Decline of Ohio’s Labor Unions Puts Democratic Veterans at Risk

TOLEDO, Ohio — Representative Marcy Kaptur, the blue-collar daughter of this blue-collar city, is on the cusp of a milestone: If elected in November to her 21st term, she will become the longest-serving female member of Congress, breaking Barbara Mikulski’s combined House and Senate record.

But for Ms. Kaptur, 75, a famously pro-union, old-school appropriator, the political ground has washed away beneath her feet. A new Republican-drawn district has robbed her of reliable Democratic votes on the outskirts of Cleveland. The national Democratic Party has saddled her with an agenda of phasing out internal combustion engines and the fossil fuels that power them that sits poorly in the region that put the first Jeeps into mass production.

And Donald J. Trump rattled the underpinnings of Democratic appeal to labor, with his trade protectionism, thundering denunciations of China and professed belief in job creation at all cost.

As Republican voters go to the polls on Tuesday to select Ms. Kaptur’s opponent for the fall election, some of her oldest, firmest allies in the union world are having their doubts — about Ms. Kaptur’s future, and more broadly, the future of the Democratic Party in the industrial heartland.

“Listen, Marcy is a friend,” said Shaun Enright, executive secretary and business manager of the 17,000-strong Northwest Ohio Building Trades Council. “But I have to go to membership, whatever the election cycle is, and say, ‘This is the most important election of your life. You have to vote.’ And I’m tired of doing it. Members are tired of hearing it.”

Ms. Kaptur’s longevity was supposed to underscore a truism that union families knew their friends and would not abandon them. Democratic senators like Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia have banked on it. Representative Tim Ryan is testing it with his run for an Ohio Senate seat that so far has revolved around blue-collar appeals.

Mr. Trump would have won Ms. Kaptur’s newly drawn district by three percentage points, but in the parts that overlapped the old map, Ms. Kaptur outperformed Joseph R. Biden Jr. by six percentage points, giving some hope — at least numerically — that her name recognition, long record and general popularity could still deliver that 41st year in Congress.

“My service has now afforded me the ability to make a difference,” she said in an interview, boasting of her seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee and her chairmanship of the subcommittee that doles out energy and water funding.

But her struggle to reach that historical mark attests to what Republicans and some union leaders here have been saying since the rise of Trumpism: Labor politics have changed forever. There are fewer union voters, and the ones who remain are less Democratic, said Jeff Broxmeyer, a political scientist at the University of Toledo. Since 1990, the percentage of Ohio workers represented by unions has slipped from 23.2 percent to 13 percent.

“The organizational capacity of the Democratic Party in northwest Ohio is the organizational capacity of organized labor, and organized labor is much diminished,” he said. “Now we’re at the endgame.”

The state legislature lopped off the tail of Ms. Kaptur’s oddly drawn district along Lake Erie — nicknamed the Snake on the Lake — then extended it west through rural Ohio to the Indiana border. That, Professor Broxmeyer said, signaled that Republicans “are coming for the last Democrat.”

It was not that long ago, 2012, that Barack Obama won Ohio’s union families, 61 percent to Mitt Romney’s 37 percent. But Mr. Trump took 54 percent of those same voters in 2016, then 55 percent in 2020. While on the coasts, prognosticators fret over the former president’s continued hold on the Republican Party, in northwest Ohio, the party’s embrace of Trump-era protectionism, immigration exclusion and anti-environmentalism is cheered heartily.

“A lot of those union workers, they’re not happy with their unions right now,” said Craig Riedel, a state representative running in the Republican primary to challenge Ms. Kaptur. “They realize that a lot of those union bosses, they’re part of the Democratic machine, and oftentimes, they’re looking at a political outlook of their unions that is in disalignment with their own.”

Union leaders agree that it is becoming much more difficult to paper over disagreements between local Democrats and their national party when Trump-aligned Republican candidates are using the same anti-China, anti-trade rhetoric that Ohio Democrats use. Erika White, president of the Communications Workers of America local in northwest Ohio, said Mr. Trump had given voice to the anger of white workers, even if he did not deliver on his promises.

Ms. White, who is Black, said she spends much of her time listening to the frustrations of the white men who make up about half of her union.

“I personally cannot stand the guy, but you think of his persona,” she said of Mr. Trump. “Where people are, I don’t know if they’re afraid of accountability or where we’re headed, but instead of personal responsibility, they say, ‘I’d rather blame you for all my problems, and then not only am I going to blame you, I’m going to be mean and aggressive with it.’”

Ms. Kaptur sees it too, and sees Mr. Trump’s appeal, despite his failure to deliver tangible benefits.

“Our party, for the most part, is very coastally oriented,” she said, adding, “Our part of the country just doesn’t have much voice, and so partly what he reflects is that vacuum of people feeling left out, and I can understand that.”

In Toledo, a burning issue is a natural gas and crude oil pipeline called Line Five that runs on the floor of the Great Lakes from Canada to Ohio, supplying a refinery here that employs 1,200 union workers.

The Democratic administration of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan has labeled it a “ticking time bomb” that needs to be shut down, and allies in the environmental movement say workers need to face reality: As the auto industry shifts to electric vehicles, oil pipelines and refineries will no longer be needed.

But what national Democrats see as a planetary imperative, union leaders like Mr. Enright see as an immediate mortal threat, and they fully expect the politicians they back to fight for their jobs. That means keeping Line Five open and the shift to electric vehicles in the lowest possible gear.

“Democrats say they’re the ones working on behalf of people’s pocketbooks, but how do I tell my members that’s the guy working to help your pocketbook when that’s the guy who is shutting down the pipeline to your refinery?” Mr. Enright asked.

An issue like Line Five is easy for the Republicans in the race. It unites unions and business, without alienating any other constituency.

“I mean, it’s 1,200 direct jobs, and thousands of indirect jobs, which include union workers in good paying jobs, and Marcy Kaptur has been silent,” said State Senator Theresa Gavarone, a leading Republican in the race, as she shook hands at Archbold High School in the rural west of the newly drawn district.

Ms. Gavarone has used the Line Five issue to make allies in the building trades unions, and used those allies to separate herself from Mr. Riedel, who is openly anti-union.

Ms. Kaptur responded defensively, but she also showed the crosscurrents she faces. As chairwoman of the Energy and Water Appropriations subcommittee, she said she had done what she could to protect and move to strengthen the pipeline. But she also leads the Great Lakes Caucus in the House, and protecting the largest body of freshwater on Earth, she said, also has to be a priority.

That Mr. Trump never seemed bothered by such conflicts frustrates her, and she does not seem clear on how to overcome his appeal in a region drained by globalization and left behind, first by free trade, then by the changing priorities of environmental protection and an information and technology economy.

But she is perfectly clear about her constituents’ point of view.

“He was able to prick the despair that results from economic opportunity being jerked out from under you like a rug, and he was able to do it even though he didn’t do anything for them,” Ms. Kaptur fumed. “These are people who’ve worked hard all their lives, and then an earthquake happened. That’s not their fault, and largely Washington never saw it.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Previous Story

John DiStaso, Star Reporter of New Hampshire Primaries, Dies at 68

Next Story

Lisa Murkowski Bets Big on the Center in Alaska

Latest from Politics