The Experiences of a Haitian-American Unionist in Trump’s America

by Marie-Paule Florestal (Haiti Liberte)
I’ve just returned to the New York metropolitan area after working
as a Democratic Party campaigner in rural Michigan for the two months leading
up to the Nov. 8 election. This is an account of the deep anger, ignorance, and
racism I encountered in the American heartland.
            Based in New York
City, I am a Haitian-American organizer for the northeastern United States with
the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). The union released me to work with
the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations
(AFL-CIO) of Michigan from September to Nov. 9, 2016 as a part of the AFL-CIO’s
Working America Coalition, which sought to encourage voters to vote for
Democratic Party candidates.
            My job was to
target specific groups of voters among Democrats, Republicans, and independents
and then reach them via phone banks, mailings, and door-to-door canvassing.
            Using software that
tracked the voting habits and histories of AFL-CIO union members and the
general public, we identified voters whom we might encourage to vote for
Democratic Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton as well as candidates for nine
seats in the Michigan House of Representatives.
Presidential nominee Donald J. Trump had attacked minorities, immigrants,
Muslims, and the disabled. He called climate change a Chinese “hoax” and said
that women who had abortions should be punished. We believed these reactionary
positions would give us ammunition to defeat Trump, as well as to push the
AFL-CIO’s agenda for more jobs, rebuilding infrastructure, and making
government more accountable and transparent.
            I was stationed in
Battle Creek in southwestern Michigan, where I worked with the Central Labor
Councils (CLC) to encourage voters to vote for our Democratic candidate, Jim
Haadsma for the Michigan House of Representatives and Hillary Clinton for
President. I primarily worked in Calhoun and Muskegon counties in western
            My first day on the
job in September was productive. I was excited by the materials that had been
prepared for volunteers to make calls on behalf of their union local. They made
member-to-member calls to vote for Haadsma and Hillary. We had a phone bank in
Battle Creek making 1,000 calls a day. Although 59 % of the independents were
not home, 22% of the numbers were wrong or disconnected, 17% were still
undecided, and only 2% said they would vote Democrat all the way, I was
encouraged and impressed by the number of volunteers who showed up and made
calls for the two candidates. I assumed that as the campaign progressed, I
would get more volunteers and union locals to support our work. I had 124, 495
doors to knock on between the time I arrived in Calhoun County and election
            However, as I tried
to recruit volunteers to knock on swing voters’ doors, I received excuses: “I’m
too busy” or “I can’t because I’m working a third shift” or “I have to take my
kids to soccer practice,” etc.  Since I
wasn’t getting volunteers, I reached out to the CLC, asking them to help me
recruit members from their locals. Some said they would introduce the request
at membership meetings and then vote on it. 
Others told me they could not because they needed to focus on their union
local races in the upcoming months. Others didn’t even bother to return my
calls and emails.
            My campaign office
was right next to that of the president of a Battle Creek local (BCTGM  3G), but he also couldn’t get his members to
commit to doing shifts for me. He made an excuse that his members were too
tired to volunteer for phone banking and door knocking. The BCTGM  3G only had five men help me do a phone bank
shift for a night. I was pulling teeth to have volunteers to commit to a shift.
As a result, I found myself doing three to four shifts a day, knocking on
130-150 doors in a rural part of Michigan, with which I am not familiar.
            Through door
knocking alone, I met interesting people who spoke highly of Haadsma. “He
helped me get disability benefits,” or “My wife was injured at her job, and he
was able to help my wife get worker’s compensation,” or “My employer unlawfully
fired me, and he helped me get my job back with back pay,” or “He is a nice man
unlike his opponent, incumbent state representative, Republican John
Bizon.”  Another man said: “I will vote
for him because I don’t like how John Bizon keeps cutting social services and
trying to privatize everything in Michigan.” 
Even though I had never met Haadsma, these accounts motivated me to help
him get elected. He ran on a platform that working families struggle to make
ends meet, while Lansing politicians give tax breaks to big corporations, thus
Michigan’s economy is only working for the wealthy and well-connected.
            But as soon as I
would mention Hillary, these conversations would go sour. I found myself
constantly having to defend her positions on ObamaCare, her emails, and
            For example, I
knocked on the door of a 69-year-old white man, informing him that Bizon had
voted against fixing Michigan’s crumbling bridges and roads which would have
created thousands of jobs. Haadsma supports such infrastructure work. The man
was angered by the information and said he would not vote for Bizon.
            At the end of my
conversation with him I asked, “if the presidential election were to be held
today, would you vote for Hillary on top of the ticket?” He started swearing
and calling Hillary a “bitch,” saying how much he despised her. I knocked on
many dozens of other doors asking the same question about Hillary at the end of
the conversation, and the swing voters would always respond with disgust.
            I went to the house
of another voter, a 39-year-old union member and loyal Democrat. “Trump is a
scumbag, almost as bad as Hillary,” he told me. “But I’ll vote for him because
I worry about my kids’ future and trillions of dollars in debt. If Trump
continues to make these gaffes, I may vote for Gary Johnson,” the Libertarian
Party’s presidential nominee.
            In the small town
of Albion, I met a salesman, 72, who called the U.S. system of government
“broken”, saying he believes the Justice Department and Obama’s White House
“control everything” and that Hillary Clinton should be indicted for illegally
taking money.
            “I’d like to put
them all in jail,” he said.
            At another house, I
spoke to a 64-year-old woman who said she’d back Trump but didn’t know how
she’d vote down ballot, because she’s always been a Democrat. “It’s a hard
election,” she said.
            Each evening, I
reported in phone conferences with AFL-CIO leaders what was happening as I
canvassed, things we had to be concerned about. I told them of voters’ deep
antipathy towards Hillary, although when pressed, those same voters could not
say exactly what she had lied about. They simply repeated the opinions of Fox
News commentators. The AFL-CIO leaders advised me to only talk about Haadsma
because it was becoming clear people in that area had made up their minds to
vote for Trump. Even the independents were close-minded and didn’t want to hear
any defense of Hillary and her positions.
            One day in
Pennfield Township, I spoke to an independent female voter. I had some talking
points on the differences between Trump and Clinton. The middle-aged woman
exploded, turning red as she vented her anger towards the Obama administration
and Hillary Clinton. She said that the U.S. is running trillion dollar deficits
and that the Obama administration is ruining our country. Each time I tried to
correct and challenge her, she cut me off. I tried to leave her to go knock on
another door, but she would not let me go, continuing to express her anger and
frustration. She said she opposes gay marriage, gender neutral bathroom
polices, abortion, and the slow economic recovery. Furthermore, she said
America is changing too quickly, and the Republican Party is moving too slowly
to block President Obama’s policies. I wanted to tell her that she had gotten a
lot of things wrong but could not get a word in edgewise and ended up
practically running away.
            At another house in
Calhoun County, a 74-year-old man stopped the lawn mower he was riding to ask
me why I was knocking on his neighbor’s door. As I turned around to speak to
him, I saw an assault weapon on his waist. I was taken aback, and he noticed my
reaction. I tried to smile and pretend that it was not shocking to see a man
mowing his lawn with an assault weapon. He told me his age and that he was a
Korean War veteran. He said he carried the gun because about four miles away
there had been some robberies. Looking at his house, I didn’t think there would
be much to rob.
            I spoke to a
31-year-old woman working at the hotel where I stayed in Battle Creek, asking
her thoughts on the presidential election. She did not think a woman should be
running for the highest office of the United States because “when women have
their menstrual cycle, they can become very emotional.” I did not point out to
her Hillary’s age and the unlikelihood she was still menstruating.
            She then expanded
her hypothesis to conclude that, as women,“we can’t govern because we are too
emotional.” Furthermore, as a gun owner and a single mother raising two
children, she needs her gun to protect herself and her family and would not
vote for Hillary because she would take her gun away from her.
            I knocked on the
door of another couple. Apparently, because I’m black, they were scared. I
smiled and tried to appear non-threatening. However, it took them a few minutes
to overcome their fear and actually speak to me.
            The first thing the
man said was that he would not vote for a Democrat because they would take away
his guns. I tried to explain to them that it was not true, but they literally
“stuck to their guns.”  Michigan is an
open carry state, and many people there believe that the Democrats aim to seize
their guns.
            In Albion, I knocked
on the door of a self-employed electrical engineer. He seemed to be a nice
gentleman. He had been working on his car and cut his index finger. He should
have gone to the hospital to get stitches, he said, but he had no health care
coverage. Therefore, he had simply taken some gauze and taped two fingers
together.  Although he had been able to
get health coverage under Obama’s Affordable Care Act, the premiums kept
increasing every year until he had to pay $3,300 annually, which he couldn’t
afford. He went on to give me a history of how Battle Creek’s economy was
booming in the 1960s. Many people flocked there from the segregated south and
other parts of the world, he said,  to
work at manufacturing plants which made Kellogg’s cereal, aircraft, auto parts
for American-made cars, wines, etc. He said those had been good paying jobs
which had allowed his parents to move up the socio-economic ladder. As the sun
began to set, I told him that I had to go. He told me to be careful in this
county, especially in Battle Creek, because the people can be very racist. He
said that I seemed to be a nice woman, and he did not want anything bad to
happen to me while knocking on doors.
            Since I was not
getting much cooperation from the CLC in Calhoun County, my AFL-CIO coordinator
decided to move me to Muskegon County, thinking it was more diverse with more
union support. I stayed there until Nov. 9.
            In Muskegon, the
United Auto Workers union (UAW) were more helpful. Every night, we organized
phone banks so that retirees could make phone calls. It was productive, but
responses were not encouraging. We knew that many of the target groups were
Trump supporters. Some were afraid to let us know, but others were brutally
            A middle-aged woman
in front of a large home told us she’s with “Trump all the way.”
            “I just don’t put
the signs out because I don’t know how other people are voting,” she said.
            I spoke to a
77-year-old grandfather and his wife. They had 11 grandchildren. “We like Trump
and fear for the future of our grandchildren,” he said. “There are too many
Muslims in the government.” He worried about the introduction of Sharia law….
in the U.S.! They had planned a trip to Italy and Greece but canceled it
because of fears over ISIS.
            It was clear that
Trump’s fear-mongering had a big effect on the psyches of many whites in rural
Michigan. Trump had whipped them up with overt racism, bigotry, islamophobia,
and xenophobia. We deployed many canvassers to do walk shifts, but
unfortunately they couldn’t speak to independents voters because many residents
threatened to call the cops on them.
            Sometimes, the cops
would come. After hearing complaints from the residents about black canvassers,
the cops would tell the canvassers to leave the neighborhood or be arrested for
trespassing, even though they were not in gated private communities. Some
canvassers told me that residents would make false complaints about them and
sic dogs on them. In contrast, many white canvassers were well received. Blacks
told me that for years there had been racial tensions in Muskegon township. I
believed them but didn’t understand how bad it was until I went door knocking
alone on Sun., Nov. 6, two days before the vote.
            At that time, the
polls showed Trump closing in Michigan. Our strategy was to visit only
registered Democrats and get them out to the polls. That Sunday, I started
knocking on doors at noon after people were back from church.
            Unfortunately, many
people were fed up with canvassers. Planned Parenthood, Working Families in
Michigan, and other Democrat-affiliated groups had all made passes and left
literature. Also, Trump’s negative TV ads pushed many Democrats to flip.  So when I began knocking on doors that day
and introducing myself, many would slam the door in my face or be rude.
            Around 4:30 p.m., I
pulled in the driveway and rang the bell of a 64-year-old white man. “Who the
fuck sent your ass here?” he asked. “This is a private road and your ass don’t
belong here. You better get your dark ass off my property before I get your ass
            I was stunned and
couldn’t believe this was coming from a registered Democrat. I was alone and
didn’t want to argue with him in case he went to get his gun. I immediately
walked to my car and backed out of his driveway. I called my zone leader and
told him what had just happened to me. We agreed it was best for me to stop
door knocking until I had a partner.
            On the Monday
before the election, Walter Christophersen, a white International Brotherhood
of Electrical Workers (IBEW) organizer from Muskegon, and I went door knocking,
mostly in trailer parks. Many residents were not home. Those that were said
they would not vote for Hillary because she is a liar. Again, they couldn’t
pinpoint what exactly she had lied about. Occasionally, a resident told us they
would vote for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson. Most of them said they liked
Trump’s tenacity to challenge the status quo in Washington. They said they are
tired of foreigners coming to this country and taking their jobs. I couldn’t convince
these registered Democrats to vote for Hillary.
            On election day, I
began knocking on doors in a trailer park. A middle-aged white man told me to
stop knocking on residents’ doors. I told him that I am knocking on their doors
to encourage them to vote. He insisted that I stop. I ignored him and continued
with the door knocking . He  yelled from
50 yards away that he was calling the cops on me. I told him: “Go ahead, make
my day.” He continued to yell, following me and my partner. Less than five
minutes later, an older white woman yelled: “Get the fuck off my property,”
over and over. My partner swore at her. She made a gesture with her hand and
mouth to suggest my partner was gay. I sat in our car’s passenger seat in
            As I turned around,
I saw a police car coming towards us. My partner said to check that my seatbelt
was on and that he would do the talking. A female officer pulled alongside us
and said to leave the area because a neighbor was complaining that we were
soliciting. We explained to the officers that we weren’t soliciting. She told
us to leave or she’d arrest us. She also suggested that we check with the local
county clerk’s office whether or not we could knock on the doors of registered
Democrats in the trailer park. She asked my partner for his name, age, address,
and phone number. The older woman who had yelled at us earlier followed us
until we exited the trailer park, calling us all kinds of names.
            We drove to the
clerk’s office, about one mile away. A receptionist there told us that she was
not sure about the ordinance in Muskegon but would check with the clerk. She
took our information and said she would call us.
             We went to the CIO hall in Muskegon and told
our Zone coordinator what had happened. He then contacted the AFL-CIO
headquarters in Lansing. An AFL-CIO representative contacted the municipal
building and complained about the cop who had told us to leave. Five minutes
after the call, we were back knocking on doors in another trailer park.
            We went to the
doors of registered Democrats and asked them if they had already voted or
planned to. Some said they had already voted but wouldn’t tell us for whom.
            I asked on older
woman in her 50s if she had voted. “It’s none of your damn business who I voted
for,” she shot back.
            I brushed off the
remark and moved on to the next trailer home. A woman across from trailer where
I was knocking told me: “Stop fucking knocking on his door. He is sleeping and
get the fuck out of here.”
            The anger from
these working-class white folks was intimidating. Some of the residents were
afraid to be seen speaking to us. They constantly looked over their shoulder to
see if any of their neighbors were watching. There
clearly was a lot of voter intimidation going on in the trailer parks, with
exceptional hostility aimed at me, a black woman, or towards anybody identified
as a representative of “Working Families in Michigan” or the Democrats. These
people were angry with the Democratic Party but often couldn’t articulate the
reasons for their anger.
            Reflecting on my
experiences in Michigan, I clearly see that Trump riled up disenfranchised
people, but offered no real solution. The manufacturing jobs he promised on the
campaign trail are not coming back to the U.S.. Many of these people lost their
jobs due to the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) two
decades ago. A generation of families would have to be retrained. Higher U.S.
wages augur that manufacturers will not to move factories, at least not many,
back to Michigan. Even if they did, automation would mean far fewer unskilled
            The poverty in
western Michigan was grim. Many people had no teeth. Some were clearly drunks
or heroin addicts. Some of the houses I visited were in a scary state of
disrepair, even looked abandoned, or were without indoor plumbing. Although I’m
from Haiti, I’ve never seen homes in the U.S. like those I saw in rural
Michigan. Some of the towns in Calhoun County appeared to be set in another
country or century.  The people were
terribly poor and despairing. They blame the Democrats, and Washington
generally, for their misery.
            This explains why,
after my two months in Michigan, less than 5% of the people I spoke to
face-to-face said they would vote for Democratic candidate Jim Haadsma and only
about 1% said they would vote for Hillary Clinton.
            Democratic Party
leaders sabotaged the electoral bid of Bernie Sanders and embraced the
neo-liberal policies which the Clintons personify. That is why Democrats were
trounced in the Nov. 8 election nationwide, although we must remember that
Hillary Clinton won the U.S. popular vote by over one million votes, thereby
denying her opponent any kind of mandate. Furthermore, thousands of minority
voters were purged from voter rolls in key swing states.

            Donald Trump is a
dangerous demagogue who has sold the American people yet another scam, just
like Trump University. Working-class Democratic voters, particularly those
represented by unions, had better wrest leadership of the Democratic Party from
the neo-liberal operatives who now control it, or envisage third party
alternatives. Either way, I fully expect that Michigan’s poor and working
people who voted for Trump will be betrayed by him. This means that we now have
a golden opportunity to organize for a truly progressive alternative, like that
proposed by Sanders, in the near future.