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The Emerging, Tenuous “Essential Worker” Vote

Can the retail and service workers who have kept the country running during the pandemic remake our politics?

A grocery store worker wearing a mask packs bread into a bag.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Over the past few weeks, when Diego Isaacs hasn’t been at his job in the produce department at the grocery store Harris Teeter in Charlotte, North Carolina, he’s been busy contacting as many people as he can about the upcoming election. Isaacs, an immigrant from Colombia who’s lived in the United States for 20 years, said he’s lost count of how many people he’s encouraged to vote this year but has spoken to relatives and friends in Wisconsin, Florida, Georgia, and elsewhere who are, like himself, retail and service workers. “The issues that really matter to me are the economy and health care,” he said.

Last spring, when the pandemic hit and states locked down one by one, a significant portion of the low-wage workforce was quickly—and conveniently—reclassified as “essential” and sent back to work while much of the rest of the country took shelter at home. In New York, handmade signs thanking frontline workers started appearing in windows, and residents applauded daily for the people putting their health and lives at risk to keep food on the shelves and hospitals staffed. These newly minted essential workers quickly became irresistible fodder for politicians; both the Democratic and Republican Party paid homage to them at their respective national conventions in August. (“You represent an incredible group of people, and we love you all,” Trump said to a group of essential workers he had convened in the White House to kick off the Republican National Convention.) 

But recognition isn’t the same thing as power. Despite effusive praise from politicians and the public, these workers, across a number of industries, continue to face personal protective equipment shortages and unsafe conditions on the job, and hazard pay bonuses have all but vanished, even though the threat of the coronavirus hasn’t. To date, there is no centralized system for monitoring the toll of the pandemic on essential workers, but according to a tracker created by The Guardian, more than 1,200 health care workers in the U.S. have died of Covid-19 so far. Another recent study found that up to a quarter of all MTA workers in New York have contracted the virus, and among those, 131 have died; as of last month, the U.S. Postal Service reported that over 9,600 employees had tested positive and 83 people had died since the pandemic began. And more than 200 workers at meatpacking plants—which were early, overcrowded sites of Covid-19 outbreaks—have died, with little recourse for their families or penalties for their employers.

We’ve now seen firsthand that despite the ongoing risks to their own safety, this workforce, which currently comprises over 55 million people, has the ability to keep the economy running—or conversely, make it grind to a halt—which means that in an election year, it also has the potential to shape the outcome of national and state-level races. But whether this diffuse group of workers will cohere as a voting bloc in a country with low union density—not to mention relatively low voter turnout—is far from guaranteed, particularly within a political system that has tended to take them for granted.

In early September, in an effort to alter this balance of power, the retail workers’ organization United for Respect launched Vote for Respect, an initiative designed to galvanize and turn out what one could call the essential worker vote. According to the group, more than 3,350 workers, including Isaacs, have been working through the initiative to mobilize their co-workers, friends, and family members to the polls. Rather than officially campaigning for specific candidates, the group is hoping to turn out 150,000 low-wage workers across several critical swing states and 150,000 more throughout the rest of the country, as the first step in forging a long-term coalition of low-wage and frontline workers that has the leverage to demand better workplaces and a fairer economy even beyond the 2020 election. Mario Crippen, a former Amazon employee who co-organized a walkout at a Michigan warehouse in April over unsafe working conditions and is now an organizer with Vote for Respect, sees the election as an opportunity to build electoral power alongside the kinds of campaigns workers are waging inside their own workplaces during the pandemic. “We’re the driving force in this country—we make America turn,” he said. 

Low-wage workers have historically voted at lower rates than those with higher incomes, due to a combination of various voter suppression tactics and widespread disillusionment with a political system that rarely works in their favor, the latter of which is compounded by minimal or only sporadic political outreach from either major party. But a survey of 1,200 low-wage workers in swing states conducted by United for Respect and the polling firm Lake Research last month found that an overwhelming 87 percent of respondents said they were motivated to vote this election. Significant majorities of the workers polled also said they were in favor of measures like requiring companies to offer paid leave (79 percent) and instituting predictable work schedules (75 percent), and an overwhelming 80 percent agreed that companies going bankrupt should be required first to pay severances to workers and protect their 401(k)s before paying off investors or CEOs. A majority of respondents also said they favored policies like Medicare for All, a $15 minimum wage, and breaking up corporate monopolies.

That said, if the individuals surveyed were broadly supportive of pro-worker policies, partisanship was another matter entirely. According to the poll, respondents were only somewhat more likely to say they supported Democratic congressional candidates over Republicans; similarly, while 49 percent of respondents said they were going to vote for Biden in November, 41 percent said that they were planning to back Trump.  Though the Democratic Party may have been a political home of sorts for the working class throughout the twentieth century, in 2020, no presidential contender has an automatic claim to workers’ votes. That’s largely the result of both parties’ increasing neglect of the interests of workers for those of the elite, a trend that will no doubt take more than one election cycle to reverse.

This year, though, Trump’s miserable handling of the pandemic and his inability to shepherd a second stimulus through the ranks of his own party present a new (if also immensely tragic) opportunity for the Democrats to reinvigorate their former working-class base. But Crippen told me that when he speaks with other workers about voting, it’s clear that the first thing on everyone’s mind is safety on the job, rather than allegiance to a specific candidate or political party. Politicians who genuinely prioritize workers’ well-being, Crippen said, will be the ones who resonate with essential workers this election season. “They’re going to go for the person that puts their safety first and actually makes them feel essential,” he said. Biden’s campaign, for its part, has sought to amplify his bid for workers’ votes in the home stretch before the election; Biden has met with essential workers in battleground states and has promised to boost pay for those on the front lines. “We have been working really hard to try and get coronavirus under control, and I just see them as the people to help get that set into motion,” one public health worker in Minnesota told a local news station after attending an event held by Jill Biden a few weeks ago.

Though Democratic leadership has hesitated to commit to sweeping interventions in response to the pandemic—and notably, Biden has rejected programs like Medicare for All that have widespread support among low-wage workers and the public at large—if its pitch is successful in turning out more people in November, the impact could be dramatic. According to an August study conducted by Columbia University professor Robert Paul Hartley and released by the Poor People’s Campaign, an increase of around 1 percent of low-income nonvoters could have changed the election outcome in Michigan in 2016. Like Vote for Respect, the organization is working to turn out low-income voters this year. “This is a group that could mobilize if they were more engaged by candidates or campaigns, or if they believed that voting might make a difference,” Hartley wrote in his report.

Labor unions, too, have ramped up efforts to increase essential workers’ political participation (and by extension, their political influence) this election cycle. Though only around 12 percent of the essential workforce belongs to a union, this year, some unions, as The American Prospect’s Harold Meyerson recently wrote, have expanded their voter outreach efforts beyond their current membership to include former members, or have made phone calls to turn out voters in working-class neighborhoods. Likewise, the SEIU, which represents some two million workers, has launched a drive to mobilize low-income and other “infrequent voters” to support Biden in this election.

All of these complementary and sometimes overlapping ground-game efforts represent what could very well be the beginning of a new political alliance forged by the hardships of low-wage work during a pandemic and subsequent recession. And politicians also have a role to play in bringing together essential workers. Last month, Michigan representatives Debbie Dingell and Rashida Tlaib made a surprise visit to the same Amazon warehouse where Crippen had helped lead a walkout last spring. “It was amazing to see people in power literally walk through the same doors that I walked through to clock into work,” Crippen said. “They heard our frustrations, heard our problems, and actually went to the fulfillment center to take a tour after listening to us.” After examining the facility, Tlaib and Dingell echoed Crippen’s and other employees’ concerns: “Employee screening is poorly executed, cleaning is insufficient, social distancing is often difficult or impossible, and Amazon’s relentless quota system does not allow for breaks for adequate personal hygiene,” Tlaib said in a statement. 

But these types of candidates are still few and far between, especially when you consider the ongoing Washington deadlock over a second stimulus package, which has only been inflamed by the president’s inconsistency as he struggles to land on a convincing reelection strategy. Crippen and Isaacs both say that the other essential workers they’ve spoken to are turned off by the spectacle that the presidential race has become, no matter whom they support. “We don’t want them playing games,” Isaacs said. “We want them to respect the workers, the communities, the people of this country.” 

And while Isaacs says that a number of his friends and family members have already made up their minds, both the presidential race and several congressional races remain close in several of the states where Vote for Respect is concentrating its efforts, including Georgia, Texas, and North Carolina. The so-called essential worker vote—a potentially enormous if still not-quite-formed bloc—could break through this year as a political force with the muscle to change the fortunes of all workers now struggling to stay afloat in the very economy that they propel. If anything, the conditions that gave rise to this new classification of workers prove that such a coalition is desperately needed.