LAS VEGAS — Ardently liberal, pro-labor and anti-corporate cash, the field of Democrats running for president may look like a union activist's dream. But some key labor leaders are starting to worry about the topics dominating the 2020 conversation.
The candidates are spending too much time talking about esoteric issues like the Senate filibuster and the composition of the Supreme Court and not enough time speaking the language of workers, several union officials said. Those ideas may excite progressive activists, they said, but they risk alienating working-class voters.
“They've got to pay attention to kitchen table economics,” said Ted Pappageorge, president of the Las Vegas Culinary Union that represents 60,000 hotel and casino workers. “We don't quite see that.”
Terry McGowan, president of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139, in Wisconsin, said many of the issues driving the 2020 primary so far are distractions.
“The people that are into politics, the people who like sideshows, they're into that,” he said, citing the debates over reparations for slavery and immigration as examples. “The masses just want to feed their families.”
The unease may be an early warning sign for Democrats, who watched as many white, working-class voters, including many union members in key Rust Belt states, chose Trump three years ago. Democrats are hoping to win back some of those voters next year, a challenge that is made harder, some argue, by labor's struggle to build its membership and influence its rank and file. Democrats’ early messages may not help, some said.
“You see where some of the party's being driven. It's no secret,” said Rusty McAllister, executive secretary of the Nevada AFL-CIO.
McAllister pointed to "Medicare for all" — the health care proposal of choice for several candidates — as an example of Democrats' not seizing on labor's top priorities. Many unions already organized and fought for private health insurance for their members. "That's not something that I think that labor is as much focused on as some of the progressives are," McAllister said.
Such concerns — which stretched from the progressive-minded organizing halls of Nevada to the Rust Belt precincts — were typically focused on the conversation, not the candidates. The early 2020 primary has included detours into debates over the Senate filibuster, the composition of the Supreme Court and breaking up technology companies.
Ken Broadbent, business manager of the Pittsburgh-based Steamfitters Local 449, worried that Democrats are too focused on environmental plans like the Green New Deal, a blueprint for shifting the U.S. economy away from fossil fuels, and will neglect the importance of swing state Pennsylvania's rich natural gas deposits in creating jobs.
“Jobs is where we've got to keep things focused,” Broadbent said.
To be sure, many unionists are excited about the presidential field. Contenders include liberal stalwarts like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose campaign became the first in U.S. history with a unionized workforce, and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who joined striking Stop & Shop workers on a picket line in New Hampshire on Friday. California Sen. Kamala Harris hired a top Service Employees International Union executive for her campaign and made her first proposal one to raise teacher's pay.
Former Vice President Joe Biden made clear that he plans to appeal to union workers, if he gets in the race. “You are coming back,” he told the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers last week. “We need you back.”
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said the competition in the crowded field has amplified workers voices and issues.
She noted that prominent presidential candidates quickly supported Los Angeles public school teachers when they struck in January. Warren, Sanders, Harris and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker have all proposed various taxes on higher-earning families, a departure from most past Democratic hopefuls who have treaded carefully on the issue.
“It feels different than at other times,” Weingarten said. “There is far more attention and focus on working people's economic needs.”
Major endorsements are likely several months away, especially because the labor movement is treading carefully after complaints that its leadership was too quick to back Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primary over Sanders.
For labor, much is at stake. Despite Republican gains, particularly with trade union members, labor remains an essential part of the Democrats’ coalition. Unions spent $169 million in 2018 on federal elections, largely on Democrats’ behalf, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Democrats won union workers by a strong 59%-39% margin in 2018, according to AP VoteCast, a national survey of the electorate.
But other big donors and — small, online ones, too — increasingly compete with labor's organizing muscle as key to Democratic victories. Activists on a broad array of issues, from gay rights to criminal justice, compete with unions for candidates’ attention. And the labor movement itself is split on its priorities, with some pushing for a focus on trade while other who represent more diverse workforces want to zoom in on immigration.
All this comes as Republicans have pushed several state laws weakening organized labor. And, last year, the Supreme Court ruled that government workers can't be forced to contribute to the unions that represent them in collective bargaining, dealing a blow to public service union's pocketbooks.
As candidates court unions for endorsements, labor leaders say they are listening for a comeback plan.
Any proposal aimed at workers “must include ensuring the opportunity to join a union, no matter where you work, since that's the best way to raise wages, improve working conditions, create family-sustaining jobs and begin to fix our rigged economy and democracy,” said SEIU president Mary Kay Henry.
At a National Association of Building Trades Unions in Washington on Wednesday, several Democratic contenders talked about outlawing so-called “right to work” laws that prevent unions from automatically deducting dues from members, said the group's president, Sean McGarvey. But, he added, he heard “very little about the actual structural changes to the National Labor Relations Act, or things they could put in place to give people a real free choice to join a union.”
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