How Democrats Lost Union Workers

Chuck Jones
USW Local 1999 President
“The big picture is that American jobs are leaving this country to exploit cheap labor,” he said. “When you start taking away the middle class, what do you have left?”...He’d been a loyal union man for years, been raised on the notion Democrats were the party of the workers and made calls for Democrats from union phone banks. But after the trade agreements signed by Democratic presidents, and after Trump spoke to the plight of workers at places such as Carrier, Feltner broke ranks. With the layoff fresh on his mind, he cast a vote in November for Trump. He says most of his rank-and-file union members did the same.
“I’m scared to death:” The last bitter days of Rexnord, Indianapolis Star, Feb. 24, 2017
A few weeks back, I spoke to the Democratic National Committee Forum in Detroit about how the party lost a lot of Midwest blue collar voters – and with them, the presidency. My union – United Steelworkers Local 1999 ― represents the Indianapolis Carrier plant that loomed large in the presidential showdown. Our role grew even more prominent after Trump attacked me on Twitter for having called him out for lying about the Carrier jobs.
But it wasn’t just Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Carrier that got the Democratic Party in a ditch. A lot went on over a long time to get us here. I dealt them some tough medicine in Detroit. I don’t know if it took.
A map of Indiana can show you what went wrong for the Democratic Party and what’s going wrong for the country. Not just the Carrier plant, that’s shipping 550 jobs to Mexico, but another one of our local’s plants, Rexnord Bearings, has 300 jobs headed to the same city, Monterrey. In Huntington, near Fort Wayne, 700 jobs from the same corporation as Carrier – UTC – are headed there as well. Indiana’s 2nd Congressional District, which includes South Bend, has two Elkhart plants, Harman International and auto-parts maker CTS Corp., shipping more than 350 jobs overseas. The 2nd District used to be a lock for Democrats, and was at least competitive the past 30 years. Now it’s elected a Tea Party Republican to her third term.
The DNC wanted to know why traditional Democratic areas in the industrial Midwest have gotten away from them. It’s because too many manufacturing plants have been getting away from us – and too many Democratic leaders have been AWOL. When it comes to how they and their families are going to survive, too many workers can’t tell one party from the other. Yes, we’ve stood up for the safety net and social justice – we’re not one-issue Democrats. But Indiana, along with much of the industrial Midwest, has been getting hammered by rigged trade deals that have left thousands of Hoosier families stranded. It’s upended our world.
We’re not against trade. But the trade deals we’ve been given by Republicans – and too many Democrats ― have betrayed people who work for a living. Don’t lose sight of the fact – because too many politicians already have – that for these family breadwinners, it’s over. Often middle aged or older, they now look forward to a fraction of their pension, if that, and any dreams they had for their kids getting a leg up into the middle class are gone. For too many it’s been a life of despair leading to alcoholism, bankruptcy, broken families, even suicide. I’ve seen it.
The sad truth is that Trump made a liar out of Republicans and Democrats with what he pulled off at Carrier (even if it wasn’t all he tried to sell it as). The standard response has always been – “there’s nothing we can do; the company has made up its mind.” Well, it might have been a little smoke and mirrors mixed with alternative facts when he rolled it out ― but the real fact is 700 of the jobs are staying in Indianapolis (for how long is a question for another day). And going forward, anytime any job looks like it’s staying in the States or coming back, “alternative fact” or not, Trump will own it.
Don’t let him. Instead of throwing up their hands, Democrats need to roll up their sleeves. Confront the corporations, donors be damned. Working people will take notice.
My message to the Democratic Party is that we need leaders with the guts to stand up to Wall Street and defend working people.
That means trade deals that respect worker rights – here and abroad – starting with renegotiating NAFTA.
We need job creation policies that don’t put the public on the hook while guaranteeing a windfall for the corporations. They’ve had their bailouts – it’s time working families get theirs. The Blueprint to Rebuild America’s Infrastructure would create 15 million jobs. Trump talks about infrastructure projects where the public picks up the tab through corporate tax giveaways and gutted regulations. The Corporate Tax Dodging Prevention Act pays for it by closing corporate tax loopholes.
And that goes for fighting the outsourcing of jobs. When a hugely profitable company, like Carrier, with plenty of government contracts, again, like Carrier, announces it is taking jobs abroad, the response is to open the government wallet and get a list of regulations (meant to protect the public) for shredding. How can you expect workers to respect a politician that doesn’t stand up to extortion? The Outsourcing Prevention Act would halt federal contracts, tax breaks, grants and loans to companies taking jobs off-shore. It’s insane to reward companies that destroy communities.
And when we say jobs, we mean jobs with rights, safety and a living wage. There’s not enough of that now. A jobs/infrastructure deal that undermines what little we do have is poison. We need real jobs that pay a living wage, not the minimum wage. Workers should not have to work two or three jobs to make ends meet. A good start to fixing some of these problems is Sen. Sherrod Brown’s “Working Too Hard for Too Little – A Plan for Restoring the Value of Work in America.” It improves rights and benefits for lower paid workers and penalizes companies that pay so little their employees need welfare to get by.
When workers organize, Democrats need to march with them into the boss’s office and demand their rights be respected.
For the Democratic Party to even begin to turn this around, we need to see leaders standing with us when we bargain with corporations. When workers organize, they need to march with them into the boss’s office and demand their rights be respected. A great example of that was recently in Mississippi where Sen. Bernie Sanders marched with Nissan auto workers fighting for a union. That’s how you’ll win back workers, not just the ones you lost last November, but the ones you’ve been losing for decades. And we’ll get the 50 percent on the sidelines to start thinking voting might matter, and that putting heat on politicians can get results.
In Detroit I just stated what I saw on the ground. And what I saw in the Indiana primary was workers, and not just in manufacturing, getting excited about Bernie Sanders like no other candidate ever. His straight talk, consistent positions, and refusal to kowtow to conventional wisdom, made him damn near a hero. But the unvarnished truth about last year is this: after Bernie was eliminated, a lot of workers started drinking the Trump Kool-Aid or just plain took a pass on the election. Many had been Obama voters. Those who did throw in with HRC – men, women, black and white ― did it without the kind of enthusiasm you need to bring others along.
But it was a situation decades in the making. The Republicans created Trump, he’s theirs; but too many Democrats built the vacuum that Trump filled.
In Detroit I reminded them that the Democratic Party needs to continue to be the home of working families. Trump’s a fraud, and the Republicans don’t have our back. But if the party wants these voters to come home, it needs to stand up for them.
This has been reposted from Portside.