Why Did My Union Give an Early Endorsement to Hillary Clinton Over Bernie Sanders?

John E. McElhenny II January 13, 2016

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders addressing supporters at a town meeting.

The lead­er­ship of my union, the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Gov­ern­ment Employ­ees (AFGE), offi­cial­ly endorsed for­mer Sec­re­tary of State Hillary Clin­ton for pres­i­dent on Decem­ber 10. The endorse­ment came after union lead­er­ship had informed its mem­bers on Novem­ber 17 that they would not make a pres­i­den­tial endorse­ment for at least two more months and with­out hold­ing a mem­ber­ship vote.

Fifty-five rank-and-file union mem­bers from over 50 dif­fer­ent AFGE locals signed on to a let­ter devel­oped by Labor for Bernie sent to AFGE lead­ers on Novem­ber 16 that urged the union to oppose an ear­ly pri­ma­ry endorse­ment for Hillary Clin­ton” and expressed sup­port for Sen­a­tor Bernie Sanders.

In response to the peti­tion and the demand that the union refrain from issu­ing an ear­ly endorse­ment, Nation­al Vice Pres­i­dent Ger­ald Swanke, from Dis­trict 11, respond­ed via email: We’re not. I don’t expect an endorse­ment until at least the leg­isla­tive conference.”

The AFGE Leg­isla­tive Con­fer­ence of 2016 is sched­uled for Feb­ru­ary 8, 2016. With the sense of urgency removed, many AFGE mem­bers began prepar­ing to attend the con­fer­ence to make the argu­ment there to endorse Sanders.

Since AFGE’s endorse­ment, I have reached out to over half a dozen staffers by phone and email at the dis­trict and nation­al lev­els. I was able to reach one staff mem­ber and had the admin of the AFGE Face­book page respond to a com­ment or two, but oth­er than that, my phone calls and emails have not been returned.

AFGE lead­er­ship appeared to pur­sue two paths to deter­mine its endorse­ment. First, they sent out a ques­tion­naire to all pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates. Sec­ond, they con­duct­ed a poll of 800 mem­bers, which they refer to as the gold stan­dard” (it’s not clear if this is 800 out of its 300,000 mem­bers or out of the 670,000 fed­er­al work­ers AFGE rep­re­sents). Based on these results, AFGE’s Nation­al Exec­u­tive Com­mit­tee (NEC) then vot­ed to endorse Hillary Clin­ton for president.

Accord­ing to AFGE’s November/​December 2015 issue of the Gov­ern­ment Stan­dard, the ques­tion­naire was sent to all the pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates, includ­ing Repub­li­cans, and only Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clin­ton respond­ed in a time­ly man­ner. From the ques­tion­naire, it was clear that Bernie stood with AFGE union mem­bers on every issue; Clin­ton, on the oth­er hand, avoid­ed giv­ing direct answers to many of the ques­tions, though she did prof­fer a few platitudes.

For exam­ple, when asked if they would oppose fur­ther pay freezes, retire­ment cuts or cuts to oth­er ben­e­fits, Clin­ton respond­ed that she would oppose across-the-board arbi­trary pay freezes, retire­ment cuts, or cuts to oth­er employ­ee ben­e­fits” (empha­sis added). Bernie answered direct­ly in strong sup­port of union pri­or­i­ties with, Yes. For far too long, the extreme right wing has demo­nized, belit­tled, and sought to destroy the fed­er­al work­force. That is wrong, that is uncon­scionable, and that has got to change.”

Regard­ing the Social Secu­ri­ty Admin­is­tra­tion, Clin­ton stat­ed that they need­ed to keep defend­ing” Social Secu­ri­ty from cuts and attacks,” while Sanders vowed that he will work to expand, not cut, the SSA budget.”

As for the polling, accord­ing to the AFGE Face­book page, they polled 800 mem­bers. We did­n’t come to the deci­sion to endorse Sec­re­tary Clin­ton light­ly,” a state­ment read. We sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly polled our mem­ber­ship and found that Clin­ton’s sup­port exceed­ed that of the clos­est can­di­date by a near­ly 2‑to‑1 margin.

After fur­ther inquiry and requests for more infor­ma­tion, the union post­ed the following:

The sci­en­tif­ic polled used a sam­ple size of 800 respon­dents, con­tact­ed via phone – the gold stan­dard on which all nation­al polls are con­duct­ed. To get results that reflect­ed the make­up of our mem­ber­ship, we had to make thou­sands more calls. Of our rep­re­sen­ta­tive mem­ber­ship sam­ple, 53% of mem­bers said they would vote for the Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­date and 27% said they would vote for the Repub­li­can can­di­date, while 26% said they would vote for either. Of those who chose a demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­date, 42% said they would vote for Hillary Clin­ton while Bernie Sanders gar­nered 25%, with the remain­der spread across oth­er can­di­dates, won’t vote,’ or unde­cid­ed.’

Of those who said they would vote for a repub­li­can can­di­date, 18% chose Ben Car­son, while 17% chose Don­ald Trump, with the remain­der spread across oth­er can­di­dates, won’t vote,’ or unde­cid­ed.’

With­in the first hours of the AFGE’s release, the union’s Face­book page was filled with state­ments in sup­port of Sanders. With­in days of the news, the Face­book page AFGE for Bernie” near­ly tripled its membership.

Break­ing down the polling num­bers, out of over 300,000 dues-pay­ing mem­bers, assum­ing these are who were polled, AFGE con­tact­ed 800 mem­bers. Out of these 800 mem­bers, 424 said con­clu­sive­ly that they would vote for a Demo­c­rat. Of those 424, 178 said they would vote for Clin­ton while 106 said they would vote for Sanders — not at all the 2 to 1 mar­gin” AFGE claimed in their ini­tial release. The AFGE lead­er­ship appar­ent­ly believes that a poll of 800 peo­ple with only 22% sup­port­ing Hillary Clin­ton is enough to make an endorse­ment for their entire union.

Why did AFGE’s lead­er­ship feel this urgency to endorse so quick­ly after so many mem­bers made it clear they want­ed to endorse Sanders or wait to endorse? Why not hold an actu­al mem­ber­ship vote like the Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Work­ers of Amer­i­ca (CWA) con­duct­ed? The CWAs deci­sion to endorse Bernie Sanders fol­lowed a three-month demo­c­ra­t­ic process, includ­ing hun­dreds of work­site meet­ings and an online vote by tens of thou­sands of CWA mem­bers on which can­di­date to endorse.” These ques­tions should be answered by our union’s leadership. 

In the mean­time, the rank-and-file AFGE mem­bers refuse to be silenced. We are stand­ing firm­ly behind Bernie Sanders. Less than a week after the nation­al AFGE announce­ment, AFGE Local 3369 in New York endorsed Bernie Sanders for president.

It’s unfor­tu­nate that the nation­al lead­ers of AFGE and a num­ber of oth­er unions have endorsed Hillary Clin­ton. Yet it becomes clear­er with each pass­ing day that union mem­bers sup­port the can­di­date who best rep­re­sents their inter­ests. That can­di­date is Bernie Sanders.

John E. McEl­hen­ny II is a mem­ber of AFGE Local 2, Dis­trict 14.
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