Hillary and Bernie’s Union Power -- in Iowa and Beyond

AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders speaks during a stop at the United Steelworkers Local 310L union hall, Tuesday, January 26, 2016, in Des Moines, Iowa. 

DES MOINES, IOWA—The American labor movement went up against itself in the weeks leading up to the Iowa Democratic caucuses. The operations staged in Iowa by the labor supporters of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton will serve as a test-run for higher-profile efforts as the primary season ramps up.

Institutionally, the movement tilts heavily toward Clinton. Not since their campaign for Vice President Al Gore, in his 2000 primary battle against Senator Bill Bradley, have the country’s major labor unions mounted the kind of battle they’re waging now for Hillary Clinton.

In all likelihood, unions helped push Clinton over the top in Iowa on Monday night. Among the 21 percent of caucus attendees who came from union households, Clinton claimed 52 percent support while Sanders garnered 43 percent.

The linchpins of Clinton’s labor support are the nation’s four giant public employee unions: the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME); the American Federation of Teachers (AFT); the National Education Association (NEA); and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). (No more than half of SEIU’s roughly two million members work in the public sector, however.)

These “Big Four” alone represent more than 7.5 million union members—roughly, half the nation’s union members. While the AFL-CIO, labor’s omnibus federation, has not yet endorsed a candidate (a few of its largest unions, such as the Steelworkers, remain holdouts), the Big Four have been known to coordinate their election work without the AFL-CIO’s assistance—a necessity, in this case, since the NEA and SEIU are not AFL-CIO members. This year, on Clinton’s behalf, they are pooling their vast member ranks and substantial political coffers to animate a coordinated offensive in Iowa and beyond.

On the Sunday before caucus day, the Machinists Hall in Cedar Rapids was filling up with union members, quickly turning into a sea of green (AFSCME), blue (teachers unions), and purple (SEIU). It was canvass launch day for the Big Four unions and in coordination with the Clinton campaign, volunteers were planning on hitting more than 11,000 homes in the area.

Since its endorsement for Clinton in November, SEIU has steadily been building a legion of member-volunteers in Iowa to canvass and phone bank. By the weekend before the caucus, the union had more than 100 members in from surrounding areas—nurses from Minnesota, home care workers from Detroit, Fight for 15 activists from Memphis, and even a Headstart teacher from West Virginia.

“One thing about Hillary is that she doesn’t just say what she’ll do, she actually has a plan,” Charoll Hewitt, a Memphis home care worker who had been volunteering in Iowa for more than a week, told me. “I believe in her because she’s not all about talk. She really puts forth the effort to accomplish her goals.”

Another Memphis home care worker active in the Fight for 15, Sepia Coleman, told me, “I know she’ll get the job done. I am really tired of working three jobs and she’s a strong, strong supporter of home care workers.”

Vikki Tully, a Headstart teacher and SEIU member, traveled from Madison, West Virginia, to volunteer in Iowa. “I’m very partial to children and our [Headstart] programs are federally funded. We have had cuts and [Hillary] is for the children—and for women,” Tully said. “[Bernie] has some good things. I just feel she is more on my way of thinking.”

Clinton’s campaign has paid close attention to home care and child care workers, a major factor in SEIU’s endorsement. “The biggest asset that she’s brought in electrifying our membership is her deep emotional commitment to giving a shit that people are working two and three jobs and can’t feed their families, and is insistent that that has to end,” SEIU President Mary Kay Henry told me at the Cedar Rapids event.

SEIU’s density in Iowa is small, with only one nurses’ local that has 2,000 members—hence, the volunteers from other states. AFSCME, on the other hand, has the largest union in the state—Council 61—which represents 40,000 public employees. The union has long been a powerful ally for Democrats in Iowa politics.

As part of its effort to recruit new members—partly in response to the threat that an unfavorable decision in the Friedrichs case now before the Supreme Court could shrink its ranks—AFSCME has been reintroducing the union to those it represents and talking about workers’ issues.

“We don’t open it up with politics. We open it up with what affects them every single day,” AFSCME President Lee Saunders told me during an interview at the local Plumbers Union hall in Cedar Rapids. Saunders says the union has signed up 250,000 new members across the country. That includes 2,000 new members at Council 61.

In recent weeks, it shifted that conversation to politics, encouraging its members to support Clinton. Saunders says its 2016 campaign has been completely different from 2008, when it was more of a traditional political campaign—knocking on doors and telling members who the union had endorsed.

“I think it’s going to prove to be a much stronger and longer lasting relationship where the membership actually feels involved, engaged, and empowered,” Saunders said. “It’s really an organizing campaign that we’re undertaking, then we’re moving it along to become a political campaign.”

Both the major teachers unions as well have mobilized volunteers in Iowa while looking forward to the states where they have a stronger presence.  In the next few months, the AFT says that it plans to mobilize more than 25,000 member volunteers on her behalf, with hopes of connecting with half a million members and their families.


Despite the impressive political power that unions activated on behalf of Clinton in Iowa, members’ support for Hillary, as the entrance poll made clear, is far from uniform.

“There’s an interesting dichotomy between the desires of membership base to have us involved in politics, and leadership telling them who to vote for,” said Ken Sagar, president of the Iowa AFL-CIO (which, like the national federation, remains neutral). “The vast majority said they want their union to be involved in politics and to educate them about candidates. But they also said don’t tell them how to vote.”

“A lot of people make a leap that the labor movement is one monolithic entity. You have to be careful with those generalizations,” Sagar continued.

This year, labor is anything but monolithic. Even leaders of unions that have endorsed Clinton concede that Bernie Sanders’s deep commitment to reforming the economic and political system so that working people have more power has struck a chord throughout the movement. 

When the major national unions began flocking to Clinton early on in the primary, there was some voluble rancor from rank-and-file members who said that their unions had snubbed a longtime pro-labor candidate and used endorsements as a way to curry favor with the candidate who then appeared to be the presumptive nominee.

Larry Cohen, former president of the Communications Workers of America (CWA), helped launch Labor for Bernie as a way to push back against Clinton and persuade the AFL-CIO (so far, successfully) to hold off on an endorsement in the primary.

Over the past few weeks, Cohen says he’s seen a constant stream of working-class volunteers coming out to help the Sanders campaign in Iowa. At an event in Davenport last Friday, Cohen said, “[volunteers] were driving from hundreds of miles away. ... They didn’t even know whether they had a place to sleep. They just wanted to help.”

“This is everywhere, it’s not one place. This is public workers, construction workers, it’s skilled workers, unskilled workers. They just keep coming,” he said. Cohen’s former union, the CWA, recently endorsed Sanders. Before that, he said, the union’s Iowa locals had already been supporting Bernie’s campaign nearly universally.

Many of the rank-and-file members volunteering for Sanders came from unions that had endorsed Clinton. Carrie Duncan is a member of the International Association of Machinists Local 1010 in Des Moines County, which largely represents the Iowa Army Ammunition plant where Duncan works. When Sanders announced his candidacy, she began talking with fellow members during lunch breaks and handing out caucus cards. Despite the IAM’s endorsement of Clinton, she’s asked members at union meetings to help with door knocking and phone banking. Most of the members in her local support Sanders, she says.

Duncan sees Sanders as a longtime advocate for unions, whereas she views Clinton as someone with a troubled history of flip-flopping on trade deals that have been detrimental to American manufacturing.

In Ottumwa, Chris Laursen has been advocating for Bernie to his fellow United Auto Workers union members. The union has a strong presence at the several John Deere plants located in Iowa, and Laursen, who sits on the Sanders campaign’s labor committee, got staffers to go speak to members at all the locals. “There’s a lot of support and it’s only been getting bigger,” Laursen says. Like the Steelworkers, the UAW is one of the largest unions to hold off on endorsing a candidate.

Sanders’s other major labor ally has been National Nurses United. The union brought more than 75 volunteers—clad in red “BeRNie” shirts—from across the nation, and its mobile “Bernie Bus” traversed all four corners of the state. Its volunteers did phone banking and canvassing—largely concentrated in the Des Moines metro area—for the Sanders campaign. The union has also launched a super PAC—National Nurses United for Patient Protection—that has spent more than $1 million in support of Sanders.


Unions’ political activism in Iowa on behalf of both candidates gives a taste of what to expect in the upcoming states. Hillary’s major unions were able to pull off a well-funded canvassing operation that contacted large numbers of Iowans, while Bernie’s labor allies were able to energize young workers and a number of union members normally resistant to the pull of more conventional candidates.  

As the campaigns move on to other states, the major unions have a clear advantage—some upcoming primary states (though not in the Super Tuesday South) are also states with substantial union membership for the Big Four, and they will be able to rely more on local volunteer-members.

Upcoming states also get increasingly diverse—and unions like SEIU and AFSCME have strong links to the Latino and African-American working class, union and—importantly—non-union as well. (One consequence of Citizens United is that unions need not limit their electoral outreach to their members.) Both unions are known for their effective get-out-the-vote programs in black and Latino communities. SEIU’s membership base is 25 percent Latino and 25 percent African American. The union has a national officer dedicated entirely to doing Spanish language TV and radio ads supporting Hillary’s candidacy.

“We are a community base in key places that are going to matter, and we’re organizing in predominately Latino and black workforces,” SEIU’s Henry said. “Those two groups of voters are required to turn out enthusiastically in order for Hillary Clinton to win.”

Support from the major unions in states like Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Nevada, and Wisconsin—all relative union strongholds—could be the tipping point that clears the path for Clinton’s nomination.

“You’re going to see, I think, a major mobilization effort going on in all the states and you’re going to see the power of the unions behind Hillary Clinton,” AFSCME President Saunders said.

But Sanders’s labor allies aren’t going down without a fight, and they feel that the grassroots organizing that is happening in a number of states could lead to at least a couple of upsets.

Cohen has been crossing the country meeting with activists and helping build infrastructures in states that Democrats usually don’t bother with. CWA locals in Texas, he says, are highly energized in support for Bernie, and 70,000 volunteers have signed on to the campaign in the state. He predicts that rank-and-file energy within the Midwest working class—in states like Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Illinois—will continue to build.

Many of the major unions are sure to wage aggressive ad campaigns in battleground states and will begin to open up their coffers for Hillary. A report based on the most recent FEC filings show that unions have already contributed more than $6 million to pro-Hillary political groups. That figure will likely continue to grow.

As the campaign progresses, unions and their members will be among the most important support blocs for both Clinton and Sanders. Their ability to turn out working-class voters at a time of sustained economic crisis is going to be one of the chief stories of this Democratic primary. 

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