Labor divides over Democratic presidential contest

Nicholas Riccardi
Associated Press

Las Vegas — Union members banged thundersticks inside a hall festooned with a Hillary Clinton mural as she strode to the stage. The recent rally was one of a series of union events the Clinton campaign staged to show off its backing from the labor movement, a pivotal player in the next state to vote in the Democratic presidential contest.

There’s no question the house of labor is swinging behind Clinton, just as the Democratic Party establishment is doing. But what about residents of that house?

Bernie Sanders is running hard to capture the votes of union members even as their leadership joins the Clinton bandwagon. Says Larry Cohen, a former labor executive now helping Sanders on union matters: “Bernie lives in a house we all could live in, not a mansion. His values and policies are ours.”

Nevada has the 11th-highest rate of union membership in the nation. Clinton has racked up endorsements from 23 national unions and labor alliances, gaining their organizational clout and pull with members. She won union households by 9 percentage points in the Iowa caucuses, and for weeks she’s been aided in Nevada by union canvassers, phone banks and ads promoting her candidacy. The state’s Democratic caucuses are Saturday.

At the Clinton rally in a union hall, Lydia DelRio, 53, a member of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, was awe-struck. “Her history and everything she’s done — she’s never given up,” DelRio said. “She never gave up, she didn’t run from a fight and that’s what unions are all about.”

Sanders and his supporters contend that Clinton’s backing merely reflects her ability to win over the establishment. They say he is a better champion of organized labor than the woman whose husband signed the North American Free Trade Agreement and who helped negotiate the Obama administration’s most recent trade deal before turning against it in the campaign.

“This is what is wrong with politics in this country right now,” said Joe Sacco, a Las Vegas stagehand and member of the International Association of Theatrical Stage Employees, which endorsed Clinton last month. “Nevada labor will get behind Bernie on Saturday…. Not all people are going to do what union leadership and management-type folks tell us to do.”

Sanders boasts a smaller roster of national endorsements. Only three national unions support him: National Nurses United, U.S. Postal Workers and the Communication Workers of America, which endorsed the Vermont senator after polling its members. Sanders supporters say several locals have backed him, including two International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers locals in Nevada, and argues that he speaks more for actual working union members.

Seeking union support

Sanders made that case himself this week at an autoworkers’ hall in Dearborn. “Republicans love NAFTA, the Chamber of Commerce, big business loves NAFTA, some Democrats like NAFTA. I was on the picket line in ’92 against NAFTA,” he said. “Not only did I vote against all of these disastrous trade agreements, I’m helping lead the effort today” against the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.

In a partial victory for Sanders on Wednesday, the AFL-CIO announced it wouldn’t make an endorsement in the Democratic race during its meeting next week. The United Auto Workers also hasn’t made an endorsement yet. Sanders backers collected 37,000 signatures on an online petition urging an AFL-CIO endorsement of their candidate.

Cohen, a former president of the Communication Workers, said in an interview that “for the first time in a lifetime” there is a true candidate for working people in the presidential race.

Union members who support Clinton bristle at such talk.

Nikki Budzinski, who leads labor outreach for Clinton, said the ex-senator has a voting record of 94 percent from the AFL-CIO, nearly as high as Sanders’ 98 percent. “She has a proven track record of standing with working people,” Budzinski said.

Labor track record is key

Michael Collins, a hospital nurse who is a member of the Service Employees International Union and has been canvassing for Clinton, said he’s encountered enthusiasm for Sanders. “Early on, there was a division based on the emotional appeal” of Sanders, Collins said. “But we decided we really needed to go with a proven leader. People have been very, very receptive. When you present them with the facts, it’s hard to argue against that.”

Not Wes Koontz, 42, a member of the plumbers union who’s frustrated his national organization backed Clinton. With five children, including a couple near college age, Koontz supports Sanders and his proposal for free tuition. “Senator Sanders’ record speaks for itself,” he said. “Secretary Clinton has held several different hats.”

Skepticism about Clinton’s labor record cost her in Nevada in 2008, when the state’s most powerful union, the Culinary Union representing nearly 60,000 hotel and casino workers, backed Barack Obama. But she ultimately defeated Obama in the Nevada caucuses.

At a Las Vegas labor rally Thursday night, Clinton expressed bafflement that anyone would question her roster of union endorsements. “I’m always a bit bewildered when people say ‘why are these unions supporting you?’ It’s because I have worked with them….I’m no Johnnie, or Janie, come lately to this,” she said.

Both Clinton and Sanders have courted the Culinary Union, visiting its members in casinos, and Clinton embraced one of its priorities, opposing the tax on high-end health insurance plans in Obama’s health care law. Now the union says it will not endorse before Saturday’s caucuses.

Danny Thompson, president of the Nevada AFL-CIO, said some union members are divided but it appears Clinton has the edge in the state.

“People will coalesce around the candidate, whoever the nominee is,” he said.

AP Writer Catherine Lucey contributed.