More Than 1,200 IBEW Members Call on Union Leadership to Retract Biden Endorsement

Hamilton Nolan

Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Construction and Maintenance conference on April 05, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

On Feb­ru­ary 5, the 775,000-member Inter­na­tion­al Broth­er­hood of Elec­tri­cal Work­ers announced that it was endors­ing Joe Biden for pres­i­dent. It was Biden’s biggest union endorse­ment cam­paign so far in his pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. This week, near­ly 1,300 IBEW mem­bers who sup­port Bernie Sanders sent a let­ter to union mem­ber­ship ask­ing them to retract that decision.

The let­ter, from IBEW Mem­bers For Bernie,” blasts the union’s lead­er­ship for endors­ing Biden with­out a vote of mem­bers. The lead­er­ship of the union had pre­vi­ous­ly pro­vid­ed reas­sur­ance to the mem­ber­ship that they would trust the judge­ment of rank-and-file lead­ers and mem­bers to rep­re­sent their own inter­est in the 2020 pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry, and we are dis­ap­point­ed that the Inter­na­tion­al has instead thrown their weight behind the Biden cam­paign with­out mem­ber con­sul­ta­tion,” it reads. The let­ter says that those who sign it sup­port Sanders’ trans­for­ma­tive vision for expand­ing the labor move­ment, as well as the democ­ra­cy and the sol­i­dar­i­ty that his cam­paign embod­ies.” It con­cludes, We are call­ing on the Inter­na­tion­al Offi­cers to imme­di­ate­ly retract their endorse­ment and call for the rank-and-file to par­tic­i­pate in a demo­c­ra­t­ic endorse­ment process by par­tic­i­pat­ing in an in per­son vote at their March local union meeting.”

It is signed by more than 1,200 IBEW mem­bers from across the coun­try, includ­ing dozens who iden­ti­fy them­selves as offi­cers or mem­bers of the exec­u­tive boards of their locals. Sig­na­tures were still being added as of Mon­day night.

The exis­tence of the let­ter is a result of the work of Sanders sup­port­ers with­in the IBEW, who began cir­cu­lat­ing it online and with­in local chap­ters short­ly after the endorse­ment was announced. Mark Gard­ner, an engi­neer in Man­ches­ter, Con­necti­cut and mem­ber of IBEW Local 457 who helped to orga­nize the let­ter, said that it came in response to not just a dis­agree­ment over can­di­dates, but also over the union’s unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic process. I have been frus­trat­ed with the trend of union leadership’s endors­ing the estab­lish­ment can­di­dates while rank and file votes gen­er­al­ly go for Sen­a­tor Sanders,” Gard­ner said. We do not want IBEW lead­er­ship to switch their endorse­ment to Bernie, but to open the choice up to the rank-and-file and hold a vote dur­ing the local unions’ March meeting.”

Anoth­er Sanders sup­port­er, Joe Eller­broek, a mem­ber of IBEW Local 347 in Des Moines, Iowa, echoed those sen­ti­ments. I was out­raged when I learned what the inter­na­tion­al had done. I felt there was too much at stake to just ignore it and hope for the best, espe­cial­ly when we have this rare oppor­tu­ni­ty to trans­form the whole dynam­ic of the labor strug­gle. Turns out I wasn’t the only one,” he said. 

For Biden, whose cam­paign is flag­ging after dis­ap­point­ing fin­ish­es in Iowa and New Hamp­shire, union endorse­ments are a key fire­wall against charges that the plat­form of Mid­dle Class Joe” is not the most attrac­tive for the work­ing class. Biden has been endorsed by the fire­fight­ers union, the Iron Work­ers, and the Amal­ga­mat­ed Tran­sit Union, but the 775,00-member IBEW is his biggest prize. The union did not endorse a can­di­date this ear­ly in the past two Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­maries. It’s not typ­i­cal for the IBEW to endorse this ear­ly in the pri­ma­ry process,” the union said in its endorse­ment, but this year there’s an urgency we haven’t seen in a very long time. Ener­gy poli­cies made today will rever­ber­ate for decades, and it’s para­mount that we have a can­di­date for pres­i­dent who sup­ports IBEW jobs and IBEW val­ues.” The IBEW has been pub­licly skep­ti­cal of the Green New Deal, the ambi­tious cli­mate change plan that Sanders, but not Biden, has backed. 

Nei­ther the IBEW nor the Biden cam­paign respond­ed to a request for com­ment on the letter. 

In orga­nized labor, as in soci­ety at large, the 2020 Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry is expos­ing the deep, latent divide between the left and the estab­lish­ment. The IBEW is not even the first union in the past week to expe­ri­ence an intra-union uproar pit­ting pro­gres­sives against mod­er­ates — mem­bers of Unite Here who back Bernie Sanders cir­cu­lat­ed a sim­i­lar inter­nal let­ter for sig­na­tures last week after the Culi­nary Work­ers union in Las Vegas warned its mem­bers in omi­nous terms that Bernie Sanders want­ed to end” their health care plan. Already, both nation­al and local unions are choos­ing sides in what amounts to a proxy war for the soul of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ty. The abil­i­ty of fac­tions like the IBEW Mem­bers for Bernie to suc­cess­ful­ly exer­cise pow­er against much more con­ser­v­a­tive union lead­er­ship will deter­mine the pos­ture of the entire labor move­ment long after the 2020 elec­tion is over.

Read the full let­ter here.

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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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