Unions Join Unlikely Allies to Defend American Elections 

*By Louis Pascarella
Time Period: November 2020
Location: United States
Main Actors: AFL-CIO, SEIU, AFT, UNITE HERE, union members
Signed public statement
Declarations by organizations or institutions
– Demonstrations 
Assemblies of support

On Election Day 2020 The AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the United States, teamed up with the US Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Evangelicals, and the National African American Clergy Network to call for the respect of election results and the peaceful transfer of power. Addressing then-President Trump’s unfounded criticisms of the electoral system, and Trump’s initial repudiation of Biden’s victory, the AFL-CIO and its partners released a statement noting the importance of giving election officials space and time to count the votes, asked that the American public (including political candidates) practice patience, and condemned electoral violence or intimidation.

This public declaration followed a year of behind-the-scenes effort. Mike Podhorzer, senior advisor to the president of the AFL-CIO was one of the major forces behind this work. Podhorzer began working with many other democracy advocates (including Protect Democracy and the Voter Protection Program) in the fall of 2019. Democracy advocates feared an attack on the US electoral system and recognized the need to prepare for that potential outcome. Accordingly, democracy advocates began meeting with a variety of actors from business, civil society, and political spheres. These meetings created an infrastructure to protect American democracy, with initiatives to recruit poll workers, encourage social media companies to remove harmful conspiracies and misinformation, and help overcome voting challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic. As election day loomed and President Trump continued to spread falsehoods about the election, Podhorzer and others drew upon their contacts to arrange a meeting between AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce, resulting in the aforementioned statement coming from a united front of union and business.

A key strength of this statement was its collaborative character. Working with business, faith, and leaders in the Black community ensured the statement was less vulnerable to accusations of partisanship. This coalition also brought together leaders from across key pillars of society in solidarity. As each group exerted influence over a diverse set of actors, attempts to fracture Americans along particular lines failed. In addition to organizing the joint statement, unions played a broader role in defending the 2020 election. In the days surrounding Election Day, a union coalition of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), UNITE HERE (a labor union representing around 300,000 US and Canadian workers in a variety of sectors) and others organized “Count Every Vote” demonstrations. These demonstrations made clear the readiness of union leaders to organize in force against election subversion. 

These protests coincided with demonstrations from civil society actors, which helped to connect union members with democracy advocates. Simultaneously, union members showed up to polling places in hotly contested Michigan and Arizona to protect threatened election officials. When far-right extremists tried to intimidate the Michigan State Board of Canvassers from certifying the 2020 election, labor pressured Republican members to hold to the process and accept the results. Union members conducted a campaign to protect America’s election and stand up to fringe authoritarian elements.

These efforts demonstrate how labor can play an important role in organizing and waging a pro-democracy campaign. A declaration of support with key pillars of society brought in important actors and created a united front against election interference rhetoric. The importance of coalition building cannot be overstated; for example, aligning with the Chamber of Commerce helped to pressure pro-business Republicans. Refusing to be sidelined, unions marched with democracy activists and protected election officials from anti-democracy extremists. These actions showcased the importance of “putting boots on the ground” and going beyond rhetoric in times of crisis. When autocratic forces arrived in person to intimidate election officials, union members were there to protect the process and ensure the physical well-being of some of the most important actors in the American electoral system.

Where to Learn More
Hard Truths and Good Signs for Labor’s Role in Defending Democracy
Here’s What Labor Unions Say They’re Doing to Protect the Vote
The Secret History of the Shadow Campaign That Saved the 2020 Election
AFL-CIO, Chamber of Commerce, National Faith Leaders Call for Votes to Be Counted

You can access all the caselets from the Pillars of Support Project here.