Democrats need union voters to keep control of Congress

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Calvin Newman is a registered Republican in Mogadore, Ohio. But he is voting this year for Tim Ryan, the Democratic candidate for the Senate.

The steelworker appreciates what he sees as Ryan’s pro-worker approach to the economy – the same approach he says motivated him to vote twice for former President Donald Trump. But he suspects most of his union colleagues at a Georgia Pacific cardboard mill near Akron are voting for the Republican nominee, venture capitalist JD Vance.

“Most of the workers at my plant are Republicans,” said Newman, 35. “I’m not asking how they vote, but I would assume for [Vance] because they give me a hard time wearing a Tim Ryan shirt to work.

If Democrats hope to retain control of the Senate, they need as many voters like Newman as they can find in Ohio — and in states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Nevada, where campaigns are close before polling day. In 2016, Trump won all of those states except Nevada, making much better among union voters nationally than Mitt Romney or John McCain had. When President Biden won all of those states except Ohio, he reversed some Republican gains but still didn’t do as well with union members as President Barack Obama did in 2008 or 2012.

The Labor vote is much smaller than it once was nationally, but whether union members are showing up on Tuesday — and for whom — could be enough to determine which party will lead Capitol Hill next year. .

“Union members are really important for this year’s midterms,” ​​said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, who advised Biden in 2020 and warned More than a year ago that inflation was hurting him politically. “They generally vote Democratic, and they are the only group of white men who vote the most Democratic. If you get a syndicate member, you usually get their household members as well.

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As inflation spikes and voters tell pollsters the economy is their top concern, the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor federation, has revived an old-fashioned strategy in nine field states battle to educate and engage members in their workplaces on the issues and the candidates. . Canvassers hoped to reach 7.7 million union members nationwide by Tuesday.

“I’m thrilled to hear Tim Ryan talk about day-to-day, day-to-day issues that matter to people,” said Liz Shuler, president of the federation. “That’s exactly what we need more of, and Midwestern candidates are working hard on that.”

Some labor leaders believe that grassroots portfolio issues are friendlier ground to reach labor voters, and they are happy to see the economy leading the political agenda.

“The more we focus as Democrats on delivering a working class agenda and its messages, the better we will do,” said Larry Cohen, former president of the Communications Workers of America and president of Our Revolution, a Bernie Sanders. -group aligned.

For decades, union voters, including millions of retirees, have been a critical base for Democrats. Unions have a built-in structure for engaging members, and union messages, if they are a reliable source of job security, influence votes.

One in five voters in Pennsylvania and Michigan in the 2020 presidential elections came from unionized households, exit poll data showed, as did 14% of households in Wisconsin. It was a sharp drop from 2004, when about a third of all voting households in those three states had union members, but still a significant share.

Trump, meanwhile, improved his share of union voters in Pennsylvania and Ohio from 2016 to 2020, even though his overall percentage of unionized households fell slightly from 43% to 40%.

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For Democrats, winning over white union members in Rust Belt states requires a concerted effort, reaching out to union voters by phone and mail to talk about economic issues, Cohen said. Without it, Republicans tend to do better. “If it’s a white male, he’ll vote like the rest of the white male voters,” Cohen said — and in many key campaign states this year, that likely means for the GOP.

Newman, the steelworker from Ohio, said messages from the state’s AFL-CIO chapter helped sway his vote. He saw Ryan speak at an AFL-CIO convention from Ohio to Columbus in late September and immediately brought up his positions, such as universal pre-K and keeping manufacturing jobs in the United States.

“I listened to him and liked what he had to say,” Newman said. “Pre-kindergarten really hit us hard. And it was cheaper for my wife to stay home and not work than to pay for pre-K.

Ryan, who wears Nikes and Ohio State gear on the campaign trail, vowed to ‘revitalize manufacturing’ and ‘fight for workers’ in union halls and restaurants across the country. State. In neighboring Pennsylvania, Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, with his faded hoodie revealing a sleeve of tattoos, struck a similar, albeit more anti-establishment, tone, pledging to fight to make more goods in the United States and support “the way of life union”.

Many union leaders said in interviews that it was easier to engage their members around candidates such as Ryan, Fetterman and Wisconsin Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes because of their focus on workers and labor issues. work.

Scott Parker, a 25-year-old steelworker in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania, a suburb south of Pittsburgh, is a two-time Trump supporter who votes for Fetterman.

“I liked Fetterman talking about raising the minimum wage and his support for fracking,” Parker said. The steelworker supports both his 7-year-old daughter and his Grandmother. “At the end of the day, money makes the world go round. That’s all I care about. I want to work and then go home and relax.

But neighbors gave Parker heat for wearing a “Steelworkers for Fetterman” t-shirt. “People in town throw Pringles chips at me when I wear it,” he said.

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In Ohio, Mike Knisley, secretary-treasurer of the Ohio State Building Trades Council, which represents about 100,000 construction workers, said Ryan “resonates more than any candidate I’ve ever seen among our members”.

“He didn’t back down from social issues,” he said. “But it’s all about economic issues first and foremost.”

Trump did particularly strong breakthroughs among the building trades — unions representing workers such as electricians, plumbers and painters. Knisley estimated that half of its members voted for Trump in 2016. They are, historically, one of the whitest and most conservative parts of the labor movement, with a legacy of institutional racismparticularly by controlling hiring practices in a way that excluded non-white workers.

Many union leaders said they don’t think Democrats have done a good enough job of telling voters what the party has done. Under Democratic scrutiny, Congress passed a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill and earmarked hundreds of billions of dollars in the Cut Inflation Act for new, greener manufacturing and hundreds of billions in addition to the new high-tech manufacturing in CHIPS law.

“I think nationally the Democratic Party has done a terrible job of getting an economic message across,” said Dorsey Hager, a leader of the Columbus Building Trades Council, a coalition of unions that represents 18,000 construction workers. in central Ohio. “But Tim Ryan and John Fetterman are appealing to working class voters. They talk about union rights and the workplace, and it crosses party lines.

Union voters also play a crucial role in other races.

Rep. Mary Peltola (D-Alaska) looks likely to beat a challenge from former Gov. Sarah Palin in part because of strong support from union voters in the state. Alaska ranks fourth in the United States in terms of union density, and Peltola has the endorsements of most unions that backed his Republican predecessor, who held the seat for nearly 50 years, until that Peltola wins a special election in August after his death.

In Nevada, Senator Catherine Cortez Masto is perhaps the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent. His campaign has highly concentrated on threats to women’s reproductive rights, while his Republican opponent, Alex Laxalt, has been fixated on inflation and high gas prices.

The powerful Las Vegas Culinary Workers Union, which represents some 60,000 cooks, servers and casino workers, thinks it could make the difference for Cortez Masto — and save the Senate for the Democrats. The union has argued that abortion is a critical economic issue for its members, many of whom are women of color. They plan to knock on more than a million doors by the time polls close on Tuesday.

“I think we’re making a difference and we’re going to win,” said Maria Bedolla, a union housekeeper at the Mandalay Bay Resort, who has been canvassing since August. “Too many people know who we are and that we fight for the people.”

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Back in the steel mills of southwestern Pennsylvania, where Trump has built a source of Republican support, Democrats have struggled to convince union voters to back Fetterman.

“Democrat is a dirty word. [around here]said JoJo Burgess, canvasser for the AFL-CIO in southwestern Pennsylvania and a steelworker unionist. Burgess, 52, spoke to workers outside the gates of steelworks and other union yards in the area ahead of every election since 2004. The work got much tougher in 2016 and 2020, with tough confrontations that sometimes turned physical between workers, he said.

The party may still be able to win over those voters — but not if it loses sight of the economic pain experienced by the working class.

When asked why union members turned to Trump, Burgess recalled a fateful comment Hillary Clinton made in 2016 in Ohio about bankrupting “a lot of coal miners and companies. charcoal burners”.

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