Union leaders wanted the pension crisis to be addressed during the latest Democratic debates, but CNN moderators had other plans.

DETROIT, Mich.—James Hoffa didn’t get his wish, but the Democratic presidential debate July 30, dealt with labor issues noticeably more than the first round in June did.

The Teamsters Union president had urged the 10 candidates on stage to address the pension crisis.“If multiemployer pension funds fail, it will have a ripple effect throughout the economy,” he said in a statement a few hours before the debate began. In Detroit, “an industrial city where retirees rely on pensions to make ends meet, each candidate needs to address the more than $40 billion in pensions at risk nationwide.”

None of them did, but the word “union” was mentioned in the first opening statement, when Montana Gov. Steve Bullock described himself as a “pro-choice, pro-union, populist Democrat.” He was trying to balance his previous sentence, when he attacked Medicare for All and the Green New Deal as “wish-list economics.”

With the three moderators not asking any questions about labor issues or economic inequality, discussion of those issues came indirectly, in the context of health care, climate change, and tariffs and trade.

The debate on health care had the most intense contrasts, pitting little-known centrists—former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper—against the two strongest Medicare for All supporters, Senators Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). Delaney and Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio argued that the Medicare for All bill’s eliminating private health insurance would hurt union members who’ve given up raises to get good insurance. Delaney called the bill “bad policy,” while Hickenlooper called it “massive government expansion.” 

“Stop using Republican talking points,” Warren told Delaney. Sanders said that 500,000 Americans go bankrupt each year from medical bills, many union members pay high deductibles, people regularly lose their health insurance when they switch jobs or their employer changes policies, and Medicare for All would eliminate deductibles and copayments while enabling people to choose their own doctors, much like the Canadian health-care system.

South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg called for letting people buy public-option insurance that would be cheaper than private insurance, as did Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. Delaney said he had a plan for a public-private system that would provide free universal health care, without giving any details, while Ryan advocated letting people between 50 and 64 buy into Medicare. Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke said all uninsured or underinsured people should be enrolled in Medicare.

The debate on climate change followed a similar pattern, with Delaney and Hickenlooper attacking the Green New Deal concept as an impractical job-guaranteeing boondoggle, and Warren again accusing them of using “Republican talking points.” Warren called for a “green industrial policy” such as manufacturing solar panels. Ryan and Bullock said the plan should not attack autoworkers or fossil-fuel workers, after Sanders said the fossil-fuel industry was destroying the planet. Ryan said the U.S. should “dominate” electric-car manufacturing and revamp agriculture to be more sustainable, and that the jobs created should be union. Sanders said the transition to renewable energy would create good union jobs, and that a “just transition… is what the Green New Deal is about.”

That the candidates did not explicitly address how to strengthen unions and improve workers’ status was not necessarily their fault. Eight of the nine currently serving in Congress (all except Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii; the four on stage at this debate were Sanders, Warren, Klobuchar and Ryan) have all cosponsored the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, a bill introduced in May that would pre-empt state laws banning the union shop, levy fines on employers who retaliate against union supporters, and give temporary, contract, and “independent contractor” workers the right to organize and bargain collectively. Buttigieg says his labor proposal would go “above and beyond” that bill, while Bullock last year stood up for locked-out talc-mine workers.

The moderators simply didn’t ask those questions (much like the 2016 Clinton-Trump debates, when they didn’t ask a single question about climate change). Instead, they asked if candidates’ age should be an issue and if the Democrats are moving too far left to defeat Trump. They also did not mention housing or pensions.

On the other hand, no candidate bluntly said, “the Democrats need to be the party of working people.” Warren and Sanders perhaps came the closest in their closing statements. Warren said the U.S. government has been on the side of the wealthy for decades, and we need “big structural change.” Sanders said he was not just running just to defeat Donald Trump, “but to transform this country and stand with the working class of America, which for the past 45 years has been decimated.”


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