There have been dozens, if not hundreds, of occasions on which Donald Trump has been seen standing in front of rooms with cheering men—and it’s almost always men—in hardhats. It’s such a common sight that when word comes down that coal miners are dying from the worst form of black lung in record numbers, or steel jobs are being crushed by Trump’s tariffs, it’s easy to sneer that these are people who “got what they asked for.”
But appearances can be more than deceiving. They can be dead wrong.
As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports, worker at Shell’s petrochemical plant in Pennsylvania were clearly informed that they didn’t have to appear at Trump’s rally last Tuesday. It was “not mandatory.” It was just that if they didn’t show up, they had to “take the day off with no pay.” This didn’t just apply to people working directly for Shell, but also for those who work for dozens of union contractors involved in construction at the site.
Under those contracts, Shell only pays if contractors are on site. And they made it clear that on Tuesday, being on site meant being at Trump’s speech. Supervisors for the workers passed this along in simple terms: show up and produce their ID cards at the rally or “NO SCAN, NO PAY.” That meant standing around for hours, and missing their breaks and lunch, all so they could get the pleasure of getting a normal day’s pay … by being forced to attend Trump’s speech. And it wasn’t even just one day’s pay at risk. Shell also made it clear that while they would graciously grant an unpaid leave of absence to anyone who didn’t want to hear Trump, they would dock their time. Meaning that those workers could be called in over the weekend without getting overtime rates. In total, each worker was at risk of losing around $700 if they failed to act as a prop for Donald Trump’s rambling.
And not only were workers told that they had to show up and scan their ID cards to prove they had attended, they also had to behave as if they approved of everything Trump was saying. This was the rally at which Trump none-too-subtly told the workers that they were too stupid to be assembling computers or doing anything complex, and should stick with doing things more suited to their “big hands.” But contractors provided the rules under which those workers attended: “No yelling, shouting, protesting or anything viewed as resistance will be tolerated at the event.”
Though the contractor who passed along that requirement that workers be good little props for Trump declared that it was done to “promote good will from the unions” with the approval of union leaders, but multiple union leaders reported that none of this had been run past them before the event.
Shell also required those union leaders to attend the speech, where Trump told them they they should order members to support him in 2020. “And if they don’t,” said Trump, “vote them the hell out of office because they’re not doing their job.”
In the speech, Trump made multiple claims that the plant under construction was entirely because of his policies. But in fact it was approved and begun under President Obama. At both that Tuesday speech and another rally on Thursday, Trump made numerous claims about either plants that had already been approved before he took office, or plants that simply do not exist.
Those workers standing in front of Trump and appearing to cheer aren’t effective props in selling the idea that “Trump digs coal” or “Steel loves Trump.” But in truth they’re just the latest in a long history of workers being forced to show apparent support for the goals of their corporate bosses, no matter how it affects them.