Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) scored the first national labor union endorsement of his presidential candidacy on Monday, earning the support of the Pittsburgh-based United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE).
The 35,000-member union, among the country’s smallest, backed Sanders’ 2016 bid and shares his unabashed anti-corporate populism.
“Bernie understands the need for workers to have a democratic, independent union movement that is unafraid to challenge Corporate America’s stranglehold on our economy,” UE General President Peter Knowlton said in a statement.
The UE endorsed Sanders at its national convention in Pittsburgh, and Sanders accepted it in a speech to the group on Monday. In its resolution supporting him in the crowded race for the Democratic presidential nomination, the union cited Sanders’ outspoken support for the UE members employed at a locomotive manufacturing plant in Erie, Pennsylvania, who went on strike in February over concessions demanded by their employer, Wabtec. Among other shows of solidarity, Sanders invited a representative of the striking workers to speak at the kickoff rally for his White House bid in New York in early March.
UE, which does not belong the AFL-CIO labor federation, occupies a radical, independent role in the labor movement that parallels Sanders’ status in Congress. The CIO, a precursor to the AFL-CIO, expelled the UE and other unions in 1949 over their alleged communist sympathies, according to a history on UE’s website.
The mainstream labor movement’s ostracism contributed to the shrinking of UE’s membership but allowed it to stick to its left-wing political views and militant, rank-and-file-driven approach to labor organizing. For example, unlike some labor unions that have either come out against “Medicare for All” single-payer health care or merely given it lip service, the UE actively promotes it and featured it as a key justification for its endorsement of Sanders. (In fact, UE’s support for Sanders goes back to his first victorious run for Congress in 1990, when he defeated both an incumbent Republican congressman and a Democratic challenger.)
In remarks at the convention, Sanders said he was “humbled” to receive the union’s backing. He also hailed the Wabtech strike, which led the company to compromise on some demands, as an example of the kind of worker activism he would like to enliven as president.
“UE’s successful strike in Erie has sent a message to corporate CEOs across the country that it is absolutely unacceptable for profitable corporations to provide obscene compensation packages to executives while ripping off workers and their families,” he said. “Our fight is about the need for an economy that works for all Americans and not just the 1% percent, and we are going to win that fight together.”
Although UE lacks the membership size of its more establishmentarian counterparts in organized labor, it boasts a significant presence in the key general-election battleground state of Pennsylvania. That could help Sanders make his argument that he is the candidate best equipped to defeat President Donald Trump in the once-Democratic industrial states that propelled him to victory in 2016.
National labor unions, which typically refer to themselves as “international” thanks to their membership in Canada, have been slower to endorse presidential candidates in the 2020 presidential primary field.
Aside from UE’s endorsement of Sanders, the International Association of Fire Fighters endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden in April mere days after he announced his candidacy.
Some unions elicited criticism from their members for backing the presidential candidacy of Hillary Clinton early on in the 2016 election cycle, particularly from those who supported Sanders.
In his 2016 run, however, Sanders did pick up the endorsements of more left-leaning unions, including UE, the National Nurses United, the Communication Workers of America and the American Postal Workers Union. Notably, NNU, which operated a pro-Sanders super PAC in 2016, had already endorsed him by this time in the last election cycle.
This has been updated with more information about UE’s support for Sanders in the past.