Democratic presidential hopefuls are seizing on anti-corporate rhetoric and policy proposals as they look to win the support of influential labor unions and frame themselves as working-class heroes.
While virtually every Democrat in the race has sworn off corporate campaign cash, many are still grappling with past ties to powerful industries and fear that candidates like Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSenate GOP blocks defense bill, throwing it into limbo This week: Congress starts year-end legislative sprint Restless progressives eye 2024 MORE (I-Vt.) could eventually frame their more recent denunciations of big business and special interests as inauthentic or opportunistic.
Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenSenate GOP blocks defense bill, throwing it into limbo Restless progressives eye 2024 Poll: Harris, Michelle Obama lead for 2024 if Biden doesn't run MORE (D-Mass.), a longtime critic of big business who has called for the break-up of big tech companies like Amazon, has been especially vocal. She recently joined Stop & Shop workers on strike in Somerville, Mass, on April 12, the day after the strike for better wages and benefits was declared.
Stop and Shop "workers deserve fair wages and good benefits—and I’m behind them 100% of the way," she tweeted last week.
"I stand in solidarity with @UFCW and the 31K workers who are making their voices heard," she added, referring to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.
South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegHarris, Buttigieg to promote infrastructure law in Charlotte 'Fox & Friends Weekend' hosts suggest new variant meant to distract from Biden's struggles Buttigieg: Families who buy electric vehicles 'never have to worry about gas prices again' MORE rallied with them on Friday in Malden, Mass. Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenDearborn office of Rep. Debbie Dingell vandalized Pfizer to apply for COVID-19 booster approval for 16- and 17-year-olds: report Coronavirus variant raises fresh concerns for economy MORE, who has not officially declared his candidacy, rallied with the workers in Boston on Thursday. And Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharKlobuchar confident spending bill will be finished before Christmas Sunday shows preview: New COVID-19 variant emerges; supply chain issues and inflation persist The Hill's 12:30 Report: Biden renominates Powell as Fed chair MORE (D-Minn.) joined them on the picket line on Friday in Somerville.
Additionally, Sens. Cory BookerCory BookerPoll: Harris, Michelle Obama lead for 2024 if Biden doesn't run Five reasons for Biden, GOP to be thankful this season Senators call for Smithsonian Latino, women's museums to be built on National Mall MORE (D-N.J.), Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisBuilding back a better vice presidency Stacey Abrams nominated to board of solar energy firm Emhoff lights first candle in National Menorah-lighting ceremony MORE (D-Calif.) and Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandKlobuchar confident spending bill will be finished before Christmas Five ways Senate could change Biden's spending plan This Thanksgiving, skip the political food fights and talk UFOs instead MORE (D-N.Y.) tweeted their support for the strike.
Sanders, who has made income inequality and protecting workers a key part of his campaign, has repeatedly touted his support for unions and his denunciations of "corporate greed."
"We need elected officials and candidates at every level to get serious about forcefully speaking out for unions. It’s not good enough for candidates to say they like “workers” or the “middle class.” We need to specifically and explicitly support trade UNIONS," Sanders tweeted earlier this month.
No candidate “wants to be the last one to the table” when it comes to working-class issues, one Democratic source in New Hampshire said, noting that while Sanders carried that mantle in 2016, other 2020 hopefuls have taken up similar positions.
For some candidates, the anti-corporate messaging appears intended to reassure voters that they have come to embrace a more progressive platform – and that past industry ties will not influence their campaigns.
Booker, for instance, has sought to overcome criticism that he is too cozy with corporate interests, including those of the pharmaceutical industry.
In a radio interview in February, the New Jersey senator said that, if elected president, he would hold to account drug companies that hike price excessively.
“It’s unconscionable how people are profiteering off the pain of others, and we’re going to make sure we hold them accountable,” he said.
The anti-corporate, pro-labor message is reflective of a sense among some Democrats that the party has drifted away from its working-class reputation in recent years, ultimately ceding the industrial-era hubs that Democrats once relied on – Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania among them – to President TrumpDonald TrumpPence: Supreme Court has chance to right 'historic wrong' with abortion ruling Prosecutor says during trial that actor Jussie Smollett staged 'fake hate crime' Overnight Defense & National Security — US, Iran return to negotiating table MORE in 2016.
That notion has been seared into Democrats’ 2020 strategies: virtually every candidate vying for the Democratic nomination has denounced the role of corporate money in politics; campaign rhetoric is rife with tales of blue-collar upbringings and life experiences; and talking about corporate greed has become a crowd-pleaser at rallies.
Candidates like Rep. Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) RyanDemocrats brace for flood of retirements after Virginia rout Ohio Republicans swing for fences in redistricting proposals Ohio redistricting commission gives up on US House map MORE (D-Ohio), for example, have made their working class backgrounds a key part of their campaigns, often in personal terms.
In his announcement, Ryan recounted how his father-in-law was laid off from Youngstown Sheet and Tube in the late 1970s and, later, how jobs at a local factory in Ohio were offshored to China.
Steven Billet, the director of the masters program in legislative affairs at George Washington University, said candidates joining workers on strike so they can’t get pinned as the pro-big business politician in the race is “a rational strategy.”
“This element of the Democratic Party is probably its most active and vocal. A full-blown attack by them could cripple some of the weaker campaigns,” Billet told The Hill. “With the large number of candidates in the field, voters are looking for any reason/any weakness to eliminate candidates from the field.”
By talking up their working-class credentials, Democrats are also hoping to score endorsements from organized labor.
Many unions are waiting longer to endorse in the 2020 race, fearing a repeat of 2016. That year, several labor groups saw local and regional chapters endorse Sanders despite national leaders offering their support to Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonCountering the ongoing Republican delusion Republicans seem set to win the midterms — unless they defeat themselves Poll: Democracy is under attack, and more violence may be the future MORE.
The delayed endorsements have not stopped candidates from meeting with labor leaders, speaking at union conferences and picketing with workers.
Just this month, for instance, more than half a dozen Democratic contenders spoke at the North America’s Building Trades Unions legislative conference in Washington.
There are also financial incentives for courting organized labor. Some unions have associated political action committees (PACs) that can dole out valuable campaign dollars to candidates.
Harris, for example received $1,000 from the San Francisco-based International Longshore & Warehouse Union Political Action Fund just last month, though other candidates, like Warren, have disavowed PAC contributions entirely, not just those from corporate-aligned groups.
Ultimately, candidates hope that support for unions will translate into good will - and votes - during the primary process.
Shortly after Buttigieg appeared with striking UFCW workers, the union, which has nearly 1.3 million members spread across the United States and Canada, expressed its gratitude.
"Thank you to @PeteButtigieg and everyone standing with
#StopAndShopWorkers!," the tweet read, with a picture of Buttigieg addressing the striking UFCW workers.