Bloomberg Gains in Primaries, But His History With Unions May Be a Roadblock

We continue our conversation with Marcie Wells, activist and waitress who is a member of the Culinary Workers Union Local 226 in Nevada, and Hamilton Nolan, labor reporter with In These Times. Nolan says 2020 had been “the most promising election year for organized labor in a long time,” with Democratic candidates releasing platforms with strong labor protections. But Michael Bloomberg’s entry into the race threatens to upend the Democratic Party’s pro-worker shift. The billionaire former mayor of New York has a long track record of hostility toward organized labor, particularly teachers’ unions, whom he has compared to the National Rifle Association. “He is not a great friend of unions,” Nolan says of Bloomberg.

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we continue to look at the race, particularly looking at Michael Bloomberg running for mayor in New York City. He equated a coveted endorsement from the United Federation of Teachers with the, quote, “kiss of death.” He went on to say, in this, quote, “I don’t know what goes through voters’ minds, but maybe they understand if the UFT wants it, it ain’t good and you don’t want that person.” We’re staying with Hamilton Nolan, the In These Times labor reporter. Hamilton, can you talk about this larger union issue and the billionaire presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg, who will take the stage in the debate, presidential primary debate, for the first time tonight in Las Vegas?

HAMILTON NOLAN: Yeah, it’s really very striking, having Bloomberg jump into the race, I mean, because coming into the 2020 race, I think you could make a really good argument that it was the most promising election year for organized labor in a long time. The president was weak. There was a big Democratic field, so unions had a lot of candidates to choose from. The presidential candidates all really competed very strongly for union endorsements. They all put out labor plans that are far more progressive than anything we’ve seen in recent U.S. history. So, unions, I think, are well positioned.

And now you have this megabillionaire jumping into the race, and Mike Bloomberg, as you pointed out, is not well liked by unions, especially in New York, unions that dealt with him when he was the mayor of New York. It’s fair to say he is not a great friend of unions, not superpopular with unions that have dealt with him. And so it’s this wild card in the race. And it’s almost like a cartoon battle now in the Democratic primary, especially if Bernie Sanders ends up being the leading candidate, as he is now. If he keeps up with that and Bloomberg buys his way into the race, I mean, you really have such a strong contrast of visions for the Democratic Party and for organized labor, between, you know: Are people going to back the money, or are they going to back the socialist?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Hamilton, in that vein, it wasn’t just that he was in strong opposition to organized labor. I think that many of the unions, when he left office, hadn’t even been able to get a contract for up to five years, because the mayor refused to grant them any. But he also — in a broader sense, he not only opposed $15 an hour in the raise in the minimum wage; he opposed any raise in the minimum wage. He also opposed paid sick leave when it was passed in New York City. So, many of the issues that go beyond just organized unions but have impact on working people in general, he’s on the side that the Democratic Party has left, supposedly, because all of these issues now, most of the Democratic Party candidates, presidential candidates, support.

HAMILTON NOLAN: Yeah, absolutely. And, I mean, remember, Mike Bloomberg was a Republican not that long ago. And I think, at heart, Mike Bloomberg probably still is a Republican. And Mike Bloomberg’s governing record, in many areas — I mean, obviously, he has issues like climate change and gun control that he touts that he’s been progressive on, but in many areas he governed like a Republican. And it’s kind of shocking to see, you know, Mike Bloomberg decide to run for president and issue a press release and say, “By the way, I was wrong about stop-and-frisk,” for example, when he spent years and years and years defending this policy in New York when he was in control. So, again, I guess the analytical thing to say is, it will be a test of how credulous voters are when he says that he’s changed his heart on all these various issues, compared to what you look at his actual record is.

AMY GOODMAN: Hamilton Nolan, you’ve reported on the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers announcement that it’s endorsing Joe Biden for president. It was his biggest union endorsement campaign so far in this presidential campaign. Then nearly 1,300 IBEW members who support Bernie Sanders sent a letter to union membership asking them to retract that decision. The letter, from the ”IBEW Members for Bernie,” blasts the union’s leadership for endorsing Biden without a vote of members, and says, in part, quote, “[W]e are disappointed that the International has instead thrown their weight behind the Biden campaign without member consultation,” and says they support Sanders’, quote, “transformative vision for expanding the labor movement, as well as the democracy and the solidarity that his campaign embodies.” Talk about the significance of this, and what you think will happen with the IBEW.

HAMILTON NOLAN: Yeah, I mean, there’s really two issues here. The first is kind of the split between progressives and leftists within organized labor and moderates and centrists within organized labor, the establishment of organized labor. Joe Biden obviously has some stronger connections to what you would consider to be the moderate factions of organized labor. He was endorsed by the firefighters. He was endorsed by the ironworkers and by the IBEW, which was his biggest endorsement, more than 700,000 members. And all these unions have factions within them that are far more progressive probably than the union leadership.

And in the case of the IBEW, what you saw was these Bernie supporters within the union put together a letter with a huge amount, 1,300 names, of union members. And the point that they made was not just that they want the union to endorse Bernie, which is not actually what they asked for. What they asked for was a vote of the members for the endorsement. And that’s really the second issue, is union democracy. I mean, I think there’s a fair argument to be made that a labor union making a political endorsement that is not based on a vote of the members is, to a certain extent, meaningless, because it really just means that the head of that labor union, that’s their preferred candidate. You know, if you have a union like the IBEW with 700,000 to 800,000 members and you haven’t done a vote of the members, what does the endorsement really mean? So, that’s what you’re seeing within the IBEW. And I can tell you that the same — the very same thing is happening within other unions that have issued endorsements that the members don’t like, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Marcie Wells, this is the first really diverse state that the primary and caucus is taking place in, the two of the whitest states, Iowa and New Hampshire, now done. And then it goes from Nevada, the caucus on Saturday, down to South Carolina. The significance of this?

MARCIE WELLS: The significance is it will be sort of a test of both the strategies that have been enacted by unions and everyone else, and sort of how much people have been paying attention as individuals. We need to start recognizing the policies that help diverse populations. And it’s pretty clear that Medicare for All is one of those policies that would sort of represent the freedom that a lot of people have been looking for for a long time.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you both for being with us, Marcie Wells, member of the Culinary Workers Union Local 226 in Nevada, very powerful union there, and thanks so much to Hamilton Nolan, labor reporter with In These Times, both speaking to us from Las Vegas, Nevada.