When Teamster General President Sean O’Brien met with former President Donald Trump in early January at Mar-a-Lago, his seaside estate in Florida, I wasn’t as surprised as many people in the media and on the left appeared to be. All of the signals were flashing red for the past few months as O’Brien used far right outlets to attack critics of the much-hyped UPS national contract settlement and courted far right politicians, whose political sympathies lay with authoritarian leaders in Europe.
Sean O’Brien has joined a growing set of the infamous that have wined-and-dined with Trump at his palatial mansion, a kind of White House in-exile, including straight-up Nazis, such as Nick Fuentes and anti-Semites such as rapper Ye, formerly Kanye West, who came as a duo for dinner back in 2022. Sean O’Brien seemed completely at ease at Mar-a-largo. His thumbs up photo-op with a beaming Trump that was soon after posted on Trump’s Truth Social media says it all.
However, I was even a bit taken back that O’Brien met with Trump just days before the third anniversary of his attempted presidential coup. It raised the question in my mind: When did meeting with coup plotters become acceptable in the labor movement? O’Brien defended his meeting with Trump in a lengthy X (formerly Twitter) post, which included, “an in-depth and productive discussion on worker issues most important to the Teamsters Union.”
Did that “productive discussion” include opposition to say presidential coup plotting, white supremacy, xenophobia, voter suppression, and threats by Trump to be a “dictator” or build concentration camps? It appears not to. Trump is very open about his second term priorities. He sees it largely as an opportunity to take revenge on his rivals and enemies among the people of the United States.
Keep in mind that Trump’s most recent foray into trade union politics was to attack UAW President Shaw Fain during the recent auto union strikes against General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis. Trump also attempted to organize an “auto worker rally” opposed to the UAW’s contract demands in Michigan during the on-going strike, that no actual striking auto workers attended was as close to being a scab, back-to-work rally as you can get. Shawn Fain asked at the time whether he would meet with Trump, responded:
“I see no point in meeting with him because I don’t think the man has any bit of care about what our workers stand for, what the working class stands for. He serves a billionaire class, and that’s what’s wrong with this country.”
Absolutely, correct. Strangely, wasn’t this the same message that Sean O’Brien put out at rally after rally across the United States during the UPS contract campaign, including stops at the Labor Notes conference and the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU)? He shared the platform with Senator Bernie Sanders and Flight Attendant union leaders Sarah Nelson bashing billionaires and corporate greed which Trump is a walking-talking, toxic waste dump of. Is Trump now the good billionaire, who will listen to the workers?
I don’t write this from the perspective that the individual trade unions or labor federations like the AFL-CIO should be endorsing or be tied to the Democratic Party, which as the late Mike Davis put it was at best a “barren marriage” and at worst a disaster for broad swaths of the U.S. working class. The opening for far right politics was created by the embrace of neo-liberal economic and social policies by European Labor, Social Democratic, and Communist Parties, as well as the Democrats in the United States.
It has allowed far right parties and politicians to pose as “working class” parties, a political project that far right Senators like JD Vance and Josh Hawley are quite open about, while Trump is more erratic in his political thinking. O’Brien’s meeting with Trump has made it more difficult to fight the far right in the United States, because it legitimizes him as just another presidential candidate, when he should be treated as a pariah and enemy of the working class.
For those of us in the U.S. Labor-Left recent events must be seen as an alarm bell going off for us. So far, on the U.S. Left, only the Communist Party’s media outlet the People’s World has posted an article expressing “embarrassment” at O’Brien’s soirée with Trump .
Too much of the U.S. left has been silent. O’Brien’s ill-gotten reputation as a reformer and militant was woven out of fanciful cloth by the left and longstanding reformers in the Teamsters, and it has proven to be a disaster. A serious discussion of how we got here and prepare for what could be a very dangerous year to come.