Why the Battle Over SEIU’s Possible Endorsement of Hillary Clinton is Emblematic of the Dire Challenges Facing Unions in the Democratic Party

The battle over the SEIU's possible endorsement of Hillary Clinton is emblematic of the labor movement's limited options in flexing its political muscle within the Democratic Party.


Recently, Politico reported that Bernie Sanders supporters, within the SEIU, petitioned their union’s international executive board to hold off in endorsing any candidate for they fear the board might come out for Hillary Clinton. On its surface, this story would be just another news item of the jockeying between pro-Sanders and pro-Clinton supporters, within a union, as to which candidate received its prize endorsement during this primary season. However, the Politico report is more than that. The news item chronicles a situation representing an emblematic challenge facing the broader trade union movement itself. Specifically, how does the labor movement flex its political muscle, in the Democratic Party, at a time when its once sizable influence and numerical heft has significantly dwindled (since the peak of organized labor’s power during the 1950s) in the face of an unfavorable environment where a corporate donor class’ sizable influence has risen in the same party

With membership in the U.S. labor movement at around a paltry 11.1%, among wage and salary workers (as of 2014), the significant aforementioned challenge confronting trade unionism, in light of the severity of its decline, is even more acute than ever. Frankly, the sheer scale of the challenge facing the labor movement is such that there may be no easy, near-term alternatives that can limit the power of the donor class and further increase the political leverage of labor inside the Democratic Party, short of firming up an essential element: increasing union membership.

(Raising union membership increases both the mass-based organizational heft that provides a sizable, influential pool of pro-Democratic voters, in particular among the white working class, and campaign volunteers, as well as beefing up labor’s stream of funds that can be deployed to effectively support pro-labor candidates and policies along with opposing candidates/policies inimical to the interests of the union movement. These essential elements were at the heart of labor’s influence in the Democratic Party, during the 1930s-1960s, that resulted in a vibrant, solidaristic labor liberalism that became the political engine that helped drive the major bread-and-butter, progressive gains of the New Deal, Fair Deal, and Great Society.)

At the moment, there seems to be no effective strategy, in the short-run, to significantly expand union membership. (Many alternatives offered on the table are those meant to stem the tide of decline, defend labor’s hard-fought gains, or expand a social base that can lead to collective action among workers independent of the trade union framework.) In light of this challenging reality, the available practical options that the labor movement can utilize to exert its influence within the Democratic Party and push it to embrace pro-labor and economically progressive policies are severely limited.

On one hand, labor leaders can negotiate hard with elected Democratic officials, in particular presidential candidates, to extract support on key issues of importance to unions in exchange for an endorsement and active campaigning on behalf of the politician. Or they can offer labor’s endorsement early on to a leading Democratic candidate, with no meaningful (or significant) quid pro quo, hoping that if such candidate wins elected office they can help push the politician to embrace a pro-labor and progressive agenda (hopefully, in gratitude of labor’s early support). Now, each option is rife with a tremendous level of risk.

If labor leaders choose the first option they may risk alienating Democratic politicians by bargaining (too) hard with them to extract support on key issues that the latter may be reluctant to endorse—and thus have their access limited (or, in extreme cases, lose full access itself) should those same pols be elected. Of course, if labor leaders choose the second option, there is no guarantee that the politician, once elected, will necessarily be inclined to support labor’s goals as there is no (serious) bargained-for, leveraged quid pro quo behind the union movement’s endorsement of the elected official. At the end of the day, the serious risks posed by both options all potentially lead to an unpalatable situation where labor is either politically locked out in terms of access or its influence diminished that prevents it from influencing the direction of policies from politicians.

In light of all these dynamics, this is why any possible inclination, by SEIU’s top leadership, toward endorsing Hillary Clinton is emblematic of the challenge that the labor movement, at large, faces in trying to leverage political power within the Democratic Party in light of unionism’s diminished influence compared to its previous more influential stature when unions flourished during the postwar years before the rise of Reaganism. As such, as frustrating as it is for many ardent pro-labor liberal supporters of Sanders’ candidacy, they’ll be the first to admit, despite wishing otherwise, that any possible inclination on the part of the SEIU leadership to endorse Hillary Clinton early on, from a pragmatic standpoint, makes sense. (Though, if based on principles alone without attention to practical, political considerations, it would be natural for the SEIU leadership to endorse Sanders whose long, stellar record on labor issues, in particular on neoliberal trade agreements, is unquestionably superior to Clinton.)

At the end of the day, from a practical perspective, the upside to endorsing Clinton early is more weighted in favor of this as opposed to coming out for Sanders. And, equally, the downsides to not endorsing the former secretary of state are more weighted, detrimentally, than as opposed to not supporting the Vermont senator.

Specifically, if the SEIU leadership endorses Clinton, early on, the upside is that the union will have potentially much to gain from having more access (though there is no guarantee) in a Clinton presidency should she win—and thus can help influence labor policies coming from her administration. However, because Sanders has an already stellar record on labor causes (bread-and-butter, lunch pail issues that he deeply cares about on principle) any SEIU endorsement of him would not necessarily add anything, in terms of influence, as he’s already a strong partisan for labor’s agenda.

In sharp contrast, if the SEIU does not endorse Clinton, the union may be shut out of influence altogether, or its access sharply curtailed, as the Clintons are famous for having long memories of those who don’t support them. Now from the standpoint of advancing the cause of labor, being shut out or having access curtailed from a potential Clinton administration is quite serious insofar that it is unknown as to extent of how entrenched third way neoliberalism still is in shaping Clinton’s policy preferences in light of her recent moves to the left during the Democratic primary season. If the critical voice of labor is seriously curtailed in a Clinton administration, there will be no countervailing point of view that can serve as a perspective counterweight to the third way counsels of neoliberalism in her White House. As such, the risk for the cause of labor and progressive economic reform is quite high if labor’s access to a Clinton White House is severely limited. Now, on the flip side, if the SEIU does not endorse the Vermont senator, it would be inconceivable that a staunchly pro-labor Sanders administration—should he win the Democratic presidential nomination on his road to the winning the White House in 2016—would shut out or lessen the access of the union in political retaliation for not supporting him

At the end of the day, this is a choice of between the pragmatic head over the principled heart. A dilemma made even more difficult as Sanders’ record is politically and emotionally in sync with the values of the labor movement than compared to Clinton. While Clinton, during this primary season, has made some important gestures to unions, it is Sanders, however, whose whole heart beats labor. (The paraphrase of an old political saying comes to mind: though Clinton knows the labor words, she cannot hold the labor tune.)

Moreover, because of the benefits of endorsing Hillary Clinton are so weighted above, more and beyond, than the risks posed by not endorsing her (and are even more weighted beyond the benefits of supporting Sanders), the situation, arguably, is functionally a political Hobson’s choice for the SEIU. This cold, practical reality—however discomforting—is something that cannot be ignored.

As such, even for some labor liberals who support Sanders, they cannot help but feel quite sympathetic toward the SEIU hedging its bet and coming out to endorse Hillary Clinton (should it do so). This is especially so in light of the difficult plight that the overall labor movement in general is in, insofar as to how unionism can best navigate the present choppy political waters, in the face of limited options, such that it can leverage political influence to shape labor policies, in the long-run, in a future Democratic administration.

In light of the (very) narrow options confronting the American labor movement, vis-à-vis its present relationship toward the Democratic Party, this situation should be wake up call for the trade union movement and its labor liberal allies to come up with constructive strategies to reverse the tide of dwindling membership in unions among American workers. Beyond the important existential question posed by the reality of the labor movement’s sharply reduced numbers, the dire circumstance facing trade unionism is also a vital question of labor’s ability to wield political influence in the Democratic Party such that it is in parity with, if not superior to, the influence of the corporate donor class that, for far too long, has pushed the party rightward on bread-and-butter economic issues that matter to Main Street.

Without a robust labor movement, with a large social base (derived from mass union membership) that can wield tremendous political influence in the policy conversations, inside the Democratic Party, the liberal cause of real change—rather than safe change—will suffer at the hands of a corporate donor class (wielding unimpeded influence in the party) whose values are inimical to labor. In essence, the cause of meaningful progressive reform and the aspirations of millions of grassroots Democrats who envision the party as being an engine of progress that can push this country toward becoming a just, equal, and prosperous society that benefits the vast many (rather than the narrow few) will be stymied.

Now, with all that said, for those trade unionists and labor liberals who support Sanders’ candidacy and are troubled with the dilemma facing the labor movement in regard to whether it should endorse him or Hillary Clinton, all is not necessarily lost. As vexing as the situation is—and it very much is—for those who believe that Sanders is the authentic candidate of labor who will do more for working people than Clinton, the task at hand is to defy such difficult circumstances that the union movement finds itself in.

Sanders supporters must, more than ever, up their game in out-organizing and out-mobilizing within unions such that they can galvanize a mass movement of labor voters early on in this primary season to convince trade union officials to delay their decision in making any premature endorsements inclined toward Clinton. And building on that, Sanders supporters must organizationally out-hustle the Clinton campaign to convince voters to pull the lever for the Vermont senator in the early primary states such that it can build critical mass and change the political narrative that transforms their candidate from an insurgent to a front-runner that creates a comfortable space that allows the labor movement from not having to make the tough, gut-wrenching choice between its pragmatic head and principled heart when it can have both by endorsing a viable Sanders candidacy. Now, this is not going to be easy—and the odds of successfully pulling it off are seemingly low. But if there’s anything that this unconventional political year has taught us—from the confounding rise of Donald Trump to the surprise left-wing victory of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader in the U.K.—victory goes to those who have the steely determination to defy all expectations no matter the odds.


(Photo: SEIU Headquarters in Washington, D.C. Photo by Derek Blackadder on Flickr licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike 2.0 Generic license. Photo used in this article cropped by the post’s author.)

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