Democratic candidates competing for support of union workers

Michelle L. Price and Nicholas Riccardi
Associated Press
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., waves before taking the stage at a Service Employees International Union forum on labor issues, Saturday, April 27, 2019, in Las Vegas.

Las Vegas –Democratic presidential candidates declared unions to be a lifeline for the American middle class and pledged Saturday to strengthen workers’ rights to strike and organize and to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.

But while the candidates decried the erosion of wages and union power in the U.S., the opening speakers at a Las Vegas union forum offered only a few specifics on what policies they’d offer to bolster union ranks and raise pay.

California Sen. Kamala Harris and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar said they would crack down on corporations that try to undercut labor organizing, and Harris pledged to a McDonald’s worker in a union campaign that, as president, she would press the fast food giant to treat its workers better.

Klobuchar pitched her plan to require most companies to make a minimum retirement contribution for employees of at least 50 cents per hour and tougher enforcement of anti-trust laws to combat large corporations consolidating power. And former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke said he’d try to sell conservatives on a $15 minimum wage by making the case that employees who don’t have to juggle a second job to make ends meet are much more productive.

Three other candidates – Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and former Obama housing chief Julian Castro – were scheduled to speak Saturday afternoon at the event organized by the liberal Center for American Progress Action Fund and the Service Employees International Union.

Their pitch to show solidary with workers comes as union leaders and their backers worry that the 2020 field of at least 20 Democratic contenders is not spending enough time on bread-and-butter concerns.

Labor is a pillar of the Democratic Party, but many white working-class voters and union members in swing states backed Republican Donald Trump in 2016. Democrats are working to win back those voters in the next presidential election, but party leaders and union members are telling candidates that they need to talk about issues that matter to working families.

That concern is helping propel former Vice President Joe Biden’s newly launched campaign.

Much of the Democratic conversation has centered on liberal ideas such as “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal climate change plan. But some of the White House contenders speaking in Las Vegas have made concerted union appeals. Warren joined striking Stop & Shop workers on a picket line in New Hampshire this month, and Harris hired a top official from the service employees union for her campaign.

The union, one of the country’s largest, has about 2 million members. The union said it would consider endorsing a candidate who commits to making it easier for workers to join a union, supports more than doubling the federal minimum wage to $15 and spends substantial time getting to know workers and what they do on the job – not just walking a picket line for a photo opportunity.

The union’s president, Mary Kay Henry, said it has no timeline for an endorsement and does not expect one soon.

Henry said the candidates have discussed fragments of the issues faced by working people, such as affordable child care or health care, but generally have not focused on “a comprehensive set of actions that we think the next president can take that would commit to ending poverty wage work in this nation.”

Henry said that includes discussions about “unrigging the rules” of the economy, holding corporations accountable and strengthening unions.

She said: “You can’t really make progress or have the power to improve kitchen-table issues like wages, affordable health care, affordable child care and a secure retirement unless we figure out a way for millions more people to get a seat at the table and be able to bargain.”