This article was first posted at Jacobin.
After the 2012 presidential election, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka told labor journalist Josh Eidelson that the union federation “won’t be taken for granted” by the White House and the Democratic Party. Fast forward to a recent Wall Street Journal article: union contributions to politicians (almost entirely Democrats) are up 38 percent, with the AFL-CIO chipping in $11 million and SEIU over $30 million.
It’s possible, I suppose, that unions have devised a secret method for holding Democrats accountable behind closed doors while shoveling ever-greater mounds of money into their coffers. Labor has long backed a party that is addicted to scorning and betraying them, but maybe this time, with some well-timed whispers in politicians’ ears and a couple extra million in donations thrown in, things will be different.
But recent WikiLeaks emails of union leaders’ correspondence with high-ups in Hillary Clinton’s campaign suggest that rather than buying support for a working-class agenda from the candidate through their massive contributions — and through some leaders’ efforts to sink Bernie Sanders’s primary challenge to Clinton — labor will keep getting more of the same.
Cora Lewis of BuzzFeed has written a helpful breakdown of some of the most noteworthy messages in the leak. The emails show less outright contempt for the unions footing the bulk of the bill for Clinton’s impending victory than a careful and constant strategic dance. Her campaign wanted to exert as little effort as possible on labor’s behalf and keep unions’ expectations low while staying on their good side.
How does the campaign feel about coming out in support of the low-wage Walmart workers who have been organizing for years to escape poverty wages and vicious union-busting? Well, first there are some practical questions.
“[W]ill doing this invite a new round of stories about her walmart days?” adviser Maya Harris asks in one email, referring to the six years Clinton sat on the company’s board (during which she voiced nary a word of protest about its abusive labor practices, particularly against women).
The obvious answer is yes — and the campaign doesn’t want to draw any more attention to Clinton’s Walmart ties.
Okay, so no strong endorsement. Can the Walmart workers at least get a tweet in support, Clinton campaign labor outreach director Nikki Budzinski asks. Just 140 characters? “The tweet never came, and to this day there’s never been a tweet from @HillaryClinton uttering the name of the country’s largest private employer,” Lewis notes.
Final assessment of Clinton and Walmart workers: “Heard, considered, ultimately ignored.”
Regarding the Fight for 15, staffers wanted to stay in the good graces of both the movement pushing a $15 minimum wage and the large number of voters who support it, but refused to actually come out in favor of $15. “This reads like she’s for a $15 minimum wage and I think we have to choose our language more carefully,” strategist Joel Benenson writes in response to prepared remarks for a union rally.
Reacting to an invitation for Clinton to appear at a fast-food worker national conference, Podesta himself writes, “I assume we’ll pass on that.” Of course.
Also of interest in the emails is how Bernie Sanders’s campaign was treated.
American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten shows up a number of times in the leaks. The AFT was one of the first major unions to endorse Clinton (over many members’ objections) and has given the Clinton Foundation between $1 million and $5 million. Unlike much of the rest of the labor movement, this appears to have bought her some cachet within the Clinton camp.
“Randi’s early endorsement deserves a lot of credit,” Budzinksi writes at one point, attributing the endorsement to Weingarten herself rather than to the union’s rank and file.
But in response to National Nurses United’s endorsement and prominent role in the Sanders campaign, Weingarten wrote, “We will go after NNU and there [sic] high and mighty sanctimonious conduct.” Weingarten was positioning herself as attack dog for the Clinton campaign against any challenges from the left.
More shockingly, as Branko Marcetic has reported, the leaks also reveal that the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers’ now-retired president Tom Buffenbarger secretly moved up the union’s presidential endorsement far ahead of schedule in order to choose Clinton — an endorsement that angered many rank-and-file machinists.
“The IAM endorsement is usually made at their Convention,” Budzinski wrote in one email in 2015. “But their next Convention is not until 2016. Buffenbarger didn’t want to wait.” With machinations like these, you have to wonder if the union’s endorsement, claimed to have been reached by surveying “both the opinion and sentiments of membership at [an endorsement] meeting, as well as the results of the poll that reached out quite scientifically to over 2,000 [sic] members” really were so scientific.
The Podesta emails underscore the American labor movement’s perpetual bind. On one hand, when Republicans gain power, the results are devastating for unions. On the other, the Democratic Party’s power brokers clearly have no interest in pursuing even a tepidly pro-labor agenda. They just want the unions’ cash.
These revelations should force the labor movement’s rank-and-file to reflect a bit on both American union leaders and the party whose ass they’re constantly kissing and campaigns they’re constantly bankrolling. At a time when labor could have chosen the most pro-labor Democratic candidate in decades, Bernie Sanders, all but a handful of leaders rejected his campaign — and some actively worked against it. They helped secure the nomination for the Republican-lite candidate — hoping, no doubt, for her support from the Oval Office.
But the Podesta emails suggest that the party isn’t planning on returning the favor, whether they’re receiving record-breaking campaign contributions or not. However Richard Trumka and other American union leaders have tried to ensure labor won’t “be taken for granted” by the Democrats, it seems it hasn’t worked.
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Micah Uetricht is the deputy editor of Jacobin magazine and host of its podcast The Vast Majority. He is a contributing editor and former associate editor at In These Times. He is the author of Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity (Verso 2014), coauthor of Bigger Than Bernie: How We Go From the Sanders Campaign to Democratic Socialism (Verso 2020), and is currently at work on a book on New Leftists who “industrialized.” He previously worked as a labor organizer. Follow him on Twitter at @micahuetricht.