Labor unions in America spent $108 million in 2016 on efforts to elect Hillary Clinton and congressional Democrats, according to federal campaign finance records, but the rank-and-file — the people who contribute money through a network of political action committees– had little to no say in the decision.
Bernie Sanders’ working-class pitch and Donald Trump’s vow to “Make America Great Again” resonated with wide swaths of workers who had yet to fully recover from the Great Recession, and fueled dissension among union members long before the first primary vote had been cast.
Although major labor organizations pledged support early on for Clinton, more than a dozen local and regional unions supported Bernie Sanders, a small indication of a much larger problem that manifested in the election results.
“We endorsed Bernie Sanders,” says James Halsey, business manager of the 3,000-member International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers 357, of the 2016 Democratic primary. “We had a Nevada caucus coming and the International had not endorsed. Our PAC members heard from Clinton and Sanders personally and chose Sanders.”
IBEW 357 was unique among Nevada unions, which largely deferred to national affiliates.
The AFL-CIO of Nevada has no jurisdiction over endorsements for national races, says spokeswoman Emmelle Israel. Endorsements are determined by a two-thirds vote of the General Board, which consists of national union leaders and retirees.
Why do unions usually exclude direct voting by members-at-large from the endorsement selection process?
“In general this tension is consistent with ‘the iron law of oligarchy’ where in organizations like interest groups, unions, etc., decision making and power ultimately ends up being delegated to a handful of individuals (typically those in leadership) whose preferences may or may not reflect that of the membership,” UNLV Political Science professor David Damore told the Current via email.
“The classic example that I can think of are police unions that may endorse Democrats who may be sympathetic during contract negotiations but where the rank-and-file may prefer law and order Republicans,” Damore says. “The same dynamics exist with the National Rifle Association, where the majority of members support policies like background checks but the leadership uses the group’s resources to oppose such policies.”
In 2012, President Barack Obama won union households by a margin of 12 percent over Mitt Romney. In 2016, Clinton outpaced Trump among union voters by just 8 percent, the lowest margin since 1984, according to a Washington Post report based on data from Edison Media Research.
But are unions, chastened by the insularity that failed them in 2016, embracing a more member-centric approach to endorsements?
With few exceptions, not yet.
“Three years ago I had a local lodge president come to me during a Q and A period and ask me ‘Bob, why doesn’t the IAM membership have the opportunity to have their voice heard in the endorsement process?” International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers’ president Bob Martinez said in a recent video message. “Why does the executive council and the leadership vote on it…?”
Martinez says the inquiry prompted a new process that will allow members to vote for primary candidates in both political parties. State councils will then vote on the Republican and Democratic candidates chosen by the membership.
The union has dedicated a website to facilitate member involvement in the process.
“I think some members of other unions felt their voice wasn’t heard but we didn’t have that backlash at UNITE HERE, because our members are predominantly women and people of color and they were unified against Donald Trump,” says Rachel Gumpert, press secretary for the parent union of Culinary Local 226, Nevada’s largest labor organization with close to 60,000 members, which endorsed Clinton first over Sander and then over Trump in 2016. “The other unions that had backlash are taking more direction from membership in a way UNITE HERE did even before D (Taylor) was our president.”
Taylor, former Secretary-Treasurer of the Culinary, became president of UNITE HERE in 2012, following the retirement of John Wilhelm.
State Sen. Yvanna Cancela, the former political director for the Culinary, has already pledged her support for Joe Biden. Cancela says she did not consult with the union before announcing her endorsement.
The American Federation of Teachers is promising more engagement between members and candidates but has no plans to involve the rank and file in the actual selection process.
“The endorsement process will present expanded opportunities for members to give input and feedback,” the AFT announced this year. “It will provide for direct candidate engagement with AFT members, and will strive for the highest level of member participation ever achieved in an AFT presidential endorsement process.”
The Clark County Education Association, which dissolved its affiliation with national unions last year, is “working out a process that’s going to include member involvement,” says spokesman Keenan Korth. “It’s not going to be a top-down decision.”
The CCEA gave no details of its evolving process.
Ruben Murillo, president of the Nevada State Education Association, says unlike previous years, NSEA’s parent union, the National Education Association, will hold off on endorsements indefinitely because of the size of the Democratic field. The union has a website comparing and contrasting candidates.
But if the 2016 election is any indication, the NEA has likely picked its horse in the race long before the process of engaging members has begun.
Democratic National Committee chairman John Podesta’s hacked emails released by Wikileaks indicate the Clinton campaign worked with the NEA to secure the 2016 endorsement long before the formal process had begun.
On June 19, 2015, Clinton’s director of labor outreach, Nikki Budzinski, sent an email to DNC officials saying the NEA was “sincerely doing their best to manage activists” at the NEA”s annual Representative Assembly, which takes up the matter of presidential endorsements:
“It only takes 50 signatures to raise a resolution on the floor and I have been warned about a Northeastern Sanders contingent,” Budzinski wrote. “I think it would be good to be organized on our own behalf with a few key folks in the room (NH and IA leaders) in case anything comes up. I am a little nervous about this event. That said, their steps are moving toward a October 2nd/3rd endorsement all going to plan.”
Union endorsements come not only with money but with volunteers, who spend countless hours making calls to voters and knocking on doors.
In 2016, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) spent upwards of $8.5 million on independent expenditure campaigns supporting Clinton and other Democrats, and opposing Republican candidates.
The decision prompted a petition drive by members.
“[Sanders’] campaign is drawing thousands into a movement around the very issues we support in our day-to-day organizing,” the petition read, according to a 2015 report in Politico. “To make an early endorsement of Hillary Clinton would put our union in direct opposition to this growing movement … [and] working against Sanders in the primaries will only alienate and confuse many SEIU members who are actively engaged in various movements, including the Fight for $15, immigration and higher education reform, Black Lives Matter, and many more progressive causes.”
“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,” SEIU president Mary Kay Henry told the Los Angeles Times. “We have to figure out a 21st century way to engage as many of our members who want to participate.”
“Our members really love that there are progressive candidates like Elizabeth and Bernie who are supporting workers. I don’t think there’s a divide,” Brian Shepherd, deputy executive director of SEIU Nevada 1107 told Time earlier this month.
Shepherd said the process won’t be left to leadership but declined to tell the Current how members will get a say in granting endorsements.
“Right now we are engaging with all the candidates running for the nomination,” Shepherd said.
Former Vice President Joe Biden has received the endorsement of the 600,000 member International Association of Fire Fighters, one of the first unions to show its hand in the Democratic primary.
The IAFF did not endorse a candidate in the 2016 presidential race, because membership was too divided.
“We were going to do significant harm to our union” by endorsing a presidential candidate, Harold Schaitberger, general president of the union, told the Center for Public Integrity.
Since Trump’s election in 2016, public employee unions suffered an existential loss at the Supreme Court. A year ago the court ruled non-union members can’t be forced to pay dues. Unions argue all who benefit from contracts should help defray costs.
Disclosure: Senior reporter Dana Gentry was employed with SEIU in 2016.