Organized labor is not a monolith and woe to the political establishment who may lose sight of that fact. Go to any political rally or event concerning jobs, or a new infrastructure investment, or other development, and invariably the speaker—whether candidate or office holder—will say that XYZ will bring “good union jobs” as a result. The backbone of America is its working men and women without whom our society would literally cease to function. As such, organized labor, be it public or private sector, can hold considerable sway and influence politically. The rise and fall of political aspirations or careers could be carried by the responses of organized labor to various policies. In broad, conventional terms, the Democratic Party has tried to define itself as the party of the unions, championing workers’ rights, wages, and protections against exploitative practices by big businesses. The Republican Party has traditionally tried to define itself as the workers’ party by reducing regulations which would hinder economic growth and development. In New Jersey, particularly, courting labor has been a generally successful endeavor of the Democratic Party, but not without notable exceptions. Readers will recall the clash between the NJEA and ironworker Senator Steve Sweeney, sparking one of the most expensive state campaigns ever. The two giants reconciled afterward and Sweeney, somewhat unexpectedly, was soon ousted by another working man, a trucker, Republican Senator Ed Durr.
If politicians expect labor to deliver for them, then labor expects politicians to deliver in turn. Regardless of whether there is an R or a D by an official’s name, the key concerns for organized labor are, at their cores, whether or not governmental policies will ensure there is a steady stream of work and protect their security. Who puts food on the table is less important than whether or not food is put on the table at all. With this in mind, Democrats should be wary of assuming labor is a sure-fire vote: it still must be earned. “When we talk politics inside with our members, we’re very happy to have friends and support people on both sides of the aisle,” Greg Lalevee, Business Manager of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 825, told Insider NJ. “It really comes down to whom the whole person is. There are certain things that are up and down labor policy to us. There is, of course, ensuring that there is a glide-path of work, because for your rank-and-file building trades person, they make a 30 to 40 year career out of a whole bunch of temporary jobs. So, you go out and build the building, and when it’s built, the job is over. You always want to have a pipeline because construction is perishable.”
Lalevee emphasized that there is a balance that needs to be struck, and there is no surefire political allegiance to be expected when real policies impact real jobs. “The governor would take shots from operating engineers and other trades that would work on pipelines when he opposed things like PennEast. That was a very difficult day because, generally speaking, that’s a facet of the construction industry where jobs are done with a heavy amount of overtime to limit the amount of disruption, in streets and whatnot, or to get gas into the system because of supply and demand—and you want to make sure there’s ample supply. A building trades person can make a lot of money on a natural gas pipeline job. If you’re a politician who is predisposed to being loud and proud, saying, ‘No pipelines’ or fighting them, that’s going to be a hard bridge to build for people in our organization. At the same time, if you’re a politician from the right side of the aisle who wants to undermine all kinds of worker protections, that’s a hard bridge to build.”
He continued, saying that fostering the crucial relationships between organized labor and government comes down to having spaces where elected leaders will not have a problem safeguarding labor protections as well as promoting development. Sometimes this is a difficult balancing act, especially in districts with ideological constituencies or those which may be notably impacted one way or another by a given governmental initiative or policy. Lalevee cited the ongoing discussions surrounding off-shore wind farming for electricity, an objective of Governor Murphy’s which is finding itself navigating rough seas. “We are certainly not anti-wind: we are ‘all of the above’—gas, wind, solar. We believe we have to have a mix of everything, that’s where we are. So, for certain groups or policymakers who want to say, it’s ‘all wind all the time, and we’re going to cut all the lines to natural gas,’ we think that’s a bridge too far and for those who say, ‘we should be 100% reliant on fossil fuel and nothing else,’ well, that’s also a bridge too far. We believe there’s a discussion that’s missing, that’s in the middle somewhere.”
As for the membership of organized labor themselves, Lalevee was firmly centrist in his assertion. “I think if you went out to the rank-and-file, it’s center. It may bend a little bit to the right. We go out in the heat and the cold, expose our bodies to the elements. All we want is an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, buy a decent home for our family, put our kids through college, and be able to retire securely. For so many people in the trades, as their bodies take a beating over the life of their careers, the security of being able to retire a little bit younger isn’t such a bad thing, if we have that type of retirement security, and most of us do.”
Politically, a leader can find himself or herself in a situation of damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t when trying to build the bridges needed to support his campaign and successfully carry a race against an opponent. Lalevee used Congressman Josh Gottheimer of CD-5 as an example. Gottheimer, co-chair of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, has a purple district, although thanks to recent redistricting, CD-5 has become bluer, having shed parts of Warren and Sussex County. But Gottheimer is viewed as one of the more conservative Democratic members of Congress, a well-funded, established politician who is potentially positioned for higher office down the road, either as gubernatorial material or US Senate. He is keen not to rock the boat too hard but consistently attempts to appeal to a broader base. So far, this has worked well for him.
“If you take Congressman Gottheimer, who has a very moderate congressional district–if he does too many things ‘in moderation’ he has progressives marching,” Lalevee said. He recalled in October of 2021 when left-leaning protestors were arrested, trespassing on his home property. Demonstrations from fellow Democrats had been common at his legislative offices in the district when the congressman sparred over features of President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda. “Is somebody going to say that Congressman Gottheimer is not a good Democrat? I think he’s a reliable vote. When he runs in an election, his Republican opponent will happily tell you how many times he voted in line with, at the time, Speaker Nancy Pelosi or President Biden, and lay that as a criticism. Yet, if he’s not completely, totally 100% in the tank, people on the left will also throw criticism that way. Republicans face the same kind of criticism: who’s more conservative, and what does that mean? It’s a very difficult operating environment.”
On a state-level, Lalevee noted the harshness of civic discourse and the hyperbole that has inflamed American politics as a whole. “Looking at Trenton, Governor Murphy will approve certain projects or not necessarily kill certain projects by executive action, and you hear many people in the environmental lobby calling him an environmental terrorist. If you’re an environmentalist, you’ve got to be more than happy with Phil Murphy’s record. To demagogue on him when he’s not 110% in your corner on things–the state does need to have an economy, the state does need to function.” Lalevee said that he had “a lot of empathy” for the governor who has to make such decisions while “the other nine million of us” get to criticize.
For those who might be concerned that the rank and file of organized labor could be falling away from the Democratic Party towards the Republican Party, William Caruso, former Executive Director of the New Jersey Assembly Majority Office, lobbyist, and partner with Archer and Greiner, PC, thinks that politicians need to be appreciative of the fact that labor is more nuanced than simply being a voting bloc in its own right. Even within the different sectors of public and private labor are political variations as a result of their own specific lines of work. When asked if the Democratic Party’s alliance with organized labor had been weakening, Caruso said, “it depends on which house of labor you’re talking about. We use the ‘public employee’ brush pretty broadly. There’s the teachers and what I’ll call the state and local workers unions, under a variety of different unions. You’ve got police and fire on another side. In what I’ll call the construction trades is where I’ve seen a little bit more of a divide with their more progressive brothers and sisters in labor ideologically. I think you’ve seen some shifts over the past decade, where Democrats, for example, don’t necessarily have a lock on labor. That used to be the case, where I think you saw this sector of labor lean towards the Democratic Party.”
Echoing Lalevee in a sense, Caruso mentioned the backlash that can come from the more progressive side of the Democratic Party with respect to labor-related issues. “On the public employee side, you also see more of a departure potentially, from what I’ll call traditional Democratic base efforts to maybe even more progressive or non-Democratic Party initiatives, like Working Families, which is sometimes aligned with the Democratic Party and sometimes isn’t. You see schisms, where Democrats have relied generally on the base of labor as theirs. Some parts of labor have moved further to the left and some parts of labor have moved further to the right. So it is an interesting dynamic in terms of the ‘marginalization of the Democratic labor vote.’”
Caruso said that the Democratic Party has been “challenged” by a variety of issues, particularly those related to taxation (the bipartisan complaint of every New Jerseyan), fiscal matters, and social ideology. On one hand, pro-labor policies for worker protections and wages have been favorable for Democrats—Governor Phil Murphy oversaw the gradual increase of the state’s minimum wage, for example. But in other areas, such as those related to law-and-order, the Democrats have been perceived as weaker. “There have been a lot of pro-labor policies, both here In New Jersey, and also by Democrats nationally, but then you have challenges like ‘defund the police’, which have alienated large sectors of the police unions, and also what I’ll call ‘sympathetic trades’ that are pro-law enforcement that look at that type of messaging and narrative and find it not only wrong, but offensive. So, Democrats have owned some of those issues, too. There’s some public polling cross tab extravaganza here, where some gurus are going to look at all the cross tabs of where labor votes, where they vote on other issues, and what matters to them. I’ll leave that up to those scientists. But in the day to day world, these are the realities of the equation. You can’t look at labor as a monolithic vote. It’s a multi-nuanced effort.”
LD-11 Senator Vin Gopal is seeking re-election, and as a Democrat who had been seen as one of the rising young stars of the party, his political credibility will, naturally, be tested depending on how he fares against his Republican rival. As to whether or not Gopal might be confident of the support of organized labor, Caruso would not speculate directly, but said that Gopal was “probably one of the most skillful politicians in the state legislature.” Caruso, who is a Democrat himself, said Gopal knows his constituents well. “I think Vin has done a really amazing job of trying to be responsive to his constituents needs, but also focusing on core organizational needs: being there for teachers, and supporting educators, while understanding that there’s some parental rights issues that he’s had to navigate through his committee assignment. I think he’s done yeoman’s work in trying to do that. Vin has done a pretty decent job of late of marshalling what I’ll call pro-law enforcement bona fides. He’s got to balance that with the progressive base, there’s a teetering effort to do that. But that’s going to be the challenge. That’s the most hotly contested election in the state coming up this year, and most people that are students of New Jersey politics know that the State House is where all the marbles are at. Everything else is secondary. I think you’re going to see a lot of activity. Building trades are going to make their decisions based on what’s best for them. Public employee unions on the public service side are going to make their choices based on what’s best for them and their members, and the public safety unions are going to do the same. I think those decisions are going to be made in short order.”
Democrats may have an ace in their hand if they’re sharp enough to play it. This comes to them in the form of President Biden’s Build Back Better effort and the passage of the bipartisan infrastructure act, which Congressman Gottheimer championed—even to the point of threatening to stall the president’s broader recovery plan unless it got through, to the ire of the progressive wing of the party. The steady flow of work opportunities from federal policies, combined with worker and wage protection on the state level, is demonstrative on the Democratic scoreboard. Governor Murphy will inevitably have to trade barbs here and there with labor on environmental issues and policies to foster development in an expensive, crowded, and already heavily-developed state. However, it may be enough for Democrats, as the party in power, to persuade labor voters to keep faith with them by standing on positive traction with respect to infrastructure and the long-stalled Gateway Program, a $16 billion endeavor which may get underway this year. The Democrats’ million-registered-voter advantage did not materialize from thin air, but as Murphy’s joust with Jack Ciattarelli showed, registrations do not necessarily equate to votes. Blocs must be courted, shown good faith work towards their interests and protections, and then, perhaps, labors’ tools will be set down for a moment to reward good work in turn at the ballot box.