LAS VEGAS — Ardently liberal, pro-labor and anti-corporate cash, the field of Democrats running for president may look like a union activist’s dream. But some key labor leaders are starting to worry about the topics dominating the 2020 conversation.
The candidates are spending too much time talking about esoteric issues like the Senate filibuster and the composition of the Supreme Court and not enough time speaking the language of workers, several union officials said. Those ideas may excite progressive activists, they said, but they risk alienating working-class voters.
“They’ve got to pay attention to kitchen table economics,” said Ted Pappageorge, president of the Las Vegas Culinary Union that represents 60,000 hotel and casino workers. “We don’t quite see that.”
Terry McGowan, president of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139, in Wisconsin, said many of the issues driving the 2020 primary so far are distractions.
“The people that are into politics, the people who like sideshows, they’re into that,” he said, citing the debates over reparations for slavery and immigration as examples. “The masses just want to feed their families.”
The unease may be an early warning sign for Democrats, who watched as many white, working-class voters, including many union members in key Rust Belt states, chose Donald Trump three years ago. Democrats are hoping to win back some of those voters next year, a challenge that is made harder, some argue, by labor’s struggle to build its membership and influence its rank and file. Democrats’ early messages may not help, some said.
“You see where some of the party’s being driven. It’s no secret,” said Rusty McAllister, executive secretary of the Nevada AFL-CIO.
McAllister pointed to “Medicare for all” — the health care proposal of choice for several candidates — as an example of Democrats’ not seizing on labor’s top priorities. Many unions already organized and fought for private health insurance for their members. “That’s not something that I think that labor is as much focused on as some of the progressives are,” McAllister said.
Ken Broadbent, business manager of the Pittsburgh-based Steamfitters Local 449, worried that Democrats are too focused on environmental plans like the Green New Deal, a blueprint for shifting the U.S. economy away from fossil fuels, and will neglect the importance of swing state Pennsylvania’s rich natural gas deposits in creating jobs.
“Jobs is where we’ve got to keep things focused,” Broadbent said.