Labor unions are seeing a surge of support. They’re more popular than they have been at any point in the last 15 years, and a majority of Americans believe that the declines in union membership are bad for the country. Democratic presidential candidates are embracing unions, appearing on picket lines and talking about strengthening the labor movement in ways the party hadn’t for much of the past decade.
The labor community, in turn, is increasingly recognizing the need to get its members into public office ― and putting more resources into doing so.
“For years and years and years, we’ve been told that the economy is like the weather: There’s nothing you can do about it,” said Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO. “That’s simply not true. The economy’s nothing but a set of rules, and those rules are made by the men and women we elect. For decades, those rules have been designed for us to lose and for the rich and powerful to win.”
In the 2018 election cycle, the labor federation endorsed about 1,500 union members for elected office at the local, state and federal levels. Most were Democrats, but there were also some Republicans and independents. Two-thirds of them won.
In 2019, 88 union candidates endorsed by the AFL-CIO have won in spring and summer elections, and it has nearly 500 candidates running this fall. The union also launched a new website Wednesday about the impact of its candidate program.
The focus on getting union members into office came out of a resolution at the AFL-CIO’s 2017 convention affirming an “urgent need” to step up such efforts.
Historically, unions have had a large role in elections, fielding candidates and providing money and boots on the ground.
The AFL-CIO’s state federations and affiliates have played a key part in identifying, recruiting and electing union members. The New Jersey AFL-CIO, for example, has been running a program that has led to more than 1,000 of its members getting elected to public office since 1997. Unions like the American Federation of Teachers, which is part of the AFL-CIO, have been out front and vocal about their election work.
Once in office, union members have helped push back against groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council, which has successfully advanced conservative priorities ― things like “stand your ground” and anti-immigrant laws ― at the state level for years.
“They’re joining together because they believe neither the political system nor the economic system works for them.”
American workers still face plenty of threats, including crackdowns on efforts to unionize and politicians who prioritize tax breaks for massive corporations. But there have been successes as well.
In Missouri last year, voters rejected an anti-union measure on the ballot. This year, Illinois passed a law protecting collective bargaining rights by banning local governments from creating anti-union zones. Maine loggers gained the right to bargain collectively. Nevada saw the largest statewide expansion of collective bargaining rights in 16 years. And Connecticut passed paid family and medical leave legislation after a decadeslong debate.
Connecticut state Sens. Julie Kushner (D) and Robyn Porter (D) led the way on the leave law, as well as on legislation raising the minimum wage. Both women were AFL-CIO endorsed candidates.
Kushner was a member of the United Automobile Workers for 42 years ― starting out as a secretary and organizing other secretaries, and rising to become director of the entire Northeast region and Puerto Rico. Her decision to run for state Senate came out of a direct desire to continue her advocacy, and her campaign drew on her background of organizing and knowing the issues that people care about.
“When I campaigned, I thought it was really important to explain to people why was I pro-union. I believe that working people need a voice at work. I believe that there should be fairness at work. I believe that people should have a good standard of living. Those are things that most people agree with,” Kushner said. “I think that our ability to communicate what it is that makes unions so necessary, so important and so valid today was critical.”
Nevada state Sen. Chris Brooks (D) received the AFL-CIO’s backing in 2018. A member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and a third-generation union member, Brooks worked as an electrician before starting one of the first solar companies in the country in 2001.
In office, he has made fighting climate change one of his top priorities, and he has put his union membership front and center in his career.
Brooks noted that his grandfather, a fellow IBEW member, traveled out West and started a company that went on to create other union jobs.
“The union story of creating opportunities for entrepreneurship so that union members can start businesses and advance economic prosperity for our states is a really important story. And it’s one that my family has embraced,” Brooks said. “I never forget that the reason I had the financial security to take those risks was because of unions.”
And Illinois state Sen. Laura Fine (D), who has made reforming the insurance industry a top priority, said her union was there for her when her husband lost his arm in a car accident and they faced the possibility of bankruptcy after the insurance company refused to cover their medical bills. She took classes and obtained an insurance license so that she could better understand whether the industry’s actions are legal and ethical.
“I was still teaching when the accident first happened. My union supported me,” said Fine, who was a member of the American Federation of Teachers. “They were there for me. They made sure that my job was secure, that my pay was a living wage, which had I been on my own, I don’t know if that would’ve been possible for me to accomplish.”
Of course, unions aren’t the only organizations that have had success in recruiting strong candidates since the election of President Donald Trump. Across the board, Democrats say that it’s been far easier getting qualified candidates to run, including in red districts that historically went without a Democratic challenger.
And union members are prime targets for candidate recruitment, even by non-labor groups like Run for Something, a progressive group that recruits down-ballot candidates. Union members are usually deeply rooted in their communities and often have public service jobs that give them an attractive profile.
Trumka said that across the country, people are realizing the value of collective action ― like teacher protests, autoworkers striking, the toppling of Confederate monuments and students against gun violence. He said there have been more strikes, pickets and other collective labor actions in the past year than have been seen in a couple of decades.
“They’re joining together because they believe neither the political system nor the economic system works for them,” Trumka said. “And the best chance they have of getting a better way of life and solving their problems is to join together with other workers to demand that those problems get solved and then take the next step ― and that’s becoming part of the system and changing the systems so it’s more friendly to workers.”
“People have stopped identifying unions as big business and they actually have identified the human beings, the workers who make up the union and the reason that there’s an important issue or a cause to fight for. And so I think we’ve done a good job of learning how to get our message out there effectively,” Kushner said.
The AFL-CIO’s efforts will be “larger and broader” in 2020, according to Trumka, with the added focus, obviously, of the presidential election.
“We look forward to seeing a number of union members out front shaping the debate about what the economy ought to do for workers ― and not just tolerate us, but actually make us active parts and beneficiaries of an economy that works for everybody,” he said.
A Democratic strategist who requested anonymity to speak openly also said that it’s about time unions were refocusing their attention and resources on getting their members elected.
“The people who used to do this work were the state parties and the unions,” the strategist said. “As Republicans slowly dismantled the power of unions over the course of decades, our ability to recruit good candidates became less and less. As we disinvested in state and local parties, those things are all part of the same story.”
“The fact that it’s a priority for a lot of unions is exactly 100% where they should be right now,” the strategist added. “Unions aren’t going to exist in 50 years if they can’t get their people into elected office and hold them accountable.”