Bernie Sanders Nabs Endorsement From National Nurses' Union

National Nurses United gets behind Clinton's top challenger. "He's about building a social movement for humanistic change," the union's director says.

A national labor union of registered nurses provided another big boost to the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders on Monday, becoming the first major union to endorse the Vermont senator's White House bid.

National Nurses United, which represents 185,000 nurses, most of them women, hosted a brunch with Sanders on Monday in Oakland, California. The union's leadership announced there that they would formally back the senator and campaign on his behalf as he competes with front-runner Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination.

The union's executive director, RoseAnn DeMoro, told The Huffington Post that Sanders had earned the support of NNU's board and had won by a wide margin in a poll of the membership.

"We were stunned by the results," DeMoro said. "It was so overwhelming for Bernie Sanders."

NNU is a relatively young union, launched in 2009 with the merging of several nurses' groups, but it has grown quickly even as unions in general are contracting. A potent force for its relatively small size, the union is known for its grassroots activism and its progressive politics, both of which would make it a logical match for the Sanders campaign. The senator has recently surged in polls and attracted large crowds as he campaigns to the left of Clinton.

The NNU endorsement is one of the strongest indications yet of Sanders' appeal to labor unions, which is shaping up to be a problem for the Clinton campaign. The only other endorsement yet from a major national union broke Clinton's way, from the much larger American Federation of Teachers, which represents 1.6 million workers.

But other unions further to the left may soon follow NNU and declare their early support for Sanders, particularly if they're dismayed by Clinton's hesitance on issues like the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which has been vehemently opposed by organized labor. The most coveted labor endorsement of all -- that of the AFL-CIO union federation, which includes NNU -- is unlikely to come at all during a contested primary. The federation generally waits until a candidate has been settled upon to make its endorsement.

DeMoro, along with other union leaders, recently met with Sanders, Clinton, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb at a closed-door AFL-CIO forum, where the federation's executive council had the chance to survey the Democratic field. (Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was the lone GOP candidate to accept an invitation to the forum.)

DeMoro said she came away from the meetings believing Sanders was the right candidate.

"What he's not about is himself," she said. "He's about building a social movement for humanistic change."

DeMoro said Sanders falls in line with herself and many of the union's members on key issues for them -- fracking, the president's trade deal, a financial transaction tax and nurse-to-patient ratios, to name a few. 

As for the Democratic front-runner, DeMoro said she came away "wondering who Hillary Clinton was."

"She is extremely articulate, but when it comes to being definitive, that wasn't present, and it was disappointing," she said.

DeMoro said the union would "join up with the [Sanders] campaign to help fuel it," adding that "our paradigm isn't money, it's involvement and engagement."

Many unions will take a wait-and-see approach to backing a particular candidate, though others will come out of the gates on the sooner side. NNU leadership said they don't view their endorsement on Monday as an early one, even if most unions are still on the sidelines.

"I don't know that there's an early or a late," DeMoro said. "Whether it's the political season for that, we don't care. What we care about is changing the game."

Deborah Burger, the union's co-president, drew a nursing analogy to explain the timing of the endorsement.

"Nurses believe in intervention and doing an intervention early to make a difference," Burger said. "You don't wait until the decision is made. You intervene to change the outcome of both our patients and the country."