Democratic Chair Race Stresses Labor Union Allegiance

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By Tyrone Richardson

The top candidates to lead the Democratic National Committee both seek to sharpen the party’s focus on working class voters in a contest that’s already dividing labor unions.

Labor Secretary Thomas Perez is challenging Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) for the DNC’s chairman position. Both candidates have pledged to champion working-class voters, bolstered by long-standing relationships with organized labor.

The contest presents a tough decision for unions about who to endorse in the party’s internal election the weekend of Feb. 23. Perez is widely seen as a party insider, while Ellison made a name for himself by joining Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to push Democrats on trade, minimum wage and other issues.

“It’s a hard choice for unions to decide on candidates,” Will Brucher, a labor history professor at Rutgers University, told Bloomberg BNA Dec. 15. “We saw that 8 years ago when Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were vying for the Democratic nomination, and over the past year with Bernie Sanders and Clinton.” It’s a question of whether we go with the candidate who “reflects our issues closely” or the one “who does not reflect all our issues but has more power.”

The AFL-CIO, American Federation of Government Employees, United Steelworkers and the Communications Workers of America are among the big-name labor groups that have already publicly backed Ellison for the job. The United Food and Commercial Workers has endorsed Perez.

Democratic state party chairs in New Hampshire and South Carolina are also vying for the DNC post.

Two Labor Advocates Square Off

The contest to be the Democratic Party’s chief spokesperson and fundraiser comes as the party looks to reclaim the confidence of working class voters who supported Republicans in the last election. That includes working families in industrial states that leaned Democratic in 2012 but sided with President-elect Donald Trump in November.

The election is a challenge of the party’s long-standing establishment, similar to the one that played out weeks ago when Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) Nov. 30 came up short in a move to unseat House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Ryan’s long-shot campaign centered on shifting the party’s focus to blue-collar workers who felt their concerns were being ignored by the party.

Hans Noel, a political science professor at Georgetown University, told Bloomberg BNA Dec. 15 that the Democratic Party will have to bolster its focus on working-class issues such as employment and trade if it wants to improve its chances in future elections.

“I think whatever happens in the next four years, the Democrats will be pressured to turn to those issues,” Noel said. “Whether they think they completely abandoned them or not they will focus on that group.”

Both Ellison and Perez have been heavily involved in some high-profile labor-related issues in recent months. Ellison joined striking Verizon Communications Inc. workers during their six-week labor dispute in April and May. Perez was credited with helping to usher negotiations for a new labor contract, which returned some 39,000 Verizon employees to work June 1.

The candidates have also supported raising the minimum wage and expanding overtime availability to more workers. Perez pushed for the DOL’s “persuader” rule to broaden disclosure requirements for employers that use advisers, such as law firms, to help them fight unionization drives. A federal judge has since halted the rule with a permanent injunction.

Early Support Leans Toward Ellison

The Obama White House is reportedly supporting Perez, who is also widely believed to be mulling a run for governor in his home state of Maryland in 2018. Perez had been considered a leading candidate for a cabinet position in Hillary Clinton’s administration during her failed run for president.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters Dec. 14 he doesn’t expect Obama to “forcefully endorse” either candidate. Still, Earnest said Perez is someone the president “thinks very highly of.” The labor secretary has “been instrumental in advancing some of the executive actions that President Obama has prioritized,” he said.

“He’s somebody who hasn’t just effectively led that department, he also is somebody who is a forceful and persuasive advocate for the values that animate the policies that he has implemented,” Earnest said during the news conference.

Public support, at least so far, has been largely leaning toward Ellison. That includes former DOL Secretary Hilda Solis, who described him as someone who can “energize” the party and advocate for immigration and working-class issues.

“I know he’s going to fight hard on the minimum wage and he’s going to protect workers rights and he’s going to make sure we take care of our environment,” she said during a Dec. 14 pro-Ellison event organized by Our Revolution, a progressive movement group formed with Sanders.

Many large unions such as the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the United Auto Workers told Bloomberg BNA Dec. 16 that they were either declining to comment about the race or mulling a potential endorsement. The Service Employees International Union, which represents some 2 million workers, has also yet to weigh in.

“We are going to step back and let the selection process play out,” IBEW spokesman Mark Brueggenjohann told Bloomberg BNA Dec. 16. “We are looking forward to working with whomever is chosen as the new DNC chair.”

Unions May Split From AFL-CIO

The AFL-CIO, an umbrella for 55 member unions that represent 12.5 million workers, made its endorsement Dec. 8, before Perez’s announcement days later. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka then described Ellison as a leader who “will focus on year-round grassroots organizing to deliver for working families across America.”

Brucher said that other unions under the AFL-CIO umbrella could follow the UFCW’s lead and “make a different endorsement.” UFCW president Marc Perrone highlighted experience as one of the key reasons the union is backing Perez.

“He understands the realities faced by hard-working families all across America who are desperate for a better life,” Perrone said in a written statement. “Our members saw firsthand his passion and commitment to improving the lives of union workers as he joined with us to push for safer working conditions at poultry plants, and as he fiercely advocated in favor of the Overtime Rule.”

Perez’s camp is expecting his support to build in the weeks leading up to the DNC chair election.

Texas Democratic Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa, a Perez ally, told Bloomberg BNA Dec. 15 that the labor secretary is the kind of strong leader the party needs to fight against the incoming Republican White House.

“There are a lot things we need right now from the party chairman. We need someone who is going to be the spokesman for the party on what we see as a disastrous Trump administration,” he said. “The way he’s putting his cabinet together, he is looking to dismantle things we have done and not just the Obama administration, but all hardworking democratic leaders with everything that affects families in America.”

Perez’s campaign did not respond to Bloomberg BNA’s request for comment Dec. 16.

Ellison said during an event orchestrated by Our Revolution and held at the headquarters of the American Federation of Teachers that he wants to help build a “movement” to push for policies and rights of working Americans and “fights for democracy.”

“What we got to do right now is reset the future of the Democratic party on the basis of grassroots activism,” he said. “We got to reset the Democratic party on the basis of working people who are striving every single day to make a better life for themselves and their families right here in America.”

Criticism of the TPP, Obama Administration

Perez has been criticized for his support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed 12-nation deal that has been pushed by Obama but which Trump has vowed to scrap when he takes office. Labor unions largely opposed the agreement, saying it would make it easier to ship American jobs overseas.

Sanders, who also spoke at the Our Revolution event, said Ellison is outside the “status quo” and a candidate who did not support the TPP.

“For many years, Keith has been there not as a follower, but as a leader” Sanders said then. “Unlike some of the other candidates who are running for chair, Keith from day 1 said that TPP was a disaster for working families, and helped us defeat the TPP.”

Hinojosa fired back, saying Perez championed for labor’s voice to be included in the TPP. He also said Perez had obligation to tout the deal as a member of the president’s cabinet.

“Perez is a member of the administration,” Hinojosa said. “When you’re a member you do what the president tells you to do and that’s part of your job. If you ask anyone in the labor, they will tell you they love Tom Perez and he was a great friend of labor.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Tyrone Richardson in Washington at trichardson@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com

Copyright © 2016 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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