In 2008, Steve Abbott fell for Barack Obama. “Hope and change—I believed that hook, line and sinker,” says Abbott, whose Iowa caucus site was switched from a library to a gym because of an influx of Obama supporters. Seven years later, Abbott, who leads the Iowa state council of the Communications Workers of America, is warring against the president, trying to stymie an Obama trade deal he believes will devastate organized labor. This summer, when Hillary Clinton wouldn’t take up that cause, he decided to back Bernie Sanders. After Obama, he says, “The lack of a commitment is a red flag.”
“People feel betrayed by President Obama,” agrees Mark Cooper, the president of the South Central Iowa Federation of Labor. “I think that’s why Bernie’s getting the traction he has.”
For a swathe of local union activists and national labor leaders, the Obama experience casts a queasy shadow over the 2016 race. The president, whom organized labor went all out to elect and re-elect, has done big things that unions wanted—like overhauling healthcare and financial regulation, assisting reeling auto giants, and moving to expand the reach of overtime. At least as important, union leaders believe his veto pen has been a bulwark, stopping congressional Republicans from doing nationally what Scott Walker did in Wisconsin. But Obama’s proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership pact, which unions contend endangers jobs, wages, and regulations, is only the latest in a series of bitter disappointments for organized labor, from the labor law reform the president showed little interest in fighting for, to the union-sought Obamacare changes he rebuffed, to safety regulations that were scrapped or languished, to his stances on energy, education reform, and Social Security.
“I don’t think people want a third term of Obama, which is what the Hillary candidacy represents,” says National Nurses United executive director RoseAnn DeMoro, whose union is hosting a “Brunch With Bernie” Monday afternoon. Union leaders who embrace Clinton without getting commitments on issues like trade, argues DeMoro, are repeating the same mistakes made with Obama. “Why would she have to change anything," she asks, "because she’s saying nothing, and they’re saying, ‘Go Hillary!’”
“The last seven or eight years has just hardened me up and told me you can’t play the game,” says Amalgamated Transit Union president Larry Hanley, who endorsed Clinton in the 2008 primary. Like DeMoro, he believes unions have been too focused on getting access to politicians and not enough on building a mass movement that can keep them from straying. Interviewed in his office last month, he gestured at the wall: “There’s my picture with Obama at the Christmas party, but I didn’t get a f--king thing done. But nothing’s happened—the country’s still going to hell.”
“I think the lesson we got out of this administration in terms of Hillary Clinton is: Slow down,” says Greg Junemann, the president of the International Federation of Professional & Technical Engineers, who compares endorsing a candidate before they’ve made concrete commitments to tipping a cab driver before they’ve given you a ride. “Look at the record on labor—don’t just listen to the speech.”
Other disappointed union leaders say they have studied the record, and it shows they were right to prefer Hillary all along. “I am ready for a president who’s got some experience,” says International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers president Tom Buffenbarger, who endorsed Clinton in 2008 and (while his union hasn’t yet endorsed) is supporting her again for 2016. Obama said plenty about how pro-union he’d be during the 2008 campaign, argues Buffenbarger, and then “forgot all about helping workers organize.” So he doesn’t see much point in holding off on endorsements until candidates make the right promises: “I don’t know that that worked out so well, those commitments.” Better, he says, to get behind someone with a pro-labor record, like Clinton.
American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, whose national union was the first (and so far only) to endorse a 2016 candidate, also says Clinton’s earned her confidence. “She had very different positions in 2008 than President Obama did on issues like testing, on issues like merit pay, on issues like making sure that there was high quality public education for all students,” Weingarten told Bloomberg last month when asked about how Clinton would stack up against the current president. “This is not about Barack Obama—this about who is going to make public education what it ought to be for all kids.”
National Association of Letter Carriers president Fredric Rolando, who says it was “very difficult” to get members excited about Obama’s 2012 re-election while fighting his plans to cut postal service, says he’s “really pretty comfortable” with Clinton, as well as with the rivals running to her left. Electability, he argues, has to be paramount. “If she’s not saying something that maybe I wish she were saying, I get it,” he told Bloomberg. “I don’t get it, but I get it… I know she’s got our back.”
Some of the union presidents opposing Obama's trade agenda take a sunnier view of his overall record. “You aren’t going to agree on everything,” says American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees president Lee Saunders, who chairs the AFL-CIO’s political committee. “For the most part, I think that they stood with working families.”
But the discontent is long-standing, and widespread. “What I really saw at the AFL-CIO was this incredible frustration on the part of many prominent national leaders of affiliate unions that after everything that organized labor had done for the Democrats…they could get a meeting—they couldn’t get anything policy-wise out of it, even when the Democrats controlled the Congress,” says Glenn Perusek, who directed the AFL-CIO’s Center for Strategic Research from 2010 to 2013, and now consults for unions. That predicament goes beyond Obama or Clinton, who’s backed labor law reform, paid sick leave, and a higher minimum wage, but declined union calls to oppose the TPP, endorse a $15 wage floor, or back reinstating Glass-Steagall financial regulation. “When you accept the premises of the situation," says Perusek, "that organized labor is a partner within the Democratic Party, a junior party that is, let’s face it, ever weaker—the prime concern has to be keeping a Democrat in the White House. It’s a backstop given that you’ve got a Republican Congress.”
That fear of unified Republican control helps explain why even Clinton’s strongest labor critics are prepared to get out the vote for her if – as remains overwhelmingly likely – she becomes the Democratic nominee. Few doubt that the AFL-CIO, a federation of 56 unions which requires two-thirds support to make an endorsement, will ultimately back Clinton, even if it holds off until the primary is over. By then, labor officials expect she’ll have rounded up a slew of national unions’ endorsements, even as some withhold their support in hopes of dragging her in their direction, and a handful endorse Sanders in hopes of fomenting a lasting left-wing movement.
Interviewed in Altoona after helping moderate an Iowa AFL-CIO presidential forum that Clinton declined to attend, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka told Bloomberg it’s “not impossible” for the AFL-CIO to endorse a candidate who doesn’t oppose the trade deal unions despise, but warned that such a candidate would have “a tough time energizing people” in the general election. Trumka said Obama has “done a lot of good,” and would’ve done much more if not for congressional Republicans. But he said he worries that, if the president gets his way on the TPP, “his legacy will be that he helped send [away] more jobs, more factories, and lower American wages.”
On trade, Trumka said, “I believed what he said when he ran.” The AFL-CIO president, who took office in 2009, argued the federation is now taking a more “issue-oriented” approach to this election cycle, making clear early on that “raising wages” would be the standard on which every candidate was judged. And, with a laugh, he cited an old saw: “If you’re a rational human being and you don’t take life’s experience to learn from, to guide you into the future, then I go back to that definition of insanity where you do the same thing over and over and over again, and expect a different result.”