When Hillary Clinton announced her candidacy Sunday, the response from one of the major unions had all the enthusiasm of a slow clap.
“We applaud Secretary Clinton’s decision to begin her campaign by going directly to voters and listening to them first,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka in a statement. “We believe she, and they, will hear an urgent need to raise wages in America, and an equally urgent need to reject corporate-driven agendas that produce everything from tax breaks for the wealthy to destructive trade agreements.”
Clinton’s record with unions is pocked with support for positions that were decidedly unfriendly to organized labor. It wasn’t just her support for free-trade agreements which guys like Trumka hate so much. It was also her ties to companies known for outsourcing—ties that then-Senator Barack Obama used to bash Clinton in their 2008 campaign face-off.
“She is a corporatist,” said John Miano, treasurer for the Programmer’s Guild in New Jersey. “Most people divide politicians between Republican and Democrat; if you are in this business you divide it between the ones that look out for the citizens and the ones who look out for the corporations. There you find the split.”
But it’s not that her relationship with labor is bad, it’s just that it’s complicated. Other labor representatives took a softer tone when discussing their connection with Clinton.
“I think it’s a little unclear. I think she’s been in different places on trade agreements—as senator she did vote against the Central American Free Trade Agreement, but then as secretary of state she took a different position,” said Thea Lee, deputy chief of staff for the AFL-CIO. “It gets a little bit awkward—we are at a delicate moment.”
As several unions gather on Capitol Hill on Wednesday to protest upcoming congressional action to give President Obama trade promotion authority, not-presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) will be by their sides. They’ll argue that the authority would deprive Congress of the power to block bad trade deals—leading to lost jobs for American works.
Clinton, meanwhile, will be in Iowa, far away.
In a June 2014 interview at the Council on Foreign Relations, Clinton seemed to indicate to moderator Richard Haas she would support giving the president the ability to “fast-track” trade agreements—the opposite of what Big Labor wants.
“Right now, I think that’s not likely,” she said of the chances the president would get that authority in time to pass the Trans Pacific Partnership. “But that doesn’t mean that the treaty can’t be presented and considered on its merits.”
She added it would have to be sold to the American electorate as well as Congress and she hoped that case would be made. Clinton’s campaign declined to comment on the TPA issue.
It’s not an answer a labor organizer would love. But for unions, who else is there to pick up the torch? Certainly, not the batch of Republicans—some of whom have pretty much made union-busting a state sport.
You can almost hear the collective sigh.
Deep down—OK, not so deep down—they know they are going to be with her—but that doesn’t mean they are going to let her know right away.
In some ways, it’s a mix of emotions broadly felt on the organized Left, the core supporters of any Democratic candidate. They feel the inevitability of Clinton; they don’t want to give into it without some sort of a fight. For an example, look no further than former Clinton campaign chief—and current New York City mayor—Bill De Blasio. He didn’t endorse Clinton on Day One, mumbling some vague concerns about wanting to see her agenda first. (As if he hasn’t known her well for decades.)
“We haven’t endorsed yet, we haven’t made a decision what we are going to do in the presidential race,” Lee, at the AFL-CIO, said.
She added that she wasn’t sure if there was a precedent for not endorsing a candidate in a presidential contest—particularly in a primary race that is not competitive.
“We will weigh all factors when it’s clear who is and who isn’t in the race,” Lee said.
The last time she ran, the friction between Clinton and labor became a weapon. The Obama campaign used Clinton’s connections to outsourcers to bash her.
“Her record raises serious questions about her ability to create and protect American jobs,” Robert Gibbs, then-communications director for Obama’s campaign, said at the time, according to The Buffalo News.
Clinton was slammed hard for her effort to bring a company called Tata Consulting, an India-based company known for sending jobs overseas, to Buffalo, New York. It was supposed to bring jobs to the region. It actually brought only 10, according to reports at the time.
Miano said Clinton, like a lot of lawmakers, was looking out for corporations more than the American worker.
“She has been a big supporter of these Indian companies and off shoring,” Miano said. “I was in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee a few years ago and a lot of the senators have that same view.”
Miano added the practice of hiring companies from overseas to set up small offices in the U.S. and then ship the rest of the jobs is widespread.
Miano said someone like former Sen. Jim Webb (D-Virginia) would be his choice for a Democratic nominee.
“I’m looking forward to a Hillary Clinton–Jeb Bush presidential campaign,” he deadpanned. “And then I hope to wake up to reality after that nightmare.”
Of course the mistrust between some unions and the Clintons runs deep.
In one of her books, Hillary Clinton noted labor’s dissatisfaction as her husband’s administration prepared to push the North American Free Trade Agreement through Congress in the 1990s.
“Creating a free trade zone in North America—the largest free trade zone in the world—would expand U.S. exports, create jobs and ensure that our economy was reaping the benefits, not the burdens, of globalization,” she wrote in Living History. “Although unpopular with labor unions, expanding trade opportunities was an important administration goal.”
Still, the unions are speaking to her and her staff, Lee said.
“There are a lot of informal conversations with people who might be connected to the campaign,” she said. “I’ll put it that way, at this point in time.”