Union Members Seem To Want Bernie Sanders Over Hillary Clinton. Will Labor Leadership Follow Them?

Mario Vasquez August 12, 2015

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks with AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka while participating in a "Don't Trade Our Future" march on April 20, 2015.

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Ver­mont has emerged as the most out­spo­ken pro-labor can­di­date in the 2016 Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry. With his intro­duc­tion of fed­er­al $15 min­i­mum wage leg­is­la­tion and his fre­quent tar­get­ing of Walmart’s Wal­ton fam­i­ly in his stump speech, Sanders has his fin­ger on the pulse of the some of the most vibrant and large-scale eco­nom­ic-jus­tice move­ments in decades. That stands in stark con­trast to the front run­ner, Hillary Clin­ton, who’s been mum on $15 and is a for­mer Wal­mart board member.

As Bloomberg labor reporter Josh Eidel­son recent­ly report­ed, there also exists a wide­spread dis­sat­is­fac­tion or dis­trust” toward Clin­ton among AFL-CIO local and state lead­ers in the key ear­ly-pri­ma­ry state of Iowa over her pro­mo­tion of the unpop­u­lar Trans-Pacif­ic Part­ner­ship. The trade agree­ment is large­ly deemed by labor to be cor­po­rate-dri­ven and has been likened to 1994’s North Amer­i­can Free Trade Agree­ment for its poten­tial to dri­ve down wages and dec­i­mate jobs. Clin­ton has recent­ly begun con­demn­ing the deal, but some doubt her new stance. Sanders, on the oth­er hand, has con­sis­tent­ly opposed the TPP, describ­ing it and sim­i­lar trade poli­cies as a dis­as­ter” for the Amer­i­can worker.

His mus­cu­lar rhetoric on the issue, among oth­ers, explains the grass­roots sup­port among rank-and-file union mem­bers that has man­i­fest­ed as Labor for Bernie, a polit­i­cal net­work of work­ers push­ing their unions to endorse Sanders. A pub­lic let­ter released by the orga­ni­za­tion urg­ing unions to endorse Sanders has attract­ed the sig­na­tures of over 5,000 union mem­bers around the country.

While the AFL-CIO rarely makes an endorse­ment dur­ing the pri­ma­ry sea­son, endorse­ments from its 56 nation­al affil­i­ates and oth­er major unions are expect­ed to trick­le in between now and the 2016 pri­maries. The endorse­ment process in most unions, how­ev­er, is far from demo­c­ra­t­ic, as union offi­cials rather than rank-and-file mem­bers are the ones who hold most influ­ence over such ques­tions. In such an envi­ron­ment, and against the gleam of Clinton’s name recog­ni­tion and sig­nif­i­cant lead, the ques­tion for Sanders’ union back­ers seems to be how much bot­tom-up agi­ta­tion can win unions to the Ver­mont Senator’s side.

A cri­sis of union democracy’

The 45-mem­ber exec­u­tive coun­cil of the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers (AFT) endorsed Hillary Clin­ton on July 11, becom­ing the first nation­al union to make an endorse­ment in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry. The move comes con­sid­er­ably ear­ly com­pared to the AFT’s process in past elec­tions. The union wait­ed until Octo­ber 2007 before endors­ing Clin­ton for the 2008 race and held out until Feb­ru­ary of elec­tion year 2004 before endors­ing John Kerry.

In an op-ed crit­i­ciz­ing the deci­sion, edu­ca­tion pro­fes­sor Lois Wein­er called the endorse­ment a rushed deci­sion [that] was made with­out any sem­blance of legit­i­ma­cy,” not­ing that the union used a sin­gle, ear­ly-June poll of 1,200 mem­bers — when Sanders was just see­ing his first surge in the polls — to tout the Clin­ton endorse­ment as rep­re­sent­ing the union’s 1.6 mil­lion members.

If you want to shape some­thing, you get in before the pri­maries,” AFT Pres­i­dent Ran­di Wein­garten said in defense of the endorse­ment. Wein­garten, a long­time Clin­ton ally, is cur­rent­ly sit­ting on the board of pro-Clin­ton Super PAC Pri­or­i­ties USA Action.

Beth Dimi­no, an 8th-grade sci­ence teacher in Long Island and pres­i­dent of the Port Jef­fer­son Sta­tion Teach­ers Asso­ci­a­tion, an AFT affil­i­ate, describes the process as a sti­fled debate.” “[AFT] made a deci­sion to com­mit to this endorse­ment 15 months before it was nec­es­sary to do so, with­out, I believe, con­sult­ing rank-and-file.”

Megan Moskop, a mid­dle school teacher in New York City and mem­ber of the social jus­tice-mind­ed Move­ment of Rank-and-File Edu­ca­tors (MORE), paints the sit­u­a­tion as a cri­sis of union democ­ra­cy,” con­nect­ing the AFT’s deal-mak­ing” endorse­ment to the dearth of pro­gres­sive pol­i­cy under such a system.

It’s about can­di­dates like Bernie Sanders, can­di­dates that actu­al­ly have pro-labor posi­tions and pro-work­ing class posi­tions, and posi­tions that would sup­port my stu­dents and their fam­i­lies in the way that they need sup­port and don’t get it,” Moskop says. If unions worked dif­fer­ent­ly, then can­di­dates like that would be more like­ly to have a place at the table. Where­as when unions buy into the same polit­i­cal process that doesn’t allow for can­di­dates with lit­tle mon­ey and lit­tle name recog­ni­tion, [unions] increase what’s already bro­ken” in the polit­i­cal process.

Only one endorsement’

David Moberg report­ed in 2012 that orga­nized labor’s sup­port was a cru­cial in dri­ving the turnout to re-elect Pres­i­dent Barack Obama. 

But could the AFL-CIO’s state and local lev­el fed­er­a­tions pro­vide a sim­i­lar, if small­er, effort dur­ing the pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry? Not if AFL-CIO Pres­i­dent Richard Trum­ka has any­thing to say about it.

After AFL-CIO divi­sions in South Car­oli­na and Ver­mont endorsed Sanders in June, Trum­ka sent out a memo of rebuke remind­ing state and local lead­ers in the labor fed­er­a­tion that such explic­it endorse­ments were banned. There’s only one endorse­ment in a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, and it comes from the nation­al,” Trum­ka lat­er told Politi­co.

Ian Robin­son, a Labor for Bernie mem­ber and pres­i­dent of the AFL-CIO Huron Val­ley Cen­tral Labor Coun­cil, says the AFL-CIO nation­al endorse­ment, like the AFT’s, should not be based on the pre­tense of uni­ty.” Labor should decen­tral­ize endorse­ment deci­sions down to the lev­el where [an] orga­ni­za­tion, whether it is a fed­er­al body like the AFL-CIO or a union like AFT, is able to achieve a broad con­sen­sus on who to endorse.”

When con­sen­sus isn’t there, Robin­son says, The claim to speak on behalf of the entire nation­al union is revealed for what it is — over­reach. … What ben­e­fits can an endorsed can­di­date deliv­er that are worth divid­ing and alien­at­ing impor­tant sec­tions of your orga­ni­za­tion’s base?”

Sanders’ pro­gres­sive and pro-union cre­den­tials cer­tain­ly pro­vide ample fod­der for ener­gized rank-and-file sup­port. Will they ener­gize union lead­ers, too? His years of sup­port for postal ser­vice expan­sion in the face of cuts brought glow­ing praise from Amer­i­can Postal Work­ers Union (APWU) Pres­i­dent Mark Dimond­stein after a meet-and-greet with the can­di­date in mid-July.

There has been tremen­dous inter­est and excite­ment about [the Sanders] cam­paign in the labor move­ment,” Dimond­stein says.

The sec­ond major union to endorse thus far, the 185,000-member Nation­al Nurs­es Unit­ed, chose to endorse Sanders on Mon­day. NNU exec­u­tive direc­tor RoseAnn DeMoro alleges that the deci­sion was made after union polls fea­tured sig­nif­i­cant amount of mem­ber engage­ment, though the ulti­mate deci­sion for the endorse­ment seemed to come from the union’s top lead­er­ship. The union’s social move­ment roots, how­ev­er, are clear­ly in line with Sanders’ stances on pri­or­i­ty issues like sin­gle-pay­er health care.

Activism, not top-down endorsements’

Eric Robert­son, a Sanders sup­port­er and the polit­i­cal direc­tor of Atlanta’s Team­sters local, believes that endorse­ments are overem­pha­sized. As Sanders’ grass­roots sup­port­ers tout the candidate’s pro-work­er poli­cies, oth­er union work­ers will get active for Sanders, Robert­son says, result­ing in a cam­paign that relies more on a politi­cized pub­lic than on union endorsements.

I think that there’s a ten­den­cy among Bernie’s labor sup­port­ers … to be over­ly alarmed at labor not jump­ing on the Bernie band­wag­on,” says Robert­son. I think it’s real­ly impor­tant that peo­ple just con­tin­ue to do the work … and real­ly demon­strate the breadth of sup­port that Bernie has. The big­ger the grass­roots sup­port, the more you’ll have offi­cial sup­port come out.”

One hun­dred thou­sand peo­ple report­ed­ly par­tic­i­pat­ed in more than 3,500 grass­roots meet­ings through­out the coun­try on July 29 to try to fig­ure out how to build and expand the polit­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion” that Sanders con­sis­tent­ly describes as being nec­es­sary for victory.

That’s what we need — bot­tom up, mil­lions of Amer­i­cans not just vot­ing, but orga­niz­ing groups in their neigh­bor­hoods like we’re going to see tonight,” for­mer Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Work­ers of Amer­i­ca Pres­i­dent Lar­ry Cohen told In These Times on the day of the event.

He shares Robertson’s view: What we want is to build a polit­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion in Amer­i­ca and that means grass­roots across the coun­try, not just in key pri­ma­ry states. … That’s what is key — it’s activism, not top-down endorsements.”

The orga­nized peo­ple pow­er and fundrais­ing capa­bil­i­ties that orga­nized labor can pro­vide could make a cru­cial dif­fer­ence in favor of a strong­ly pro­gres­sive can­di­date like Sanders in a cam­paign already engulfed by mon­ey every­where else. But giv­en labor’s ten­den­cy to sup­port cen­trist Democ­rats like Clin­ton whom they believe will have a bet­ter chance of win­ning elec­tions (despite offer­ing very lit­tle tan­gi­ble reas­sur­ance that those cen­trists will ease the down­ward slope of union den­si­ty over the past 30 years), Sanders’ pro-work­er stances may not be enough to win the endorse­ments of a major­i­ty of Amer­i­can unions or the AFL-CIO. But that won’t nec­es­sar­i­ly slow the polit­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion” he’s try­ing to foment .

Mario Vasquez is a writer from south­ern Cal­i­for­nia. He is a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to Work­ing In These Times. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @mario_vsqz or email him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)/*= 0)out += unescape(l[i].replace(/^\s\s*/, &#’));while ( – j >= 0)if (el[j].getAttribute(‘data-eeEncEmail_JkRTuBCpnw’))el[j].innerHTML = out;/*]]>*/.
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