Throughout the twentieth century, Democrats have been remarkably consistent in garnering a base political support of blue collar workers. The party addressed labor strife by promoting policies that tempered what was often a misguided devotion to laissez-faire economics. Under the most extreme versions of this economic theory, all government economic regulation is seen as bad for the free market and results in less prosperity for the American people. Yet this often was not true for the average American family, as the country did not exactly have a thriving middle class when organized labor became prominent. Industrial trade unions arose quite naturally during a time when “Titans of Industry” were able to exploit the absence of meaningful regulation to consolidate power. When this eventually resulted in less competition, one can reasonably argue the market was not functioning freely anymore. Commercial monopolies become immune to conventional market forces because, being practically the exclusive supplier of a good or service, there was less pressure to control quality, promote efficient production, and incentivize worker performance. Politicians such as President Teddy Roosevelt, the original Republican “maverick” on issues from economic regulation to environmental standards, pursued a “trust buster” agenda aimed at stopping what many saw as a perversion of the free market system. He coupled this with related humanitarian interests such as ending child labor.
The lines between union worker loyalties to political parties have been blurred before. Jeffersonian-Republicans were among the first to wage the political fight for new labor rights against a “Federalist” aristocracy and judicial reliance on common law to undermine that agenda. Efforts among workers to organize and engage in collective bargaining with employers had begun well before the Industrial Revolution and were finally guaranteed by federal statute with passage of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) in 1935. Regarding common law at least. Commonwealth v. Pullis (1806), is widely cited as a first major American labor relations case. The boot and shoemaker journeymen in Philadelphia were indicted for a “combination and conspiracy to raise their wages." It included some of the hallmarks for classic labor relations battle: workers “standing out” or striking, prosecution warning that such collective action could destroy the economy, and the beating of “scabs."
But the problems giving rise to these reasonable debates throughout history over the proper balance of bargaining power between employers and employees in a capitalist economy rarely appear at the forefront of the Democrat Party’s focus anymore. The idea had begun to take hold that Democrats have favored other liberal causes over the interests of middle class workers, union and non-union alike. One prime example was the Obama administration’s veto of the Keystone XL Pipeline. The decision reinforced the broader narrative that Democrats saw sticking it to the coal industry with the goal of stopping climate change as a higher important priority than creating jobs. The tension between major construction industry unions and environmental organizations is not an isolated case of intra-party conflict.
Another interesting development was that this increased perception of Democrats being hostile to worker interests outweighed political endorsements by union leaders in terms of influencing how union members voted in the 2016 election. Democrats failed to mobilize sufficient blue collar support in rust-belt states (e.g., Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania) crucial for determining control of the White House and Senate. According to one study, some labor groups donated an estimated $530 million of workers’ dues to Democrat politicians, Super PACs, and other aligned groups. Republicans made major inroads among union workers during the same period. Union workers appeared to care more about increasing their take-home pay than Democrats’ calls to end gender wage gap or even stopping state “Right to Work” laws.
Even now when Democrats are successful in fighting for interests of organized labor, they apparently struggle to capitalize on a political victory. For instance, many unions and Democrats both adamantly opposed Trump’s first choice for Labor Secretary, fast-food businessman Andrew Puzder. In the face of overwhelming opposition and with some Republican Senators also expected to oppose his confirmation, Puzder withdrew from being considered for the post. But then, wasting little time, Trump’s nomination of Florida International University law school dean R. Alexander Acosta appears to have mitigated any potential damage from that set-back. Acosta already received endorsements from the International Union of Operating Engineers, the Laborers' International Union of North America and the International Association of Fire Fighters. Some public employee union leaders have remained committed to opposing Republicans. National Teachers' Unions mounted an aggressive lobbying campaign against President’s nominee for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. But this also fell short, as she was confirmed through Vice President Pence’s historic tie-breaking vote. Moreover, a surprising number of teacher union members refused to vote Democrat in the 2016 election.
Going forward, both parties face some important political strategic questions. Can Republicans sustain the gains among private sector union support into more than a temporary realignment? Will Congressional leaders be able to reconcile President Trump’s “America First” trade agenda and infrastructure spending plans with free market principles? Do they risk alienating other conservative voters? At the state level, can GOP governors who support “Right to Work” legislation demonstrate that private sector unions are capable of still prospering with those statutes in effect? Will Democrats eschew identity politics and anti-fossil fuels agenda for renewed focus on middle class worker daily concerns? Would bipartisan initiative to reduce working class tax burden help rejuvenate their brand? Was Hillary Clinton the only Democrat who could do so poorly or would any nominee seeking to run on an Obama third term agenda have seen the same result? One thing is certain. Especially when faced with a tough electoral map in 2018, Democrats will suffer politically if they take this important interest group for granted again.
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