Labor activists are deeply divided over Hillary Clinton’s candidacy
Hillary Clinton had good reason to celebrate Saturday. The American Federation of Teachers, a 1.6-million strong union of teachers, nurses and higher education faculty endorsed her, adding a key working-class voice to a campaign that has so far lacked much overt support from organized labor.
But almost immediately, there was a backlash among teachers in far-flung locals across the states. The AFT’s Facebook page lit up with angry comments from those who favored Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders instead. Teachers took to Twitter to condemn the endorsement and at least two petitions were circulated online in opposition. Widely read teachers’ blogs published screeds against the decision, calling it rigged in favor of Clinton, a longtime friend of AFT president Randi Weingarten. Though a June poll among AFT members showed a majority supporting Clinton over Sanders, the fervor of those unhappy with the endorsement ran high.
“I’m honored to have the support of AFT’s members and leaders, and proud to stand with them to unleash the potential of every American,” Clinton said in response. “Their voices and the voices of all workers are essential to this country.”
While the AFT blowback may ultimately prove a minor roadbump for Clinton, it reflects a wider unrest among the ranks of organized labor, and one that may be hard for the campaign to shake.
Unhappy with the status quo and uncertain about the future of labor as union membership shrinks, union members across the country are restive over the possibility of their affiliates endorsing Clinton. Many workers see a more natural alliance with Sanders than with Clinton, according to interviews with dozens of union members, from rank-and-file dues-payers to national union presidents.
Sanders took a year off from the University of Chicago in his early 20s and worked for a local union. He strongly opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement loathed by labor unions across the country, and supports a $15-minimum wage, free tuition at public universities and curbs on corporate power.
Clinton embraced the Trans-Pacific Partnership as Secretary of State, though she has distanced herself from it as a candidate, saying she would only support it if it met high standards for workers and the environment. On Thursday, Clinton declined to support raising the national minimum wage to $15 an hour, though she is in favor of raising it generally, and has broadly discussed reducing the cost of college education.For Clinton, the trouble seems to lie in a rift between organized labor’s heart and its head. Activists in a wide array of unions including the American Federation of Teachers, Communication Workers of America, the American Postal Workers Union and the AFL-CIO locals say they are eager to support Sanders. But some of the national leaders are reticent to endorse a candidate like Sanders, who is still considered a long shot in the Democratic primary, and risk losing influence with Clinton down the road or even damaging her candidacy in the general election.
Union leaders “don’t realize how upset rank-and-file membership is and how positively they’re responding to Bernie Sanders’ message,” said David Newby, a former president of the AFL-CIO in Wisconsin. “Clinton’s going to have to be more specific and more hard-hitting than she’s been in the past if she’s going to slow down the rank-and-file momentum towards Bernie.”
“Many of our members have a deep dissatisfaction with both political parties, and the corporate agenda they feel that both the political parties represent,” said Mark Dimondstein, president of the American Postal Workers Union. “In our ranks there’s a lot of interest and excitement for Sanders, and it’s bubbling up.”