vision 2020

Labor Approaches 2020 Primaries Cautiously

Many union leaders regret too-early endorsements of Hillary Clinton in 2016. Photo: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

If it seems elements of the U.S. labor movement are reluctant to jump into the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, it’s not an illusion. Some unions are suffering from buyer’s remorse, having made an early decision in 2016 to jump onboard the apparently unstoppable Hillary Clinton bandwagon. Others are simply wary of the size and unpredictability of the vast 2020 field. Either way, with some exceptions (it would be shocking if National Nurses United didn’t back Bernie Sanders again, or if the Firefighters didn’t back Joe Biden if he runs), you’ll probably see unions soliciting candidates to seek the support of their members, rather than picking and choosing favorites early on, as the Los Angeles Times’ Evan Halper reports:

“Some of the unions will probably be changing their mind this time and going about it a whole different way, because quite frankly, it backfired on them,” said Christopher Shelton, president of the Communication Workers of America, which avoided the internal tension last time by having its full membership choose whom to endorse. The union backed Sanders.

The efforts to make the rank and file feel more invested were on full display in Washington Monday, as the Communications Workers and another of the country’s largest unions, the Service Employees International Union, partnered with progressive groups at a town hall event.

By the time eight Democratic candidates had individually taken the stage and been drilled with questions from workers packing downtown Washington’s Warner Theater, labor leaders had already been maneuvering in the background to restore unity.

As my colleague Sarah Jones recently reported, one prominent 2016 pro-Clinton union, the American Federation of Teachers, is not only eschewing early bandwagons, but is making policy vetting of candidates more explicit:

The union says candidates will need to do more than show up to meet members or hand out worksheets to students. They’ll also have to adhere to certain policy standards, the union says, “including but not limited to issues raised” in a 2018 convention resolution.

That resolution expresses support for universal health care, “whether single-payer healthcare or Medicare for All,” in addition to free tuition at public colleges, universal cost-free child care, and that “taxation of the rich fully fund IDEA, Title I and state allocations to public colleges and universities.” These commitments may become a stumbling block for the centrists in the race — and rank-and-file educators, who have won a series of major recent labor victories, have no reason to compromise at the moment.

The good news for labor folk is that the Democratic Party as a whole seems more in sync with union interests and policy positions than at any time in recent memory. Candidates with a history of coziness toward Wall Street, Silicon Valley, or big donors are for the most part repenting, and on issues ranging from the minimum wage to trade to labor law are expressing an unusual degree of solidarity. At the same time, there’s not much doubt the Trump administration represents the Ancient Enemy of reactionaries, who with one hand give the very wealthy and their corporate representatives tax cuts and deregulation, and with the other hand divide working people via cultural and racial appeals.

Aside from issue positions, a second Trump term might lead to a decades-long stacking of the federal courts against labor interests, which already took a terrible blow from the conservative bloc on the Supreme Court in last year’s Janus v. AFSCME decision that prohibited “free rider” fees for nonunion members benefiting from public-sector union representation.

So most union activists are girding themselves for holy war in the general election, and will have their work cut out for them, given Trump’s relative success among union households in 2016, as Politico reported at the time:

Nationally, Clinton outperformed Trump among union households by just 8 percent, the smallest Democratic advantage since Walter Mondale’s failed campaign against Ronald Reagan in 1984. For a more recent perspective, President Barack Obama won union households by 18 percent in 2012.

Clinton’s poor performance among union households appeared to especially damage her in crucial Midwestern states. Obama won Ohio in 2012, besting Romney in those households by 23 percentage points. Clinton actually lost Ohio’s union households to Trump by 9 points, according to exit polls. The state went to Trump.

Any “heartland strategy” for Democrats in 2020 will most definitely include a major effort to convince union members and their families that Trump has broken his promises to them. Perhaps this time labor won’t be licking wounds from internal divisions over the primaries.

Labor Unions Are Approaching 2020 Primaries Cautiously