Democrats look to growing pro-union sentiment for a boost in the midterms and beyond

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Oon a rainy morning in Pittsburgh, members of age-old unions marched through downtown, as they have done every Labor Day for decades. Thousands of steam fitters, ironworkers, steelworkers, painters and team workers paraded through streets named in their honor, past stately buildings built in an era of industrial prosperity.

But this year, a newer, younger contingent marched alongside them: workers from the recently unionized Starbucks coffee chain.

After decades of declining union membership across the country, a wave of union action has hit national chains like Starbucks, Amazon, Apple and Trader Joe’s across the country. It comes as union support on its end highest level since the mid-1960sand the National Labor Relations Board reported a 57 percent increase in union election petitions filed during the first six months of fiscal year 2021.

That’s all good news for Democrats here in Pennsylvania, and for Joe Biden, who campaigned for the rebuilding of America’s unions and describes himself as the most pro-union president ever. The party, which has struggled for years with dwindling support among working-class voters, hopes renewed unions can give them a boost in the upcoming midterm elections and beyond.

Jacob Welsh, an employee of a Starbucks in the city who recently voted for union work, handed out flyers asking people to boycott the chain for his union-breaking efforts when the United Steelworkers marched behind him on Monday. He said he and his colleagues were inspired by the city’s history and the pioneering efforts of Starbucks workers in Buffalo, New York, who founded the company’s first-ever union.

“It’s something that makes us really excited to be a part of the city’s history,” he said. “We also feel a certain responsibility to ensure that Pittsburgh is still the center of labor organization.”

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Mr. Welsh is one of a growing number of young Americans who are not only joining unions, but starting them in workplaces they’ve never had before.

“I graduated from high school in 2009, just when the financial crisis hit. So all I’ve known, all my adult life, is a financial crisis, war, environmental collapse. And I think people my age think the only thing they can do right now that’s really tangible, where they feel like they can achieve something, is work solidarity and start a union,” he said.

Kevin McCarthy, a member of the steelworkers’ union for more than 25 years, said he saw the decline in union membership dwindle for years before reviving recently.

“When I started with the steel workers in 1996, this parade would have been three times as long and there would have been four times as many steel workers. It has really decreased,” he says. “But this year, despite the rain, it is still there. And you see that in polls people think that work is an important part of our society and that it is necessary that people make ends meet in the world today.”

An unashamedly pro-union city, Pittsburgh is a fitting meeting place for old and new of the labor movement. The history of organizing goes back to the 19th century when, as the industrial center of the country, it spawned many large unions that exist to this day.

It is that history that drew a large number of Democrats to the city on Labor Day to show their support. Biden stopped Monday afternoon at a United Steelworkers union hall in the Pittsburgh suburb of West Mifflin to address union workers along with John Fetterman, who is running for the US Senate here in Pennsylvania. The pair represent two of the most pro-union Democrats on the national stage.

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“Wall Street didn’t build America. The middle class built America, and unions built the middle class,” Biden said at the event, describing himself as a “unionist.”

Mr. Fetterman, speaking for Mr. Biden, said he would defend the “union way of life” in Washington DC if elected.

“You get a senator who lives across the street from a steel mill,” he said, referring to his home in Braddock, just outside of Pittsburgh.

Earlier in the day, Mr. Fetterman marched with United Steelworkers through downtown to sing his name and “Pittsburgh is a union city.” He has put support for unions at the heart of his campaign, and he has joined picket lines of strikes across the state, even before running for Senate.

“John has always been a friend of the workers,” said Ron C, a steam fitters union member and supporter of Fetterman, as he marched along the parade route. “His support in childbirth led me to his cause.”

He added that he was encouraged by the young workers at Starbucks who organized themselves in their workplaces.

“It’s great, across the country. Pittsburgh has a long history of unions. There is a lot of history with strikes and many people have died protecting high paying jobs and the middle class way of life so it is good to see other people getting a chance to get a fair daily wage for a fair day job,” he said. .

David Gehm, a member of the United Steelworkers union for nearly 40 years, said Mr Fetterman’s support for unions was an important part of his appeal.

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“He’s one of us. He’s a good hard-working man and I like the way he treats working people,” he said.

The key question for Democrats is whether they can turn rising union sentiment into support at the ballot box. Donald Trump won the 2016 election largely thanks to his support from working-class voters in swing states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. In a region where Democrats’ fortunes have risen and fallen with union power, Mr. Fetterman’s victory may give Democrats some hope, and perhaps even a template, for the future.

Still, some union members expect the Democrats and Mr. Biden to do more for working people.

“He has shown a lot of vocal support, but I feel there is more that can be done,” said Starbucks employee, Mr Welsh.

Chief among those things, he said, is the passing of the PRO Act, a bill that would make it easier for people to join unions by imposing sanctions on companies that actively undermine organizational efforts. The bill is likely to face significant opposition from corporate America and Republicans, who have called it a job killer.

“The US labor law is terrible and the PRO law isn’t perfect, but at least it would give people a chance to fight,” he said.

The other priority, he added, should be more funding for the National Labor Relations Board, the agency responsible for enforcing labor laws in the US.

“They are incredibly underfunded, they don’t have the manpower to deal with the unfair labor practices that are happening right now,” he said. “Those are two things that will help employees.”