Thompson: Unions gear up for presidential election

Bankole Thompson
The Detroit News

Several issues facing labor today — low wages and income inequality, among them — will be at the forefront of debate in the 2016 presidential election.

And on this eve of the holiday weekend celebrating labor and the end of summer, David Hecker, president of the Michigan chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, talked about his union — which has endorsed Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton — and the role labor will play in the 2016 campaigns.

Whether labor can hold Michigan, which is now a right-to-work state, in the Democratic column in 2016 remains to be seen.

“The right-to-work attacks on working families have only emboldened union members to take action and to reclaim their voice and they see elections as one vehicle for doing that,” Hecker said. “As always winning Michigan will take a good deal of work, but as more Michigan voters familiarize themselves with where candidates stand on the issues, we are confident they will see their values align with the Democratic nominee.”

Aside from a fundraising visit to Grosse Pointe in July, Clinton has yet to formally establish a campaign office in Michigan. And while a number of labor organizations including the United Auto Workers, AFL-CIO are waiting to flush out the candidates before making an endorsement, AFT officials say Clinton has the track record worthy of its support.

“Michigan voters want to know who is looking out for hard working American families. And only one has the clearest record in advocating for those issues…Hillary,” Hecker said.

Hecker said AFT members understand “the importance of having someone in the White House who supports pre-K-16 public education, working people and their unions, someone who is committed to addressing income equality.”

He added, “Our members are committed to winning in November 2016, ... They are studying the issues and the candidates and know that there is work ahead for everyone if they want to elect someone who stands up for them and their families.”

Bernie Sanders, another Democratic presidential hopeful whose rallies are drawing thousands of voters, has won the support of the National Nurses United, which bills itself as the nation’s largest organization of nurses.

RoseAnn DeMoro, the executive director of the nurses organization, said: “Bernie Sanders has a proven track record of uncompromised activism and advocacy for working people, and a message that resonates with nurses. He can talk about our issues as well as we can talk about our issues. We are proud to stand with him in his candidacy for President today.”

The state of the nation’s health care system despite the Affordable Care Act, was a factor in wining over the nurses.

“Sanders has long championed the full, humane reform we need, an updated, expanded Medicare for all,” DeMoro said during a July 29 presentation before the AFL-CIO executive council of which she is a member.

Hecker said Clinton remains the better choice for the teachers.

“I think Sen. Sanders has clearly touched and motivated many people,” Hecker explained. “Obviously, we think Hillary has the breadth of experience, electability and vision to reclaim the promise of America, and that is why we endorsed her.”

Rory Gamble, director of UAW Region 1A, said he plans to do a straw poll in the coming weeks among his members to gauge their interest in Clinton, Sanders and Vice President Joe Biden, who hasn’t declared his candidacy.

“Bernie, Hillary and Biden are the three Democratic candidates I mostly hear our members talk about. I’m kind of hoping that Biden gets in the race so we have more choices. He has big credentials with labor as well,” Gamble said. “Right now Bernie brings a lot of discussions as it relates to working families and with him there is a higher trust factor. Hillary is astute on the issues as well.”

Sarah Wallenfang, communications director for the Michigan Nurses Association, which is no longer affiliated with the National Nurses United, said while the group has yet to make an endorsement, income inequality is key.

“Nurses are also concerned with issues such as income inequality and campaign finance reform, which affect the strength of our middle class and the integrity of our democracy,” she said.

I wrote a column recently noting that not too many black voters are excited about Clinton’s candidacy and that she has not given any clear-cut and bold positions on criminal justice reform and other urban issues. Her campaign responded by sending links to speeches she made relating to the well-being of African-Americans.

The speeches sound good. But they have to be backed by a plan.

A recent encounter with members of the Black Lives Matter movement offers some insights into the Clinton problems. The exchange didn’t sound like a dialogue. It was more of Clinton giving a speech.

“Look, I don’t believe you change hearts. I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate. You’re not going to change every heart. You’re not. But at the end of the day, we could do a whole lot to change some hearts and change some systems and create more opportunities for people who deserve to have them, to live up to their own God-given potential,” Clinton said during a tense encounter with members of the movement.

Hecker said the union’s ground-game plans for Clinton will be effective in Michigan.

“Our ground game will engage voters on the issues. When voters learn about Hillary’s vision for America on education, the economy and more, they will understand why it’s so important to support someone with her leadership and knowledge,” Hecker said. “Elections have consequences. Michigan voters know this, and our ground game will get voters fired up in support of pro-education, pro-worker, pro-union candidates up and down the ballot.”


Bankole Thompson is the host of “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” on WDET-101.9FM at 11 a.m. Thursdays.