Former Labor Union Heads Helping Presidential Campaigns

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By Tyrone Richardson

Jan. 6 — Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are tapping into some labor union resources as part of their strategies to win the White House this year.

The two presidential candidates are each enlisting a former president of a large national labor union to assist in their campaigns. The unpaid campaign liaisons add layers of organized labor know-how, and most importantly, the potential to rally scores of card-carrying union members to participate in campaign drives, union presidents and university professors told Bloomberg BNA Jan. 4-5.

For candidates, “at this stage in the game it's all about getting unions to support you,” said Richard Hurd, associate dean and professor at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

Labor unions have a long history of providing support, especially at the grassroots level, for presidential candidates. The unions historically have backed Democratic candidates.

There have also been instances where unions have supported Republican presidential candidates, including the International Brotherhood of Teamsters' endorsement of George H.W. Bush for president in 1988. That support followed the IBT endorsing Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984 (149 DLR A-9, 8/2/00).

Clinton, for example, has gained the support of R. Thomas Buffenbarger, the longtime president of the 600,000-member International Association of Machinists. He retired Jan. 4, and will be serving as a campaign surrogate and labor liaison within Clinton's campaign, union officials have told Bloomberg BNA (248 DLR A-7, 12/29/15).

Buffenbarger served 18 years as IAM president before stepping down in accordance with the union's constitutional requirement that senior elected officials leave office at age 65.

He assumes the post within Clinton's campaign several months after former Communications Workers of America President Larry Cohen joined Sanders' presidential campaign in a similar role in July.

Cohen stepped down as CWA president in June, ending a decade at the helm of the 700,000-member union (242 DLR A-7, 12/17/15).

In Lock-Step With Candidates

Buffenbarger and Cohen told Bloomberg BNA they decided to join the presidential campaigns because they believe in the causes of their Democratic candidates, especially with respect to workers' rights.

Cohen, for example, said he believes in the power of Sanders' “movement” building, in areas such as raising the nation's minimum wage and offering equal pay for women.

The idea echoes Cohen's speech during the CWA's 75th convention in Detroit in June. During his final address as president of the union, Cohen highlighted how even after he retired, he would seek to focus on new methods of building the labor movement (109 DLR A-10, 6/8/15).

Joining the Sanders campaign is a way to do that, Cohen said Jan. 4. “I have never met anyone as committed to the same values. He's fighting for the working people.”

Bloomberg BNA was unsuccessful in reaching Sanders for comment Jan. 4-6.

Mobilizing Union Support

Together, Cohen and Buffenbarger have led a combined union membership totaling about 1.3 million.

That could translate into droves of supporters working in their candidate's favor, according to Michael LeRoy, a professor at the School of Labor and Employment Relations at the University of Illinois.

“Unions have a very sophisticated ‘get out the vote' methodology, including the phone banks back in the 1980s,” LeRoy said. “Part of this is just the know-how to tap into contacts that these senior-level labor people have. It's not so much about they have specialized know-how as it has to do with their contacts to help broaden the base.”

Cornell's Hurd said Buffenbarger and Cohen have long-established contacts at the highest levels of the nation's labor unions.

They both have the potential to rally their former unions and convince other organized labor groups to help mobilize members to work for presidential candidates.

“If a national union president publicly supports a candidate, that usually means that other union officers, staff and members will actively support that candidate,” Hurd said. “Once a national union has endorsed a candidate, then affiliates in states with presidential primaries will provide grassroots support, not only reaching out to members but also getting activists to volunteer for the campaign.”

Buffenbarger told Bloomberg BNA Jan. 5 that he intends to rally IAM members to help Clinton, who remains the front-runner for the Democratic party nomination.

“The IAM has good membership numbers and the ability to gather IAM member help,” he said. “It's about having all forces going to work for Clinton.”

History of Political Actions

Hurd said it's a “natural” fit for the former union heads to have longtime relationships with other union presidents.

“Unions are big political players in the Democratic party. They are involved especially in general elections and working with Democrats at the congressional level and some moderate Republicans on the state level,” Hurd said. “That said, it's not surprising that these former union presidents who have had a career in labor unions, are involved in presidential campaigns.”

The impact of Buffenbarger and Cohen remains to be seen, however, according to David Karol, an associate professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Karol said political campaigns are comprised of staffers, volunteers and several specialized committees made up of people from various backgrounds.

“They will have staff and committees and it's a way to signal support in that sector and the extent which they are active in the campaign varies a lot,” Karol said.

Karol added that Clinton might have tapped Buffenbarger to counter Sanders' help from former CWA president Cohen.

“She wants to limit the inroads he can make, even in this sector,” he said. “Unions are still important going forward and they are a key part for Democrats in battleground states.”

In terms of formal union support, Sanders' endorsements have paled compared to Clinton, who has received several union endorsements in recent months, including that of the 2 million-member Service Employees International Union (221 DLR A-6, 11/17/15).

In addition to the CWA, Sanders's formal union endorsements include the 200,000-member American Postal Workers Union and the 185,000-member National Nurses United (218 DLR A-15, 11/12/15).

Officials within Clinton's campaign did not respond to Bloomberg BNA's requests for comment Jan. 4-6.

Buffenbarger is not the only former union executive working in Clinton's campaign. In 2015, Clinton's campaign tapped Nikki Budzinski to serve as its labor outreach director.

The former political director of the United Food and Commercial Workers is tasked with serving “as the Clinton campaign's liaison to the labor movement—seeking the input of unions and their members on issues important to working families,” according to the UFCW's national website.

Influence Already Paying Off?

Cohen's influence already could be benefiting Sanders. The CWA Dec. 17 endorsed Sanders to be the next U.S. president (242 DLR A-7, 12/17/15).

The union has described the endorsement as the result of a “democratic process” that included “hundreds of worksite meetings and an online vote by tens of thousands of CWA members on which candidate to endorse.”

Hurd said Cohen's history with the CWA might have helped garner the union's endorsement.

“It is not surprising that members of the union Cohen comes from are supporting the person he's now working for,” Hurd said. “He's lost (CWA presidential) power, but even though he has, he hasn't lost influence of shared values.”

The endorsement also followed Sanders joining in on some union protests in recent months, including speaking at a CWA protest in October against Verizon Communications. The telecommunication giant and the CWA are entangled in extended contract negotiations for about 39,000 workers in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions (120 DLR A-4, 6/23/15).

Clinton Builds History With Union

As for Buffenbarger, his post within Clinton's campaign comes months after the IAM Aug. 14 endorsed the former senator and secretary of state to be the next U.S. president (157 DLR A-9, 8/14/15). The endorsement came from a unanimous vote by union leaders and “an internal survey” of IAM members, union officials have said.

The IAM's endorsement announcement referred to Clinton as an “honorary IAM member.” It also included comments from Buffenbarger, who described Clinton as an advocate for workers' rights.

“Hillary Clinton's long record of supporting workers’ rights stands in stark contrast to her Republican rivals, who seek to ban unions, silence workers, eliminate sensible regulations and give corporations total control over working conditions,” Buffenbarger said as part of the announcement.

During an interview with Bloomberg BNA Jan. 5, Buffenbarger said he was impressed by Clinton and her beliefs dating back to when she was First Lady and her husband Bill Clinton served as U.S. president from 1993 to 2001. Buffenbarger said he also spent time with Clinton on the campaign trail leading up to the 2008 presidential election.

In 2008, the IAM endorsed then-Sen. Barack Obama to replace President George W. Bush. The union's nod came after Clinton, a senator from New York at the time, spoke at an IAM convention earlier that month and urged the union to back Obama.

Buffenbarger said Clinton's latest bid for the White House is “restating” the ideas that have echoed throughout her history.

“She's fighting for the everyday Americans and working people and to make this country whole again,” Buffenbarger said Jan. 5.

New Life for Former Union Officials

The unpaid posts keep Buffenbarger and Cohen from slowing down, Cornell professor Hurd said.

“These are presidents who are very busy and were making decisions every day for the union. To go from that to downright retirement would be very difficult for them,” he said. “To have them in an active role within a presidential campaign would make sense.”

The fate of the former union heads is unknown once the presidential campaign season ends. Both Buffenbarger and Cohen told Bloomberg BNA they are not actively seeking a position within a winning president's administration.

“I don't want anything, I just want her to win,” Buffenbarger said about Clinton.

Cohen said was not seeking a paid post with Sanders, partly because he receives a pension from the CWA.

“It's really a labor of love,” Cohen said. “I think the guy is amazing and the way he fires up the crowd of first-time and young voters is just wonderful.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Tyrone Richardson in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Susan J. McGolrick at