to an interview request, basically slammed the door on that prospect. They pressed her on it, wondering why they should endorse her if she couldn’t promise she would help them.

“What are you going to do,” she asked, according to that key AFSCME member, “vote Republican?”

“Even those who were left-minded were taken aback,” he says. “And it showed what I did discuss of a mindset of, ‘Hey listen we’re the only game in town and you’re pretty much stuck with us.’”

Allyson Schwartz
Allyson Schwartz Credit: YouTube

The battle against Trump

Local union leadership has taken notice of Trump’s appeal. Philadelphia’s AFL-CIO president Patrick Eiding says he’s seen a different type of union member showing interest in Republicans this election, especially those in building and trades who’ve been reaping the rewards of Philly’s boom.

“There’s folks out there that are doing pretty good, working people with good wages and good benefits,” he says. “All of a sudden they can be a little more right-sided. All of a sudden they become Republican-thinking because they’re doing well.”

But the AFL-CIO and other unions have also been here before. In 2008, there was doubt Obama could carry because of his race. He ended up beating John McCain by about 20 percentage points among white male union voters, a typical margin for a Democratic candidate.

Eiding says they had “to convince people it was OK to vote for a black president.” Philly’s AFL-CIO branch did so by organizing leaders and volunteers to visit work sites and talk to union members firsthand. They’re doing the same this time. The strategy has been hone in on Trump’s issues surrounding union workers at his casinos and other businesses as a way of getting union members to look past Trump’s boisterous personality. Even Eiding goes to the work sites once in a while.

Those efforts likely won’t work on our union man in the Northeast. He calls Trump “funny,” “an incredible character,” someone who “believes in himself” and the candidate capable of producing change.

“And honestly,” he says, “I think he’s going to win.”

Mark Dent is a reporter/curator at BillyPenn. He previously worked for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where he covered the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Penn State football and the Penn State administration. His...