O’Rourke: Shrinking middle class tied to attacks on unions

Beto O'Rourke with Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters President Tom Lutz in Ferndale, March 18, 2019 | Susan J. Demas

Democratic presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke barnstormed through Southeast Michigan on Monday, making a play for union workers who could be decisive in both the 2020 Democratic presidential primary and the general election.

“When I talked about this economy that has the greatest level of wealth and income inequality of our lifetimes, [that’s] totally correlated with the decline in the unions’ strength and power in this country,” the former Texas congressman said at the Carpenters training center in Ferndale.

“When union growth and strength and collective bargaining power leverage was directly connected to the economy, you saw the greatest growth of the middle class that the world had ever seen before that.”

Unions have taken hits in Michigan, particularly during the prior eight years when Republicans controlled all three branches of government. In December 2012, Michigan — the home of the UAW — made international headlines when Republicans pushed through Right to Work legislation.

Beto O’Rourke with Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters President Tom Lutz in Ferndale, March 18, 2019 | Susan J. Demas

In 2016, now-President Donald Trump successfully peeled away some union members from the Democratic coalition, helping to give him a narrow, 10,704-vote victory in Michigan over Hillary Clinton. Two years later, however, Democrat Gretchen Whitmer won a decisive, 9-point victory for governor.

O’Rourke, best known for his unsuccessful challenge to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in 2018, held a roundtable with welding students after touring the facility. He talked about the concern that parents like him have that their children may earn less than they do.

“As unions have, in some states, diminished in power, as we’ve tied their hands and their ability to bargain and negotiate for the value they provide to contractors — but really, to the the country — you’ve seen people be able to earn less,” he said.

“You’ve seen less growth in the middle class and you have parents — I’m the parent of three; you all may be parents, as well — who face the prospect of their kids maybe earning less than they did And we can’t be that country — can’t allow that to happen.

O’Rourke called Michigan an “important” state and said it was a priority to come here soon after he declared for president on Thursday.

Sen. Jeremy Moss Ferndale, March 18, 2019 | Susan J. Demas

“I wanted to be here in this state as early as I possibly could,” he said.

He started out his day in a Center Line coffee shop in Macomb County before heading to Oakland County. The former congressman added a stop in Detroit cafe before campaigning in neighboring Ohio.

Several Democratic officials joined O’Rourke in Ferndale, including, state Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield), Ferndale Mayor Dave Coulter and University of Michigan Regent Jordan Acker.

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) also will be doing two events in Oakland County on Monday, including an MSNBC town hall. Whitmer will join her. As the Advance reported, she wasn’t able to to any events with O’Rourke, but the two did speak on the phone.

Although his candidacy has taken plenty of fire from skeptical Democrats and Washington, D.C., journalists, O’Rourke announced on Monday that he’d raised $6.1 million — more than any other Democratic contender, including U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who won Michigan’s ‘16 primary.

President Donald J. Trump, Monday, January 14, 2019, at the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, in New Orleans, Louisiana. | Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour, Flickr

Still, Republicans pounced on his visit.

“It’s been a rough few days for 2020 candidate Beto O’Rourke,” Republican National Committee spokesman Michael Joyce said. “From his campaign turning into an apology tour less than 48 hours after announcing to flip-flopping on the issues and his past GOP ties, O’Rourke is going to have a tough time living up to his party’s litmus tests and convincing the progressive base that he should be their nominee.”

Trump announced a rally in Grand Rapids on March 28.

O’Rourke was asked about trade agreement, which has been a big issue in Michigan, and whether he supported workers organizing in other countries.

“Let’s just make sure that we’re trading on a level playing field — that those workers in those other countries also have the right to organize so that they’re paid a higher wage and have better working conditions so it doesn’t make us compete at an unfair playing field,” O’Rourke said.

“I think labor standards have to be conditional in any trade agreement — whether that’s with Mexico, whether that’s with China, whether that’s with Vietnam. Not only is that good for the workers in those countries — it’s great for workers in America.”

Beto O’Rourke in Ferndale, March 18, 2019 | Susan J. Demas

During the tour of the Carpenters facility, Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights President Tom Lutz told O’Rourke that Michigan’s infrastructure needs repair. That is, of course, Whitmer’s top priority and she’s proposed a $2.5 billion roads plan in her fiscal year 2020 budget.

O’Rourke said he noticed the potholes.

“I can already tell, just from driving from the airport to our hotel last night,” he said.

O’Rourke was later asked by welding student Malcolm Kennedy if we were investing enough in infrastructure and he said “no.”

“When we invest in infrastructure we invest in jobs — the kinds of jobs we’re training for right here. Republicans and Democrats — this shouldn’t divide us. We should be investing in infrastructure,” he said.

Beto O’Rourke talking to welding students in Ferndale, March 18, 2019 | Susan J. Demas

O’Rourke praised the Carpenters’ training programs, noting that there was a skills gap in his hometown.

“I’m from El, Paso, Texas, where we’ve had an embarrassment of wealth and construction projects over the last 15 years … and what we were missing was the skilled and trained workforce to do those jobs,” he said.

O’Rourke said that there have to be more skilled trades opportunities available. He also said it’s important to “treat people who literally build this country with respect.

“So I’ve always thought about college-ready — and I think that’s important — but I’m now beginning to think of career-ready,” he said at the roundtable.

Welding student Brandy Reid replied, “That’s awesome.”

Beto O’Rourke with welding student Natalya Groff, March 18, 2019 | Susan J. Demas

She said she was impressed with O’Rourke and described him as “very down-to-earth.”

O’Rourke, who was in a punk rock band, was asked by a reporter what he was “jamming to” on the drive over. The Democrat laughed.

“We were jamming to some NPR ‘Morning Edition,’” he said. “It’s one of my favorite things to rock out to.”

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Susan J. Demas is an 18-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 3,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 60 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.

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