I Know Firsthand Why Unions Should Endorse Bernie

Andrew Tripp

I’ve seen Bernie Sanders stand with Vermont workers for 20 years. It’s time for unions to back him. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

One late sum­mer evening in 2000, my home phone rang in More­town, Ver­mont. Can you please hold for Con­gress­man Sanders?” the voice on the line asked. 

At the time, I had been doing what union orga­niz­ers do when they’re not knock­ing on doors, going to shift change or run­ning meet­ings: I was call­ing work­ers. In this case, the work­ers were from a local nurs­ing home, Berlin Health & Reha­bil­i­ta­tion, and I was remind­ing them to show up at the action they’d planned for the next morn­ing. The care providers had orga­nized a march on the boss,” where a group of work­ers would go unan­nounced to meet with their admin­is­tra­tor to present her with union autho­riza­tion cards signed by a vast major­i­ty of their colleagues.

Under the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Act, the New Deal-era bill that gov­erns how work­ers can form a union in this coun­try, this action alone should have been suf­fi­cient for the 120 work­ers to have their union rec­og­nized. In the real world of tooth­less U.S. labor law, how­ev­er, in which the NLRA has been watered down and rein­ter­pret­ed so as to dra­mat­i­cal­ly favor boss­es, the employ­er, a Cana­di­an multi­na­tion­al real estate firm, informed the work­ers via the local admin­is­tra­tor that they couldn’t meet and would need to talk to their attor­neys” — in this case, a noto­ri­ous $600 per hour union-bust­ing law firm. The work­ers were pre­pared for this like­li­hood and were nat­u­ral­ly fear­ful, but were deter­mined to go ahead. 

This group of large­ly work­ing-class women from rur­al Ver­mont was right­ly wor­ried they’d be fired. While such a move would have tech­ni­cal­ly been ille­gal, it was nev­er­the­less a dis­tinct pos­si­bil­i­ty, with the employ­er know­ing full well that they would be unlike­ly to face pun­ish­ment. And even if they did, it would be a small price to pay for hav­ing crushed the work­ers’ orga­niz­ing dri­ve. Fir­ing work­ers who dared orga­nize a union was — and is — stan­dard prac­tice in the Unit­ed States.

The work­ers had asked then-Rep. Bernie Sanders (I‑Vt.) to attend their action the next day. I was new to Ver­mont but had orga­nized unions all over the coun­try for much of the pre­vi­ous decade, and I scoffed at the idea that any politi­cian would even con­sid­er tak­ing the work­ers’ side in this way. Three old­er lead­ers named Don­na, Dot and Pat had insist­ed that we call our Bernie” and invite him. I, like every union orga­niz­er of the time, was well accus­tomed to Clin­ton-era Democ­rats all over the coun­try, even in blue Ver­mont, pre­fer­ring to remain neu­tral” (while glad­ly accept­ing dona­tions from the boss­es) in these strug­gles between local work­ing peo­ple and mas­sive multi­na­tion­al corporations.

So I was more than a bit shocked when Bernie actu­al­ly called back. That he was call­ing to say he was unfor­tu­nate­ly stuck in Wash­ing­ton” for an impor­tant vote and would not be able to come back to Ver­mont for the action astound­ed me. Of course he was clas­sic Bernie, a bit brusque and prick­ly, but here was a mem­ber of the U.S. Con­gress actu­al­ly call­ing to apol­o­gize to the work­ers that he could not be with them in this crit­i­cal moment.

Twen­ty years ago was the height of the Clin­ton Third Way” era, when Democ­rats cozied up to boss­es and gov­erned in oppo­si­tion to the inter­ests of work­ers, unions and the mid­dle class. This peri­od saw the rise of such poli­cies as NAF­TA, Wall Street dereg­u­la­tion, wide­spread pri­va­ti­za­tion and mass incar­cer­a­tion. So-called free trade” agree­ments had encour­aged and sped the move­ment of hun­dreds of thou­sands of qual­i­ty union jobs from the Unit­ed States to the Glob­al South where wages and labor pro­tec­tions were even low­er than ours. When throngs of work­ers, envi­ron­men­tal­ists and activists took to the streets to protest these poli­cies in anti-World Trade Orga­ni­za­tion demon­stra­tions in Seat­tle, Que­bec City and oth­er loca­tions in the late 1990s and ear­ly 2000s, many Demo­c­ra­t­ic lead­ers scold­ed us and crossed our pick­et lines to make com­mon cause with cor­po­rate elites. Bernie, on the oth­er hand, stood with us. 

While Democ­rats adopt­ed the age-old Repub­li­can bal­anced bud­get” red her­ring to force though wel­fare reform,” slash­ing pub­lic spend­ing on pro­grams that ben­e­fit­ed the work­ing class, Bernie was a lone voice call­ing for increas­ing tax­es on the wealthy, cor­po­ra­tions and Wall Street. As Democ­rats passed finan­cial dereg­u­la­tion that allowed Wall Street to prey upon the work­ing and mid­dle class, result­ing most spec­tac­u­lar­ly in the 2008 mort­gage cri­sis that saw count­less Amer­i­cans lose their homes and their life sav­ings, Bernie demand­ed that home­own­ers — not banks — be bailed out. And when the U.S. labor move­ment issued its protes­ta­tions against these Demo­c­rat-led anti-work­er poli­cies, again Bernie was a strong voice defend­ing the inter­ests of work­ing people.

So Don­na, Dot and Pat were of course right — what was unimag­in­able from cor­po­rate Democ­rats was stan­dard oper­at­ing pro­ce­dure for our Bernie,” as they always called him. Over the com­ing months and years, while these women, with Sanders’ help, went on to suc­cess­ful­ly form their union and fight tooth and nail for a con­tract, Bernie, in stark oppo­si­tion to every oth­er high-rank­ing elect­ed offi­cial, was there. Sanders didn’t just pledge sup­port to the work­ers, he was con­sis­tent­ly attend­ing or call­ing in to orga­niz­ing meet­ings and con­tract nego­ti­a­tions to encour­age work­ers to vote for the union and stay strong at the bar­gain­ing table, walk­ing pick­et lines, host­ing com­mu­ni­ty forums and fundrais­ers for fired work­ers, and call­ing and vis­it­ing employ­ers to demand they set­tle and rein­state work­ers fired for union activity.

Through­out his career, Bernie has urged work­ers to vote for the union” and thanked them for going on strike or fight­ing for pen­sions, afford­able health­care, and safe staffing — time after time mak­ing it clear that when orga­nized work­ers fight for their fun­da­men­tal rights, they’re actu­al­ly fight­ing for all workers. 

That Bernie is now cam­paign­ing on the most pro-work­er and pro-union plat­form in the 2020 field should be no sur­prise. His plan would dou­ble union mem­ber­ship in Amer­i­ca and give work­ing peo­ple more rights — and democ­ra­cy — in the work­place. Barack Oba­ma, like many Democ­rats before him, talked a good game on pass­ing card check” leg­is­la­tion when address­ing union audi­ences in 2008, only to squan­der his man­date and two years of con­gres­sion­al majori­ties with­out so much as a peep on labor law reform. Bernie’s decades-long record makes clear that he will fight fierce­ly and tire­less­ly to build the labor movement

It’s time for nation­al union lead­ers to break out of their cocoon and work for Bernie as hard as he’s worked for us. Mobi­lize mem­ber­ship to elect the most pro-work­er and pro-union pres­i­den­tial can­di­date we’ve seen in our lifetimes.

Views expressed are those of the writer. As a 501©3 non­prof­it, In These Times does not sup­port or oppose any can­di­date for pub­lic office.

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