As young workers are re-energizing the U.S. labor movement, young voters turned out in record numbers in this year’s midterm elections, turning an expected “red wave” of anti-worker Republican victories into a mere trickle.
Defying both expectations and historical patterns (the party that controls the presidency almost always loses a large number of seats in Congress during midterm elections), Republicans were unable to take full control of Congress. Perhaps more importantly, a slate of secretary of state candidates who had pledged to use their control of electoral machinery to engineer a Republican victory in the 2024 presidential election — regardless of how voters vote — went down to defeat in all but one state, Indiana.
Addressing this danger in their statement on the elections, “Defending Workers’ Interests in a Rigged System,” the UE General Executive Board proclaimed that “democracy itself is on the ballot in November, and working people must show up at the polls to defend it.” It was young workers who rose to this challenge.
Republicans will come out of the midterms with a slim majority in the House of Representatives. In the Senate, the Democrats have secured 50 seats, guaranteeing them the same razor-thin majority they have had over the past two years (because Vice President Kamala Harris is able to break ties), and may win a 51st seat, depending on the outcome of a runoff election in Georgia in December. (UPDATE: That seat was won by Democrat Raphael Warnock.)
With a divided Congress, the chances of meaningful legislative progress on any of the challenges facing working people in the next two years are slim to none.
While in most Congressional contests working people were faced with a choice between extremist anti-worker Republicans and uninspiring corporate Democrats, there were exceptions. The House now has more strong pro-worker Democrats than it has seen in generations, with the most notable new addition in UE areas being Summer Lee, a strong UE ally who won a Congressional seat in southwest Pennsylvania. Lee prevailed despite millions of dollars’ worth of attack ads against her, which sought to take advantage of the fact that her Republican challenger had the same name as the long-time Democratic incumbent who retired this year.
Also in Pennsylvania, John Fetterman, a Democrat with a strong pro-labor record, won election to the Senate. In Wisconsin, the solidly pro-worker Mandela Barnes came close to unseating Republican Senator Ron Johnson, a former plastics executive with one of the most anti-worker records in the Senate. In both states, voters rejected extremist Republican candidates for governor.
Where issues important to working people were put directly on the ballot, they prevailed across the country. In Illinois, voters approved the “Workers’ Rights Amendment,” which enshrines the right to collective bargaining in the state constitution and will prevent any future legislative attempt to pass “right to work” laws. Voters in Nebraska and Nevada raised their states’ minimum wage, and in Washington, D.C., voters approved a measure to eliminate the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers.
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, voters in California, Vermont and Michigan amended their state constitutions to guarantee the right to an abortion, free from government interference. In Kentucky, an attempt to amend the state constitution to specifically exclude the right to abortion was defeated, as was an anti-abortion referendum in Montana.
In what is perhaps the most hopeful result of last week’s elections, voters in the city of Virginia Beach elected a new city council, which now has a majority who support recognizing the collective bargaining rights of city workers. (Under Virginia’s 2021 law extending collective bargaining rights to municipal workers, city councils and school boards must first pass a resolution authorizing it.) Virginia Beach municipal workers who have been organizing with UE since 2020 were active in the election, helping to deliver the margin of victory to several pro-collective bargaining candidates.
This article was updated the morning of November 17 to reflect the Republicans' winning control of the House, and on January 7 to reflect the outcome of Georgia's December 20 primary.