There’s a debate in the Democratic Party about how to win in the Trump era. Some progressives have been shocked over President Trump’s appeal to working class voters, and Beltway pundits speculate that a surge in blue collar support for Trump explains Hillary Clinton’s defeat. Some commenters have argued, therefore, that the Democrats should shy away from the left and move back to the center if they want to recapture Trump’s voters. This summer, for instance, Democratic insiders Mark Penn and Andrew Stein argued in the New York Times that Democrats “need to reject socialist ideas and adopt an agenda of renewed growth, greater protection for American workers and a return to fiscal responsibility” if they want to win in the future. In other words, campaign and legislate more like Republicans.
If the Democratic Party listens to this conventional wisdom, we are going to lose big again in 2018. The truth is that Hillary Clinton didn’t lose the election to Trump; she lost to apathy from working people who have given up on politics altogether.
The numbers make this clear. Roughly 60,000 fewer voters in the heavily Democratic Milwaukee County voted in 2016 compared with 2012. Trump won the entire state of Wisconsin by just 27,000 votes. There were similar drop-offs in Michigan, Pennsylvania and other battleground states.
It’s not hard to understand why so many people say politics has nothing to offer them anymore. Over the past 40 years, Republicans and Democrats have rotated in and out of power, but regardless of who’s been in charge, average wages have flatlined, benefits have disappeared and workers have seen their unions gutted. It’s not that Democrats and Republicans are the same — they’re not. But, the bottom line is, today, 64 million Americans are paid less than $15 an hour.
The No. 1 job of elected officials should be to raise the standard of living for their constituents, but in states across the country, GOP governors are doing exactly the opposite — blocking minimum wage increases and destroying workers’ unions.
In August, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) vetoed a $15 an hour minimum wage that would have raised pay for 2.3 million workers across the state. Republican politicians in Iowa and Missouri have gone even further by stripping away the rights of cities and counties to raise their minimum wage, some actually taking money out of the pockets of their constituents. In Wisconsin, the anti-union Act 10 rammed through the legislature in 2011 by Gov. Scott Walker has left teachers with $8,000 a year less in compensation.
In the face of this onslaught, it’s a losing strategy to move to the center or seek middle ground. We’ve had elections every four years where Democrats have been better than their opponents by a landslide. There’s no question Hillary Clinton was better than Donald Trump. Barack Obama was better than Mitt Romney. We took John F. Kerry and Al Gore over George W. Bush. But none of them were standing up and taking on the fundamentals of what’s wrong with our system: that workers are paid too little, that their rights are under siege, that health care is a right we all deserve access to, but many lack. While poor people are literally dying, Democrats are often simply tweaking around the edges.
Unions make a choice every four years of the lesser of two evils. Every time we made the right choice. Hillary Clinton was better. Kerry was better. But if $15 an hour is what you need to survive, why bother standing in line for less? If the only choice at the voting booth is between the lesser of two evils, you still end up with evil.
For workers in this country to start moving forward, the labor movement needs to force Democratic candidates to support unions, the right to form unions, higher wages for workers and universal health care. Most Americans are favorable to unions, because they are the only way workers have ever gotten ahead in America. On average, a worker covered by a union contract earns 13.2 percent more in wages than a peer with similar education, occupation and experience in a nonunionized workplace in the same sector, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
That’s why SEIU is joining with workers in the Fight for $15 movement to practice a new kind of politics ahead of the 2018 elections. Starting on Labor Day, we’re recruiting an army of tens of thousands of volunteers who will take our case for issues like a $15 an hour minimum wage, the right to a union and universal health care — policies that will make a real difference in people’s lives — directly to the voters.
During the last presidential cycle, we at SEIU (Service Employees International Union) ran an experiment in Detroit and found that people who usually don’t vote were three times as likely to cast ballots if we canvassed them on issues that mattered to them — like raising wages, strengthening union rights and stopping police killings of black people. In the run-up to the midterm election, we will take what we learned in Detroit to battlegrounds across the country, combining it with on-the-ground calls for $15 and union rights that push candidates to embrace policies that will improve peoples’ lives.
The transformative potential of this new kind of politics can be seen already in Iowa, where Cathy Glasson is exploring a bid for governor on a platform of $15 an hour, union rights and universal health care. Her outspoken support for $15 and union rights compelled all the Democratic candidates in a crowded field to follow her lead.
The labor movement must harness this energy around issues like the $15 per hour minimum wage and union rights to force candidates in battleground states — including Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Florida and more — to take stances that will truly change people’s lives. By putting unions at the center of politics and making it about real, bold solutions to the problems working people face, we can give voters a reason to stand in line at the polls again.