As Donald Trump prepares to start his term as U.S. president, experts and union officials are still wondering what exactly the next four years will mean for labor.
Trump’s inauguration is set for Friday, which will mark the official start to his term as the 45th president. As both a candidate and president-elect, the real-estate mogul has seemingly agreed with labor leaders on certain issues, while standing at odds with them on others.
So what does this mean for workers, unions and the labor market?
“I think it’s a little hard to say because he’s an unusual candidate,” said John Heywood, an economics professor and chairman of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Master of Human Relations and Labor Relations program.
For instance, Trump has repeatedly told supporters and the press that he is willing to tear up free-trade agreements with other countries. The trade agreements that he often mentioned on the campaign trail included the North American Free Trade Agreement, a treaty that sought to eliminate trade barriers between the U.S., Canada and Mexico, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed agreement among 12 “Pacific Rim” countries.
Trump has called these treaties a “disaster” for U.S. manufacturing workers and has said he would like to renegotiate “fairer” trade deals with other nations. Many labor officials support him on this topic.
Yet, Heywood said these same people may not like what the Trump Administration could mean for prevailing-wage requirements on government projects. Although he hasn’t expressed opposition to prevailing-wage laws, Vice President Mike Pence is “strongly opposed” to them, he said.
Beyond that, it’s difficult to determine where Trump stands on other issues even when he has spoken about them. Perhaps most notably are his comments about the federal government’s new overtime rule, Heywood said. The rule extends overtime protections to all salaried employees who make $47,476 or less a year.
Heywood noted that Trump has not publicly come out against the rule; rather, he said that he was going to review it.
“What he said was he thought there should be an exemption for small firms,” Heywood said.
Yet, this statement does not make clear whether Trump wants the exemption to apply to the new overtime rule or to all Fair Labor Standards Act regulations, he added. The federal statute established things such as the 40-hour workweek, federal minimum wage, overtime pay and youth-employment standards.
Industry groups such as the Associated General Contractors of America are hopeful the incoming administration will scrap the overtime rule and a host of other regulations recently issued under Obama’s watch.
Heywood said he wouldn’t be surprised if this were the case.
“His general view is, ‘I’m going to rescind a lot of these,’” he said.
Daniel Kaplan, a Madison attorney who provides advice on OSHA regulations and similar matters, said in November after the overtime ruling was issued that he expects Trump to take a different approach to regulating the industry than his predecessor.
“I think what you’ll see under a Trump Administration is a return to a much more conciliation or consultation type of approach as opposed to the enforcement type of approach that you see now,” he said.
Yet, Trump’s stances on labor issues continue to be all over the map.
Heywood pointed out that Trump has said he’s in favor of requiring employers to offer six weeks’ worth of paid maternity leave to workers. At the same time he has said he favors requiring firms to pay higher wages to employees who are working in the country on H-1B visas. This specific work permit allows employers to hire foreign workers who have specific skillsets, such as in architecture, engineering or mathematics.
These contradictions have left labor leaders scratching their heads at what the future may hold.
Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, the largest union federation in the U.S., said after Trump’s victory in November that the organization would work with him on issues such as trade, restoring manufacturing jobs and rebuilding communities.
Trumka expressed concern that the incoming administration would pursue policies that the union group viewed as harmful to workers. He did this without specifically naming Trump, however.
“More than anything, this election is an indictment of politics as usual,” Trumka said in a written statement. “For too long, the political elites have embraced economic policies that hold down wages, increase inequality, diminish opportunity and ship American jobs overseas.”
Even in this time of political uncertainty, at least one thing remains clear for Heywood: “This is an unusual president during an unusual time.”Follow @alexzank