Democrats aren’t going to win working-class voters this way, says labor union president

US Senator Elizabeth Warren delivers donuts and coffee while greeting Stop & Shop workers on the picket line at the Stop & Shop in Somerville, MA on April 12, 2019. US Senator Elizabeth Warren joined Stop & Shop workers on a picket line outsidUS Sen. Elizabeth Warren delivers doughnuts and coffee while greeting grocery store workers on the picket line at the Stop & Shop supermarket in Somerville, Massachusetts, on April 12, 2019. | Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

“Democrats have to speak about how they are going to take the shitty jobs that exist in this economy and make them good jobs.”

Democrats vying for the White House are fighting for working-class votes and union endorsements. These days, it’s not unusual to see presidential candidates marching with McDonald’s workers or picketing with striking grocery store employees, like Elizabeth Warren did.

But so far, union leaders aren’t too impressed. Only three candidates — Pete Buttigieg, Jay Inslee, and Bill de Blasio — have come up with detailed plans to make it easier for workers to join labor unions.

And the candidates’ performances on the debate stage Tuesday night was a huge disappointment, says Mary Kay Henry, president of Service Employees International Union, one of the largest and most influential unions in the country. I spoke with Henry, who was in Detroit for the debates, over the phone on Wednesday.

“I don’t think they were talking to any working-class voters,” said Henry, who has spent the past few days setting up meetings between candidates and workers. She said candidates spent no time talking about wages, and no one mentioned how to grow the labor movement.

While union membership has been declining steadily since the 1980s, the labor movement still represents a voter base that could make or break a candidate’s chances. SEIU, in particular, represents a diverse group of 2 million service workers in the United States and Canada. They are janitors, security officers, maintenance workers, and window cleaners, to name a few. And they are flexing their power.

The union has done a remarkable job of organizing fast-food workers across the country in their fight for union rights and a $15 minimum wage. These workers have been instrumental in pushing seven states to adopt a $15 minimum pay rate.

In 2020, unions like SEIU are trying to redefine what the traditional labor movement means — white working-class men — and are looking for a progressive agenda that will make it easier for workers to join unions.

I talked to Henry about what she thinks Democrats need to do to win the working class, and why their performance on Wednesday left so much to be desired. I also asked about who might get that coveted SEIU endorsement. Hillary Clinton got it in 2015.

Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

Alexia Fernández Campbell

Last night’s debate sure seemed like Democrats were trying to win back working-class Trump voters. What do you think they were doing?

Mary Kay Henry

I don’t think they were talking to any working-class voters. I think they really need to respond to demands that working people are making in the streets. Only three out of the 24 candidates have a plan to rewrite the rules that will allow more people to join labor unions.

Alexia Fernández Campbell

There’s been this narrative in the media of a Midwestern union voter being a gruff old white man who doesn’t like immigrants. How accurate is that?

Mary Kay Henry

It’s like nostalgia. When fast-food workers started striking [in 2014], everyone thought they were high school students making pocket change.

That’s not how the economy works anymore. Millions of Americans earn less than $15 an hour. They are home care workers, child care workers, truck drivers, retail workers, light manufacturing workers.

The idea that working-class voters are white men is just wrong. It’s white workers, brown workers, black workers, and all of them want a shot at a better life for themselves and their kids. That’s what unites working people. Democrats have to speak about how they are going to take the shitty jobs that exist in this economy and make them good jobs.

Alexia Fernández Campbell

So many candidates have been joining striking workers on picket lines. Are these just photo ops, or does it say something larger about the labor movement?

Mary Kay Henry

I think it says something about candidates recognizing the basic problem in our economy and democracy, and that the rules have been rigged in terms of voting and in terms of work. [Their participation] is a tribute to the candidates. But it’s also a tribute to the fearlessness and courage of McDonald’s workers in this fight with the backing of our union.

McDonald’s workers have busted the myth that somehow a fast-food worker deserves to have a bad job because they didn’t do right by themselves when they were in school.

Fast-food workers are the foundation of the middle class in Australia and Germany and Norway. Fast-food work could be a middle-class job in this country. Auto work used to be poverty jobs, until workers went out into the streets and told GM and Ford that they wanted more. The auto companies also realized that it would be better for their workers to have more money to buy their cars. We’ve seen that raising the minimum wage in states and cities is spurring economic growth because people have more money to spend in their neighborhood.

We want candidates to help the rest of the country see that unionizing is a fundamental American value. That when you work hard for a living, you can lead a better life. And that raising wages for one group of workers helps other workers too.

Alexia Fernández Campbell

SEIU has been a key player in the fight for a $15 minimum wage. Most 2020 candidates endorse it now. Did that surprise you?

Mary Kay Henry

It’s about time. I think we were able to get it in the 2016 Democratic Party platform because 22 million people in this nation are now on a path to $15 because of city and state actions to raise the minimum wage. Amazon and Target and Facebook have also raised wages to $15 an hour, so I think it’s given elected officials license to support it.

It was just six years ago that we were debating between a $9 and $10.10 minimum wage. Workers have created a political sea change, and we intend to do the same at the national level.

Alexia Fernández Campbell

What are your thoughts on the view of some Democrats that all these ambitious plans are unrealistic and more incremental change is the way to go?

Mary Kay Henry

I think the level of racial and economic inequality in the nation has reached the point of being intolerable. No elected official should accept incrementalism.

American taxpayers are subsidizing multimillion-dollar companies that are making record profits but are not providing decent jobs for people. You can’t nibble around the edges.

All these bold solutions are not radical. Other countries have taken similar measures, and they are seeing economic growth. Workers are making sacrifices and going out into the streets to call for change. Now we need candidates to answer their call.

Alexia Fernández Campbell

There’s a lot of talk about who the SEIU will endorse and when. What can you say about that?

Mary Kay Henry

We don’t have a deadline … we’ve created a set of criteria for every candidate. We want them to meet with our members and meet with our leaders and get to know our lives.

Second, we want them to walk a day in the shoes of one of our members. Kamala [Harris] is going to do that tomorrow with a security officer here in Detroit. Beto [O’Rourke] is going to do that in Las Vegas with a home care worker.

Third, we want them to offer a comprehensive economic plan and concrete steps to help millions more workers join together and join unions.

Alexia Fernández Campbell

Do you think any candidates at tonight’s debate will say the right things?

Mary Kay Henry

That’s our hope. We want our members to be able to stay tuned because candidates will be speaking directly to their everyday experiences and lives.

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