Labor Unions, Like Voters, Are Waiting to Pick a 2020 Favorite

PITTSBURGH — Bernie Sanders was in his element — railing against “the billionaire class” — as he talked up his “100-percent pro-union voting record” and his participation in “God knows how many picket lines.”

“At the end of the day,” he told what his campaign said were over 1,000 Sanders-supporting union members and activists who had dialed into a conference call on Tuesday evening to hear him speak, “it is the trade-union movement in this country which is the last line of defense against the incredible power of corporate America right now.”

The call with union members was just one component of a furious, worker-focused effort by Mr. Sanders, the senator from Vermont, to appeal to organized labor as he seeks the Democratic nomination for president. A flurry of recent activity — which included rolling out a plan for organized labor and addressing striking workers with a bullhorn from the back of a pickup truck in Louisville, Ky. — was punctuated by a full-throated, raised-fist endorsement in Pittsburgh from the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, a progressive union with some 35,000 members.

Though the show of support was mostly symbolic — the union is relatively small and has long been aligned with Mr. Sanders — his campaign’s delighted response underscored just how coveted union endorsements are for many of the 2020 candidates.

Despite years of pummeling by Republican-controlled legislatures that have sought to weaken their power, unions are still viewed by Democrats as an important constituency: A Gallup poll conducted in August found that 82 percent of Democrats approve of unions. And beyond the seal of validation endorsements afford, union members still play a critical role in canvassing voters and mustering them to the polls.

Though union members have traditionally voted Democratic, many are also eager to hear a candidate address their grievances, a desire that President Trump was able to harness in 2016, presenting new challenges for candidates courting endorsements. Hillary Clinton beat Mr. Trump by only nine percentage points among voters from union households, according to exit polls, a smaller margin than the 18-point advantage President Barack Obama had over Mitt Romney in the 2012 election.

“I think the lessons that Democrats — and these candidates particularly — have come to understand is, unless you talk about the economic issues that affect working people, you are not going to get elected,” Richard L. Trumka, the president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., said on Thursday at a breakfast hosted by The Christian Science Monitor in Washington. “So they have begun talking about the kitchen table economics that affects workers. The more they do that, the more workers will connect with them.”

The shifting dynamic is fundamentally reshaping how some candidates campaign: While wooing union leaders remains important, there is a growing recognition that to gain union backing, candidates must also appeal directly to the rank-and-file. It is also altering the typical timetable for union endorsements, as many organizations are affording workers more time to weigh in on the crowded field.

And so for months, candidates have not just rushed to court union leaders; they have also been holding round-table discussions with members, joining picket lines and tweeting in solidarity as they clamber to prove their affinity with workers.

“Pretty much every candidate is supportive of labor’s issues,” said Eddie Vale, a Democratic strategist who works with labor unions, including the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or Afscme. “There’s no real advantage to putting all your eggs in one basket when whoever is going to win is going to be good.”

In the meantime, Mr. Vale said, “You’re seeing a lot more opportunities for the membership to interact with the candidates directly.” He added that such opportunities carried benefits for both unions and campaigns: Union leaders can get their members more involved in the process, while candidates get a chance to appeal to workers whose votes are up for grabs.

Mr. Sanders, a longtime labor ally, has leveraged his vast email list to highlight organizing efforts, offer support for union members and even motivate his own supporters to join with striking workers across the country.

Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. gave the first speech of his campaign in a Teamsters hall to an audience speckled with the black and gold of the International Association of Fire Fighters, which endorsed him.

Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has said she wants a labor leader to serve as her labor secretary. Senator Kamala Harris of California and former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas shadowed a security officer and a home care worker as part of a program with the Service Employees International Union.

Labor Day will give the candidates another opportunity to reach out. Mr. Sanders is scheduled to attend a breakfast in Maine held by the Southern Maine Labor Council. Several candidates are slated to attend a picnic hosted by a labor organization in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, including Mr. Biden and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind.

Yet even as candidates trip over each other to score plaudits from organized labor, most of the major unions have stayed on the sidelines, and many union officials say they do not expect their organizations to announce endorsements anytime soon.

“In the past, we have been a union that has endorsed relatively early,” said Lee Saunders, the president of Afscme, which endorsed Mrs. Clinton in October 2015. “We are not planning on doing that this time — we want to hear from the candidates.”

The American Federation of Teachers, whose early endorsement of Mrs. Clinton in July 2015 angered some of its members, also has no timetable for making an endorsement, said Randi Weingarten, its president.

The organization has already held seven town-hall-style events with candidates, including Mr. Sanders, Ms. Warren and Mr. Biden, and expects to hold more. Ms. Weingarten said the union wanted to allow members to “see who they feel a connection to.”

“For us, it is not just about who shares your values; it’s not just about who’s electable,” she said. “It is about, do your members feel like they have a real voice in your process?”

Lily Eskelsen García, the president of the National Education Association, which endorsed Mrs. Clinton in October 2015, pointed to the large number of candidates to help explain why the union has no hard deadline for making a 2020 endorsement.

“It’s so fluid,” she said about the race. “At this point, it would be disingenuous for me to suggest that there is this magical date when we will know that it’s time.”

Several of the unions have held, or are planning to hold, candidate forums, including the N.E.A., which held one in Houston in July during its annual meeting that drew 10 candidates, and Afscme, which convened one in Las Vegas in early August that drew 19.

The S.E.I.U., one of the largest and most politically powerful unions in the country, has laid out specific criteria for candidates seeking its endorsement, including that they must support legislation to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour and develop an economic plan that includes provisions to help workers unionize. The union has been in direct contact with many of the campaigns and is providing feedback on their policies for organized labor if they seek it.

The emphasis on labor in the 2020 campaign has at times tripped up even its staunchest supporters. Mr. Sanders, whose campaign has unionized, recently faced criticism from some of his campaign workers for failing to pay them the equivalent of a $15-an-hour minimum wage because they were working more hours than they had expected. His campaign resolved the issue by raising their salaries and limiting the number of hours some staff members could work.

Hotel spending by some of the leading candidates has also come under scrutiny. HuffPost reported in August that Mr. Buttigieg’s campaign had patronized nonunion hotels in several big cities, while the campaigns of Ms. Warren and Ms. Harris spent money at hotels that have been the subject of labor disputes.

Missteps aside, Democratic candidates are making a concerted effort to show their support for labor. Mr. Biden, who is betting in part on his appeal to working-class voters, has held briefings with labor leaders in Iowa and New Hampshire this summer.

“No one knows more than Joe Biden that he’s going to have to work for every vote and every endorsement,” said Pete Kavanaugh, a deputy campaign manager for Mr. Biden. “What makes him unique is that he has a 40-year record of fighting for middle-class and working families and fighting for union members and their members’ families.”

Like those on Mr. Sanders’s campaign, Ms. Warren’s staff members have also unionized. She has visited striking Stop & Shop supermarket workers in Massachusetts, rallied with airline catering workers at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport — as did Mr. Sanders — and met in Michigan with Delta Air Lines employees who are trying to unionize.

Ms. Warren’s team has consulted with unions while developing policy proposals, and she spoke by phone with Mr. Trumka before rolling out her trade plan. She has met with labor leaders in every state she has visited during her presidential bid, her campaign said.

Mr. Saunders of Afscme recalled how he met privately with Ms. Warren at her condo in Washington before she announced her bid, when she told him she intended to run.

“Warren is a good friend, I talk to her quite a bit,” Mr. Saunders said, praising what he called her “retail politics” skills.

Stuart Appelbaum, the president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, recalled meeting privately with Ms. Warren at the Capitol before she entered the presidential race, and again in New York this year. Ms. Warren, he said, asked to meet with union members who had been involved in the fight against Amazon’s planned campus in Long Island City, Queens.

Ms. Warren “is one smart person who also knows how to listen,” Mr. Appelbaum said, adding, “I am concerned about the candidates who have not sought to reach out.”

Mr. Appelbaum, who also offered praise for Ms. Harris, said he expected his union to back a candidate in the 2020 race, but was not sure when it would do so. For now, he credited the candidates for the focus they have put on talking about working people.

“I’ve heard more about unions in this race than in all other races combined in recent memory,” he said. “There is no Democratic Party without the labor movement. And I think that at long last, Democratic candidates are waking up to that fact.”

Sydney Ember reported from Pittsburgh, and Thomas Kaplan from Washington. Jonathan Martin contributed reporting from San Francisco, and Noam Scheiber from Milwaukee.

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