In a campaign that is increasingly being defined by the public’s weariness with inequality and aspects of free trade, the labor movement has settled on Hillary Clinton as its presumptive presidential preference. The labor movement is fucking up.
Though unions have woefully declined in power over the course of the past generation, they still represent the biggest unified force of average workers in the political sphere. In the Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton definitively won the union endorsement race over Bernie Sanders months ago. Though Sanders’ policies are objectively closer to the ones that the labor movement calls for, many major unions made the political calculation that Hillary is the likely nominee and the best chance for a Democratic White House, and that it would be wise to get on board with her early on.
In the past few months, the landscape has changed. Donald Trump’s nomination is now a distinct probability. Bernie Sanders, who has steadily polled well against Donald Trump in a head-to-head matchup, is still in the race, and engenders a level of grassroots enthusiasm that Hillary does not. After an early wave of union endorsements that mostly went for Hillary, the AFL-CIO decided not to endorse anyone at all in the primary, in a nod to the strength of Sanders’ support. The labor movement could be excused for looking at the political situation as it stands today and wondering why the hell they didn’t endorse Bernie Sanders early on—because if Trump gets nominated, Bernie Sanders could actually win the White House, making him the most pro-labor president in living memory.
That is not probable, of course. With the backing of the big unions, Hillary Clinton stands today as the statistically likely nominee. Since Sanders’ upset win in the Michigan primary, she has been raising her voice about her promised opposition to the TPP and other free trade agreements that she supported not too long ago. So it is as good at time as ever for labor leaders to ruefully review Hillary’s actual record on these things. As Dan Kaufman laid out in the New York Times this weekend, that record is not encouraging. She was a happy Walmart board member as the company busted unions; she has repeatedly talked out of both sides of her mouth on free trade, assuring workers she is against various free trade agreements during campaigns only to help enact them once she is safely in power. At a time when manufacturing wages have been stagnant for 35 years and wage inequality across the board continues to grow, there is nothing in Hillary Clinton’s record that should give average workers confidence that she will keep her many promises to them if the political situation should favor breaking those promises.
By backing the perceived safe choice over the candidate who actually agrees with it more, the labor movement helped to ensure that the candidate who agrees with it more will not get the nomination—during what could well be the only election campaign in our lifetime that a candidate as pro-labor as Bernie Sanders could actually win, thanks to the insane and unelectable opponent that the other side could nominate.
Well done, union leaders. You have successfully sold your own interests out in advance. When Hillary Clinton inevitably sells you out again in the future, you’ll have no one to blame but yourselves.