David Cowart walked onto the Florida International University campus for his first day of work more than a decade ago knowing he would join the local union. His mother was a member of the Transportation Workers Union of America and he grew up the nephew of sanitation workers.
“Joining a union was basically not a question,” the 36-year-old groundskeeper said.
Cowart is now the president of of AFSCME Local 3346 at Florida International. On paper, he’s exactly the type Democratic presidential candidates hoped to engage last week when they threatened to boycott tonight’s debate over a labor dispute at the host school, Loyola Marymount University. He’s a millennial working a union job in a critical swing state.
Except Cowart wasn’t aware the debate was ever in doubt.
“I can’t sit down and sell myself on (Vermont Sen.) Bernie Sanders or (former Vice President) Joe Biden right now," Cowart said. "There are too many candidates. When we get down to three, I’ll see where they’re at.”
The debate is on as scheduled — 8 p.m. on PBS and CNN — after the Democratic Party brokered a last-minute resolution between a campus employer and workers demanding better wages and healthcare. Still, the affair underscored the fierce competition between candidates for one of the pillars of the left: organized labor.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren was the first to announce she would boycott Thursday’s debate, followed quickly by Sanders. Both have promised to take on big business on behalf of the working man and woman. Biden leans into the moniker “Middle Class Joe” while Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg have emphasized their Midwestern upbringings. New York businessman Andrew Yang’s forward-looking platform has promised Americans $1,000 a month in part to offset lost jobs to automation.
There are so many candidates prioritizing labor issues with records to back it up, that unions have remained on the sidelines and haven’t endorsed in the primary.
Florida, though, is far from a union stronghold. Less than 6 percent of its workers were union members in 2018. Just a dozen states had smaller ratio of unionized workers.
Nevertheless, candidates appear eager to spread their pro-union message to the Sunshine State. Most recently, Klobuchar held a Miami round table last week with labor representatives from South Florida.
“The dignity of work, to me, means people are able to raise a family," Klobuchar told the room. "If they’re taking those jobs we want them to take in the service industry and healthcare, we have to make sure they are able to afford things.”
Most of the field has taken strong positions against so-called right-to-work laws, which first appeared in Florida’s state constitution in 1943. The statute prohibits employers from requiring workers join a union to get a job, even if they benefit from the union’s collective bargaining.
Republicans have championed right-to-work laws as part of creating a pro-business climate. Sanders has called these laws “disastrous” for workers. Warren recently chided Virginia’s Gov. Ralph Northam, a fellow Democrat, for standing by his state’s right-to-work law. Even New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who waged fierce battles against city unions over pensions, said he opposes right-to-work laws.
Biden spokesman Bill Russo said if elected, “Biden will repeal the Taft-Hartley provisions that allow states like Florida to impose ‘right-to-work’ laws.”
For decades, Democratic candidates have vowed to chip away at Taft-Hartley, a 1947 labor law that precipitated a decades-long decline in the power of unions in workplaces and American politics, to little success. Rich Templin, legislative director for the Florida AFL-CIO, said he would like to see candidates focused on knocking down other barriers to union participation.
“It’s more nuanced and more complicated than saying, ‘Repeal Taft-Hartley,' " Templin said. "That’s a short cut.”
To that end, Biden, Warren, Sanders, Klobuchar and Buttigieg have all released lengthy labor plans aimed at increasing union participation. (The campaigns for the three senators were quick to point their plans include repealing Taft-Hartley. Buttigieg has said he would “change Taft-Hartley, and once I’m done with it, it may need a new name.")
There’s a clear incentive for Democrats to focus on labor this election. The party needs to take back rust belt states that Donald Trump won in 2016 en route to his electoral college victory. Trump’s campaign is eager to replicate the support he received from union households, which outpaced every Republican presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan.
But union leaders also insist there’s a new wave of interest in unions for Democratic campaigns to harness, fueled largely by millenials who have only a known a workforce where wages are stagnant, contract work is increasingly common and employer loyalty is scarce.
Richard Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest federation of labor unions, recently told Congress there’s “a fervor (for unions) I haven’t seen in a generation," though so far the surge is more anecdotal than statistical. Templin said Florida unions are experiencing growing interest, too. Cowart is seeing it among Florida International University workers, despite the hurdles of operating in a right-to-work state.
“At one point unions were strong so people didn’t feel the need to join because anything the unions would get, everyone else would get,” Cowart said. “But as issues started to come about — layoffs, unfair termination — that’s when conversations started to happen again.”
When: 8 p.m.
Where to watch: PBS and CNN.
Online: Go to http://bit.ly/TBTpolitics