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Dems on the Line

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It’s been remarkable that so many Democratic political candidates are now showing up on picket lines. Even in the golden age of American unionism, it’s not as if Harry Truman and Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy were walking the picket line. To some extent, this new change reflects a shift in the Democratic Party–all the right-wing Dixiecrats who hated unions are now Republicans. But it also reflects the push for a strong economic justice platform in a New Gilded Age that has led to all these strikes. I was happy to contribute a quote to this Washington Post story about this phenomena.

Political observers said the rush by 2020 hopefuls to embrace striking workers marks a new chapter, although unions have been nominally aligned with Democratic politicians on and off for years.

“Democrats have held their distance in several decades,” said Erik Loomis, a labor historian at the University of Rhode Island and the author of “A History of America in Ten Strikes.” “Now, going on a picket line is almost a requirement to be considered a serious candidate for the Democratic nomination. That’s basically unprecedented in American history.”

During the six-week strike that shut down production at General Motors, workers were greeted by Sanders, Klobuchar, former congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.), Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Biden and Warren, as well as Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), who has since dropped out of the race. The parade of candidates was so dizzying that some workers at the Detroit-Hamtramck plant, which Klobuchar, Sanders and Warren visited — twice — said they had lost track of which ones had come by.

“They did earn some points,” said Hamtramck worker Chris Viola, 36, adding that Warren came out to stand with picketing workers during a downpour. “People are realizing that we’re out here and we want to be heard.”

The candidates’ visits have added to a sense of momentum in the world of labor organizing, which has seen the number of striking workers rise to the highest level in more than 30 years. Public support for unions, according to Gallup polls, is approaching a 50-year high. And the high-profile attention, which draws extensive media coverage, has helped turn the focus on the plight of workers and bring it into the center of the national political discussion.

Some have viewed the candidates’ visits with skepticism.

Jane McAlevey, a former organizer and a policy fellow at the University of California at Berkeley, argued in an essay she wrote for the Nation that candidates were offering workers photo opportunities but not actual power.

“The GM strike could have been an incredible opportunity for Democrats to drive home a core message: Trump promised workers not one plant would close on his watch, and now that promise is broken,” she wrote in the magazine. “The Democrats essentially ignored the chance.”

When you are Jane McAlevey, Dems are always the problem and always will be the problem, so you might roll your eyes. But she is right that the payoff for unions of nominal Democratic support has traditionally not been very good, so there is reason to be skeptical. Even under Obama–significantly better for workers than Carter or Clinton–not only did union membership rates continue to fall, but labor’s top legislative goal–the Employee Free Choice Act–was way down on his list of priorities. First was the stimulus, second was the ACA, third was cap and trade, and who knows what would have been fourth had cap and trade been passed. But there’s little reason to think that EFCA was higher than 6th or 7th. Such it has been ever since 1938. But there is a difference today, which is that Democrats are tying themselves to worker struggles in an unprecedented way. Does it lead to labor goals being at the top of the agenda rather than somewhere in the middle? I guess we will find out, but sure, there’s reason to be at least somewhat skeptical. And it’s worth noting that if it does change in 2021, that’s going to be more a realization of the realities of the working class than any actual power an increasingly weak labor movement can leverage over the president.

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