Of the many surprises coming out of last month’s election, one has loomed particularly large for the labor movement: the fact that according to CNN exit polling, 42 percent of union households—defined as households in which at least one member belongs to a union—went for Donald Trump. In must-win Ohio, Clinton lost among union households by nine points. Call it the revenge of the Reagan Democrats, since 1984 was the last year union households went for a Republican presidential candidate in such high numbers. Adding insult to injury, unions around the country spent more than $108 million on Clinton contributions, a 38 percent jump from 2012. They spent more money this cycle than any other and got the worst return on their investment.
As the dust settles, unions are searching for answers. I would submit when it comes to the labor vote, unions need to take a hard look at their own internal processes. If the labor movement wants to avoid wasting so much time and money again, unions need to completely shift their political programs. These changes should include reforming the endorsement process so rank-and-file members, not just union leadership, get a vote on whether and whom to endorse; providing numerous opportunities for members to discuss elections and campaigns with their union leaders, as well as to hear from and be heard by candidates; and restructuring union political departments so staffers are closer to the people they serve.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should say now that I left a position with one of the largest unions in the country last fall to work for the Bernie Sanders campaign. I do not write this article as an “I told you so,” but as a push to the movement I love. I am not a union buster feigning concern for the United States’ ailing labor movement; rather, I am an erstwhile union organizer and communicator, who went to the union movement looking for a way to make change for working people after being employed by a nonunion grocery store for years.
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The warning signs came early for me that this would be a tough cycle for unions to get their members out to vote for their preferred candidate.
By the time I made the decision to go work for Bernie Sanders in November 2015, my union had already endorsed Hillary Clinton through a vote by its executive board. Managers above me questioned whether going to work for “that guy” was such a good idea, but when I told rank-and-file members, who do not hold official leadership positions, where I was going, the response was overwhelmingly positive. “You go, girl!” and “Go kick some ass” were common refrains. These responses suggested to me it was too early for my union to have made an endorsement in the primary. We were still three months away from the Iowa caucuses, and it seemed clear our membership had not, in fact, really coalesced around a candidate yet.
My organization wasn’t alone: Most unions this cycle lined up early and went in hard for Hillary Clinton. Most endorsement decisions were similarly made by a vote of unions’ respective executive boards. It seemed many unions were primarily concerned with not being seen by the Clinton campaign as having been late to the party, as opposed to giving their members the opportunity to learn about the candidates and have a robust conversation about the election and potential endorsements.
Engaging in electoral politics has always been a tricky business for unions: Rank-and-file members do not necessarily vote on the issues leadership thinks they ought to. For example, in my city, the leadership of the building trades unions (electricians, plumbers, laborers and other skilled trades) and a good number of their rank-and-file members supported a plan to build a new criminal justice center (which would be privately run and increase the size of the jail), because their members would get the contract to build it. But several other unions, comprising mostly food, janitorial, and other service workers, joined in a coalition opposing the project, because they represented large numbers of Black and brown workers who care about criminal justice reform and were concerned about the effect on their communities. Possibly the most high-profile example of this phenomenon is the union divide on the Dakota Access Pipeline: Building Trades Unions strongly support it because thousands of their members are building it, while unions like National Nurses United and Communications Workers of America have declared their solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s fight to protect its land and water.
In light of all the varying dynamics at play, union leadership should not take the endorsement process lightly. Given the internecine disagreements that can happen within the greater union movement, it is even more important unions get their own houses in order before engaging in campaigns.
Unions should take every opportunity to involve rank-and-file members in the endorsement process as much as possible: Online polls, surveys, town halls, open discussion meetings, and one-on-one conversations should all be in the mix. Candidates should have to go through a rigorous process where they are vetted not just by union leaders and executive boards, but by rank-and-file members as well. They should have to answer tough questions about key issues, not just scripted or planted ones, by regular union members. By the time an endorsement decision is made, rank-and-file members should have had multiple chances to discuss the candidates and issues and make their voices heard, so that they will feel more connected to the candidate when it comes time to vote, and have respect for the process and decision made by the union, even if they ultimately disagree with it.
Obviously, unions want to back winning candidates who will champion working people. But the most precious asset unions have—one that can be easily lost—is the trust between rank-and-file members and leadership.
There seems to be an irresistible need to endorse candidates for nearly every race in nearly every cycle, often without a compelling reason or a commitment to fight for issues important to members. Or worse, an endorsed candidate has not been a good ally on those key issues. The continual endorsement of candidates whom members see as not having their best interests at heart erodes trust between rank-and-filers and leaders on matters of politics.
And unfortunately, because top union leaders are mostly based in Washington, D.C., they are interacting with members of Congress and their staff frequently—perhaps even more than they interact with their rank-and-file members in any meaningful way. In the insular culture of D.C. and the Hill, and when personal relationships are at stake, it can be hard for these leaders to say no to candidates, even if it reflects the feelings of their members.
As a result, a lot of rank-and-file union members simply get tired of their unions talking at them, rather than with them, about politics. And I can understand why.
Most large unions have dedicated political departments. Often based in D.C., the role of union political departments is to create messaging and design the union’s “get out the vote” program. While some staff members of the political departments are former union organizers, or rank-and-file members who’ve worked their way up, many are former campaign staffers and Democratic Party operatives. Who can blame them? They have the campaign experience the unions need and desire, and it’s a stable job with good pay and great benefits, unlike many campaign positions.
The problem with this model is many of the very people who are tasked with figuring out how to get union members to the polls have never spent time in a union hall. They could not name one rank-and-file member with whom they have a close relationship. They may have internal polling and data, but they lack the relationships and qualitative knowledge that can help illuminate that data.
For most union members, the conversation with local leaders, shop stewards—members who work at a union site, make sure the contract is followed, and are typically the first line of contact between members and the union—and staff is not so much, “Hey, what are your thoughts on the upcoming election? What are the issues that are most important to you this year? We want to make sure our national leadership knows how you feel.” Instead, they’re more like, “You should vote for this guy because he supports working families,” or some other boilerplate statement, and that’s if a one-on-one face-to-face conversation even happens at all.
More often, this communication looks like a full-page list of endorsed candidates in the union newsletter, haranguing speeches at union meetings and events, mailers, and nonstop robo- or phone calls. There might be some discussion over pledge-to-vote cards at the workplace, but that’s after the union has already endorsed a candidate. The opportunity for meaningful member input and consensus building within the union is often woefully inadequate.
Earlier in the primary, Working America, the AFL-CIO-affiliated labor group for nonunion workers, warned leadership they were hearing a lot of positive support for Trump in the white working class areas of Pittsburgh and Cleveland, traditional union strongholds. Unions within the AFL-CIO at first seemed to take this to heart, but the closer we got to the primary, the more unions insisted their voters would turn out for Clinton, seemingly ignoring or failing to address the groundswell for Trump within their unions.
In-depth conversations between rank-and-file members and their local and national leadership would serve a number of purposes: They would help national leaders decide if there was enough consensus within the union to make an endorsement, it would highlight issues of importance to members that leaders ought to be pushing in conversations with candidates, and finally, it would serve as an early warning to union leadership if members are beginning to coalesce around a candidate like Trump, who says what many want to hear about jobs and trade but at a price of attacking marginalized groups and other progressive communities unions have sought to make common cause with. More importantly, many of those marginalized people are themselves union members.
In terms of structure, and in order to better understand their members, I believe unions should distribute their political departments. Instead of having everyone holed up in a D.C. office, they ought to have their political staffers working out of local union offices and halls throughout the country. This model already exists. For example, the first union I worked for as a communications specialist had very few international staffers working out of its headquarters in New York and D.C., instead immersing staffers into locals throughout the country.
Unions should have a dedicated pipeline for rank-and-file activists to be mentored and work their way up into the political department, the way many do for activists to become full-time organizers. The political program should be more integrated into the daily work of a robust internal organizing program that interacts with members daily and is constantly organizing on both workplace and community issues. Members cannot only hear from their union leadership during elections and contract negotiation time.
Finally, electoral politics and which candidates to endorse are just too divisive a topic to be left in the hands of a dozen or two dozen people on an executive board. I believe every union would be better served, and better serve their members, if they had an open process in which every member could vote on whom and whether to endorse. It’s a great way to get members more involved and plugged into their union, and when they respect the process, even if the outcome isn’t what they wanted, they will have more respect and trust in their union and the union’s ultimate choice of a candidate.
I hope the labor movement will learn from this election. As an organizer, I used to live by the adage that we were only as strong as our weakest member. Unions rely on solidarity to function effectively and win better working conditions, wages, and benefits not just for their members, but for all working people. Solidarity begins when everyone feels they have a voice which is respected and heard.