Ahead of 2020, Labor Is Seizing Its Moment

Photo: Alex Wroblewski/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Democrats have always needed labor votes, but they haven’t always worked very hard to get them. That’s beginning to change. Almost three years of Trump and a competitive primary race have pushed candidates to reconsider, at least partially, the party’s status quo. Not only are candidates discussing labor more on the stump, they’re proposing policies like sectoral bargaining, which have not historically been a feature of Democratic primary platforms. And labor is seizing its moment. In a Wednesday morning speech in Milwaukee, the president of the Service Employees International Union outlined sweeping expectations for candidates who want the union’s endorsement. Mary Kay Henry praised Democrats for releasing policy plans to raise taxes on corporations and the rich, but made it clear that those plans are an inadequate substitute for releasing detailed, union-specific proposals. “The wealthy will find a way to protect their wealth, often at any cost. That’s why we need to put working people in charge. Because when workers organize, we can make bigger change, and we can make it stick,” Henry told assembled workers.

She then called for remedies that would increase union power and raise the nation’s rates of union membership. SEIU, she said, expects candidate proposals to meet four basic standards. They should prioritize union membership as a way to reduce economic inequality, and call for sectoral bargaining, where workers employed by different companies in the same industry could bargain collectively for a universal contract. They should also urge states to treat federal labor law as a floor, and not a ceiling, for labor rights, and ensure that federal workers and contractors make at least $15 an hour and have a chance to form a union if they choose.  “If candidates can’t commit to these four things, they can’t count on our support,” she said, “and let’s face it, these candidates need our support.”

Henry’s remarks set a clear benchmark for candidates seeking the powerful union’s support, and reinforce a conclusion that should now be obvious to everyone. Unions aren’t demoralized after two years of Trump; they’re mobilized, and ready to press for rights that will make them less vulnerable to conservative attacks in the future. Candidates, meanwhile, appear acutely aware that union support will be critical to the success of any race against Donald Trump.

But that doesn’t mean they all agree on how to win union votes, or that they’d all be equally willing to commit to Henry’s four basic demands. In her speech, Henry roundly criticized not just corporate CEOs but some Democrats for propping up a broken economic system because “it’s working for them.” “It’s working for those Democrats who rely on wealthy donors to get elected,” she said. “It’s working for those Democrats who can’t relate to the daily struggle of working people. It’s working for those Democrats who refuse to understand the reach of racism.”

Henry didn’t single any candidates out by name. But it’s clear that some are closer to corporate interests than others, in ways that could be detrimental to union priorities. Joe Biden earned the early support of the International Association of Fire Fighters, but he has yet to release a detailed labor plan. And not long after his campaign launch, he crossed a protest by Kaiser Permanente workers in favor of attending a fundraising dinner inside the home of Cynthia Telles, whom ABC News identified as “a member of the Kaiser Foundation Hospitals and Kaiser Foundation Health Plan boards of directors.” That decision may come back to haunt Biden. Two unions of Kaiser Permanente workers — mental health clinicians, who were protesting outside Telles’s home, and the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions, who were not — are engaged in fractious contract disputes with the corporation. The Los Angeles Times recently reported that while the mental health workers have tabled the possibility of a strike for the time being, the CKPU has not, which means that 85,000 Kaiser Permanente workers could strike in the near future. If they do, Biden may face some uncomfortable questions about the strength of his commitment to labor.

Henry’s speech also leaves plenty of room for candidates to disagree on issues of urgent importance to the labor movement. Candidates, perhaps with the exception of Biden, all agree that the system is broken, but deep ideological fissures still separate them, even on labor policy. On Wednesday and Thursday, Senator Bernie Sanders and former Representative Beto O’Rourke became the latest candidates to release proposals. Both share certain qualities in common: Sanders and O’Rourke both call for sectoral bargaining, and express support for policies that would end right-to-work laws. But there are notable differences, too. A provision of the Sanders plan specifies that during a transition to Medicare for All, companies with unionized workers would have to renegotiate contracts. “Under this plan, all company savings that result from reduced health care contributions from Medicare for All will accrue equitably to workers in the form of increased wages or other benefits,” it continues.

O’Rourke does not support Medicare for All, not really; he has said that he prefers an incremental approach, which includes a public option to buy into Medicare. As a result, his labor plan doesn’t mention Medicare for All. That could hurt him with some unions; the American Federation of Teachers, the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, the American Federation of Government Employees, and National Nurses United have all expressed support for a version of Medicare for All that takes private health insurance off bargaining tables. Other unions, including the SEIU, aren’t so convinced, according to a recent report in Politico. Henry set a benchmark, but it doesn’t necessarily simplify the process of winning the labor vote in 2020.

A Major Labor Leader Calls for ‘Unions for All’