By all historical measures, a week after the 2022 midterms, Republicans should have been partying on superyachts their own tide had lifted. But the big story is the failure of the red tidal wave to wash out the Democratic party. What held back the widely anticipated Republican deluge?
Few commentators have noted one possible answer: the unrelenting work of union activists in key swing states. For all we’ve heard about new waves of labor organizing, union-based political activism has been under the radar during the campaign season and largely overlooked in mainstream post-election analysis. UNITE HERE, the union of hotel employees, is a key example. In 2020, activists talked to over a million voters in Las Vegas, Reno, Phoenix, Philadelphia, and Atlanta. They led with bread and butter issues, and then pivoted to a discussion about the candidates. Harold Myerson argues that door-to-door canvassers made a difference with swing voters.
Two years later, UNITE HERE reports that 1,200 canvassers knocked on 2.7 million doors in the “largest field operation in the country.” On its website, UNITE HERE states that “We decided to throw down in the 2022 midterms because we knew the stakes were too high. We had no choice but to invest our ground game in critically close swing states where we had recent success in securing wins for Democrats — Nevada, Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Georgia.” The state-by-state members are impressive. In Nevada, canvassers knocked on 1,000,000 doors; in Arizona, 750,000 doors; in Pennsylvania, 950,000 doors; and in Georgia: 17,000 doors knocked. The Georgia canvassing operation is prepared to expand leading up to the run-off for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Raphael Warnock.
Pennsylvania is particularly interesting given the open seat created when Senator Pat Toomey (R) decided not to seek re-election. Into the fray stepped Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman (D) and television personality and doctor Mehmet Oz (R). Fetterman’s campaign to flip this seat to the Democrats was centered on promises to increase jobs, support American manufacturing and unions, and raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. In his victory speech after defeating Oz, Fetterman said “This race is for the future of every community all across Pennsylvania, for every small town or person that ever felt left behind, for every job that has ever been lost, for every factory that was ever closed, for every person that works hard but never got to ever get ahead.”
It is tempting to think that Fetterman’s economic populism was persuasive on its own. However, UNITE HERE’s Philadelphia “Workers to the Front” organizing effort aimed to motivate potential voters to support Fetterman. Many of the union’s 7000 hotel, gaming, and food service workers were out knocking on doors to education and mobilize voters. As a union that is mostly women and people of color, their political program is centered on organizing working-class people to lead in their workplaces and communities year-round. However, during election season, the skills already gained in advocating for coworkers are then transferred into their neighborhoods to get out the vote.
The Workers to the Front campaign demonstrates what is possible when working people organize to protect themselves rather than being led by the Party, though, as Meyerson writes, that might also help save the Democratic Party. And it seems this time, it was very good for the Democrats. But as labor unions have learned in the decades since their organizational apex in the early 1950s, they gain strength when they focus on what is best for them instead of operating as an appendage of the party. That is, labor unions should be leading the Democrats instead of taking instructions from the party or the fundraising arm. UNITE HERE’s secretary-treasurer Gwen Mills rightly notes that the infrastructure of regular voter contact “built the Democratic Party and we need to rebuild it.”
UNITE HERE’S organizing model calls for the canvassers to talk about issues first and candidates afterward. The workers featured on the Philly UNITE HERE website speak plainly and directly about their own lives – from their very own working class perspectives. Frederick Hollis, a Local 274 laundry attendant at the Sheraton Downtown in Philadelphia, loves “knockin’ these doors, just trying to make a change, that’s what I want to do for the generation behind me, my daughter’s generation.” Aicha Tahirou, a housekeeper at the Warwick Hotel in Philadelphia, explains that “I’m out there knocking on doors because as a Black woman, immigrant, African coming to this country, I have to fight for what is right. I didn’t have a voice where I came from. So having a voice here, being able to talk to people, change their mind about voting, is powerful to me.”
In politics, determining cause and effect is always a guessing game, but that doesn’t stop pollsters, political scientists, and journalists from trying to explain what’s already happened — much less trying to predict what will come next. Union canvassers like those organized by UNITE HERE may not be solely responsible for Fetterman’s victory, but he may not have won without them.
Will the power of union activists’ example in Pennsylvania and elsewhere convince their allies on the left to keep day-to-day economic issues and on-the-ground democracy at the forefront? Can unions lead the Democratic Party to not just fight for the future of democracy but actually try to shape it?
Ken Estey, Brooklyn College