Unions and workers get little attention in Democratic debates
People gather at a bar to attend a Democratic presidential debate watch party in Atlanta, Thursday, June 27, 2019. | David Goldman / AP

This article won a third place award in the Best Analysis category at the 2020 Labor Media Awards, presented by the International Labor Communications Association.

Two days. Four hours of spirited debate. Twenty Democratic presidential hopefuls. Some 41,800 words, give or take a few, according to the debate transcripts.

And what words were uttered few times during the 20 Democrats’ two debates in Miami the last week of June?

The rarely mentioned words included: “union,” “worker,” “labor,” and “employee.” Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, said the Democrats must again become the party of the working class and Gov. Inslee of Washington talked about unions being the key to lifting living standards, but the words “collective bargaining” were never mentioned.

That lack of references was in line with the past history that labor has with some Democratic and “progressive” politicians and with, unfortunately, a lot of progressive “ally” organizations. They seek unions’ aid, workers, voluntary campaign contributions, and votes at the ballot box. But at other times…they’re missing in action. So are their followers. The BlueGreen Alliance, which the Steelworkers organized, is a notable exception.

In the past, unions and workers gave that political support, especially, but not solely in politics. “Union members were a driving force in this election. We fought for our issues, for union candidates, and for our proven allies,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said after the 2018 election yielded a takeover of the U.S. House, governors’ chairs, and state legislatures from anti-worker forces.

That included electing unionists Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan and Tim Walz of Minnesota as governors. Both are Democrats and both are Teachers union members.

Unions spent $170.8 million in voluntary contributions from their members on the 2018 campaign, Open Secrets—a non-profit think tank on campaign finance—reports. Of that, 59% was on publishing their own positions and candidate comparisons, not on supporting or opposing individual candidates. Business spent $2.823 billion, with 72% on candidates.

Labor countered with a big ground game. The AFL-CIO alone sent more than 10 million direct mail pieces. At least a million unionists knocked on doors every day and visited 2,500 worksites from Labor Day through Election Day. Union locals added another 1.2 million mail pieces, said federation Political Director Julie Greene. Another million pamphlets and radio ads targeted key African-American areas.

“We showed up for our allies…and sent friends of corporate interests packing,” Trumka said. This time, Trumka vows will be different: Labor will work for those who work for our causes. Whether it was different in the debates is another matter.

Both the candidates and progressive groups, at least on their websites and when they accept endorsements, recognize strong worker support and endorse labor’s goals. To do them justice, the 20 hopefuls, limited to 60-second replies during the debates, and 30-second follow-ups didn’t have much time to hit any issue the questioners didn’t raise.

That included supporting unions. To their credit, some did so anyway on their own, especially in discussing how they would make the economy work for workers.

But these were the exceptions, to the long-standing rule that when it comes to speaking up for workers’ causes—like the right to unionize without employer labor-breaking, intimidation, illegal firing and harassment, “$15 and a union,” job safety, and health and wage theft enforcement to name a few—many progressives just plain aren’t there.

While the Dems were somewhat short on discussing workers’ rights and other issues in Miami, the situation is different when they are in front of union crowds, or when speakers know their listeners will welcome pro-union proposals. But even then, they do so knowing that the ideas are going nowhere politically.

One prior example: President Barack Obama endorsed comprehensive labor law reform at the 2009 AFL-CIO convention in Pittsburgh. Delegates danced in the aisles. But he didn’t publically endorse it until, during his campaign for re-election three years later, an Iowa unionist asked him about it.

By then, vicious right-wing opposition, Obama’s prioritizing of the Affordable Care Act over the Employee Free Choice Act, and the 2010 GOP sweep which installed the Republican majority hostile to both workers and Obama meant labor was dead.

Same pattern from Obama’s Vice President, Joe Biden. He gave an impassioned defense of unions and the right of first responders to collectively bargain at the Fire Fighters’ Legislative Conference in D.C., just before entering the presidential race earlier this year. Of course, there were “Run, Joe, Run!” signs all over the room. Biden got IAFF’s endorsement, too. But Biden never uttered those pro-worker words at the debate in Miami.

Fedrick Ingram of Miami, the first African-American president of the Florida Education Association, a 140,000-member joint Teachers (AFT)-National Education Association affiliate in the nation’s third-most-populous state, expects a similar change from Dem hopefuls who addressed the National Education Association’s 9,000-member convention in Houston on July 5. The NEA, with more than three million members, is the nation’s largest union, although in many “red states” it still must act like an association.

“This convention will be heavy on politics and the transparency of our democracy,” Ingram predicted in a telephone interview with People’s World. “You have to talk to middle-class people,” and that includes teachers and their unions, he said.

“Unions have gotten the worst of it” from the Trump administration, from the GOP-run Florida government, and from the radical right. That specifically includes Janus, the anti-union, anti-worker National Right to Work Legal Defense Fund-engineered decision from the Supreme Court’s five-man GOP-named majority a year ago.

Janus makes all 6.2 million state and local public workers nationwide, including each public school teacher and all Fire Fighters, too, potential “free riders” able to use union services without paying one red cent for them. The right “went after unions because they were unions,” Ingram said.

“We didn’t hear much from the candidates about education,” Ingram added. “And in most cities and towns and rural areas, you’re talking about the biggest single employer. Those teachers work every day and they give the most to our most precious commodity—our kids.” The conditions the teachers toil under affect how the kids do, he pointed out. That was the whole point of the forced teacher strikes in red states West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Arizona last year, Ingram noted.

To be sure, like many if not most other voters, unionists are not single-issue oriented. Or if they are, “It’s the economy, stupid,” to quote former Bill Clinton campaign manager James Carville. And the 20 hopefuls slammed the gap between the rich and the rest of us and talked about how to reduce it.

“Who is this economy really working for?” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., asked in her opening statement, which also led off the first of the two debates, the night of June 26.

“It’s doing great for a thinner and thinner slice at the top. It’s doing great for giant drug companies. It’s not doing great for people are trying to get a prescription filled. It’s doing great for people who want to invest in private prisons, just not for the African Americans and Latinx whose families are torn apart, whose lives are destroyed, and whose communities are ruined.

“It’s doing great for giant oil companies that want to drill everywhere, just not for the rest of us who are watching climate change bear down upon us. When you’ve got a government, when you’ve got an economy that does great for those with money and isn’t doing great for everyone else, that is corruption, pure and simple. We need to call it out. We need to attack it head on and we need to make structural change in our government, in our economy, and in our country.”

“Working families need support and need to be lifted up, and frankly this economy is not working for working people,” said Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif. After proposing a $500 monthly tax credit for every family earning less than $100,000 yearly, she added: “On day one, I will repeal that” Trump-GOP “tax bill that benefits the top 1% and the biggest corporations in America.”

“My life and my career and my work in the Senate have been about economic opportunity,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, DFL-Minn. “To me, this means better childcare for everyone in this country. And when you want to have an economy that works, you need to have retirement that works. You need to have public schools that work.”

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., reminded the crowd, her colleagues, and the TV audience that neither the economy, nor health care, nor anything else, would get fixed without ridding the nation’s capital of the demonic influence of corporate interests.

“Where Bernie (Sanders) left off we have heard a lot of good ideas on this stage tonight and a lot of plans, but the truth is until you go to the root of the corruption, the money in politics, the fact that Washington is run by these special interests, you are never going to solve any of these problems. I have the most comprehensive approach that experts agree is the most transformative plan to actually take on political corruption, to get money out of politics through publicly funded elections, to have clean elections. If we do that and get money out of politics, we can guarantee healthcare as a right, not a privilege. We can deal with institutional racism, we can take on income inequality and we can take on the corporate corruption that runs Washington,” she said.

For the record:

“Union” was mentioned five times. But only Washington Gov. Jay Inslee uttered it, twice, in the context of labor’s causes.

Asked how he would close the income gap between the rich and the rest of us, Inslee replied: “I think plans are great, but I am a governor and we got to realize that the people who brought us the weekend, unions, need—are going to bring us—a long overdue raise in America.”

“And I’m proud of standing up for unions. I’ve got a plan to reinvigorate collective bargaining so we can increase wages finally. I marched with the SEIU (Service Employees) folks. It is not right that the CEO of McDonald’s makes 2,100 times more than the people slinging hash at McDonald’s. And the next thing I’ll do is put people to work in the jobs of the present and the future.”

Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, said “union” in the context of opposing single-payer health care. If your union negotiates a good health insurance plan for you, you should be able to keep it, he explained. Single-payer pushed especially by Sanders and supported by Warren, and Sens. Harris and Cory Booker (N.J.), would abolish the health insurers, their high premiums, co-pays, deductibles, and denial of care.

Former Rep. John Delaney, D-Md., uttered “union” twice, too, praising his father, a member of the Electrical Workers (IBEW), and union-negotiated health insurance. Delaney also trumpeted starting a business that has created jobs. He didn’t tell the crowd it’s also made him a multimillionaire.

“Worker” got 14 mentions. But the strongest reference was actually from Ryan.

Ryan said the only way to beat the Republicans—not just Trump but also Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and other GOP politicians—is for the Democrats to return to being “a working-class party,” especially in the Midwest.

“We have a perception problem with the Democratic Party. We are not connecting to the working-class people in the very state that I represent, Ohio, in the industrial Midwest,” Ryan said.

Offei Koram watches a broadcast of a Democratic presidential debate at a bar in Atlanta, Thursday, June 27, 2019. | David Goldman / AP

“We got to…get workers back on our side so we can say we’re going to build electric vehicles, we’re going to build solar panels.

“If you want to beat Mitch McConnell” and the others, he said, “this better be a working-class party.”

“Labor” was cited twice. Once by Sanders, in naming the labor movement, the women’s movement, and the civil rights movement as models for the political revolution the nation needs.

Campaigning for his single-payer government-run Medicare For All plan, Sanders declared: “We’ll do it the way real change has always taken place, whether it was the labor movement, the civil rights movement, or the women’s movement.”

“We will have Medicare for all when tens of millions of people are prepared to stand up and tell the insurance companies and the drug companies that their day is gone, that healthcare is a human right, not something to make huge profits off of.”

The other utterance of the word “labor” was by Booker. He said corporate consolidation strips labor of both dignity and a living wage. “It is about time that we have an economy that works for everybody, not just the wealthiest in our nation,” the former Newark mayor added.

“Employee(s)” were named by Inslee when he said he marched on the picket line with SEIU in front of McDonald’s for the “Fight for $15.” The second part of those workers’ demand “…and a union” went unmentioned, even by Inslee. South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg was one of several who endorsed raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. He set no timeline and did not say “employee.”

“Collective bargaining”: Zero.

One candidate, Silicon Valley businessman John Yang, proposed a value-added tax that would actually hit lower- and middle-income people harder than it would hit the rich. He said it would help finance—but not totally pay for—his $3.2 trillion guaranteed income proposal to give every adult in the U.S. a $1,000 monthly check to help pull people out of poverty.

While Yang said the checks would benefit 94% of the U.S., he did not explain that value added taxes, common in Europe, are another name for national sales taxes. Sales taxes, at all levels, hit the poor and the working class far more, proportionately, than they hit the rich—who can afford them.

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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.