On Four-State Tour, Democratic Leaders Try to Reconnect With Workers
CAMDEN, N.J. — The three Democratic congressmen sat at one end of a long, rectangular table that extended nearly the length of the Teamsters hall here, surrounded by about 50 union leaders, members and local residents offering a mix of praise, complaints and political strategy.
“This is a forum that was desperately needed for a long time,” James H. Paylor Jr., a top organizer for the International Longshoremen’s Association, told the lawmakers. “There’s a saying that it’s never too late as long as you start today.”
The need for the Democratic Party and the labor movement to take stock of their historically close alliance became clear after November’s election when Hillary Clinton’s support among union voters declined by 7 percentage points from 2012 when former President Barack Obama was re-elected.
For months, Democrats have been grappling with how to reconnect with the union and working class vote they once considered their base, prompting former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to lament after the election that “my party did not talk about what it always stood for.”
Representatives Mark DeSaulnier of California, Mark Pocan of Wisconsin and Donald Norcross of New Jersey finished a four-stop, cross-country tour on Aug. 4 that set out to do just that: understand and tap into the economic anxiety felt by many working class voters, as part of a broader, fractious and painful self-examination Democrats have undertaken following Donald J. Trump’s ascension to the White House.
“We in labor, we may not have the billions of dollars, but we still have a lot of people,” said New Jersey State Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney, a Democrat and the general vice president of the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers. “And there’s a lot of seats that belong to working class people. It’s up to us to claim them.”
Along with Representative Debbie Dingell of Michigan, who could not make the final leg of the trip, the four Democratic House members are planning to release their report, “The Future of Work, Wages and Labor,” in the coming months. Though they view their work as a complement to the party’s progressive platform, they also acknowledge that fellow Democrats may disagree with some of their proposals.
Some of them that might even sound, well, Trumpian.
“Those trade agreements, we’re still paying a price on NAFTA,” Mr. Norcross said in an interview, referring to the North American Free Trade Agreement, a frequent target for Mr. Trump on the campaign trail last year.
Mr. Norcross argued that some of the demands within his party for uncompromising legislative positions has left Democrats on the wrong side of the jobs argument.
“It’s not yes to everything environmental, no to everything with jobs,” he said. “It’s a matter of working those together to try to move them forward.”
That conversation inspired a yearlong tour by the four members of Congress, which culminated this month in a labor town hall meeting inside a crowded Teamsters building in this struggling city in southern New Jersey.
Ending the tour here, after stopping in Michigan and Wisconsin (which have “right-to-work” laws that prevent organized labor from forcing all workers to pay union dues or fees), offered a bit of a throwback case study: Though working class families in New Jersey face similar problems as the working class elsewhere, the state still maintains strong ties between organized labor and the Democratic Party.
The Democratic candidate for governor, Philip D. Murphy, heavily courted the major state unions and relied on union-organizing efforts to help him to his overwhelming primary win. The New Jersey Education Association, which endorsed Mr. Murphy, is considered one of the most powerful teachers unions in the country, while Mr. Sweeney holds a powerful position in an international union.
“Unions may be weaker than they once were, given the dynamics of the American political landscape,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “But New Jersey remains a place where unions are very politically active and are relied upon by politicians to help deliver in politics.”
After the town hall meeting, Mr. Paylor expressed both comfort and frustration. He did not know that Mr. Norcross had been working to introduce bills aimed at his interests, including one that would direct the Department of Energy to provide training for energy industry jobs and another that would allow people paying for apprenticeships to receive the same tax benefits as those paying for traditional college.
“Most working class people don’t even understand that that’s going on in Washington, so they’re willing to vote against their own personal interest in many cases,” Mr. Paylor said. The Democratic Party and its elected officials, he added, need to do a better job of communicating, and “to identify themselves that they are representative of the working class.”
And, if Mr. Norcross has his way, maybe a few more working class candidates will appear on the ballot.
Mr. Norcross told the crowd in the Teamsters hall that there were more than 200 attorneys in the House of Representatives. “There’s one electrician, one painter, and one iron worker and one carpenter. We need some more help folks. We need some more.”
Because of an editing error, an article on Tuesday about efforts by Democrats to reconnect with working class voters erroneously included one state among those with right-to-work laws. Though Michigan and Wisconsin have the laws, California does not.