Labor Rejected Democrats for Supporting Free Trade, Ignoring Middle Class

Mark Gruenberg Editor, Press Associates Union News

So-called “free trade.” Jobs for the middle class. GOP attention to both, and not just by Donald Trump. Those are key reasons the Democratic Party lost key hunks of the labor vote, and not just in 2016, a panel of progressives and unionists says.

And the way to get those voters back is to stress kitchen-table economic issues that not only unite all wings of the party, but appeal to those workers and their families who feel left behind, added one of the speakers, AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler.

The group, convened by the Women’s National Democratic Club in D.C., also included Thea Lee, a longtime top AFL-CIO analyst and staffer who now heads the Economic Policy Institute, Jared Bernstein, former top economist for EPI and for Democratic Vice President Joe Biden, and Daniel Loveless, the business manager for Steamfitters Local 602 in Maryland.

The session’s backdrop is the looming 2018 election, when most governors and state legislators will seek re-election. It’s also an off-year election and in the last two off-years, 2010 and 2014, worker-friendly candidates, most of them Democrats, got wiped out.

The backdrop also includes Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s unexpected loss to GOPer Donald Trump in 2016. In the key swing states of Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania which Trump took, union families and voters were a big reason. Exit polls showed Trump and Clinton split their votes 50-50. In Ohio, he won 52 percent.

Shuler spent the first part of her remarks laying one issue to rest: That Clinton lost the labor vote. Trump “only did four percentage points better than” 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney did against Democratic President Barack Obama. “But Clinton did nine points worse.”

Trade was a key reason, Shuler said. In so many words, union members and pro-union voters did not forget then-President Bill Clinton jammed the North American Free Trade Agreement through Congress in 1993 over labor’s outspoken opposition and predictions of huge job losses, which have since occurred. Workers held NAFTA against Hillary Clinton.

So when Hillary Clinton sought the White House, unionists were leery of her campaign conversion to skepticism about a subsequent business-written trade pact, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. As Obama’s Secretary of State, she backed the TPP.

“It’s not hard to see the connection,” Shuler said. Clinton’s doubts on “free trade” and the TPP were “seen as late and as political pandering.”

By contrast, union voters trusted Trump’s words, and his outspoken denunciations of both pacts, Shuler added. “What were we seeing from the Democrats? Nothing.”

By contrast, in the New Deal and until the 1980s, the Democrats were “an unapologetic pro-labor party,” Shuler said. But under influence of centrists and so-called “New Democrats,” they got away from that orientation and tried – mostly without success – to woo business votes and, especially, campaign contributions. Workers saw that, she added.

The antidote can be found, she contended, in going back to the party’s roots, and running a pro-worker campaign, with candidates unafraid to say the word “union,” back it with deeds and pointing out how unions brought workers everything from the weekend to sick leave to health care, through collective bargaining and lobbying.

That’s what Democrat Conor Lamb did in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District special election earlier this year, Shuler said. Unionists responded enthusiastically on the ground and at the polls – and Lamb won by 0.3 percent in a district Trump carried by 20 percentage points months before.

Bernstein also blamed the Democrats for buying into the pro-corporate “Washington consensus” about the absolute positive value of “free trade” pacts, about letting the market dictate policy and of the GOP response to individuals: “YOYO – you’re on your own.”

That combination “serves the top few percent and serves the financial markets and doesn’t serve those who depend on their paychecks,” he added.

“Trade has been mismanaged by the elite of both parties for decades and it left a vacuum for a hypocritical demagogue like Donald Trump to exploit,” Lee said. But there’s another reason Dems lost workers in those key swing states: Declining union density and Democratic refusal to go to bat for the middle class and reverse that tide.

Union density in those Midwestern industrial states used to be 24 percent of all workers, and that showed up at the polls, Lee noted. But after the long business campaign to destroy workers and unions – keynoted by so-called “right to work” laws and sharpened by Wisconsin’s draconian anti-union Act 10 -- density has fallen in the entire area. In Wisconsin, it’s 8 percent.

Once again, the Democratic response, which would have helped preserve the middle-class, was lacking.

Obama backed the pro-worker Employee Free Choice Act, which would have rewritten labor law to make it more worker-friendly in a variety of ways. It was the AFL-CIO’s top cause, but it got pushed to the side, Lee noted. Left unsaid: Business also mounted a massive propaganda blitz against it. Dems did little to counter that.

Loveless chimed in that it wasn’t just Trump. He told the crowd a story of his union advocating for a major power plant expansion in Charles County, Md.,  several years ago, which would have employed 1,500 construction union members in the middle of a recession. Loveless, a lifelong Democrat, kept imploring Democratic officials to testify for it, to overcome environmentalist opposition. None did.

Five Republicans showed up, though, and one, a state lawmaker “who had opposed us before, looked me straight in the eye” as he testified he wanted the plant built “with union labor” because it would be – and was – built on time and under budget. Loveless’ members remembered that. So does he.

Besides Shuler pushing for unity around kitchen-table issues, the other panelists offered other solutions to bring labor and the Democrats back together. “The first step in this is to step back and listen to the laborers with their hands on their wrenches,” Loveless said.

Bernstein said Democrats should take a page from unions’ book and emphasize “we’re all in this together,” middle class, working class and poor. “No more YOYOs.”

“Trump is doing us a favor” because “he can’t articulate, let alone implement, a coherent policy” to win back the workers the Democrats lost, Lee said. “We should call him out” on trade and other issues “but we should not go back to our comfortable blanket favoring the TPP and NAFTA,” Lee warned the Democratic group.

“That won’t work.”




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