Grassroots Organizers Flipped the Senate and Are Ready to Take on the Democrats

Georgia’s runoff elections on January 5 were a referendum on the power of labor unions and grassroots groups to mount a successful organizing campaign in a Southern state with strong vestiges of a Jim Crow era election system favoring Republicans.

Progressive forces wagered that with a Democratic victory in the Senate runoffs, President-elect Joe Biden’s agenda upon taking office on January 20 would receive a boost and position Democrats to regain control of the Senate in a 50-50 split with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris serving as the tie-breaking 51st vote — giving Democrats a clear mandate to enact a transformative policy agenda.

Then, just as Jon Ossoff’s and Raphael Warnock’s victories in the election contest were secured, news broke of a putsch at the U.S. Capitol on January 6. As an armed mob stormed into government chambers, lawmakers scurried into hiding to protect themselves from an outbreak of violence, in a flagrant attempt by President Donald Trump to overturn the results of the presidential election he had irrefutably lost. Congress reconvened later that night to resume their proceedings and certified Joe Biden’s Electoral College win.

The day’s events — the Georgia election results, the brazen attempt by a pro-Trump mob to orchestrate a coup — are now inextricably joined in the popular imagination to the imperiled state of the nation’s democracy and the culmination of a revanchist right-wing movement’s ascendance.

These realities only underscore how high the stakes are for the incoming Biden administration and the pressure that is to come for his party to fulfill promises to the progressive coalition that delivered control of the U.S. Senate to the Democrats.

As voters across Georgia headed to the polls on Election Day, Amber Young was outside a polling location at South Atlanta High School and following up with first-time voters on their voting plans. Through UNITE HERE Local 23 in Atlanta, which serves 3,000 hospitality workers at military bases, hotels and the city’s airport, Young joined together with 1,000 union housekeepers, cooks, dishwashers and airport concession workers to get the vote out for Ossoff and Warnock, knocking on 1.5 million doors as part of a larger 9 million-knock statewide effort.

“We pray that we win this thing,” Young told Truthout, taking a break from thumbing the Reach App she’s used to coordinate transportation paid by the union for voters to get to their assigned poll sites.

But there’s no leap of faith involved. In addition to UNITE HERE’s impressive efforts, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and its partners made 39 million calls, sent 80 million texts and knocked on 2 million doors.

Amber Young, UNITE HERE canvasser, with her son.
Amber Young, UNITE HERE canvasser, with her son.

Young, a bartender at Westin Peachtree Atlanta, was laid off due to the pandemic alongside more than 98 percent of UNITE HERE workers. After that she started hitting the streets as a union canvasser, working six days a week from 10 am to 7 pm.

For Young, the stakes for labor in the election are straightforward: a top priority is increasing the federal minimum wage to $15; next, affordable health care; and lastly, a guaranteed return to employment with protection from the deadly virus by employers implementing safe guidelines.

“I’ve seen what a difference it has made in my home to have a livable wage with just one job,” Young said. She earns $9 an hour as a unionized tipped worker instead of the state minimum of $2.13 hourly, a boost in earnings that has allowed her a better quality of life and permitted her take her 9-year-old son on playdates on the weekends.

“Health care should be a right, not a privilege because you have money,” she said.

Throughout the campaign, the Georgia state AFL-CIO, UNITE HERE and the New Georgia Project made it clear that they weren’t “speaking of electoral politics as an end in itself, but as a gateway for making concrete improvements in the lives of working people.”

“Everything is at stake for us,” UNITE HERE Secretary-Treasurer Gwen Mills told Truthout, highlighting the importance of the Senate runoff elections to the union in the context of the devastation wreaked by shutdowns of the hospitality, gaming and tourism industries and the need for a just recovery.

“For our members, it really comes down to life and death situations. Will the pandemic be gotten under control effectively? Will there be an unemployment extension? Will there be health care [for laid off workers who can’t afford premiums]? Will there be a moratorium on evictions? Basic, basic, livelihood issues are at stake here,” Mills said.

UNITE HERE canvasser during one of the car rallies the union held in Georgia.
UNITE HERE canvasser during one of the car rallies the union held in Georgia.

No need to rifle through a long and exhaustive list of statistics to capture the magnitude of the suffering. The great undoing of 2020 has resulted in an economic downturn sinking 7.8 million people into poverty during one six-month period alone, with 10 million fewer jobs to be had, nearly 360,000 Americans dead from the virus and 85 million people struggling to buy food and pay rent among other typical household expenses.

What’s the solution to that? A strong union movement is the irrefutable answer — especially in the wake of the pandemic. “During the crisis, unionized workers have been able to secure enhanced safety measures, additional premium pay, paid sick time, and a say in the terms of furloughs or work-share arrangements to save jobs,” wrote researchers at the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning, Washington, D.C., think tank, highlighting the benefits of a union.

Both Ossoff and Warnock have publicly pledged their support for the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, H.R. 2474, and the legislation has been spotlighted in rallies. The sweeping labor law proposal, which was passed last year in the House, expands workers’ right to unionize, adds teeth to current labor law and enforcement tools to penalize illegal union-busting by employers. It also weakens “right-to-work” laws.

“The bill is a true answer to the Taft-Hartley Act in terms of swinging labor law back to at least nominally favoring unions,” said Brandon Magner, a labor lawyer in Indiana.

Putting the legislation in its proper historical context, Magner added, “while not a full repeal of Taft-Hartley, past labor law reform attempts either dealt with procedural fixes to NLRB [National Labor Review Board] enforcement (the 1977 bill under Carter) or on lone substantive issues (like the Right to Work repeal attempt in 1965 under LBJ, or banning permanent replacement of strikers that failed under H. W. Bush and Clinton).”

The PRO Act would improve the union election process where employers have an exploitive advantage in derailing a unionizing campaign through coercive meetings with employees, or “captive audience meetings,” and strengthen unfair labor practice provisions. These substantive matters, Magner argues, are in turn improved procedurally by speeding up NLRB’s enforcement mechanisms.

“PRO Act makes it more costly for employers to violate the law and interfere with union elections. The lack of penalties in existing law essentially invited employer interference with union elections,” said Celine McNicholas, director of government affairs at the Economic Policy Institute.

Despite the PRO Act’s potential to reinvigorate the labor movement, McNicholas finds that bill faces difficult prospects like other progressive measures in Congress. “Without changes to the filibuster rules, it is unlikely that the Senate passes the reforms we desperately need,” she said.

As unions have lost members and influence, they hold very little leverage over Democrats who recognize labor’s weakened position, notes Gerald Friedman, professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Instead, those Democrats now focus on “voters who are seen as winnable. Working-class Trump voters are not seen as winnable voters, they are seen as solid Republicans now, so Democrats have gone looking for others, notably women voters in the affluent suburbs.”

A possible answer to that drift away from the working class is for workers to organize themselves through labor unions and other institutional vehicles of political power.

“Given the dire circumstances that our members were facing, we never blinked about getting into the field and running a ground game,” Mills said, pointing to organizing dress rehearsals in other states like Nevada, Arizona and Pennsylvania that proved it was possible to go door-to-door safely.

But while speaking candidly about the existential predicament UNITE HERE members are grappling with during the still surging pandemic, Mills drew on the history of union’s transformative campaigns and talked of strong strategy in the South to complement the work done to organize the casinos in Sun Belt states like Nevada in the 1980s and 1990s.

In January 2020, according to Mills, the UNITE HERE International union convened local presidents in Georgia for their annual general executive board meeting, signaling the priority the South would play in the union’s work in the U.S. At that meeting, Stacey Abrams spoke to the infrastructure that she had helped create in Georgia, and all attendees came to a consensus for a joint union and grassroots push to keep Nevada blue and turn other battleground states like Arizona, Georgia and Pennsylvania blue.

“You can just see in these battlegrounds the necessity of a long-term, strategic, political and organizing program,” said Mills.

She credited the civic engagement and organizing ecosystem seeded with grassroots organizations in Georgia for the state’s potential to turn blue and looked forward to expand these alliances with local community groups.

Beyond the widely reported work of the New Georgia Project, which Abrams started in 2014, a diverse mix of unions and grassroots organizations — including Mijente, Asian American Advocacy Fund, Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, ProGeorgia, Georgia STAND-UP and the Coalition for the People’s Agenda — coalesced into a formidable force committed to the long-haul legwork of organizing for political power. Generously funded by the fundraising prowess of Abrams’s efforts to build civic infrastructure, this web of grassroots groups was spurred to action in order to defeat Trump after years of labor and people of color being demonized and cut down to size by anti-immigrant and anti-labor federal policies.

Where other liberal commentators were contorting themselves into apologia for Trumpism, the threat that Trump’s right-wing loyalists represented was very clear to labor and immigrant rights groups from the outset.

“What initially appears to have been a spontaneous outburst of right-wing populist anger proves, on closer examination, to be the result of years of struggle and organizing on the far right, drawing on both the energy built by Donald Trump’s presidential campaigns and his administration’s brutality,” said Brendan O’Connor, journalist and author of Blood Red Lines: How Nativism Fuels the Right, which examines the forces and corporate interests fueling the rise of the “alt-right.”

The country is not going to vault over the challenges an empowered far right poses to lives of communities of color, including immigrants at the border and other targets of reactionary violence, in a feat of ideological acrobatics extoling the center as if good intentions and compromise were enough to surmount the obstacles ahead. Rather, the answer seems to point toward the long-term organizing model vindicated in Georgia’s runoff election and the guiding theory of change underlying UNITE HERE’s approach for the past decades.

“Even as Trump exits the scene (or at the very least takes up a more secondary role) the forces that bore him to power will not dissipate; instead, they will take new forms and be given new expression,” O’Connor continued. “The strength to defeat those forces will only come from robust movements for racial justice, workers’ rights and gender equality — in other words, for socialism,” said O’Connor in response to what the storming of the U.S. Capitol heralds for the nation.

As Biden regresses to his moderate mean, reassuring Senate Republicans, “I’ll never publicly embarrass them,” movement forces that put him in the White House must remember that “a return to decency” and bipartisanship is a dead-end to an emboldened, reactionary, far right extremism.

“We are under no illusion,” Mills said, that UNITE HERE’s priorities will happen “because Biden or someone else is carrying them as our wishes. They are going to happen because we are going to maintain the level of organization and pressure that it took to get folks elected in the first place.”

And it’s not because they might not want to pass these policies, Mills said. “But we’re quite clear about the corporate interests and lobbies that dominate D.C. We have to stay organize as a labor movement. We have to have state-by-state-level strategies throughout the legislature to push things like the PRO Act,” including protecting and enhancing Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), Temporary Protected Status and immigration reform.

“Those types of things will not happen if we do not maintain a state of permanent mobilization, Mills said. “That’s what we are committed to do. That’s what it is going to take to pass any of these things.”