Energized by the prospect of keeping a pro-labor president in the White House, union volunteers in Minnesota are hitting the streets, working the phones and planning a major presence at tonight’s precinct caucuses, one of 14 Super Tuesday nominating contests nationwide.
While their enthusiasm may be shared, not all union activists agree when it comes to the best candidate for the job.
Members of AFSCME, the Carpenters, LIUNA, the Painters, the Pipe Trades, the Service Employees and other unions rallied in support of Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton in Little Canada on Saturday, with nearly 100 volunteers fanning out to knock on doors across the metro area.
Although Clinton has drawn an overwhelming majority of union endorsements, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has garnered support from National Nurses United and the Communication Workers of America, and both unions have mobilized their own network of volunteers in advance of tonight’s caucuses.
CWA members have been holding phone banks for weeks, and members of the Minnesota Nurses Association spent the days running up to tonight’s caucuses riding the “Bernie Bus” across the state, urging people to caucus for Sanders.
Differences in style and substance
Clinton’s union supporters point to their candidate’s extensive resume as a public servant, as well as her results-oriented approach. Sanders’ backers tout the senator’s independence and his fiery, populist message.
Nate Mathias, a pre-kindergarten teacher from Plymouth and member of SEIU Local 284, said he initially gravitated toward Sanders. But on Saturday, he knocked doors on St. Paul’s east side with SEIU President Mary Kay Henry, rounding up support for Clinton.
“I love a lot of the things Bernie is saying, but Hillary Clinton is a bit more of a pragmatist,” Mathias said. “I just think she has more of the experience and political savvy we need in a candidate.”
Henry, the SEIU’s highest-ranking elected officer, said Clinton met with rank-and-file members in seeking the union’s endorsement last year. “Members said, ‘She gets us, she’s tough and she fights,’” Henry said. “She understands the agenda we think matters most to working people.”
Policy differences, too, have steered unions into the Clinton or Sanders camp.
At a private reception with Sanders in St. Paul Feb. 12, many nurses said Sanders won them over with his support for expanding Medicare to cover everyone – and taxing Wall Street to pay for it.
“From the beginning, Bernie made total sense to me,” said United Hospital nurse Jennifer Michelson, who traveled to Iowa to volunteer for the Sanders campaign earlier this winter. “I like that he’s challenging the power structure of Wall Street, and I like that he wants to get profit out of health care.”
Energy policy, meanwhile, marks a substantive difference for many Building Trades unions, who draw work from pipelines and other energy-infrastructure projects.
Speaking at the rally in Little Canada, LIUNA President Terry O’Sullivan praised Clinton’s commitment to an “all-of-the-above energy strategy that works for us and works for our economy.”
Despite their differences, union members on both sides agreed the stakes are high in 2016, and they hoped early enthusiasm among volunteers would carry over into the fall.
“Regardless of who our candidate is, if we don’t win we’re going to see a rollback of help for working families,” Mathias said. “We’re going to go back to policies that foster inequality and don’t do enough to help working people. We can’t afford that.”