The unions need to step in to save the progressive agenda
It’s hard to overstate the relationship between unions and the Democratic party. Having worked in the trenches of Democratic politics, I can assure you that the question at most labor unions is not whether to support the Democratic candidate, but which Democratic candidate to support and how much to give. This relationship between Democratic office-holders and labor unions exists almost from the first time the politician decides to run for office. As a result, there are few groups who are harder to say no to for a Democratic politician than labor unions.
Consider that few politicians start their careers in the U.S. Senate. Joe Manchin (D-WV), for example, is now 73 years old. He first won elected office at the age of 35, when he won a seat in the West Virginia House of Delegates — the lower house of the West Virginia legislature. I can assure you that in that race, and in every race since then, the unions have supported him financially and with workers at the grassroots. Many of those volunteers going door-to-door and making phone calls would have been members of the local labor unions. And in the era prior to internet fundraising, organized labor was one of the few sources of big financial support Democratic politicians could access to finance their campaigns.
Prior to his election to the U.S. Senate, Manchin would run repeatedly for office, winning elections for the State Senate, Secretary of State, and ultimately Governor. At every step, organized labor would likely have been his biggest, most consistent supporter.
Then there’s Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ). As a youthful social worker and lawyer, Sinema was a political independent and member of the Green party. As such, she ran for the Arizona legislature in 2002, coming in last place. The next time she ran, in 2004, she switched parties to become a Democrat, and with the support of the local labor unions, she was elected to the House. Sinema would win office again and again, first in the Arizona House of Representatives, then the State Senate, then Congress, and finally the Senate in 2018. Every step along the way, Sinema benefited from strong, active support from organized labor.
How can I be so sure of this unwavering support shown these two politicians by the unions? Because I worked in Democratic politics. I remember back in the days prior to the internet how hard it was for Democrats to raise money — Joe Manchin certainly does too. We would hold picnics and bake sales and beg friends and relatives for contributions. You can imagine how long it took to raise money for television ads in that way. But the labor unions… they would come through with the big money. We could always count on them.
And while most people pay attention to the big political campaigns every four years, for President or maybe Governor, there are thousands of races for lower office each year — what we call down-ballot campaigns. People may love to volunteer to support the Democratic presidential campaign, but how many people work to support the county drain commissioner? Or the local state representative? Or even the local member of Congress? But in those races, we could always go to the labor union for the foot soldiers to run our campaign.
And every U.S. Senator was at one time running for Congress, state representative, or even drain commissioner.
I remember one of the first campaigns for Congress I worked on. The Firefighters’ union was a big supporter, and in every town across this rural New England district, we could find local firefighters willing to put up signs, give staffers a place to stay, and go door-to-door spreading our message. That candidate was elected to Congress, and even though he was a political neophyte, whenever the firefighters showed up at our office, we rolled out the red carpet.
As Ronald Reagan would say, “you gotta dance with the one that brung you.” For every Democratic politician, and I mean every one, organized labor is the one that brung them.
The irony is that for all its support, organized labor has received very little in return from the Democratic party. The last time important pro-union legislation was passed was in 1947 when Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act. Since then, Republicans at the state and federal level, both in Congress and in the Supreme Court, have relentlessly attacked labor. Now, it is not a stretch to say, as one of my former professors did, that labor unions are all but illegal in the United States.
The impact of this concerted onslaught has been fundamental. In 1979, 27 percent of American workers belonged to organized labor. Now, that figure hovers around 10 percent, with only 6.7 percent of the private sector workforce belonging to unions. This decline has tracked almost precisely the rise in income inequality in America. In other words, if we want less income inequality, we need to support unions.
It’s not by accident that Republicans have targeted unions. The impact of union decline on Democratic politics has been fundamental. A 2019 study by James Feigenbaum, an economist at Boston University, Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, a political scientist at Columbia, and Vanessa Williamson, a senior fellow at Brookings, compared adjoining counties in states with and without anti-union laws. The result in the states with the anti-unions laws? “County-level Democratic vote shares in Presidential elections fall by 3.5 percentage points relative to bordering counties,” according to the study.
In the period between 2008 and 2009, when Obama’s landslide delivered supermajorities in Congress to the Democrats, organized labor worked hard in support of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), otherwise known as Obamacare. They helped win that battle, but despite Democratic dominance in Washington, no legislation passed to protect unions from the Republican onslaught.
Currently, a bill that would protect unions is pending. That legislation, called the PRO Act, passed the House, and is now awaiting Senate action. If the Senate would vote on the bill, it would pass, as would legislation protecting voting rights and granting DC statehood. The problem is the filibuster.
This procedural technique was once rarely used. As Senate minority leader, however, Mitch McConnell has raised its use to an art. The upshot of this procedure is that you need a supermajority to pass almost anything in the Senate — 60 votes — and Republicans are uniformly opposed to this pro-labor legislation.
You might think that’s the end of the story, but it isn’t. The filibuster rule exists only because a majority of Senators voted for it. Just as a majority put it in place, a majority can eliminate it, and Democrats currently have the majority.
Manchin and Sinema, who fashion themselves as moderates, have expressed general opposition to eliminating the filibuster rule, a proposal some call the “nuclear option.” They claim that the filibuster rule forces moderation and accommodation, goals they view as laudable. In fact, however, it simply creates a situation in which McConnell and the Republicans can block anything Biden and the Democrats want to do. So unless Manchin and Sinema relent in their opposition to this change, most of Biden’s agenda will be a non-starter.
This is where labor comes in. Now is the time for them to call in their favors. Sinema and Manchin likely owe organized labor their careers, as is shown by Sinema’s election to the Arizona State House after she became a Democrat. The only chance this legislation, as well as other critical priorities, have in Congress is if the unions pressure the two such that they change their position. Labor, and democracy, by the way, face an existential crisis. If ever there were a time for unions to call on the people they have supported in the past, that time is now.