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Unions after the Election


Richard Yeselson has an excellent rundown on the good, the bad, and the ugly of the labor movement in the aftermath of what was a successful presidential election, if significantly less so downballot.

Following the election, Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO, said that organized labor had done its part to defeat Trump because it “got out the vote.” Because of this election’s unusually high percentage of mail-in votes, exit polling may not be reliable, but it appears to more or less confirm Trumka’s statement: Joe Biden got 56 percent of the union household vote—just a shade below typical for recent election cycles before 2016 and an improvement on Hillary Clinton’s 51 percent, but a far cry from the 84 percent of the unionized voters that Lyndon B. Johnson got in 1964.

OK, that seems good, although it is sad that union households ran only three points better than the nation as a whole for Democrats, even if they are a bit ahead of it in 2020, about five points.

But there’s another way to read the election that suggests the union household vote didn’t make much difference at all. There are significant splits between what Edison Research, an exit poll organization, and the AFL-CIO are claiming in Pennsylvania (where Biden won by 1 percent) and in Ohio (where he lost by 8 percent). Edison has Trump winning a majority of the union household vote in both states, smashing Biden 57 to 43 percent in Ohio. Based on its own polling, the AFL-CIO claims Biden carried the union household vote in both states.

Other key states no longer have enough union members to significantly affect the outcome of elections. For example, in Wisconsin, which Biden barely won, union density is smaller than ever, about 8 percent, after former governor Scott Walker’s successful effort to pass right-to-work laws (except, pointedly, for cops and firefighters). We don’t have a breakdown in these states of the union vote by racial demographics or by particular union, but nobody would be surprised if white building trades and manufacturing workers voted in large numbers, perhaps outright majorities, for Trump.

In other words, that union households voted slightly better for Biden than Hillary may not have had much to do with the critical battleground states, though I’d like to see some Michigan numbers.

There is still a political “union premium,” with unionized white men voting more Democratic than non-union white men. But the difference appears to be smaller than it has been in decades. That Bernie Sanders, with a bold, redistributive, pro-union message, could not carry the relatively moderate white working class within the Democratic Party indicates the gravity of the challenge for both labor and the Democrats.

Yeah…one thing that the Bernie supporters had to learn the hard way is that their electoral coalition is basically the same as every other Democrat and that the strategy of mobilizing the WORKERS simply had no chance of succeeding. It’s sobering, but there’s little reason to believe that an aggressive campaign of socialism is going to win large or even moderate numbers of the white working class, despite all the ideological fetishization of that group by much of the online left.

In recent years, the members of these unions, who are disproportionately female and non-white, have been central to some of the largest and most important labor actions of the new working class: several Chicago Teachers Union strikes beginning in 2012; the wildcat strikes and job actions of teachers across mostly red states in 2018, starting in West Virginia; the United Teachers Los Angeles strike of 2019; and aggressive organizing and strikes by healthcare workers and nurses all over the country.

Their militancy is a major reason why labor may have more influence with Biden than it had with Obama. The urgency caused by the pandemic-driven collapse of the economy and the development of a significant social democratic faction within the Democratic Party has also given labor a chance to punch above its weight and promote broad policies on behalf of the working class.

This is the likely future of the labor movement that is going to be making demands on Biden. But let’s not forget about the ability of the existing labor movement to screw it up as much as possible.

Yet labor’s leadership looks primed to screw up its first chance to effectively throw that weight around in the tussle over the nominee for secretary of labor. Unions could have reached a consensus to recommend one of two terrific choices said to be in the running: Julie Su, California’s brilliant and relentless Secretary for the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency and a leader in the fight against misclassification, or Andy Levin, the Michigan congressman with decades of union experience and bona fides: Levin was an organizer with SEIU, an Assistant Organizing Director of the AFL-CIO, and worked in Bill Clinton’s Department of Labor (DOL) and as a top labor official in Michigan’s state government. Both Su and Levin have the combination of administrative chops and authentic advocacy to awaken the sleeping bureaucratic giant that is the DOL. Both of them also have spent years forging relationships with leftist activists beyond labor in and around the Democratic Party, in recognition that any labor politics today must also incorporate environmental and racial justice activism.

Instead of reaching consensus on one of these excellent choices, however, unions are, according to media reports, split between a minority in favor of Levin and a more dominant group promoting Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, former chief of the city’s building trades. Walsh is OK as building trades guys go. (He would certainly be an improvement over the last one to head the DOL, Peter Brennan, a Nixon apparatchik and defender of the New York construction workers who assaulted antiwar demonstrators in 1970.) But Su and Levin are both stellar.

The best reason that union insiders have given for backing Walsh is that he’s buds with Biden. “He’s a friend and knows Joe: They’ve worked together on numerous occasions,” Trumka said. “They have the relationship I think is necessary.” Seeing this quote brought back a story I heard years ago about how union presidents loved getting “official” White House cufflinks from Democratic presidents. Labor leaders have convinced themselves, over these many fallow years, that “access” is power. They can’t grasp that insisting on dynamic leadership for even a second-order cabinet department, with an $11 billion budget and 15,000 employees, matters more than who Biden likes eating cheeseburgers with.

There’s the labor movement we all know and roll our eyes at!

Seriously, Julie Su would be an outstanding choice at Labor and let’s hope that she gets it.

Anyway, the whole thing is very much worth reading.

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