As Unions Read the Tea Leaves, Retail Workers Union Locals Rush to Endorse Biden

Hamilton Nolan

Labor groups, community groups, residents and elected officials gathered together on November 14, 2018 at Gordan Triangle in Long Island City, to say no to the billions of dollars in subsidies for Amazon to locate to NYC. (Photo by Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Joe Biden’s stronger-than-expect­ed per­for­mance on Super Tues­day may be tempt­ing some unions that have sat on the side­line through the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry to fall in behind a can­di­date they now per­ceive to be the like­ly win­ner. This morn­ing, a slew of locals of the Retail, Whole­sale, Depart­ment Store Union (RWD­SU) endorsed Biden, and the union telegraphed its sup­port for Biden’s campaign.

Like many major unions, the RWD­SU, which has about 100,000 mem­bers nation­wide, has not issued a nation­al endorse­ment in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry. Stu­art Appel­baum, the head of the RWD­SU, is on the exec­u­tive com­mit­tee of the DNC. In many unions that did not issue nation­al endorse­ments, locals issued their own endorse­ments — Bernie Sanders picked up dozens. But in the same way that Hillary Clin­ton picked up the major­i­ty of union endorse­ments in 2016 despite Sanders hav­ing a stronger his­to­ry of labor sup­port, unions now may be read­ing the polit­i­cal tea leaves and jump in to back Biden if they think he will be the even­tu­al nominee.

This morn­ing, six sep­a­rate RWD­SU local or coun­cils all announced that they are endors­ing Biden. They are the RWD­SU South­east Coun­cil, rep­re­sent­ing 10,000 work­ers in the South­east­ern Unit­ed States; the RWD­SU Ten­nessee Dis­trict Coun­cil; RWD­SU Local 108 in Newark, New Jer­sey; RWD­SU Local 262 in Kenil­worth, New Jer­sey; RWD­SU Local 379 in Colum­bus, Ohio; and RWD­SU Local 390 in Colum­bus, Ohio.

Notably, all of the endorse­ment press releas­es were pack­aged and sent out sent out to the media by the nation­al office. Chelsea Con­nor, RWD­SU com­mu­ni­ca­tions direc­tor, told In These Times, Many of our mem­bers believe Joe Biden pro­vides the best chance to defeat Don­ald Trump and sup­port the under-tick­et. We haven’t endorsed yet, but encour­aged our locals and coun­cils to let their voic­es be heard. We also aren’t aware of any oth­er local or coun­cil sup­port­ing oth­er can­di­dates in the RWDSU.”

Union endorse­ments of Joe Biden have not been with­out con­tro­ver­sy. Last month, more than 1,200 IBEW mem­bers who sup­port­ed Bernie Sanders issued a let­ter ask­ing their lead­er­ship to retract its endorse­ment of Biden. (Sanders today announced he was endorsed by the pres­i­dent and vice pres­i­dent of the Chica­go Teach­ers Union, though the union itself did not endorse anyone.)

In an elec­tion year that fea­tured a crowd­ed field of Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­dates, many of whom put out extra­or­di­nar­i­ly pro-union plat­forms, sit­ting out the pri­ma­ry and endors­ing the even­tu­al Demo­c­ra­t­ic nom­i­nee has been con­sid­ered the wise move by the major­i­ty of major unions. As the con­test appears to have nar­rowed to Bernie vs. Biden going into Michi­gan next week, union sup­port has become more crit­i­cal than ever for both can­di­dates. It is pos­si­ble that today marks the begin­ning of a slew of unions mak­ing the com­mon cal­cu­la­tion that Biden is going to win, and now is the time to endorse him, while they still believe they can win polit­i­cal points for it.

In 2016, many Sanders sup­port­ers in the labor move­ment were angry when major unions made a sim­i­lar cal­cu­la­tion and backed Hillary Clin­ton, only to see Don­ald Trump win. Time will tell if that cal­cu­la­tion is more suc­cess­ful in 2020.

Hamil­ton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. You can reach him at Hamilton@​InTheseTimes.​com.

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