​Why Labor Should Get Behind Bernie Sanders in the Primary Elections

Steve Early

Bernie Sanders during his 1981 campaign mayor of Burlington, Vermont. (Vermont Press Bureau)

This post first appeared at Jacobin.

When I first met Brook­lyn-born Bernie Sanders, he was a rel­a­tive­ly mar­gin­al fig­ure in his adopt­ed state of Ver­mont. It was 1976 and he was run­ning, unsuc­cess­ful­ly and for the fourth time, as a can­di­date of the Lib­er­ty Union Par­ty (LUP).

Lib­er­ty Union was a rad­i­cal third par­ty spear­head­ed by oppo­nents of the Viet­nam War who had, like Sanders, washed up in the Green Moun­tain State as the six­ties sub­sided. At its his­toric peak, the LUP gar­nered maybe 5 or 6 per­cent of the statewide vote for some of its more pre­sentable can­di­dates — in short, noth­ing like the win­ning mar­gins racked up in recent years by the far more savvy and effec­tive Ver­mont Pro­gres­sive Par­ty, which now boasts a ten-mem­ber leg­is­la­ture del­e­ga­tion and attracts grow­ing union support.

Dur­ing Sanders’s quixot­ic mid-1970s bid to become gov­er­nor of Ver­mont, I accom­pa­nied him to a meet­ing of local gran­ite cut­ters, team­sters and elec­tri­cal work­ers. This was not a flat­lander” crowd, nor one dom­i­nat­ed by full-time union offi­cials. His audi­ence was native Ver­mon­ters, some of them Repub­li­can, who were still punch­ing a clock at local quar­ries, truck­ing com­pa­nies and machine tool fac­to­ries in an era when the future home state of Ben & Jerry’s and Ver­mont Ted­dy Bear Co. still had impres­sive blue-col­lar union density.

These local union del­e­gates had come togeth­er to make can­di­date endorse­ments under the ban­ner of the Ver­mont Labor Forum, a coali­tion of unions out­side the AFL-CIO. Sanders then deliv­ered what is now known — due to its essen­tial con­ti­nu­ity over the last four decades — as The Speech.” (For one of its longer iter­a­tions, see his 2011 book by the same name.)

Sanders’s per­sua­sive mes­sage to the Labor Forum was that cor­po­ra­tions were too pow­er­ful, work­ers were get­ting screwed, and both major par­ties were behold­en to the boss­es” (or, as Sanders might call them today, the bil­lion­aire class,” a social cat­e­go­ry not yet invent­ed forty years ago).

Sanders’s appeal for work­ing-class sup­port in 1976 seemed most per­sua­sive to rank-and-file rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Unit­ed Elec­tri­cal Work­ers (UE). They were, of course, mem­bers of a left-led nation­al orga­ni­za­tion that had long favored polit­i­cal action out­side the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. How­ev­er, in def­er­ence to their more cau­tious col­leagues, the UE mem­bers polite­ly went along with the Labor Forum major­i­ty, which, per usu­al, vot­ed to endorse Ver­mont Democ­rats, despite Lib­er­ty Union’s supe­ri­or labor bona fides.

This labor ten­den­cy to grav­i­tate toward the least prob­lem­at­ic of the two major par­ties is still with us today. Every elec­tion cycle, in every part of the coun­try, AFL-CIO unions and unaf­fil­i­at­ed labor orga­ni­za­tions make prag­mat­ic cal­cu­la­tions about who to back and fund.

Rarely do they take a chance on third-par­ty can­di­dates, no mat­ter how ardent their sup­port for labor caus­es. Even a union rank-and-fil­er who runs against a cor­po­rate Demo­c­rat (for exam­ple, Howie Hawkins, the blue-col­lar Green who chal­lenged incum­bent Andrew Cuo­mo for New York gov­er­nor last year) finds it hard to col­lect labor endorsements.

A few union lead­ers have recent­ly vowed to with­hold future sup­port from Democ­rats who favor Pres­i­dent Obama’s Trans-Pacif­ic Part­ner­ship deal, but Hillary Clin­ton will cer­tain­ly be exempt­ed from any such ret­ri­bu­tion. By the 2016 gen­er­al elec­tion — and much soon­er, in the case of some nation­al unions — orga­nized labor will be in full less­er-evil mode once again.

The only place in the nation next year where union mem­bers will have viable, pro-labor third par­ty can­di­dates to sup­port, at least at the state and local lev­el, is Ver­mont. And for that the US labor move­ment has Sanders and oth­er Ver­mont pro­gres­sives to thank.

When Sanders comes knock­ing on their door, look­ing for sup­port in his pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry chal­lenge, trade union­ists in oth­er states should remem­ber his long his­to­ry of help­ing Ver­mont work­ers get their act togeth­er, in pol­i­tics, orga­niz­ing, and con­tract strikes. It’s a track record that few friends of labor” can match.

Sanders got his own elec­toral act togeth­er by going local in 1981. Instead of per­sist­ing as a fringe can­di­date in futile statewide races, he joined a four-way con­test for may­or of Burling­ton, Vermont’s largest city. Sanders beat the incum­bent, a five-term Demo­c­rat, by ten votes.

As may­or, Sanders imme­di­ate­ly hired a new human resources direc­tor for Burling­ton. This union-friend­ly lawyer worked to improve rela­tions between city hall and munic­i­pal work­ers rep­re­sent­ed by the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of State, Coun­ty and Munic­i­pal Employ­ees (AFSCME) and the Inter­na­tion­al Broth­er­hood of Elec­tri­cal Work­ers (IBEW).

Dur­ing his four terms, Sanders con­tin­ued to cham­pi­on the cause of work­ers, ten­ants, the poor, and unem­ployed, while revi­tal­iz­ing the city. Under the Sanders admin­is­tra­tion, Burling­ton backed work­er co-ops, afford­able hous­ing ini­tia­tives, new cul­tur­al and youth pro­grams, and devel­op­ment of the city’s water­front in a way that pre­served pub­lic access and use.

We were pay­ing atten­tion to low- and mod­er­ate-income neigh­bor­hoods rather than just down­town or the big-mon­ey inter­ests,” Sanders told the Nation last year. In fact, I went to war with vir­tu­al­ly every part of the rul­ing class in Burling­ton dur­ing my years as mayor.”

The result, accord­ing to Sanders, was that large num­bers of peo­ple who pre­vi­ous­ly had not par­tic­i­pat­ed in the polit­i­cal process got involved.” In addi­tion, Sanders allies won up to six seats on the city coun­cil and cam­paigned as the Pro­gres­sive Coali­tion (the fore­run­ner of the statewide Pro­gres­sive Par­ty, which was found­ed in 1999).

But even a left-wing inde­pen­dent with a laud­able record of labor advo­ca­cy at the munic­i­pal lev­el found it hard to attract nation­al union back­ing when he sought high­er office. In 1988 major unions large­ly ignored Sanders when he ran for Con­gress against a Demo­c­rat and Repub­li­can. The lat­ter won, but two years lat­er, Sanders ran again and oust­ed the GOP incum­bent, with more union sup­port this time. Only grad­u­al­ly and very slow­ly has the country’s longest serv­ing inde­pen­dent in Con­gress received the kind of nation­al union fund­ing that he should have got­ten from the very beginning.

On Capi­tol Hill, Sanders blazed a trail not fol­lowed since Vito Mar­can­to­nio served six terms in Con­gress, between 1939 and 1951, as the lone­ly tri­bune of the New York City – based Amer­i­can Labor Party.

Fifty years lat­er, dur­ing the Clin­ton admin­is­tra­tion, Sanders helped cre­ate a left pole for main­stream labor’s soon-to-be-thwart­ed cam­paign to reform the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Act. He intro­duced a “‘Work­place Democ­ra­cy Act” to com­pre­hen­sive­ly reform and strength­en work­ers’ rights … to improve liv­ing stan­dards for Amer­i­can work­ers, which have fall­en precipitously.”

Sanders also pro­mot­ed eco­nom­ic con­ver­sion” — refash­ion­ing Pen­ta­gon-depen­dent man­u­fac­tur­ing firms to pro­duce social­ly use­ful goods — a cause since down­played or aban­doned by major indus­tri­al unions themselves.

Back in Ver­mont, Sanders used his con­gres­sion­al office to help work­ers get bet­ter orga­nized, in their work­places and com­mu­ni­ties, even when the labor move­ment lagged behind in both areas. He not only urged Ver­mon­ters to vote yes” in union rep­re­sen­ta­tion elec­tions, he actu­al­ly con­vened annu­al meet­ings of local labor activists to assist them in devel­op­ing more suc­cess­ful orga­niz­ing and bar­gain­ing strate­gies in the pri­vate and pub­lic sec­tor. To stim­u­late new rank-and-file think­ing, Sanders and his staff invit­ed out-of-state labor speak­ers who were part of nation­al efforts to revi­tal­ize orga­nized labor.

He has also been a staunch and long­time ally of the Ver­mont Work­ers Cen­ter, the statewide com­mu­ni­ty-labor coali­tion that fights for sin­gle-pay­er health care, immi­grants’ rights, paid sick leave, and oth­er work­ing-class caus­es in the Green Moun­tain State.

When Ver­mont Ver­i­zon work­ers that I rep­re­sent­ed opposed the company’s sale of its north­ern New Eng­land land­line oper­a­tions in 2006, Sanders was cam­paign­ing for the US Sen­ate seat that he now holds. He con­vened a pub­lic forum high­light­ing the rea­sons for our Stop The Sale” cam­paign and bro­kered a meet­ing with the pro­posed buy­er, Fair­Point Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, that enabled us to con­front top man­agers about the company’s record of anti-unionism.

More recent­ly, as labor oppo­nents of the sale pre­dict­ed, Verizon’s suc­ces­sor has floun­dered finan­cial­ly and tried to impose con­tract con­ces­sions on its work­force of sev­er­al thou­sand. Dur­ing their four-month strike last year, Fair­Point union mem­bers had no stronger polit­i­cal ally, in pub­lic and behind the scenes, than Sanders.

Sanders’s four decades of active engage­ment with work­ers’ strug­gles in Ver­mont has pro­vid­ed a mod­el for the Ver­mont Pro­gres­sive Party’s own strong labor ori­en­ta­tion. The VPP’s elect­ed steer­ing com­mit­tee now includes key union activists in Ver­mont; its pub­lic office hold­ers — on the Burling­ton City Coun­cil and in the state leg­is­la­ture — reg­u­lar­ly join union mem­bers where major par­ty offi­cials are scarce: on pick­et lines and at ral­lies and press con­fer­ences. Mem­bers of my own union and oth­ers have been recruit­ed to run as can­di­dates for what has become the country’s most suc­cess­ful state-lev­el third party.

It’s an axiom of labor sol­i­dar­i­ty that help received, in a peri­od of need, will be rec­i­p­ro­cat­ed down the road. Ver­mont union mem­bers learned long ago that the mutu­al ben­e­fit derived from their work with and for Sanders goes far beyond the results of labor’s usu­al (and some­times tawdry) trans­ac­tion­al rela­tion­ships with pub­lic officeholders.

That’s why trade union­ists in Ver­mont have turned out for Sanders as much as he’s aid­ed them over the years. Let’s hope that their union broth­ers and sis­ters in oth­er Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry states will fig­ure out which side they should be on, with­out the ben­e­fit of such long per­son­al association.

It’s promis­ing that many rank-and-file activists have already signed up to join the Labor Cam­paign for Bernie.” Last week, the Ver­mont State Labor Coun­cil urged the nation­al AFL-CIO to sup­port Sanders, call­ing him the strongest can­di­date artic­u­lat­ing our issues.”

But if the rest of orga­nized labor plays it cau­tious and safe, jump­ing on the Clin­ton band­wag­on instead of ral­ly­ing around Sanders, it will be just one more sign of dimin­ished union capac­i­ty for mount­ing any kind of work­er self-defense, on the job or in politics.

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Steve Ear­ly worked for 27 years as an orga­niz­er and inter­na­tion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tive for the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of Amer­i­ca. He is the author of sev­er­al books, includ­ing Refin­ery Town: Big Oil, Big Mon­ey, and the Remak­ing of an Amer­i­can City (Bea­con Press). 

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