SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.
Bernie Sanders is widely seen as the more progressive candidate when it comes to the economy and workers’ rights. Yet it is Hillary Clinton that is receiving surprising amount of institutional union support. While Bernie Sanders has received support from unions such as the Communications Workers of America, the American Postal Workers Union, and the National Nurses United, the large labor organizations such as the Service Employees International Union, SEIU, and the American Federation of Teachers, AFT, and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees have all officially endorsed the Clinton campaign.
But is this in the best interest of these unions and their workers? What are we to make of the situation, given the growing divide between local rank and file and their institutional decisions? And even more importantly, what about Hillary Clinton’s track record when it comes to workers’ rights? We will be discussing all of these issues with our next guest, Jane McAlevey. She is the author of Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell). She is a Nation contributor, and author of the forthcoming 2016 book from Oxford University Press called Shortcuts, which is all about how American workers can rebuild the type of power needed to rebalance inequality in the USA.
Jane, thank you so much for joining us today.
JANE MCALEVEY:Thank you. Good to be here.
PERIES: Jane, you’ve had the unique opportunity of working with Hillary Clinton as a labor leader. What do you make of your experience with her?
MCALEVEY: Sure. You know, back in 2008 during the first, during Hillary’s first attempt at running for president of the United States, I was the head of Service Employees International Union, SEIU, in the state of Nevada. And Nevada in 2008 was a bit like Iowa, the way we think of Iowa and New Hampshire today, and to some degree South Carolina and Nevada. In 2008 it was the very first time that Nevada was an early caucus state. And so the presidential candidates were flooding Nevada. Because it had become an early caucus state, one of the first four in the country to go, suddenly Nevada was in the spotlight like it had never actually been before. It used to come much later in the presidential primary cycle.
Part of what that meant was I was sitting in Nevada and I was head of a very significant union nationally. All the presidential candidates were anxiously courting SEIU to try and receive our endorsement. And at the moment at which our national union made the decision that we were going to let each local union, essentially each local union per state, make the decision on who to endorse, I really began to become firsthand friends with every presidential candidate we had that year. So a lot of visits from the Edwards campaign and John Edwards. A lot of visits from Barack Obama and the Obama campaign. And a lot of visits from Hillary Clinton herself, and the Clinton campaign.
PERIES: So given that experience and a lot more you have in dealing with some of the unions and locals and individual workers, broadly speaking, how would you assess Hillary’s record on labor?
MCALEVEY: I think it’s close to an F, frankly. And let me just put in context an example of how Hillary dealt with the workers in the union in Nevada, and then I’m going to cut to sort of what her very long track record has been, starting with Arkansas and when she was the first lady of Arkansas, and then traveling all the way through secretary of state and candidate Clinton today, and I think I can do that really quickly. And there’s a trend line which is all the way through, all the way through Hillary Clinton’s many different public roles. She’s frankly been closer to corporations than to workers.
And the experience I had with her firsthand, I just have one little anecdote from the moment she actually sat in front of the executive board of the union that I led in Nevada, which is mostly healthcare workers and government sector workers. You know, healthcare workers, nurses, et cetera. Very, very incredibly [gracious], important workers. And when Hillary came before our executive board, shortly after I introduced her–and this was, she was courting our executive board for an endorsement, a statewide unions endorsement. And she literally, her opening lines, I’ll never forget them. They’re seared in my brain. Her opening line to our executive board was as follows: “I don’t need you, and I don’t need to be here, but I’m here anyway.”
That was [inaud.] Hillary Clinton towards America’s workers. I don’t need you, I don’t need to be here talking to you, but I’m here anyway. It was as if she was doing workers in the state a favor by having a conversation with them. Now, mind you, in 2008 she had Mark [pitt], who is a famous union buster, who was a key operative in her campaign. So we have a [inaud.] this very long track record of sort of who Hillary Clinton has been versus the method who Clinton is each time she runs for office.
So I want to say overall, whether it’s secretary of education where she had a very big role in trade deals and trade negotiations, advancing, you know, countries that have sweatshops in them without doing much to do anything about the sweatshops in them, to her time as the chair of a task force that was on education reform that began in 1983 in Arkansas. Then-Governor Bill Clinton appointed her, right, that’s how they got the term Billary, came from Arkansas because they were so close. He actually appointed the first lady of the state to become chair of a major commission on education. It resulted in a long lawsuit about disparities in wealth and poverty and racial outcomes in the public school systems in Arkansas. That–1970s, early 1980s.
So ’83, Bill Clinton, Governor Clinton, sets up a big task force, makes her–this is so important. Makes Hillary Clinton the chair of the task force. She convenes a commission that meets 75 times. We’re not talking about an accident, we’re not talking about a one-time commission meeting. A commission that meets 75 times and culminates in 1983, essentially lays the groundwork for what’s become the neoliberal corporate attack on public school teachers and public education. That started with Hillary Clinton’s work as chair of a significant task force in what we might call Arkansas, the Walmart state, where by the way, she also served on Walmart’s board of directors.
We know that Walmart is one of the absolute worst, if not the worst. You know, the worst is, it’s a hard category to figure out who’s the worst corporation to workers in this world right now. But Walmart is certainly up there. And that’s another indication of who Hillary Clinton is in terms of her politics with workers and labor. You know, she’s, she’s been on the Walmart board, the Clinton Family Foundation is in receipt of millions of dollars of donations from the Walmart–from the Walton Family Foundation, that’s the family that owns Walmart. And you know, and then she hired Mark Pitt for the 2008 race, who’s someone who people like myself, who have sat through negotiations trying to help teach workers how they can win more, how they can balance out the, the scales of inequality which are grossly on corporations’ side right now. You know, it was incredibly offensive to workers back in 2007 and ’08 that she actually had hired a very famous union buster to be a top strategist in her campaign.
So I want to pause there, but I think–I don’t think it’s a new development that Hillary Clinton has [issues] with America’s workers. I think it’s a very old development. And the campaign has a very good public relations arm going right now. But if you look at the actual facts of who Hillary Clinton has been to America’s workers, there is no question that Bernie Sanders is a better option.
PERIES: Jane, the Fight for $15 has really invigorated the labor movement in this country in a big way, as local governments all over the country have passed significant wage increases, and some to $15 an hour. But Hillary is sluggish on this issue, and has stopped short of advocating for the $15, and instead is saying more like $12 as a minimum wage. Give us your take on this very important issue for labor and workers and a basic standard of living for people.
MCALEVEY: I’m going to make two different points about this particular issue. The first is that yeah, I mean, the Sanders campaign is totally there, $15 national minimum wage. Boom. Right, there’s no hesitation.
The Clinton campaign, they’re hemming and hawing. She’s kind of committed to $12. She might try to advocate for $15, not really as national policy, right. So there’s a ton of hemming and hawing. She’s actually been on the record saying it would be very hard for corporations. I, could I tell you something right now? America’s workers are not worried about what’s hard for American corporations. Corporations are doing just fine.
But behind the issue of $12 for Clinton versus $15 for–Bernie’s very clear on, that Sanders’ campaign’s very clear on, there’s a much broader issue which separates Clinton from Sanders in terms of workers, and it’s workers’ rights. It’s workers’ rights and their ability to form unions and to organize, to better themselves in the workplace in the same way that workers had to do that in the old economy, the industrial economy, from the 1920s, ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s in this country. And I’d say the most profound issue of inequality in the United States right now is not just the inequality of wealth, it’s the inequality of power between America’s workers and America’s corporations.
And this is the central issue where Clinton really falls down. She, on a good day she talks about a $12 an hour wage. On a good day she says we should think about having medical leave, and how could we do something about that. By the way, when the Clintons first put through the Family Medical Leave Act under the Bill Clinton tenure, which Hillary had a lot to do with, they put it through as an unpaid leave act, which meant the only women who’ve ever been able to take advantage of it have been essentially wealthy women who could afford to leave work for three months at a time.
When I was negotiating contracts with workers, one of the first things we had to do, because workers had the right to have a union when I was bargaining contracts with them, was–a central issue at the bargaining table was, could we make it so that the employer actually had to pay for the up to 12 weeks off America’s workers are allowed to take for Family Medical Leave Act. It’s only with a union that working-class women could ever take advantage of that sort of Clinton-era legislation.
So again, you can see this sort of long line, sort of an even throughput, where American workers are not–the priority for the Clintons is not about giving American workers the power to level the playing field. And what America’s workers need now is robust unions, is the right to organize, and is the right to have strikes, and is the right to actually build the kind of power in the new economy, in the service economy, that America’s workers had in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s in the United States. That’s a fundamental difference between Clinton and Sanders when it comes to will America’s workers do better under which of these potential candidates.
PERIES: Now, Jane, given this problematic history that Hillary Clinton has with labor, and protecting labor rights in this country, why are the institutions of these large unions and the leadership supporting her candidacy?
MCALEVEY: –Just say a couple things about that. One is I don’t, I don’t think it’s malevolent. You know, I certainly don’t think that labor’s national leadership means to be doing something incorrectly. I think that they are, they’re so locked into the sort of, what I would call democratic trade union-industrial complex that they can’t sort of separate themselves sometimes from the national Democratic party, which is a problem, for sure. That’s number one.
But I don’t think, I think they think she has the best–they’ve been, they’ve been persuaded that Hillary Clinton has the best chance to beat the Republicans. They don’t have faith that people would support a Sanders campaign. They’re worried about the sort of socialist-baiting that might happen in a Sanders, ultimately the Sanders campaign. So I don’t think it’s with bad intentions. But I do think it’s wrong. And I do think there’s actually a significant enthusiasm gap between the [acts] the national leaders are taking in the labor movement. And actually, the feelings of the rank and file.
In my own dealings with workers all across this country right now, there is an enormous enthusiasm gap. People love to talk about Sanders at the rank and file level. And they’re very justifiably nervous about what another Clinton, you know, term was going to be for them. Because under the first Clinton, guess what we had. We had NAFTA put through, something that Bernie Sanders was on the record solidly against, you know, way back during the debate about North American Free Trade Agreement. And of course it was Bill Clinton who advanced the North American Free Trade Agreement.
But importantly, in Hillary’s own memoir, in her memoir called Living History, her 2003 memoir, she has several sections in that book in 2003 where she says [sort of] despite labor unions’ objections, it was super important for the Clinton administration round one to push through NAFTA as against the interests of America’s labor unions. So you know, there’s a reason there’s an enthusiasm gap. I think that if America’s trade unions were actually open to holding a vote, like an actual membership vote by their own rank and file, like, who would we want to endorse, I do not think–I would wager, I’m not, I don’t make bets. Despite having lived in Nevada, I am not a better. I like to win things straight-up. But I would bet right now that a bunch of the unions that have already come out endorsing the Clinton campaign would have a very different outcome if the rank and file members had made that decision. And the teachers unions are a very good case in point.
Look, her track record of attacking the teachers in the state of Arkansas coming off of that commission back in 1983 is something that teachers really understand and feel. They know deep in their heart that it was the Clinton family and the Clinton policies–again, she was directly involved. I don’t just mean her husband. But it’s been the Clintons who were the first to advance standardized testing, attacks on teachers, and basically a neoliberal corporate education reform, which has meant an attack on public education and teachers. So it’s hard–the place where you saw the most vociferous objection to the endorsement was when the American Federation of Teachers came out first and endorsed Hillary Clinton. And there was a lot of pushback in the rank and file from the teachers.
So again, I don’t–you know, I don’t, I don’t think the national leadership is doing it with malintent. I think the process is unfortunate, and I think they should have allowed the rank and file to actually have more of a voice in the process.
PERIES: Now, in terms of the endorsement of these large unions, along with that endorsement comes a lot of money to the Clinton campaign. So is there any way, if there was such a vote held in these unions in terms of the rank and file and where they stand in terms of which candidate they support, is it any chance of reversing any of these major decisions?
MCALEVEY: I don’t believe so. But again, something that’s really important, despite the right-wing rhetoric, the amount of money that even, even the big unions [inaud.] money that they’re going to contribute to their campaign pales in comparison to what the Koch brothers and, you know, the Freedom Fund and all these right-wing institutions will put in. I mean, again, for all the rhetoric around how much money national unions bring to the table, it’s, it’s diddly-squat compared to what corporate capital is bringing to the table.
The, the more important issue is this thing I’m raising, which is called the enthusiasm gap. What trade–there’s two ways that trade unions historically contribute to presidential races and to all elections. One is they contribute money. But that money used to matter more than it does now, right, we’ve–once the, once the Supreme Court blew the lid on spending by corporations, the amount of actual money that the unions put in seems very, very small compared to what the Koch brothers and their ilk are putting in. So what the trade unions used to be able to guarantee was boots on the ground, right, enthusiastic trading members running and knocking on doors. And well, there’s two challenges with that right now. The first is that there’s many less workers in trade unions. And the second is that a lot of the rank and file actually support Bernie Sanders.
So yes, you know, you’re going to get a–I could name plenty of workers I know by name, you know, who support Hillary Clinton. But the vast majority of them I think would be much more enthusiastic for a Bernie Sanders campaign. And we’re seeing it in New Hampshire and Iowa, quite frankly. So it makes me, it makes me very uneasy and very nervous right now, because we know that the imperative is going to be to defeat any number of, frankly, kind of crazy and very extreme candidates coming out of the [inaud.] party, of which it looks like at least one person who is diabolically anti-worker is going to probably be the nominee of the Republican party.
The question is, in the mood we’re in right now, which is a sort of throw the bums out, anti-establishment, anti-party mode, is it actually smart to be backing Hillary Clinton. When the mood of the country, just like the mood of Europe–and if you look at European elections right now–I’ve been spending a lot of time in Europe and looking at what’s been happening from Greece to Spain to, you know, Jeremy Corbyn’s election to the Labour Party in the UK. There’s a general, in the Western world, there’s a general distrust of parties. We’re seeing that on the Republican side, and I think we’re seeing that in Iowa, New Hampshire, and with the support of, through Bernie Sanders that he’s getting with these grassroots contributions all across the country.
[Inaud.] does it strategically make sense to back the established party candidate, a name that’s been around forever. I’m just not sure it actually is the best strategy for the national labor leadership. And that’s, that’s worrisome.
PERIES: Jane McAlevey, thank you so much for joining us today, and we will continue this discussion with you again, so we hope to have you back.
MCALEVEY: Thank you. Have a good day.
PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
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