Labor Waits and Watches as 2020 Democratic Primary Heats Up

2 min
Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden at a presidential candidates' debate in Ohio on Oct. 15. Two notable exceptions to labor's wait-and-see attitude on endorsement? Joe Biden, who picked up an early endorsement from the International Association of Fire Fighters, and Bernie Sanders, who the National Nurses United (NNU) will officially endorse on Friday. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

As the 2020 presidential primary heats up and California Democrats head to Long Beach for another state party convention this weekend, organized labor is in no hurry to throw its considerable weight behind any of the candidates running for president.

"We're not seeing labor unions coming to a consensus right now,” said Steve Smith, communications director for the California Labor Federation. “You may see some individual unions do endorsements. A lot will be waiting until next year."

More than 10 of the presidential wannabes are expected to participate in a candidates’ forum co-sponsored with Univision this weekend — but two top-tier candidates, former Vice President Joe Biden and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, won't be attending.

Smith said all of the candidates are more than acceptable to labor.

“In 2019, progressive economics are at the center of the debate as opposed to the fringes,” said Smith. “The whole field has moved to the left on economic issues, and that means labor unions have been discussed more than in past years.”

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That includes issues front and center in California, like Assembly Bill 5, which spells out when workers can and cannot be classified as contractors who aren’t entitled to benefits or union representation.

The bill was vigorously opposed by ride-hailing companies Lyft and Uber. But all the leading Democratic candidates for president endorsed AB 5 before Gov. Gavin Newsom signed it. Warren even authored an op-ed piece in the Sacramento Bee on behalf of AB 5.

It was enough for San Diego Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, AB 5's author and one of labor’s strongest allies in the state Legislature, to endorse Warren for president.

"I actually had planned not to get involved specifically with a candidate before the primary,” Gonzalez said, adding that she went to Stanford University with two of the candidates, Julian Castro and Cory Booker.

"But Senator Warren was vocal about her support for so many of the things we've been working on. I just realized when it came to the things I care most about, I think she'd be the most effective president," Gonzalez said.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks at the DNC's summer meeting in San Francisco on Aug. 23, 2019.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks at the DNC's summer meeting in San Francisco on Aug. 23, 2019. (Stephanie Lister/KQED)

There are some notable exceptions to labor's wait-and-see attitude.

Biden picked up an early endorsement from the International Association of Fire Fighters. And on Friday in Oakland, National Nurses United (NNU) will officially endorse Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has long championed their signature cause: "Medicare for All."

Jean Ross, co-president of the NNU, said it was a close call between Sanders and Warren, who also is making "Medicare for All" a centerpiece of her campaign.

"We just know that Bernie's commitment to our issues, not just Medicare for All, but ... his commitment to social justice and trade unionism, democracy in the workplace, has been steadfast also for decades," Ross said. “So we don't have to guess as to whether he's going to waffle."

But some candidates didn't even respond to the NNU's request for an endorsement interview with union members — including Sen. Kamala Harris, who has struggled to define her health care position in the primary. Harris walked back her full support for Medicare for All earlier this year, after first saying she favored doing away with private insurance.

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Ross said she was surprised that most of the candidates ignored the union.

"I would think they would want to know what the nurses, above all, think of their platform," she added.

The union also considered endorsing Sen. Warren, who has also made "Medicare for All" a key part of her platform. In fact the National Union of Health Care Workers in California did endorse her.

But Taylor Dark, political science professor at CSU Los Angeles, said since there's no clear front-runner in the current field of Democrats, labor doesn’t want to jump on someone’s bandwagon only to see the wheels fall off.

"Some of them might have been some that would have endorsed Harris early on,” said Dark. "But now you see her campaign really falling apart. And so I think the unions have learned over time that it's better to just wait a while. Unions are facing the same problem that the entirety of the Democratic Party is right now, which is trying to decide on an ideal candidate.”

The California Labor Federation's Smith says the AFL-CIO will wait until the spring to make its national endorsement, in part because the race is so fluid right now and there are so many acceptable candidates.

"I wouldn’t expect unions rushing to endorse any one of them," Smith said. "Once we get closer to the California primary, we’ll see where their viability is."

There’s also the cost of internal frustration and conflict that can come with an early endorsement. In 2016 for example, many union members resented the rush to support Hillary Clinton over Sanders.

So as California Democrats convene in Long Beach this weekend, party chair Rusty Hicks says all the delegates, including those from labor, will be listening and “kicking the tires” of Democrats participating in the forum Saturday.

"Obviously, there’s a lot on the line in 2020," Hicks said. "I actually don’t think there’s probably much difference between where both the party is and where the labor movement is with regards to the presidential field. I think everyone is listening and learning as to what each candidate has to offer."

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