Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., July 11, 12 or 13
Now – days from the expected endorsement by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton – one wonders whether labor will soothe that friction burn, or if Sanders’ endorsement is too late for his supporters to reconcile with their primary opponent.
It’s been almost a month since the end of the Democratic primaries, but Sanders has only said he’d vote for Clinton and hasn’t formally endorsed her. Her recent promises on student debt and other areas of agreement seemed to have smoothed the path to reconciliation.
But that path was made rough long before most primaries and caucuses started, when six big unions representing millions of workers endorsed the former Secretary of State: AFSCME, Machinists, the National Education Association, Service Employees, Teachers and the United Food & Commercial Workers.
That rankled the rank and file.
Meanwhile, endorsing Sanders were the Amalgamated Transit Union, Postal Workers, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, National Nurses United, National Union of Healthcare Workers, and the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers – plus the huge Communications Workers of America (CWA), which actually polled members for their preference.
Sanders also got more than 100 union locals and regional councils, including 36 locals of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and had a robust volunteer organization, “Labor for Bernie,” assisted by former CWA president Larry Cohen.
Clinton’s labor supporters generally seemed to prioritize labor rights and wage protections; Bernie backers focused on job losses, especially blaming trade deals dating to the North America Free Trade Agreement pushed by President Bill Clinton.
“Manufacturing workers are very sensitive to trade issues, while service workers and teachers are focused on austerity budgets and government spending,” said professor Bob Bruno from the University of Illinois’ School of Labor and Employment Relations in Chicago.
“It’s playing out in a more dramatic way because there’s never been a Republican candidate who was so anti-trade [as presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump],” he added.
Labor’s divergence is probably less divisive than a good, healthy argument; the process at least engaged union members like few campaigns.
Further, endorsements by unions – like endorsements in general, from elected officials to newspapers – may be less important these days, said Chuck Deppert, former head of the Indiana AFL-CIO.
“The [labor] leadership is a lot closer to the Democratic Party than the average union worker is,” he said. “They elected Obama and expected great things, but the average guy in the factory doesn’t see much difference. The jobs are still slipping away.”
This year, Clinton launched her campaign as the frontrunner, and she led Sanders in pledged delegates (but only by a couple of hundred when 2,383 are needed), while Sanders gained throughout the year and won many states (as the only candidate with a 100-percent labor record).
If there’s division, it was slight – local activists and especially the rank-and-file differing from international unions’ leadership. For instance, despite SEIU going for Clinton, a New Hampshire SEIU local endorsed Sanders. Similarly, a Northern California UFCW local endorsed Sanders – with a 30-2 executive-council vote. Locals and individuals want more of a say in which candidate gets their union’s support, endorsement and campaign contributions.
Historically, labor has made few demands on candidates before elections (and few demands after inaugurations), so one wonders whether leaders of the Teachers, Service Employees, etc. got Clinton to pledge labor-law reform, card-check recognition, job-safety enforcement, and so on. If so, why not campaign on such issues? If not, why?
“Should Hillary become president and come out for anti-worker trade treaties, return to her former coolness on a living wage and other labor issues, and cater to Wall Street,” said two-time Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader, “the insurrection could congeal against the big unions who will have taken credit, of course, for her victory, without having delivered a mandate for a labor agenda.”
There’s still time for Clinton to be convincing in what she’ll do for working people, and for Sanders to accept party platform progress bargained by his committee representatives (including Cornel West, Bill McKibben and U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison) as enough to attract his supporters to Clinton. But will that be enough for unions’ rank and file?
Clinton should remember that it’s foolish to assume all union members would vote for her. Labor’s support isn’t uniform and shouldn’t be taken for granted. In 2012, for example, President Obama was backed by 58 percent of union households; GOP nominee Mitt Romney got 40 percent.
She needs to persuade us by words – and action.
[PICTURED: Photo of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton Tuesday, from broadly.vice.com].