Will 2020 Be the Year Presidential Candidates Actually Take Labor Issues Seriously?

David Goodner

2020 candidates back sweeping labor reform, but will they talk about it on the stump? (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Call it a sin of omis­sion, but the his­toric decline of labor union pow­er was on full dis­play dur­ing recent CNN town hall meet­ings with 2020 Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial aspi­rants Sens. Bernie Sanders, Kamala Har­ris and Amy Klobuchar.

All three nation­al­ly tele­vised forums fea­tured ques­tions on a range of issues from stu­dents, non­prof­it direc­tors, com­mu­ni­ty lead­ers and oth­er tra­di­tion­al Demo­c­ra­t­ic con­stituen­cies (includ­ing undis­closed lob­by­ing firms), but not a sin­gle ques­tion was asked about nation­al labor law.

It’s not just CNN, either. By and large, the announced 2020 pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates have not spo­ken at length on the stump about their agen­da for labor, at least not yet, instead stick­ing to broad­er themes such as eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty and poli­cies like rais­ing the min­i­mum wage, Medicare-for-All, free col­lege tuition and uni­ver­sal child care.

The can­di­dates are mak­ing a dis­tinc­tion between labor pol­i­cy and labor issues,” David Yepsen, the host of Iowa Press and a lead­ing expert on pres­i­den­tial pol­i­tics, told In These Times. It’s polit­i­cal­ly safer to talk about health care, expand­ed Medicare, and a high­er min­i­mum wage than it is to talk about things like card check.”

Most vot­ers don’t under­stand the lat­ter, even though you’ve got to do things like the lat­ter to get the for­mer,” Yepsen added. If you don’t find ways to strength­en the labor move­ment, there isn’t going to be the polit­i­cal sup­port to do the things need­ed to rebuild the work­ing class.”

The fail­ure of the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion and a fil­i­buster-proof Demo­c­ra­t­ic con­gress to pass the 2009 Employ­ee Free Choice Act is a good exam­ple. The leg­is­la­tion would have made it eas­i­er for work­ers to form a union with a sim­ple 50 per­cent major­i­ty. But there was lit­tle polit­i­cal will by the Demo­c­ra­t­ic lead­er­ship at the time to get it done giv­en oth­er pri­or­i­ties such as an eco­nom­ic stim­u­lus, Oba­macare, rein­ing in Wall Street and with­draw­ing troops from Iraq.

The issue agen­da of the Oba­ma White House was per­haps jus­ti­fi­able at the time, but it also came with a steep oppor­tu­ni­ty cost. The Democ­rats’ fail­ure to strength­en union bar­gain­ing and con­sol­i­date a work­ing-class base of polit­i­cal sup­port when they had the chance helped lead to an even­tu­al Repub­li­can takeover of gov­ern­ment between 2010 and 2016, paving the way for future attacks on labor by right-wing gov­er­nors and the Supreme Court.

Has the new crop of 2020 pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates learned this les­son? All of the declared can­di­dates who are con­sid­ered front run­ners have strong ties to orga­nized labor.

With the notable excep­tion of Klobuchar, near­ly all of the sen­a­tors run­ning for pres­i­dent— Gilli­brand, Har­ris, War­ren and Book­er — co-spon­sored Sanders’ 2018 Work­place Democ­ra­cy Act, which would over­haul exist­ing labor law and make it eas­i­er for work­ers to form and fund their own unions.

The Work­place Democ­ra­cy Act is Sen. Sanders’ key labor union leg­is­la­tion,” a spokesper­son for Sanders told In These Times.

Accord­ing to Sanders’ con­gres­sion­al office, the Work­place Democ­ra­cy Act would enable unions to orga­nize through a major­i­ty sign up process; enact first con­tract’ pro­vi­sions to ensure com­pa­nies can­not pre­vent a union from form­ing by deny­ing a first con­tract; elim­i­nate right to work” laws; end inde­pen­dent con­trac­tor and fran­chisee abuse; legal­ize sec­ondary boy­cotts and pick­et­ing; and expand the per­suad­er rule’ to weak­en union-bust­ing efforts.

As Sanders explained when intro­duc­ing the lat­est iter­a­tion of the bill last year, Cor­po­rate Amer­i­ca under­stands that when work­ers become orga­nized, when work­ers are able to engage in col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing, they end up with far bet­ter wages and ben­e­fits… and that is why, for decades now, there has been a con­cen­trat­ed well-orga­nized attack on the abil­i­ty of work­ers to organize.”

Sanders, Har­ris and War­ren have all also tak­en sym­bol­ic actions since announc­ing their pres­i­den­tial runs in order to high­light their close rela­tion­ship with unions and the work­ing class.

War­ren, for exam­ple, for­mal­ly announced her can­di­da­cy for pres­i­dent in Lawrence, Mass­a­chu­setts, the site of the 1912 strike by tex­tile work­ers known as the Bread and Ros­es Strike.”

Sup­port­ing labor and mak­ing it eas­i­er for Amer­i­can work­ers to join a union is absolute­ly a pri­or­i­ty for Sen. War­ren,” Jason Noble, Warren’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions direc­tor, told In These Times. She is a co-spon­sor of the 2018 Work­place Democ­ra­cy Act, intro­duced a bill in 2017 to ban right to work” laws, and has been very vocal about the need for stronger labor orga­ni­za­tion and wider access to unions.”

Warren’s Account­able Cap­i­tal­ism Act would also allow work­ers at cor­po­ra­tions with more than $1 bil­lion in rev­enue to choose up to 40 per­cent of the company’s board of direc­tors, shift­ing the bal­ance of pow­er toward the rank-and-file.

Cal­i­for­nia is one of the last remain­ing union strong­holds in the coun­try, and Har­ris has hired the for­mer pres­i­dent of the state’s largest and most diverse labor union, SEIU’s Laphon­za But­ler, to be her senior cam­paign advi­sor.

Sen. Har­ris is a strong and pas­sion­ate sup­port­er of orga­nized labor and work­ers’ rights,” the Har­ris campaign’s nation­al press sec­re­tary, Ian Sams, told In These Times.

She’s spon­sored mul­ti­ple bills in the Sen­ate, includ­ing Work­ers’ Free­dom to Nego­ti­ate Act, WAGE Act, Pub­lic Ser­vice Free­dom to Nego­ti­ate Act, Work­place Democ­ra­cy Act, and Pro­tect­ing Work­ers and Improv­ing Labor Stan­dards Act.”

In Feb­ru­ary, Sanders pub­licly jumped in on the side of strik­ing work­ers in Erie, Penn­syl­va­nia after announc­ing his own 2020 can­di­da­cy. Since 2016, he has also joined work­ers in fights against Ama­zon and McDon­alds, help­ing them to win major wage increases.

Many blue-col­lar work­ers sup­port­ed Trump in the last elec­tion,” Yepsen, the Iowa-based nation­al polit­i­cal ana­lyst, said. Both pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates and labor lead­ers have to fig­ure out ways and mes­sages to move them back onto the pro­gres­sive side if they hope to get 270 elec­toral votes for a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date. The phras­es labor pol­i­cy,’ labor move­ment’ and orga­nized labor’ aren’t well under­stood by vot­ers. Health care’ min­i­mum wage’ and improved edu­ca­tion’ are under­stood. So give the can­di­dates some cred­it for talk­ing about impor­tant issues in a way peo­ple can understand.”

As Yepsen pre­vi­ous­ly not­ed, how­ev­er, this kind of think­ing may help win elec­tions, but it can also lead to a para­dox. Focus­ing on eas­i­ly-under­stood, bread and but­ter’ issues — talk­ing about work­ing fam­i­lies but not union pow­er — and rely­ing on con­gres­sion­al vot­ing records and score­cards instead of stump speech­es and bold new procla­ma­tions won’t build a pop­u­lar man­date for labor law reform, or the long term work­ing-class polit­i­cal pow­er that comes with it. 

Most Amer­i­cans take for grant­ed the things the labor move­ment has done for them over the decades — child labor, min­i­mum wage, a 40-hour work week, health care,” Yepsen said. A lot of work­ers have for­got­ten that too. The good news for labor is that peo­ple seem to be wak­ing up. The polls show sup­port for unions increas­ing and look at the suc­cess teach­ers have been having.”

On anoth­er mea­sure, work­er mil­i­tan­cy has been on the rise — a record num­ber of work­ers engaged in strikes or work stop­pages in 2018. This increased labor action will have to be har­nessed by vot­ers in order to push even the strongest can­di­dates into ele­vat­ing union rights as a pri­or­i­ty issue on the cam­paign trail.

Work­ers in ear­ly vot­ing states can help do so by attend­ing cam­paign events and ask­ing the can­di­dates to pub­licly explain their sup­port for the Work­place Democ­ra­cy Act — or whether or not they back a nation­al right to strike” law for pub­lic sec­tor unions.

The more explic­it pres­i­den­tial politi­cians are about labor rights on the stump, the more like­ly union pow­er will become a day one” issue if a Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­dent takes pow­er in 2020. In the long run, this may be one of the only effec­tive ways to both win pro­gres­sive social change and defend work­ers’ gains from the inevitable right-wing counterattack. 

David Good­ner is a writer, orga­niz­er and Catholic Work­er from Iowa City.
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