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Democrats hope growing union support will boost their showing in midterms

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Over the past few years, Democrats appear to have lost support from working-class voters. Unions offer a chance to change that. High-profile attempts to unionize places like Amazon and Starbucks have workers fired up. And as Stephan Bisaha of the Gulf States Newsroom reports, that's giving Democrats a chance to reach the midterm voters they desperately need.

STEPHAN BISAHA, BYLINE: On paper, it would seem Democrats would not have a shot at winning over Rily Hughlett. He's an Alabama coal miner who votes to protect the Second Amendment, opposes abortion and keeps Fox News muted in the background. But he's also a union man who's been on strike for the past year, manning the picket line and attending weekly rallies. And at one of those rallies, lunch was paid for by Senator Bernie Sanders.

RILY HUGHLETT: Yeah, he did. He did. Bernie Sanders, imagine that.

BISAHA: Hughlett's giving some begrudging respect to Sanders for not just paying for lunch, but raising $30,000 for the United Mine Workers of America's strike fund. That's been an essential part of keeping striking miners ahead of their bills.

HUGHLETT: You know, the man stepped up. I'm shocked. But at least it points that he's a decent person.

BISAHA: I met coal miner Jeffrey Fleenor (ph) at a rally in Brookwood, Ala. He was also impressed Sanders picked up the lunch tab.

JEFFREY FLEENOR: I believe it was Jim 'N Nick's Bar-B-Q. I appreciate that.

BISAHA: Fleenor does not see eye to eye politically with Democrats on everything, but he says he doesn't need to to share common ground.

FLEENOR: You know, I think that's what we're lacking in America. You know, we've let somebody's politics get too divisive that we need to come back in the middle and try to find common ground again.

BISAHA: And when it comes to common ground, unions are a pretty good option. Yes, union membership is tied for an all-time low in this country. But approval for unions is at its highest point since 1965, according to Gallup. Big companies like Kellogg's were hit by strikes last year, and organizing campaigns picked up at companies like Amazon and Starbucks. All this gives Democrats a chance to attract not just union members, but voters excited over labor issues, voters Democrats are losing on everything else from inflation to crime. But Sanders' union outreach has not been the norm for Democrats, according to Dorian Warren with the left-leaning Economic Security Project.

DORIAN WARREN: It is mind-boggling to me why this wouldn't be a fundamental and core priority of Democratic Party leadership.

BISAHA: The party had pushed the PRO Act, which would make unionizing easier. But it's both stalled and taken a backseat to other bills. Democrats have also had their standing as the party for the working class taken over by Donald Trump. The former president's blue collar appeal turned blue states, like Michigan and Wisconsin, purple. Striking Alabama coal miner Matthew Wright (ph) says Trump's good for workers.

MATTHEW WRIGHT: Very good for workers. He keep you working - because the Democrats, they don't want you to work. They want you to stay home and draw a little, bitty check, where they can control you. Not me.

BISAHA: Yet Republicans have also been reluctant to side with unions. Alabama Senator Tommy Tuberville denounced a Democrat-led Senate hearing looking at Alabama's coal miners' strike.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TOMMY TUBERVILLE: This hearing is what I call the dream Democrat political parlay, where members can be pro-union, anti-Wall Street and anti-mining production all in one hearing.

HUGHLETT: Well, I won't be voting for him no more.

BISAHA: That's Rily Hughlett again, one of the striking miners. He was not happy when he heard Tuberville defended Warrior Met Coal, the company Hughlett's striking against.

HUGHLETT: He sucks (laughter). If you - you're either for the people or you're not. Some people, they talk out of two sides of their face.

BISAHA: Tuberville may have lost Hughlett, but Hughlett says Democrats have to do a little more work to earn his vote.

For NPR News, I'm Stephan Bisaha in Birmingham.

(SOUNDBITE OF NERIJA'S "EQUANIMOUS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stephan Bisaha

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