How Do You Host a Debate in Detroit Without Asking About Labor Rights?

Mary Kay Henry, president of SEIU, addresses the audience before this week’s Democratic debates. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

You wouldn’t know it from watching this week’s Democratic debates, but before the cameras rolled on Tuesday, Detroit workers rallied in front of the Fox Theater. Organized by the Service Employees International Union, workers, including security guards engaged in a fight for a $15 minimum wage and a union, marched to the theater with members of the Sunrise Movement for a public demonstration. The message they conveyed was a simple one: Detroit is still a union town. Labor demanded to be heard, but who listened?

Most candidates at least tried to work unions and labor rights into their answers on different topics. Some did so quite successfully: Pete Buttigieg brought up his labor plan, which he says would double union membership and make it easier for gig workers to unionize. Tim Ryan said he’d double union membership, too. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Jay Inslee, and Amy Klobuchar all mentioned the importance of creating union jobs. Julián Castro mentioned recent layoffs at a unionized General Motors plant in a nearby suburb. Others treated labor more like a shield, useful only for deflecting charges that their policies wouldn’t do enough for workers. John Delaney invoked his dad the union electrician so many times that he sounded like he was trying to raise Beetlejuice.

CNN also hosted SEIU’s president, Mary Kay Henry, and Richard Trumka of the AFL-CIO for pre-debate events on Wednesday and Tuesday. That’s an important gesture. But the debates themselves lacked any detailed discussion of labor policy — a striking failure, considering the debate’s location and the tenor of the political moment. Strike activity is on the rise nationwide, and Democratic candidates have jostled to position themselves as allies to labor. They’ve walked picket lines with workers for McDonald’s and Stop & Shop; they’ve appeared at multiple town halls and summits hosted by the Teamsters and the American Federation of Teachers, among other unions. And when they speak, as they did on Tuesday, they bring up unions often — their importance to fair wages, and to the creation of dignified working conditions. Buttigieg, Inslee, Ryan, former vice president Joe Biden, Montana Governor Steve Bullock and New York City mayor Bill de Blasio have all released formal labor plans, with varying levels of detail. Others, like Warren and Sanders, regularly weave unionization and workers’ rights in and out of detailed proposals on trade, education, and other policy areas. Sanders has even used his email list to encourage supporters to join workers on picket lines.

But Detroit, a pivotal proving ground for the American labor movement and for the United Auto Workers in particular, would have been an ideal stage for moderators to press these would-be presidents on specific policies. SEIU has been organizing security guards in the city, and the union had planned a series of events — including Tuesday’s rally — around the debates. In a schedule released to the press, the union said that Buttigieg joined security workers for a rally on Wednesday, and on Thursday, Harris will join a security guard on the job as part of the union’s Walk a Day in My Shoes program for candidates.

SEIU is hardly the only union active in Detroit. The International Association of Machinists said on its website that Warren, Klobuchar, and Ryan also met with Detroit airline workers who are trying to join the union. Membership in the United Auto Workers has declined, and the union recently suffered a major corruption scandal. But it’s adopted a fighting stance in response to the news that General Motors will close a unionized plant in Warren, a suburb of Detroit. In 2018, Detroit’s Unite Here Local 24 participated in a nationwide strike directed at the Marriott hotel chain; Diana Hussain, the local’s communications specialist, told Crain’s Detroit that the monthlong strike was the local’s first “in over 30 years.” More recently, airline food workers represented by the local joined members of the Teamsters and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union to authorize a strike in Detroit and nine other cities. If the National Mediation Board approves the strike, workers at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport could walk out at any time. (Under federal law, the board must release airline workers to strike.) Ahead of Tuesday’s debates, the local’s president, Nia Winston, published an editorial in the Detroit Metro Times that laid out specific questions for Democratic candidates. “Will the Democrats tell the CEOs of American, Delta, and United that it’s not OK that workers who have made meals for airline passengers for over 30 years still make less than $15 an hour?” Winston asked. “What do the Democrats see as their role in resolving this labor dispute and pushing the airline industry to end the crisis of poverty wages and substandard health care once and for all?”

But moderators did not ask those questions. In fact, they didn’t ask a single candidate about the national decline in union membership. They didn’t ask candidates what they’d do to make sure low-wage and gig workers could form unions. They could have asked candidates about the Workplace Democracy Act. Introduced by Sanders and co-sponsored by Warren, Harris, Gillibrand, and Booker, the bill would repeal right-to-work laws. Or the PRO Act, which would expand bargaining rights, and which was co-sponsored by Ryan in the House and by Warren, Harris, Gillibrand, Booker, Sanders, and Michael Bennet in the Senate. When Jake Tapper did mention unions on Tuesday, it was to ask Bernie Sanders to respond to a criticism levied by Tim Ryan: that Medicare for All would deprive union members of the private plans guaranteed by their contracts. Wednesday’s debate was even worse. When unions did get a mention, it was only because a candidate decided to bring them up.

“Their broad statements of solidarity are not enough,” Henry, SEIU’s president, told New York before Tuesday’s debate got underway. Unions, she added, wanted “concrete” plans. On Twitter, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka issued a similar warning:

In her conversation with New York, Henry praised labor plans released by Inslee and Buttigieg, and described them as standards that other candidates would have to meet. But neither candidate had much of a chance to discuss their policies onstage, and on Wednesday, Henry sounded disappointed with the outcome of the debates:

In a statement provided to New York on Thursday afternoon, Sara Nelson, the president of the AFA-CWA and a likely candidate for the presidency of the AFL-CIO, pointed out that workers had gone on strike and organized new unions “at historic rates in the last few years,” and said that “most Americans want to be in a union if their boss doesn’t interfere.” “The only progress we’ve seen on tackling inequality is happening through strikes, not government policy. So workers deserve to hear the candidates’ plans to strengthen unions and give workers more power in our economy,” she said.

“It’s embarrassing that the debate moderators haven’t asked a single question – not even during two debates held in Detroit, one of the cradles of the labor movement,” she continued.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, sounded similarly critical in her own statement. In it, she said there was “great synergy between Democrats on kitchen table issues” like wages, health care, and public education. “Unfortunately,” she added, “the questions in last night’s debate were designed to highlight their differences and pit people – in fact, most questions seemed aimed at eliciting their disagreements with each other, instead of their differences with Donald Trump.”

“With the exception of health care and criminal justice, the issues that truly matter to voters – jobs, wages, retirement security, student debt and public education – weren’t front and center in the questions. It’s a testament to the candidates that they were able to work in some points about those issues.”

There are eight more Democratic debates in our interminable election season, and moderators will have other opportunities to question candidates about their commitment to unions. Henry and other labor organizers may yet get their wish for a round of serious questioning about labor rights. But Detroit’s debates stand out as a major missed opportunity, and the fault lies almost entirely with CNN.

This post has been updated to include statements from Sara Nelson and Randi Weingarten, and to provide further details about the candidates’ labor plans.

This Week’s Democratic Debates Needed Some Labor Questions