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Democrats need union voters if they hope to keep control of Congress

In key states, labor leaders are trying to turn out members who flocked to Trump in 2016

Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) and his wife Andrea Ryan talk to supporters at a campaign stop on Oct. 29, in Chillicothe, Ohio. Labor unions are trying to turn out members in key states to vote for Democrats, but Republicans have made significant inroads with the union vote, especially since former president Donald Trump entered politics. (Andrew Spear for The Washington Post)
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Calvin Newman is a registered Republican in Mogadore, Ohio. But he’s voting across party lines this year for Tim Ryan, the Democratic candidate for Senate.

The union steelworker appreciates what he sees as Ryan’s pro-worker approach to the economy — the same approach that he says motivated him to vote twice for former president Donald Trump. But he suspects most of his fellow union members at a Georgia Pacific cardboard plant near Akron are voting for the Republican candidate, venture capitalist J.D. Vance.

“Most of the workers in my plant are Republicans,” said Newman, 35. “I don’t ask how they’re voting, but I would assume for [Vance] because they give me a hard time when I wear a Tim Ryan shirt to work.”

If Democrats hope to hold onto control of the Senate, they need as many voters like Newman as they can find in Ohio — and in states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Nevada, where campaigns are all close heading into Election Day. In 2016, Trump won all of those states but Nevada, doing far better among union voters nationwide than Mitt Romney or John McCain had. When President Biden won all those states but Ohio, he reversed some Republican gains, but still didn’t do as well with union members as President Barack Obama had in 2008 or 2012.

The labor vote is much smaller than it once was nationally, but whether union members turn out Tuesday — and for whom — could be enough to determine which party runs Capitol Hill next year.

“Union members are really important in this year’s midterms,” said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, who advised Biden in 2020 and warned more than a year ago that inflation was hurting him politically. “They usually vote Democratic, and they are the one group of White men that votes most Democratic. If you get a union member, you usually get their household members, too.”

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So as inflation spikes and voters tell pollsters the economy is their top concern, the AFL-CIO, the country’s largest federation of unions, has revived an old-school strategy in nine battleground states to educate and engage members in their worksites about issues and candidates. Canvassers hoped to reach 7.7 million union members nationwide by Tuesday.

“I am pleased to hear Tim Ryan out there talking about bread-and-butter, kitchen-table issues that matter to people,” said Liz Shuler, the federation’s president. “That is exactly what we need more of, and candidates in the Midwest are really doubling down on that.”

Some labor leaders think basic pocketbook issues are friendlier turf for reaching union voters, and they’re glad to see the economy lead the political agenda.

“The more we focus as Democrats on delivering a working-class agenda and messaging on it, the better we are going to do,” said Larry Cohen, former president of the Communications Workers of America and the chair of Our Revolution, a group aligned with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

For decades, union voters, including millions of retired workers, have been a key base for Democrats. Unions have a built-in structure for engaging members, and messages from unions, if they are a trusted source of job security, influence votes.

One out of five voters in Pennsylvania and Michigan in the 2020 presidential elections belonged to union households, exit polling data showed, as did 14 percent of Wisconsin households. That was a steep decline from 2004, when roughly a third of all voting households in those three states had union members, but still a sizable share.

Trump, meanwhile, improved on his share of union voters in Pennsylvania and Ohio from 2016 to 2020, even though his overall percentage of union households dropped slightly, to 40 percent from 43 percent.

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For Democrats, winning over White union members in Rust Belt states requires a concerted effort, reaching labor voters by phone and mail to talk about economic issues, Cohen said. Without that, Republicans tend to do better. “If they’re a White male, they’re going to vote the way the rest of White male voters vote,” Cohen said — and in many of the key states in this year’s campaigns, that likely means for the GOP.

Newman, the steelworker in Ohio, said messaging from the state’s AFL-CIO chapter helped sway his vote. He saw Ryan speak at an Ohio AFL-CIO convention in Columbus in late September and immediately related to his positions, such as universal pre-K and keeping manufacturing jobs in the United States.

“I listened to him, and I liked what he had to say,” Newman said. “pre-K really hit us hard. And it was cheaper for my wife to stay home and not work than to pay for pre-K.”

Ryan, who wears Nikes and Ohio State gear on the campaign trail, has promised to “revitalize manufacturing” and “fight for working people” in union halls and diners across the state. In neighboring Pennsylvania, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, with his faded hoodie revealing a sleeve of tattoos, has struck a similar, though more anti-establishment tone, pledging to fight to make more goods in the United States and support “the union way of life.”

Many union leaders said in interviews that it’s been easier to engage their members around candidates such as Ryan, Fetterman and Wisconsin’s Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes because of their focus on working people and labor issues.

Scott Parker, a 25-year-old union steelworker in West Mifflin, Pa., a suburb south of Pittsburgh, is a two-time Trump supporter who is voting for Fetterman.

“I liked that Fetterman is talking about raising the minimum wage and his support for fracking,” Parker said. The steelworker supports both his 7-year-old daughter and his grandmother. “Bottom line is, money keeps the world going around. That’s all I care about. I want to work and then go home and relax.”

But neighbors have given Parker heat for wearing a “Steelworkers for Fetterman” T-shirt. “People around town throw Pringles chips at me when I wear it,” he said.

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In Ohio, Mike Knisley, secretary-treasurer of the Ohio State Building Trades Council, which represents roughly 100,000 construction workers, said Ryan is “resonating more so than any candidate I’ve ever seen with our members.”

“He hasn’t backed away from social issues,” he said. “But it’s really about economic issues first and foremost.”

Trump made particularly strong inroads among the building trades — unions representing workers like electricians, plumbers and painters. Knisley estimated that half his members voted for Trump in 2016. These are, historically, one of the Whitest and most conservative-leaning parts of the labor movement, with a legacy of institutional racism, in particular controlling hiring practices in ways that used to shut out non-White workers.

Many union leaders said they don’t think Democrats have done a good enough job of telling voters what the party has done. Under Democratic control, Congress passed a $1.2 trillion infrastructure law and devoted hundreds of billions of dollars in the Inflation Reduction Act to new greener manufacturing and hundreds of billions more to new high-tech manufacturing in the CHIPS Act.

“I think on a national level the Democratic Party has done a terrible job of getting an economic message across,” said Dorsey Hager, a leader of the Columbus Building Trades Council, a coalition of labor unions that represents 18,000 construction workers in central Ohio. “But Tim Ryan and John Fetterman are appealing to working-class voters. They talk about union rights and the workplace, and that goes across party lines.”

Union voters are also playing a crucial role in other races.

Rep. Mary Peltola (D-Alaska) looks likely to beat a challenge from former governor Sarah Palin in part due to strong support from union voters in the state. Alaska ranks fourth-highest in the United States in union density, and Peltola has the endorsements of most of the unions that supported her Republican predecessor, who held the seat for nearly 50 years, until Peltola won a special election in August after his death.

In Nevada, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto may be the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent. Her campaign has focused heavily on threats to women’s reproductive rights, while her Republican opponent, Alex Laxalt, has fixated on inflation and high gas prices.

The powerful culinary workers union in Las Vegas, which represents some 60,000 cooks, waiters and casino workers, believes it could make the difference for Cortez Masto — and save the Senate for Democrats. The union has argued that abortion is a critical economic issue for its members, many of whom are women of color. They plan to knock on over 1 million doors by the time polls close on Tuesday.

“I think we’re making a difference and we’re going to win,” said Maria Bedolla, a union housekeeper at the Mandalay Bay Resort, who has been canvassing since August. “Too many people know who we are and that we fight for the people.”

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Back in the steel factories of southwest Pennsylvania, where Trump built a wellspring of Republican support, Democrats have faced challenges convincing union voters to support Fetterman.

“Democrat is a dirty word [around here],” said JoJo Burgess, a canvasser for the AFL-CIO in southwest Pennsylvania and a union steelworker. Burgess, 52, has talked to workers outside the gates of steel factories and other union worksites in the region before every election since 2004. That job got much harder in 2016 and 2020, with tough confrontations that sometimes got physical between workers, he said.

The party may still be able to win over these voters — but not if they lose sight of the economic pain experienced by the working class.

Asked why union members turned to Trump, Burgess recalled a fateful comment Hillary Clinton made in 2016 in Ohio about putting “a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.”