It took several decades and one final, disastrous election for Democrats to acknowledge they had taken union support for granted. Many of them appear to be betting on not making the same mistake again.
Over the past several weeks, Splinter has reached out to every presidential candidate with a questionnaire about labor, and their plans to help workers and unions if they’re elected president. We received responses from Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Kirsten Gillibrand, Gov. Jay Inslee, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, Reps. Seth Moulton and Eric Swalwell, and author Marianne Williamson. You can read their responses below. (Note: our questionnaires were sent out before Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and New York City mayor Bill de Blasio entered the race, and thus they weren’t included.)
Their answers show a field that is mostly unified when it comes to some basic beliefs about labor: that wages are too low, that the administration of Donald Trump has been bad for workers, and that more needs to be done at the federal level to help the working class. But their answers differ in some key ways; namely, who the enemies of the labor are, and how best to beat them.
How we got here
The Democratic Party has always had a tenuous relationship with labor, but aside from the Reagan years, Democratic presidential candidates have mostly dominated the union vote in presidential elections over the past four decades. With a brief blip for 1980 and 1984, when Ronald Reagan kept the margin to single-digits, Democratic candidates won union households by double-digits in every election between 1976 and 2012. This remained static even after former President Bill Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Agreement over the vocal opposition of labor groups in 1993, and even after Democrats compromised on a platform to bolster labor in their two years of unified government under Barack Obama.
That finally changed in 2016, when Hillary Clinton only won union households by eight points over Donald Trump nationally, and actually lost the union vote in at least one key swing state, Ohio. This all happened despite the fact that Clinton largely enjoyed the support of the labor establishment from the beginning of the primary.
During the campaign, Clinton advocated once again for card check—the provision that would mandate that employers automatically recognize a union if a majority of workers indicate their support for it—which she had sponsored in the Senate. But she vacillated on her position on the minimum wage, floating from an increase to $12 an hour to a “regional” minimum wage that would be as high as $15 in some places and less so than others. She was also slammed for doing a 180 on her position on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Obama administration’s hallmark trade deal that left her open to criticism from both Sanders and Trump.
After the election, various theories about Clinton’s poor showing with unions began popping up, the most prevalent centering around Clinton’s perceived ignorance of economic anxiety and embrace of progressive “social issues,” such as LGBTQ rights and racial justice. In a November 2016 New Republic profile on his ultimately failed run for House Democratic leader, Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan—who is now one of 23 Democrats running for president—summarized this theory while stressing his definition of “working class” wasn’t limited to white people:
“I think social issues are always part of a presidential campaign,” Ryan replies. “We don’t have to run from our progressive social agenda because I think most Americans agree with us on most of it, like on gay rights or even the choice issue. But if they see you talking only about social issues, and their main issue is their pocketbook, their job, their economic anxiety, you just look like you don’t understand them.”
In reality, Clinton’s campaign suffered from decreased support overall, in almost every measure. Seven percent of Obama 2012 voters, for instance, stayed home; the number was slightly higher for black Obama 2012 voters. It also didn’t help that voter disenfranchisement efforts likely cost Clinton Wisconsin.
There’s also little evidence for the idea that Clinton’s support for progressive positions on social issues backfired, or somehow caused her to ignore labor. In North Carolina, which was the center of the fight for LGBTQ rights that year due to an anti-trans law, Trump easily defeated Clinton. The state’s Republican governor who signed the bill and one of its most prominent supporters in the legislature, however, both lost their statewide races to Democrats who ran on their opposition to HB 2.
Despite easily winning the backing of union leadership early in the race, Clinton’s support among the rank and file was never as strong as it appeared. But the full story is a bit more complicated: Clint0n’s campaign, while rightly criticized for its failures in former labor strongholds like Wisconsin and Michigan, was the culmination of both a decades-long retreat from labor by the Democratic Party at the same time that the GOP was launching a decades-long assault on unions, one of the Democrats’ biggest constituencies.
For example: After the passage of the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947 (colloquially known as Taft-Hartley, after the law’s congressional authors) which authorized states to pass right-to-work laws and banned both wildcat and solidarity strikes, the official Democratic Party platform called for its repeal over the next three decades. From the 1952 platform:
We deplore the fact that the Taft-Hartley Act provides an inadequate and unfair means of meeting with national emergency situations. We advocate legislation that will enable the President to deal fairly and effectively with cases where a breakdown in collective bargaining seriously threatens the national safety or welfare.
By 1976, however, a call to repeal Taft-Hartley had been dropped from the platform; at one point, eventual president Jimmy Carter said that he didn’t “care one way or another” if the law was repealed before reversing his position. A line advocating the law’s repeal would return to the platform in 1980, but hasn’t been included since.
By contrast, every single Democratic candidate who answered our questionnaire called for at least the partial repeal of Taft-Hartley, namely the provision (Section 14.b) which allow states to enact right-to-work laws. Some candidates, like Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, as well as Rep. Seth Moulton—generally considered to represent both the progressive and moderate wings of the party—also specifically mentioned repealing Taft-Hartley’s ban on secondary or solidarity strikes, in which other units strike in support of another unit; for example, if a farmworkers union went on strike against a grower, UFCW workers at a grocery store could refuse to sell the produce from that grower. (Just one candidate, author Marianne Williamson, specifically advocated a full repeal of Taft-Hartley.)
Where the progressives and moderates break is over other provisions of Taft-Hartley. Calling the 2002 case where then-president George W. Bush invoked Taft-Hartley to end an International Longshore and Warehouse Union strike an “abuse of power,” Warren said she would “like to repeal the provisions in the LMRA that allow the President and federal courts to enjoin lawful strikes that pose a threat to national health or safety,” adding, “Far too often, these injunctions have been invoked in strikes not because there is a genuine threat to national health or safety, but rather to curb the power of unions engaging in lawful strikes.”
Moulton, on the other hand, said there were “certain elements” of Taft-Hartley that “should remain in place,” such as “granting the president power to delay strikes and guide mediation for matters of national security.”
Threats to labor
Most of the respondents agreed that the biggest threat to labor has been found in a lack of enforcement and outright hostility to labor from the federal government. “Unions make sure hard work pays off for those who actually do it,” Moulton wrote. “But decades of legislative and legal hostility towards the labor movement have brought unionization rates to an all time low.”
Added O’Rourke: “Unions and worker rights are under attack from right-to-work laws, to low penalties for labor violations, to unfair scheduling rules, to forced arbitration and non-compete clauses.”
But as is turning out to be the case in the Democratic primary, Sanders and Warren were more willing to directly name another looming threat: the rich. While others mentioned “special interests,” Sanders said that the “billionaire class,” along with the Trump administration and Supreme Court, are “engaged in class warfare upon the workers of this country.” Warrren, meanwhile, said that the “rich and powerful teamed up with the Republican party to push for measures at all levels of government designed to decimate unions and collective bargaining.”
On the subject of how to actually deal with these threats, the candidates who responded were unified in their support of card check. Additionally, former Vice President Joe Biden spoke out in favor of the Employee Free Choice Act in 2007.
Most Democrats have endorsed this idea in principle for over a decade, but it’s proven more difficult to enact. The one chance the Democrats had to pass card check came in 2009, and it was killed...by other Democrats. Given this difficulty, it’s likely that the Senate’s filibuster rule would have to be reformed or outright ended in order to pass card check. (You could, however, say the same about most of the legislative proposals outlined.)
Other legislative efforts
All of the candidates also said they supported the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, a sweeping proposal by congressional Democrats which would repeal section 14.b of Taft-Hartley and kill right-to-work in all 50 states by establishing a “fair share” clause, thus ending free rides for workers who don’t pay union dues. It would also institute civil penalties for employers who violate the National Labor Relations Act, repeal Taft-Hartley’s prohibition on secondary strikes, and end the “permanent replacement” of strikers with scabs. It also attempts to place tighter restrictions against employers misclassifying their employees as independent contractors. Currently, the bill has 165 co-sponsors in the House and 40 in the Senate.
Sanders specifically touted bills he’s pushed including the STOP Walmart Act, which “would prohibit CEO pay from being 150 times the median pay of all employees and corporations from buying back their own stock unless all of their employees are paid at least $15 an hour,” and the Workplace Democracy Act, which would limit the amount of time companies could stretch out the negotiating process. Another idea, pushed by Warren, would mandate that at least 40 percent of boards at large corporations be elected by workers. (Sanders has also endorsed this idea.)
Finally, although our questionnaire didn’t ask specifically about the minimum wage, every candidate who answered it—as well as many who didn’t, including Biden, Harris, and Hickenlooper, who has trained his attacks on Sanders’ socialism—have indicated their support for a $15 minimum wage, most through sponsoring a Sanders bill in the Senate or one from Rep. Bobby Scott in the House which would do just that by 2024. In addition, O’Rourke has supported a $15 minimum wage since his Senate race in 2018, Williamson has been calling for it since she began her campaign, and Inslee indicated his support for raising the minimum wage for $15 in our questionnaire.
For comparison, Sanders and Martin O’Malley were the only Democratic candidates in 2016 who supported raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Clinton at first supported raising the wage to $12 an hour, then later said she would only sign a bill including a $15 minimum wage if the wage was allowed to be lower in some areas. While there’s apparent uniformity among many of the Democratic presidential candidates, however, a group of moderate House Democrats have been holding up the $15 minimum wage bill in the House with a Third Way-backed proposal similar to Clinton’s that would create five federal minimum wage floors. Under that bill, the minimum wage wouldn’t hit $15 an hour in Tuscaloosa, AL, for 14 years.
The fights of 2009-2010, particularly over card check, are a good reminder that issue statements during a campaign aren’t a guarantee that these proposals are going to be enacted, or that the administration wouldn’t drop them if squeezed by political pressure. And as the $15 minimum wage bill has shown, there’s still a substantial number of centrist business Democrats who could put the brakes on a push to radically improve the prospects for workers and labor in the coming years.
But what the emphasis on labor during the campaign so far indicates is that presidential hopefuls, even the moderates, are loathe to repeat the mistakes of Democrats in the past. Biden’s first public campaign event was in a speech at a Pittsburgh union hall while accepting the endorsement of the International Association of Firefighters. Presidential candidates have become an even more frequent presence at picket lines than usual. Last month, the Sanders campaign used its formidable organizing network to directly lend support to striking workers at the University of California.
It remains to be seen whether or not the eventual nominee is able to beat Trump, let alone able to reverse the declines of labor over the past several decades despite opposition from an organized right, big business, and conservatives in their own party. But in all likelihood, that eventual nominee is going to try to convince you that they can.