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Union Voters at Center of Trump vs. Biden Battle for Pennsylvania

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 10/17/2020 Alex Leary
a man wearing a hat © roberto schmidt/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

JOHNSTOWN, Pa.—Barry Hixson has one of the tougher jobs in battleground politics: convincing rank-and-file union members across central and western Pennsylvania to flip on President Trump.

“Trump supporters are very, very vocal. The people who have had enough of the show, the drama and the politics aren’t as much,” said Mr. Hixson, president of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 459 based in Johnstown.

The fight over the union vote in Pennsylvania and other Rust Belt states could be key in determining the next president and is challenging Democrats, who for decades relied on labor support only to be shocked by the allure of Mr. Trump’s message. In 2016, he earned a national level of backing from union members no Republican had reached since Ronald Reagan, exit polls showed.

Given that Mr. Trump won Pennsylvania by only 44,000 votes out of 5.9 million cast and that current polling shows him trailing in the state, he cannot afford many defections. Roughly 12% of the state’s workers belong to a union and Democratic nominee Joe Biden, a Scranton native, is pushing to regain lost ground.

Mr. Hixson didn’t vote for Mr. Trump or Democrat Hillary Clinton four years ago. “I ended up staying home out of pure disgust,” he said. Now he’s working to inform workers on what he sees as the president’s failed promises, such as saving the coal industry, and antilabor policies.

It has been a struggle. “Trump’s hitting all the hot buttons. He’s not going to touch anybody’s guns. He’s got people believing he loves Jesus,” Mr. Hixson said. But he said he is finding support. “They’ll pull me aside after a meeting and say, ‘I’m not doing that again.’”

Support for Mr. Trump is readily apparent in Johnstown, home to steel- and coal-plant workers, and his packed rally here Tuesday night—two weeks after a visit by Mr. Biden—displayed that enthusiasm and a campaign strategy to maintain a base of white, largely working-class voters.

Cambria County, anchored by Johnstown, narrowly went for Barack Obama in 2008, but four years later Mitt Romney won by 18 percentage points. Mr. Trump blew it open by 37 points.

“What has Biden done for us? He had 47 years,” said Greg Polosky, 62, who sat in his truck scratching lottery tickets on a recent afternoon before a shift at Liberty Wire Johnstown, a steel mill. He grew up a Democrat but four years ago cast his first GOP vote for Mr. Trump and said he would again.

United Steelworkers, the union Mr. Polosky belongs to, endorsed Mr. Biden. But he said he sensed most of the 200-plus workers at the mill back Mr. Trump, reflecting a division between labor organizations and rank-and-file members across the country.

“President Trump’s 2016 victory sparked a realignment of blue-collar workers who were tired of politicians like Joe Biden showing blind loyalty to union bosses while implementing policies that hurt workers and families,” Trump campaign spokeswoman Samantha Zager said, referring to deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The president will return to the state the coming Tuesday for a rally in Erie, another union stronghold.

During this past Tuesday’s rally in Johnstown, Mr. Trump pounded his rival, saying he opposes hydraulic fracking, the technology that allows oil and gas to be extracted from shale rock; Mr. Biden has called for a limited ban on fracking, ending its use on federally controlled lands. Mr. Trump portrayed himself as an outsider taking on establishment Washington and fighting for American jobs. “If Biden wins, China wins,” he said. And he emphasized support from law-enforcement unions.

An endorsement by the union representing firefighters and paramedics in Philadelphia provided another boost for Mr. Trump, though it triggered demands for a retraction from some members, many of them Black and Latino. The union is part of the International Association of Fire Fighters, which has endorsed Mr. Biden.

Mr. Biden is strong with public-sector unions, who account for nearly half of union members nationally. But he faces the task of trying to dampen support for Mr. Trump among builders, electricians, plumbers, roofers and miners—largely white men. Mrs. Clinton lost them in droves, contributing to a 9-percentage-point drop from President Obama performance among union members in 2012.

Union leaders say Mrs. Clinton didn’t campaign enough in western Pennsylvania and focused on the wrong message. “Donald Trump said I’m going to create jobs. Her campaign was ‘Look at how bad he is,’” said Rick Bloomingdale, president of the state federation of the AFL-CIO.

“We couldn’t pay a member to wear a Hillary shirt or take a yard sign. Even if they were going to reluctantly vote for her, they didn’t want to flaunt it,” said Joe Hughes, organizing director of an International Union of Painters and Allied Trade chapter near Pittsburgh. “Now we have members calling us asking for Biden signs. Anyone who thinks a simple repeat of 2016 is on the horizon, I’ve got to strongly disagree. I don’t like saying that too much because it’s time to pound the pedal to the floor.”

Mr. Hughes and other organizers are highlighting Mr. Trump’s actions, such as appointments to the National Labor Relations Board that unions say tipped rulings in favor of employers, and a failure to push through a massive infrastructure spending plan. A flier being distributed at construction sites around Pittsburgh blames the government for failing to pass additional coronavirus relief.

“For an administration that boasted about improving our health care system, it has not done anything in nearly 4 years,” the flier reads. It doesn’t mention the president by name. Union organizers say they are working to appeal to members through issues, not a “Trump sucks” message, as Mr. Hughes put it.

“We’re talking about the bread-and-butter issues that keep working families up at night, like being able to save for retirement and afford health care,” said Erika Dinkel-Smith, the Biden campaign director of labor engagement.

Mr. Biden has emphasized his working-class upbringing. “I’m a union man, period,” he said in launching his campaign in spring 2019 at a Teamsters hall in Pittsburgh, calling for a higher minimum wage and repealing tax cuts for the wealthy.

Mr. Trump’s campaign had long seen this appeal as a threat and has tried to cast Mr. Biden as too far left, but polls suggest that effort hasn’t eroded Mr. Biden’s standing.

Since June, Mr. Biden has visited Pennsylvania 13 times, five of which have been focused on union issues. A train tour earlier this month included several stops in western Pennsylvania and ended in Johnstown, where the former vice president framed the election as Scranton vs. Park Avenue.

“I promise you this: I see you. I hear you. I respect you. I grew up with you,” he said.

The campaign is targeting union-heavy ZIP Codes in Pennsylvania with Facebook and YouTube ads touting Mr. Biden’s union endorsements.

It won’t win over Bob Shaffer, who recently retired from the Johnstown wire mill after 44 years. A registered Democrat who twice voted for Mr. Obama, he will cast a ballot again for Mr. Trump. But he said he has noticed around town more support for Mr. Biden than Mrs. Clinton had. “He’s learned the mistake she made. He’s starting to talk what Trump talked,” he said.

Write to Alex Leary at


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