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Trump meets with Teamsters as he looks to peel off union voters from Biden

Former President Donald Trump Wednesday met with Teamsters union leaders and members in Washington as his campaign tries to drive a wedge between President Joe Biden and one of his most loyal constituencies: organized labor.

Trump has made appealing to union members, a traditionally Democratic voting bloc, a key part of his strategy for winning over working-class voters, especially in the battleground states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania – all three of which broke for Biden in the 2020 election after backing Trump four years earlier.

Trump’s meeting with the Teamsters followed a private get-together he had four weeks ago with the union’s leader, Sean O’Brien, at the former president’s Mar-a-Lago resort that rankled some prominent union members and the group’s rank-and-file. Wednesday’s gathering, at the Teamsters’ headquarters, has also touched off some angry dissent inside the union, with one executive board member in a letter to O’Brien denouncing Trump as “a known union buster, scab, and insurrectionist.”

“As a United States Army Veteran, I cannot support a draft dodger, and traitor who deliberately undermines the Constitution of the United States,” wrote John Palmer, the group’s international vice president at-large, who has refused to attend the meeting. “We should never entertain dialogue with a candidate with such an anti-union record.”

Teamsters leadership ultimately dismissed those warnings and Trump, speaking to reporters after their meeting, talked up his past connections to the union – while acknowledging he was unlikely to win their support.

“Stranger things have happened,” Trump said. “Usually, a Republican wouldn’t get that endorsement.”

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s campaign, the last one standing against Trump in the GOP primary, made clear he would have no intraparty competition for the union’s blessing.

“If Donald Trump agrees with the Teamsters on gutting right-to-work laws, pushing for amnesty, spending trillions of dollars, and funding liberal causes then he should get on the debate stage and explain his liberal stances to Republican primary voters,” Haley spokesperson Olivia Perez-Cubas said.

Under O’Brien, the Teamsters, which represent an estimated 1.3 million workers – nearly a third of them employed by UPS, with which they agreed to a new contract last summer – has said it is committed to speaking to a wide range of candidates. In a recent statement, the union noted past sit-downs with other presidential hopefuls, including independents Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Cornel West, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who dropped out of the GOP race earlier this month, and Democratic challengers Marianne Williamson and Dean Phillips, a Minnesota congressman.

“There are serious issues that need to (be) addressed to improve the lives of working people across the country, and the Teamsters Union is making sure our members’ voices are heard as we head into a critical election year,” O’Brien said in a statement after his visit to Mar-a-Lago. “We thank the former President for taking time during this private meeting to listen to the Teamsters’ top priorities.”

From left, UAW leader Shawn Fain, Teamsters chief Sean O'Brien and Sara Nelson, head of the flight attendants union, are seen during a Senate hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on November 14, 2023. - Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters
From left, UAW leader Shawn Fain, Teamsters chief Sean O'Brien and Sara Nelson, head of the flight attendants union, are seen during a Senate hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on November 14, 2023. - Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters

O’Brien has said he embraces his initials – “SOB” – and nearly brawled with Sen. Markwayne Mullin, an Oklahoma Republican, during a congressional hearing last fall. O’Brien had been sharply critical of Mullin, who often rails against union leaders, and the duo appeared ready to square up before Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the committee chair, intervened in a moment that went viral.

The Teamsters have twice endorsed against Trump, backing Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Biden four years later. But that was under different leadership. The Trump campaign is now eyeing what it views as an opportunity to capitalize on divisions between labor leadership and the rank-and-file, many of whom supported him in 2016.

“We’re not ceding any territory, any group, any demographic to Joe Biden,” one senior Trump adviser said of the campaign’s outreach to working class voters.

In September, Trump passed on a GOP presidential primary debate in favor of a trip to the Detroit area during a dramatic strike by the United Auto Workers, using his speech to cast himself as a fighter for union workers while attacking Biden’s electric vehicle policies. One problem: Trump held his event at Drake Enterprises, a non-union auto parts supplier.

His meeting with the Teamsters comes a week after Biden won the endorsement of the UAW led by President Shawn Fain, who has emerged from relative obscurity to become one of the highest-profile labor leaders in the country. And following the success of last year’s strikes, which led to new deals with Ford, Stellantis and General Motors, Fain is also a popular figure among progressives.

Biden will travel to Michigan on Thursday to meet with UAW members, according to a campaign official. Last fall, he joined the UAW picket line – becoming the first sitting president to do so – as the White House pushed for a resolution to the strikes. Biden has also appointed a series of labor-friendly leaders to critical government roles, most notably at the National Labor Relations Board, and issued an executive order guaranteeing certain wage and labor standards for most federal contract work. (Among the president’s recent appointees: Cole Scandaglia, the Teamsters’ senior legislative representative, to an advisory committee at the Department of Transportation.)

Fain has been fiercely critical of Trump, including over the weekend, which led the former president to call him a “Weapon of Mass Destruction on Auto Workers and the Automobile Manufacturing Industry in the United States” in a social media post Monday. Speaking to CNN a day later, Fain doubled down.

“I don’t care what Donald Trump says about me. I don’t care what he thinks about me,” Fain said. “I care about facts. And the facts are very clear for the large majority of Americans: The working-class people have been left behind by Trump’s billionaire class, the billionaire buddies, and the economy only works for the wealthy.”

Biden has committed to attend his own roundtable with Teamsters members, union spokesperson Kara Deniz told CNN. The group said Biden had been invited to its headquarters on the same day as Trump.

It is unclear when that meeting will take place, but sources say a schedule is being worked out.

CNN’s Arlette Saenz and MJ Lee contributed to this report.

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