[Unlike all the other union-backed politicians whove run for
president since the mid-1970s, Bernie Sanders was a labor solidarity
activist long before he was elected to anything.  ]




 Steve Early 
 March 3, 2020
Special to Portside 

	* [https://portside.org/node/22340/printable/print]

 _ Unlike all the other union-backed politicians who've run for
president since the mid-1970s, Bernie Sanders was a labor solidarity
activist long before he was elected to anything.  _ 

 Bernie Sanders speaks during a rally in front of the Capitol April
26, 2017 in Washington, D.C., Alex Wong / Getty 


In May 1976, a small group of Vermonters gathered in a church basement
in Montpelier, the state's capital, to learn about union organizing.
At a day-long training session, the United Electrical Workers (UE) and
three other progressive unions discussed strategy and tactics with
cheese makers from Vermont's famous Cabot Creamery, delivery drivers
from a local beer distributor, and white-collar workers from a nearby

As coordinator of the event, I arranged for the opening speech to be
delivered by a fellow democratic socialist. Both of us had testified a
few months earlier in the Vermont legislature, located just down the
street, against a Republican-backed "right-to-work" bill.

My new political friend had a rumpled appearance, gruff manner, and
distinct "flatlander" accent. He took the mike and launched into a
now-familiar tutorial on the difficulty of making ends meet on the
minimum wage. As a freelance writer and underemployed carpenter in
mid-1970s Vermont, he spoke from personal experience.

He reminded his working-class audience what many in it had heard
before: "If you earn $2.50 an hour, it's because you are not smart
enough or haven't worked hard enough." He debunked the myth that
"independent Vermonters" were better off without a union negotiating
for them.

As later reported in (the still non-union) _Barre-Montpelier
Times-Argus_, he declared that it was "our job to wake people up and
get them moving," despite the high risk of management retaliation for
organizing a union.


Nearly forty-four years later, after serving four terms as mayor of
Vermont's largest city and then three decades in Congress, Bernie
Sanders is running for a job that he — unlike any other candidate
— calls "organizer in chief." 

If elected president, he pledges to use his bully pulpit to mobilize
millions of workers behind a sweeping legislative agenda. Few of his
goals are more ambitious — and more critical to union survival —
than strengthening labor's right to organize and bargain without
employer interference.

Unlike all the other union-backed politicians who've run for president
since the mid-1970s, Bernie Sanders was a labor solidarity activist
[https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/05/bernie-sanders-president-primary-hillary/] long
before he was elected to anything. 

Sanders's unique personal history strongly suggests that labor law
reform could become more achievable after January, 2021, if he defeats
Donald Trump.. And wouldn't that be a new experience — a candidate
for president winning and then actually fighting to strengthen
workers' rights?

In the last five decades, unions have tried to get labor law reform
three times:  during the Carter, Clinton, and Obama administrations.
Each effort was met with strong opposition from Corporate America,
congressional Republicans, and business-backed Democrats. Luke-warm
support from the White House ensured that much needed changes in the
National Labor Relations Act never got enacted (and, under Bill
Clinton, were only studied by a presidential commission). 

During my twenty-seven years as an organizer for the Communications
Workers of America in New England, I was part of labor delegations
that met with four Democratic presidential candidates who never made
it to the White House:  Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, Michael Dukakis, and
Hillary Clinton. All thought of themselves as great friends of


But getting any of them to side with labor, rather than management,
during a high-profile union dispute took immense pressure.  On key
policy issues
[https://www.counterpunch.org/2009/08/28/kennedy-s-sins-against-labor/] —
like free trade, deregulation, and single payer healthcare — they
were not reliable allies of workers at all.  Their political
descendants in today's Democratic primary field — even Kennedy's
successor in the Senate, Elizabeth Warren —will be no more eager to
confront big business over workers' rights, as a top priority of their

However, there is one New Englander that members of my union and
others could always count on. After he was elected mayor of
Burlington in 1981, Bernie Sanders immediately overhauled the city's
collective bargaining process.  Over the next eight years, his
administration developed positive relationships with the
American Federation of State, County and Municipal
Employees (AFSCME) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical
Workers (IBEW).

While still mayor, Sanders convened annual meetings of local labor
activists to help them develop more successful organizing and
bargaining strategies in the private and public sector. To stimulate
new rank-and-file thinking, Sanders and his staff invited
out-of-state labor speakers who were part of national efforts to
revitalize the union movement. 

As Vermont's lone congressman, Sanders repeatedly helped workers get
better organized, in their workplaces and communities. In 1994, he
sent a letter to phone company customer service reps in Vermont who
were part of a New England–wide unit of 1,500 considering whether to
join CWA. He urged them to vote "yes"; a majority did. Thousands of
Vermont nurses, home care workers, and state college system faculty
members have begun organizing in recent years, and Sanders has been on
their side as well — appearing at meetings, picket lines, and

He also became a staunch ally of the Jobs with Justice
affiliated Vermont Workers Center
[http://www.workerscenter.org/] and the more recently formed Rights &
Democracy organization, now part of People's Action and Our
Revolution. Both of these Sanders-backed community-labor coalitions
have campaigned for single-payer health care, immigrants' rights, paid
sick leave, and other working-class causes in the Green Mountain


In 2006, when Sanders was making his first bid for the Senate, 2,500
members of CWA and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers
(IBEW) faced the loss of hard-won contract rights and benefits after
Verizon threatened to sell its landline operations in northern New
England to a small under-capitalized, firm called FairPoint.

Bernie convened a public forum in Burlington, where workers,
consumers, and utility industry experts spoke out against the pending
sale, citing the buyer's precarious financial situation. (FairPoint
would enter Chapter 11 two years later.) Before governors in three
states and their appointed public utility boards hastily
rubber-stamped the ill-fated deal, Sanders, now a newly elected US
senator, brokered an IBEW-CWA meeting with two top executives of
FairPoint. With Bernie in the room, we confronted FairPoint about its
antiunion record. Eager to placate Sanders — and
overcome  opposition to the Verizon sale — FairPoint decided to
remain neutral when CWA and IBEW organized 150 of its non-union
workers in New England.

Nevertheless, in 2014, the company launched an all-out assault on the
wages and benefits of FairPoint's entire workforce, triggering a
bitter 131-day anti-concession strike. Sanders appeared on picket
lines, held a press conference in support of the strikers, and argued
their case in a letter to the company's CEO.  Two year later, when
36,000 members of CWA and IBEW walked out at Verizon to resist
givebacks, Sanders spoke at strike rallies in New York City and
Philadelphia. He publicly criticized the $20 million-a-year
compensation package of Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam, who denounced
Sanders as a "contemptible" meddler in the dispute.

During walkouts last year by thousands of CWA members at the
University of California and AT&T, Sanders rallied strikers in Los
Angeles and Louisville, Kentucky. Throughout his presidential
campaign, he has done the same for other unions. And when he hasn't
been able make personal appearances on behalf of their embattled
members, he has urged his army of supporters to show up instead — at
union picket lines, rallies, and protests. This is an unprecedented
[https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/entry/bernie-sanders-campaign-strike-picket-lines%20-politics] of
candidate solidarity with labor causes.  


Thanks to Sanders' presence in the primary, all of his major
competitors, save for Michael Bloomberg, have paid lip service to
private sector labor law reform.  Joe Biden continues to champions
the PRO Act, a labor law reform package passed last month in the

At the same time, top executives of anti-union firms like Comcast are
hosting fundraising parties for Biden. Corporate lawyers hired to
fight unionization — at firms like Jackson Lewis and Ballard Spahr
— are bundling maximum donations to his campaign
[https://roundcube.mayfirst.org/IYhYJY6dbK2HTxIv/#NOP] . And that's
because the PRO Act won't go any further under Biden than the Employee
Free Choice Act (EFCA) did under the Obama-Biden administration
which claimed to be in favor of "card check" recognition of unions but
prioritized other legislative goals instead. 

Unlike EFCA, the PRO Act doesn't require all employers to recognize
unions if a majority of their workers sign cards affirming their
support. The bill's sponsors act as if just tinkering with the NLRB
election process — while adding language repealing right-to-work
laws in twenty-seven states, legalizing secondary boycotts and
picketing, and banning permanent replacement of strikers — will make
labor law reform more popular on Capitol Hill. This is magical
thinking. As soon as there's any real chance of the PRO Act being
enacted in both the House and Senate, under a new administration,
there will be a concerted employer campaign against it, on a greater
scale far greater than past management opposition to EFCA.

As _In These Times__ _reported
[https://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/22292/pro_act_labor_workers_house_union_democrats_pelosi).] last
month, "card check" is still an avowed goal of Sanders and  Warren"
in "their own plans for empowering workers and labor unions." But
there's a big difference between having labor-related "plans" and
actually intervening in labor disputes to help workers build power —
or fend off management attacks. 


In his response to CWA's 2020 presidential candidate questionnaire
[https://cwapolitical.org/sanders2020/], Sanders spelled out his long
and unusually close working relationship with CWA members
[https://roundcube.mayfirst.org/IYhYJY6dbK2HTxIv/#NOP]  of all
kinds. "The list is not fully comprehensive," he noted. "But it's a
snapshot of our great history together—and a glimpse of how
promising and bold our future together will be, with your support." 

The CWA national union endorsed Sanders in 2016, after a binding
membership poll. UPTE-CWA, which represents 15,000 employees of the
University of California, has already gone ahead with its own Sanders
endorsement, after collecting and sharing information about all
current candidates and letting the rank-and-file decide. Sanders won
with 66 percent. (Warren came in second with 22 percent.) 

But CWA headquarters in Washington still hasn't conducted a national
presidential endorsement poll for 2020 and, some officials are
actively discouraging other locals from backing Sanders on their own,
like UPTE-CWA did.

In Boston, the political action committee of IBEW Local 2222 urged its
several thousand Verizon members to vote for Bernie in the
Massachusetts primary — even though IBEW national officials have
endorsed Biden. That top-down decision led 1,300 working electricians
to sign a protest petition
[https://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/22315/ibew-labor-bernie-sanders-joe-biden-endorsement] demanding
that the union back Sanders instead because of his "transformative
vision for expanding the labor movement, as well as the democracy and
solidarity that his campaign embodies." 

A similar internal union rift occurred in Nevada, when UNITE-HERE
leaders depicted Sanders' support for Medicare for All  as a threat
to negotiated benefit coverage— but many of the
union's rank-and-file members
[https://jacobinmag.com/2020/02/bernie-sanders-nevada-las-vegas-strip-caucus] favored
Sanders anyway. 

Meanwhile, Bernie's primary adversaries — whether corporate backed
or just less committed to labor — are pummeling him from all
directions, with heavy Super-PAC spending on negative ads and debate
stage gang ups. When local unions anywhere have been under equivalent
fire, Bernie has always rushed to their side—without even waiting
for a formal request for help.

If past beneficiaries of Sanders' labor support don't return that
favor soon, they may discover there's a price to be paid, down the
road, for acting like solidarity is a one-way street.

_[Steve Early was an organizer and international union representative
for the Communications Workers of America in New England from 1980 to
2007. He was a founding member of Labor for Bernie in 2015 and has
authored four books on labor and politics, including Refinery Town:
Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of An American City. He can be
reached at [log in to unmask]]_

	* [https://portside.org/node/22340/printable/print]







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