Electing Union Members to Office Is Good, Actually

Some fear Brandon Johnson, Chicago’s new mayor-elect, as a longtime union organizer, can’t serve the public. That’s exactly wrong: the public is served by electing workers and trade unionists to office.

Brandon Johnson speaking during an event at La Vallita Community Church on March 17, 2023 in Chicago, Illinois. (Scott Olson / Getty Images)

As soon as the votes were counted in Chicago’s mayoral election, declaring Brandon Johnson, a longtime Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) leader as both a rank-and-file member and staffer, the winner, the concern trolling began. Conservative and liberal pundits had questions. Or rather, one question: How could Johnson represent the “public” when he’s “beholden” to the teachers’ union?

Since Matt Yglesias is the smartest of these pundits, I’ll pick on him. Writing in the Washington Post, he deplored the choices before the voters in Chicago’s mayoral election, with Paul Vallas representing the police unions and Johnson representing the teachers’ unions, calling the situation “a warning to anyone who cares about the future of American cities.” Yglesias’s big fear? Johnson won’t “allocate fiscal losses among the city’s relevant stakeholders.” In other words, Yglesias fears that Johnson won’t deliver the austerity that Chicago’s imagined “public” needs — that Johnson won’t screw over the city’s workers.

Yglesias is probably right that Johnson will not throw the city’s workers to the wolves of Reaganite, Heritage Foundation–style fiscal logic. But he’s wrong to worry about this. Unions are the principal and one of the only institutions in American life that democratically represents workers. The union is the only collective form we have that allows workers to contest bosses’ power and fight for their own interests — and occasionally, to win.

Even though most people are workers, not owners — and while most workers are not represented by a union, studies show most want to be — workers have little representation in government. Elected officials whose personal sympathies, political instincts, and concrete ties are rooted in working-class institutions are all but nonexistent. There are few electeds who see their position in office as fundamentally about fighting for workers.

The boss class is more fortunate in this regard. Just look at the contribution list of any random Republican or Democratic politician, and you’ll find corporate America well-represented. That was the case in Chicago: Vallas, Johnson’s wildly corporate-friendly opponent, outspent Johnson two to one, with the majority of his donations coming from big-money individuals and organizations. Johnson’s funding, meanwhile, came overwhelmingly from unions.

Indeed, the same companies — even the same individual capitalists — often contribute to both parties to ensure that the status quo of a government by and for the boss class is maintained.

Not only that but members of the boss class constantly run for office themselves and win. Most US presidents, beginning with George Washington, have been extraordinarily wealthy. Most of the middle-class exceptions served in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; the Founding Fathers and the entire lot since Harry S. Truman have been rank plutocrats. Over half the members of today’s Congress are millionaires. The five richest have over $1.4 billion combined, with Darrell Issa (R-CA) alone worth a whopping $460 million.

As a result of this plutocracy, the United States is probably the worst rich democracy in which to be a working-class person. And it’s getting worse. As the rich have gotten richer, we’ve seen joining a union, obtaining an abortion, getting an education, and affording basic necessities like food and shelter move out of reach for millions.

Unions contribute to candidates, but compared to millionaires, it’s unusual for union activists to run for public office. That leaves the rich far better represented than most of the population.

While Johnson’s path to power is unusual in the United States, it’s strikingly similar to that of current president of Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Lula is probably the most important leftist head of state this century, judging by his ability to deliver meaningful material improvements to working-class people and protect the natural environment during his last administration, as well as to fight the far right. As a metalworker and trade unionist, he led major strikes in the late 1970s and helped found the Workers’ Party, all years before becoming president of Brazil. Johnson’s context in Chicago is far different, but he too comes out of a working-class upbringing and has had his formative political experiences through the CTU. This includes multiple experiences of going on strike and experiments with independent political action through United Working Families, the political arm of the CTU and the broader left-labor movement that it anchors.

Political involvement of unions was equally critical to winning Swedish social democracy in the twentieth century. Sweden developed a society with some of the best living conditions in the world, if we measure that by wages, health care, childcare, income supports, education, and much more. And sociologist Adaner Usmani has found that across the world, unions have played central roles in democratizing societies.

The notion that Johnson, as a unionist, can’t represent “the people” is not only an anti-union argument, though it is certainly that. It also comes from a convoluted idea — nourished by years of right-wing anti-government propaganda and racist stereotypes — that the “public interest” and “public sector workers” are in opposition.

Yglesias argues that “what’s best for public sector workers… is not necessarily what’s best for the public.” But the vote in Chicago shows that this argument no longer has much traction. After years of organizing and striking on behalf of better services and better funding for the schools — as well as better working conditions for teachers — voters in Chicago understand that kids’, teachers’, and parents’ interests are intertwined.

Precisely what has made the Chicago Union so effective is their ongoing argument that austerity politics hurts everyone and that teachers, students, families, and neighborhoods all benefit from well-funded schools. Teachers who are paid well can do their jobs better and stay in their schools longer — all kids benefit from their experience and from that consistency. And good public sector jobs help more working-class people achieve a middle-class standard of living, putting pressure on other employers to offer better wages and benefits in order to compete.

Electing working-class candidates doesn’t solve everything, of course. Unions that back candidates who think of themselves as working-class champions need to develop serious plans to hold those candidates accountable to a working-class agenda. Johnson will need political support in order to resist the corporate pressures that have already started bearing down on him. Trade unionists in Chicago need to hatch such plans for accountability sooner rather than later.

Still, the lives of working-class people in the United States — the vast majority of us — could be significantly better with more Brandon Johnsons in office. Public services and the people who provide them could be robustly funded. Union organizing rights would be enforced and laws protecting them strengthened so more people would have a voice at work. The interests of the majority would be central to the policymaking process. It’s hard to imagine a better definition of democracy.