Unions Stake Out Positions in Battle for DNC Chair

Over the weekend, the contenders for Democratic National Committee chair headed to Austin, Texas, to make their case before a crowd of the Lone Star State’s party faithful. All eyes were on progressive firebrand Keith Ellison, the Minnesota, Sanders-supporting congressman who jumped in the race first and has built a broad coalition of support, and Obama’s Labor Secretary Tom Perez, who got in late with the implicit backing of the White House.

Both candidates spoke about their vision of returning the party to the grassroots and rebuilding organizing capacity in the states—and both made it clear that labor unions would play a critical role in realizing that vision. One of the people in attendance was John Patrick, president of the Texas AFL-CIO. “I think that both Perez and Ellison bring a long history of being very friendly to labor’s issues,” he told the Prospect in an interview.

Patrick has been a DNC member for more than 12 years and when he travels to Atlanta in late February for the next party meeting, he intends to cast his vote for Ellison, following the lead of the national AFL-CIO’s endorsement of Ellison on December 8.

Montserrat Garibay, a vice president for Education Austin, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), also attended, though she is still mulling over her vote. “I think it’s going to be a really hard choice,” she says, though she’s narrowed it down to Ellison and Perez. “Both bring such different perspectives and strengths to the table.”

She says she’s closely scrutinizing them and hopes to make a decision after the candidates speak at a regional forum in Houston in late January. It’s a decision that Garibay, who became a citizen just two years ago, doesn’t take lightly. “I know my vote is important and I’m speaking on behalf of immigrants, teachers, and the labor movement,” she says.  

In the face of Trump and the GOP’s likely nationwide attack on unions, labor leaders are scrambling to ensure that they have a hand in reshaping a Democratic Party that has, as union power has diminished, sometimes pushed organized labor to the margins. “In my time that I’ve been on DNC committee, we never had a labor caucus ‘til two years ago. We were not recognized as a viable faction,” Patrick says. He’s confident that new leadership will change that. “I feel very comfortable that both [Ellison and Perez] would carry out a very pro-worker agenda should they become DNC chair. I see that as a huge bright spot.”

Union members make up about 100 of the roughly 447 voting members of the DNC, making union support a major factor in the race.

TO THE DEGREE THAT THE DNC BATTLE is expected to come down to Ellison and Perez, this puts unions in a tough (and somewhat unfamiliar) position of having to choose between two strong allies. Since coming to Congress in 2007, Ellison has been one of the most ardent supporters of unions, and working people generally. Labor advocates, meanwhile, have taken to labeling Perez the most important labor secretary since Frances Perkins (who as FDR’s DOL head oversaw the implementation of much of today’s labor law). Perez pushed through a slew of Obama’s pro-worker executive orders, a bold new overtime rule, and used his post to promote innovative policy on the state and local level. The only blemish on his record is that, as a member of Obama’s cabinet, he was a vocal supporter of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Many party activists are concerned that the battle for the DNC leadership position will devolve into a re-litigation of the Democratic primary campaign between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. Ellison was one of the earliest and most prominent backers of Sanders (though he went on to be an effective surrogate for Clinton in the general), while Perez was one of the earliest endorsers of Clinton and was on her shortlist of vice presidential possibilities.

Most major labor unions rallied behind Clinton early in the primaries, inciting dissent among some in their rank-and-file who saw Sanders as a more natural labor ally. However, Ellison, who launched his DNC campaign soon after the election, quickly assembled a formidable labor coalition, attracting early support from the Sanders-aligned Communications Workers of America, the United Steelworkers (which stayed neutral), and the American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees President Lee Saunders—both longtime political allies and early endorsers of Clinton. Most prominently, the AFL-CIO executive council endorsed Ellison via straw poll ballot that somewhat controversially only included the Congressman’s name.

AFT President Randi Weingarten, who was one of the most outspoken supporters of Clinton throughout her campaign, not only endorsed Ellison but even hosted a livestream event at AFT headquarters for Sanders’s political organization Our Revolution, which has also endorsed Ellison. She called Ellison “the kind of organizer and fighter the Democratic Party needs right now to help engage Americans who want a party that champions working families.” Tom Perez’s Department of Labor predecessor Hilda Solis also made a video endorsement of Ellison at the event, calling him a proven “coalition builder.”

Ellison also has a strong labor ally in Good Jobs Nation, a group that has organized several one-day strikes by low-wage federal contract workers who are calling for $15 an hour and the right to form a union. “Keith Ellison has been supporting federal contract workers since before their campaign went public; since before the cameras were paying attention,” says Paco Fabian, communications director for Good Jobs Nation. As co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Ellison was an instrumental figure pressuring President Obama to sign an executive order that mandated federal contract companies pay their workers at least $10.10 an hour.

As a member of the Democratic Party’s platform drafting committee this summer, Ellison was also responsible for getting into the platform a model employer executive order that would require federal contractors to provide jobs with living wages, good benefits, and access to a union. Good Jobs Nation has also lobbied Labor Secretary Perez to push for such an executive order, without success—providing (apart from the TPP) perhaps one of the few clear labor policy contrasts between Ellison and Perez (though Perez has never been a free agent—his policies have always had to pass muster with the White House).

DESPITE ELLISON HAVING RACKED UP ENDORSEMENTS from the some of the most politically influential unions, his support is far from monolithic.

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), another labor powerhouse in Democratic politics, has not yet made an endorsement. On Monday morning, SEIU President Mary Kay Henry sent letters to the declared DNC candidates laying out a detailed list of principles that “are of the highest priority to SEIU members as the Democratic Party works through the process of choosing the next Chair,” according to copies of the letters provided to the Prospect. Those principles include an agenda that “promotes policies on economic, racial, immigrant, and environmental justice”; “fight for working people’s ability to join together in organizations that give them a say at work and in the economy”; “limit the influence of corporate money in the political system”; rebuild the party’s grassroots by partnering with allied community groups; break down voting barriers; “build a multi-racial pipeline of leadership, elected officials, staff and consultants”; and develop a strategy to win state-level races in 2018 with a “unified approach to 2020,” and with an eye on the White House redistricting.

Ellison has long had a close working relationship with SEIU and has been one of the most vocal congressional proponents of the Fight for 15. Yet SEIU also has had a strong ally in Perez, who has often used his position to amplify the stories of low-wage workers as well as lobby governors and business leaders to adopt higher minimum wages and implement paid family and sick leave policies. For now, the union says its wants more information about all five candidates’ particular vision for rebuilding the party before it decides whether it will make an endorsement, and if so, for whom. (The three other candidates are South Carolina Democratic Party Chair Jaime Harrison, New Hampshire Democratic Party Chair Ray Buckley, and Idaho Democratic Party executive director Sally Boynton Brown.)

Soon after Perez launched his candidacy last Thursday, he garnered the endorsement of the United Food and Commercial Workers, the largest private-sector union in the country, which praised his accomplishments at the DOL. “The Democratic Party is at a crossroads, and it needs leaders with strong progressive voices as well as unique skills and experiences to lead the party forward,” President Marc Perrone declared in a statement. “Our members saw firsthand his passion and commitment to improving the lives of union workers as he joined with us to push for safer working conditions at poultry plants, and as he fiercely advocated in favor of the Overtime Rule. As labor secretary, he not only pushed for progressive reforms, he helped manage a multibillion dollar agency with thousands of employees.”

Others expected to follow suit are more politically conservative unions that see Ellison as too far left. Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, had protested the AFL-CIO’s decision to limit the ballot to just Ellison’s name and told NBC News that his members know and trust Perez. (The Fire Fighters declined to make an endorsement in the Clinton-Trump contest this fall.) On Monday, the union officially endorsed Perez. 

Other historically more conservative unions in the construction and building trades may also flout the AFL-CIO endorsement and peel off for Perez. The North American Building Trades Union declined to comment for this story.;tom>

As the various political agendas of the labor movement course through the DNC debate, tensions are sure to increase. At least one of Ellison’s labor supporters has already criticized Perez. In a blog post last week, Our Revolution board chair (and former CWA president) Larry Cohen lambasted Perez for being a tool of establishment politics. “The real question is why would Tom run against the front runner Keith Ellison? Divide and conquer politics inside the Democratic Party has resulted in a loss of vision and an inordinate focus on fund raising,” he wrote. “It makes no sense that Tom would challenge Keith Ellison. Tom is likely to talk about a broader message and unity, but we all know that the White House staff and others in the Party that are supporting him are doing so to keep control and oppose real change.” 


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