Infrastructure: How Democrats Can Reconnect with Blue-Collar Workers


Image by Hands off my tags! Michael Gaida from Pixabay

The Democrats and the Republicans are struggling over Biden’s infrastructure plan as a drama about how each party can appeal to blue-collar workers. The D’s argue that this plan will promote good-paying, union jobs. The R’s can’t argue against creating better jobs, so they counter with the fear that it could bankrupt businesses and put people out of work. It’s a defensive position that lacks the more vital positive message that the D’s can make. 

The R’s do fear that Biden is aiming to cleave blue-collar employees off from the Republican’s base by framing the debate as one of creating jobs versus padding the profits of corporations. His infrastructure legislation is cleverly titled the American Jobs Plan to address their primary concern, keeping and getting jobs. 

Focusing on the economy is the pathway that Biden is taking to deliver that message to the Trump voters. A Pew Research survey of 12 issues asked voters to rank them by importance. It showed that 88 percent of Trump voters considered the economy the number one issue; the next closest issue was immigration at 74 percent. Meanwhile, Biden supporters ranked the economy as fourth at 72 percent; the number one issue was health care at 84 percent. 

Blue-collar concern with the economy is reflected in the fact that  “President Trump garnered his highest vote shares in counties that had some of the most sluggish job, population and economic growth during his term,” according to an analysis done by the Washington Post. These are areas that blue-collar jobs have been shrinking in the last decade. The regions with sinking economies have led them to be dissatisfied with a Democratic Party supposed to protect their economic interests.

As a result, blue-collar workers identifying as Democrats have declined. An NBC survey found that drop over the last decade was by 8 percentage points, while the number who call themselves Republicans has increased by 12 percentage points. That trend is not limited to white workers. From 2010 to 2020, there was an increase of 13 percent of blue-collar Hispanics identifying as Republicans and a 7 percent increase of Black blue-collar workers. The totals are still minimal, but if they represent a long-term shift to the Republican Party, the Democrats will start losing more elections. 

A critical factor contributing to the loss of blue-collar jobs is the weakened condition of unions to promote pro-worker legislation. Just over half of the state legislatures have passed right-to-work laws. Unions lose membership and funding to support candidates under these restrictive laws. Meanwhile, there are fewer constraints on how businesses can raise funds and influence elections. As a result, fewer government efforts are being made to improve employee benefits, rights, and wages. Those improvements are dependent on business owners seeing a self-interest in promoting them.

Biden cannot interfere with the state legislatures, but his American Jobs Plan could help workers in businesses with federal contracts. Michael Lotito, an attorney in San Francisco, explained that if the AJP is passed, “federal government contractors will benefit from trillions in new spending” because they would get contracts to build new roads and bridges. He said, “The president will want that money to go for good union jobs. All federal contractors should expect … including neutrality agreements, no unresolved unfair labor practices outstanding and a positive position on unions in general.”

Biden and the Democrats are still engaged in negotiations with the Republicans in determining if they can agree on some type of infrastructure plan. Even if an agreement is reached, there are some progressive Democrats who may vote against the compromise if it does not provide enough assistance to workers. In other words, the Republicans could torpedo the Democrats’ appeal to the blue-collar workers by cutting some sections of the AJP. The Democrats would then be left with a plan lacking any significant job creation or security and nothing to boast about in the next round of congressional elections. 

If a defanged AJP is offered and fails to pass, there will be a lot of finger-pointing. It will be difficult for either party to send out a clear message that the failure to pass a plan was the other party’s fault, particularly if members within each party are divided on the votes. 

However, if Biden pushes for something close to the original plan, a Republican filibuster will sink it. Then the Republicans will be the party that stopped the train from delivering the goods. They will be accused of being incapable of governing and getting anything done. Biden can point to the dozens of meetings he has had with individual Republicans as proof that he was willing to meet and talk with them. That approach will not sway most conservative voters, but it may be enough to bring back some blue-collar voters into the Democratic fold. 

Reactionary Republicans are not sitting on their hands. They are actively campaigning now against the AJP by reaching out to the voters. One group outside of the parties leading the charge in attacking Biden’s plan is The Job Creators Network. A few billionaires started it to fight federal legislation protecting employees from business owners interfering in their efforts to form a union. In 2019 they collected $3.8 million in contributions, more than twice the amount they raised in 2016. They have established a Job Loss Joe tracker “to calculate the employment opportunities that Biden has or is planning to throw under the bus.” Their website claims that “President Biden has already killed thousands of jobs with the stroke of a pen and has countless other job-killing policies in the pipeline, including the idea to more than double the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.”

Biden’s American Jobs Plan is more than just about building bridges and roads; it’s about allowing working families an opportunity to obtain greater economic power by providing them the freedom to organize into bargaining units if they choose to do so. Regaining that opportunity without owners interfering would bring America back to when organized labor provided blue-collar workers with a higher standard of living than they have now. To pay for the creation of new jobs, Biden’s infrastructure plan needs to be funded.  

The Republicans are adamant in protecting the significant tax cuts provided by President Trump to big businesses. As reporter Christopher Cadelago noted in Politico, the Biden administration will not levy new taxes on people earning less than $400,000, particularly as Republicans will not reverse Trump’s tax cuts. The AJP can provide decent-paying jobs to blue-collar workers if big businesses, which have seen their profits grow during the pandemic, are willing to shift their excess profits back to those who have worked to make those profits.

Nick Licata
Nick Licata
Nick Licata, was a 5 term Seattle City Councilmember, named progressive municipal official of the year by The Nation, and is founding board chair of Local Progress, a national network of 1,000 progressive municipal officials. Author of Becoming a Citizen Activist. Subscribe to Licata’s newsletter Urban Politics


  1. Look no further than NAFTA for an easy answer to workers voting for republicans. Those of us who have lived through the American unionization period (you & me) are hard pressed to justify the costs it adds to businesses, when the smart business will step up and pay equitable wages.
    See Amazon and tell me I am wrong……
    Politically Biden ran against a hated candidate as did Trump earlier , let’s not read into Biden’s win as a mandate – remember he couldn’t win a debate nor a primary until So.Carolina and the establishment couldn’t risk a Bernie president.

  2. The analogy with FDR is strained. He was starting jobs programs in the teeth of a terrible Depression, while Biden has the rationale of the pandemic, which is abating, and must contend with an economy that is likely to come roaring back very soon. Biden reaches for another argument, which is that America needs to prove to China that freedom, democracy, and capitalizm still work. These are all difficult contexts to make the case for sweeping changes. I worry, too, that advocating for such big measures, and then failing to get very far, is not the best way to win in 2022.

  3. Thanks for commenting on my piece. Some thoughts on points raised.
    “NAFTA for an easy answer to workers voting for republicans” I think that policy also led to many Ds to stay home and not vote because of displeasure with it.
    The experience of the (American unionization period makes it difficult to justify the costs it adds to businesses). Profits did increase with the influence of unions shrinking. But the standard of living for average workers fell, particularly with health benefits being reduced or cut.
    “The smart business will step up and pay equitable wages.” Perhaps, but smartness is too often defined by positive quarterly returns, which emphasizes short term profits over long term investments, such developing and maintaining an educated and stable labor force.
    “The analogy with FDR is strained.” Perhaps, but the biggest reason is that FDR’s party controlled both houses by comfortable margins.
    “An economy that is likely to come roaring back very soon.” Like to believe that, but there are so many variables out there it is not solid projection for that occurring.
    “Advocating for such big measures, and then failing to get very far, is not the best way to win in 2022.” Not necessarily true. Trump failed to pass many of major projects but built his base on the effort he was willing to make against the opposition. Biden could adopt a similar play.

  4. In our present day politics, cultural affinity is a far more powerful driver of voter performance than appeals to material interest. This is how and why you get a Democratic Party (despite espousing left wing economic policies) that is increasingly comprised of well educated and well to do knowledge economy workers, and a Republican Party (despite espousing right-wing economic policies) that is increasingly supported by a disaffected and the downtrodden working class.

    Biden does a good job speaking the language — and advocating for policies that will help — the working class, b ut his problem is he is the head of a party that is hell bent of embracing a cultural cosmopolitanism that non-college educated, non-urban, more culturally traditional working class voters find alien and alienating. As long as that is the case, he can propose all the infrastructure plans he wants, he is still going to provide over the emergence of an American left that has shed the allegiance of the American working class.

  5. I agree with your basic sentiment that the Democratic Party has been “embracing a cultural cosmopolitanism that non-college educated, non-urban, more culturally traditional working-class voters find alien and alienating.” I know that well, my brother and I are from both camps, despite growing up in the same working-class household. He refused to go to college, and I loved it. Then we set off on different paths.

    But it is more complex than “cultural cosmopolitanism” (BTW, a nice term to capture this perspective) and “traditional working-class values”. There is a larger demographic movement that is causing a shift in the economic and political power from settled inhabitants to the new inhabitants. It has happened before in the US and that trend can be seen repeatedly in history, as far back as the Romans trying to exclude the Italians from political power.

    In the US, due to our truly unique approach to slavery from other countries that have used and maintained slaves, we have a cultural divide based on the concept of “race” that the settled inhabitants have embraced because it is the one thing that cannot be taken away from them. And, Biden is not feeding that resentment as Trump did. He is in a difficult position, as are the Ds, in pushing for a universal understanding of citizenship that can bridge the needs of both groups.

    • Yeah, I don’t disagree with that. There is a racial subtext to a lot of this, for sure.

      But what worries me is that there were some clear signs in the 2020 election that the Dems, who have already lost the white working class, are starting to push away the Black, Asian and Latino working class as well. To put it bluntly, (mostly) educated white progressives are cluelessly going to Ibrahim Kendi, and Latinx, and Left Twitter more and more POC into the arms of Republicans who cast themselves as the defenders of traditional cultural institutions (the family, religion) and beliefs (hard work, personal responsibility, free enterprise).

      This NYT article on a recent Dem 2020 election post-mortem captures the brewing storm clouds pretty well (though it misses the full range of the class/cultural concerns that are driving the problem):

      “A review of the 2020 election, conducted by several prominent Democratic advocacy groups, has concluded that the party is at risk of losing ground with Black, Hispanic and Asian American voters unless it does a better job presenting an economic agenda and countering Republican efforts to spread misinformation and tie all Democratic candidates to the far left…

      “Representative Tony Cárdenas of California, who last year helmed the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’s political action committee, embraced that critique of Democratic messaging and said the party should discard the assumption ‘that voters of color are inherently more progressive.’

      “’That’s been a ridiculous idea and that’s never been true,’ Mr. Cárdenas said, lamenting that Republicans had succeeded in ‘trying to confuse Latino voters with the socialism message, things of that nature, ‘defund the police.’

      “Quentin James, the president of the Collective PAC, said it was clear that ‘some of the rhetoric we see from coastal Democrats’ had been problematic. Mr. James pointed to the activist demand to ‘defund’ the police as especially harmful, even with supporters of policing overhauls…

      “Democrats maintained a large advantage with voters of color in the 2020 elections, but the report identified telling areas of weakness. Mr. Biden and other Democrats lost ground with Latino voters relative to the party’s performance in 2016, ‘especially among working-class and non-college voters in these communities,’ the report found.

      “The report found that a surge in Asian American turnout appeared to have secured Mr. Biden’s victory in Georgia but that Democratic House candidates ran behind Mr. Biden with Asian American voters in contested California and Texas races. In some important states, Democrats did not mobilize Black voters at the same rate that Republicans did conservative white voters.”


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