Unions and the White Working Class Vote

Harold Meyerson

MT. PLEASANT, SC - DECEMBER 7: (EDITORS NOTE: Retransmission with alternate crop.)  Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to the crowd at a Pearl Harbor Day Rally at the U.S.S. Yorktown December 7, 2015 in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina. The South Carolina Republican primary is scheduled for February 20, 2016. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

MT. PLEASANT, SC – DECEMBER 7: (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

It is now, as the Post’s numbers in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio (where Trump holds a three-point lead) clearly suggest. The decline of white working-class support for the Democrats has engendered a debate as to its causes: whether it’s due to the declining economic condition (and, indeed, life expectancy) of working-class whites, or to their racial and cultural resentment at the rising number of minorities and the programs the Democrats have championed for the past 50 years to help them. Clearly, the cause isn’t simply one or the other. The sense of abandonment that many working-class whites feel is rooted both in economics and culture. It’s worth noting, however, that even at the height of the United Auto Workers’ power in Michigan, as far back as 60 years ago and more, it could persuade its white members to vote for Democrats for state and federal office, where economic policies were formulated and implemented, but never could persuade them to vote Democratic for Detroit city officials, who held sway over policing, school and housing policies—that is, over the policies with the greatest impact on race relations and discrimination.

Still, the presidential contest is for a federal office with huge power over economic policy. Shouldn’t unions be moving their white members toward Clinton? They probably are: The AFL-CIO released survey data yesterday that showed Trump is polling just 36 percent among its members in five swing states (Florida, Nevada and three in the Midwest: Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin). That, of course, is a survey of all its members, not just its white working-class members, whose level of Trump support is certainly higher than these aggregate totals. But more important than the preferences of these union members is the preferences of non-members who would have been members before the near collapse of private-sector unionism—that is, before corporations abandoned their employees for cheaper labor in China, before American management began to oppose and thwart unionization all across the private sector, and before a number of these states (Wisconsin and Michigan most notably), under Republican government, went right-to-work. In 2015, just 15.2 percent of the Michigan workforce was unionized, just 12.3 percent of Ohio’s, and just 8.3 percent of Wisconsin’s—all states where close to 40 percent of the private sector workforce was unionized in the mid-20th century.

The AFL-CIO’s Working America program, which goes door to door in white working-class neighborhoods to talk with non-union voters, does yeoman work, but there’s no question that unions’ capacity to reach and impact the kind of voters they once had as members isn’t what it used to be. Looking at exit polling since the early 1970s, white working class union members have tended to vote Democratic at a rate 20 points higher than their non-union counterparts—a tribute to the unions’ ability to get its white members to consider economic issues, not just what for some is their racial fear and loathing. Looking at the numbers in the Post’s poll, then, one explanation for the surprisingly high level of Trump support in the Midwest—beyond the purely economic or racial—is the declining level of unionization.
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Strikes, Alliances, and Survival

by Harold Meyerson

Harold Meyerson

Harold Meyerson

(July28) Fast-food workers in seven cities are set to walk off their jobs today [Monday] in one-day actions, escalating what is quickly becoming a nationwide effort to win pay hikes in one of America’s premier poverty-wage industries. Backed by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the campaign is succeeding in publicizing the plight of low-wage workers in a growing number of states and cities.

How it goes about actually winning higher wages, however, remains unclear.

For its part, the AFL-CIO is preparing for its biennial convention this September, at which it will begin to hammer out some kind of formal affiliation or partnership with other, nonunion progressive organizations such as the NAACP and the Sierra Club. There are changes afoot within the union’s Working America affiliate—a Federation-run and –funded neighborhood canvass that has expanded from a purely (and brilliantly successful) electoral operation, building support for progressive Democrats among white working-class swing-state voters, to an organization bent on raising the minimum wages in selected states and cities.

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Why the Revival of US Labor Might Start with Nonunion Workers

The AFL-CIO’s community affiliate, Working America, is expanding its work online and off. Amy Dean talks with the group’s executive director, Karen Nussbaum, about what this means for the prospects of union revival.

     Organizers train with the Minnesota branch of Working America. Photo by Minnesota AFL-CIO.

Organizers train with the Minnesota branch of Working America. Photo by Minnesota AFL-CIO.

by Amy B. Dean

For workers in America, it can be hard to know where to turn when a boss pays you late or not at all, doesn’t provide benefits, or just yells at you for no good reason.

That’s why a Working America, a “community affiliate” of the AFL-CIO that focuses specifically on nonunion workers, launched a website last month that makes it easy to get that kind of information. FixMyJob.com is a bit like WebMD, but instead of typing in your aches and pains, you tell it about problems at your workplace. Launched on June 5, the site has already garnered 5,000 visitors, according to Working America organizer Chris Stergalas.

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Netroots Nation: Why Alt-Labor is Important

by Jackie Tortora

Netroots-Nation-Why-Alt-Labor-is-Important_mediumIt’s hard to argue with fairness. Pointing out the injustices for dancers in the music video industry is exactly how choreographer and chair of the Dancers’ Alliance Galen Hooks found momentum around gaining basic workplace safety and benefits. Something as simple as a water break during an eight-hour video shoot (sometimes in the desert) and access to chairs were workplace safety and health basics  dancers simply did not have. But that all changed when the power of collective action spread across the dancer community, which often was hard to organize because of the nature of the business: multiple employers, different jobs every day and competition from fellow dancers who’ll take any job (even if it’s unpaid).

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// ]]>Hooks spoke on a panel yesterday at the Netroots Nation 2013 conference in San Jose, Calif., where speakers talked about “Alt-Labor,” a term coined by writer Josh Eidelson in an American Prospect piece earlier this year. Workers are starting to organize outside of traditional unions in worker centers and other community organizations. While the Dancers’ Alliance now has the benefit of support from SAG-AFTRA, the group existed for 20 years before it was able to gain a meaningful collective bargaining agreement for its members with the record companies. Continue reading

What You Need to Fix Your Job

by Seth Michaels
Working America

We spend a big part of our life at work—but for too many of us, that time is spent bumping up against challenges that make it hard to deal with. Fortunately, you don’t have to deal with it alone.

We’ve just launched FixMyJob.com, an innovative new website to help you identify the biggest problems you see at your job and solve them.  We’re really excited to introduce FixMyJob.com and give people the tools to make their own lives better.

We’ve listened closely to what you’ve had to say about the challenges you face at work. For some, it’s harassment or verbal abuse from a boss; for others, it’s a schedule that they can’t control, or a lack of opportunity for raises and advancement. Across the country, one of the biggest issues is an ever-increasing imbalance of power between employees and the companies they work for. These aren’t things you just have to put up with.

With FixMyJob.com, you can make a difference—for you and the people you work with. Check it out today.

One Big Union: Why community engagement is needed for labor victories in the South

by Douglas Williams

Douglas Williams

Douglas Williams

It is funny. I had this blog post written out about how progressive communities in the South should support labor in all of these different ways, and why we must do better in our advocacy of working families. I had listed out all of these great ways that progressive communities could get involved in the labor movement, and that we should be more proactive and vocal in our support for better wages, better benefits, and a safer workplace.

Then I talked to my father.

“So one thing that I suggest is that progressives could have house parties to discuss labor issues in their community.”

“Oh. Well, who is going to be there to discuss the labor issues with the group?”

“Well, I just figured that the people would discuss it amongst themselves.”

“But didn’t your last post talk about the lack of communication in Southern labor? So you expect people to go from not having any information at all about the things that labor is doing in their area, to being able to host house parties? Is that realistic, son?”


He then kept asking me that same question: Who is going to discuss labor issues with the people at the house party? It is a perfectly good question to ask, so I did some cursory digging.

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Labor Wrestles With Its Future

Harold Meyerson

Harold Meyerson

By Harold Meyerson,

Since the emergence of capitalism, workers seeking higher pay and safer workplaces have banded together in guilds and unions to pressure their employers for a better deal. That has been the approach of the American labor movement for the past 200 years.

That approach, however, has begun to change. It’s not because unions think collective bargaining is a bad idea but because workers can’t form unions any more — not in the private sector, not at this time. There are some exceptions: Organizing continues at airlines, for instance, which are governed by different organizing rules than most industries. But employer opposition to organizing has become pervasive in the larger economy, and the penalties for employers that violate workers’ rights as they attempt to unionize are so meager that such violations have become routine. For this and a multitude of other reasons, the share of unionized workers in the private sector dropped from roughly one-third in the mid-20th century to a scant 6.6 percent last year. In consequence, the share of the nation’s economy constituted by wages has sunk to its lowest level since World War II, and U.S. median household income continues to decline.

Unions face an existential problem: If they can’t represent more than a sliver of American workers on the job, what is their mission? Are there other ways they can advance workers’ interests even if those workers aren’t their members? Continue reading

The South: Labor’s Elephant in the Room #1ufuture

by Street Heat

While encouraging, the recent uptick in discussions regarding the future of the labor movement will be limited in its impact unless the strategic nature of the U.S. south is included in the exchange.

It is somewhat mystifying that while acknowledging the urgency of labor to address its shortcomings, the critical role that the U.S. south plays in stymieing labor’s ascendancy has received little to no attention. More concerning is the fact that the south’s centrality to labor’s resurgence and ultimate survival is not even acknowledged in this increasingly vigorous discussion.

The combination of  anti-worker laws, repression against people of color and reactionary politics has allowed the enemies of labor to define an entire geographic area as a bulwark against movements for social justice. The south provides the critical majority of electeds who have held the line against pro-worker reforms (along with most other progressive legislation) and its laws have provided a template for laws passed in the “war on workers” in northern states like Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan and New Hampshire.

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How Unions Are Getting Their Groove Back

by Harold Meyerson

Harold Meyerson

Harold Meyerson

Yesterday—April 24th—was a red-letter day in the annals of worker mobilization in post-collective-bargaining America. In Chicago, hundreds of fast-food and retail employees who work in the Loop and along the Magnificent Mile called a one-day strike and demonstrated for a raise to $15-an-hour and the right to form a union. At more than 150 Wal-Mart stores across the nation, workers and community activists called on the chain to regularize employees’ work schedules. And under pressure from an AFL-CIO-backed campaign of working-class voters who primarily aren’t union members, the county supervisors of New Mexico’s Bernalillo County voted to raise the local minimum wage.

The Chicago demonstration, which began in the dawn’s early light of 5:30 a.m., included workers at McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Subway, as well as Macy’s, Sears, and Victoria’s Secret, all of whom make the state minimum wage ($8.25) or just slightly more. Roughly one-third of the jobs in Chicago are low-wage, and more than half of the city’s low-wage workers are older than 30. The demonstration was organized by the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago, which formed to demand a living wage for the city’s retail and fast-food workers.

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Trumka’s Turn Around Proposal

by Kas Schwerdtfeger

Kas Schwerdtfeger

Kas Schwerdtfeger

Admitting you have a problem is the first step.  Finding the way to beat it is next.

Taking an honest look at the labor movement, it doesn’t take a genius to find it at a low that hasn’t been seen since the early thirties.  Unions are taking a beating from politicians, who rather than taxing the ultra wealthy, take the “easier” road of demanding cuts on government workers.  At the same time, private sector employers scrape more and more from the workers in order to maintain massive profits.  No-strike agreements and open shop clauses in the private sector, and right-to-work legislation and restrictions on collective bargaining in the public sector, strike right at the heart of what’s left of organized labor’s gains.  In that sense, I applaud the public statements of President Richard Trumka and the AFL-CIO in their recent meetings that recognize the fact that labor needs to change course in the US.

Changing course is not only the right thing to do; it has become necessary.   According to the March 3rd In These Times article, the new AFL-CIO plan is searching for “new forms of worker representation,” including Working America, Workers Centers, and a general low-wage worker campaign at Wal-Mart and in the general service industry.  It is a mixing bowl of good and bad ingredients. The approach labor takes with the ingredients will determine if what comes out is any good. Continue reading