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Do rank-and-file workers support Sanders or Warren?

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People marching behind a banner that says NUHW

Members of the National Union of Healthcare Workers support both. And a Sanders supporter argues that rank-and-file workers can’t be taken for granted.

There is an assumption among some Bernie Sanders supporters that rank-and-file union members and movement activists naturally line up behind Sanders over Warren—and that it’s the leadership of union and movement organizations who are putting their hands on the scales to tip things over to Warren in the name of “pragmatism.”

I don’t think this generalization holds water. Reality is far more complicated and we can’t allow our ideological commitments to get in the way of seeing things clearly.

It’s also sometimes the case that there are leaders of unions and movement organizations who are far more radical/progressive than the rank-and-file and are trying to move their members along. And even rank-and-file activists are prone to making decisions in the name of “pragmatism.”

Case in point: the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) is one of the most militant, democratic and progressive unions in the country. The union also has an incredibly diverse, working class membership and has long championed single-payer healthcare. NUHW representatives voted to endorse Sanders over Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primary by a wide margin.

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I recently attended NUHW’s leadership conference in Anaheim. At the conference, delegates watched videos of candidates seeking their endorsement. NUHW sent links of candidate questionnaires and videos to every one of the union’s 15,000 members via email and text. Each member could vote for up to three candidates. This was not a ranked choice vote. The executive board then interpreted the vote results and issued an endorsement. On September 26, the union announced it is endorsing both Warren and Sanders.

Even though NUHW issued a dual endorsement, Warren came out far ahead of Sanders in the membership vote. Sixty-one percent of members cast ballots to endorse Warren’s candidacy for president, compared with 50 percent who cast ballots for Sanders.

NUHW, one of the most progressive unions out there, just underwent one of the most (if not the most) democratic presidential endorsement processes of any union in the country and Warren came out far ahead.

Why? Based on the conversations I had with multiple NUHW members in Anaheim there was one overriding concern above all others: they sincerely believed that Warren had a better chance of defeating Trump than Sanders, and they thought their co-workers around the state were likely to feel the same. In other words, it was rank-and-file unionists who thought their endorsement needed to be “practical.”

Personally, I believe that Sanders is the best candidate and that his politics represent the best chance we have to beat Trump (and Trumpism). But that is not a position Sanders supporters can take for granted. We shouldn’t trick ourselves into believing that just because Sanders supporters are more diverse and working class than the other candidates’ that this implies that the majority of working class people or people of color will support him over Warren.

We also shouldn’t trick ourselves into believing that the only obstacles standing in the way of unions or social movement organizations supporting Sanders is a conservative leadership. That is obviously the case in some instances, but it’s a lazy generalization that can distort reality rather than clarifying it.

The campaign to elect Sanders is just like any boss fight—we should go into this fight knowing we have to overcome all the fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) that the media is working overtime to pump into everyone’s head (when they talk about Sanders at all): fear of another four years of Trump, uncertainty that we can build electoral majorities around the most progressive political platforms in a generation, and doubt that Sanders can win.

At the NUHW conference in Anaheim, Sanders clearly received the loudest and most enthusiastic response in the room. But workers can be enthusiastic about unionizing when they come together in a meeting and still end up voting against the union when they go to cast their ballots—especially in a strong boss fight, where the CEO tells workers the plant might close, that even if a union is voted in it won’t be able to win anything, and then promises to make some deep changes to address workers’ concerns. 

Just like in any union organizing drive, the Sanders campaign can win only if there is enough on-the-ground organizing to have one-on-one conversations that can move voters beyond their fear, uncertain, and doubt. That means lots of conversations, assessments, actions, and taking nothing for granted.

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