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Trump makes Labor Day pitch to union workers. Can he win them over?

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Evan Vucci/AP

(Read caption) Brook Park Mayor Tom Coyne (l.) and vice presidential candidate Gov. Mike Pence (r.) look on as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a roundtable discussion with labor leaders and union members at American Legion Post 610 Monday in Brook Park, Ohio.

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It’s Labor Day and Donald Trump is making a special play for union voters. At a round-table meeting with union members at an American Legion hall outside Cleveland on Monday, Mr. Trump repeated his opposition to the Pacific trade deal, bemoaned the loss of manufacturing jobs in America, and said that if he’s elected annual growth to the national gross domestic product will hit the (high) mark of 4 percent.

“You’re going to have a friend in the White House,” Trump told the head of a Cleveland police union.

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Will this sort of appeal work? Can Trump score better with union voters than Mitt Romney or other recent Republican presidential nominees?

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He insists that he can. Trump says it does not matter that many union officials, such as the leadership of the AFL-CIO, have endorsed Hillary Clinton. He speaks to the rank-and file, he says, and the Democrats’ long identification with unions is about to be broken.

“I believe their members will be voting for me in much larger numbers than for her,” said Trump in June when the AFL-CIO announced it was backing Mrs. Clinton. 

Well, maybe. Anything is possible in politics. And it’s true that Trump has lots of working-class support, particularly with white men. Whites without a college education – a proxy for working class status – go for Trump in huge numbers. He leads Clinton in that category by about 58 to 30 percent, according to a New York Times average of recent polls.

But “working class” and “union” are far from synonymous today. The old stereotype of union workers – hard hats, steel workers, auto assemblers, and other manufacturing employees – is no longer applicable. Almost half of all union members today work in public sector jobs, such as education and law enforcement.

As a group government workers still skew Democratic. They’re generally unmoved by Trump’s opposition to free trade and promises to bring back such smokestack industries as coal and steel.

And union members are diverse. About 45 percent are women. Thirty-one percent are nonwhite. Trump’s electoral problems with women and minorities are well documented. In a recent Washington Post poll the developer/reality star won only 18 percent of the nonwhite vote, for instance.

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Today, only 31 percent of union members are white males, the core of Trump’s vote.

The bottom line: Trump probably isn’t winning the union vote at the moment. A May NBC/Wall Street Journal survey showed Clinton leading that demographic category by nine percentage points. Trump was getting about 40 percent of voters in union households. That’s close to the average union vote for Republican presidential candidates since Ronald Reagan drew many into the Republican Party in the 1980s.

For Trump, one silver lining here is that the union vote isn’t nearly as important as it used to be. There’s a reason Democratic presidential candidates have a history of kicking off fall campaigns with big Labor Day rallies in working-class Detroit: At its peak in 1954, union membership constituted 35 percent of all United States wage and salary workers.

Today, unions cover only 11 percent of US workers, according to Pew Research, though their raw numbers have risen a bit in recent years, going from 14.4 million in 2012 to 14.8 million in 2015.