Wednesday, August 14, 2019


On the heels of the second round of Democratic primary debates, many observers and media outlets rightfully pointed out that while the candidates on the stage in Detroit continuously claimed that they would fight for working-class Americans, they failed to address the issues that really matter to working people. 

As a recent piece in Vox accurately pointed out, the Democratic candidates at the debate “could have discussed the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which would ban right-to-work laws that have weakened private-sector unions. They could have talked about the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act, which would for the first time guarantee collective bargaining rights to all government employees. They could have talked about AB 5, the California bill that would crack down on the big economy companies that avoid paying benefits and the minimum wage by mislabeling employees as independent contractors. But that didn’t happen.” 

Not only are Democratic candidates at the national level failing to champion our party’s position and plans for helping working Americans — sadly, this hypocrisy is bleeding into the state and local level of politics as well. And in many cases, it’s taking shape in places where Democrats have a great deal of political control. 

One example of this can be seen in my home state of California, where union-backed Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg introduced legislation while serving in the California State Senate that forced farm workers into mandatory contracts with the United Farmworkers Union (UFW) that would have reduced their take-home pay and other benefits. Despite a clear majority of the farmworkers choosing to leave the union that had pushed them aside and ignored their voices and concerns for years, this bill was supported by multiple prominent Democrats, like former California State Sen. Isadore Hall, who has come under fire for having close ties to the UFW and now sits on the Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB), an organization that hindered the farmworkers’ votes from being honored for years. 

Thankfully, the bill was defeated, and the courts directed the farmworkers’ votes to be counted. However, the mere fact that Mr. Steinberg, Mr. Hall and other Democrats in the state legislature chose to stand against these farmworkers, only contributed to the ever-growing narrative that the Democratic Party is hypocritical when it comes to championing workers’ rights. 

Heading north from California and into Oregon, which is another Democratic stronghold where our candidates and elected officials should be strong on working-class issues, even with a Democratic supermajority in both chambers during the 2019 legislative session, there were difficulties in achieving pro-union worker legislation. While the legislature was able to pass critical paid family and medical leave legislation, they also cut public employee pay and let multiple pro-union bills die without a vote.

A veteran public union lobbyist in Oregon stated that the public employee pay cut “makes everything else taste like ash in your mouth.” Other union representatives described how they were shut out of the process. 

The examples regarding the farmworkers in California as well as the failure by Democrats in Oregon to push forward pro-union worker legislation begs the question. If Democrats can’t even hold their ground and make the right calls in these two progressive states when it comes to supporting workers’ rights, how will the Democratic Party win over the hearts and souls of working-class voters in states like Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania in 2020? 

President Trump was elected, in part, because of the support he received from union workers nationwide, particularly in key battleground states outside of California and Oregon — the Rust Belt states — that put him over the top and across the victory line in 2016. In fact, according to exit polling by the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), Hillary Clinton underperformed President Obama in 2016 among union members.

To make the message to my fellow Democrats simple I will borrow a line from one AFL-CIO official: “If you run for president without placing unionism front and center, you do so at your own political peril.” 

The data is clear. In order to win in 2020, Democrats must perform better than we did in 2016 and win back the trust of union members and working people. 

Despite President Trump winning these voters over in 2016, his failed policies when it comes to workers’ rights should bar him from winning working-class Americans votes in 2020 and securing a second term in the White House. However, if Democratic candidates fail to address and enact policies that will help working-class Americans, we will and should be the ones to blame if the president wins.

• Bryan Lopez is a Democratic grassroots activist and former commissioner of Norwalk, California.

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