Bernie Sanders has introduced a new phrase into American politics: “working class.”
For decades, hardly anyone has used those two words together. It was far more common to speak of the “middle class” or, more recently, “working families”. By employing the language of class, Sanders has staked out his claim to be the candidate of the trade unions.
In early 2016, when Sanders’ chances of getting elected were considered to be around zero, the leaders of most major American unions rushed to endorse Hillary Clinton. In most cases, members were not asked who they supported, and to many union leaders it made sense to back a candidate whose nomination was seen to be a near-certainty.
Clinton offered little in exchange for that union support, saying only that if she was elected president, “workers will always have a seat at the table and a champion in the White House.”
There were some dissident unions which endorsed Sanders, most notably the communication workers, nurses and postal workers, and a lot of grumbling among rank and file union members who were far more sympathetic to Sanders than some of their leaders were.
Following Clinton’s stunning defeat at the hands of Donald Trump, some in the American labour movement began to have second thoughts.
“Organised labour is still traumatized after the 2016 Democratic primary,” wrote Politico recently. “Several unions endorsed Hillary Clinton early on, only to see the decision backfire when portions of their membership bolted for Bernie Sanders. This year, they’re determined not to make the same mistake.”
The lesson they learned was to endorse no one, not early on in any event, and perhaps to even wait until the Democratic primary battle is over and the party has chosen its candidate in July.
But some unions have already jumped in, supporting their favourite candidates.
Bernie Sanders has once again won the support of the nurses and the postal workers. He was unsurprisingly backed by the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers (UE), a small progressive union that had a historic connection to the Communist Party.
But with most national unions holding back on nominations, local initiatives increasingly matter. Recently, Sanders won the support of the 10,000 member Local 1984 of the Service Employees International Union in New Hampshire. This is expected to make a big difference in the first primary state, which votes on 11 February.
Joe Biden got the endorsement of the fire fighters, as expected. But this week, the 200,000 member Amalgamated Transit Union, which had backed Sanders in 2016, switched sides and endorsed Biden.
Instead of asking their members who to support, the union employed a public opinion pollster, who sampled the membership and decided they wanted the former vice president. The leadership seemed delighted with the result, because in their view Biden is the candidate more likely to defeat Trump.
In the run-up to the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee in July, more unions are likely to make their preferences known. So far, it seems that there is little if any union support for the other Democratic candidates, including the progressive Elizabeth Warren.
If Sanders wins the nomination, it is likely that all the unions will throw their support behind him and this is not an insignificant thing. The 14 million strong American trade union movement may be only a shadow of its former self, but it still has the power to donate millions of dollars to campaigns it supports and to provide many thousands of volunteers.
But even more important than that, a united labour movement backing the most pro-worker candidate the Democrats have ever nominated will be a powerful force to persuade union members who in 2016 showed little interest in Hillary Clinton’s offer of “a seat at the table.” This time, they will have a candidate that really is on their side.
If Bernie Sanders is elected president, it will be due in large part to a group of people that he alone among the candidates calls by its proper name: the working class.
• Eric Lee is convenor of “London for Bernie”, writing here in a personal capacity.