washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

How Unions and the Democratic Party Can Grow Together

Jim Grossfield and Celinda Lake illuminate a key challenge facing Democrats and Unions in their American Prospect article “A Union Hearing.” Although the article focuses on new approaches for organizing white collar workers, it includes some fresh insights about how Dems and Labor can help each other grow together. First they outline the problem:

Among Washington’s political cognoscenti it is considered a no brainer that idle chatter about unionism will brand a candidate as a hopelessly unreconstructed “old” Democrat. At the very least, they warn, it would be “off message,” given that voters have about as much interest in labor issues as they do in, say, the Law of the Sea. The upshot of this conventional wisdom is that, today, not many Democrats are willing to step forward to promote unionism. What’s more, few labor leaders even ask them to.

For Dems, this timidity has a price, as Lake and Grossfield note:

That’s too bad, because by speaking out for unions Democrats could not only help to mobilize public support for one of their most effective and most embattled allies, but also speak to the growing economic insecurity of one of their least reliable constituencies: young, educated, white collar workers, particularly younger women struggling with low wages and high prices.

The authors argue that Democrats must talk more about unions, but in different ways. And targeting millions of white collar workers who are experiencing a growing sense of economic insecurity is critical for prospects for both unions and the Democratic party. As they conclude:

There’s no question that it would be in the labor movement’s interest if more Americans knew about this kind of unionism. But it could also help Democrats, if they embraced it as part of their commitment to helping Americans navigate their way through the new economy. It could be one way that Democrats help workers gain the training, health care, and pensions they need, and create more balance between work and family. Democrats ought to speak out for new unions because they believe partnerships between employers and employees are fundamental to keeping American businesses strong and competitive.
Recently, AFL-CIO Legislative Director Bill Samuel said that it would “take a movement” to pass the Employee Free Choice Act and strengthen the right to organize. With new majorities in the House and Senate, Democrats can help build that movement. And they should. But to do that they need to talk less about unions as they are and more about what they can become. It is not enough to persuade young, college educated Americans that unions are a good things for janitors and poultry workers. They need to understand that this is about their future, too.

If sinking deeper roots in the middle class is a priority for long-range Democratic strategy, reading Grossfield’s and Lake’s article is a good place to begin.