It’s Time for the Democrats to Deliver for Workers. Fighting for the PRO Act Is the First Step.

With Joe Biden winning the presidency, the Democratic Party needs to come through for working people by passing legislation to dramatically expand labor rights across the United States.

Jim Williams

(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The last four years have rep­re­sent­ed a piv­otal moment for orga­nized labor. My union, the Inter­na­tion­al Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT), along with many oth­ers in the labor move­ment, saw sig­nif­i­cant num­bers of our mem­ber­ship vote for Repub­li­can Don­ald Trump, not just in 2016, but again in 2020. While Biden won a slim major­i­ty of our mem­ber­ship and out­per­formed Hillary Clin­ton, it’s clear Democ­rats need to do much more to tru­ly win union support.

This elec­tion cycle we went back to basics — edu­cat­ing our mem­bers around core IUPAT issues that could ben­e­fit our union like labor law reform, the ben­e­fits of robust infra­struc­ture fund­ing and immi­gra­tion reform. While it made a dif­fer­ence, a few months of tar­get­ed polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion can­not coun­ter­act the decades of attacks on unions, dein­dus­tri­al­iza­tion, dev­as­tat­ing trade deals, false promis­es from politi­cians, and struc­tur­al forces that have placed many unions into the posi­tion they’re in today. These com­bined forces have led us to hav­ing record-low union den­si­ty nation­wide, despite the pop­u­lar­i­ty of unions stand­ing at its high­est lev­el in over 20 years. 

Now that Trump has lost (though with Repub­li­cans like­ly retain­ing con­trol of the Sen­ate and cer­tain right-wing con­trol of the Supreme Court), the IUPAT intends to make it clear that we need the like­ly incom­ing Biden admin­is­tra­tion to take the needs of work­ing peo­ple seri­ous­ly. We can’t accept that, per New York Times exit polling, 40 per­cent of union house­holds vot­ed for Trump instead of Biden. 

When our union endorsed Biden in June, our efforts rep­re­sent­ed an endorse­ment of our val­ues as work­ing peo­ple, and we spent sig­nif­i­cant amounts of time and effort ensur­ing that any can­di­date we endorsed knew that. When he spoke to our mem­bers just last week, he men­tioned the Pro­tect­ing the Right to Orga­nize (PRO) Act as one of his pri­or­i­ties, and we plan to work togeth­er to ensure the pas­sage of it. The PRO Act, passed by the House in Feb­ru­ary, would dra­mat­i­cal­ly grow work­ers’ pow­er on the job by expand­ing union mem­ber­ship, reform­ing decades-old labor laws, weak­en­ing so-called right to work” laws and end­ing employ­er intim­i­da­tion or inter­fer­ence in union drives. 

The PRO Act offers the poten­tial to trans­form our union and the broad­er labor move­ment into a force we haven’t seen in decades. If his admin­is­tra­tion fails to deliv­er by not doing every­thing pos­si­ble to lev­el the play­ing field for orga­nized labor, it will only set the stage for the fur­ther degra­da­tion of the labor move­ment in an increas­ing­ly frac­tured and par­ti­san coun­try. It also could enable more com­pe­tent politi­cians who share Trump’s pol­i­tics to re-use his play­book in the future — for even more destruc­tive ends.

Why did Trump win over some union workers?

Trump’s appeal to union mem­bers should not have tak­en us by sur­prise. He has long appealed to many of our worst ten­den­cies and used them to dri­ve resent­ment and divi­sion among the work­ing class. These appeals are no dif­fer­ent than what boss­es have used time and again to crush orga­niz­ing dri­ves and divide work­ers. Racism and xeno­pho­bia are anath­e­ma to the val­ues of the labor move­ment, which makes them extreme­ly effec­tive tools at dilut­ing the polit­i­cal pow­er of orga­nized labor. The divide-and-con­quer mind­set that Trump embod­ies has helped pit work­ers against each oth­er in their own indus­try and across industries.

At the same time, many union mem­bers are right­ful­ly skep­ti­cal of elec­toral pol­i­tics. Many turned to Trump for that very rea­son — he promised a break from pol­i­tics as usu­al. For decades, our mem­bers have been sold false promis­es. We often are lucky just to get the sta­tus quo from elect­ed lead­ers, if not out­right roll­backs of rights we’ve long enjoyed. Our stan­dards of liv­ing have fall­en and despite promis­es from Wash­ing­ton, noth­ing has changed. Rather than believ­ing it’s pos­si­ble to grow our move­ment and pro­vide good-pay­ing union jobs to mil­lions more Amer­i­cans, many union mem­bers choose pro­tec­tion­ism and defend­ing what’s left instead.

Not sur­pris­ing­ly, it quick­ly became clear that Trump had no inten­tion of ful­fill­ing any of the promis­es he made on the cam­paign trail in 2016. We nev­er got infra­struc­ture spend­ing, we got trav­el bans. We nev­er saw wages rise, instead we saw the fur­ther enrich­ment of the boss­es and devel­op­ers. Health­care got more expen­sive in the midst of a pan­dem­ic, which he nev­er took seri­ous­ly. Con­struc­tion work­ers con­tin­ued to die while OSHA was defund­ed. Trump’s cyn­i­cal appeal to the work­ing class doesn’t mean that our lack of faith in the polit­i­cal process isn’t ground­ed in real­i­ty. The the­atrics of Trump­ism par­tial­ly spoke to a deeply root­ed pes­simism about polit­i­cal change.

What was dif­fer­ent about 2020

Despite the polar­iza­tion with­in our union and nation, we hoped that appeal­ing to our broad­er pri­or­i­ties would give us space to tack­le more dif­fi­cult issues like racism and xeno­pho­bia in order to build sol­i­dar­i­ty among work­ing peo­ple. We took what hap­pened in 2016 and what was hap­pen­ing under the aus­pices of the Trump admin­is­tra­tion and craft­ed a new approach.

Not want­i­ng to repeat the mis­takes of our past, we rolled out a com­pre­hen­sive mem­ber edu­ca­tion and mobi­liza­tion cam­paign designed to pro­mote issues impor­tant to our mem­ber­ship and to the work­ers that we’re orga­niz­ing, rather than any spe­cif­ic can­di­date. We found that many mem­bers who vot­ed for Don­ald Trump in 2016 still large­ly agreed that we need to make form­ing and join­ing a union eas­i­er, pro­vide mas­sive invest­ments into our crum­bling infra­struc­ture, and end the wide­spread use of work­er mis­clas­si­fi­ca­tion, wage theft and exploita­tion of undoc­u­ment­ed workers.

We spent the twelve months lead­ing up to the recent elec­tion talk­ing to our mem­bers and orga­niz­ing our­selves around these issues. This includ­ed phonebanks, textbanks, job­site lit drops, mem­ber vot­er reg­is­tra­tion, polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion pro­grams, mem­ber-to-mem­ber engage­ment and our first ever mem­bers-led Zoom town halls. By the time the pri­maries were over, we had already focused our union’s efforts around the core pri­or­i­ties of our membership. 

What labor expects from a Biden administration

Now that it’s like­ly Trump is on his way out and Biden is on his way in, we intend to be very clear that we expect results. We need Democ­rats in pow­er to pro­vide mate­r­i­al ben­e­fits to work­ers who’ve been beat­en down for decades. Our union’s mem­ber mobi­liza­tion cam­paign was the largest and most robust in the IUPAT’s his­to­ry. The labor move­ment bet big on a clean break from the Trump era, and now the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty needs to deliv­er. A Biden admin­is­tra­tion has the oppor­tu­ni­ty to rein­vig­o­rate the most pow­er­ful polit­i­cal force in the coun­try — the labor move­ment — and along with it, mil­lions of work­ing fam­i­lies to believe in the polit­i­cal process again as a vehi­cle for change. 

We expect that from his first day in office, Biden and his team would work to pass the PRO Act, deliv­er on a mas­sive infra­struc­ture plan, and appoint a pro-labor cab­i­net. That’s why the IUPAT is spear­head­ing a Pass The Pro Act” cam­paign with­in the labor move­ment to make sure we deliv­er for work­ing peo­ple, togeth­er. We will need all the help we can get to make this a reality.

We are account­able to our mem­bers and we need labor law reform urgent­ly. Work­ing peo­ples’ lives must get bet­ter under a Biden admin­is­tra­tion, and quick­ly, or our mem­bers’ faith in the U.S. polit­i­cal sys­tem will con­tin­ue to erode. That means that, under a Pres­i­dent Biden, it must become eas­i­er to form a union and there must be ample union jobs made avail­able for work­ing people.

We can’t afford more polit­i­cal grid­lock. Even though the courts are against us and Repub­li­cans may retain con­trol of the Sen­ate, a Biden admin­is­tra­tion must do every­thing they can to con­vince work­ers they’re on their side — what­ev­er it takes.

The stakes couldn’t be high­er. If the stan­dard of liv­ing of the work­ing class con­tin­ues to erode, mil­lions of Amer­i­can work­ers may again grav­i­tate towards their worst instincts, and look for scape­goats to blame. Racism, xeno­pho­bia and divi­sion will con­tin­ue to spread. We will con­tin­ue to be stuck in an end­less cycle of fight­ing for our very sur­vival as a move­ment, and our abil­i­ty to elect can­di­dates who fight for us will diminish.

We’ve been sold false promis­es for decades, and it must come to an end now. Joe Biden has a chance to reverse this cycle. The labor move­ment went all in for him, and this is his chance to deliver.

As a 501©3 non­prof­it pub­li­ca­tion, In These Times does not oppose or endorse can­di­dates for polit­i­cal office.

Jim Williams is the Gen­er­al Vice Pres­i­dent of the Inter­na­tion­al Union of Painters and Allied Trades. Williams began his career with the IUPAT in 1998 as a glazier with Dis­trict Coun­cil 21 in Philadel­phia, Pennsylvania.

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