Nebraska union leader tries to run for Senate on strength of Labor Party

In 2021, as the first Halloween decorations went out in Omaha, Neb., a mechanic named Dan Osborn led 500 of his fellow union members. from the Kellogg’s cereal factory on F Street and on the picket lines.

The strike, which involved more than 1,400 workers in several factories, would last 77 difficult days, through brutal storms and imported strikebreakers and the threat of layoffs without notice, which caught the attention of President Biden. A first the contract was firmly rejected by the union, then a the second finally ended the walkoutjust before Christmas.

Today, Mr. Osborn, 48, is trying to do something much more difficult: win a U.S. Senate seat as an independent in the deep-red state of Nebraska.

Mr. Osborn’s long term offer Defeating Deb Fischer, the Republican senator from Nebraska, in November, or even coming close, will test whether the growing power of a revitalized union movement can translate to high elective office in an election year where working-class voters will likely decide the next president and the direction of the country.

The western Nebraska railroad unions first contacted him last year to put together a bid, and a December survey by a left-wing group called Change Research put Mr. Osborn over Ms. Fischer, at 40 percent to her 38 percent. It was a questionable outcome, as even Mr. Osborn’s supporters acknowledge, but enough to capture imaginations in a one-party state that has long retreated from the national political debate.

With no Democrats in the race, the Nebraska Democratic Party will likely endorse Mr. Osborn at a March 2 meeting, party chairwoman Jane Kleeb said, although Mr. Osborn said he would not Wasn’t sure I wanted that. The state AFL-CIO will support him at a rally in late March, and national unions are paying attention.

But can a union leader with no political experience find an agenda that transcends both political parties and appeals closely to blue-collar pocketbooks? And can this leader find the money to spread this message further west, beyond the urban centers of Omaha and Lincoln?

“I took on a big American company,” Mr. Osborn said as he cut into a steak Tuesday night. “I stood up for what I thought was right and I won.”

The Fischer campaign appears to be treating Mr. Osborn as a nuisance and not a serious threat to his bid for a third term.

“Deb Fischer has real, strong and deep support across the state, including from 93 bipartisan county chairs and more than 1,000 endorsers,” said Derek Oden, her campaign manager. “She is proud of the long-standing support of Nebraska union members and is ready to work with any Nebraskan to make life easier for working families in our state.” The campaign cited three firefighters’ unions as well as carpenters and electricians who supported it six years ago.

Mr. Osborn’s attempt to rise from the leader of his local union to a member of the United States Senate has little precedent, almost comparable to the five failed presidential attempts of the famous labor leader Eugene V. Debs at the turn of the last century.

Union members from other states have risen to elected office, such as Tim Walz, governor of Minnesota, and Brandon Johnson, mayor of Chicago. The New Jersey AFL-CIO has trained 1,300 members to run for office over the past 27 years, with a 76 percent success rate.

Candidates for office receive training in election campaigning, opposition research, election law, campaign finance, public speaking and press management, said Charles Wowkanech, president of the New Jersey AFL-CIO. In a heavily unionized Democratic state, the program identifies and contacts every union member in a given district and, often, they represent more than enough votes to win.

This is not the situation in poorly unionized Nebraska, where 9.4 percent of workers are represented. But even in New Jersey, where there are 17.3 percent, the highest office sought was in the U.S. House of Representatives, where a union electrician who completed the program, Donald Norcross, holds the top spot. congressional district.

“We modeled the candidate program after apprenticeship programs,” Wowkanech said. “You don’t start as a journeyman by earning the best salary. You are progressing.

In 2018, Randy Bryce, known as “Iron stain“, captured the liberal imagination and big money as an ironworker (and secretary of the Racine County Labor Council) ran for incumbent Paul D. Ryan’s seat in Wisconsin. He lost by more by 12 percentage points.

“There are certainly ways to reach the other side of the aisle, but this civil division becomes more difficult every year,” Mr. Bryce said. “We need to find reasons to talk to each other again, and workers running for office is a start.”

Soft-spoken and serious, Mr. Osborn is not exactly Norma Rae, the brash protagonist of the 1979 film that dramatized the plight of workers and the struggle to organize in the South. Management at Kellogg’s fired him a year ago, accusing him of watching Netflix while working, an accusation he and his friends called false. He is now an apprentice at the steamfitters’ union, I still work on heating and air conditioning systems as he prepares for his campaign. He is also the father of three children aged 16 to 21. His wife is general manager of a bar and grill in Omaha.

“He doesn’t knock his first on the table,” said Danny Begley, an Omaha City Council member and vice president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 1483. “He’s measured. It is calculated.

Mr. Osborn, who called himself a Democrat until 2016, wants to run on a narrow platform with what he hopes will be extremely broad appeal: legalizing marijuana (at least for medical use), raising the minimum wage Nationally, guarantee the right to abortion, protect gun rights and expand laws to make it easier to unionize. He condemns Biden-era inflation but blames corporate greed and price gouging. He talks about the American frontier in a distinctly Republican way.

“Without borders, you don’t have a country,” he said, while adding that once the border is closed, Congress should explore ways to legalize some undocumented workers already in the United States.

At the start of Israel’s war in Gaza, campaign advisers asked him to issue a statement taking a stand. He declined, saying it was not an issue he wanted to include in his campaign.

“Dan needs to send a message that cuts across political lines and goes into their wallets,” said Josh Josoff, an ally of the Elevator Manufacturers International Union. “Don’t let corner issues keep you away.”

On the subject from which he certainly cannot escape, the presidential campaign, he seemed genuinely disconcerted. Nebraska overwhelmingly supports Donald J. Trump, as does Ms. Fischer. Mr. Osborn is not a potential campaign killer in November. But he doesn’t support President Biden either.

“I think they are both too old; I think they’re both incompetent,” he said, finally choosing a position. “There’s a good chance I won’t vote for president.”

“He has a concrete economic agenda and a truly unique profile,” Mr. Kerrey said. “You can’t say, ‘Well, what do you know about what we’re going through?’ » because he does. He knows the rules don’t work for workers.”

But Nebraska is against Mr. Osborn. West of Lincoln are some of the nation’s largest rail yards, but freight rail companies, backed by Nebraska Republicans, have bullied railroad unions, which were the first to call on Mr. Osborn to run for office. the new contract failed to grant their request for seven paid sick days per year. Such unions may have limited power to deliver North Platte and points west.

The other obstacle to Mr. Osborn’s candidacy is junior state senator and former Republican governor Pete Ricketts. He comes from a family of financiers worth billions of dollars and he’s more than willing to spend them.

Just ask Crista Eggers, who has been trying to legalize medical marijuana since 2019, about treating her son, Colton, who suffers daily from seizures that his doctors believe can be treated with cannabis. Only three states still ban medical marijuana, even though polls suggest 70 to 80 percent of Nebraskans support it. One of the people opposing it is Mr. Ricketts, who declared as governor, “If you legalize marijuana, you’re going to kill your children.” »

In 2020, the Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana movement gained 197,000 signatures, in more counties than needed to secure a referendum on legalization. But the The Nebraska Supreme Court overturned it consideration on a technical point. Supporters tried again in 2022, but failed to sign. Ms. Eggers and her group are at it again, hoping for some synergy with an election campaign to protect abortion rights and with Mr. Osborn’s campaign, although the group is prohibited from supporting him.

One problem for Ms. Eggers and Mr. Osborn is money. Signature drives are expensive and 90 of Nebraska’s 93 counties are rural, adding to the challenge. Mr. Osborn himself has little statewide name recognition and would require an introduction in the form of television ads and a robust campaign schedule, both costly efforts. Union supporters are optimistic that Mr. Osborn’s message will resonate against Ms. Fischer, if he has the money to force him out.

“We just have to get past the problem of Republicans and Democrats, these teams that we’re on,” said Josh Dredla, a friend of Mr. Osborn who was on the Kellogg’s picket lines.

Mr. Osborn said at a minimum the campaign needed to raise $2 million. So far, he has raised just over $200,000.

Ms. Fischer completed 2023 sitting on a war chest of nearly $3.3 million.

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