Rand Wilson and Peter Olney

A Labor Movement 2020 Election Strategy

A Labor Movement 2020 Election Strategy
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by Rand Wilson and Peter Olney



Organized labor has an opportunity to play an important role in the upcoming selection of a presidential candidate in the Democratic Party’s primaries and the eventual November 3, 2020 U.S. presidential election. The stakes couldn’t be higher, not only for the future of the labor movement but for the entire U.S. working class.

The Iowa, New Hampshire and California Democratic primaries are more than a year away. (The Iowa contest is February 3, 2020 and early voting in California will begin that day; New Hampshire is set for February 11.) But the volume of commentary and speculation regarding the selection of a candidate is already at a high level. Perhaps because of the general panic about Trump and the obvious mandate to defeat him, many union leaders appear to have lost their class perspective on the election. Very few comments we’ve seen reflect the importance of taking a strategic approach to the 2020 political process and using the primaries as an arena for struggle with the corporate Democrats.

Regardless of who the Democrats pick, the primaries should be viewed as an opportunity for the labor movement to gain strength. That’s why it’s imperative for labor to define and advance working class values and priorities before making any union endorsements.

Well before the primaries begin, our objective should be to unite around a forward-looking political program and provide members and elected union officials as much time as possible to evaluate the candidates based on these positions. Absent a bold, well-articulated working-class program, labor’s agenda risks being crushed by the Democratic Party’s traditional pro-corporate and discredited neo-liberal ideology.


Dramatic Labor Movement Successes

The labor movement has been the subject of oft-written obituaries over the last thirty plus years. But our organizations soldier on as the largest force for positive change not funded by billionaire- and millionaire-backed philanthropic foundations.

Despite historic low union density (private sector membership is now down to 6.5% of the workforce), labor and our allies are continuing to have great successes. For example, through its innovative “Fight for $15” campaign, SEIU has succeeded in winning significant raises in the minimum wage at the state and municipal level for millions of low-wage American workers. The hotel workers union just conducted a multi-city strike against corporate giant, Marriott. Workers won a resounding victory with sizable wage increases, no cuts in health care, new protections against sexual harassment and innovative policies to deal with workload and scheduling.

The wave of teacher strikes in states like West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona and beyond with workers wearing “Red for Ed,” demonstrated the power of organized workers in states that are thought of as conservative and where Trump carried the popular vote in 2016. On January 14, Los Angeles teachers followed in their footsteps by striking and waging an heroic battle for the future of public education. Finally, labor helped power the recent Blue Wave that flipped 40 House seats and gained a record setting 9 percent margin in the aggregate Congressional popular vote nationwide. Labor’s money, ground troops and organizing expertise were crucial to winning these victories.


2020 IS NOT 2016

In 2016, Hillary Clinton was the anointed choice of the corporate elites. Many labor unions also rushed to endorse her because they saw no alternative. But when Bernie Sanders announced in May of 2015, there was a groundswell of support for him in the ranks and disgruntlement with union leadership’s early endorsements of Clinton. Thankfully, six national unions and over 100 local unions had the courage to endorse Sanders. That labor support and nearly 50,000 union members who were part of the Labor for Bernie network helped propel Sanders to win over 13 million votes in the Democratic primaries. The Sanders’ candidacy and his continuing activism (along with Our Revolution and other grassroots insurgencies) have pushed an anti-corporate, populist agenda that has now made issues like Medicare for All and free college tuition mainstream. Their work has also bolstered the fight for immigrant rights and is contributing to rebuilding a vibrant movement against militarism and war.

Partly because of Sanders’ success and the revulsion against Trump, several candidates will emerge in 2019-20 carrying part or most of his progressive platform. Inevitability, labor unions won’t coalesce behind one candidate. Given the disastrous results of the early Clinton endorsements, there should be no rush to judgment this time in the endorsement process.



If labor is to gain strength while weathering the onslaught of candidates and confusion, union leaders will need to:

  • Begin maximum consultation with — and the involvement of — union members in shaping a broadly appealing working-class platform; and
  • Use that broad platform as a key threshold that candidates seeking labor’s support must meet.

And while labor unions may have to “agree to disagree” on particular parochial planks, they should strive for broad unity along these lines:

  • Strengthening labor laws and the right to organize;
  • An array of economic demands like $15 per hour minimum wage, expanded Social Security and retirement security
  • A “Green New Deal” with a Just Transition program for displaced workers
  • Civil Rights, Immigrant Rights and Women’s Rights
  • Support Medicare for All, not military budgets and endless war



Armed with a program — and the support of the members — unions can enter the primary election fray and winnow-out genuine pro-labor candidates from the corporate Democrats. (A perfect opportunity will be to hound and challenge any candidates who support charter schools and education privatization.) Candidate forums and endorsement questionnaires are essential tools in this process. Unequivocal support for labor’s strikes, contract and organizing campaigns should also be used by unions as a key benchmark for earning an endorsement. Our experience in the 2016 Democratic primaries showed how these tools provide an important route to genuinely building working class electoral power. For instance, last time around Bernie Sanders’ support for the Verizon strike proved to CWA members and many other workers his sincerity and credibility as a candidate.

The eventual effort in the Democratic Party to defeat Donald Trump in a “united front” with others is not diminished by this engagement but is, in fact strengthened. Look how far the Medicare for All campaign has penetrated the political discourse because of Sanders’ candidacy in 2016. Similarly look how the newly elected, anti-corporate House members are setting the agenda in the House of Representatives now run by Democrats.



Labor unions are membership run, democratic institutions with their leaders subject to votes of the membership. As such, union leaders must succeed in uniting a broad array of member viewpoints. That makes labor organizations an important force to challenge the Trump phenomenon with our members and especially with white male working class voters. Labor will be more credible in so-called “red states” if our leaders are armed with a program that speaks directly to the needs and interests of the multi-racial working class.

The natural diversity in union workplaces provides union members a golden opportunity to contend with their fellow workers who supported Trump. Often those eventual Trump supporters were originally Bernie backers in the primaries. Political scientists estimate that 12% of Sanders supporters in the primaries then voted for Trump in the 2016 general election. In a close election to be decided in a small number of swing states, the opportunity to win back Trump supporters should not be overlooked.

People’s Action is organizing in some “red” states with grassroots door-to-door organizing in rural areas. (See “Winning in Trump Country” here.) Labor unions can have the same positive conversations about race and class and the same possible effect with our members – but only if union leaders focus on issues and commit to having a genuine consultation with members. Early endorsement of a corporate candidate only because of “electability” will undermine the credibility of our message and spoil the opportunity for membership engagement. Nothing could be more instructive than our unions’ experience with the botched 2016 primaries and the disastrous election of Trump. Let’s not jump the gun that way again in 2020!


The authors are indebted to Tom Gallagher’s insightful political analysis in The Primary Route: How the 99% Takes on the Military Industrial Complex, Read Peter Olney’s review on the Stansbury Forum here; the book can be purchased here.



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  • James A Young
    James A Young January 23, 2019 at 3:18 pm

    It would be useful if we can salt particular campaigns with union-loyal and capable members.

  • manuel
    manuel January 23, 2019 at 5:51 pm

    Very, very good article. To be successful in life one has to have a well defined plan, that is, goals (who, how, where, when, etc) and objectives (how to implement the plan). The team spirit should be committed, smart, reasonable, unbiased, unselfish, disciplined and HONEST. Leadership should represent the aspiration of the members.
    History has shown us that groups that had these traits were successful in achieving their goals; on the other hand groups that lacked these traits (secret agendas, egocentric personality, etc, etc) dug their own graves with no help from others.
    Again, this a very good article.


  • Bruce Nissen
    Bruce Nissen January 23, 2019 at 11:52 pm

    This article is excellent. It focuses squarely on the central issues without getting sidetracked on a multitude of secondary issues. Well done! Let’s fight to make sure our unions follow this path.

  • Paul Garver
    Paul Garver January 24, 2019 at 6:46 pm

    Thanks to Rand and Peter for their usual clear and unsentimental political thinking.

    Just to add to their third bullet point under the broad unity program.

    The Green New Deal Campaign has gained traction among serious environmental organizations, the media and many progressive politicians but unions and central labor bodies remain silent. We should not miss this opportunity to ally workers with the Sunrise movement and its allies wherever possible. Fighting climate disruption is an issue that is not a passing fad, and younger activists are not only passionate about it, but understand the need for a just transition that protects fossil fuel workers and mitigates the impact of the needed reforms on communities that are most vulnerable.

  • Alan Maki
    Alan Maki January 25, 2019 at 2:40 am

    Campaign for a “21st Century Full Employment Act for Peace and Prosperity”

    Campaign for a “21st Century Full Employment Act for Peace and Prosperity”

    We are fed up with politicians campaigning on promises of “Jobs, Jobs, Jobs” and then failing to make themselves legislatively responsible for attaining and maintaining full employment.

    We are fed up with our tax dollars being squandered on militarism and wars instead of being used to create jobs by solving the problems of the people and defending our living environment… its time to beat swords into plowshares. Put people to work solving the problems of the people.

    A National Public Health Care System would create over twelve-million new jobs paying real living wages providing people with free health care— general medical, eyes, ears, dental, family planning and mental health— through a network of neighborhood and community health care centers; this is a better use of our tax-dollars than wasting our human and financial resources on a far flung empire of over 800 U.S. military bases around the world. Or, it could be financed the same way Social Security is financed. Or paid for with a tax on Wall Street transactions. Or financed with a combination of these methods. Public funding. Public administration. Public delivery… nothing controversial; just like public education.

    A National Public Child Care System would create over three-million new jobs providing working class families with free child care.

    We need to restore the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (C.E.T.A.), Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).

    “At Will Employment” legislation in states across the country needs to be rescinded and repealed to expand democracy in the workplace and provide workers with the right to freely participate in the communities where they live.

    All attacks on immigrant workers, documented and undocumented, need to end. No racist Wall.

    Planned Parenthood needs to be defended and programs expanded to all communities.

    We insist Congress and the president enact full employment legislation which makes them legislatively responsible for attaining and maintaining full employment; assure everyone who wants a job employment at real living wages in line with the actual cost-of-living.

    Full employment would provide stability for Social Security; everyone paying in; everyone getting something out. A Basic Income for All must be guaranteed. Pensions must be honored and protected. The Wall Street swindle of pension funds must end; restore the Glass-Steagall Act.

    Turn Habitat for Humanity into a massive public works project to create jobs and assure everyone has a decent home.

    Free education through university; cancel student debt. End military recruitment in the high schools.

    Unemployment and lack of a National Public Health Care System is the price we pay for militarism and wars. We are entitled to a Peace Dividend……… Let’s talk about the politics and economics of livelihood.

    Prosperity can only be derived through peace and disarmament. Militarism and these dirty imperialist wars must end.

    What we want right now:

    An increase in the Minimum wage.

    A $500.00 a month increase in Social Security.

    Cancel all student debt.

    Establish a National Public Banking System with branches at the local post offices.

    The Democrats and Republicans comprise Wall Street’s two-party trap. We are caught in this trap and we must break free. We need a working class based people’s party that is both anti-monopoly and anti-imperialist to get us on the road to socialism or we are doomed. We must challenge Wall Street for political and economic power.

    Where will the money come from?

    A Peace Dividend and taxing the hell out of the rich.

    We need to organize a People’s Lobby to press for our demands. This People’s Lobby could be the beginning of a new working class based people’s party.

  • Dan Siegel
    Dan Siegel January 26, 2019 at 10:00 pm

    Wilson and Olney are right to begin planning for labor’s electoral strategy for 2020. Their recognition that Clinton was the 2016 corporate candidate is a key point in discussions about building labor and progressive unity for 2020. One additional point is that a 2020 strategy should include activists within the Democratic Party and those who maintain their independence from it.
    I would like to see people begin to formulate what the progressive labor platform should be. Here are some ideas for a progressive program to unite the American people:

    1. Guaranteed annual income for all Americans. The government must guarantee that every person has the minimum income necessary to provide for basic needs, either through employment or welfare payments. Far from a new idea, American revolutionary Thomas Paine and Napoleon Bonaparte both advocated for the guaranteed annual income. Guaranteed income programs have been promoted or implemented in Canada, France, Brazil and other countries.

    2. Commitment to full equality for all races, ethnicities, religious groups, and genders. Racism remains the defining characteristic of U.S. society. Progressives must prioritize and implement laws and programs to guarantee full equality in every sphere and put aside resources for reparations necessary to insure equity and equality for all. The U.S. must once again become a haven for political and economic migrants from around the world.

    3. Protect the Earth. The U.S. must become a leader rather than a hindrance in international efforts to protect the planet from the disasters of climate change. The government’s priorities must reflect the developing environmental crisis and the need for immediate, dramatic responses. The nation’s laws and resources must prioritize clean air and water and the protection of all animal and plant species.

    4. Commitment to World Peace. The United States must become a leader in efforts to end regional conflicts and implement complete nuclear disarmament. The world needs a strong peace keeping force that will end conflicts such as those in Yemen, Myanmar, and South Sudan. The challenge is to do so in a way that does not simply perpetuate U.S. military dominance but instead reflects international unity. Dramatic cuts in the U.S. military budget will help fund the social programs we need.

    5. Right to Affordable Housing. The richest nation in world history can no longer tolerate the scourge of homelessness. State and government programs must insure affordable housing for everyone.

    6. Progressive tax system. No-one needs billions of dollars. A progressive income tax system modeled on the programs of the 1950s and reasonable inheritance taxes will pay for the social service programs we advocate.

    7. Right to healthcare. Single payer, finally!

    8. Quality Education. Excellent, publicly financed education from early childhood through college is a human right necessary to achieve full equality.

    9. Personal Liberty. The government must not be involved in regulating individual decisions about child-bearing, marriage, sexual identity, and personal relationships, period.

    10. End mass incarceration. Prison sentences should be reserved for people who are truly dangerous to others. Restorative justice programs, education, guaranteed income, and jobs will make society safe and help the vast majority to become productive citizens.

    11. Democratize the political system. We need powerful reforms to create a functioning democratic political system, including public financing of campaigns, contribution limits including no corporate contributions, voter protections, and an end to political gerrymandering of electoral districts.

  • Lewis Grupper
    Lewis Grupper January 28, 2019 at 12:16 am

    Excellent article!
    I particularly liked that there is no rush to judgment. Truth be told my NYPAN Chapter voted to urge Bernie to run ( a la Organizing for Bernie) with 70%. But that is not yet an endorsement.

    My ideal scenario would be
    2 terms for Bernie. And
    2 terms for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.


  • Dave Eckstein
    Dave Eckstein January 28, 2019 at 11:04 am

    Thanks Rand and Peter. I really think you are on to something here. The biggest trouble is the AFLCIO. Trumka will do whatever the big unions like AFSCME, AFT etc tells him to do. They are the big reason unions tried to stuff Clinton down members throats even after polls and think tanks told them the majority of members would not vote for Hillary but would vote for Bernie. You and Peter are absolutely right in this plan. Now how do we get labor unified to make it happen. The 6 unions you speak of can’t row this boat. We have weak leadership in most national unions as you know and that needs to change. You guys put a lot of thought and experience in this and you know I am a fan of you both. How do we build and get pressure from members to make leadership do the right thing. I like it a lot.

    Dave Eckstein

  • Buck Bagot
    Buck Bagot January 28, 2019 at 6:34 pm

    Great piece. If only US Labor acted in its own self interest. Tom Gallaghers book the Primary Route is absolutely correct – and unions ought to use “the primaries as an arena of struggle with the corporate Democrats.” Labor is one of the few entities that could lead the American Left out of the trap of identity politics, and develop a political program that might unite us. With demands based in economic justice, that also addressed issues of racism, sexism, global warming and all of our all-to-separate subgroups. Labor could lead us in bringing white Trump voters into a broader, class-based coalition. Good Lord – unions ought to at least do what our mighty Bernal Heights Democratic Club does – have a platform and use it as “a key threshold that candidates seeking Labor’s support must meet.” As you propose, we use an endorsement questionnaire and candidate forums to to provide our members the opportunity to meet the candidates up close, as well as demonstrate the strength of our base. Keep up the good work.

  • Joe Berry
    Joe Berry February 3, 2019 at 6:15 am


    You are very welcome. It was a good piece that all (including contingent faculty activists) need to read.

    How we are to reform the political decision-making within unions (at all levels) is something you could usefully address in a future piece. You only make passing reference to it here. It is hard to keep that focus. Example: at the latest AFT convention, despite the presence of the LA, Chicago and other progressive local leaders, the only direct criticism of the leadership from the floor (and I do mean only!) came from my sister-delegate from AFT 2121 (CCSF) Jessica Buchsbaum (our local secretary and co-chair of our organizing committee) who directly told the President that “you got it wrong” with the early and undemocratic endorsement of Hillary Clinton (the first in the labor movement, but followed by NEA and others). I was very proud of my local union at that moment, as you can imagine. It is significant both that this was the sole criticism from the floor and also that it was on this topic. Now is the moment to do this democratic reform in unions, (for a transparent and democratic process to make political endorsements and other decisions.) but we need a strategy and a central leadership. You and Rand are positioned to do this, if you will take up the challenge. There are some few very good models out there. One actually might start with my own local where we have open COPE meetings with majority vote endorsements, public (to the membership) results of candidate questionnaires, and adequate notice for there to be discussion.

    Thanks again for doing the piece. I read everything you write.

    In solidarity, (from Viet Nam where we are trying to teach collective bargaining and class struggle unionism to people who really don’t have a clue 2 generations after the revolution and independence. So sad.)

    In solidarity,

    Joe Berry

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