elizabeth warren

The Labor Movement’s Resurgence in Democratic Politics

Sometimes, solidarity means donuts. Photo: Scott Eisen/Getty Images

Intelligencer staffers Benjamin Hart, Sarah Jones, and Ed Kilgore discuss how the Democratic Party’s leftward drift fits in with a newly confident labor movement, and which candidate might get the nod from influential unions.

Ben: Today, Elizabeth Warren joined striking Stop & Shop workers in Massachusetts, who are taking part in the second-largest private-sector walkout since 2016. Senators Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Bernie Sanders have also signaled their support for the workers. What does the enthusiasm from top Democrats about the strike, and others like it, say about the party’s relationship to unions right now?

Sarah: Labor’s always been an important partner for the Democratic Party, but the dynamics of that relationship have changed over the last 12 months. We seem to be in a strike wave, but that’s not the only way labor has demonstrated its resilience lately. Though the Supreme Court’s ruling in Janus v. AFSCME was a blow for labor, right-to-work groups didn’t really get the result they’d hoped for, either. There was no exodus of fee-payers; public-sector unions are adding members. Unions themselves remain relatively popular with voters, too. All of this is to say: Top Democrats have typically been supportive of unions, at least on paper, for a long time. But labor’s in a position now to make them prove exactly how serious they are about that support, and I think that’s why we’re seeing what looks like a surge of enthusiasm from this year’s crop of candidates.

Ed: Well, there’s a supply as well as a demand side to this phenomenon: all these candidates pursuing a fixed quantity of labor resources and endorsements.

Sarah: That’s also true. Unions can afford to be picky because they have a lot of options at the moment.

Ed: Unions are in a position to carefully vet candidates instead of succumbing to the pressure to side with some front-runner like many did in 2016. And to leverage candidates to get cozier — and even to supply doughnuts!

Ben: Labor had slipped in power fairly dramatically over the decades, since the days when it was a truly crucial element of securing the Democratic nomination. Now, as you’ve said, we’re seeing renewed attention to labor issues as the party veers left. But is that renewed attention simply a result of the party’s leftward drift, or is it because labor has actually gotten more powerful too?

Ed: I’d say labor is in the process of rebounding, both in membership and — more importantly — in economic and political relevance.

Sarah: I’m not sure it’s totally possible to pry the two trends apart. They both exist in large part because they are responses to dramatic inequality. The simplest explanation for the labor movement’s relative popularity with voters is that people generally understand why they need unions. Members have told me that their fellow workers didn’t need a lot of convincing to stay in their unions after Janus.

Ed: By the time Nikki Haley finally runs for president, the fact that she used to proudly say South Carolina didn’t need or want “union jobs” could be an actual problem for her. Which would really just return things to where they were maybe 20 years ago, when even Republicans showed a bit of respect for unions, particularly in the private sector.

Sarah: And that’s tied, I think, to the sorts of economic pressures that lead the public to at least be tolerant of a policy proposal like Medicare for All. I don’t want to oversimplify the polling on the matter, since support does vary depending on how the question is worded, but I do think it’s fair to say that voters seems consistently friendly to the notion of more government involvement in health care. And why is that? I would guess that it’s because insulin, for example, is becoming too expensive for many people to afford. People do realize the economy isn’t working for them. Unions promise workers a way to better their conditions.

Ben: You wrote that unions may take a while, perhaps a long while, to endorse a Democratic candidate. Will most of them presumably endorse the same person? And is there one candidate that seems to have an inside track? (Or anyone who definitely won’t get the nod?)

Ed: I don’t think John Hickenlooper is going to get any endorsements, unless there’s a brewery union. Seriously, I don’t think labor will move all at once unless the primaries become very polarized ideologically, which is unlikely. And some unions may decide not to play in the primaries at all.

Sarah: I think they’ll wait until someone resembling a consensus candidate emerges, which means that many will probably end up endorsing the same person. As for who it might be: There are some Democratic candidates who have work to do if they’re going to prove themselves as allies to labor. Cory Booker, for example, has a very poor relationship with teachers unions. Firefighters, meanwhile, have pretty much promised to endorse Joe Biden if or when he enters the race. I’d say the other front-runners to be the labor candidate are Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Kamala Harris, who’s really working hard to position herself as a pro-teacher candidate.

Ed: I wouldn’t even begin to know what kind of relationship Pete Buttigieg, who’s in something of a polling surge right now and who is auditioning to become the candidate of Rust Belt working people, has with labor. Same with Beto. You’d have to figure the three candidates Sarah mentioned have a big advantage just based on how many labor connections they already have.
But speaking of connections: Does the heartburn so many lefty folk have with Biden extend that deeply into the labor movement?

Sarah: Not necessarily.

Ed: He’s been in an awful lot of Labor Day parades and rallies over the years.

Sarah: Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers, did not think the recent allegations against him were a deal-breaker.

Ed: That’s especially interesting insofar as AFT is a union whose membership skews pretty heavily female.

Sarah: There might be an interesting gender divide within the labor movement this year. National Nurses United are big Bernie backers. The Sanders campaign also said that teachers and nurses were “among the top backers for the first quarter.” And I’ll be interested to see who AFA-CWA, one of the two major flight-attendant unions, endorses.

Ben: Do unions think Trump can hang on to the dangerously high percentage of their members he won in 2016?

Sarah: I think he probably retains some support. But he’s failed to deliver on promises he made to revitalize coal and manufacturing, and that could hurt him.

Ed: I’m not sure what unions think, but I’m quite sure they view Trump’s inroads into their membership as a deadly threat, much like similar inroads by Nixon and Reagan earlier. So like every other Democratic-aligned constituency, they may have been overconfident in 2016, but they won’t make that mistake in 2020.

The Labor Movement’s Resurgence in Democratic Politics