El Paso overtakes Democrats’ pro-worker stands at AFSCME forum
Kamala Harris told AFSCME members that unions have a major part to play in the provision of good public services to Americans. | AFSCME

LAS VEGAS —The mass murder of 20 people in El Paso, with another 26 wounded, all by a Trumpite with a semi-automatic rifle and wearing a “MAGA” hat, overshadowed Democratic presidential hopefuls’ pro-worker stands at a special AFSCME forum in Las Vegas on August 3.

“For far too many people, a fair shot doesn’t exist now, and for far too many it never has,” said Gov. Steve Bullock, D-Mont., speaking of both economic and racial injustice. The other 18 hopefuls voiced similar views. But they were overshadowed by the shooting.

As reports of the carnage kept filtering in – and the death toll kept rising – so did the hopefuls’ outrage. By the end, the last to speak, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, cited GOP President Donald Trump’s encouragement of white nationalism.

“America is under attack from home-grown white nationalist terrorism,” said Buttigieg. “White nationalism is an evil that is being condoned at the highest levels of government,” he said, referring to Trump, though not naming him. “Are we or are we not prepared to confront the organized gun lobby and the evil of white nationalism?”

“We are the only country in the world with more guns than people and it has not made us safer,” added Buttigieg, who as mayor had to deal several weeks ago with a more common form of gun violence: A police officer shooting down an unarmed African-American man.

“We had this in Gilroy last week,” added Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif. “We have to agree we cannot tolerate this gun violence anymore.” But just hours after the forum ended, another mass murderer shot up downtown Dayton, Ohio, killing nine people before police killed him.

Gun control is important nationwide but also to the AFSCME members: Public safety officers, corrections officers, state and local mental health workers, nurses and EMTs, all of whom must deal with the deadly carnage every day and its physical and psychological aftermath. And AFSCME is important to the hopefuls: It’s one of the AFL-CIO’s two largest unions and is very politically active.

The denunciations started with former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas. El Paso is his hometown and he was the first to discuss the carnage, which its police chief labeled a hate crime. “I want you all to be thinking of El Paso,” O’Rourke said in his opening statement.

“Any illusion that progress is inevitable or that change we need is going to come of its own accord is shattered in moments like these.”

“And this is upon every one of us,” he added, linking the carnage to the campaign, indirectly: “There is no luxury in this democracy of sitting this one out” on issues like “gun control or putting children in cages at the U.S.-Mexico border,” another Trump policy. Trump has flip-flopped on gun control, first favoring, then opposing, controls.

O’Rourke also pointed out that during his 2018 U.S. Senate campaign, even Republicans in gun-happy Texas agreed with him on the need for practical gun control. After winding up his segment of the forum, O’Rourke flew home.

The earlier hopefuls either did not know about El Paso or chose not to discuss it. But several chimed in afterwards in TV interviews. They included Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Cory Booker, D-N.J. and Bernie Sanders, Ind.-Vt. “We must end this, too,” Warren said.

Booker, who lives in Newark’s Central Ward – and who knows about shootings there every week – went after the gun lobby, the notorious National Rifle Association. “It’s around 100 a day,” he said of gun killings nationwide. “So I put up the boldest” gun control “plan because I’m determined not to let the NRA and the corporate gun lobby dictate the debate.”

Sanders, afterwards, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, DFL-Minn., from the forum stage, laid the blame at the feet of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kent., with Klobuchar, a former DA, hitting the NRA, too.

The gun control bills are “sitting on Mitch McConnell’s doorstep, and in his graveyard,” she said. “It’s time for the U.S. Senate to do what the American people want us to do, and that’s pass common-sense gun control legislation,” Sanders added.

Besides the discussion of collective bargaining rights for public workers, gun control and El Paso, the audience and the two moderators, experienced political journalists, got the 19 hopefuls to talk about other issues of interest to workers.

One point of agreement was opposition to privatization of public services, especially prisons and schools. The Teachers (AFT) oppose privatizing schools, while AFSCME and others campaign against for-profit prisons. “There should not be a profit margin in schools and there should not be private prisons, too,” said Tom Steyer, an ex-hedge fund manager who finances progressive causes.

Other high points included:

  • Sanders and Warren defended their support for government-run single-payer Medicare For All against a continued attack from former Rep. John Delaney, D-Md., Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., and former Vice President Joe Biden. “If you’re in a union and you fought hard for years for good health care, we shouldn’t just come in and take it away,” said Moulton. All three favor a “public option” to compete with the insurers, instead. Delaney said the week before that Medicare For All and the Green New Deal are radical ideas that could give Trump a second term. “You should not go out and try to pass a $30 trillion plan,” Biden added.

“What matters most is to get everyone at the table, and that means unions at the table” to create a new health care system, Warren said. “What’s the basic model of the health insurers? To take as much as you can in premiums and pay as little as you can in benefits.”

Warren – who criticized Delaney the week before for “talking about the things we can’t do” – retorted this time that “Republicans are still talking about taking health care away from everyone. We have to remind everyone of that.” And Harris had to explain she changed her support of Medicare For All by issuing a revised plan with a longer “glide-in” period than Sanders’s four years. She also now includes a public option.

  • Several hopefuls advocated more wide-ranging labor law reform covering the entire nation, not just state and local government workers. “I would make it easier to organize,” former Housing Secretary Julian Castro said. “I support the PRO Act,” the union-backed, and partially union crafted, comprehensive labor law reform legislation pending in the House. Booker criticized the U.S. Supreme Court’s year-old Janus decision, which makes each state and local government worker nationwide a potential “free rider,” able to use union services and protection without paying for them. He did not say how he would write legislation to overturn it.

Former Vice President Joseph Biden defended the Obama administration’s handling, or lack of it, of the Employee Free Choice Act, the last major labor law reform effort a decade ago. “We pressed and pressed, but there were other things pressing as well,” he said, an oblique reference to the Affordable Care Act. Biden also claimed “we did not have a Democratic Congress to get it,” not mentioning that in Democratic President Barack Obama’s first two years, they did. And while other hopefuls endorsed the PRO Act, Biden was silent.

But New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said the failure of labor law reform was one reason union members either stayed home or voted for Trump in 2016. “They didn’t feel Democrats were on their side,” he said. “When we pass that strongest labor law reform, they’ll know it.”

Warren said comprehensive labor law reform would help close the income chasm between the rich and the rest of us, while leveling the playing field. She repeated her campaign message: “For decades, we’ve had an America that’s better and better for billionaires and giant corporations and worse and worse for everyone else. Their first point was to attack unions.  Their second point was to attack government.”

  • Many called for higher taxes on corporations and the rich, either by repealing the Trump-GOP 2017 $1.2 trillion tax cut that benefited them or by other means. Booker called the tax cut “toxic.” Delaney said capital gains should be taxed at the same rate as workers’ income. Warren again pushed her 2% tax on all wealth above $50 million, saying its revenue could fund pre-K education for all – a favorite teachers’ union cause – decent pay for those teachers and childcare workers and forgiving student loan debt for the bottom 95% of beneficiaries. Castro noted that before Ronald Reagan’s 1981 tax cut, the top marginal individual tax rate was as high as 91% in the 1950s and now it’s 35%. “I’d put it somewhere in between,” he said.
  • Delaney, Moulton, de Blasio, and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock all emphasized practical leadership. Moulton cited his experience leading a Marine platoon in tours of duty in Middle Eastern wars, while Delaney cited his expertise building and running a business – without mentioning the eight-figure fortune it’s given him or talking about his workers. DeBlasio talked about reaching new union contracts after former Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) stiffed workers.

Bullock, a lawyer for unions who won re-election in a state Trump handily carried in 2016, said he got progressive measures through the GOP-run legislature. “Talk is talk,” he said of the lawmakers seeking the Oval Office. “Washington has become a place of wishlist economics…You win back the places we lost by showing up and listening” to voters. In a jab at Sanders, he added, “They can’t wait for a revolution.”

  • Sanders, a self-described Socialist, denied his stands are far out of the mainstream, as the “moderates,” and the GOP allege. “To say that workers should earn a living wage, that’s not radical. To say that women should earn” the same pay for the same jobs men do, “that’s not radical. To say that we must grow the trade union movement, that’s not radical. To say that we must” cut dependence “on fossil fuel industries, and save the planet, that’s not radical. To say that all kids should get childcare and the education they need, that’s not radical.

“But what’s difficult is that Bernie Sanders can’t do it all, to take on the greed and corruption that are destroying our society. I want your help to transform the economy to help all of the nation and not just the 1%.”

  • Only Steyer advocated impeaching Trump. He’s plowed millions into a national campaign for that, citing Trump’s obstruction of justice in the probe of Russian manipulation of the 2016 election and Trump’s usage of Russian disinformation, leaks and social media lies. Trump “led a hostile corporate takeover” of the U.S. government, Steyer said. “He’s an awful guy and we got eight million signatures on petitions to impeach him.”

The entire discussion with all 19 hopefuls is posted on www.afscme.org.


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). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.