Labor unions’ fingerprints were all over last week’s Democratic National Convention, sending a clear reminder to the party faithful that—despite decades of waning membership—unions are still a critical component of the Democratic Party. From convention speeches to sponsored events, unions made the case for their role as both the party’s foremost advocate of its most progressive policies and as its most effective foil against pseudo-populist Donald Trump.
On the first night of the convention—largely reserved for the left wing of the party—a lineup of leaders from the country’s most powerful unions railed against Trump. “Donald made millions while he ripped off workers and small businesses with his unfair business practices—remember, he ended up bankrupting his companies not once, not twice, but four times,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers and a longtime Clinton ally, declared in a fiery speech. “And his economic ideas will make millionaires like him richer at the expense of the middle class.”
“He thinks he's a tough guy,” said Richard Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO, which has long been calling out Trump for the hypocrisy of his working-class message. “Well, Donald, I worked in the mines with tough guys. I know tough guys, they're friends of mine. And Donald, you're no tough guy. You're a phony."
Perhaps the most prominent union at the convention was the Service Employees International Union, which boasts nearly two million members. On the Sunday before the convention started, the union held a reception at the historic Benjamin Franklin Institute in downtown Philadelphia. Delegates and union allies dined on hors d'oeuvres and milled around an open bar as they listened to prominent Democratic politicians like Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf and Senate hopeful Katie McGinty praise SEIU’s work in the state.
Throughout the convention, the union’s most successful campaign—the Fight for 15—was on center stage. On the final night of the convention, Michigan home-care worker and Fight for 15 activist Henrietta Ivey spoke about the importance of improving working conditions in the booming home-care industry. “Even as I work my fingers to the bone, I don’t always feel the support I need from the leaders I’m supposed to trust. I work two jobs at minimum wage and can barely make ends meet,” Ivey said. “For me, and all home-care workers across the nation, and my family, this is personal. I know Hillary Clinton has our backs, and we will have hers.”
Earlier in the day, the union held a panel on the importance of creating high standards for workers in the industry, which, as it rapidly grows, faces a massive labor shortage. “Home-care workers are professionals, and that’s what you should be called and how you should be treated,” U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez said at the panel. “We live in a world of false choices. It is not either a choice of having a caregiver or paying the caregiver well. We need to build the number of caregivers, and we’re not going to do it when we pay so little.”
In the days before the convention was set to begin, Philadelphia airport workers had voted to go on strike. Behind the scenes, SEIU flexed its muscle and lobbied prominent Democratic delegates and officials to pressure American Airlines to sit down with its local 32BJ in Philadelphia to discuss a path to unionization for its subcontracted airport workers. American succumbed to the pressure and began negotiations with 32BJ, averting the threatened strike. SEIU’s effort to organize airport workers has become a cornerstone of its Fight for 15 campaign.
Meanwhile, the teachers unions, American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, held an event on the importance of education policy in the upcoming election, and the AFL-CIO led daily labor council meetings for union delegates, who numbered roughly one-quarter of the convention’s 4,000-plus delegates.
One important by-product of Bernie Sanders’s campaign was that unions won important concessions in the party’s platform, which called for raising the federal minimum wage to $15 and included radically different language on trade than past platforms. Seeking to head off a convention collision between Sanders and Clinton forces, AFSCME President Lee Saunders prompted the Clinton camp to accept an amendment to the platform, drafted by the AFL-CIO, that condemned the secrecy in which trade deals are drafted, and the system of private courts (the ISDS process) used to resolve corporate-state disputes. While not repudiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership by name (something President Obama wouldn’t countenance), the amendment repudiated a number of its key particulars.
Still, there were stark reminders that labor has struggled to keep at bay the party’s coziness with corporations, especially those of the Silicon Valley disruption variety. At the convention, the so-called sharing economy loomed large. Still, there were stark reminders that labor has struggled to keep at bay the party’s coziness with corporations, especially those of the Silicon Valley disruption variety. At the convention, the so-called sharing economy loomed large. Ride-hailing giant Uber—not unionized taxi cabs—served as the DNC’s exclusive shuttle service, setting up a temporary lounge outside Wells Fargo Arena where riders could hang out as an endless flow of drivers snaked through the traffic to pick them up. Inside the lounge, on big-screen TVs, Uber drivers talked about how the app had given them a newfound sense of economic security. Labor advocates, however, have derided the company for flouting labor law, treating drivers poorly, and resisting unionization drives. Just one day after the convention, The Verge reported that Uber had hired a CIA-linked research firm to dig into union politics in Seattle, which recently passed a law allowing Uber drivers to unionize.
“Home-sharing” company Airbnb also had a big presence at the DNC as it sought to win over skeptical Democrats, including politicians in some liberal big cities who have made it harder for the company to operate. The company is facing allegations of racial discrimination and of negatively impacting the affordable housing supply. Still, of the nearly 40,000 people in Philadelphia for the convention, the company says 7,000 stayed in Airbnb properties, compared with 14,000 who booked hotels. Unions like UNITE-HERE contend that Airbnb is an illegal operation that takes business away from the hotels that many of its members work in. (UNITE-HERE and SEIU had a brief snafu earlier this year when SEIU announced it was partnering with Airbnb to ensure housekeepers were paid $15 an hour. Amid protest from UNITE-HERE, the union swiftly backtracked.)
The company made a hard sell at the convention, releasing a report that asserted that 80 percent of Millennials support Airbnb legally operating in their city, while not so subtly reminding Democrats that many of these young people live in swing states. It also made a five-figure ad buy during the convention to gin up support for its fight to expand in New York City.
Uber and Airbnb also hosted a panel on the sharing economy featuring Chris Lehane, former aide to Bill Clinton and Airbnb’s policy guru; former Obama campaign manager and Uber adviser David Plouffe; and former Philadelphia mayor/sharing-economy enthusiast Michael Nutter. These prominent Democrats discussed how they see the sharing economy as an asset for the middle class and can help reduce income inequality.
The battle between the labor wing and the Silicon Valley wing of the party will likely escalate in coming years, but for now labor will remain the stronger force. “Sharing economy” giants like Uber and Airbnb are just now dipping their toes into politics—and, for now, mostly at the local level. On the other hand, the major labor unions have already pledged to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on ads and ground operations to help Hillary Clinton—and Democratic Senate candidates like Katie McGinty in Pennsylvania, Ted Strickland in Ohio, and Russ Feingold in Wisconsin—win the working-class vote in swing states.
Those efforts, labor leaders hope, will not only earn unions significant clout should a Clinton win the White House, but a big say in the future direction of the party.
Justin Miller is a writing fellow for The American Prospect.