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Unions and workers get little attention in Democratic debates

Workplace rights were not on the agenda for almost all of the 20 Democratic presidential hopefuls at a debate last month, writes MARK GRUENBERG

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,” “labour” and “employee.” 

Representative Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), said the Democrats must again become the party of the working class and Governor Jay 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 labour has with some Democratic and “progressive” politicians and with, unfortunately, a lot of progressive “ally” organisations. 

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 United Steelworkers organised, 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 US House, governors’ chairs and state legislatures from anti-worker forces.

That included electing trade 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 per cent was on publishing their own positions and candidate comparisons, not on supporting or opposing individual candidates. Business spent $2.823 billion, with 72 per cent on candidates.

Labour countered with a big ground game. The AFL-CIO alone sent more than 10 million direct mail pieces. 

At least a million trade unionists knocked on doors every day and visited 2,500 worksites from Labour Day through to 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: labour 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, recognise strong worker support and endorse labour’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 they were the exceptions to the long-standing rule that when it comes to speaking up for workers’ causes — like the right to unionise without employer labour-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 Democrats 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 labour law reform at the 2009 AFL-CIO convention in Pittsburgh. 

Delegates danced in the aisles. But he didn’t publicly endorse it until, during his campaign for re-election three years later, an Iowa trade unionist asked him about it.

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

There was the same pattern from Obama’s vice-president, Joe Biden. He gave an impassioned defence of trade unions and the right of emergency service workers to collectively bargain at the Fire Fighters’ Legislative Conference in Washington DC, just before entering the presidential race earlier this year. 

Of course, there were “Run, Joe, Run!” signs all over the room. Biden got the International Association of Fire Fighters’ 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 (NEA) affiliate in the nation’s third most populous state, expects a similar change from Democratic 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 Republican-run Florida government, and from the radical right. 

That specifically includes Janus, the anti-union, anti-worker National Right to Work Legal Defence Fund-engineered decision from the Supreme Court’s five-man Republican-named majority a year ago.

Janus makes all 6.2 million state and local public workers nationwide, including each public-school teacher and all firefighters, 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, trade 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?” Senator Elizabeth Warren, (D-Massachusetts) asked in her opening statement, which also led off the first of the two debates, on 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 or working people,” said Senator Kamala Harris (D-California). 

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 per cent and the biggest corporations in America.”

“My life and my career and my work in the Senate has been about economic opportunity,” said Senator Amy Klobuchar (DFL-Minnesota). 

“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.”

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, (D-New York), reminded the crowd, her colleagues, and the TV audience that neither the economy, nor healthcare, 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 Governor Jay Inslee uttered it, twice, in the context of labour’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 realise 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 Representative Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) said “union” in the context of opposing single-payer healthcare. 

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 Senators Harris and Cory Booker (New Jersey), would abolish the health insurers, their high premiums, co-pays, deductibles and denial of care.

Former Representative John Delaney, D-Maryland), 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 Republican 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.

“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.”

“Labour” was cited twice. Once by Sanders, in naming the labour 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 labour 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 “labour” was by Booker. He said corporate consolidation strips labour 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, Indiana, 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” got zero mentions.

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 US a $1,000 monthly check to help pull people out of poverty.

While Yang said the checks would benefit 94 per cent of the US, he did not explain 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.

This article appeared at


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