Talking With Randy Bryce, the Union-Made Ironworker Gunning for Paul Ryan's Seat

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This piece is part of Splinter’s series The New Guard, where we interview progressive candidates who are running in 2018 midterm races across the country to shake up the Democratic Party establishment.

One year ago, few people knew who Randy Bryce was. Now, he’s poised to flip a seat held by one of the most powerful Republicans in Washington.

Bryce is an ironworker, a union member, and a labor activist in Southeastern Wisconsin. Up until recently, he was running for Congress against House Paul Ryan. Then, earlier this month, Ryan announced he would retire from Congress after this term to spend more time with his family. While in Congress, Ryan opposed expanding paid family leave to give other parents that same opportunity.

“I like to think I’ve done my part, my little part in history to set us on a better course,” Ryan said about his legacy in Congress, which includes passing one of the most regressive tax bills in recent history.


Assuming Bryce wins the Democratic primary in August, he will face one of the six Republicans running in the general election, a field that currently includes Paul Nehlen, an anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist. If Bryce goes on to win in November, it would mark one of Democrats’ most important victories in 2018. I talked to him about the future of the labor movement, Wisconsin’s entrenched racism, and the idea of a federal jobs guarantee.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

So: do you think you scared Paul Ryan away?

Absolutely. I’m a lifelong resident of area, and in the 20 years he’s been in Congress, he’s never had to face what we’ve been able to put together. One of the things I’m really proud of is the fact that 75% of our contributions have been $200 or less. That’s huge. People, in addition to really not liking Paul Ryan and his policies, saw that it was a complete turnaround from from where we were headed, and saw it as a David versus Goliath thing. Being an ironworker, doing things that some people think is impossible is what I do eight hours a day. The most worthwhile things are those that you fight and work the hardest for.

Your candidacy seems like a rebuke to the idea that the Democratic Party no longer represents the working class, that it’s a party of liberal coastal elites. How has being a union worker made you more committed to being a Democrat?

Living in Wisconsin, that should tell you enough right there. When Scott Walker was elected governor, the first thing he did was what he labeled as “dropping the bomb” on public sector unions. As an ironworker, I was proud to have been one of the people that helped organize the first protest in Horicon, WI against it. I was driving home from work on a Friday afternoon. It was really cold. I was working at Nestle in Burlington and got a phone call that that’s what Scott Walker was going to do. We didn’t know what we were going to do, but we knew we had to do something. I was like, “Let’s get people together and let’s march.” We did that, and then saw what that turned into: hundreds of thousands of people in Madison.


Every year I would end up taking off work to go testify because some more garbage, anti-worker legislation was going to be passed. So I’ve witnessed firsthand what these attacks on unions have done. When I saw the Republicans take complete control over the federal government, well, it’s time to start replacing them as well. Because I understand the value of unions: We help everybody, regardless of whether you pay union dues or not. I see how beneficial it is. That’s why we were the first campaign to ever unionize our own campaign staff.


Republicans ended up winning the fight to dismantle public sector unions in Wisconsin. Now, the Supreme Court could fundamentally change how public sector unions are organized across the country. Do you see reason to be optimistic about the future of unions in the United States? 

I am very optimistic, regardless of what that ruling may decide. Everybody that is going to be honest about it knows that it’s not looking good for us. But I’m seeing things now that I was hoping would happen in Wisconsin. Looking at West Virginia and all the teachers, even though they’re under contract, having a wildcat strike. Because there was that fear in Wisconsin, I remember it was like, “Well, if you go on strike here, Walker is just going to fire you all and replace you.” But now, we’re seeing teachers have had enough. We’re going to have to do things outside the box, but we’ve always been able to adapt. This is a cycle where the workers have been attacked. We had this right before the Depression, and this is what sprang up. The middle class is strongest when we have higher union density.


After the horrible abuses at the Lincoln Hills juvenile detention center were revealed, Walker finally agreed to shut it down. But racial disparities in Wisconsin’s prisons remain among the  worst in the country. The black unemployment rate in Wisconsin is three and a half times higher than the white unemployment rate. Can you speak on that?

Yeah, it’s horrible. Racine, which is in the 1st district, is the fourth worst city in the nation for African-Americans to live. It’s such an injustice, which is another reason why these anti-worker policies have disproportionately affected the African-American and minority communities in Milwaukee. With Project Labor Agreements, we were able to make demands. In a project I worked on was the Northwestern Mutual tower, we were able to demand a 30% minority hire rate. Since then, Republicans in the state have made it illegal for us to use Project Labor Agreements on any jobs that use taxpayer dollars. So that takes away the union’s ability to train and bring people in.


Most building trades unions have their own apprenticeship. Ironworkers Local 8, we have our own apprenticeship program. When we bring people into the apprenticeship, it’s a four-year program. You don’t need to know anything. All you have to have is a high school diploma or a GED and a driver’s license. We do all the training. When you’re done, you’re all set for a career anyplace in North America. And we have a 1-800 hotline that lets you know where workers are needed. The unions and the employers pay for the apprenticeship. You earn while you learn. You start off at 60% of the journeyman’s scale. Every 1,000 hours, you go up 10%. And no tax money is used, so it’s basically free training put on by the unions. There’s no benefit for attacking it. It’s blatantly a political attack because the unions have generally supported Democratic candidates.


I wanted to talk about the idea of a federal jobs guarantee. Until very recently, it was considered this kind of far-out lefty idea, but it now seems to be gaining some steam with endorsements from Senators Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Bernie Sanders.

I haven’t looked in depth at it. Initially, I’m definitely in favor of something like that. We do have enough. We can afford to make sure that people have jobs, and good-paying jobs too. Just like I was talking about with our apprenticeships, there’s a perfect opportunity. Our infrastructure is literally falling apart. There’s nothing but opportunity there for bringing in people who want to work hard but don’t know how to do the work. Let’s get them into the apprenticeship program. Let’s get them working. It’s building pride in our community, and the ability to put food on the table.


In ten words or less, how would you convince someone to join a union?

Organized labor is the answer to organized greed.

Senior politics reporter at Splinter.

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