Bernie Sanders Secures First Endorsement from Feisty and Progressive Nurses Union

News & Politics

Bernie Sanders received his first endorsement from a national trade union on Monday, throwing significant new organisational muscle behind a Democratic presidential candidate who is challenging Hillary Clinton’s natural support in the labour movement but lags far behind her in campaign infrastructure.

National Nurses United, which has 185,000 members nationally and is the profession’s largest representative, announced its backing for Sanders at a rally with him in Oakland, California.

The decision of its executive council to announce a formal endorsement follows a poll of members said to show widespread backing for his more radical policies on healthcare and social inequality.

Although the union is well-known as one of the more leftwing labor groups, its leaders claim to be surprised at the depth of support among their largely female membership given Clinton’s chance of becoming America’s first female president.

“When the pollsters said there was a landslide for Bernie Sanders, that didn’t make a lot of sense to me initially given the fact that Hillary Clinton is a woman,” director RoseAnn DeMoro told the Guardian in an interview ahead of the announcement. “I thought it would be fairly balanced, and it’s not.”

DeMoro would not disclose the internal polling numbers but said the three recent surveys represented a “pretty significant sampling” of the union’s members and she was “stunned at the level and depth of enthusiasm for Bernie”.

Until now, only one other national union, the American Federation of Teachers, has endorsed any of the Democratic candidates – coming out for Clinton in July – although some smaller, local union groups have shown support for Sanders.

Sanders thanked the nurses gathered at NNU headquarters, drawing on their experience of health inequality to reinforce his call for universal and affordable medical insurance.

“I applaud you; you work hard every day but you understand that we have to do more to provide quality care that people need and for you to do your jobs in the way you want to see,” said Sanders. “You do not want to see patients not being able to afford the prescription drugs being written. You do not want to see people hesitating to walk into an office because they don’t have health insurance or because the deductibles are too high.”

But he also received loud applause for regaling the nurses with portions of his stump speech that point to much grander ambition.

“Our campaign is about creating a political revolution that says to the billionaire class they can’t have it all; this country, our government, belongs to all of us,” said Sanders. “It’s important that we think big.”

“We have to change boldly and fundamentally the priorities of our nation so that every American can experience the right to live with dignity and not so that almost all of our wealth and income is going to the top one per cent,” he added.

Richard Trumka, president of the national labor federation AFL-CIO, recently organised candidate interviews for union leaders to help shape their decision on an overall endorsement by the US labour movement, something many still expect to go to Clinton.

But this is unlikely to come until much later in the primary race and Sanders’s success in securing the backing of an individual union will be seen by some supporters as a demonstration that the labor movement’s backing for Clinton is not a forgone conclusion.

DeMoro said the support of Sanders by nurses was particularly a sign of how strongly they felt about his policies on expanding the Medicare system to provide so-called “single-payer” health insurance – a similar system to Canada’s – for all Americans.

But she insisted that her largely apolitical membership was also drawn to his policies to reduce income inequality and tackle the impact of money on American politics.

“Nurses are an interesting group. They are not political scientists. They want to be nurses,” said DeMoro. “But nurses see the fall out of all the bad decisions, because everything ultimately equates to health. If you are talking about income inequality, they see it. Health concerns and disparity among classes, joblessness; every social problem basically ends up presenting itself in a healthcare setting.”

Sanders has attracted record-breaking crowds among grass roots supporters since declaring his candidacy for the Democratic nomination – including 19,000 in Portland on Sunday night – but he is seen by many in the party mainstream as too radical to get elected.

But DeMoro insisted he had a meaningful chance of becoming president and dismissed the concerns as a “self-fulfilling prophecy” by Democratic party leaders.

“I am not worried about the electability of Bernie Sanders,” she said. “I am worried about where this country goes if he doesn’t get elected.”

She also expressed regret that there was not more alignment between her unions’ interests and the policies of Clinton.

“It’s so fundamentally disappointing that we can’t have a female presidential candidate lined up with our values,” she said. “[But] what Bernie represents is social change and we are organisation dedicated that.”

DeMoro also criticised the Clinton campaign, which she claimed was holding back her more radical tendencies.

“I wanted the Hillary before the consultants go ahold of her campaign,” she said. “I sat in the AFL-CIO meeting and trying to nail her down was extremely difficult,” added DeMoro.

“She is very sophisticated, she is polished, and she can speak to the issues. But in terms where the commitments resting behind the discussion, they weren’t there.”

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