In the midst of inauguration fanfare, a photo surfaced on Twitter of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez not with her colleagues on the Capitol lawn but at Costco. The Congresswoman reportedly left the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris early to make a stop for Café Bustelo, hand warmers and hot chocolate for the approximately 1,400 workers participating in a Teamsters strike outside the Hunts Point Produce Market in the Bronx.
The essential workers, who provide as much as 60% of the fruit for the city of New York, have been working throughout the pandemic. Negotiations between the workers — represented as Teamsters Local 202 — and management broke down after management refused a $1/hr. wage hike. Since Occupy Wall Street in 2011, union strikes have gradually re-entered the national news cycle, with stories such as the 2018-19 teacher strikes across the United States and the Amazon workers outside Birmingham, AL who voted to unionize at the beginning of this year, a crucial step to taking on the all-consuming consumer giant. Contributors at The New Yorker, too, instituted a 24-hour work stoppage after negotiations stalled on a new wage proposal.
Over the past decade, public approval of labor unions has risen to over 60% — the highest it’s been in fifty years. Indeed, the public popularity of unions has persuaded most Democrats to support them, with presidential candidates in the 2020 race ushering in labor platforms which toppled barriers to unionization, with more progressive candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders advocating for the repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act and workers on corporate boards. Still, unions largely hesitated to endorse candidates in the 2020 primaries, hedging their bets on uniting behind any Democratic candidate against Trump. Harold Meyerson writes for Dissent: “For unions, removing Trump from the White House and replacing him with a Democrat is a matter of life and death. Only a handful of unions made primary endorsements; compared to Trump, any Democrat would do.”
Of course, that’s difficult to imagine with Joe Biden as president. Throughout the primary season, progressives often quipped about Biden’s alleged reassurance to wealthy donors that “nothing would fundamentally change” if he were elected president. The narrow majority in the Senate — with Joe Manchin promising to block $2,000 survival checks for every adult —and shrinking majority in the House means that Biden must be savvy in identifying opportunities for real, worker-oriented progress.
Despite these hurdles, unions turned out for Democrats in key states across the country. Many of these unions were facing substantially reduced resources, with key states like Michigan and Wisconsin having recently enacted Right-to-Work legislation and other anti-unionization measures. Other crucial prizes like Florida and Texas have had Right-to-Work enacted for decades. For instance, UNITE HERE — a union boasting over 300,000 hospitality industry workers in the United States and Canada — reported knocking on 3 million doors across Nevada, Arizona and Pennsylvania. This includes 575,000 in Philadelphia, making it a crucial linchpin of Biden’s victory. UNITE HERE also mobilized over 1,000 union members, many of them laid off due to the pandemic, to knock on over 1.5 million doors in Georgia to give Democrats the groundbreaking victories that led to Senate control. Despite these contributions, Democratic leaders have given little credence to union workers for their victories. Instead, when victories were imminent in Georgia, Democrats preferred to deliver sole credit to former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams for her sweeping efforts against voter suppression rather than acknowledge unions. Of course, there is much to be admired about Abrams’ efforts, but an observer should wonder why Democrats choose to valorize her while ignoring on-the-ground organizers.
Instead, unions contribute to Democratic victories with little engagement or recognition from the victors. Because Democrats don’t want to align themselves with union organizers and activist groups, they are able to reap the benefits of union organizing without committing to concrete promises.
The Biden administration has the opportunity to change that. This starts with a real alliance between Democratic operatives and unions. The decline in union activity spurred by such policies as Right-to-Work has been bipartisan in recent decades, yet unions recognize the importance of giving Democrats another chance. This alliance could be mutually beneficial, with union organizing enabling Democrats to expand their majority and a real, laborist platform from Democrats a benefit to union organizers — and, furthermore, all the workers who benefit from union organizing. Democrats must prove themselves worthy of that allegiance, Biden most of all.
MCKINSEY CROZIER is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. Her column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.