Democracy in Action, from the Coffeehouse to the Statehouse

Watching another politician visit a local diner on the campaign trail, I couldn’t help but notice the irony of politicians—who, research shows, have become exponentially wealthier than the average American family—claiming to understand the daily challenges facing the middle class. Outside of the campaign trail, do our elected officials know what it’s like to have to clock in and out, or live paycheck to paycheck?

With the cost of campaigning growing dramatically with every election, it’s almost impossible for regular working people to run for office, leaving many of us to wonder if our elected representatives truly understand our struggles and represent us in the halls of power. How we can ever expect policymakers to share our concerns as their wealth further removes them from the day-to-day experiences of Americans who are trying to stay afloat in this economy? Aside from campaign finance reform, how can we fix the disconnect between elected officials and the people they represent?

One potential solution comes from the labor movement. Unions across the country have been encouraging their members—often workers from solidly middle-class backgrounds and professions—to run for elected office at the local, state, and even federal level.

As union members, workers can ascend as leaders by taking on active roles in negotiating collective bargaining agreements on behalf of their colleagues to help protect their fellow members’ interests on the job. These positions require both an enormous amount of transparency, accountability, and leadership—bargaining leads can’t just spin, smile, and handshake their way out of a bad deal. They need to look their colleagues straight in the eye and work next to them after a vote’s over.

Las Vegas is home to the Culinary Workers Union Local 226, a union which is actively proving how to run a citizen farm team by engaging and recruiting future political stars through the ranks of its membership. Las Vegas may not seem like a typical training ground for politicos, but through leadership roles with their union, members are learning the skills necessary to serve in public office.

Maggie Carlton is a Local 226 member who waitressed at the Treasure Island casino coffee shop. She got hands-on leadership training while participating in negotiations for three major collective bargaining agreements, covering casinos across the strip.

Carlton was inspired by her ability to impact the lives of her colleagues and wanted to do more for them and others in the community. With the support of her union, she eventually ran for public office and won. Through leadership positions she held within her union, Carlton gained experience directly crafting workplace policy and advocating for workers’ interests. She brought these skills with her when she moved to the Nevada Statehouse, first as a state senator and then as an assemblyperson.

Once a working mom like Carlton is elected into office, she doesn’t forget where she came from. In the current era of political back-scratching, we could easily conclude that a union recruiting their members to run for office is just an attempt to pack legislatures with union sympathizers. But in fact, when American Rights at Work analyzed the 1994–2011 voting records of federal legislators who either had a working-class or middle-class occupation or who self-identified as a union member, we found that a politician’s union background significantly and positively influenced his or her likelihood of taking a policy position benefiting all working families, not just unions. Members with a union background had more “worker-friendly” voting records on issues ranging from protecting Social Security and unemployment to enacting stronger workplace safety laws workplace discrimination even when controlling for other factors, including party affiliation.

Politicians love to extol the virtues and the values of hard work—in their stump speeches, press releases, and in debates. But how many of them are going to bat legislatively for those who work hard for a living? Clearly, an individual’s life experiences and personal history shape how they vote. We need to elect more working moms, public teachers, nurses, truck drivers, and small business owners: people who bring the real perspective and values of working people to the table when developing policy that affects our daily lives.

This article was originally published at American Rights at Work on October 3, 2012.

About the Author: Sarita Gupta is the executive director of Jobs with Justice (JwJ) and American Rights at Work. Jobs with Justice works to build a strong, progressive labor movement working in concert with community, faith, and student organizations to build a broader global movement for economic and social justice. In over 45 communities in 25 states, JwJ local coalitions are organizing to address issues impacting working families. American Rights at Work is an independent labor policy and advocacy organization dedicated to advancing the right to organize and collectively bargain.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.