clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

2020 Democrats’ battle for union support, explained

The labor movement looks very different than it did 20 years ago.

Joe Biden Takes His Presidential Campaign To Nevada
Democratic presidential candidate and former US Vice President Joe Biden speaks at the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades District Council 16 on May 7, 2019. 
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

One of the hottest stops on the 2020 campaign trail was the Stop and Shop supermarket employees picket line in Massachusetts this April.

Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Joe Biden all made a point of showing their support for workers during a 10-day strike against a corporate push to cut employee benefits. “When workers fight, workers win,” Warren said.

The race to win the labor vote is on. But the groups representing the diverse field of workers, from the white working-class men who have traditionally defined union membership to the fast-growing coalitions of organized woman and people of color, aren’t ready to back any one candidate.

“There are now as many candidates for president as there are movies in the [Marvel Cinematic Universe],” said John Weber, a spokesperson for AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the United States. “With so many choices, working people are heading into this election with a high bar. We aren’t interested in anything short of a full-throated, unapologetic advocate for the labor movement.”

Union membership has been declining steadily since the 1980s, but the labor movement still represents a voter base that could make or break a candidate’s chances.

While Sanders came out of the 2016 elections with working-class credibility, organized labor — specifically nonwhite union members — was a major factor in Hillary Clinton’s successful bid for the Democratic nomination. In the general election, Clinton underperformed Barack Obama among union workers; white male union members significantly shifted toward Donald Trump, outpacing Clinton altogether and delivering Trump the presidency.

Union members “vote at higher rates than most Americans, they are mobilized, they are in important states,” Paul Frymer, a political scientist with Princeton University who has written on the labor movement, said. “The union movement is a big part of the Democratic Party — there isn’t another mobilized coalition like it. They are the biggest civil rights movement in the country.”

The tensions within the labor movement in America are representative of the larger pulls within the Democratic Party. While Joe Biden is trying to shore up the old coalition of white working-class voters that defected to Trump, candidates like Sens. Warren, Kamala Harris, and Sanders, too, are attempting to speak to an increasingly progressive working class that didn’t see a champion in either Trump or Clinton in 2016.

The leading Democrat is targeting a very specific kind of American worker

Vice President Joe Biden joined the presidential primary as the frontrunner. And he did it with a clear message. “I make no apologies. I am a union man. Period,” he said. Biden held his first presidential campaign event at a local Teamsters hall in Pennsylvania, with a visible showing of unionized steelworkers and firefighters cheering him on. He has already won the endorsement of International Association of Fire Fighters, a union representing more than 300,000 members.

Recent history explains this strategy. Exit polling from the 2016 presidential election showed Trump trailing Clinton by only 8 points among union households — a significant improvement from Mitt Romney, who trailed Barack Obama by 18 points with those same voters. Those numbers, in part, reflect a shift among white men, according to data from the Cooperative Congressional Election Study. Biden’s message is that he can win back those voters. Even as the proportion of white men in American unions compared to people of color shrinks, Biden’s approach to the labor movement remains traditional.

“Biden is using the word ‘union,’” Frymer said. “Bernie is using the word ‘equality’ and ‘workers rights’, and the rights of the working class. It’s semantics, but there is something meaningful in that.”

That said, Biden’s moniker as “Middle-Class Joe” has already come under fire. His record as a moderate Democrat isn’t resonating in more diverse working-class circles; women, Latinos, and African Americans represent the fastest-growing contingent of union membership. Biden has hosted fundraisers with anti-union lobbyists. Sanders has hit him for his past positions supporting trade deals like NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which many labor unions vehemently opposed. In an AFL-CIO poll of its members, 65 percent said they opposed NAFTA, and 72 percent said the TPP would have been bad for American workers, leading to outsourced jobs and lower wages.

In 2016, Biden advocated for pushing TPP through the lame-duck Congress in Obama’s final months in office. His 2020 website says that new agreements should “protect our workers, safeguard the environment, uphold labor standards and middle-class wages, foster innovation, and take on big global challenges like corporate concentration, corruption, and climate change.”

Biden isn’t the union man yet. No one is.

The biggest players in the labor movement, from the teachers union to the steelworkers, are far from issuing any endorsements. They have a deep field of 23 Democratic candidates with mixed records that have to be reconciled.

For now, the candidates are just fighting for the crown.

Sanders has been hammering Biden on trade policy. “When people take a look at my record versus Vice President Biden’s record, I helped lead the fight against NAFTA; he voted for NAFTA,” Sanders said on CNN. “I strongly opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership; he supported it.” His campaign became the first presidential campaign in US history to unionize — ratifying a contract under the United Food & Commercial Workers Local 400. Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro’s campaign is in the process of unionizing as well.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) has repeatedly highlighted coming from a union family. And Warren has put forward one of the most detailed trade agendas of all the candidates, as well as a slate of progressive policies targeted at the working class.

All of this is still under consideration. Take the Teamsters, for example. To be considered for an endorsement, candidates have to sign a full pledge. Here’s part of that pledge:

Fair Trade

Since 1994, NAFTA has devastated working families, putting corporate profits ahead of people. What’s worse is that NAFTA has become the blueprint for all other trade agreements, from the way that it was negotiated in secret, to the bad provisions that have made their way into every agreement that has been signed since then. The Teamsters Union supports legislation to establish a new trade policy framework for the country, one that creates and protects good jobs at home and supports equitable, sustainable and democratic development abroad.

I pledge that as President, I will advance a trade agenda that protects all working people; a trade policy agenda that respects and enforces basic labor rights, creates and protects good jobs at home and supports equitable, sustainable and democratic development abroad.

Make no mistake, as far as the Teamsters are concerned, the TPP does not fit their mold of a “trade policy agenda that respects and enforces basic labor rights, creates and protects good jobs at home and supports equitable, sustainable and democratic development abroad.” A spokesperson for the Teamsters said their endorsement process would be forward-facing.

And it should be said that union leadership, like the Teamsters or AFL-CIO, has historically been part of the mainstream Democratic Party. “They don’t tend to take chances,” Frymer said.

As of 2018, there were roughly 14.7 million union members in the United States — nearly half of where membership was at in 1983. They still represent one of the most influential groups of mobilized voters, historically, for Democrats.

FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver put it in terms of the 2016 election results in states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, which Trump won by razor-thin margins to claim the presidency. In 2016, Clinton underperformed Obama among union members by 18 points. “That roughly 18-point swing was worth a net of 1.2 percentage points for Trump in Pennsylvania, 1.1 points in Wisconsin and 1.7 points in Michigan based on their rates of union membership — and those totals were larger than his margins of victory in those states,” Silver writes.

The new labor movement versus the old one

Biden may be trying to reclaim that lost ground, but his way of going about it may not be keeping up with the labor movement itself.

While union membership on the whole is dropping, the percentage of people of color in unions is increasing. Unions like Service Employees Union International, which mainly represent women and people of color in industries like home care, cleaning services, and health care, have a completely different read on what happened in 2016. Working voters of color didn’t go to Trump — they stayed home.

The tensions within the labor movement are representative of the pulls within the Democratic Party as a whole; on the local level, a more progressive mobilization effort has been underway to win $15 minimum wages, and teachers across the nation have gone on strike for better benefits. But at the national level, bigger labor groups, which still do a lot of the national political organizing, are a more moderating force.

Already we’ve seen a subset of Democrats reorient their strategy around labor to address the grassroots energy. Sanders has improved his numbers with Latino voters significantly since 2016. Harris has been focusing on minority voters in her home state of California, where longtime labor organizers are leading her campaign strategy, and Nevada, where the strongest union is the culinary union primarily representing Hispanic workers.

In 2020, unions like SEIU are trying to break the mold of what a traditional labor movement has come to mean in the United States — white working-class men — and are looking for a progressive agenda that will make it easier for workers to join unions.

Interestingly, SEIU is also focusing on the Midwest in 2020, as they did in 2018, in the same states that have come to define the white working-class narrative dominating the fight over the labor vote. Their mobilization efforts target not only the white working class, but also the growing contingent of people of color in the labor movement.

Biden may be claiming the mantle as the working person’s candidate, but labor looks a lot different than it did 20 years ago.