Unions wade into 2020 race with cau­tion

The Buffalo News - - WASHINGTON NEWS - By Evan Halper

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.

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