AFL-CIO leaders push presidential candidates on labor’s Raising Wages Agenda

SILVER SPRING, Md. – Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican and Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont met with union leaders and the press here yesterday to explain why they want labor’s endorsement in the 2016 presidential race. They will be followed here today by two other Democrats, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb.

The nation’s largest labor federation has rarely endorsed a presidential candidate in the primaries, however. The AFL-CIO’s endorsement of Walter Mondale in 1983 and their endorsement of Al Gore in 1999 were the only exceptions.

The announcement recently by the American Federation of Teachers that it is backing Clinton was the beginning of a process that normally sees individual unions going their own way for the primaries and coming together on one choice for the general election in November. Sources in the leadership of two other unions here indicated today that both the Amalgamated Transit Union and National Nurses United will announce within days that they are backing Bernie Sanders.

The discussions on presidential politics have created so much of a stir, however, that union leaders today, in a closed session, will reopen discussion to evaluate what the candidates said here this week and to review the federation’s endorsement policy – in short, to decide whether they will continue to abide the recommendation of their political committee to hold off on an AFL-CIO endorsement at this time.

Regardless of statements made behind or in front of closed doors it was clear that Bernie Sanders yesterday captured the hearts of the union leaders assembled here. The applause he got could be heard from one end of the enormous union hall to the other and on several floors of the conference center here.

Sanders, according to a source, told the union leaders that the nation is at a “crossroads.”

“I can’t say it as eloquently as he did,” the source said, but “he said time is running out for us to do what has to be done – that is to create a sustained mass movement that will fight to carry out progressive policies. When Obama was elected the coalition that got him there fell apart and he was left alone. A new mass movement has to be built and this time it must be sustained. Bernie understands this and the union leaders know he understands this in a way no other candidate does,” the source said. “He is closer to all our positions than anyone else.”

Members of the press had a chance to question Sanders when he came out of his session with the union leaders. “I have a 98 percent lifetime voting record with labor,” he said, “but more important I know that we have to build a permanent movement to fight the oligarchs that have taken over this country. I don’t say ‘no cuts to Social Security, I say it has to be expanded, increased and cover more millions. I have just introduced legislation for a $15 minimum wage across the country. The Affordable Care Act got insurance for millions but we need more – we need a national health care system that covers everyone. I’m introducing legislation for that but we need a movement that will fight for it.”

Sanders said he wants his campaign to operate the way such a mass movement needs to operate. “We are using social media to set up events in 3,000 locations at a time to reach 80,000 people at a time. It is our answer to the super PACs and oligarchs that have taken over the process of democracy,” he said. “My vision is not just a labor endorsement. I want to see a mass movement of which labor is a big and vital part.”

“But can you win, Bernie?” one reporter asked him.

 “Well CNN is pretty infallible, isn’t it?” he asked. “They released polls on Sunday that have me running ahead of Scott Walker, Donald Trump, and Bush in one to one matchups. So I guess that answers that question.”

Sanders touched on many topics including the issue of mass incarceration and continuing police attacks on black people.

Sanders praised President Obama for visiting a federal prison recently and calling for criminal law reform and he pointedly addressed the recent death of Sandra Bland in Texas.

“Look, there is no way that a white person who fails to signal a lane change would end up dead in a jailhouse three days later. So there is real structural racism that has to be fought and eliminated,” he said.

“Many police are hard working people doing a job to protect the citizenry,” he said, “but for cops to beat up innocent people because of their skin color – this must end. Racism not only harms the victims,” he said, “but it divides and weakens the solidarity of all the people who must fight together to take back this country.”

Randi Weingarten, whose union endorsed Clinton already said, “Bernie is great, he has been on the front lines for many years and I love that he even uses the word ‘oligarch’ but our union backed Hillary Clinton because we believe she has not just the program we support but because she can actually win the election. These are serious times and we are proud of our choice. She will be a great president.”

Weingarten said she wanted to make it clear that her personal friendship or association with Clinton over the years had nothing to do with her union’s choice.

“I’m a union leader for many years,” Weingarten said. “A leader in New York where Hillary was senator. It’s my job to form relationships and alliances with lawmakers who will work with us. This is what I am supposed to do. Working with Hillary has been great. She produces and I think she will make a great president.”

While a source said Martin O’Malley was received well he indicated that he did not “set the place on fire,” the way Sanders did. O’Malley stressed his support for labor law reform, minimum wage hikes and a host of other issues important to the AFL-CIO.

Huckabee’s presentation was interesting with union leaders saying they gave him credit for even showing up at the meeting.

Huckabee told reporters when he emerged that he had “shared values with the AFL-CIO in that I, like them, want to see good jobs for millions of American workers.”

He would not commit to anything that would strengthen collective bargaining rights, however, saying he preferred to leave the matter to the states “where they know best on the local level what should be done.”

While he said he would not “necessarily” move to eliminate the federal minimum wage, he said he opposes raising it. “We need training so people can get $30 an hour jobs. I want to put them into $30 an hour jobs, not just raise up the minimum wage,” he said. He called his proposal a “proposal instead for a maximum wage.”

Reporters asked him if he stood behind his comparison last week of the Iran nuke deal with the Holocaust. One reporter noted that even strongly pro-Israel groups have not come out in favor of his remarks.

“I stand by what I said,” he told the reporters. “Iran has been calling for death to America for many years. We have to root out terrorism.” The total time he gave reporters to question him was under five minutes.

“I’m a religious gay Jew,” Weingarten told reporters after Huckabee left, so “I am not happy with his Holocaust remarks. Nevertheless, it is a sign of the times and just how important the fight is for the lives of real people that five major presidential candidates would come here in a 24-hour period. It’s a shame that only one GOP candidate saw fit to show up here, though.”

Photo: As he did in this photo, Bernie Sanders impressed union leaders positively when he met with them at the AFL-CIO summer executive council meeting in Silver Spring, Md. yesterday.  |  Andy Dubeck/AP


John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward, as a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee, and as an activist in the union's campaign to win public support for Wal-Mart workers. In the 1970s and '80s he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.