Working People Key in Driving Midterm Wins—and We’re Just Getting Started

Working People Key in Driving Midterm Wins—and We’re Just Getting Started

The pundits had it all figured out. All the polling data and conventional wisdom pointed to a shift in power in both the House and the Senate. A red wave was coming. But then, in state after state, union households provided critical votes that put pro-worker candidates over the top.

As with any election, there’s no one explanation. Abortion rights was a huge factor in the wake of Roe v Wade being overturned. Young people turned out and voted for pro-worker candidates by large margins. Latinos and Black voters heavily favored Democrats. But one key storyline that remains largely untold is the role working people played in securing these victories—specifically, the role of union voters. 

In the labor movement, our approach to politics is simple: Organize. Face to face. Cut through the noise with real conversations about the issues that matter. It’s a feedback loop. Organizers talk with workers. Workers share their concerns, which informs future conversations.

As any organizer knows, the key to good communication isn’t just what you say. It’s how intently you listen. And we got an earful. 

Corporate profits are now at a 70-year high. While Big Oil has had a run of record-breaking profits, such as Exxon’s $20 billion haul and Shell’s eye-popping $9.45 billion in the third quarter, working people continued to pull up to the gas tank with a lump in their throats. Any wage increases workers have earned are eaten up by rising prices. In those conversations, we heard over and over again, “Something doesn’t add up.” Workers and their families know when they’re being hoodwinked. 

Many didn’t yet know about the Biden administration’s efforts to give workers a boost through infrastructure jobs, student debt relief or prescription drug price cuts. And there was deep anxiety over the threats to our basic freedoms, including the freedom to have a union on the job, the freedom to control our own bodies and the freedom to participate in democracy. Over time, these conversations shifted to the stakes in this election. 

Union voters comprise nearly a quarter of all votes in Michigan. In the key battlegrounds of Nevada, Pennsylvania and Ohio, one in five voters is from a union household. That’s a lot of voters to reach. 

We left the air wars to others while union volunteers spent countless days, evenings and weekends hitting the doors. Workers talked with one another on their lunch breaks at the worksite and in front of the plant gate on cool fall mornings. All told, the union program, which featured 100,000 volunteers and reached 7.7 million voters, provided the ground game that was impossible for extremist, anti-worker Republican candidates to replicate. 

In Nevada, UNITE HERE’s formidable Culinary Union led a program that knocked on 1 million doors, and UNITE HERE canvassers played a big role in reaching workers in other battleground states. The American Federation of Teachers rallied workers with a bus tour through battleground states. In community after community, teachers, school aides, nurses, community groups, activists and vital members of our communities showed up to rally and then hit the doors and phones to make sure their communities knew what was at stake. 

North America’s Building Trades Unions members organized alongside AFSCME public-sector workers to turn out the vote. Electricians and plumbers, grad students and service workers, entertainment workers and laborers, and so many others stood shoulder to shoulder day after day to ensure that every union voter in America knew how important this election was to our collective future. 

I saw the energy grow as I criss-crossed the country to walk precincts with workers. With every labor walk and worksite visit, unions were breaking through the political noise created by $1 billion of TV ads and endless horse-race analysis from the chattering class. 

When workers have a voice in our elections, we deliver results: 

  • In Georgia, union voters are responsible for roughly 50,000 net votes for Raphael Warnock, pushing him into the lead over extremist Herschel Walker. 
  • In Michigan, union voters turned out in droves to deliver Gov. Gretchen Whitmer an estimated net 210,000 votes, propelling her to victory and boosting pro-worker candidates in the state legislature to give workers the opportunity to make huge gains in the coming two years. 
  • In Minnesota, union voters gave Democratic-Farmer-LaborParty candidate Tim Walz an estimated net 110,000 votes, making unions responsible for roughly half of the vote margin. 
  • In Nevada, the political organizing led by hospitality workers mobilized an army of workers to re-elect Catherine Cortez Masto, ensuring a pro-worker majority in the U.S. Senate.  
  • In Pennsylvania, union voters gave Josh Shapiro an estimated net 185,000 votes in the governor’s race, providing approximately 28% of the vote margin. In the Senate race, union voters are similarly responsible for 26% of the margin for John Fetterman. 
  • In Wisconsin’s race for governor, union voters netted Tony Evers an estimated 40,000 votes, or roughly half of his vote margin. 
  • In Arizona, Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO, ran the largest get-out-the-vote operation in the state with community partners. 
  • In Ohio, Democrat Tim Ryan ran a competitive race fueled by a 14-point margin from union voters, outpacing other Dems in statewide races, and Democrats picked up key congressional districts, including holding labor champion Marcy Kaptur’s seat.  
  • Nationally, union members made up an estimated 11% of the electorate and, with union households, 18%. Associated Press VoteCast results suggest union members voted 56 Democrats/38 Republicans.
  • In state after state, working people rejected astroturf candidates trying to bring culture wars and book bans into our schools. 
  • Unions are always on the frontlines of democracy struggles, and it should be no surprise that up and down the ballot—and in critical secretary of state races—union members stopped candidates who were 2020 election deniers and ran with the clear intention of ignoring the will of the people.

The 2022 midterms aren’t over just yet. Union volunteers will be out en masse every day between now and the Georgia primary on Dec. 6. But even that doesn’t mark the end of our political organizing. The AFL-CIO and affiliated unions built a 365-day-a-year operation that will engage voters through 2024 and beyond.  

Taking an organizing approach to politics may seem a little old school to some. And while we’ll continue to supplement the work on the ground with sophisticated political outreach through digital advertising, peer-to-peer texting, cutting-edge microtargeting and other tactics, the focus will always be the human interaction that voters want and need in these uncertain times. 

For far too long, big money in politics has drowned out the voices of everyday people. The lesson learned in 2022 is that democracy belongs to all of us, not just to the powerful few. When we organize to ensure that workers have a voice, democracy blossoms. 

The issue-based conversations that were the heart and soul of this effort will only intensify in the coming months as we head toward 2024. Soon, the midterm elections will be in the rearview mirror. But working people aren’t heading home. We’re staying in the fight to rebuild our economy, brick by brick, until America’s promise is fully realized. 


Caleb-Michael Files
Wed, 11/16/2022 – 11:35

Updated: November 21, 2022 — 2:42 pm