Organized labor is often at its least decisive in weighing political endorsements. That’s certainly the case in this year’s topsy-turvy presidential campaign, with the powerful Teamsters union opening the door to a meeting with Donald Trump while Hillary Clinton struggles to line up union backers as quickly as she would like.
The Democratic frontrunner has campaigned hard for union backing – last Tuesday, in a move labor unions applauded, Clinton called for repealing the Obama-created, Obama-backed “Cadillac tax”, which is expected to hit many labor union health insurance plans that have generous benefits. So far she has received endorsements from seven unions, including the American Federation of Teachers, the International Association of Machinists, the carpenters, the bricklayers and the roofers.
But some political analysts say that a few of America’s largest unions – most notably the Teamsters, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees – are deliberately holding off on endorsing her because of the unexpected troubles her candidacy has had, the popularity of chief rival Bernie Sanders and, partly, because some are waiting to see whether Vice-President Joe Biden will jump into the race.
“I do think there is some holding back,” said Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College inLancaster, Pennsylvania. “The nomination process is very unsettled. The frontrunner on the Republican side is an entertainer-entrepreneur who says outrageous things, and on the Democratic side – ahead in Iowa and New Hampshire and gaining nationally – is a self-described socialist who is not even a member of the party whose nomination he’s seeking. You can’t make that up. There is a certain hesitation among some unions to see how this all plays out.”
It’s early days, many union leaders and political experts emphasize, noting that many unions usually wait until far closer to the primaries before backing a candidate. “I would say unions are not holding off – it’s pretty early for people to be making endorsements,” said Steve Rosenthal, a political consultant and former political director of the AFL-CIO, America’s main union federation. Rosenthal said it’s not surprising that the 56-union federation has not yet made an endorsement – he noted that only twice before in recent political history has the AFL-CIO backed a candidate in the Democratic primaries while the nomination was still in question: Al Gore in 2000 and Walter Mondale in 1984. Perhaps Clinton should be pleased they haven’t given her their seal of approval yet.
Whatever the truth, so far it has been a strange election season. On Wednesday, after the New York Times reported a possible meeting between Trump and Teamster officials, the union issued a statement saying its leaders look forward to meeting with Clinton, Sanders “and any other candidate, regardless of party affiliation, who is committed to improving the lives of America’s working families”.
Teamster officials declined to confirm any meeting with Trump, and the Trump campaign did not respond to inquiries about a possible meeting.
The Teamsters’ executive board met this week in Charleston, South Carolina, and declined to endorse Clinton, as her campaign had hoped it would do. “That’s not a major slap in the face to Hillary,” said Joseph McCartin, a labor expert at Georgetown University. “It’s just prudent. Unions don’t want to get into the middle of a fight at this stage.”
The United Steelworkers, one of the most politically powerful unions in such battleground states as Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, has not yet endorsed a candidate. “We’re waiting to see how this thing shakes out a little,” said Tim Waters, the steelworkers’ political director. “Certainly Bernie Sanders has been a friend of our union for a long time, as have the other Democratic candidates. This election is not tomorrow. We have a lot at stake. We’re not ones to jump quickly. We’re being very methodical in talking to our members.”
Officials with the service employees’ union say they, too, are methodically surveying members’ views – at a 1,000-member convention last spring and in town hall meetings in which 50,000 SEIU members participated. This official said the union would not make an endorsement until many more members are surveyed. An internal SEIU report said that in these efforts to solicit members’ sentiments, 75% said they viewed Clinton favorably.
An official with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees said: “We are digging deep to engage with members on their views about which candidate will be the most effective champion of working families.” The official added: “Vice-President Biden will not factor into our endorsement process unless he officially declares as a candidate.”
The American Federation of Teachers endorsed Clinton in July, six months before the Iowa caucuses and 16 months before the November elections.Randi Weingarten, the union’s president, said the move made sense for her union’s 1.6 million members. “What we learned is it’s better to get in and shape it rather than chase it,” she said. “People are really frustrated that we’re in this polarized environment where everyone is pointing fingers at each other, and we need someone who can make things happen for the American people and help restore economic balance.”
Larry Cohen, a former president of the Communications Workers of America and now a top adviser to Sanders, asserted that union endorsements are not that important. Sanders has won the endorsement of one union, the National Nurses United. “I think top-down endorsements are of limited value,” Cohen said. “What matters is the number of working people who are volunteering.” He said more than 50,000 union members have volunteered for Sanders.
“Union members are supporting Bernie because they’re sick and tired of business as usual,” he said. “They’re sick of trade deals like TPP [ Trans-Pacific Partnership] and are excited to have a candidate who has spoken out and voted against it.” Many union officials are frustrated that Clinton has not opposed the TPP trade and investment deal.
Labor officials and political experts agree that notwithstanding any reservations that unions might have about individual Democratic candidates, organized labor will inevitably endorse the Democratic standard bearer in 2016.
“We’re looking at this Republican field and the craziness that’s coming from there and just shaking our heads,” said Waters, the steelworkers’ political director. “Anyone that we’re looking at on the Democratic side would be a world better for our members than anyone in the Republican circus.”