Statewide Candidates Get Very Mixed Responses From Organized Labor

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Candidates wait to address the Labor Caucus at the California Democratic Convention in San Diego on Friday, February 23, 2018.  (Katie Orr/KQED)

Organized labor has long been the backbone of the political left, but at this weekend's California Democratic Party convention in San Diego union members made clear to candidates that in their view not all Democrats are created equal.

The Labor Caucus meeting Friday night was a big draw for politicians hoping to gain influential union support and win convention delegates critical to securing the party's official endorsement.

Each candidate got a few minutes to speak and the crowd clearly had its favorites. They clapped only politely for U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, who asked for their support in passing stricter gun control legislation. But the enthusiasm was audiblygreater for her challenger, State Senator Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles), who touted his legislative accomplishments that are more in line with their priorities.

"Together, we fought for a $15 minimum wage," de León said to cheers, "because no one who works full time should ever have to live in poverty in California."

Gubernatorial candidate Gavin Newsom also fired up the crowd by lashing out at the Trump administration.

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“This time demands a different kind of leadership," the Lt. Governor said. "We are at war in this country and you need a wartime governor to have your back." Newsom has won backing from some of the largest unions, including the powerful California Teachers Association and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

The crowd was less friendly to Newsom’s top competitor Antonio Villaraigosa, who challenged teachers unions when he was mayor of Los Angeles. He spoke through boos and hisses.

Organized labor is feeling heat from the Trump Administration, whose policies are far less friendly to unions than were President Obama's. In addition, unions are expecting to lose a key case now before the U.S. Supreme Court, a loss that will eat into their ability to collect "agency fees" from nonmembers to cover the costs of collective bargaining contracts.

If the high court rules against unions' right to collect those fees, as is expected, it could cut into labor's political clout in California and elsewhere. That backdrop to this weekend's Democratic convention raises the stakes for unions, as members size up candidates' records and commitment here in California at a time when the federal is becoming increasingly hostile.