Unions Must Help Salvage Democracy

If you’re a Texan with a disability, and you need someone to help you fill out your ballot in a polling place (it’s gotten more complicated for you to get a mail-in ballot), your assistant must fill out a document indicating his or her relationship to you, and that person will be restricted as to the kind of assistance he or she can provide.

If you’re a Black or Latino Texan, you probably know by now that the Texas legislature has eliminated the state’s one Black majority congressional district and has reduced the number of Latino-majority districts from eight to seven. These changes have taken place even though the state has added two congressional seats because of a four-million person population increase from 2010 to 2020, with new minority residents comprising 95 percent of that growth.

If you live in South Carolina and are one of the state’s 2.5 million registered Democrats, the odds are that your congressional representative will be a Republican: 11 out of the 14 newly mapped districts now have Republican majorities, even though there are 400,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans in the state.

To many Californians like myself, all these arrangements come across as alien, to say the least. California leaves redistricting to a nonpartisan commission, and our secretary of state sends mail-in ballots to all 22 million registered voters. Californians face no onerous voter I.D. laws.

Yet nothing in one part of the country is truly “alien” if it affects any other part. To the extent that the voting power and political voice of millions of people is diminished anywhere, it affects the quality of democracy everywhere. For this reason, the U.S. Senate’s recent failure to pass voting rights legislation makes it all the more urgent for civil society to pick up where the government has failed. With midterm elections coming up, voting rights groups and other organizations must significantly scale up voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts.

And unions must play a central role in this mobilization.

For one thing, their economic stake in countering voter suppression may be greater than that of any other institution in civil society. Their membership declines over the past several decades are closely intertwined with the nation’s growing economic and political inequality, and unions, despite their membership declines, nevertheless have resources they can commit to electoral politics.

Last year, for example, UNITE HERE Local 11, a 32,000-member union in Southern California and Arizona, got actively involved in the 2020 elections, knocking on 900,000 doors in Arizona and helping hold the line against a Trump victory in that state. Workers threw themselves into this effort despite – or perhaps because of – pandemic-related layoffs that affected 90 percent of the members. Many of the same members (hotel housekeepers, bartenders, cooks, and dishwashers) then traveled to Georgia, knocking on 550,000 doors and helping flip both Senate seats.

As Marilyn Wilbur, a laid-off service worker from Arizona State University commented on the Georgia victories, “this victory is not just for Georgia, but for all workers of color like myself who, though severely impacted by this pandemic, chose to rise up and fight back together. We will continue to push and make sure that healthcare, relief, jobs and justice are made a priority.”

The recent history of UNITE HERE, Local 11 is particularly illustrative of the power that union members can exert in electoral politics. The union underwent a transformation in the late 1980’s and 1990’s, as an enlightened leadership drew on the ideas, strategies, and inspiration of nonviolent activists and thinkers like the Rev. James M. Lawson, Cesar Chavez, and Dolores Huerta to expand the concept of a union as a critical force in a comprehensive movement for social justice. That transformation shifted fundamental attitudes toward immigrant workers, recognizing their dignity and re-energizing union power by engaging immigrants as active participants in electoral politics. That change in the union dynamic helped transform labor relations and politics in Los Angeles – indeed, in California as a whole.

Undoubtedly the efforts to undo the substantial impacts of voter suppression will be an immense task: 34 voter suppression bills were passed in 19 states in 2021 alone. It is a task complicated by continuing efforts to sow mistrust in voting and the electoral process.

But 2021 has seen evidence of a union resurgence in many quarters, and union membership in and of itself reinforces democratic values, deepening members’ awareness of political issues and their own abilities to effect change at a grassroots level. With a strong union presence allied with that of other organizations supportive of full voting rights, the possibilities of swinging the pendulum back toward justice are not entirely out of reach. At any rate, the stakes are too high to hold back now.

Andrew Moss is an emeritus professor from the California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, where he taught a course, “War and Peace in Literature,” for 10 years.