Will Labor Back Bernie?

Rand Wilson

The movement for labor to endorse Bernie Sanders is part of an effort to bring political decision-making back to the rank-and-file.

National Nurses United members with Bernie Sanders at a Medicare rally in July 2015. National Nurses United

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Not long ago, despite the national AFL-CIO’s decision to hold off on an early endorsement, it looked like organized labor was falling in line behind the establishment candidate for the Democratic nomination. In late July, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) voted to endorse Hillary Clinton; heavyweights like the National Education Association and AFSCME followed.

The endorsements betrayed a dissonance between labor’s base, which has appeared increasingly willing to confront city and state Democratic establishments, and a national labor bureaucracy loath to take the risks necessary to challenge Washington’s neoliberal consensus.

Bernie Sanders’s support from the National Nurses United, a union with over 180,000 members, was a notable exception, with few other large unions indicating a willingness to make the jump. But last week’s endorsement of Bernie Sanders by the American Postal Workers Union — and its 200,000 members — shows that more segments of the labor movement may be willing to challenge Clinton in the primaries.

While Sanders has been an advocate for the public postal service in Congress, no doubt some of the victory can be traced to the work of Labor for Bernie, which has been organizing since June to shift the endorsement process.

Jacobin assistant editor Elizabeth Mahony sat down with Rand Wilson, a longtime trade unionist and founding member of Labor for Bernie, to talk about their strategy, union democracy, and the need for a more empowered rank-and-file labor movement.


What was the motivation behind starting Labor for Bernie?

RW

It was proactive. Many of us recognized that this was an important fork in the road for the labor movement, and that union support for Sanders and for his message of political revolution, for democratic socialism, and for a grassroots movement wasn’t something that the labor movement would necessarily embrace. We couldn’t take that for granted. That was really the impetus for Labor for Bernie.

Had any of you been involved in similar efforts in the past, trying to shift the labor movement toward progressive candidates?

RW

That’s a good question. Anybody that’s been in the union movement for any length of time at all has been engaged in electoral politics at one point or another, and been frustrated with that experience. The people that kicked it off in the beginning probably all shared that common frustration with past practice and with what feels like a blank-check approach to Democratic politicians. Frustration with insufficient accountability to the issues and concerns of working-class Americans.

Something that interested me is that you’ve been encouraging union members to push their unions either towards endorsing Bernie, or toward no endorsement.

RW

It was really based on an assessment of the internal politics of that particular labor organization and where it was heading. Where we can’t win support for Bernie, we’re trying to buy time. But just as importantly, we’ve tried to emphasize that the endorsement process needs to be bottom-up and grassroots-driven, membership-driven, not coming from just a handful of leaders.

We say that because we believe in rank-and-file democracy, and because we believe that if leaders were informed by membership debate and discussion on which way forward, politically, that that would result in support for Bernie. Because the rank-and-file members are feelin’ the Bern.

And our experience has been that when these endorsements come from the top down, they alienate the membership and frequently leave the union weaker, not stronger. So philosophically, Labor for Bernie is attempting to not just win support for Bernie, but chart a different direction for union politics and a different direction for how unions engage in electoral politics.

Can you explain more specifically what those endorsement processes look like now? Of course they vary from union to union, but as you say many are undemocratic — how do those processes work and how would you like to see them change?

RW

Recognizing that it is a little bit of a generalization, typically right now a union will have some sort of an executive board and it could be thirty people or a dozen people; they vary. But big or small, they’ll have some sort of a board and often it is a group that’s appointed and beholden to nobody but the president. In some cases they’re state or regional leaders who have actually been elected. But oftentimes they owe their jobs to the top officers of the union.

That group will convene and they think that they have the right calculus and the right information to make these political decisions. Sometimes they cover themselves with a fig leaf, saying they did a poll of the members, whatever, but it’s never transparent. Then the decision is made at union headquarters in Washington or wherever they’re based. But they’ll make that narrow decision.

They could say they did a poll and a majority of their members support Hillary Clinton. But what if that poll was conducted in June? Nobody had heard of Bernie Sanders in June!

There wasn’t a lot of Sanders name recognition yet.

RW

Right. So to say that the members support Hillary Clinton based on a poll done in June or July is dishonest. The important thing is each local union should be given the resources and space and encouraged to begin these conversations with the membership, not just polling people, but saying: let’s talk about it, let’s argue about it, let’s get engaged, let’s make these decisions out of a process of membership engagement. That way, not only do we make a decision members are involved in, it’s a decision that’s going to be owned by the members.

That’s the problem with union endorsements in general and top-down politics: members don’t feel connected to the decision, and they resent the union “telling them how to vote.” It feels alien to them. They’re not involved. It pushes members away from the union rather than bringing them closer to the union.

The endorsement process hasn’t been going very well. That’s not a secret. The Machinists, the AFT, NEA, carpenters, painters, bricklayers, probably a few more have all made decisions to endorse Hillary Clinton. I’m sure there’s even more endorsements in the pipeline. And the point that I would want to emphasize about these decisions is — first of all, it shows they are out of touch with the membership which is creating a lot of member anger.

Second of all, these unions have a lot of members that work in the public sector. With the Friedrichs decision and with “right-to-work,” these decisions are leaving our union organizations weaker just when we need to be uniting and becoming stronger! That’s the big irony — AFSCME and the teachers and SEIU and virtually every union is either facing the drive for right-to-work or a decision by the Supreme Court that would, in effect, legislate right-to-work for all public employees.

Unions are trying to unite members, trying to prepare for a union movement that has to be sustained by voluntary contributions from the membership. At the same time they’re doing politics in a way that is driving the members away from the union and weakening it. Do you see the irony there?

Yes. If you’re doing a top-down politics on one issue, you’re not going to be able to do a grassroots politics on other issues when you need it and when it’s convenient.

RW

Exactly. So I think from the standpoint of Labor for Bernie, it’s more than just about Bernie Sanders, it’s about an approach to electoral politics that’s different. I’d rather see no endorsement than a top-down endorsement for Bernie. Of course we’ll take it. We really want to see the process change.

To that end, what are some of the ways that rank-and-filers have been putting pressure on their unions?

RW

Well, this is hardly new — Labor for Bernie has not invented anything new here. Rather, the opportunity has presented itself because so many members are excited about Sanders at the grassroots level and recognize this moment to break away from corporate-dominated Democrats. What we’ve tried to do is give members the tools and resources to make sure their voices are heard, and to try and amplify those voices so that union leaders hear it.

For all the failings and weaknesses of the labor movement, unions are still democratically structured and the member’s voice can have a real impact. We’ve tried to just make sure that members realize that they have a role and a responsibility and a right to speak out and wherever we can, we’ve tried to give the megaphone to the members to do that.

In the case of the Machinists and the AFT, when those endorsements were made from the top down there was tremendous outcry from their activist base, from the shop stewards and executive board members who are the foot soldiers of the labor movement.

In the case of the National Education Association and AFSCME, the top-down decisions were not made without any local or state dissent. There were executive board members who had the courage and understood that they needed to dissent and they voted “no.” Even though we lost the decision it’s gratifying to see that it wasn’t made without some pushback from state and regional leaders. We’re not taking credit for it, but we are part of the movement that yielded that sentiment within AFSCME and the teachers.

Within the IBEW we had an incredible story of a supporter in Indiana. A rank-and-file member, a savvy guy, and he organized hundreds of emails to the president of the union saying “Hold off, give us more time.” That resulted in the IBEW’s president saying, “Fine! I’m not going to make an early endorsement, and this decision will be something that I’m going to wait on to hear from a lot more locals and more members.” So the current within the IBEW is a result of the president saying “Have at it” to the grassroots.

That’s the group that’s got the most engagement with Labor for Bernie. It’s not your typical liberal union. But there’s a real grassroots movement in the IBEW that has the encouragement from their president. And that should be applauded.

And why do you think that is, that there’s been so much activity in the IBEW?

RW

Partly it’s a credit to Carl Shaffer, the brother in Indiana that’s led this grassroots movement. It’s a credit to Lonnie Stephenson, the new president of the IBEW, to have created space for it, to have given members confidence to move forward. And it speaks to the tremendous economic insecurity and concerns of IBEW members who have embraced the need for change, who do not want the status quo, and who see their standard of living slipping.

So a combination of the grassroots organizing, the president’s blessing, and the real conditions of the members has created that strong current for Bernie Sanders in the IBEW. Now there’s thousands of IBEW members who have publicly gone on record to support Sanders, and more IBEW locals than any other union have endorsed Bernie Sanders. That’s nine locals or councils of the IBEW so far.

There’s a real movement there.

Would you say that while some of the leadership is not using the democratic structures that exist within unions, the members are, and using them to make their voices heard?

RW

Yes. Though we don’t know to what effect yet. It is an interesting contrast to see that while there’s some top-down support for Clinton, there’s over thirty local and regional labor organizations that are supporting Sanders. And that’s the kind of grassroots engagement I was alluding to. It’s a good contrast. I don’t want to leave out the fact that the National Nurses United has endorsed Sanders. And they’re a powerhouse.

But a number of unions are engaged in more thorough conversation with their members, attempting to get substantive membership input before they make an endorsement, and we’re excited about that process. The transit workers, the communications workers, postal workers, even the Teamsters. So we’re excited about that and hopeful.

Are there other left and progressive politicians that Labor for Bernie is hoping the campaign can open space for in the future?

RW

Well, political revolution isn’t going to take place from the top down, from the president. Political revolution will mean tens of thousands of union members and working-class people contending for local and state office throughout the country.

We don’t need one candidate, we need tens of thousands of candidates running for school board and alderman and selectmen and city councilor and the planning board and elected positions in the judiciary, state senator — I can go on and on. There are a zillion positions that need to be filled with people that carry the same message and program as Sen. Sanders.

What’s exciting about Sanders’s campaign is he’s showing that there is a deep basis of support for a program that is not about austerity, but about government and people fulfilling human needs. So we hope that this will give more people confidence to take that program and run on similar platforms at the local and state level.

Another thought is that this endorsement process which we’ve been focused on is wrapping up soon, and all these groups organizing will begin to work on uniting union members and the local labor movement to win their state’s primary. We’re just in phase one here, which is to try to win the labor movement’s support. Stage two is building the program, winning primaries, providing a strong working-class base for the Sanders campaign.

A lot of people look at Bernie Sanders’s support as coming from young people and liberals. They don’t necessarily see him as the candidate of working-class Americans, blue-collar workers, construction workers, but we hope to show that he is, and provide critical support for him in the Democratic primary process.