Hillary’s Relationship Status with Labor: It’s Complicated

Hillary’s Relationship Status with Labor: It’s Complicated

From the get-go, Hillary’s campaign has been banking on early support from labor unions. And so far, she’s done OK. Very early on, the American Federation of Teachers, led by political ally Randi Weingarten, endorsed Clinton for president. She’s also garnered support from International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. A number of smaller unions have also thrown their weight behind her candidacy.

However, for a number of reasons, things have become rather complicated in her quest to rally a united labor movement behind her. For one, Bernie Sanders has proven to be an effective thorn in her side. His populist platform has excited a broad swath of rank-and-file union members. When the AFT endorsed Clinton, there was significant backlash from its membership, which claimed the endorsement process was undemocratic.

That trend of early endorsements from union leadership and subsequent rank-and-file unrest has played out with each endorsement for Clinton. A grassroots movement, Labor for Bernie, has emerged in an effort to encourage labor unions to hold off endorsements for Clinton and consider Sanders, whom they say is more ideologically in step with the labor movement. Earlier this month, his campaign said that 26,000 people participated in a phone call with the Democratic contender that focused on the labor movement.

In addition to Bernie’s insurgency, whispers about a potential run by Vice President Joe Biden has led some major labor unions to sit back and wait. Last week, Politico reported that both SEIU and AFSCME were waiting to endorse in light of the possible shake-up in the race if Vice President Joe Biden were to jump in. 

SEIU has pushed back on that assertion, saying that its endorsement process is still underway and Joe Biden's indecision has not played a role. "SEIU leaders are engaged in deep conversations with our members around the issues that matter to them most and about the candidates they feel will best lead on those issues," the union said in a statement to the Prospect. "This process was always intended to be fluid and therefore doesn't include a set timeline for endorsement." 

Sanders supporters argue that the decision is due just as much to Bernie’s rank-and-file support as it is to Biden. The two prominent unions have huge membership rolls and a broad political network, making their endorsements highly coveted in the Democratic field.

Still, many union leaders seem ready to toss their hats in Hillary’s ring—banking on the fact that she is still the most plausible candidate. Yesterday, Annie Karni of Politico got the scoop that the political arm of the biggest union in the country, the National Education Association, is recommending a Clinton endorsement and will be holding a vote soon. The move has already stoked anger among state affiliate leaders and rank-and-filers in the three-million-member union.

Despite that news, Clinton is still very clearly concerned about shoring up labor support. Indicative of that was the news yesterday that she supports a repeal of Obamacare’s “Cadillac Tax,” which is a big sticking point for many labor unions. Sanders had already introduced legislation in the Senate to repeal the tax. 

As Politico’s Morning Shift notes, the move could be a strategic move to give her some cover on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which she’s yet to take a clear position on.

Not all union leadership is focused on Clinton, though. Her opposition to the construction of the Keystone Pipeline ticked off the Teamsters union—and as Fox News reported yesterday, the union voted unanimously to withhold an endorsement. It’s even seeking an audience with Republican frontrunner Donald Trump.

There’s many obstacles that remain in Clinton’s quest for robust labor support. If Biden does jump in, that will severely complicate matters. And if rank-and-file Bernie supporters can successfully pressure union leaders to hold off on endorsements, that could force her campaign to push further left—perhaps more so than she is comfortable with politically.   

This post has been updated to reflect a recent statement from SEIU asserting that Joe Biden's possible candidacy has not played a role in its endorsement decision.