Former Housing and Urban Development secretary and Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro speaks during a forum on labor issues Saturday.

Former Housing and Urban Development secretary and Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro speaks during a forum on labor issues Saturday. John Locher / AP

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Here's What 12 Democratic Presidential Candidates Have to Say About Public Servants and Their Unions

At forum, 2020 candidates make pledges to support the federal workforce.

Nineteen Democrats running for president pledged to support public service employees and their collective bargaining efforts at a forum in Las Vegas on Saturday, often drawing from their own experiences managing government workers to demonstrate that commitment. 

The event, hosted by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, was the first occasion of the 2020 election cycle in which presidential candidates offered a fleshed-out look into their perspectives on public sector workers and how to manage them. Every candidate stressed the importance of public service and the need to support protections for workers, as well as pay and benefits. The comments highlighted a marked turn from the tone set by the Trump administration, which has consistently sought to strip federal unions of their power and cut employees’ pay and benefits. 

All 19 candidates also pledged to support federal legislation to ensure all public employees in every state have the right to join a union and bargain collectively. The Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act, introduced by Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, would task the Federal Labor Relations Authority with ensuring all public employers provide those rights. 

Here is a rundown of what a selection of the candidates had to say about their experience with and plans for public sector employees: 

  • Julian Castro: The former San Antonio mayor and Housing and Urban Development Department secretary highlighted his experience managing city and federal employees. “I had the opportunity to work with many public sector workers and it’s absolutely vital they have the opportunity to collectively bargain for wages, for benefits, for those things that will make sure that all the effort they put into improving the quality of life of people at the local level, the state level or the federal level, that they are compensated well for that,” Castro said. 
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Mass.: Warren stressed the importance of government work, calling President Reagan’s famous line that “I work for the government and I’m here to help” are the “most terrifying words in the English language” a “poisonous” message. “That is an attack on our government and it is an attack on the people work for our government and it is wrong and it needs to stop right now,” Warren said. She vowed to use her bully pulpit to “stand up for public service” and government workers. She also said she would consider a union leader for Labor Department secretary and a public school teacher for Education Department secretary. 
  • Gov. Steve Bullock, Mont.: The governor highlighted his experience as a labor-side lawyer and vowed to find ways to “make it easier to collectively bargain, not harder.” He also said he would seek to insource jobs back to government rather than turning services over to private sector contractors. “In an ideal world all of these essential services that people rely on would be provided public servants,” Bullock said, “not corporations most concerned about the bottom line.” 
  • Sen. Cory Booker, N.J.: Booker stressed the importance of unwinding the Supreme Court’s Janus decision, which upheld laws that block public sector unions from requiring workers in their collective bargaining unit to pay dues. He said he would be “focused on empowering” government workers every day from the Oval Office and would reverse the Trump administration’s adverse relationship with organized labor. “The assault on unions will stop,” Booker said, “and union power under my leadership will expand.” 
  • Joe Biden: The former vice president called public servants the backbone of American communities throughout the country, suggesting that “without public employees, nothing functions.” Biden said: “I think it’s time we stop apologizing to anybody for public employees. Public employees are our neighbors. Whenever there’s a crisis, you’re the ones who take care of it and day to day change everything for us.” 
  • Beto O’Rourke: The former congressman was among the only candidates to specifically mention his work with federal employees and their representatives. O’Rourke highlighted his time working with the American Federation of Government Employees at the Veterans Affairs Department, noting they helped improve substance abuse treatment and coordinate it with mental health care. “The ultimate beneficiary was not the AFGE member but the veteran,” O’Rourke said. “As president let’s make that case not just to members of unions but to everyone in this country.”
  • Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.: Sanders made several specific pledges during at the forum, including appointing a diverse cabinet, banning federal use of private prisons and detention centers and placing sweeping new rules on federal contracts. Private companies would have to be “good corporate citizens” to receive contracts in a Sanders administration, the senator said, with stricter caps on CEO pay and pledges not to cut benefits their employees receive. 
  • Mayor Bill de Blasio: The New York City mayor boasted that his administration insourced jobs and added 30,000 public sector employees to the city’s rolls.  “Let’s add public sector workers and prove the public sector can do it better than the private sector,” de Blasio said. He called public employees “a blessing to our city and our nation” and said as mayor he has “made a point to shout them out and thank them.” In union negotiations, he pledged to “break down the concept of management and labor being on different sides.” 
  • Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Minn.: Klobuchar highlighted her experience working as the Hennepin County attorney, including her efforts to bring certain legal work in-house for public employees rather than outsourcing to private law firms. “We saved taxpayers’ money and we got better results,” the senator said. “So I just think when you think about the value of public employees, you have to see it that way.” Klobuchar also touted her proposal to reform the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program by executive action to combat the current trend of very few applicants qualifying: “They make it hard to do and we should make it easy to do, because we want people to go into public service.” 
  • Gov. Jay Inslee, Wash.: The governor joked that he was proud to be from the home state of Jimi Hendrix and Mt. Rainier, but he was more proud that under his leadership Washington state “got a decent pay increase for state employees,” had “good collective bargaining relations” with state employee unions and saw a 10% increase in union membership following Janus. “It’s time to stop trash talking public employees and start paying them a living wage,” Inslee said. “That’s what I believe.”
  • Sen. Michael Bennett, Colo.: Bennett promised to support federal employees by vowing to “never shut this government down for politics,” and proposing to ban lawmakers from traveling outside of the capital until agencies reopen. He acknowledged it has been a “very difficult decade” for public sector workers, including “at the federal level as well.” 
  • Sen. Kamala Harris, Calif.: Harris touted her labor bona fides by noting she has stood with child care workers in her home state to be able to collectively bargain with the government. She vowed to do the same as president. “We must allow workers to unite and then speak in the collective,” Harris said.