Democrats court labor support as unions fight for survival

JUDY WOODRUFF: And now a look at the power of organized labor in politics.

Union membership is down, and their influence is waning.

But, as political director Lisa Desjardins reports, Democrats still vie for their endorsements.

LISA DESJARDINS: Welcome to one of 2016's front lines.

PROTESTER: When I say union, you say power.

PROTESTER: Union!

PROTESTERS: Power!

PROTESTER: Union!

PROTESTERS: Power!

LISA DESJARDINS: The complex fight over unions. The drumbeat was literal in Las Vegas recently, as the city's powerful Culinary Union marched to the Trump Hotel, which has blocked unions.

PROTESTERS: We are one!

LISA DESJARDINS: But this is about more than Trump. It is about union survival. In the nation as a whole, union membership peaked long ago, in 1954, when more than one in three of all wage and salary workers were union members. It declined to 20 percent in 1983, and then has kept sliding down to 11.1 percent.

MARIA ELENA DURAZO, UNITE HERE: We're the only organized force.

LISA DESJARDINS: Longtime union organizer Maria Elena Durazo.

MARIA ELENA DURAZO: I think, unfortunately, unions have lost so much strength and membership, that our influence isn't what it once was, but who else besides unions fights for raising the minimum wage?

LISA DESJARDINS: This is the complex part. While unions represent fewer voters, they and their fight for wages remain critical to Democrats.

While some unions have made endorsements of candidates, some major ones have not yet. Those include the Teamsters with 1.4 million members and also the AFL-CIO with 12.5 million members, both organizations known for turning out voters. And the expectation is, if they pick any candidate, it will be a Democrat.

And those Democratic campaigns are furiously fighting to get their support.

At that local rally in Las Vegas…

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, Democratic Presidential Candidate: I'm here in support of Local 226.

LISA DESJARDINS: … Hillary Clinton made an unannounced visit. Just a month earlier, her opponent Martin O'Malley also stopped by a Culinary Union protest. And Bernie Sanders, he held a town hall with a pivotal local chapter in March. Why the contention?

JON RALSTON, Host, "Ralston Live": Culinary Union is by far the biggest, most influential union, 55,000 or so members, but, even more importantly, the Culinary Union is the Latino turnout organization.

LISA DESJARDINS: Jon Ralston, veteran reporter and the host of Nevada's premier political talk show, "The Ralston Report," says where unions are growing is also where the Democratic Party is growing, with Hispanic workers. And Nevada's Culinary Union is using that leverage with candidates.

JON RALSTON: The Culinary is doing something very smart, I think. They've essentially — withholding their endorsement, I think they actually pushed Hillary into the position they want on the so-called Cadillac tax in Obamacare, which they want repealed.

LISA DESJARDINS: That so-called Cadillac tax would tax extensive and expensive insurance plans that unions fought for. In recent months, Clinton came out against the tax. And in another pro-union stance, she told Judy Woodruff she opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: Now looking back on it, it doesn't have the results we thought it would have in terms of access to the market, more exports, et cetera.

LISA DESJARDINS: Her opponent Bernie Sanders, meantime, has filed nearly a half-dozen bills to help unions and has railed against such trade deals.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS, Democratic Presidential Candidate: These trade agreements, among other things, have contributed to the fact that we have lost almost 60,000 factories since 2001 and millions of decent-paying jobs. And I think enough is enough.

LISA DESJARDINS: But while Democrats hope for union support, some key union leaders have questions for them.

J. David Cox is president of the American Federation of Government Employees. He watched the Democrats' debate in Las Vegas and he noticed something.

J. DAVID COX, American Federation of Government Employees: I heard all five of the candidates on stage talk about the need to raise wages in this country. But the one thing I didn't hear them say was the word union.

LISA DESJARDINS: It's as if, even while asking for their support, Democrats fear union is a politically dirty, unpopular word.

And, indeed, back at the protest in Las Vegas:

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: I just wanted to come by and lend my voice to all of yours, to wish you well in this effort to organize.

LISA DESJARDINS: Clinton actually didn't say union there either. But she did win over voter and housekeeper Carmen Llarull.

CARMEN LLARULL, Protester: It's a big thing. When I see her, I say, oh, my God, she is here. So, this rally today is a win for us, because she just walked with us.

LISA DESJARDINS: But organizer Durazo held on to her union's leverage.

MARIA ELENA DURAZO: It's great that she was here. We want to see more of this from her and from any of the other candidates. And when they show interest in our future, we will show interest in their future.

LISA DESJARDINS: And the future question is a big one for unions, an existential one. As they work to expand with immigrant and other worker groups and try to push Democrats to the left, unions fear a potential crushing blow should a Republican win the White House. In the union debate, 2016 could be a defining fight.

For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Lisa Desjardins.