LAS VEGAS — Half a dozen Democratic presidential candidates, including Colorado's John Hickenlooper, declared unions to be a lifeline for the American middle class and pledged Saturday to strengthen workers' rights to strike and organize and to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.
But while the candidates decried the erosion of wages and union power in the U.S., few speakers at a Las Vegas union forum offered specifics on what policies they'd offer to bolster union ranks and raise pay.
Hickenlooper called for greater funding for child care and reversing a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found government workers can't be forced to contribute to labor unions, though he didn't explain how he'd undo the high court's decision. Hickenlooper later told reporters it could be done legislatively through Congress.
The former Colorado governor argued that he understands the needs of workers better than most because he was once an unemployed geologist who opened a series of brewpubs.
“I’ve been someone who built a business from scratch, made sure that my workers had health insurance,” he said. “I am someone who really as mayor and as governor really went out of my way to help workers.”
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who received the loudest cheers at the event, proposed bringing back card check, a top labor priority from 2008, to make it easier for employees to vote to join a union that was never implemented, even after Democrats' win that year.
"We need more power in the hands of employees," Warren said, also touting her plan let a company's workers elect 40% of its corporate board members.
California Sen. Kamala Harris and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar said they would crack down on corporations that try to undercut labor organizing.
Klobuchar pitched her plan to require most companies to make a minimum retirement contribution for employees of at least 50 cents per hour and tougher enforcement of anti-trust laws to combat large corporations consolidating power. And former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke said he'd try to sell conservatives on a $15 minimum wage by making the case that employees who don't have to juggle a second job to make ends meet are much more productive.
Harris called for a ban on "right to work" laws in some states barring companies and unions from signing contracts that require employees to pay union fees, but former Obama housing chief Julian Castro said, "It's not as simple as waving a magic wand in Washington, D.C., and changing the state laws across the country."
Instead, Castro said he would want to create federal grants and other incentives to encourage states to get rid of those laws.
The candidates' pitch to show solidarity with workers came as union leaders and their backers worry that the 2020 field of at least 20 Democratic contenders is not spending enough time on bread-and-butter concerns.
Labor is a pillar of the Democratic Party, but many white working-class voters and union members in swing states backed Republican Donald Trump in 2016. Democrats are working to win back those voters in the next presidential election, but party leaders and union members are telling candidates that they need to talk about issues that matter to working families.
That concern is helping propel former Vice President Joe Biden's newly launched campaign.
Much of the Democratic conversation has centered on liberal ideas such as "Medicare for All" and the Green New Deal climate change plan. But some of the White House contenders speaking in Las Vegas have made concerted union appeals. Warren joined striking Stop & Shop workers on a picket line in New Hampshire this month, and Harris hired a top official from the service employees union for her campaign.
The union, one of the country's largest, has about 2 million members. The union said it would consider endorsing a candidate who commits to making it easier for workers to join a union, supports more than doubling the federal minimum wage to $15 and spends substantial time getting to know workers and what they do on the job — not just walking a picket line for a photo opportunity.
The union's president, Mary Kay Henry, said it has no timeline for an endorsement and does not expect one soon.
Henry said the candidates have discussed fragments of the issues faced by working people, such as affordable child care or health care, but generally have not focused on "a comprehensive set of actions that we think the next president can take that would commit to ending poverty wage work in this nation."
Henry said that includes discussions about "unrigging the rules" of the economy, holding corporations accountable and strengthening unions.
"You can't really make progress or have the power to improve kitchen-table issues like wages, affordable health care, affordable child care and a secure retirement unless we figure out a way for millions more people to get a seat at the table and be able to bargain," she said.
Bloomberg News via TNS contributed.