Midterm Elections Offer Hope, Despite Setbacks

December 7, 2018

On November 6, Democrats took control of the House of Representatives by a decisive margin, providing a much-needed check on the anti-worker agenda of the Republican party and opening new possibilities to advance Medicare for All single-payer healthcare and a “Green New Deal” to create jobs while addressing the challenge of climate change. The newly elected Democrats are significantly younger, more female, and more racially diverse than Congress has been in the past, and include the first two Muslim women and the first two Native American women elected to Congress.

Although more Americans voted for Democrats than Republicans in Senate races (by a margin of 59 percent to 39.4 percent), the undemocratic nature of the Senate — where the 585,000 residents of Wyoming get the same representation as the 39 million residents of California — allowed Republicans to actually increase their majority in that chamber. This leaves Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell free to continue his avowed “project” of packing the federal courts with pro-corporate, anti-worker, racist judges.

“Despite the unrelenting squeeze and attack by the corporate establishment on our political and workplace rights, economic, social, and environmental justice, there is a building enthusiasm in our communities for greater involvement in democracy, at work and in the streets,” said UE General President Peter Knowlton. “49.3% of the voting population voted. The highest percentage in over a hundred years voted for candidates who support policies and programs which benefit the many and not just the few. Especially welcome was the number of women elected from marginalized and oppressed communities. We should be hopeful for the future.”

State By State: Wins and Losses

In a huge victory for workers, Wisconsin voters threw out two-term governor and anti-union demagogue Scott Walker, electing the ticket endorsed by UE's Western Region: the mainstream Democrat Tony Evers for Governor and the progressive, Our Revolution-endorsed Mandela Barnes for Lieutenant Governor.

Unfortunately, Ironworker Randy "Ironstache" Bryce, endorsed by the Western Region and the UE Local 1111 Retirees Association, came up short in his race for a Congressional seat in southeast Wisconsin.

In Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf and Senator Bob Casey, both of whom were endorsed by Locals 506 and 618, retained their seats. Ron DiNicola, who was also endorsed by UE Locals 506 and 618, was unsuccessful in his bid to unseat Republican Mike Kelly in northwestern PA, but won the majority of the vote in Erie. The locals held a well-attended rally for their endorsed candidates at the Local 506 hall in August and published information about the importance of union political action in the Local 506 Union News.

“As leaders of this Union we have an obligation to uphold the policies of UE as adopted by the rank and file membership at the National Convention,” said UE Local 506 Vice President and Legislative Action Committee chair Tom Bobrowicz, explaining how his local approaches political action. “We study the candidates platforms and voting records and hold discussions about the candidates at our Legislative Action Committee (LAC) meetings.” Based on the the LAC’s information, Local 506’s executive board recommended the endorsements of Wolf, Casey and DiNicola, which were approved by the membership. “No dues monies go to the LAC,” emphasized Bobrowicz. “The LAC is funded via a 50/50 drawing held at each of our monthly membership meetings.”

Further south, in Pittsburgh, two candidates endorsed by UE’s Eastern Region were uncontested in the general election. Summer Lee and Sara Innamorato, both in their 30s, defeated incumbent establishment Democrats in the May primaries; UE was the only union to endorse them. Lee and Innamorato, members of the Democratic Socialists of America and endorsed by Our Revolution, campaigned on Medicare for All single-payer healthcare, a $15 minimum wage, affordable housing and green jobs — issues right out of the UE policy book.

In Vermont, incumbent Republican governor Phil Scott, who vetoed legislation to increase the minimum-wage and establish paid family leave, was easily re-elected, but Democrats and Progressives together won a two-thirds majority in the House of Representatives, allowing them to potentially override his veto in the coming session.

More disappointing was the inability of Iowa's Democrats to win the governorship or wrest control of either house of the legislature, thus leaving thousands of UE-represented public-sector workers with little hope of undoing the 2017 anti-union law that severely curtailed their bargaining rights in the near term. The Democratic candidate for governor, Fred Hubble, was by all accounts uninspiring, and managed to lose despite Democrats winning three of Iowa's four Congressional races. Two Republican incumbents were ousted by women candidates, one of whom, Abby Finkenauer, was endorsed by UE's Western Region and will become at 29 one of the youngest members of Congress.

In another disappointing result, voters in North Carolina approved four of the six constitutional amendments opposed by UE Local 150, including an amendment that lowers the cap on the state's income tax from 10 to 7 percent and one that will require voters to present IDs — a means of voter suppression that disproportionately keeps working-class voters and voters of color from participating in the democratic process.

Gerrymandering, Voter Suppression and Corporate Cash Limit Progress

North Carolina was also notable for the role that gerrymandering (the drawing of districts lines in order to ensure specific partisan outcomes) played in the election. Although North Carolinians split their votes for Congress evenly between Republicans and Democrats, Republicans won 10 of 13 seats. In Pennsylvania, by contrast, where the elected state supreme court recently mandated a re-drawing of Congressional districts to undo Republican gerrymandering, a similarly split electorate resulted in an evenly split Congressional delegation — nine Democrats and nine Republicans.

Direct voter suppression also played a role in a number of key races, particularly in Georgia, where Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp purged over 1.5 million voters and shut down over 200 polling places — then ran for governor while still serving as the state's top election official. After Kemp won the race with a razor-thin 50.22% of the vote, his opponent Stacey Abrams said “Georgia citizens tried to exercise their constitutional rights and were still denied the ability to elect their leaders. Under the watch of the now former Secretary of State, democracy failed Georgians of every political party, every race, every region.” Abrams, who would have been the first African-American woman governor in U.S. history, has launched a new organization, Fair Fight Georgia, to pursue greater fairness in elections.

In a victory for expanding voting rights, voters in Florida approved a measure that will restore voting rights to an estimated 1.4 million former felons.

While several other progressive referendums also passed, raising the minimum wage in Arkansas and Missouri, two referendums endorsed by UE were defeated by massive infusions of corporate cash, which paid for misleading ads designed to confuse voters.

In Massachusetts, a ballot initiative to mandate safe staffing ratios in hospitals, sponsored by the Massachusetts Nurses Association and endorsed by the UE Northeast Region, fell victim to healthcare industry scare tactics. The industry spent over $23 million on the campaign and used one-on-ones and captive audience meetings at work to spread fear among hospital staff — just like they do during anti-union campaigns. The California rent-control measure Proposition 10, endorsed by Local 1421, was also defeated after heavy spending by the real estate industry.

Medicare for All, Green New Deal on the National Stage

Several key UE priorities are already getting more attention in Washington DC than they have in a generation, thanks in large part to the election of a set of dynamic new Congresspeople, most of them young women of color, whose bold actions are in line with UE’s core values.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), commonly referred to by her initials AOC, is a 29-year-old former bartender and waitress who defeated a powerful incumbent establishment Democrat in last summer’s primaries. Since being elected, she has been using social media to share her experiences as a member of the working class elected to Congress — from being unable to afford rent in DC until her Congressional salary kicks in, to her outrage that many Congressional staff are paid less than a living wage (and less than 10% of members of Congress pay their interns at all). The shocked reaction of the Washington establishment to this truth-telling has demonstrated how out of touch Congresspeople of both parties are with the realities of working-class life. (Ocasio-Cortez can be found on both Instragram and Twitter at @Ocasio2018.)

A week after the election, Ocasio-Cortez joined a sit-in at Democratic leader (and presumed next House Speaker) Nancy Pelosi’s office demanding action on climate change — and this bold action helped to thrust the idea of a “Green New Deal” back into the national debate. Momentum is building to create a “Select Committee for the Green New Deal,” which would be a crucial step towards realizing UE’s demand for “legislation mandating massive investments by state and federal governments and U.S. businesses to convert to a clean-energy economy and create millions of good jobs in the process.”

Another newly-elected Congresswoman, Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) is also bucking longstanding Congressional tradition by organizing an independent fact-finding delegation to the Israeli-occupied West Bank. As journalists Alex Kane and Lee Fang report in The Intercept, “[h]er planned trip is a swift rebuke of a decades-old tradition for newly elected members: a junket to Israel sponsored by the education arm of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, known as AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel lobby group.” UE policy supports an end to the occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and the siege of Gaza by Israel.

Buoyed by this new energy — and 22 new members — the Congressional Progressive Caucus has been aggressively demanding representation on important committees. Although 40 percent of Democrats in the 115th Congress were members of the Progressive Caucus, they held less than 40 percent of the seats on the powerful Ways and Means and Appropriations Committees, and less than 30 percent on the House Financial Services and Energy and Commerce Committees.

All of these committees will be crucial to passing one of UE’s top legislative priorities: Medicare for All, single-payer healthcare. Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), chair of the Medicare for All Caucus, has been meeting with Pelosi to demand greater progressive representation on the committees, especially Ways and Means and Commerce, that will be crucial to passing Medicare for All.

Uphill Battle

While the new Congress presents opportunities to move forward some key UE priorities, pro-worker leaders like Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), Jayapal, Tlaib and Ocasio-Cortez face an uphill battle against an alliance of corporate Democrats and Republicans who are committed to business as usual.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, in fact, has suggested that having corporate Democrats in charge of the House of Representatives would make it easier to carry out his announced goal of cutting Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Indeed, J.P. Morgan analyst Marko Kolanovic told CNBC that “[w]e believe (out of consensus) that a split Congress is the best outcome for US and global equity markets,” and the Dow Jones rose 550 points on the day after the election, indicating how pleased Wall Street was with the outcome.

“More than ever, we need to have militant action by working people in defense of their own interests, whether it be for good jobs, Medicare for All, or demanding cuts to military spending in order to invest in human needs, in order to push the national conversation and the next round of elections in the right direction,” said Western Region President Carl Rosen.