The Bernie Sanders Path to Victory in the South: African American Union Leaders

by Mike Elk

Southern states like South Carolina, where Hillary Clinton has held as much as a 30-point lead over Bernie Sanders, are thought to be crucial in securing the Democratic nomination for the former secretary of state. These states have large African American populations, among whom Clinton is far more popular than Sanders.

But, with the Vermont senator gaining momentum with his surprisingly energetic campaign, there is a path for him to win the south — and it goes through African American union leaders.

“I always like when they underestimate the African American community because on this one we are gonna rise to the occasion,” Charles Vance tells me over the phone while on break from his job on the docks in Charleston, South Carolina.

 Polling shows that Clinton has a 74% to 14% lead among African American voters over Sanders in South Carolina. Vance says that while organized labor represents only 3% of the workforce in South Carolina, that many key labor leaders, particularly in the African American community, could play crucial roles in organizing on Sanders’ behalf.

The support of key African American union leaders played an important role in Clinton’s narrow victory in Iowa, where union households made up 21% of the electorate and voted for Hillary by 52%-to-43% margin. Lee Saunders, the first African American elected to head the nation’s largest public sector union, the 1.4 million member American Federation of State, County, and Municipal employees (AFSCME), was quick to claim credit for his role in the victory, pointing out that his union knocked on more than 8,000 doors and conducted 11,000 member-to-member meetings on Clinton’s behalf.

“AFSCME’s boots on the ground make a difference for candidates who stand with working people,” Saunders said in a statement.

Activists say that in order for Sanders to win African American voters that he will need to mobilize an army of door-knockers who can do what AFSCME did for Clinton in Iowa for Sanders in the south.

Many African American union leaders have key connections within the civil rights and faith community that they are attempting to leverage to help build this army of door-knockers. And while the labor movement is small in places like South Carolina, in 2015, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 8 of the 13 States categorized as “Southern” gained union members, adding a total of 200,000.


Clinton has received endorsement from over 24 different unions representing 10 million of the nearly 15 million union members in the United States. However, the endorsement process has been heavily criticized as not a single one of the unions that endorsed Clinton have allowed their members to vote on the endorsement. In contrast, many of the international and local unions that have endorsed Sanders have done so through a vote.

For example, in October, Vance was outraged when Ken Riley, the president of his local union, the International Longshore Association 1422, decided to endorse Clinton at their union hall in Charleston without any of the members of his union voting on the issue. Riley’s endorsement of Clinton came as a shock to labor leaders not just in South Carolina, but longshoremen on both coasts. Riley had long been critical of endorsements of Democrats and had helped found the Labor Party in South Carolina.

“They are calling me a senior citizen, but I am a realist. I like winning,” says Riley. “In order to get things done, you know you are gonna have to have realistic positions and know you have enough support to get things done.” His words echo Clinton’s, who has repeatedly said, “”I am a progressive who gets things done.”

The lack of internal union democracy has lead many disgruntled union members to form the independent organization Labor for Bernie. The group’s spokesperson Rand Wilson, who is white, boasts that the organization has “more than 10,000 union members who publicly support Bernie Sanders, and three national unions, and more than 65 local and regional labor organizations, representing nearly two million members that have endorsed the Sanders campaign for president.”

The organization serves as an informal network of rank and file union members who are working together to form alternative union committees to get out the vote for Sanders. The union has also worked successfully with members to get regional federations to pass resolutions bucking their national unions and endorsing Sanders. The South Carolina AFL-CIO was formally rebuked for doing so by the international AFL-CIO last year in an effort to stop the pro-Sanders union mutinies from spreading.

Bill Fletcher, the first African American education director of the AFL-CIO, who is serving as an advisor to Labor for Bernie, says that many of the African American regional leaders that he speaks to on a regular basis are “feeling the Bern,” but don’t want to get burned by picking a loser

“The people I speak with are in general in favor of Sanders but they don’t know whether he is likely to win so they don’t whether it’s…worth taking the risk,” says Fletcher. “If he gets more serious, if there is a major black upsurge in South Carolina…things would shift very quickly in Sanders’ favor among African American labor leaders.”

But that’s an uphill battle for the Democratic socialist, who is better known in New England than in the south.

“I have known Bernie’s politics for years — I am just a political junkie,” says Jerome Favor, an African American electrician with the IBEW Local 776 in Charleston. “He is well known up north, but not nearly as well as the Clintons are in the South.”

According to a recent Reuters/IPSOS poll, approximately 25% of Democrats say that they are not familiar with Sanders compared to Clinton, who has near-universal name recognition nationally. However, polling shows that as more voters get to know Sanders that his support increases. A July 2015, Washington Post ABC-News poll showed that only 28% of voters of color approved of Bernie Sanders, but a poll taken last month showed that 51% of voters of color now approve of Bernie Sanders.

As the Democratic primary migrates to South Carolina on February 27 [The South Carolina Republican primary is held on Feb. 20] and then to much of the rest of the south on Super Tuesday, March 1, Sanders will likely spend time and effort increasing his profile there. And the key to winning, many labor activists for Sanders feel, is just getting African Americans in the south to know who he is.

“I talked to a lot of people and they said ‘I didn’t know Sanders was back with Dr. King back in the day,'” says Sandy Squirewell, a member of the ITPEU, the Industrial Technical Professional Employees Union. Sanders marched with King and his campaign has made wide use of African American surrogates such as Cornel West, Killer Mike, and former Ohio State Senator Nina Turner to tell that story, but it perhaps hasn’t yet spread far enough in the south.

But increasing his name-recognition among potential supporters isn’t enough; Sanders needs to “talk more about specific policies and communicate clearly to folks exactly what he is going to do for them,” says Favor.

One problem, perhaps, is that he hasn’t spent enough time asking them.

Bridget Todd, the former MSNBC social media editor and a veteran campaign strategist, says that the Sanders campaign needs to hold town hall meetings and engage on social media to figure out what type of policies that the African American community wants him to enact. Todd says that the campaign seeming responsive to social media pressure is vital for African American voters to feel like they have a real voice in Sanders’ candidacy.

“Black folks are having real conversations about our political futures in some pretty interesting online spaces,” says Todd. “A lot of these conversations are inherently political and can give you a sense of what black folks online care about, worry about, are suspicious of. This information should be used to drive policy — not just outreach.”

The key, Todd says, is to have African American supporters who can go out, listen to people, and be seen as effective representatives who have a real stake in shaping the policy of the Sanders campaign.

So far, the Sanders campaign has enlisted the support of local clergy and elected officials to campaign. Last week, former NAACP President Ben Jealous was asked if he would tour South Carolina for Sanders. South Carolina State Representative Justin Bamburg, who represented the family of Walter Scott who was shot in the back by North Charleston policy, recently switched his endorsement from Clinton to Sanders and has begun touring the state with Erica Garner, the daughter of Eric Garner, who was choked to death by police in Staten Island in July 2014.

So far, the efforts seem to be working, as recent polls showing the race beginning to tighten. While Sanders has trailed Clinton by more than 30 points throughout the campaign in South Carolina, a Washington Post/ ABC News poll released last week showed that Sanders had narrowed that gap by 15 points to a more manageable 19-point lead.

If Sanders can figure out a strategy to pick up African American support in South Carolina, it could be the formula to win not just in South Carolina but in the many Super Tuesday primaries that follow, where African Americans constitute a huge block of Democratic primary voters. Given its roll in Iowa, labor could be the key.

Mike Elk is a member of the Washington – Baltimore Newspaper Guild

Twitter – @MikeElk

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AFSCME Endorses Hillary Clinton

Hillary-Quote_FB_A-1The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) announced on Oct.23 that Hillary Clinton has earned the 1.6 million member union’s endorsement in the 2016 presidential contest.

“The next president will make decisions that could make or break the ability of working people across America to sustain their families. That’s why we spent the last six months engaged in the most member-focused, in-depth, and transparent endorsement process AFSCME has ever undertaken,” said AFSCME Pres. Lee Saunders. Continue reading

Clocking In for Equality

by Seth Sandronsky

Clocking In is a new online tool from Race Forward, a New York-based group whose self-described goal “is to build awareness, solutions and leadership for racial justice.” Its analysis finds disturbing trends for people of color and women employed in the U.S. service industry. This virtual resource allows service employees to share their real-life job experiences with other workers, consumers, employers and policymakers 24/7.
90% of female tipped workers have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. Continue reading

Immigrant workers and Justice for Janitors

We posted a fine piece on Justice for Janitors (below) by Peter Olney and Rand Wilson with suggested lessons for organizing.  Here is a well informed supplement by labor journalist and activist David Bacon.

David Bacon,

jforjr-1This article makes some excellent points, and shows the importance of the way the existing base of membership was used to reorganize building services and start Justice for Janitors. Its point about the market triggers was very interesting – I hadn’t really heard this discussed before, and it does show that putting this in the contract gave workers a concrete reason to support reorganizing the non-union buildings. As it says, ” it was not a ‘blank slate’ campaign disconnected from the sources of SEIU’s membership and contract power.”

Many of the janitors and leaders who fought in Century City were the Central American immigrants coming into LA from the wars. Their experience in their home countries was very important in their willingness to fight, and the use of the tactics of mass demonstrations and even CD in the street. They’re one of the best examples of the way migration, for all the pain it causes migrants, has benefited our labor movement enormously and given us leaders from Rocio Saenz to Ana Martinez to Yanira Merino. This is a big reason why there was an upsurge of organizing in general in LA in the 90s. Without this wave of migration I don’t think the best of strategies would have produced the results we saw. The article credits Gus Bevona with a role in getting the contract in Century City, but by comparison, this seems less important to me, and more like the mechanism than what actually forced the contractors to settle. Continue reading

Bringing Labor Back:

Labor-management partnerships will not revive the union movement.

By Chris Maisano. Reposted from Jacobin Magazine.

[ed.note- we encourage responses to this piece and the prior post, First Stop the Self Flagellation]

Workers occupy a factory in the 1937 Flint Sit Down Strike. Library of Congeress

Workers occupy a factory in the 1937 Flint Sit Down Strike. Library of Congress

As late as 2008, it was not unreasonable to think that the stars were aligning for a long-awaited revitalization of the US labor movement. The financial crisis focused popular anger on the Wall Street financiers whose speculative activities brought the global economy to the brink of collapse. The election of Barack Obama and Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress raised labor’s hopes for the passage of an economic recovery program and long-sought labor law reforms.

And it seemed as if workers themselves were finally willing to take action against the decades-long trend of increasing corporate power and inequality. The occupation of the Republic Windows and Doors plant in Chicago by a militant United Electrical Workers local — an action that drew approving notice from the president-elect and much of the public — electrified labor’s ranks and seemed to echo President Franklin Roosevelt’s support for unionization and collective bargaining during the New Deal.

This appeared to be the most favorable set of circumstances for the US labor movement in decades, and the first significant hope for revitalization since the successful Teamsters strike against UPS in 1997.

It didn’t happen. Labor law reform was sidelined in favor of health care reform, and the Republicans rolled up big electoral wins at all levels in 2010 and 2014. Despite widespread popular anger at the multi-trillion-dollar bank bailouts, the financial sector has come out of the crisis stronger, and corporate profits are at record levels. Economic inequality has continued its upward path.

Fast food and retail workers have shown a new willingness to protest and engage in collective action, and their efforts have spurred minimum-wage increases in a number of states and cities. Still, private-sector unionization continues to move toward total collapse. And in the public sector, the labor movement’s last stronghold, state-level attacks on collective-bargaining rights and anti-union cases in the judicial system have set the stage for a decisive offensive against organized working-class power.

The writing is on the wall: unions as we have known them since the 1930s are in their terminal stage, and likely have only a short time left as a social institution of any major political significance. The private sector is essentially union-free, and public-sector unions don’t have the capacity to defend themselves against legislative and judicial assaults, even in states that are supposedly union strongholds (see Wisconsin and Michigan). Continue reading

Wage Theft Confidential

Do Laws Work?

By Seth Sandronsky

California has roughly a dozen labor codes governing wage-theft on the books, with more proposed each year in the state legislature. Are these laws proving effective? Fausto Hernandez is one worker who doesn’t think they are. The 55-year-old native of Oaxaca, Mexico, has labored in the carwash business for a decade.

“For several years I worked at Slauson Carwash in South L.A. — 10 to 11 hours a day,” he told Capital & Main. “The employer would only pay me for three hours, never for all the hours I worked.”

According to Hernandez, he sought relief by contacting the CLEAN Carwash Campaign, a community coalition led by the United Steelworkers union. The campaign helped him file a claim with the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE), an office of the state’s Labor Commissioner.

Workers who take such action face employer retaliation. Hernandez’s employer fired him, he said. Hernandez was eventually hired at another carwash that later closed. “Recently I received a letter saying that the [Slauson Carwash] owner didn’t pay me correctly and that I’m owed tens of thousands of dollars,” he said. “I am still waiting to see the actual money.”

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