Labor union leaders have launched their biggest mobilization ever for the 2020 campaigns, determined to reassert their political power and beat back the inroads President Trump has made with blue-collar workers.
At the heart of the plan is an overhaul of the way the leadership courts and connects with members, with an emphasis on listening and responding to dues-paying members. They wanted to give the unions more of a grassroots ethos, said Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, the country’s largest federation of labor unions.
“We started talking to our members,” he told a group of Washington reporters last week at a roundtable interview hosted by The Christian Science Monitor.
He credited the revved-up outreach with helping Democrats win a House majority and make other gains in elections last year.
The midterm mobilization included 2.3 million door knocks, 5 million flyers, 250,000 text messages, 12 million pieces of mail, a digital ad campaign that had 69 million impressions, and the unions’ largest-ever TV and radio campaign targeting black and Hispanic voters.
“This time we will do even more,” Mr. Trumka said. “We have a plan, a very synchronized, effective plan.”
Though acknowledging that unions needed a makeover after 2016, he bristled at the suggestion that union members were responsible for electing Mr. Trump, whose support from blue-collar workers put Rust Belt states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan in the Republican column for the first time in a generation.
Mr. Trumka also pushed back against the notion that unions are in decline or hobbled by setbacks in court, such as last year’s Supreme Court ruling in Janus v. AFSCME that unions must stop forcing nonmember government employees to pay a union “fee” from their paychecks because it violates the First Amendment right to free speech.
“We haven’t taken a hit. We’ve grown,” he said.
He cited gains by two of the AFL-CIO’s public-sector unions: The American Federation of Teachers grew by 88,500 members, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) converted 200,000 government workers from former fee payers to full members.
The examples he used were telling, though.
In recent decades, labor unions increasingly cater to government employees as opposed to the hard hat and lunchbox crew. Yet the ballooning ranks of the public sector workforce has not stemmed declining union membership.
Union members continued a downward trajectory last year with a 0.2% decline from 2017, resulting in a total membership of 14.7 million workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
One in 10 workers belongs to a union, compared with 50 years ago, when one-third of U.S. workers carried union cards.
Now the only place you find 1960s levels of union membership is in government offices. The union membership rate of public sector workers last year was 33.9%, which continued to be more than five times higher than the 6.4% rate for union membership in the private sector, according to the bureau.
“It has been a while since unions are kingmakers in the Democratic Party, but they are certainly influential,” said Princeton University professor Paul Frymer, who studies labor unions.
“Labor matters to Democrats because they spend a lot of money on campaigns and, maybe most importantly, they mobilize a lot of voters to turn out — admittedly, a smaller amount over the decades, but nonetheless significant numbers in lots of key races and battleground states,” he said.
The struggle of unions for trades, steelworkers, coal miners and other blue-collar workers with more centrist political views did not start with Mr. Trump, Mr. Frymer said.
“It just ebbs and flows with the candidates and campaign issues,” he said.
The highest unionization rates were among workers in protective service occupations at 33.9%, and education, training and library occupations at 33.8%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Those in protective services — police, firefighters and Border Patrol agents — are no longer reliable votes for the Democratic Party. Not long ago, it was the International Association of Fire Fighters’ early support for John F. Kerry that boosted him to victory in the 2004 Iowa caucuses and on to the Democratic presidential nomination.
In April, when the IAFF gave former Vice President Joseph R. Biden an early endorsement in the Democratic presidential race, Mr. Trump blasted the union for ignoring the rank and file.
“The Dues Sucking firefighters leadership will always support Democrats, even though the membership wants me,” Mr. Trump tweeted. “Some things never change!”
Firefighters in recent elections backed Democrats, though by slim margins. But in 2016, they went for Mr. Trump in a big way. An IAFF postelection poll of members found that 50% backed Mr. Trump, 27% voted for Hillary Clinton and an unusually large 12% refused to answer.
The IAFF declined to endorse either Mr. Trump or Mrs. Clinton in 2016.
The firefighters’ early endorsement was an exception in the 2020 races. Most unions are waiting because they got burned by getting behind Mrs. Clinton too quickly last time.
Brad Bannon, a Democratic strategist who works with labor unions, said the tension now within the movement is between blue-collar unions that lean toward Mr. Biden and the public sector unions that tilt toward such far-left candidates as Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
“At least a quarter of Democratic primary voters come from union households, so labor will still play a key role in the Democratic presidential primary. But labor and union members will take their time this time before they go all-in for one of the Democratic candidates,” he said. “After the Clinton defeat, organized labor is not rushing to judgment.”
At the meeting with reporters, Mr. Trumka’s grim assessment of the state of the U.S. could have been ripped from a stump speech by Mr. Biden, Mr. Sanders or Ms. Warren.
“Working people are rising to meet a moment in history because we know something is deeply, deeply wrong,” he said. “Our nation is being poisoned by hateful rhetoric and divisive tactics at the highest level of government.”
Racial minorities, women and immigrants are under attack, he said.
“People of color are being scapegoated, minimized, dehumanized and told to go back where they come from. Racist dog whistles have been replaced with megaphones,” said Mr. Trumka. “Women are openly degraded and discriminated against. And America’s welcome mat, long a beacon of hope for immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers — I’m including my own parents — is being bulldozed and paved over, replaced with a clear message that you are not welcome here.”
Later, The Washington Times asked Julie Greene, the AFL-CIO political mobilization director, whether the unions found themselves competing with other liberal advocacy groups such as immigration rights activists or Black Lives Matter.
“No,” she said. “Our strategy of going much deeper and broader with our membership … is just a general response to everything we see happening in the country right now. There is a renewed focus on the grassroots. There is a distrust of big institutions. We are not seeing that within the labor movement.”