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Local Democratic leadership tries to rekindle a fraught relationship with organized labor

Labor of love

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A Democrat himself, Schauer doesn't pretend all union members are too. - COURTESY JACKIE BURHANS
  • Courtesy Jackie Burhans
  • A Democrat himself, Schauer doesn't pretend all union members are too.

When the El Paso County Democratic Party threw their inaugural "Red, White and Blue-Collar" cookout earlier this month, the venue was a symbolic choice. It was the first time in years the party had held an event at a union hall, in this case, the headquarters of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 113. The scene — more than 400 local Democratic activists, donors and candidates mingling, with unpretentious burgers courtesy of Callicrate Beef in hand — was set in a place dedicated to advancing workers' rights, an intentional signal that the local party is rekindling its off-again, on-again relationship with the region's trade unions.

By no small measure, the revival of this age-old alliance can be attributed to the leadership of newly elected party chair, Electra Johnson, whose family and professional history are steeped in a reverence for organized labor. Her great-grandfather was a "Wobbly" — slang for members of the Industrial Workers of the World, a militant, member-run labor organization that advocates for "One Big Union" rather than dividing unions by trade. So, growing up, her grandmother regaled her with stories about the coal strikes and related violence that defined the early 20th century in Southern Colorado.

"I can't remember not being aware of how important unions were in the immigrant experience of building America," Johnson says. "[Immigrant workers] came from these real hard places, had a strong work ethic, and organizing gave them a voice so their children wouldn't [also] have to work 16-hour days, get black lung and die young."

Now an architectural and urban designer, Johnson says she knows that "[having] good, union guys on the job site gets you a better product," but she noticed recently that it was getting increasingly difficult to find unionized carpenters, framers and plumbers, during Colorado's current development boom. And now, as party chair, she says she sees firsthand that declining union membership cements the political status quo that privileges corporate interests over labor's. "Unions are about giving people the training and rights they need to support families in the long run," she says. "So, to me, there's no more natural fit [for the Democratic party] than to stand with the people who are already organizing to that end."

Of course, it's not novel for Democrats to align with labor but, both nationally and locally, the alliance is more tenuous now than it once was.

"It used to be that when [the local party] needed bodies for phone banking or canvassing, we were the go-to people," says Ken Schauer, president of the Colorado Springs Area Labor Council — the local AFL-CIO branch that represents over 1,300 union members of varying affiliation. "But it kind of cooled off there for a while, to the point where candidates forgot we existed."

There were still some united campaigns during that "cooled off" period — like, Barack Obama's re-election over Mitt Romney and the many defeats of recurring legislative efforts to make Colorado a "right-to-work" state where "closed union shops," which require union membership as a term of employment, are banned. Despite some common victories, according to Schauer, labor's relationship with the Democratic party grew strained when "[leadership] started to focus more on the business-oriented side of the party ... and when they do that, they tend to neglect the labor side of the house."

Locally, the situation finally came to a head in 2011 at the annual El Paso County Democrat's St. Patrick's Day Gala Dinner. Union leaders and members were in attendance, some reluctantly, at the $80-a-plate affair held that year at Cheyenne Mountain Resort. Other than feeling somewhat out of place among all the high society types, the union guys were getting along just fine until they discovered in the evening's program that the Norm Pledger Lifetime Achievement Award was going to Chuck Murphy of Murphy Constructors. That was taken as a major affront, since Murphy Constructors is a non-union contractor owned by a wealthy party donor. The award, on the other hand, was named after a legendary labor leader.

"Things got tense. Words were exchanged. Personal space was violated," reads a recap of the night by IBEW 113 member Joe Collins. "We were basically told to sit down and shut up — that if we continued to make a scene, we would be removed by security."

The whole table walked out in protest.

Part of the problem during those days, according to Schauer, is that labor felt like the Democratic party took their support for granted while punting on issues that matter to the working class. "We're pretty fed up with the social-issue-driven side of the Democratic party," Schauer says. "At the end of the day, we'd like to see more talk about unemployment insurance, workmen's [compensation], vacation days, sick days, health insurance, pensions — those issues really get people up and talking."

Indeed, Democrats' message isn't exactly landing with blue-collar voters in places like Pueblo where the exodus of industry — in this case, steel production — left what's now a decades-old economic scar. Pueblo County, long considered a Democratic stronghold, went for Donald Trump in November, as did Rust Belt states like Michigan and Ohio. And that was something of a wake-up call for Democrats who had come to rely on them in their electoral calculations.

But for all of Trump's campaign-trail talk about renegotiating "bad trade deals" to benefit American workers, the administration recently released a document listing priorities for a Trump-approved policy on foreign trade. While some points — like calls to reduce trade deficits and address currency manipulation — reflect his campaign season promises, much of the document echoes existing trade policy, but put more vaguely. And, whether his promise that curbing illegal immigration will re-open job opportunities for Americans also remains to be seen.

But, at least locally, Democrats don't want to rely on the other party's failure to ensure their own success. Looking ahead to the 2018 midterms, Johnson says the county party will go back to "organizing the traditional way, by going place to place and actually listening to what real people's issues are rather than just throwing money at the problem."

She even hopes to find some prospective candidates on the shop floor.

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