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labor Bernie Sanders and Unions’ Relationship Status: It’s Complicated

Many union members, both Democrats and independents, believe in the policies and the overall vision of an expanded New Deal that both the labor movement and Sanders have long promoted. Yet Sanders appears to have more confidence that the broad American public will back those ideas and reject likely Republican and media attacks on his proposals than do many top union officials who often complain about Democrats who will not support labor and its agenda.

Gage Skidmore / Flickr

In the battle between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders for labor union support for the Democratic presidential nomination, Clinton has a strong and growing lead in official endorsements, but Sanders may have the lead in member support—as well as in the passion of his supporters.

One signal of his appeal to union members is the respect and fondness many union leaders, even those supporting Clinton, feel toward Sanders. Often Clinton backers favor her for a variety of seemingly pragmatic, if debatable, reasons—her likelihood of defeating the Republican candidate or union leaders’ desire for inclusion in the Democratic Party establishment that she represents (even though that party leadership often slights the needs of working people and unions). Many union leaders also seem reluctant to adopt a serious campaign to win more public support for Sanders and his ideas—even though he more consistently and vigorously advocates labor’s agenda than Clinton does.

But many union members, both Democrats and many independents, believe in the policies and the overall vision of an expanded New Deal that both the labor movement and Sanders have long promoted. Yet Sanders appears to have more confidence that the broad American public will back those ideas and reject likely Republican and media attacks on his proposals, or on his self-described “democratic socialism,” than do many top union officials who often complain about Democrats who will not support labor and its agenda.

In this past week, Clinton picked up support from leaders of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. The last major union endorsement of Sanders came in the week before Christmas from the 700,000-member Communication Workers of America (CWA). His biggest union stamp of approval so far may have brightened the mid-winter holiday season for the campaign, but the real gift will be in the growth of union members recruiting primary voters and caucus-goers for Sanders.

CWA joined other national unions who recently endorsed Sanders—the American Postal Workers Union; the National Nurses United, the largely California-based National Union of Healthcare Workers; and the United Electrical Workers (or as close to an endorsement as the fiercely independent union is likely to make). Also, Sanders draws support from at least 40 local unions, many of them affiliates of national unions endorsing former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, some of whom overlap with the 10,000 individual union members of the Labor for Bernie organization, which operates independently of the campaign.

Clinton can claim 21 endorsements from individual unions or groups of unions, including such large unions as AFSCME (public employees), the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the National Education Association (NEA), the Service Employees (SEIU), the Machinists, the Laborers, Plumbers and Pipefitters and the Carpenters.

By past primary standards, all of these endorsements come fairly early, and several large, influential unions are still holding back, including the Steelworkers (USW), Auto Workers (UAW), the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), Teamsters, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), and Hotel and Restaurant Employees (UNITE HERE) and the Firefighters (IAFF).

The combination of the few unions endorsing Sanders and those withholding judgment could delay the time when the required two-thirds majority of the AFL-CIO Executive Council needed to make any endorsement will materialize, according to CWA president Chris Shelton, who would like to slow down any AFL-CIO action. But more decisions for Clinton from other big unions could accelerate the process, a development the UFCW hopes its decision might spur. The executive council meets next in late February.

One big difference between the two labor political camps is that union members supporting Sanders seem to show much greater enthusiasm for their candidate. Sanders’ organizers claim their crew is eagerly doing the hard work of educating and mobilizing, especially but not only in the earliest states, Iowa and New Hampshire. Labor for Bernie reports that the greatest volunteer enthusiasm has come from members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), AFT, UAW, NEA, Teamsters and SEIU, plus many workers from building trades unions who are often assumed to be politically more conservative than leading industrial and service unions.

Sanders has benefitted from the zeal of workers like Carl Shaffer, 58, an IBEW electrician and former union organizer from Plymouth, Indiana. Starting late last summer, Shaffer helped reach around 1,000 IBEW members who supported Sanders, asking them to urge their union president, Lonnie Stephenson, to delay any endorsement. After quickly winning his agreement, a smaller core of the group worked to keep IBEW activists informed on social media and build support for local union endorsements of Sanders.

“I don’t know that there’s any grassroots excitement in Hillary Clinton,” Shaffer says. “I think leaders in Washington bought in that she was inevitable, electable and there wouldn’t be a credible challenger. But the grassroots interest in Bernie Sanders is because of who Bernie Sanders is and what he’s stood for all these years. He’s been on our picket lines. He believes in what he proposing and has had the same views for 25 or more years. … He’s better on issues and more in line with workers. So why wouldn’t we support him? Why her and not him when he’s so much better?”

Even in unions that endorse Clinton, there is often more noticeable enthusiasm among members for Sanders. For example, Bloomberg published a report that when AFSCME president Lee Saunders read the names of the Democratic presidential contenders at a large Washington state membership meeting last October, “only Sanders’ name brought loud, sustained applause.”

Other union members feel unease with Clinton for various reasons. The New York Times reports that the small but politically important Firefighters union was moving last year towards backing Clinton but has chosen to continue deliberations for the near future. Although a majority of members identify as Republican, the international union typically endorses Democratic presidential candidates. But union president Harold Schaitberger has urged members to be involved on the union’s issues but to hold off any institutional endorsements.

In some cases, union leaders face a Bernie-booster backlash if they endorse Clinton. Last Halloween, Clinton showed up at the Charleston, South Carolina, union hall of the dockworkers (International Longshoreman’s Association [ILA] Local 1422) and received an endorsement from both national union president Harold Daggett and local president, Ken Riley, a much-respected figure on the labor left.

As I report in the February issue of In These Times, Riley says he backs Clinton because, “I want to win,” not simply to “send a message.” Most head-to-head polls with leading Republican candidates show that Sanders—with his appeal to many independents—performs better than Clinton. Riley thinks that black voters are more familiar and comfortable with Clinton and that women will be excited at the prospect of electing a woman as president. He warns that Republicans will redbait—or “play the old socialist game”—against Bernie and his “political revolution,” making him vulnerable, a concern also expressed recently by UFCW vice-president Stuart Appelbaum to Politico.

But some members of Riley’s local, led by a vice-president of the state AFL-CIO who was previously part of Sanders’s leadership team, Charles Brave Jr., are now campaigning to overturn the endorsement and back Sanders by a vote at the next membership meeting.

Brave claims the turnout for Clinton at the union hall was poor, especially considering her fame, and that no other local union officials joined Riley on stage with her. Although conversations I had with dockworkers earlier in October—a time when most black voters in the state knew little about Sanders--indicated moderately strong support for Clinton, Brave and his supporters had not really launched their campaign for Sanders.

Now, Brave says, “I think I’ve got enough votes to get the local to endorse Bernie Sanders.” In any case, he says that Riley should not have given priority to making an endorsement (as Riley also did eight years ago when he backed front-runner Hillary Clinton against upstart Barack Obama) but rather “to get the members involved in making the decision.”

In the past, top union officers or executive boards made most endorsements on their own, but increasingly most unions at least use some polling to make or justify decisions, although for a variety of good and bad reasons, the systems are rarely fully transparent.

CWA’s polling system is among the more open. Shelton wanted to make sure that CWA’s endorsement reflected the members’ wishes, even if it was not necessarily his. That approach would strengthen the union because members would see the result as their choice, and other players in the electoral cycle would recognize its foundation and legitimacy, he says.

Shelton was elected last year to move the union along the overall direction former CWA President Cohen either started or amplified from predecessors: first, more mobilization of members; then, “movement-building” that brought labor and other movements together into an initiative for greater democracy—of the union, of its campaigns and of most facets of American society, presenting a broad-based challenge to corporate and financial power.

As preparation for a decision on the presidential endorsement, CWA distributed information online and in their newspaper, such as candidate answers to questionnaires and links to their positions on issues. (Although both Democratic and Republican candidates were invited to submit materials, only Mike Huckabee from the Republican roster took up the invitation.) Members were invited to submit their choice on-line, and “tens of thousands” participated, resulting in a “decisive endorsement” of Sanders, according to political director Rafael Navar.

Other unions follow procedures not so different, if less comprehensive, but Shelton made a big shift in this year’s CWA process by giving members the power to decide directly, first, whether to endorse and, second, whom to endorse. The officers deferred to the members.

“Through it all, I asked our executive board and myself as well to stay completely out of it,” Shelton says.

Of course, former president Cohen had already joined the Sanders campaign, but Shelton says the officers did not try to sway the members nor does he think Cohen’s preference greatly affected results. Indeed, CWA members cast ballots for Republicans as well as Democrats, though the union does not release a precise breakdown. (Shelton says about 30 percent of CWA members identify as Republicans.) But it is likely that the political education campaign the union has undertaken over the years to strengthen the union—building a “moral, radical, progressive movement against corporate power,” in Shelton’s words—quite legitimately resonates with Sanders’ own message.

Although Shelton doubts the AFL-CIO will reach a two-thirds consensus soon, he says that “we will stick with our choice” regardless of the federation’s decision because it has legitimacy that grows out of the union’s “bottom-up” procedure. “A lot of endorsements are not worth the paper they’re printed on unless you can say the members are behind who you endorse,” he says.

He is also confident that Sanders has “a good shot” at winning. With his focus on working-class and middle-class economic issues, from wages to health care and the Trans-Pacific Partnership to reigning in the finance industry, Sanders engages popular worries about inequality and insecurity, he says. And Sanders’ continued identification as a democratic socialist will appeal to many voters who believe “that politics as usual is not going to work.”

Shelton said that Sanders’ socialism “mean that he’s a guy who understands how the rich keep getting richer, and everyone else is suffering. He’s going to do something against the excesses of Wall Street, against the Koch brothers destroying democracy and for a government by and for the people.”

This is red meat politics for most union leaders, not just those considered most progressive, and most of them “love Bernie,” according to one political consultant to unions who can not speak publicly for his clients. “It’s interesting that when you’ve got someone so strongly putting out labor’s message that unions aren’t supporting him. Bernie is a voice for the ideology of the labor movement, and we’re not embracing it. He’s the most articulate person communicating our message. But the folks that should be embracing it the most aren’t.”

Also, the case that Shelton and other supporters make for Sanders as a serious candidate with a chance to win is certainly plausible. The evidence is partly just the campaign’s remarkable organizing and fund-raising success so far, seen in its strong and improving poll numbers. Republicans will surely attack any Democratic candidate as a wild-eyed radical, but two developments could help Sanders if he’s the standard bearer.

First, much polling indicates that the electorate, especially younger voters, is becoming more open to socialist ideas or less frightened by the label. Second, Sanders shows that he can persuasively defend himself and his version of socialism—essentially an expansion of the New Deal along the lines that Franklin Roosevelt wanted.

As a candidate, he can also effectively take the offensive with a popular attack on excesses of the rich and powerful. The big question is whether his newly adopted party, labor unions and other progressive campaign groups are willing to make such a fight for the same ambitious vision—rather than offer only a grab-bag of mushy or minor poll-tested proposals designed to continue selling candidates like soap.

“When we have a candidate expressing workers’ values as Bernie does, who is going to support him if not us?” Larry Cohen asked a recent telephonic town hall of Labor for Bernie. “If not now, when?”

Full disclosure: In These Times staff are members of the Communication Workers of America, and the union is a sponsor of the magazine. Sponsors play no role in editorial content.

David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976.