On a sunny, unseasonably warm Saturday recently, Arlena Hill’s neighbors were relaxing around their barbecues. But Hill, a 55-year-old nurse and union organizer from Pittsburgh, put on her “SEIU For Hillary” T-shirt and headed to the city’s Lawrenceville neighborhood, hoping to persuade voters to support the Democratic presidential candidate.
When an African-American teenager in a barbershop confessed he planned to sit out the election, Hill was ready with an impassioned spiel and a stack of papers. “I have some registration cards right here. I come prepared,” she said, watching as the chastened young man filled out a form under her watchful gaze.
Winning the votes of fellow Pennsylvanians one conversation at a time is a way of life for legions of union members like Hill. A passionate Democrat, Hill took a leave of absence from her job as a hospital nurse to work as an election-year organizer for the Service Employees International Union, which represents 1.5 million public and private-sector workers throughout North America. Instead of catheters and gauze, Hill’s days are now filled with get-out-the-vote phone calls, door-to-door canvassing and registration efforts in places like that barbershop.
“I’ve always fought for the rights of people and been very political,” explained Hill, who grew up in a Chicago union family and organized her co-workers to affiliate with SEIU. “We formed our union at the hospital because we had no voice.” Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, Hill added, “wants to take your voice away … We have to win this election because it’s about our core values. If you care about these things, you need to cast your vote.”
In her passion and discipline, Hill embodies the political power of today’s labor movement, which remains strong in Pennsylvania despite a nationwide decline. The Keystone State’s 700,000 union members overwhelmingly support Democrats – and with Trump’s direct appeal to working-class voters, labor is mobilizing, as it has for more than a century, to influence what many see as a make-or-break election for worker interests.
With unions’ share of the American workforce now touching 11 percent – down from 20 percent in the 1980s – and a political climate in which national Republicans have long been hostile to labor, “the stakes couldn’t be higher,” said Matt Yarnell, who at 36 became the youngest leader of a major Pennsylvania union when he was elected president of SEIU Healthcare PA this year.
“Unions have not lost as much political influence as their membership or economic clout would have you believe,” affirmed labor expert Philip Dine, whose 2008 book, “State of the Unions,” surveyed the U.S. labor landscape. “That’s because they’re well organized, they’re disciplined and – especially in primaries, when a small number of people vote – they’re very organized and make a big impact. And they counteract business interests on the Republican side.”
Those interests routinely outspend labor by a wide margin in campaigns both local and national (though United Steelworkers is the third-largest contributor in the current Pennsylvania election cycle, funneling $2.6 million, mostly to Democrats, according to OpenSecret.org). But grassroots organizing is labor’s secret sauce. “Money is essential: You can have the best message in the world, but if you can’t connect with the voter, forget it,” said State Rep. Dwight Evans, a Philadelphia Democrat who is counting on union support to win a U.S. House seat in November. “They use the leverage of people to counterbalance the influence of money … They will do everything they can to get that person elected who shares their values.”
Especially this year, labor can’t take anything for granted. More than a third of members in swing states backed Trump in a September poll taken by the AFL-CIO, America’s largest federation of unions. Intent on reversing the trend, the group is marshaling its Pennsylvania forces, with a half-dozen daily events from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh.
“Every day, we have people on the phones. Every day,” said Patrick Eiding, president of the Philadelphia Council AFL-CIO. “We have folks knocking on doors every day and night. We know where all our members are, we know whether they vote; it’s all computerized. We have a very progressive, 21st century program.”
Eiding’s group has been a major election player since its founding in the 1955 merger of the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations. But 2016, with a political landscape that is increasingly hostile to organized labor, has been anything but business as usual. For this election cycle, Eiding said the AFL-CIO refined its strategy to organize more of its own campaign work; it also invested in sophisticated technology to track voter data, enhancing the efficiency of time-honored techniques like canvassing, phone banking and registration drives. “We know that in the city of Philadelphia, if we get the vote out, Hillary Clinton will win and Katie McGinty will win,” said Eiding.
Elsewhere in the state, the picture is less clear. While union leadership has largely endorsed Democrats, officials are dismayed by a Trumpward drift among rank-and-file members in western Pennsylvania, where the region’s manufacturing base has been eroded by globalization. Trump’s protectionist rhetoric and exhortations against international trade deals target the steelworkers and coal miners who, a generation ago, were Reagan Democrats. Today, their ears perk up at Trump’s vows to bring back American jobs – vows that ring false to frustrated labor leaders.
“The problem with a lot of this is the candidate himself has literally lied about his positions on labor issues,” complained Dave Fillman, executive director of Pennsylvania AFSCME, whose 67,000 workers constitute the largest union affiliate in the state AFL-CIO. “Our members listen to his feel-good rhetoric and say, sure, that sounds good. But his hotel stuff was made in China, he’s an advocate of national right-to-work legislation, which in a sense outlaws unions, and he wants to do away with the minimum wage.”
Labor advocates fumed in August when Trump suggested that Michigan’s unionized autoworkers earn too much money. And a recent USA Today Network investigation turned up dozens of lawsuits filed by contractors who allege that Trump businesses stiffed them for work on his real estate projects. Yet the Manhattan billionaire’s patriotic message resonates anyway, especially with culturally conservative voters in rural Pennsylvania. “He’s very good at tapping into people’s anger and exploiting it for his uses,” said Yarnell. “It’s frustrating that people don’t dig a little deeper on Donald and understand that what people are angry about in America is, in fact, what he represents.”
Patrick Eiding, president of the Philadelphia Council AFL-CIO - photo provided
Some of those workers have long voted Republican; many are willing to consider candidates of either party. Despite labor’s heavily Democratic tilt – 85 percent of political spending by unions nationally went to Democrats in the 2015-16 election cycle, according to OpenSecrets.org – labor officials stress that their guiding philosophy is nonpartisan. “We don’t support Democrats or Republicans. We support people we feel are conscious of workers’ needs,” Eiding said.
And that is why the Fraternal Order of Police voted to support Trump this November, becoming the nation’s highest-profile union to do so, said Robert Swartzwelder, who serves as president of the union’s founding Lodge No. 1 in Pittsburgh. Swartzwelder said that of the two major candidates, only Trump answered the group’s election-year questionnaire and accepted an invitation to meet with the national organization. So while the reality-show star may not align with police on every issue, “his overall message is very positive toward the law, and he at least agreed to listen to what we had to say,” Swartzwelder said.
Unions, after all, are hardly monolithic. While they share a common goal of ensuring good working conditions and benefits for members, each has its pet issues. While broadly shared priorities, such as raising the minimum wage, tend to align with the Democratic Party, industry-specific concerns may not.
It’s no coincidence, for example, that the labor groups supporting Trump represent law enforcement, given the candidate’s hardline stance on immigration, his endorsement of stop-and-frisk policing, and a widespread perception among many police that Democratic sympathies lie more with Black Lives Matter than the thin blue line.
Another obvious, more local example: the enthusiastic support several Republican politicians enjoy from the United Food and Commercial Workers, which includes members of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. UFCW Local 1776 has endorsed the candidacy of Republican Tom Mehaffie, who owns a local beer distributor and has pledged to oppose the privatization of state-run liquor stores as he runs for the state House of Representatives.
The UFCW is also a longtime booster of state Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, a Bucks County Republican who consistently votes in favor of protecting UFCW jobs at the stores, as well as workers’ right to organize. These stances put him at odds with more ideological factions of his own party, but “you’ve got to represent your district,” explained DiGirolamo. “My district has a very solid, heavy labor presence.”
While some criticize the state liquor monopoly for being anti-consumer, DiGirolamo listed several reasons for supporting it aside from the protection of what he called 4,500 “decent, family-sustaining” UFCW jobs at state liquor stores. The current system ensures a consistent annual revenue stream that Pennsylvania relies on, he said, and as chairman of the House Human Services Committee, DiGirolamo said he worries about the social and health ills that would come with expanded alcohol access.
As such, DiGirolamo considers his career an example of how political interests and workers’ interests can align, regardless of party. “Labor unions support people who are open-minded enough to listen to the issues that are important to unions, and vote in favor of the issues that are important to them,” he said. “We’ve got to be able to work together.” (Which isn’t to say that relationship can’t get a little too cozy: The FBI is currently investigating a series of charges related to political and financial corruption in Philadelphia’s electricians union and its powerfully connected president, John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty.)
In the past, American workers’ groups were far more likely to support Republicans than today, according to Dine. But the parties have become far more polarized in recent decades, with tea party groups vowing to dismantle unions and slash the very taxes that subsidize public-sector jobs. “It’s become a dogma to be anti-labor in the Republican Party,” said Dine. “It’s a chicken-and-egg thing. Labor sees that happening and supports Democrats.”
The Republican Party of Pennsylvania declined to comment for this article, but Marcel Groen, chairman of the Pennsylvania Democrats, confirmed that unions are a powerful Democratic ally for practical reasons. “The unions’ role is to protect their membership – it’s not to support Democrats or Republicans,” said Groen. “But you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that Hillary is going to be a lot better for labor than Trump.”
During labor’s mid-20th century heyday – before globalization shipped factory jobs overseas, Reagan emboldened corporations by firing striking air-traffic controllers and complex laws discouraged workers from organizing – numerous Republicans were “fiercely pro-union,” Dine affirmed. He rattled off a list of well-known Republicans with strong labor ties: Gov. Tom Ridge and U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, U.S. Sen. Jacob Javits and Gov. Nelson Rockefeller of New York.
It may not be a coincidence that New York and Pennsylvania are among the seven states that are home to more than half of American union members, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. While labor is under serious attack in states like Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker’s battle against public teachers’ unions has made him a hero of the right, “we saw that happen and we doubled down, making sure that something like what happened in Wisconsin wouldn’t happen here,” said Fillman.
As Dine observed: “Politically, there is not the will to destroy labor in Pennsylvania.” With a plethora of union-heavy industries like transportation, as well as deeply forged ties with politicians, the Keystone State is likely to remain a bright spot for labor, observers say. Another factor: In Pennsylvania, support for unions is often a family tradition. Evans, for instance, said his views were shaped by his father, a longtime Teamster who worked his way up to foreman at the Quaker Storage Company. “That union fought for certain things: retirement, minimum wage, a 40-hour workweek,” Evans recalled.
A generation later, unions are fighting harder than ever. Labor may never be able to match the dollar-for-dollar impact of corporate money, “but it has the shoe leather, which corporations cannot match,” said Dine. “Tens of thousands of people on the ground, doing phone banks, knocking on doors, one-on-one conversations – that’s invaluable. Labor, because of its discipline and its foot soldiers, can still make a huge difference.”■