Bernie Sanders may eventually get flattened like a proverbial pancake by the Hillary Clinton juggernaut, but for the time being at least, he’s not only drawing increasingly large and enthusiastic crowds to his rallies, it was announced August 10 that he has landed his first major labor endorsement, being embraced by the 185,000 member NNU (National Nurses United).
Founded in 2009, and led by its charismatic executive director Rose Ann DeMoro, the AFL-CIO affiliated NNU is regarded as one of the country’s most progressive and visionary unions. Throwing in with the equally progressive and visionary Vermont senator seems like a marriage made in Heaven.
Not only does the endorsement give Sanders the impetus he needs at this stage in the campaign, but declaring this early puts the spotlight squarely on the NNU. Everyone is paying attention. Indeed, in the coming months, union endorsements, big and small, will become so plentiful, you’ll need a score sheet to keep track.
Of course, given the presumed cozy relationship between organized labor and the Democratic Party, learning that a Democrat (even a “dark horse” candidate like Sanders) has received an endorsement from a union isn’t exactly breaking news. But the NNU isn’t your “typical” labor union.
While its membership (185,000) is a fraction the size of the Teamsters or SEIU, credibility-wise and innovation-wise and talent-wise, it is regarded as a “comer.” As far as the labor movement goes, who knows? This modest NNU endorsement could grow legs and give Bernie Sanders some much needed momentum.
But let’s not get carried away here. Once Hillary Clinton shifts into high gear and begins accepting suitors, Sanders will have to brace himself for onslaught, because Clinton is expected to extract blood oaths from organized labor’s royal family—big-time unions from both federations, the AFL-CIO and Change to Win.
Still, one can expect lots of surprises when it comes to labor endorsements. Just because you’re a big, bad union, doesn’t mean you carry the commensurate electoral muscle. To make a dent in an election you not only need lots of members, you also need them to agree with your endorsement and to be willing to vote.
In 1980, and again in 1984, the Teamsters shocked everyone by endorsing the Republican Ronald Reagan, a move that outraged the House of Labor and freaked out much of the old-time Teamster membership. Granted, there were reports of backroom political intrigue involved, stories of Teamster President Jackie Presser being an FBI fink, but in the end, the Teamster endorsement of a Republican confused the issue more than settled it.
Being relatively newly formed, what the NNU seems to have in its favor is a healthy, infectious sense of optimism and solidarity. Alas, that’s not always the case with unions. In 1988, you saw “Bush-Quayle ‘88” bumper stickers on cars in the parking lots of UAW auto plants, even though the United Auto Workers had officially endorsed Michael Dukakis.
Speaking of 1988, it was Dick Gephardt who won the Iowa Caucus that year, having been proudly viewed as “labor’s candidate.” When 2004 rolled around, he had once again lined up an impressive number of labor endorsements, including the Longshoremen, PACE, Steelworkers, Machinists, along with a dozen other big-name national unions. It was an impressive roster.
Despite the endorsements, Gephardt nonetheless finished in a distant fourth place in Iowa, behind John Kerry, John Edwards and Howard Dean. He managed to beat only Dennis Kucinich and Wesley Clark. A day later, Gephardt withdrew from the primary.
But the NNU’s endorsement is significant news. Given the union’s progressive reputation and its willingness to lead the charge early, this could prove to be a big deal for Sanders. Just look back to the humble beginnings of Barack Obama’s run for president. It’s all about momentum.