Organized labor staging political resurgence for 2020

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Organized labor, whose political clout hit a low in the 2016 presidential race, feels optimistic this Labor Day that it’s backing a better candidate in a better climate against a better target.

Unions, with only a few exceptions, are going all out for Joe Biden this fall. They are confident he’ll do considerably better than Hillary Clinton, who won union households by only 51 percent to 42 percent. According to the election day exit poll, they comprised 18 percent of the overall vote.

Trump has lost some of his populist appeal as the COVID-19 disaster and economic downfall has especially hit working class voters.

Yet another offshoot of the pandemic is to hamstring one of labor’s comparative assets: the ability to directly canvas, person-to-person, its members. They are stepping up virtual and phone contacts, though those may not be as effective.

In 2012 Obama ran up twice the margin Clinton received four years later. The Obama performance is labor’s minimal goal this year.

That’s attainable, labor officials say, because Joe Biden, for almost half a century, has gotten high grades from organized labor and is seen as more of a working class kind of guy.

Trump last time struck a responsive chord with a number of rank and file union members, criticizing trade actions negotiated by Democratic presidents.

These moves, however, haven’t delivered the benefits promised — even before the pandemic struck.

Republicans counter that Trump is appealing to white union members with his hard line on law and order after violence erupted in places like Portland, Ore., and Kenosha, Wis.

The president is winning endorsements of top police and border patrol unions; he also got one last week from a local boilermakers union.

But a majority of labor union members today are women and people of color. And any more labor endorsements for the president will be rare.

The building trades are illustrative. They left their Democratic roots in 1972 to support Richard Nixon in a reaction to the anti-war protests, and some supported Ronald Reagan in the 1980s on cultural issues. An internal AFL-CIO poll indicated Trump bested Clinton with building trades members in 2016.

This time, however, the buildings trades are squarely with Biden, who has supported their causes since first elected to the Senate in 1972.

Last time, union households cast almost 8 percent of their votes for minor party candidates. Labor operatives think this will shrink, especially among the left-wing Bernie Sanders supporters.

Overall, union membership has steadily declined since the 1960s, dropping from about one third of the work force to a little more than 10 percent. They represent a higher proportion in the midwestern industrial states: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota, all battleground contests. The Democrats lost among union members in Ohio in 2016, and Clinton had reduced margins in those other states. This is where labor’s clout will be most tested.

Some of the public service unions — about half the AFL-CIO — are especially strapped during the pandemic. The teachers’ unions are expected to be active — probably effective — for Democrats this fall; both the current school issues and their disdain for Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are driving forces.

A number of union members are veterans, with a hiring preference given by state and local governments and the “helmets to hardhats” program of the building trades. The revelation last week by the Atlantic that Trump has called slain American soldiers “losers,” continues to reverberate and may well hurt him with these voters.

Although there is little person-to-person canvassing with union households, labor may have one other edge with the premium on mail voting. They can communicate repeatedly with their members on where and how to vote by mail.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts 2020 Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.

Tags AFL–CIO Bernie Sanders Betsy DeVos Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Joe Biden Joe Biden 2020 presidential campaign Labor Trade unions Trade unions in the United States

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