Fighting for unions and workers with Senator Sherrod Brown
January 14, 2021

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In this episode, we talk to Senator Sherrod Brown about unions and workers. Sen. Brown is the senior U.S. Senator from Ohio and at the time was Ranking Member of the Senate Banking Committee. Chuck and Big John talk to Sen. Brown about the future of unions and fighting for Appalachia.

We frequently discuss unions on this show. For other episodes about unions, check out our UMWA strike episode. Make sure you’re subscribed to our show!

Interview with Sen. Sherrod Brown

Chuck Corra: I think one thing I want to talk about broadly was unions, the future of unionized labor in this country. The op-ed, you published this morning, in the USA Today would be a good jumping-off point.

In it, you mentioned corporations have failed the American worker – we would certainly agree with you on that – and creating a system centered around the dignity of work. What does dignity of work means to you and what does an economy centered around it look like?

Workers and the dignity of work

Sen. Sherrod Brown: Yeah, people are working harder than ever before, but they don’t feel like they’re getting much for it. When I say dignity of work, I mean, people who punch a clock and swipe a badge or work for tips or people working on salaries or people taking care of children or raising kids or taking care of parents at home.

As corporate profits have gone up, executive compensation has skyrocketed. Even during this pandemic, some really large companies have made huge profits and executive compensation exploded upwards. So many workers, especially essential workers, gotten so little in return for their work.

“As corporate profits have gone up, executive compensation has skyrocketed…”

One essential worker said to me, “they call me essential, but I feel expendable. They don’t pay me very well, and they don’t protect me at work.”

The President of the United States [Donald Trump at the time of this recording] has failed to issue any standard to protect workers on the job during COVID. At the same time, Senator [Mitch] McConnell, the leader of the Senate, wants to absolve any corporate leaders of potential lawsuits when they don’t protect their workers. It’s the worst of both worlds for American workers during COVID.

Chuck Corra: Absolutely. I think that’s something that has been on display nationally. Amazon workers are getting taken advantage of while the company makes $240 billion in profit. What are some pro-worker, pro-union policies that you plan on pursuing in the new Congress?

Pro worker, Pro union policies in the new Congress

Sen. Sherrod Brown: Yeah, let me back up to something else you referred to and then answer your question. Right after the pandemic began to sweep our country, a number of corporations ran ads, talking about their heroic workers. Some gave a $2 an hour raise to their workers – getting them to maybe even $15 an hour. But then, after a period of time, the ads stopped.

Workers aren’t looking for pats on the back, they’re looking for something better in work – better conditions, health care, pensions, and obviously better pay. Most companies – not all of them, but most – dropped that two or three dollar bump.

Passing a $15 an hour minimum wage

So they’re not going to do it on their own, of course. That’s why Congress should pass a $15 an hour minimum wage. That’s why we need the Biden Administration on day one to do what the Obama Administration started and the Trump administration stopped, which is to provide overtime pay for people making $30-40,000 a year that are told to work that extra 10 or 15 hours a week and don’t get a overtime.

Five million Americans were going to get overtime under that overtime rule back in 2015-16, and Trump took it away from most of them.

Passing the PRO Act

We should pass the PRO Act, protecting the right to organize. A new survey showed that between 65 and 70% of Americans would Like to join or have a favorable opinion of unions, and half of Americans would like to join a union if they could. But the laws are such that employers, with their expensive lawyers and others, fight any efforts to organize a union and workers are hurt.

We know we never grow the middle class in this country without a strong labor movement. Chuck talked about his dad and grandfather with me before the show. Both carried a union card. Now it’s United Steelworkers, I believe it was the chemical workers, but that that gave them a middle-class lifestyle, a decent standard of living in Parkersburg, West Virginia.

We know that unions were stronger 20-30 years ago, the middle class was stronger 20-30 years ago. That should be the core when you talk about the dignity of work and about what the next administration should do to honor workers.

Chuck Corra: It’s well documented that the rise of unions, particularly in the 30s and 40s, are what helped reduce income inequality. Right now, we’re staring down the barrel of historic income inequality, even before this pandemic, but most certainly after it – yet union membership is seemingly been stagnant or on the decline despite there being a lot of interest. What in your view, does the future of unions look like in the coming years in the United States?

The future of unions and union workers in the United States

Sen. Sherrod Brown: I was encouraged that Joe Biden would frequently use the word union in his speeches, not something that any republicans do, and frankly, not enough democrats do.

I was talking to my daughter last night about this. She’s a lawyer now, but for seven years after college, she worked for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) helping in organizing drives. She was talking to me about the young voters. One of the interesting things about young people now is they are overall very pro-union. They understand what the union movement looks like. It’s not just your dad, or grandfather, or me people that are that look like older white males.

The union movement, and when you talk about the dignity of work, we see so many women and people of color. And rural people wanting to be in the union movement. The union movement really is diversity with justice.

“You can’t ever deal with income inequality if you don’t have a more just country.”

You can’t ever deal with income inequality if you don’t have a more just country. in a more just country means everybody has an opportunity.We know that while the union movement thrived in the 40s, and 50s, and 60s, it really did not include women in very many cases or people of color in all that many cases. So we need a new union movement. We know that the support among young people, as my daughter said, is stronger than among older people. It’s stronger among women. It’s stronger among people of color.

But it doesn’t mean that a whole lot of people in Appalachia of all races don’t care about union, because they do. People that live from my state going up the river from Portsmouth to Ironton to Gallipolis to Athens and Marietta, and up to Belmont County and Jefferson County, St. Clairesville and Steubenville – all those areas were strong union areas. They also had more opportunities for kids, there was a stronger middle class, the communities were stronger – we just know we had better lifestyles when there were unions.

“We had better lifestyles when there were unions”

In the decline of the town where I grew up in Mansfield – a city of about 50,000. When I was growing up there were steelworker jobs, autoworker jobs, machinists jobs, public employee jobs – all those things. Too many of them have been lost, and we need those jobs. And we need people to be able to vote for the union to make those jobs middle-class jobs.

Big John Isner: Republicans are really good at winning elections but they’re just not very good at governing. And part of that is the fact that they tend to just have a lot of narratives. But right now the narrative has begin began to shift the perception of the democrat. How did the dems get back to being looked at as the party of the everyday person?

Getting the Democrats back to being the party of everyday workers

Sen. Sherrod Brown: We’re all proud of essential workers but we don’t pay them very well. They work in grocery stores, they drive buses, they change the linens in hospitals. They’re the food preparers, the custodians, the security guards.

They’re notable by a number of things. One is their pay isn’t very good. Second, they’re mostly women. Third, they go to work every day exposed to this virus. They’re exposed to the public, and then they go home at night, always anxious about whether they’re infecting the people whom they love. If democrats would start narratives like that, start talking about people, that would be smart.

One of my favorite Abraham Lincoln lines was he said that he had to get out of the White House “go and get my public opinion bath.” The way I won Ohio – look, you know, I’m pro choice. I’ve been for marriage equality for 25 years, I get an F from the NRA, but I won my state because I fight for workers and workers in Ohio know that.

“I won my state because I fight for workers, and workers in Ohio know that.”

Some people may not like my position on marriage equality, but some of them will vote for me because they know that I get up every day figuring out how do I how do I help a worker? How do I help a worker who wants to join a union and has an employer that’s anti-union? How do I help a worker with wages and benefits and health care? And in retirement?

In politics, it’s always whose side are you on. Democrats need to talk about workers centered around the dignity of work, and not just talk about them, but fight for them.

Big John Isner: That brings up an interesting point that I’ve kind of thought about as a young person who once ran for office. I think a lot of people, especially people my age, who are trying to decide whether or not they want to run for office and how they can win in – let’s say deep red areas. You have the ability to run on a record, which is great for people in Ohio. What would you say to somebody, a young person who may not have a record? How can they do well running in Republican areas as a Democrat?

Winning as a Democrat in deeply Republican areas

Sen. Sherrod Brown: It’s getting out more than anybody else and talking and doing this. I’ve worked with a group, we have this program called our Canary Candidates, where we helped starting in 2019. Then this past year in 2020, we helped raise the money, we helped with media, we helped with the message, we did all kinds of different kinds of campaign appearances with them – mostly local governments from the Mayor of Coshocton to a new state rep around Columbus.

We know that engaging in races is important but I think it’s it’s going door-to-door it’s, it’s telling a story about why you’re doing this, but it’s mostly listening.

We all sort of forget sometimes in the public office how important listening is because when you listen, then you help, then you hear their stories.

Using stories to build the narrative

I mean, Chuck told a story about his father that really hit home with me. I people tell stories, but I know his story because I listened to him tell it. It’s important that when new candidates go door-to-door, they listen, they have those stories, and they can tell other others those stories,

You build a narrative like that. You can sometimes be even in a conservative You can beat a sort of a high bound republican officeholder that doesn’t take you seriously cuz you’re young and new.

Big John Isner: Chuck. I don’t know if that ring a bell with you, but that sounds like the 59th District. I knocked 1000s of doors and move the needle 13 points. But it wasn’t enough.

Sen. Sherrod Brown: But it was still something that we like to be proud of. 13 points you should be proud of. That’s, that’s, that’s one out of seven voters.

Big John Isner: I’m 100% with you, the scariest thing I ever did was knock on my first door. The best thing I ever did was knock on my last because by the time that I had gotten to that last door, I’d met so many people heard so many stories and finally thought at the beginning of 2018. When I was running, I thought I could run for office and be successful at representing people. By the time I knocked that last door, I knew I could represent those people.

“You’re one of those who’s a pro-labor Democrat…that makes a lot of people like you…”

Sen. Sherrod Brown: By the time they started hearing your name, and in heard you’re one of those who’s a pro-labor Democrat. Yep, that makes a lot of people like you, but it makes some people not like you, but that’s alright.

Big John Isner: That’s very fair.

Sen. Sherrod Brown: You never take it personally. Obviously a lot of people vote against me every time – they don’t like my positions. But when I run, I always think of it as it’s who am I fighting for, and what am I fighting against. I never want to make it personal.

On the other side, I make it personal in terms of whom I’m fighting for, I think about the people I’ve met, and the stories I’ve heard. On the other side, I want to think about, well, candidate x thinks that it’s okay to pass legislation weakening worker safety standards, or it’s okay to oppose them. I fight against that, I don’t fight against candidate x, I fight against that. So it’s who you’re fighting for and what you’re fighting against.

“When I run, it’s about who I’m fighting for, and what I’m fighting against.”

Big John Isner: Well, in a world full of attack ads, that’s very refreshing to hear. So obviously, we focus on Appalachia, and these tend to be very rural areas. We know that there are some big cities, but there are a lot of rural areas. Right now small towns continue to suffer their lack of economic development, people moving out in droves. What do you think the future is for these small towns in Appalachia or throughout? And is there a policy that could help these small towns survive?

The future of small town, rural Appalachia

Sen. Sherrod Brown: Well, my dream is that both parties actually change their positions on this. The republicans do nothing for Appalachia, and take it for granted. Democrats, frankly, don’t do enough for Appalachia and think that we’ll never win there.

I want to see both parties change their attitudes. I want to see republicans think “we better do something if they’re going to keep voting for us” and democrats saying “we’ve got to do something so that we can earn their votes.”

I’ve talked to the President-Elect about this. It’s nice to say that now. I’ve talked to a number of people about how important it is that we come in, and we move quickly on broadband.

“The republicans do nothing for Appalachia, and take it for granted. Democrats, frankly, don’t do enough for Appalachia and think that we’ll never win there.”

I was talking to a maybe a ninth-grade girl in Jackson, Ohio. She and her family lived in a valley, so when she did her schoolwork, she went up to her grandmother’s house who lived at the top of the hill, because their internet connection was better. It is ridiculous that so many people in this country don’t have reliable internet.

Rural broadband can be the rural electrification of the 21st century. That’s what we need to do. We can start fighting for that more than we have as the Democratic Party. The republicans now are clearly the party that are opposed to this. They’ve wanted to privatize Social Security and Medicare and they’ve refused to raise unemployment benefits. You know how important those are to people in Appalachia? They’re important, particularly the older populations in Appalachia.

Democrats need to say we will always fight against republican efforts to privatize Social Security or Medicare or their efforts to take away on unemployment insurance because in the end

“Both parties do too much looking down on people.”

Both parties do too much of looking down on people. We should take people seriously, treat them as adults, and tell them we’re fighting to preserve their Medicare and Medicaid and social security and in pensions and unemployment, we’re gonna fight for broadband, we’re gonna fight for higher wages. It’s who we are as a party, and we’ve always been the party of working families and we will continue to be and we need to talk about it more and do things in Appalachia and show it.

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