Trump’s Potemkin Political Rally
Workers at a petrochemical plant were told they could choose between showing up for a Presidential speech and not getting paid.
On Tuesday of last week, President Trump delivered a speech at a petrochemical plant under construction in Monaca, Pennsylvania, a small town in northwestern Pennsylvania along the Ohio River, The speech was filled with workers at the plant in their work gear and, while it was billed as a “Presidential” event it predictably turned into a Trump political rally where the President talked more about himself and attacked his political enemies than he did about the plant or the petrochemical industry.
As it turns out, the workers weren’t exactly there voluntarily and they were specifically instructed that they couldn’t say anything negative about the President:
The choice for thousands of union workers at Royal Dutch Shell’s petrochemical plant in Beaver County was clear Tuesday: Either stand in a giant hall waiting for President Donald Trump to speak or take the day off with no pay.
“Your attendance is not mandatory,” said the rules that one contractor relayed to employees, summarizing points from a memo that Shell sent to union leaders a day ahead of the visit to the $6 billion construction site. But only those who showed up at 7 a.m., scanned their ID cards, and prepared to stand for hours — through lunch but without lunch — would be paid.
“NO SCAN, NO PAY,” a supervisor for that contractor wrote.
That company and scores of other contractors on site and their labor employees all have their own contracts with Shell. Several said the contracts stipulate that to get paid, workers must be onsite.
Those who decided not to come to the site for the event would have an excused but non-paid absence, the company said, and would not qualify for overtime pay on Friday.
Shell spokesman Ray Fisher explained that the workers onsite have a 56-hour workweek, with 16 hours of overtime built in. That means those workers who attended Mr. Trump’s speech and showed up for work Friday, meeting the overtime threshold, were being paid at a rate of time and a half, while those who didn’t go to hear the president were being paid the regular rate, despite the fact that both groups did not do work on the site Tuesday.
“This is just what Shell wanted to do and we went along with it,” said Ken Broadbent, business manager for Steamfitters local 449.
The local has 2,400 workers on the site and Mr. Broadbent said he would not “bad rap about it one way or another.”
“We’re glad to have the jobs. We’re glad to have the project built,” he said. “The president is the president whether we like him or dislike him. We respect him for the title.”
Mr. Broadbent said anyone who did not want to show up to work that day was free to do so. “This is America,” he said.
One union leader reached Friday who asked not to be named because he did not want to make trouble for his workers said one day of work might amount to about $700 in pay, benefits and a per diem payment that out-of-town workers receive.
Mr. Fisher said Friday that “this was treated as a paid training day with a guest speaker who happened to be the president.”
He said workers engaged in “safety training and other activities” in the morning.
“It’s not uncommon for us to shut down the site for quarterly visits from VIPs — popular sports figures like Rocky Bleier and Franco Harris have visited the site to engage with workers and to share inspirational messages. Shell/Penske NASCAR driver Joey Logano was another guest at the site,” Mr. Fisher said.
Several union leaders said they were not consulted about the arrangement before it was sent out.
The contractor’s talking points, preparing his workers for the event read:
“No yelling, shouting, protesting or anything viewed as resistance will be tolerated at the event. An underlying theme of the event is to promote good will from the unions. Your building trades leaders and jobs stewards have agreed to this.”
Mr. Trump received a generally warm and at times cheerful welcome at Shell, where he praised natural gas extraction in Appalachia and talked about his political grievances and name-called some opponents.
The other thing about the speech in Monaca is the fact that the President took credit for the construction of the plant even though the project began when Barack Obama was President:
MONACA, Pa. — President Donald Trump sought to take credit Tuesday for the construction of a major manufacturing facility in western Pennsylvania as he tries to reinvigorate supporters in the Rust Belt towns who helped send him to the White House in 2016.
Trump visited Shell Oil Co.’s soon-to-be completed Pennsylvania Petrochemicals Complex, which will turn the area’s vast natural gas deposits into plastics. The facility, which critics claim will become the largest air polluter in western Pennsylvania, is being built in an area hungry for investment.
Speaking to a crowd of thousands of workers dressed in fluorescent orange-and-yellow vests, Trump said, “This would have never happened without me and us.”
In fact, Shell announced its plans to build the complex in 2012, when President Barack Obama was in office.
A Shell spokesperson said employees were paid for their time attending Trump’s remarks.
Trump used the official White House event as an opportunity to assail his Democratic rivals, saying, “I don’t think they give a damn about Western Pennsylvania, do you?”
The region’s natural gas deposits were seen for a time as a new road to prosperity, with drilling in the Marcellus Shale region transforming Pennsylvania into the nation’s No. 2 state for natural gas. But drops in the price of oil and gas caused the jobs boom from fracking to fizzle, leading companies like Shell to turn to plastics and so-called cracker plants — named after the process in which molecules are broken down at high heat, turning fracked ethane gas into one of the precursors of plastic.
The company was given massive tax breaks to build the complex along with a $10 million site development grant, with local politicians eager to accommodate a multibillion-dollar construction project.
In the end, roughly 5,000 workers at the plant attended the speech and the President was largely well-received. To be fair, it’s likely that many of these workers probably voted for Trump in 2016 given the fact that the plant is located in a part of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania that went heavily for the President three years ago. Beaver County, where the plant is located, for example, went for Trump by 16,000 votes and several of the counties surrounding it, such as Butler County, Lawrence County, and Washington County, went for the President by even wider margins. (Source) It’s also true that several of the unions that have workers at the plant endorsed Trump in 2016 although not all of them. It’s also probable that many of these workers are still supporters of the President and are likely to vote for him again in 2020 unless Democrats can come up with an alternative that speaks to white working-class voters in a way that Hillary Clinton obviously didn’t.
All that being said, there seems to be something obviously inappropriate about an employer (and union) telling employees that they must show up to what was obviously going to be a political speech if they wanted to be eligible for the overtime pay that is a standard part of the workweek at the plant. If they didn’t show up, and it’s important to note that they weren’t obligated to, then they would be paid at the standard hourly rate for the time. According to press reports, the difference for many workers could amount to $100 in overtime or more depending on how it’s calculated. In essence, then, these workers were told they must show up for the Trump speech/rally and that they would be penalized if they showed any signs of dissent or disagreement with the contents of the President’s speech.
Let’s be blunt about it, if this had happened in connection with a speech by Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, Barack Obama, or any other Democrat conservative media sites would be screaming bloody murder. Even though it appears to be legal, something like this is obviously coercive not just because of the fact that people who didn’t show up would not get overtime pay but also because it’s likely that the fact that this policy was being dictated both by the employer and the union caused at least some workers to fear retaliation of some kind if they didn’t show up or if they failed to be an obsequious cheerleader for the President while they were there. For those reasons alone, it’s wrong.