Why Is SEIU Backing Hillary Clinton When Only Bernie Sanders Backs the Fight for 15 Campaign?

Jason Pramas

Activists with the Fight for 15 campaign protest outside Saturday's Republican Presidential debate in Goffstown, New Hampshire. (Derek Kouyoumjian)

GOFF­S­TOWN, NEW HAMP­SHIRE — The protest pit” out­side the Repub­li­can Pres­i­den­tial Debate at Saint Anselm Col­lege on Sat­ur­day evening was a fenced-in area in a field about a quar­ter mile down the road from the main entrance to the campus.

Bumper to bumper traf­fic ran in front of the pit. Odd giv­en that NH State Police were let­ting few cars onto the cam­pus. Most were told to turn around. No one that Repub­li­can lead­er­ship didn’t want in was get­ting any­where near the Carr Cen­ter where the debate was tak­ing place.

Pow­er­ful lights shone down on the scene from one side — lend­ing it an eerie cast. Behind the fence fac­ing the road were a cou­ple hun­dred sup­port­ers for a few of the Repub­li­can can­di­dates. But that was just the first lay­er. Behind them were about 500 activists with the Fight for 15 cam­paign — orga­nized and bankrolled for $30 mil­lion as of last August by the Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union (SEIU), whose lead­ers had bused in SEIU staff and mem­bers, stu­dent activists, and allies from oth­er unions and immi­grant orga­ni­za­tions from around the region. At least 13 bus­loads from south­ern New Eng­land over­all, accord­ing to the campaign’s reg­is­tra­tion form for the event.

(Derek Kouy­oumjian)

A respectable show­ing, if not the mas­sive crowd of under­paid work­ers” that SEIU’s press release had promised.

So there they were. Sup­port­ers of a $15 an hour fed­er­al min­i­mum wage. A fair­ly diverse group. Stand­ing in a snowy field on a back road, enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly wav­ing ban­ners — some quite cre­ative, cylin­dri­cal and glow­ing from with­in like Japan­ese lanterns — and peri­od­i­cal­ly trad­ing chants with the most­ly white right-wing activists in front of them.

Their pres­ence was part of SEIU’s cur­rent tac­tic to raise the pro­file of the Fight for $15 cam­paign by protest­ing pres­i­den­tial debates and oth­er high pro­file events like the Super Bowl in recent months. Which makes sense as far as it goes.

What doesn’t make sense is why SEIU pulled out 500 peo­ple onto a chilly windswept hill in sub­ur­ban New Hamp­shire to protest for a laud­able reform that their cho­sen pres­i­den­tial can­di­date, Hillary Clin­ton, absolute­ly does not support.

Clin­ton, like Barack Oba­ma, has come out in favor of a $12 an hour min­i­mum wage. Bernie Sanders, the only can­di­date whose pol­i­tics are in line with labor unions like SEIU, is also the only can­di­date who pub­licly sup­ports the Fight for $15 campaign’s main goal — a $15 an hour min­i­mum wage. Bare­ly a liv­ing wage at all in many parts of the coun­try. Hard­ly the huge ask that oppo­nents make it out to be. Espe­cial­ly giv­en the wage freeze imposed on most Amer­i­cans by cor­po­ra­tions and our polit­i­cal duop­oly since the 1970s.

Yet the lead­ers of the 1.9 mil­lion mem­ber SEIU backed Clin­ton last Novem­ber. Join­ing the heads of a num­ber of oth­er large Amer­i­can unions in sup­port­ing the can­di­date with a proven record of push­ing poli­cies com­plete­ly anti­thet­i­cal to union demands. Like the insur­ance indus­try scam known as Oba­macare instead of Medicare for all.” And they have already pumped mil­lions to Clin­ton Super PACs over the heads of their large­ly voice­less members.

In response, a coali­tion of pro­gres­sive unions and activist union mem­bers has formed Labor for Bernie to win as many union endorse­ments for Sanders as pos­si­ble. Even as Sanders has amassed a $75 mil­lion warch­est from most­ly small dona­tions — with­out the truck­loads of cash that labor unions have tra­di­tion­al­ly lav­ished on Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­dates over the past few decades.

With Sanders doing very well in the NH polls as of this writ­ing, and clear­ly capa­ble of stay­ing in the race all the way to this summer’s Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Con­ven­tion, it appears that SEIU lead­er­ship made a seri­ous mis­cal­cu­la­tion this elec­tion. And the fall­out from that mis­cal­cu­la­tion is already play­ing out in the very state where they orga­nized the stand­out for their Fight for $15 cam­paign over the weekend.

Two New Hamp­shire SEIU locals — 560 (Dart­mouth Col­lege work­ers) and 1984 (NH State Employ­ees’ Asso­ci­a­tion) — broke ranks with SEIU lead­er­ship last fall and backed Sanders for Pres­i­dent. Both locals were present in Goff­s­town on Saturday.

Whether Bernie Sanders wins the nom­i­na­tion and elec­tion or not, cur­rent SEIU lead­er­ship — and the lead­er­ship of every union march­ing in lock­step with the worst ele­ments of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty — is going to face increas­ing pres­sure from its rank-and-file mem­bers to stop sup­port­ing pro-cor­po­rate anti-labor can­di­dates like Clin­ton. This anger is like­ly to cul­mi­nate in major grass­roots insur­gent cam­paigns aimed at remov­ing union lead­ers per­ceived as sell­outs — as has hap­pened on many occa­sions in labor his­to­ry. It remains to be seen whether such inter­nal reforms will hap­pen before the major unions col­lapse under the death of a thou­sand cuts being inflict­ed on them by their tra­di­tion­al polit­i­cal ene­mies and their erst­while allies alike.

SEIU and less demo­c­ra­t­ic unions like it could fore­stall the loom­ing civ­il war in their own ranks — and increase the Amer­i­can labor movement’s chance of sur­vival — by learn­ing from the more demo­c­ra­t­ic prac­tices of the 700,000 mem­ber Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Work­ers of Amer­i­ca (CWA) — whose lead­er­ship stepped aside last year and let their mem­bers direct­ly decide: a) If they should endorse any can­di­dates for POTUS, and b) Which can­di­date they should endorse.

CWA mem­bers, some 30 per­cent of whom are Repub­li­cans, vot­ed to back Sanders in Decem­ber.

This report was pro­duced by the Boston Insti­tute for Non­prof­it Jour­nal­ism and is part of their Man­ches­ter Divid­ed” cov­er­age of the mad­ness lead­ing up to the 100th New Hamp­shire pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry. Copy­right 2016 Jason Pra­mas. Licensed for use by the Boston Insti­tute for Non­prof­it Jour­nal­ism and media out­lets in its network. 

In These Times edi­to­r­i­al staff are mem­bers of the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of Amer­i­ca. The CWA is also a spon­sor of In These Times. Spon­sors play no role in edi­to­r­i­al con­tent.

Jason Pra­mas is Boston Insti­tute for Non­prof­it Jour­nal­isms net­work direc­tor. He has been a mem­ber of three SEIU locals (925, 285 and 888) over the past 17 years, and helped lead a suc­cess­ful union dri­ve with SEIU Local 509 last year at the cost of his job.
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