Unions wade into 2020 race with caution
WASHINGTON – As Democratic presidential candidates compete for coveted labor union endorsements that can bring an infusion of campaign resources and manpower, they are not the only ones on edge.
Labor leaders are also anxious – eager not to renew the discontent that rippled through their memberships four years ago when unions started jumping into the Democratic primary.
An effort designed in the last election to galvanize the membership and make a show of force, instead became divisive in several big unions whose leaderships backed Hillary Clinton over the more aggressively pro-union insurgent, Sen. Bernie Sanders.
“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 on 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.
The American Federation of Teachers announced late last month it was changing its endorsement process to seek more input from front line educators.
The union’s early backing of Clinton last time led to a significant membership revolt.
“We must have a process that our members believe in, that is credible, authentic and transparent,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said while unveiling the new plan on a March 19 tele-town hall with 30,000 members.
Also changing things up is SEIU. Its membership fractured during the last election when the New Hampshire chapter, the largest union in that state, refused to embrace the national organization’s Clinton endorsement.
Under SEIU bylaws dating back a quarter century, New Hampshire’s state chapter is the only one empowered to make its own endorsement. It used that authority to back Sanders, who won the state in a landslide.
“This time, we want to figure out how do we give as much air and oxygen and space as we possibly can for our members to be at the center of this decision,” said Mary Kay Henry, president of the union.
“We have to figure out a 21st-century way to engage as many of our members who want to participate.”
As for the New Hampshire chapter, she said, “I’ve been working hard on reeling them in and helping them understand that together we have more power. I hope they will stay with us on this journey.”
The overall journey may be less complicated this time round.
So many candidates are vying for the nomination that some labor leaders doubt l there will be any primary endorsements at all.