SILVER SPRING, Md. — It’s no secret to Hillary Clinton’s campaign that it won’t win the backing of the country’s most powerful labor organization quite yet.
Instead, the Democratic front-runner’s machine is turning its attention to individual leaders one by one, looking to methodically win over unions as she faces off against an insurgent Bernie Sanders — a longtime union ally whose fiery rallies have riled up rank-and-file labor members across the country.
Clinton spent about an hour with the AFL-CIO’s executive council on Thursday, with the ultimate goal of securing the formal endorsement of the federation of 57 labor unions and the political organization and millions of dollars in campaign money that would come with it. But while Sanders shows staying power in the early-voting states, the organized labor movement sees an opportunity to gain leverage over the party’s likely nominee, whose labor bona fides are still a topic of debate among some activists.
As a result, Democrats associated with multiple campaigns don’t see the AFL-CIO taking the rare step of backing a candidate in the Democratic primary anytime soon, even if they expect it to eventually back Clinton and to keep urging local groups to stop backing Sanders.
The Clinton campaign’s targets in the meantime? Some of the prominent unions that make up the AFL-CIO.
The first to make its own endorsement was the 1.6-million member American Federation of Teachers, which endorsed Clinton in July and whose president, Randi Weingarten, is among the most senior and influential members of the AFL-CIO’s executive council.
Weingarten is a friend of Clinton’s and sits on the board of Priorities USA Action, the super PAC backing her White House run. But Weingarten’s real influence as Clinton continues to court labor is coming behind closed doors in conversations with other labor leaders whose unions will unveil endorsements as soon as August.
While Sanders touted the results of a recent CNN poll matching him up against Republicans in his own meeting with union leaders yesterday, Weingarten has been making the case that Clinton is by far the likelier candidate to win a general election.
“What we need is, we need to win in changing that balance [of power], not just fight to change that balance,” Weingarten said Wednesday. “And so our union believes that Hillary Clinton is the one who’s going to be able to do that.”
Clinton didn’t make the electability argument directly in her well-received talk with union leaders on Thursday. But she suggested that the next eight years represent a do-or-die moment for labor.
“I thought she talked about the election in realpolitik terms,” one labor official who is partial to Clinton said. “That the future of the labor movement may be determined by who wins this presidential race … If [Republicans] get the White House, they will go for the jugular, they’ll go for the kill.”
Sources in the room who represent both sides of the Clinton/Sanders divide acknowledged that she gave an impressive performance. One person in the room who prefers Sanders said the former secretary of state faced a receptive audience: “She’s got a lot of friends up there, but so does Bernie.”
Meanwhile, Clinton’s campaign continues to woo labor leaders through back channels. Democrats familiar with labor unions’ thinking have suggested that large unions — like the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, which backed her over Barack Obama in 2008 — are leaning toward a Clinton endorsement. (AFSCME’s president Lee Saunders issued a statement praising Clinton in April, and he appeared with her in Washington shortly before her campaign launch.)
Clinton has also spent time courting the Service Employees International Union, the 1.8 million member union unaffiliated with the AFL-CIO that’s behind the Fight for $15 movement. She appeared by video at a Fight for $15 convention in Detroit in June, though she has since avoided endorsing a national $15 hour minimum wage.
Meanwhile, Clinton’s campaign has added to its ranks to personally appeal to labor. The campaign hired its own labor liaison in its early stages, bringing on Nikki Budzinski, a well-respected former organizer of the powerful United Food and Commercial Workers, a major Democratic donor and the labor group behind nationwide Wal-Mart protests.
Clinton campaign Chairman John Podesta hosted about two dozen labor leaders at his house in July. And the candidate has enlisted scores of labor economists and policy experts to craft proposals designed to meet the AFL-CIO’s central demand for 2016: raising wages.
Nonetheless, another Democratic candidate, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, made waves on Wednesday by opening his own meeting by jabbing at Clinton’s close ties to Wall Street-allied economists. And some labor activists remain wary of Clinton’s own ties to Wal-Mart — where she was once a board member. Clinton is also out of step with the AFL-CIO on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.
Sanders and O’Malley took firm stances against last month’s vote to give Obama fast-track trade promotion authority, and U.S. Steelworkers president Leo Gerard pressed Clinton on the issue during her meeting on Thursday. Still, the candidate did not budge from her wait-and-see posture.
“We had several conversations about trade in general and about the TPP in particular,” Clinton told reporters. “At this point I’m hearing from various players who are involved in the negotiations that there have been some changes in a direction that I personally might approve, but I don’t know if there have been enough changes and I won’t know until I actually see what’s been negotiated.”
While cultivating its own support among union activists, the Clinton team is also avoiding head-to-head battles with Sanders, with whom many labor activists are close due to his longstanding union ties in Washington and Vermont. Much of his pitch to the group on Wednesday was based around how he has been working with labor for decades, according to multiple people who were in the room.
Clinton spoke with the AFL-CIO executive council one day after Sanders did, and her campaign declined an invitation to next week’s Iowa AFL-CIO’s State Conference, a Sanders-friendly setting. (Clinton attended that conference in 2008, where she faced off with her then-challenger, Barack Obama.)
Instead, after being the only candidate to attend both the recent AFSCME Council 61 meeting and the Iowa State Education Association Summer Leadership conference last weekend, Clinton will be raising campaign money in Utah, Oregon, California, and Texas, according to fundraiser invitations reviewed by POLITICO.
But Clinton did not appear worried about the direction of labor support after her Thursday meeting, saying she saw “a lot of old friends, some new faces” in the room.
Clinton’s slow-burn approach to wooing labor comes as Sanders’ campaign appears red hot among union leaders and the rank-and-file membership. The Vermont senator has been attracting thousands of union members at appearances throughout the country, and over 5,000 union members — and some leaders — have signed onto the “Labor for Bernie” campaign.
A pair of local AFL-CIO chapters in Vermont and South Carolina recently even passed resolutions to break protocol and endorse Sanders, spurring the national group’s president Richard Trumka to send a memo to chapters around the country, ordering them to stop.
And while Clinton’s camp continues to work on individual unions, Sanders is also making headway. National Nurses United intends to make an endorsement by September, its director RoseAnn DeMoro told reporters on Wednesday before appearing with Sanders at a rally in Washington on Thursday.
“Let’s just be real. Bernie Sanders’ issues align with everybody in organized labor from top to bottom,” DeMoro said on Wednesday.
And without officially tipping her hand on Thursday, DeMoro went even further while speaking before him in the shadow of the Capitol.
“I get to introduce someone who’s got 40 years of fighting for everything we hold precious in our lives,” she said of Sanders. “And I’m extremely proud to do that.”
Read more: http://www.politico.com/story/2015/07/hillary-clintons-strategy-to-woo-l...