Labor’s 2022 election work to be driven from the bottom up
President Biden gave the keynote speech at the AFL-CIO convention today. The federation is laying plans for a political program that involves support for candidates in 10 key states who back the president's pro labor agenda. | YouTube screenshot

PHILADELPHIA—Organized labor’s political campaign this year will be driven from the bottom up, emphasizing issues, as state federations and central labor councils make the key political decisions and then fit candidates into the issue matrix for endorsement decisions.

So says Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten, chair of the federation’s committee on relations with and responsibilities of the state feds and the CLCs. Weingarten and AFSCME President Lee Saunders are jointly working out that political plan, she told a small group of reporters at a June 13 q-and-a during the AFL-CIO Convention in Philadelphia. Saunders chairs the federation’s Political Committee.

The AFL-CIO and its allies include other big unions independent of the federation, such as the Teamsters, the Service Employees, and the National Education Association. Weingarten, federation President Liz Shuler and others interviewed said organized labor will concentrate on races in key states, including Ohio, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Michigan, Florida, and Georgia.

Other possibilities include Nevada, Arizona, Wisconsin, and North Carolina.  All ten have governors’ and all but Minnesota have U.S. Senate races.

The federation, like other progressive groups, faces a key election this fall, with pro-worker lawmakers holding a narrow edge (currently 220-208) in the U.S. House and held to a 50-50 tie in the Senate—a deadlock often broken against workers and their allies by defecting renegade Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz.

And while both problem senators will not face the voters until 2024, enough Senate Democratic incumbents are on the ballot this fall that a net loss of one seat throws control to current Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., a labor foe leading a caucus composed mostly of rabid Trumpites.

The switch is also important because the federation and members of its 57 unions, plus several big independent unions—such as the Teamsters, the Service Employees, and the National Education Association—have become key cogs in state, local and congressional campaigns, at least on the progressive side.

Worker foes rely on a highly organized structure of white supremacists, “Christian” megachurches, and mass right-wing movements, many of them funded by the financial and corporate classes whose interest is in squashing workers, women, students, and other foes.

And their key tools include disinformation, voter suppression, downright lies, and schemes to divert voters’ attention away from the Republicans’ and Trumpites’ existential threat to the future of democratic government in the U.S., as shown by the Jan.6, 2021, coup try.

The switch in structure and emphasis is part of “the modernization of the AFL-CIO” that President Liz Shuler, elected by acclamation to her first full term as head of the 12.5-million-member federation, is pushing, Weingarten explained.

That modernization, she said—details to be announced—is supposed to make the fed “better in all of our work,” said Weingarten, a strong Shuler supporter who seconded Shuler’s nomination to the full-term at the conclave’s July 11 session.

“In politics, we are trying something new,” Weingarten elaborated. “We’re not going to parachute people in” to specific states or races but determine “what community issues we need to solve, who should have our back” on those issues “and who will help us” achieve workers’ goals.

The fed and its allies will concentrate on 10 key states, said Weingarten. Pride@Work Executive Director Jerame Davis earlier added Florida to the ten mentioned by Weingarten.

Georgia another possibility

Another possibility: Georgia. Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams spoke to the convention crowd on June 13. Her successful registration and get-out-the-vote organization turned the Peach State from Republican red to swing state purple in 2020.

With a big assist from Unite HERE, Abrams’ group carried Georgia for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and Democratic U.S. Senate nominees Jon Ossoff and the Rev. Raphael Warnock, producing that 50-50 tie.

Abrams is back for a rerun against incumbent Republican Gov. Brian Kemp. He narrowly defeated her in 2018 after, as then-Secretary of State, Kemp purged voter rolls of hundreds of thousands of people, most of them, like Abrams, Black.

The Democratic Biden administration’s pro-worker record will be a big part of labor’s message to get workers to the polls, Shuler said in her own prior confab with the small reporters’ group. Biden was scheduled to address the convention on June 14.

“Our job is to educate our members, that their vote matters,” Shuler said with emphasis. “Just as we did in 2020.

“We have a lot to point out” that’s positive about Biden, led by the American Recovery Act, which pulled the nation out of the coronavirus-caused depression, and the five-year $1.2 trillion infrastructure law, Weingarten said.

But she admitted that Biden raised expectations so high that a record with those two notable triumphs is instead viewed as something of a failure because the president could not convince senators to enact his signature massive improvement of the social safety net, the Build Back Better plan.

That BBB legislation also includes higher fines on labor law-breakers and greater reach for what the law would define as law-breaking. Both are taken from the Protect The Right To Organize (PRO) Act, labor’s #1 legislative priority.

Those improvements alone would be the greatest change in labor law since the original Wagner Act of 1935, Shuler said, though labor still wants the full measure. But Sinema, Manchin, and the Republicans, catering to corporate campaign contributors, have blocked it and the rest of the BBB.

“It’ll be issues-based, using the grassroots all around,” Shuler said. “We’re putting a trainer and coordinator in each CLC, to train” unionists not just on registering to vote but protecting their votes “and also listening” to workers’ concerns.

The coordinators “will map out worksites of 100 workers or more” to target.

“We’re trying to do politics through state federations and central labor bodies,” said Weingarten. “I have made the argument for years” within the AFL-CIO Executive Council “that they need more muscle to do their jobs. We need to modernize them and make them a force,” she added.

To create that force in time to implement its decisions before the fall campaign, the federation will establish a task force “to work with them and if we can change them, to do it.” That may require putting more money into those levels, she admitted.

Money can’t be the first thing

“But money can’t be the first thing we do. Programs are first, then money.”

Weingarten wasn’t the only unionist contemplating change, random interviews showed.

Pride@Work’s Jerame Davis said the federations’ constituency groups—including his own for LGBTQIA+ workers—will work together in “cross-pollination in key states to engage our members,” rather than each running its own separate operation.

“We’ll be doing mailing, phone banking, and text banking” together, he said. “People have already been registering to vote at Pride festivals,” the first in two years after pandemic-caused cancellations, he noted.

That “cross-pollination” would bring together the Coalition of Labor Union Women, Pride@Work, Labor’s Council for Latin American Advancement, the A. Philip Randolph Institute, the Coalition of Black Trade Unions, the Asian-Pacific American Labor Association, and the newest of official organizations, the Union Veterans Council.

But in an indication that there will still be specific political problems affecting specific groups of workers, Vivian Chang and Katie Moy Mostris of APALA noted their members have a media issue: Many networks catering to Asian and Pacific Americans are owned by—and broadcast slanted “information” from—the radical right.

“The Chinese-American community channels in Southern California are all Fox” on area politics, one of the two said. “Luckily, they broadcast in English.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.