How “Brother” Bernie is Making Labor’s Day

If it wasn’t for the Democratic presidential primary race now underway, Labor Day 2015 might be just another annual occasion for union mourning rather than celebration.

American workers have lost far more battles than they’ve than won recently. Further legal or political setbacks could be on the way, thanks to the Obama Administration and U.S. Supreme Court.

This spring, President Obama, big business, and their Republican allies in Congress won approval for a “fast-track” vote on the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), when that controversial free trade deal is ready for ratification. Labor critics predict the TPP will undermine workers’ rights, environmental standards, and efforts to regulate multinational corporate activity.

This coming winter, the Supreme Court may rule that public employers and unions are barred, by the First Amendment, from requiring workers who benefit from collective bargaining to help pay for its costs. This case, involving California teachers, could weaken public sector unions even more than the TPP will hurt private sector ones.

Because of such political threats, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, former Senator Hillary Clinton, would normally be taking labor support for granted, while waltzing toward a first-place finish in the 2016 primaries.

She might even be readying her general election pitch to union voters—namely, that any Republican in the White House would be far worse for labor. And unions would be encouraging their members to forget the many policy disappointments of the Obama era and the first Clinton Administration—despite the certainty of their being repeated under Hillary.

Bad News For Clinton

Fortunately, that familiar scenario is being upended by Bernie Sanders, a staunch labor ally. The Vermont Senator’s current detour into the Democratic primaries—after 35 years of political independence—is rocking the boat for Clinton and top AFL-CIO officials she was counting on to deliver key union endorsements sooner rather than later.

In Iowa and New Hampshire, recent polls show Sanders pulling close to or moving ahead of Clinton—and that’s before her lead shrinks further when and if Vice-President Joe Biden jumps into the race. Influenced in part by deficiencies in Clinton’s labor record and growing rank-and-file enthusiasm for Sanders, the AFL-CIO decided last month to postpone any presidential endorsement for now. (When the national labor federation made pre-primary picks in the past, neither choice—Walter Mondale and Al Gore—reached the White House.)

Most top union leaders, joined by Senate and Congressional Democrats and the Party officialdom, doubt Sanders’ viability as a general election candidate. As someone who criticizes America’s “billionaire class” in every speech, Sanders has no base, like Clinton does, among the few billionaires but many multi-millionaires who finance Democrats, rather than (or in addition to) Republicans.

In The New York Times and other elite media outlets, front-page put-downs are proliferating. On August 21, The Times described Sanders not just as a “socialist”—his usual label in campaign news stories– but as the product of “radical left politics.” Despite such an unusual resume and “a career spent in relatively obscurity,” Sanders is somehow now drawing “the largest crowds of the election” with “a sweepingly macro, if not entirely Marxist critique of America.” No wonder The Times is so vexed and perplexed!

Among the estimated 200,000 people attending Sanders rallies and house meetings this summer are many workers unhappy with Clinton’s past embrace of free trade deals and her current waffling on the TPP. The former Wal-Mart board member has even backed away from organized labor’s most popular political demand, raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. (Clinton instead favors more “local efforts” moving incrementally in that direction.)

Pro-Labor Activism

Although criticized by some on the left for his own platform failings, Sanders pulls no punches in the “fight for fifteen,” immigration reform, free college tuition, campaign finance reform, single payer health care, and workers rights in general. His history of pro-labor activism and solidarity has produced diverse backers, including two bastions of blue-collar unionism in Boston, IBEW Local 2222 and Ironworkers Local 7 in Boston, and the California Nurses Association-led National Nurses United.

Last month, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), steered her much larger organization in the other direction. Yet the AFT’s hurried endorsement of her close friend, Hillary Clinton, came with little public re-assurance that the latter’s stance on school privatization, standardized testing, or job rights for teachers will be any better than Obama’s has been.

As a result, hundreds of public school teachers–normally quiescent about or resigned to such union headquarters decision-making–bombarded the AFT’s Facebook page with criticism of the candidate selection process and its outcome. They circulated on-line protest petitions, took their complaints to Twitter, and, in many cases, enlisted in a nationwide “Labor for Bernie” network that now has grown to 15,000 supporters.

Tom (“Buffy”) Buffenbarger, leader of the International Association of Machinists (IAM) apparently missed this display of dues-payer dismay. So the IAM plunged ahead with its own premature embrace of Clinton, just a few weeks later, after doing some sketchy AFT-style “polling” of a small fraction of its membership.

A similar on-line uproar ensued among rank-and-filers demanding to know how their union could back Clinton after her past support for free trade deals, like the proposed TPP, has helped decimate the IAM membership. More than 80 percent of those posting comments on the union’s official Facebook page favored Sanders; they’ve now launched their own “Machinists for Bernie” network. (For more on these developments, see here.)

The AFT’s Weingarten serves on the board of Clinton’s main super PAC, a vehicle for picking up unlimited corporate donations and $1 million checks (more than nine so far) from wealthy individuals. As part of Sanders’ campaigning against the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and the super PACs it spawned, he refuses to have an “independent expenditure” committee not subject to individual donor limits. He’s the only candidate competing in the major party primaries who depends entirely on small donations made directly to his campaign. So far, his 400,000 contributors have given an average of about $31 each.

Randi Weingarten herself makes $540,000 a year (as opposed to Buffy’s mere $300,00). Nevertheless, the AFT president professes to “totally understand that passion” for Sanders among people who “are pissed with the way that life has treated them.” But, she told Bloomberg Politics, “there’s a difference between having a message and actually having a plan to win.”

Sanders’ plan to win—or at least be competitive with Clinton in the primaries– requires rallying millions of wage earners with the message that “politics as usual” guarantees further mistreatment in life. Top union officials find that approach too risky. Many are even balking at letting their own dues-payers determine who to endorse after getting information about the various candidates and then participating in a poll open to the entire membership, not just a leadership-selected few.

Whether he wins or loses, Sanders is already helpfully tapping into rank-and-file discontent about who gets to decide what in our unions. While other big union endorsements of Clinton may soon be announced, the Labor Day buzz—at the grassroots, in early primary states—is largely about Bernie.

Steve Early has been active in the labor movement since 1972. He was an organizer and international representative for the Communications Workers of American between 1980 and 2007. He is the author of four books, most recently Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money and The Remaking of An American City from Beacon Press. He can be reached at