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Newly sworn-in Democratic Rep. Conor Lamb began his speech before hundreds of laborers at the North America’s Building Trades Unions convention by mentioning some unions who rallied for him on the campaign trail.
“I would not be standing here right now if it wasn’t for you and your members and the incredible support,” Lamb said as the audience at the NABTU conference in Washington broke out in applause.
The 33-year-old former federal prosecutor and Marine won a special election in March to represent a long-standing GOP-leaning congressional district in Western Pennsylvania. Lamb stands to be a poster-child of sorts for labor unions seeking political strategies to get their preferred candidates elected in the upcoming midterm elections.
Labor unions have a long history of providing candidates with support, especially at the grassroots level. The groups are eyeing November’s midterms as a chance to regain some seats lost during the 2016 election.
Rick Bloomingdale, president of Pennsylvania’s AFL-CIO, told Bloomberg Law that unions in 2016 focused on voter “registration and voter turnout, instead of talking to members about issues.” Now, there’s an about-face.
“What is old is new again and it’s a strategy we forgot to use,” Bloomingdale said. “We are absolutely going back. The best messenger for a union member is another union member. We will recruit them as volunteers as in the Lamb race and go out and talk to them about the issues that concern them.”
Lamb is an unlikely champion for organized labor. He ran his special election campaign by tapping some of the labor movement’s ideas and distancing himself from others. For example, he echoed labor’s calls for more worker training, embraced the Davis-Bacon prevailing wage for federal infrastructure projects, and criticized the Trump administration’s tax cuts. But Lamb did not campaign for raising the minimum wage to $15 or single-payer health-care insurance, two ideas popular with labor and the Democratic Party.
Lamb shows that unions are willing to compromise with candidates if they can agree on fundamentals.
“Unions definitely know what their possibilities are in any district and when they can go for the full package or they go for as much as they can,” said Chris Borick, a professor of political science at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa.
“In the old PA 18 district you may not be able to get all and every labor issue you want, but they prioritize,” Borick said, referring to Lamb’s redrawn district map. “They look at the cornerstone issues in labor and the rights of labor to organize, build membership, and express their will on the policy debates.”
SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania Political Director Silas Russell agrees. “I’ve never met a politician who we are 100 percent in agreement with,” he said.
Russell touts Lamb as a candidate who “fundamentally believes and wants to help working people to make sure we have a good labor movement.” That includes his support for giving workers a voice on the job for higher wages, union organizing, and collective bargaining.
“Fundamentally he is a very strong labor Democrat, and people responded to his very progressive populist ideas about the economy and making sure working people have a voice,” Russell said.
Labor leaders say the last election cycle splintered union support by forcing voters to choose between Democratic presidential hopefuls Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. The result was wins by some candidates who opposed organized labor’s priorities. The approaching midterms have unions focusing on candidates in lockstep with their demands, ranging from trade policies to worker rights.
“The division within labor with the 2016 presidential race really raised questions about the labor movement going forward,” Borick said. “So when we really rallied around and helped Lamb get that prized victory, it gave organized labor a boost and it also made Democrats realize how much that relationship with labor is important across the country.”
All House seats are up for re-election, as are a third of the 100 Senate seats. Some 36 states are holding elections for governor.
National union leaders have told Bloomberg Law that they are putting a majority of their support and political dollars to work for Democratic candidates. The effort comes as Democrats could regain control of the House, a more likely outcome compared to the long-shot bid to secure enough seats to regain the majority in the Senate.
Organized labor such as the AFL-CIO, United Steelworkers, and the SEIU were part of Lamb’s shoe-leather campaign against Republican Rick Saccone for the House seat in the special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th District. The industrial district with strong ties to the steel industry had voted Republican for decades, including choosing President Donald Trump by nearly 20 points.
In addition to staffing phone banks and walking door-to-door, labor unions like the USW and SEIU peppered Lamb’s campaign war chest with contributions. Lamb tallied $6.4 million in contributions, outpacing Saccone who raised $1.9 million, according to congressional campaign data.
“The monetary support from organized labor is welcomed for candidates looking for every dime they can dig up, but the key benefit from organized labor support is its human resources,” Borick said. “When they are really engaged, they are some of the best campaign assets you can really have.”
National labor leaders are not sharing details all their political strategies for the midterms, but Lamb’s victory has caught their attention, political observers and university professors told Bloomberg Law.
“Unions are still a vital actor in many congressional districts where seats are now held by Republicans,” Lance Compa, a professor at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, told Bloomberg Law. “The same strategies will be needed in all these districts: a back-to-roots mobilization by unions and union families to help candidates who will stand up for key working-class issues.”
Those tools range from social media to distributing leaflets and organizing rallies, “all the tactics that grass-roots organizations without a ton of money for TV advertising have to use to advance their cause,” Compa said.
It’s anticipated those tools will be used by unions supporting campaigns throughout the country this midterm, including Lamb’s re-election bid. Lamb’s district was recently redrawn amid a legal battle about gerrymandering in the state.
“Democrats are going to continue standing side-by-side with labor to address skyrocketing healthcare premiums, stagnant wages, and the rising cost of living,” Tyler Law, a spokesman for Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said. “That’s exactly how we’ll win in November.”
Officials for Lamb’s re-election campaign did not respond to Bloomberg Law’s request for comment.
Tim Waters, the national political director for the USW, told Bloomberg Law the union continues to support Lamb on the campaign.
He has a message for union members who are helping: “Get some new shoes because the other ones are worn out.”
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