The last four years have represented a pivotal moment for organized labor. My union, the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT), along with many others in the labor movement, saw significant numbers of our membership vote for Republican Donald Trump, not just in 2016, but again in 2020. While Biden won a slim majority of our membership and outperformed Hillary Clinton, it’s clear Democrats need to do much more to truly win union support.
This election cycle we went back to basics—educating our members around core IUPAT issues that could benefit our union like labor law reform, the benefits of robust infrastructure funding and immigration reform. While it made a difference, a few months of targeted political education cannot counteract the decades of attacks on unions, deindustrialization, devastating trade deals, false promises from politicians, and structural forces that have placed many unions into the position they’re in today. These combined forces have led us to having record-low union density nationwide, despite the popularity of unions standing at its highest level in over 20 years.
Now that the election is nearing an end and it’s looking like Trump will lose (though with Republicans likely retaining control of the Senate and certain right-wing control of the Supreme Court), the IUPAT intends to make it clear that we need the likely incoming Biden administration to take the needs of working people seriously. We can’t accept that, per New York Times exit polling, 40 percent of union households voted for Trump instead of Biden.
When our union endorsed Biden in June, our efforts represented an endorsement of our values as working people, and we spent significant amounts of time and effort ensuring that any candidate we endorsed knew that. When he spoke to our members just last week, he mentioned the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act as one of his priorities, and we plan to work together to ensure the passage of it. The PRO Act, passed by the House in February, would dramatically grow workers’ power on the job by expanding union membership, reforming decades-old labor laws, weakening so-called “right to work” laws and ending employer intimidation or interference in union drives.
The PRO Act offers the potential to transform our union and the broader labor movement into a force we haven’t seen in decades. If his administration fails to deliver by not doing everything possible to level the playing field for organized labor, it will only set the stage for the further degradation of the labor movement in an increasingly fractured and partisan country. It also could enable more competent politicians who share Trump’s politics to re-use his playbook in the future—for even more destructive ends.
Why did Trump win over some union workers?
Trump’s appeal to union members should not have taken us by surprise. He has long appealed to many of our worst tendencies and used them to drive resentment and division among the working class. These appeals are no different than what bosses have used time and again to crush organizing drives and divide workers. Racism and xenophobia are anathema to the values of the labor movement, which makes them extremely effective tools at diluting the political power of organized labor. The divide-and-conquer mindset that Trump embodies has helped pit workers against each other in their own industry and across industries.
At the same time, many union members are rightfully skeptical of electoral politics. Many turned to Trump for that very reason—he promised a break from politics as usual. For decades, our members have been sold false promises. We often are lucky just to get the status quo from elected leaders, if not outright rollbacks of rights we’ve long enjoyed. Our standards of living have fallen and despite promises from Washington, nothing has changed. Rather than believing it’s possible to grow our movement and provide good-paying union jobs to millions more Americans, many union members choose protectionism and defending what’s left instead.
Not surprisingly, it quickly became clear that Trump had no intention of fulfilling any of the promises he made on the campaign trail in 2016. We never got infrastructure spending, we got travel bans. We never saw wages rise, instead we saw the further enrichment of the bosses and developers. Healthcare got more expensive in the midst of a pandemic, which he never took seriously. Construction workers continued to die while OSHA was defunded. Trump’s cynical appeal to the working class doesn’t mean that our lack of faith in the political process isn’t grounded in reality. The theatrics of Trumpism partially spoke to a deeply rooted pessimism about political change.
What was different about 2020
Despite the polarization within our union and nation, we hoped that appealing to our broader priorities would give us space to tackle more difficult issues like racism and xenophobia in order to build solidarity among working people. We took what happened in 2016 and what was happening under the auspices of the Trump administration and crafted a new approach.
Not wanting to repeat the mistakes of our past, we rolled out a comprehensive member education and mobilization campaign designed to promote issues important to our membership and to the workers that we’re organizing, rather than any specific candidate. We found that many members who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 still largely agreed that we need to make forming and joining a union easier, provide massive investments into our crumbling infrastructure, and end the widespread use of worker misclassification, wage theft and exploitation of undocumented workers.
We spent the twelve months leading up to the recent election talking to our members and organizing ourselves around these issues. This included phonebanks, textbanks, jobsite lit drops, member voter registration, political education programs, member-to-member engagement and our first ever members-led Zoom town halls. By the time the primaries were over, we had already focused our union’s efforts around the core priorities of our membership.
What labor expects from a Biden administration
Now that it’s likely Trump is on his way out and Biden is on his way in, we intend to be very clear that we expect results. We need Democrats in power to provide material benefits to workers who’ve been beaten down for decades. Our union’s member mobilization campaign was the largest and most robust in the IUPAT’s history. The labor movement bet big on a clean break from the Trump era, and now the Democratic Party needs to deliver. A Biden administration has the opportunity to reinvigorate the most powerful political force in the country—the labor movement—and along with it, millions of working families to believe in the political process again as a vehicle for change.
We expect that from his first day in office, Biden and his team would work to pass the PRO Act, deliver on a massive infrastructure plan, and appoint a pro-labor cabinet. That’s why the IUPAT is spearheading a “Pass The Pro Act” campaign within the labor movement to make sure we deliver for working people, together. We will need all the help we can get to make this a reality.
We are accountable to our members and we need labor law reform urgently. Working peoples’ lives must get better under a Biden administration, and quickly, or our members’ faith in the U.S. political system will continue to erode. That means that, under a President Biden, it must become easier to form a union and there must be ample union jobs made available for working people.
We can’t afford more political gridlock. Even though the courts are against us and Republicans may retain control of the Senate, a Biden administration must do everything they can to convince workers they’re on their side—whatever it takes.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. If the standard of living of the working class continues to erode, millions of American workers may again gravitate towards their worst instincts, and look for scapegoats to blame. Racism, xenophobia and division will continue to spread. We will continue to be stuck in an endless cycle of fighting for our very survival as a movement, and our ability to elect candidates who fight for us will diminish.
We’ve been sold false promises for decades, and it must come to an end now. Joe Biden has a chance to reverse this cycle. The labor movement went all in for him, and this is his chance to deliver.
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