By MICHELLE L. PRICE and NICHOLAS RICCARDI Associated Press
LAS VEGAS (AP) — Ardently liberal, pro-labor and anti-corporate cash, the field of Democrats running for president may look like a union activist’s dream. But some prominent labor leaders are starting to worry about the topics dominating the 2020 conversation.
Terry McGowan, president of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139, said many of the biggest topic of discussion in the 2020 primary so far are distractions.
“The people that are into politics, the people who like sideshows, they’re into that,” he said, citing the debates over reparations for slavery and immigration as examples. “The masses just want to feed their families.”
The unease may be an early warning sign for Democrats, who watched as many white, working-class voters, including many union members in Rust Belt states, chose Trump three years ago. Democrats are hoping to win back some of those voters next year, a challenge that is being made harder, some argue, by labor’s struggle to attract new members and influence its rank and file. Democrats’ early messages may not help, some said.
To be sure, many unionists are enthusiastic about the presidential field. Contenders include liberal stalwarts like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose campaign became the first in U.S. history with a unionized workforce, and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who joined striking Stop & Shop workers on a picket line in New Hampshire on Friday. California Sen. Kamala Harris hired a top Service Employees International Union executive for her campaign and made her first proposal one to raise teacher’s pay.
Former Vice President Joe Biden made clear that he plans to appeal to union workers, if he gets in the race. “You are coming back,” he told the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers last week. “We need you back.”
For labor, much is at stake. Despite Republican gains, particularly with trade-union members, labor remains an essential part of the Democrats’ coalition. Unions spent $169 million in 2018 on federal elections, largely on Democrats’ behalf, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Democrats won union workers by a strong 59%-39% margin in 2018, according to AP VoteCast, a national survey of the electorate.
But other big donors and — small, online ones, too — increasingly compete with labor’s organizing muscle as being central to Democratic victories. Activists on a broad array of issues, from gay rights to criminal justice, compete with unions for candidates’ attention. And the labor movement itself is split on its priorities, as some see trade as a priority while others want to talk about immigration.
All this comes as Republicans have pushed several state laws weakening organized labor. And, last year, the Supreme Court ruled that government workers can’t be forced to contribute to the unions that represent them in collective bargaining, dealing a blow to public service union’s pocketbooks.
As candidates court unions for endorsements, labor leaders say they are listening for a comeback plan.
Any proposal aimed at workers “must include ensuring the opportunity to join a union, no matter where you work, since that’s the best way to raise wages, improve working conditions, create family-sustaining jobs and begin to fix our rigged economy and democracy,” said Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union.
At a conference of North America’s Building Trades Unions in Washington on Wednesday, several Democratic contenders talked about outlawing so-called “right to work” laws that prevent unions from automatically deducting dues from members, said the president of the group, Sean McGarvey. But, he added, he heard “very little about the actual structural changes to the National Labor Relations Act, or things they could put in place to give people a real free choice to join a union.”