It all started with President Donald Trump failing to keep his promise to pass a trillion dollar infrastructure plan he pitched during the 2016 campaign.
Many union workers across Iowa left the Democrats to help flip the state red for Trump, in part for his pitch to create stable jobs and prosperity.
The enormous infrastructure plan never came to fruition and so Democrats jumped to fill the hole Trump left.
The word “union” was used by Democratic presidential candidates early and often throughout the 2020 caucus cycle.
For the first time ever, presidential campaigns unionized. Candidates released big plans to protect unions. They pitched new ways to get people working again and rebuild the middle class.
“I feel that there’s always talk that people support unions and they’re going to do things, and it never really came to life. We’ve never seen the final result of all these conversations before,” said Peter Hird, membership development director for the IBEW Local 704 in Dubuque. “A lot of times, actions are more important than the words, so hopefully candidates actually come through with their promises and their good will toward unions that will further energize people down the road.”
Union Ties Bolster Candidates
Sen. Amy Klobuchar has said quite bluntly from the beginning her campaign was only made possible because of unions.
“I stand before you today because of unions,” Klobuchar told a crowd of union members at the AFL-CIO conference in Des Moines back in September. “I stand before you today as the granddaughter of a union iron ore miner, as a daughter of a union newspaperman, as the daughter of a union teacher, as the first woman elected to the United States Senate from the state of Minnesota and a candidate for president of the United States.”
John Delaney’s father was a union electrician. That union helped send him to college and shaped his disdain for “Medicare for All.”
“The declines of unions have led to the decline of quality of jobs in this country, and I think we’ve got to stand up against these right-to-work laws,” Delaney told a group of reporters this summer. “We’ve got to make sure the workers have the right to unionize like my dad did.”
A large union became one of Joe Biden’s closest allies early on in the race.
The International Association of Fire Fighters endorsed the former vice president and started showing up to Biden’s campaign events with gold and black campaign signs.
That relationship also helped bring freshman Iowa Congresswoman Abby Finkenauer into the campaign. Finkenauer’s late grandfather was a firefighter.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock used to be a union-side labor lawyer. He shared his stories about fighting for unions and laborers on the campaign trail all summer long.
He wasn’t the only one to talk about unions and labor rights, though.
New Ideas To Protect, Expand Unions And Labor Rights
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio introduced a plan in his short-lived presidential run to offer every working person two weeks of paid vacation time.
Meanwhile, Rep. Tim Ryan said he would appoint a chief manufacturing officer who would report to him directly and put together an economic policy.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand tried to launch a 21-century “New Deal” during her candidacy.
Her plan was to offer free college to anyone entering a STEM field who was willing to tackle a few years of national public service projects. She wanted to then use those folks with degrees to start a green energy race with China.
“I really want to engage them, engage the country in competition to spur innovation and to just spur nationalism in a positive way,” she said.
The ideas to reengage and provide union workers with jobs were eventually turned into full-blown policy proposals. Pete Buttigieg was one of many candidates to release a plan protecting organized workers and to end the systematic attack on labor.
His plan, like many others, would allow undocumented workers to report labor violations without fear of repercussions, force companies to reveal their gender pay gap numbers and his administration would give contractual preference to companies who treat their workers fairly.
He was also one of at least three candidates to propose sectoral bargaining.
Moving to sectoral bargaining would force Congress to rewrite a law that forces unions to negotiate solely with their employers.
Were Union Members Won Over?
Several large unions never endorsed a candidate this election cycle, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t satisfied with the conversations candidates were able to bring to the table this time around.
AFSCME Council 61 President Danny Homan said even though AFSCME hasn’t endorsed a specific candidate, “we consistently heard the word ‘union’ in this race.”
“That’s because candidates know that public service workers and union members vote,” Homan said.
Overall, Hird said he felt like the voices of his members were heard.
“A lot of the candidates reached out,” he said. “And I think it made a big difference that Iowa unions represented the campaign workers for presidential candidates. That’s a huge deal.”
“Even though international unions didn’t endorse [before the caucuses], there were still a lot of our members out there engaged in the process,” Hird said. “That creates a long-term connection with the candidates and the party.”
Hird wished one thing would have been talked about a little more — the decline of public sector unions.
“The fact that states can control people’s rights to form a union, that individual states can do that, I think that’s a subject that I didn’t think got talked about much,” Hird said. “And I don’t think the public understands.”
Shane Nelson, a business representative at the IBEW Local 55, agreed.
“I don’t think the idea of our public sector workers was addressed enough all the way throughout the process, and it still isn’t,” Nelson said.”That’s not talked about enough in other states as well.”
He believes the conversation should have been brought up on a debate stage and wonders what candidates would be willing to do by executive order, or in fighting for federal legislation, to mandate public sector workers have the same rights as private sector workers.
“There’s been a lot of lip service,” Nelson said. “But, not a lot of talk about unions and not a lot of substance.”
Nelson didn’t have the chance to meet any of the candidates this caucus cycle, and said Sen. Bernie Sanders is really the only candidate he’s seen continuously walking picket lines and showing up at union halls.
He added he’s not sure whether he’d be convinced to get involved in the election process if he wasn’t already so entrenched in day-to-day union activities.
“I’ve been on the front lines of a lot of these attacks over negotiating contracts and I’m 100% in it no matter what,” Nelson said. “If I wasn’t in that place, I think I would have struggled to be convinced about what was said.
“If you’re just standing on the outside and looking in and getting your research off Facebook … There hasn’t been a lot of news coverage,” he said. “If you want to earn those people back and make it part of your public coverage, make it so they talk about your plan on CNN, not just KCCI.”
Bill Gerhard, president of the Iowa State Building and Construction Trades Council, shared the fear that perhaps not enough has been done by the Democrats to win over union workers.
“I’m not sure the union members who voted for Trump last time were engaged this time not to vote for him,” Gerhard said. “I’m worried about that, whether enough has been said to get them back to the party they belong in.”
He said everyone is breathing a sigh of relief that the caucuses have passed, but said Democrats need to stay focused.
“The new goal now is to get them revved up for the general election,” Gerhard said. “But, I think it’ll be hard to do until we have a candidate to get behind.”
By Paige Godden