Trump Is Waging a War On Labor Unions, But You Wouldn’t Know It from CNN’s Dem Debate

Michael Arria

Democratic presidential candidates on stage during the Democratic Presidential Debate at Otterbein University on October 15, 2019 in Westerville, Ohio. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Last night, CNN and the New York Times co-host­ed a Demo­c­ra­t­ic debate in West­er­ville, Ohio — and even by the stan­dards of the main­stream media, the omis­sions were glar­ing. There were no ques­tions about police vio­lence, afford­able hous­ing, Israel, or the cli­mate cri­sis. How­ev­er, there was a soft­ball ques­tion about friend­ship inspired by the bond between Ellen DeGeneres and George W. Bush.

Key labor bat­tles were notably miss­ing from the dis­cus­sion. While a few of the can­di­dates men­tioned unions, the mod­er­a­tors didn’t mean­ing­ful­ly press any of them about the many work stop­pages cur­rent­ly tak­ing place through­out the coun­try, except for a ques­tion about the Gen­er­al Motors (GM) strike, which most­ly focused on the death of the auto indus­try and how we might be jobs back. The mod­er­a­tors failed to inquire about plans to strength­en work­er pow­er, or ask any ques­tions about labor law, giv­ing the impres­sion that unions — and the entire work­ing class — are tan­gen­tial to the 2020 pres­i­den­tial race.

Sur­pris­ing­ly, there actu­al­ly was one ques­tion about the GM Strike, which has left 50,000 work­ers with­out a pay­check for over a month, with the mem­ber­ship poised to vote on a ten­ta­tive con­tract, accord­ing to break­ing news this morn­ing. But the ques­tion was framed in the con­text of a belea­guered indus­try that could poten­tial­ly be saved via eco­nom­ic nation­al­ism. The can­di­dates were sim­ply asked about the declin­ing pow­er of U.S. car com­pa­nies and whether or not they had a plan to bring back jobs from Mex­i­co. There was no men­tion of the fact that the cur­rent strike is direct­ly con­nect­ed to the restruc­tur­ing of the com­pa­ny and the con­ces­sions that were forced upon work­ers by the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion as part of the 2009 bailout, despite the fact that a lead­ing Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­date was Obama’s vice president.

That ques­tion was field­ed by Sen­a­tor Cory Book­er and for­mer Con­gress­man Beto O’Rourke, who both ref­er­enced the impor­tance of unions. Book­er even said that he’d estab­lish sec­toral bar­gain­ing rights for work­ers. That promise might have come as a sur­prise to the Newark Teach­ers Union, whose pres­i­dent once declared that the goal of Booker’s state edu­ca­tion plan was to defang pub­lic teach­ers unions.”

No oth­er cur­rent strike or work­er bat­tle was asked about or ref­er­enced in any of the CNN ques­tions. Noth­ing about the 20,000 Chica­go teach­ers who just vot­ed to autho­rize a strike, and noth­ing about the 2,000 strik­ing min­ers in Ari­zona or the san­i­ta­tion work­ers in Mass­a­chu­setts who have been on the pick­et line for a month. There was noth­ing about the many news­rooms that con­tin­ue to orga­nize, social work­ers fight­ing for a new con­tract in Cal­i­for­nia, Har­vard stu­dent work­ers cast­ing bal­lots in a strike autho­riza­tion vote, or the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Musi­cians agi­tat­ing to receive resid­u­als from stream­ing programs.

There was also noth­ing asked about the Trump administration’s war on labor unions. Noth­ing about Trump’s NLRB push­ing a cor­po­rate agen­da for the last two years, its roll­back of Oba­ma-era employ­ee pro­tec­tions, its new anti-work­er Sec­re­tary of Labor, its inad­e­quate new over­time rules, or its dan­ger­ous deci­sion to speed up the pro­duc­tion lines of slaugh­ter­hous­es. There was noth­ing about the state of unions in the wake of Janus Supreme Court deci­sion, and noth­ing about how to strength­en them despite cur­rent legal restrictions.

There were ref­er­ences to the mid­dle class,” a term that has always pos­sessed a neb­u­lous def­i­n­i­tion and been used to flat­ten class divi­sions and erode work­ing-class sol­i­dar­i­ty. The only ref­er­ence to the work­ing class” was made by Sen­a­tor Bernie Sanders. 

After War­ren spoke elo­quent­ly about break­ing up tech com­pa­nies, she faced a cen­trist onslaught of onstage oppo­si­tion. O’Rourke even com­pared the plan to the poli­cies of Don­ald Trump. We will be unafraid to break up big busi­ness­es if we have to do that — but I don’t think it is the role of a pres­i­dent or a can­di­date for the pres­i­den­cy to specif­i­cal­ly call out which com­pa­nies will be bro­ken up,” he said. That’s some­thing that Don­ald Trump has done in part because he sees ene­mies in the press and wants to dimin­ish their pow­er. It’s not some­thing that we should do.”

Near­ly every ques­tion posed to the can­di­dates not named Sanders or War­ren seemed to be punc­tu­at­ed with an explic­it instruc­tion: Tell us why the poli­cies being pushed by a Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ist and a New Deal Lib­er­al can’t work and why they can’t beat Trump.

How­ev­er, while the fix might have been in for cen­trism, it still failed to win the evening. War­ren was attacked as if she were the fron­trun­ner and Joe Biden did noth­ing to sug­gest the oth­er can­di­dates had picked the wrong tar­get. Despite his recent heart attack and polls that sug­gest he’s under­per­form­ing his 2016 show­ing, Sanders was strong and con­cise. While some pun­dits admit­ted that the debate might have been his, it was announced Tues­day night that Rep. Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez (D‑N.Y.) is endors­ing the Sen­a­tor. Short­ly after that bomb­shell, sources revealed that Rep. Rashi­da Tlaib (D‑Mich.) and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D‑Minn.) would also endorse. Bernie has now locked up 75% of The Squad.

Main­stream elec­tion cov­er­age may large­ly omit the sub­ject of labor orga­niz­ing, but its impor­tance can cur­rent­ly be felt in the labor bat­tles being waged through­out the coun­try. It’s a key com­po­nent of defeat­ing Trump­ism, via the bal­lot box and beyond. The work­er pro­tec­tions that have been erod­ed must be rein­sti­tut­ed. The labor pow­er that’s been dimin­ished must be built back up. The Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­date must be pushed hard on these issues, who­ev­er it ends up being.

Michael Arria is the U.S. cor­re­spon­dent for Mon­doweiss. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @michaelarria.
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