Wednesday, Feb 12, 2020, 12:10 pm
Labor Unions Were Crucial in Bernie Sanders’ New Hampshire Victory
Sen. Bernie Sanders has emerged victorious following the nation’s first Democratic primary in New Hampshire on Tuesday. The win further solidifies Sanders’ position as the frontrunner in the race to take on President Trump in November’s general election.
Sanders was propelled to victory in the Granite State with help from a broad coalition of grassroots activist networks and community organizations, including Rights & Democracy New Hampshire, the New Hampshire Youth Movement and the Sunrise Movement. Campaign volunteers knocked on 150,000 doors across the state this past Saturday alone.
Another crucial player in Sanders’ New Hampshire coalition: organized labor. One of the state’s largest unions—the over 10,000-member State Employees’ Association of New Hampshire/SEIU Local 1984—endorsed the Vermont senator last month. Since then, the union’s members have been door-knocking and phone-banking for Sanders, and the local’s union hall in Concord has been used as a staging area for canvassers.
“Senator Sanders not only talks the talk about building a fair economy but has been walking the walk his whole career,” SEA/SEIU Local 1984 president Rich Gulla tells In These Times. “He’s somebody you can trust. He hasn’t just said, ‘ok, I’m running for president and this is what I think people want to hear.’ He believes in what he’s doing.”
Gulla explains that last September, Sanders joined a rally of nursing home workers in Brentwood, New Hampshire who were trying to unionize with SEA/SEIU Local 1984.
“What impressed me about him, he didn’t once talk about his run for president,” Gulla says. “He engaged the employees there and got them talking about why they wanted to unionize. Before he left, he pulled folks aside and kind of gave them a pep talk. He was speaking from the heart.”
A few days later, the nursing home workers successfully voted to join the union.
Another major New Hampshire union endorsement for Sanders came in December from the statewide organization of the American Postal Workers Union (APWU), as well as APWU Local 230 in Manchester.
“What I appreciate about Bernie more than anything is that he gets the interconnectivity between problems,” says Janice Kelble, legislative director of New Hampshire APWU. “He’s been a huge advocate of postal banking, which is a win-win. It helps people in communities that don’t have banking available and helps strengthen the Postal Service. It solves a number of problems at once and he seems really good at doing that with a lot of issues.”
Kelble says APWU members were canvassing and phone-banking across the state, as well as attending campaign rallies, debates and town halls to show their support for Sanders.
Nationally, Sanders has been endorsed by the United Electrical Workers, National Nurses United, the National Union of Healthcare Workers and the national APWU. He also has the backing of the Clark County Education Association—the largest teachers’ union in Nevada—along with United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), which went on strike last January with Sanders’s support.
Over the past year, Sanders has repeatedly used his platform to draw attention to union battles large and small across the country. Using its expansive contact lists, his campaign has called on supporters to join workers on picket lines and at rallies. Through his Workplace Democracy Plan, which would remove the many legal barriers to unionization, Sanders aims to double union membership if elected president.
Meanwhile, ahead of the February 22 Nevada caucus, the leadership of the influential Culinary Workers Union of Las Vegas Local 226, has begun flooding its membership with a flyer attacking Sanders’ Medicare for All plan. The union, which runs its own health insurance program, is warning members that Medicare for All would “end” their healthcare—parroting talking points that moderates such as Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg have employed in the Democratic race.
Labor leaders like Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, have come to the defense of Medicare for All, noting that by guaranteeing healthcare to everyone and removing it as a subject of contract negotiations, unions would be in a more advantageous position when bargaining over other issues like wages, paid leave and workplace safety.
“Bernie’s behind the labor movement. Not just when it’s popular. He’s marched on our picket lines, he’s helped us organize, he’s championed our legislation in Congress. He’s got a 30- or 40-year track record,” Rand Wilson, an organizer with SEIU Local 888, tells In These Times. “To ignore that and support other candidates that just mouth the words is almost disrespectful to a person who’s been that much of a friend to labor and who’s got that much to offer.”
Wilson is an activist with Labor for Bernie, a network of Sanders supporters in the labor movement. Started in 2015 during the senator’s last run for the presidency, Labor for Bernie’s mission is to educate workers about why Sanders is the best candidate—and to help rank-and-file union members encourage their unions to endorse him.
“He’s best positioned to energize a movement, particularly of millennials and the youth who are going to be key for the ground game, key for the door-knocking and phone-banking and texting and rallies that will shape this election,” Wilson explains, adding that Sanders is also “the only candidate to actually take votes away from Trump’s base.”
Kelble says she thinks a lot of people voted for Trump in 2016 “because they were looking for somebody who wasn’t going to do business as usual” and “decided to take a chance with somebody who was talking about how much he cared about their issues.”
“Well, they were dead wrong about Trump and we’ve suffered a lot of disasters because of it,” she continues. “Hopefully this time voters will have the opportunity to select somebody who’s really going to be there for us. I can’t remember ever having the opportunity to elect an advocate for working people like we do today.”
Views expressed are those of the writer. As a 501(c)3 nonprofit, In These Times does not support or oppose any candidate for public office.
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Jeff Schuhrke is a Working In These Times contributor based in Chicago. He has a Master's in Labor Studies from UMass Amherst and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in labor history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He was a summer 2013 editorial intern at In These Times. Follow him on Twitter: @JeffSchuhrke.
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