Our new issue, “The Working Class,” is out in print and online now. Subscribe today and start reading.

Congress Now Has a Labor Caucus

Mark Pocan

We don’t have a labor party in the US, but as of earlier this month, we do have a Labor Caucus in Congress. We talked to Wisconsin representative Mark Pocan about the caucus’s plans.

The United States Capitol in November 2013. (Yu-Jen Shih / Flickr)

Interview by
Meagan Day

On November 13, Representatives Mark Pocan (D-WI) and Donald Norcross (D-NJ) announced the creation of a Labor Caucus, “intended to advance the needs of the labor movement, combat the issues facing working families, and connect legislators directly with unions and union leaders.”

Both organized labor and workers generally face neglect and hostility in the halls of Congress where industry lobbyists, wealthy donors, and large employers exert powerful influence on both parties. Will this new Labor Caucus be an important vehicle for uniting pro-worker lawmakers around a concrete agenda and bringing labor movement politics to the fore in national politics? That’s the idea.

Pocan has been a member of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT) for three decades and was a leader in the fight against Scott Walker’s attacks on public employee unions in Wisconsin in 2010, when he was a member of the Wisconsin state legislature. Jacobin’s Meagan Day spoke to Pocan about the origins and composition of the caucus, its structure and agenda, and his own views on the most pressing issues labor faces today.


MD

Which representatives have expressed interest so far in joining the Labor Caucus?

MP

In just a little over a week since we announced, we have over fifty people who have joined. There’s definitely strong interest.

Another group of members were thinking of doing something similar, and then there was also a kind of nascent labor and working families caucus that hasn’t met too often. We’ve now pulled it all together.

We’re going to be announcing four more co-chairs soon, and that way we can all take on different responsibilities to make sure we hit the ground running as hard as possible. The first months of the next administration are going to be very crucial to getting some things done.

MD

Are members of the Squad interested in joining?

MP

Yes. What’s interesting is that this really crosses most of your traditional Democratic factional lines, because what most people talk about at home are core economic issues. Can they pay their rent or mortgage? Do they have health insurance for their family? Can they take a family vacation? Almost all of those intersect with issues that are lumped into the labor category. Anything that talks about income inequality and having a greater voice in the workplace has broad appeal.

MD

The idea is that the caucus will come together and democratically decide on an agenda to pursue?

MP

Exactly. And we’re going to try to meet on a regular basis. We’re going to try to divide our duties so that some of us are responsible for day-to-day communication with unions, and some of us are going to be working on the inside. We’re going to try to make it so it’s a very robust and active caucus.

MD

If you’re going to make decisions together, and the caucus is going to cut across factional lines within the Democratic Party, do you expect that the existing tensions in the party will manifest in the Labor Caucus?

MP

I have no idea at this point. We’re really in our infancy. We’ve been around for ten days and haven’t met yet.

MD

How are you defining the concept of “labor” in the Labor Caucus? Does that refer to union leaders, or union members, or all workers?

MP

Truly all three. That’s part of why we combined a few different existing caucus efforts focused on economic issues. Some things that we want to get done like raising the minimum wage and pay equity apply widely. And then we also want to make sure that we overturn some of Trump’s executive orders that made it harder to have a union election, which is very specific to the labor movement.

MD

In the press release announcing the Labor Caucus you indicated that you wanted the caucus to focus on passing the PRO Act, which increases penalties for unfair labor practices, supersedes right-to-work laws, reinstates a “card check” system to make union elections fairer, and more. Will that legislation be a major priority for the caucus?

MP

Initially, we were ready with lots of important pieces of legislation, but given what happened with the election and where the numbers are, I think a lot more of our efforts will be focused on administrative actions. We are potentially, maybe even likely, going to have a divided government. If Mitch McConnell is still the leader of the Senate, which it looks like he’s going to be, he certainly likes to say no a lot more than he likes to say yes.

So I think that many of the actions that we do as a caucus are going to be broader than just passing legislation, because if we pass one bill in the House that doesn’t go through the Senate, it doesn’t make it to Joe Biden.

The PRO Act is probably the signature piece of legislation, since it fixes some of the problems that make it harder for people to have a voice in their workplace via labor unions. But also some of those problems we can try to impact through the executive branch. Many of our actions will be focused on getting executive orders passed and changing agency rules and things like that.

MD

I’d like to get a sense of your own perspective on a few big topics in labor. One is the misclassification of gig workers as independent contractors, which allows gig companies like Uber, Lyft, Instacart, DoorDash, Postmates, and so on to skimp on wages and benefits and avoid regulations.

In California, these companies won a huge victory with the passage this month of Proposition 22, which not only allows them to continue their misclassification but codifies it into law. Do you think this will be replicated beyond California, and what can be done about it?

MP

A few years ago Don Norcross, Mark DeSaulnier, Debbie Dingell, and myself did a “Future of Work, Wages, and Labor” report and did some hearings around the country. What we found is that the number of people actually in the gig economy is relatively small compared to the number of people that are currently being misclassified by employers trying to take advantage of them.

I think part of the solution is educational, making sure that people understand that there have been and continue to be abuses by employers. Secondly, we don’t necessarily need new classifications. We have good classifications that work, but they have to be enforced, and there really hasn’t been the type of enforcement that’s required to make this work like we needed to.

MD

The largest strike wave in forty years just happened when teachers around the country went on strike in 2018 and 2019. Meanwhile, we have labor leaders like Sara Nelson of the Association of Flight Attendants–CWA talking openly and insistently about the need to bring back strikes. What’s your view on the importance of strikes to the labor movement?

MP

Absolutely. What we saw with teachers, who’ve been shortchanged for a very long time, is that those strike actions happened in some of the most surprising places, in states that have done a lot to make it harder for people to organize. And they were very effective, because that is some of the limited power you have as an employee. You have to be able to use that power sometimes in order to get attention.

We know that there’s wide public support for unions right now because of some of these strike actions. So many things need to be in the toolbox for workers, and there are opportunities in a lot of different tools from both an organizing and an action perspective.

MD

Whereas the labor movement in the past has at times been in favor of immigration restrictions, increasingly it’s adopting the perspective that the costs of neglecting to secure immigrant workers’ workplace and political rights are enormously harmful to the movement as a whole. What do you think are the intersections of immigration and labor?

MP

There’s no question that many workers in many fields are recent immigrants to this country, and I think you’re starting to see the labor movement change to represent that diversity of rank-and-file workers. Especially when it comes to low-wage workers, where many of the immigrant populations are more abundant, the labor movement really has to be able to communicate with and organize immigrants so that everyone can get a wage that respects the work they do and allows them to provide for their families.