AFL-CIO unions gear up for major push in 2018 election cycle
Maria Elena Durazo, a long time union leader and activist, is running for state senate in California.

HOUSTON — The determination of the nation’s labor movement to come out on the winning side of this year’s election battles was strongly reflected here at discussions during last weekend’s AFL-CIO Martin Luther King conference.

Unionists mapping plans here see 2018 as an election year during which they can join with allies to win races in all levels of government and halt in its tracks the anti-labor offensive of the Trump administration and the GOP.

One seminar held on Jan. 14 urged women to run for elective office, and introduced the basics on how to do so. Another small-group session tackled organizing, which can be applied to union drives as well as election campaigns.

And the general session featured two prominent female unionists, one holding a Seattle City Council seat and the other running for the California State Senate, talking about elections.

“We don’t have a choice, and we haven’t had a choice for a long time,” explained Teresa Mosqueda, the former Washington State Labor Federation political director – and Office and Professional Employees member – who won that city council seat last fall.

Ever since real estate mogul Trump entered the Oval Office, unionists, women and minorities – and sometimes people who are combinations of those – have been coming out of the woodwork. They feel themselves, their rights and their very place in U.S. society threatened by Trump, his Republican allies, the 1 percent and corporate interests who control or manipulate those politicians.

In the 2015-16 election cycle, Emily’s List, the progressive pro-choice women’s candidate recruitment and financing group, had to work the phones just to recruit 700 women to run and to fund for offices at all levels.

In the 13 months since Trump took office, however, their phones have rung off the hook, with hundreds of calls a day from people wanting to run for office.

“We’ve had 26,000 women call us” since the big women’s march in Washington the day after Trump was sworn in, she said. “And we’ve already trained 2,400.”

The same thing has been true, to a lesser extent, among union women, and one point of the sessions was to showcase Mosqueda and Unite Here Vice President, the former L.A. Federation of Labor chief Maria Elena Durazo, who both have dived into politics. Durazo is campaigning for the state senate seat.

In Washington state, 30 women took AFL-CIO political campaign training courses, and 22 of them ran for office last year, Mosqueda reported. Of those, 14 won their primaries and 12 won the general election last November. And half of the winners were minorities.

And the women, including women of color and unionists, are running, all the speakers emphasized, to bring issues male officeholders often marginalize to the forefront of the political discussion – and get action on them.

Mosqueda told the crowd she got fed up with “’I’ll think about it’ responses” from legislators when she would bring up to state lawmakers issues such as paid family leave, childcare, equal pay or equal work, cuts in workers compensation, and threats to workers’ rights.

“We went to the streets and took to the airports,” she said of her reaction and that of thousands of women and unionists after Trump entered into power and started with a Muslim travel ban and other anti-woman and anti-worker actions. “Running for office was the resistance,” Mosqueda said.

“I’m a woman and women’s’ rights are under attack. I’m a woman of color when Trump is labeling Black Lives Matter a terrorist organization,” she said. All that pushed Mosqueda into the Seattle council race. “Despite flak from both left and right,” she won by 20 percentage points, over a guy who wasn’t working (his last job was working for the initiative she ran), while Mosqueda worked full time and ran for office full time. Her career as a working woman resonated with voters, she added.

“I didn’t leave the labor movement; I brought the labor movement with me into office,” said Mosqueda. She also made it clear she was running to achieve goals for women and workers, not for a career. The first legislation she introduced, which the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees helped draft and then strategized with her on timing and lobbying, was the city’s Domestic Workers Bill of Rights ordinance.

And that type of recruiting, strategizing and organizing was what much of the afternoon’s specific sessions were about. The session on women standing for office touched on themes they could use, such as income inequality widening as unionization declined, how to network – with leads provided – and connecting with people one-on-one on issues they care about. Union organizers, several speakers said, do the same thing.

Other sessions included one on preserving and expanding the right to vote, now under threat from so-called “Voter ID” laws and other repressive measures in states around the country.

But all responded to anti-worker, anti-woman, anti-minority moves pushed by corporate interests and the rich who seized control, even before Trump, and want to keep it, and the inequality, racism, sexism and repression those forces create.

Overthrowing them can involve building from the ground up. When Durazo took over the L.A. Fed, the organization was moribund and candidates, particularly Democrats, ignored it.

They told her the workers – her Unite Here members – were mostly immigrants who couldn’t vote and poor, so they couldn’t donate dollars. She organized and registered thousands of people, especially minority voters, and changed that.

To reach that level, the AFL-CIO got members to believe “not in this candidate or that candidate,” said Durazo, who is also a top Democratic National Committee officer. The federation showed them a mission and a vision built around issues. “It wasn’t about ‘Vote for Jose.’ It was about ‘Vote for $15 an hour.’”

“America was founded on the idea that all are created equal, yet even in 2018, we see that women, LGBT people and communities of color face increased marginalization,” said Harris County, Texas, (Houston) District Attorney Kim Ogg, who unseated a long-time law-and-order oriented Republican incumbent in the last election.

And she did so, Ogg told the crowd, on a progressive platform of equal justice and linking improvements in public safety with the economy – and the plight the marginalized face with both. “It was labor who showed me” that linkage, she added.

“We have to run on our ideals and our values, and take the high road, and have unified campaigns with slates” discussing values important to workers, women and minorities, Ogg said. That includes not just equal justice, but equal pay for equal work, paid family leave and worker and collective bargaining rights, other speakers said.

But it won’t be easy and it won’t be quick, the speakers warned. Though Durazo did not go into details, Orange County – LA’s suburbs – was deep red until a long organizing effort by that federation’s political director, Tefere Gebre, turned it purple. Gebre is now the AFL-CIO’s executive vice president.

And the margins for progressives can sometimes be very small. “People think of Washington state as very progressive. But we’re one governor, one state senator and one state house seat away from being a right to work state,” said Mosqueda.

Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee’s seat is on the ballot this year, and the state senate went Democratic by one vote after a recent special election win – by a progressive pro-worker woman.



Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). El galardonado periodista Mark Gruenberg es el director de la oficina de People's World en Washington, D.C. Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.