FROM THE EDITOR’S DESK

Why do unions always support Democrats? 

By DON McINTOSH

A couple weeks ago I got a call from a reader. “Why do unions always support the Democrats?” she wanted to know. It’s a really good question, I told her, and one that a lot of union members have asked over the years. I tried to give her the best explanation I could. 

First of all, I said, unions don’t always support Democrats. But to be honest, most of the time, they do.

Most of the union officers I know are not extreme partisans, and they don’t want to tell members how to vote. But they do feel duty-bound to make recommendations. Today so many political decisions affect job prospects and compensation that most feel it’s part of a union’s job to look for political allies, and let members know who those allies are.

That wasn’t the view of Samuel Gompers, the cigar-maker who founded the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1886. Gompers worried that politics was a source of division among members, and he felt that unions should stick to the bargaining table, not the ballot box. But a lot has changed since then. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a Democrat, set today’s pattern. When he signed laws that set the minimum wage and the 40-hour week, that recognized workers’ right to bargain collectively, that created Social Security, he showed that government could raise living standards for working people, and he began the preference of unions in the modern era for the Democratic Party. 

To be clear, some Republicans supported those laws too, and they earned labor’s support. But today’s Republican party looks little like the party of those days. The union leaders I know would be overjoyed if both major parties once again competed for union support. Instead they’ve watched in dismay as one party, especially at its highest levels, has become increasingly hostile to unions. Today, the official Republican Party platform calls for a nationwide “right-to-work” law to ban any requirement that union-represented workers pay dues. The GOP also calls for the repeal of Davis-Bacon, the law that requires the prevailing wage be paid on federal construction projects. The 1931 law’s sponsors, James Davis and Robert Bacon, were both Republicans.

And even though 45% of Republicans tell Gallup they approve of unions, Republican candidates don’t show up at union events any more, and they rarely court labor support. Last month, when Oregon’s largest union, SEIU, held a candidate forum for governor, Republican candidates were invited, but none showed up.  

To be sure, Democratic politicians have given labor grief too. The love affair soured in the ‘70s when Democrats in Congress voted to deregulate airlines and trucking, destroying hundreds of thousands of good union jobs. It worsened further in the ‘90s and ‘00s, when free traders like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama led about a third of Congressional Democrats to join nearly all the Republicans in passing NAFTA and its lookalikes. But in the last decade I’ve noticed a shift back toward labor among Democratic officeholders at every level. Labor can’t win without allies, and must welcome them where they can be found.

Unfortunately I don’t think my caller wanted to hear any of that. She may have just wanted to vent. And I listened respectfully. She used to believe in unions, she said. Her husband’s union had won his job back after he was fired while intoxicated at work. She used to vote the union recommendations. But no more. Not after unions spent millions to help elect Joe Biden, who she called “that man in Washington.” 

This year before the primary and general elections, we’ll once again publish comprehensive union voter guides. We won’t ever tell you how to vote. But we’ll do our best to report who labor’s allies are—based on their records and their proposals, not their rhetoric or their political party.

3 Comments

  1. I have spent 20+ years as a union member who believes in labor not labels. As a public school employee my union’s focus has always been two fold. Help public education and those who serve those schools. Never once have I thought that one party was the key to making things better, it takes both to make this country work. It’s just sad that they can’t work together for all Americans

  2. It is surprising sometimes how much of a difference it can make to unions when one party is in office over the other. A stark example was years ago when my neighbor’s union had a serious unfair labor practices complaint that had gone to the National Labor Relations Board. The complaint sat at the board without action for years under a Republican administration. When a Democratic Administration got into office and made new appointments to the NLRB, my neighbor saw the matter quickly move forward to a positive resolution.

  3. Don,
    This was a great editorial.
    I seem to be spending more of my time educating our members why union political work is necessary.
    Mark Gipson AFSCME 189

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