Hillary Clinton owes her success during the 2016 election to the support of labor unions and the workers whom they represent. However, a disparity undeniably lies between Clinton’s uplifting, pro-worker rhetoric on the campaign trail and her somewhat problematic history on labor issues.
After winning a long-fought and incredibly contentious series of primary elections against populist firebrand Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has made it clear that one of her priorities leading up to the November general election is to connect further with laborers in industries from service to manufacturing in order to gain a more complete understanding of life in working-class America. She has sent figures such as our unabashedly pro-labor Vice President Joe Biden to stump for her on the campaign trail about her dedication to fighting for the values and needs of organized labor. For example, last month, in his hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania, Biden gave a rousing speech to a crowd of mostly white, working-class voters, reiterating Clinton’s steadfast support for the middle class that labor built. “If you worry about your job, getting decent pay, if you worry about your children’s education, if you’re taking care of an elderly parent after losing the other one, then there’s only one person in this election who will possibly help you, and that is Hillary Clinton,” Biden emphatically cried.
Upon first glance, one would likely assume that Clinton’s relationship with labor unions, as well as with the working- and middle-class voters which said unions represent, is cordial and steadfast. Look, for example, at the endorsements she received last winter and spring while campaigning against Sanders: Clinton was endorsed by unions such as the American Federation of Teachers (representing 1.6 million workers), the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (representing 725 thousand workers), the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (representing 1.3 million workers), the Service Employees International Union (representing 1.9 million workers), and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (representing 1.3 million). After the primary season, she received the endorsement of America’s largest union, the AFL-CIO. When looking at her platform, it becomes clear why unions seem to hold Clinton in such a high regard. On her site, she vows to “restore collective bargaining rights for unions and defend against partisan attacks on workers’ rights,” “raise the minimum wage and strengthen overtime rules,” “protect workers from exploitation,” and “ensure policies meet the challenges families face in the 21st century economy.” Clinton at least vaguely appears to promise, if elected, to fight to protect the middle class and to expand on the gains that have been made by organized labor.
Clinton Ignored the Needs of Arkansas’s Teachers as First Lady of the State
However, her record, whether from her time as First Lady of Arkansas or her tenure as Secretary of State, remains truly unsettling in some regards. Frankly, her record on labor issues doesn’t come close to matching her rhetoric during this election cycle. Perhaps the earliest example of Clinton’s blindness to the needs of the labor community took place during her time as the First Lady of Arkansas more than thirty years ago. Her first truly public political role, even before she served as husband Bill Clinton’s health care czar during his first term as President, was her role as the appointed head of an executive task force working to overhaul Arkansas’s education system. One of the initiatives set forth by the task force was forcing public school teachers to take basic skills tests in order to retain their jobs. “It was overwhelmingly Hillary’s idea,” said Dick Morris, a strategist who worked for the Clintons in the 1980s and played a key role in this education reform.
The Arkansas Educational Association, the Arkansas branch of the National Educational Association, heavily criticized this maneuver. “I believe the governor’s teacher testing bill has done inestimable damage to the Arkansas teaching profession and to the image of this state,” Peggy Nabors, the president of the Arkansas Educational Association, wrote in 1983. Nabors later referred to the bill, containing many provisions put forth by Hillary Clinton, as “a radical departure from what educators or the makers of standardized test themselves believe is appropriate or fair.” This provision, though, was what convinced many Republicans and independents in Arkansas to agree to go along with then-Governor Bill Clinton’s educational bill, and, through the use of their trademarked brand of triangulation, allowed the Clintons to keep a steady hand over the affairs of a state that was at the time growing redder and redder. Alas, as it stands, unionized public school teachers suffered more than anyone else as a result of this provision.
Clinton Found Success in Working for Anti-Worker Walmart
Clinton’s ties to prominent anti-labor movements and forces don’t end there. From 1986 to 1992, Clinton, then a practicing corporate lawyer, served on the board of Arkansas-based retailer Walmart, a corporation known for its unsafe working conditions, alleged sex discrimination, and overtime theft. During this time, Walmart was pushing for many anti-labor initiatives that would ban workers from unionizing. In 1988, Walmart brought John Tate, an anti-union activist, onto the board of Walmart. Tate was well-known for his not-so-catchy catchphrase about collective bargaining rights: “Labor unions are nothing but blood-sucking parasites living off the productive labor of people who work for a living.” Clinton, according to ABC News, never spoke out in defense of labor unions in any of the more than twenty meetings that were taped. “She was not a dissenter,” Donald Soderquist, vice chairman during Clinton’s tenure, told The Los Angeles Times in 2007. “She was a part of those decisions.”
Clinton, in fact, often espoused vague praise for the work that Walmart was doing while she served on its board. “I’m always proud of Walmart and what we do and the way we do it better than anybody else,” Clinton said at a 1990 shareholders’ meeting. In her memoir, Living History, Clinton says Sam Walton, anti-union founder of Walmart, “taught [her] a great deal about corporate integrity and success.” Clinton’s ties to Walmart continue today; last December, Alice Walton, daughter of Sam, donated $350,000 to the Hillary Victory Fund. Labor hasn’t always responded kindly to these facts. For example, Joe Thayer, former chair of the Lorain County AFL-CIO, proclaimed that Clinton’s deep ties to Walmart are problematic as Walmart is “100 percent against anything and everything that labor should be taking a stand for.” Harriet Applegate, chair of North Shore Federation of Labor in Ohio, notes this hypocrisy as well. “How could anybody who relates to labor ever, ever, ever, ever say yes to being on the board of Walmart?” she asked. “That’s so many orders of magnitude removed from a labor perspective. I think that’s really telling. … Anybody who could say yes to that would have to be not one of us or even close to being one of us. … I don’t care when in her career it was. Walmart was never a good guy.”
Clinton on Free Trade: Any Way the Wind Blows
Perhaps the biggest source of contention, though, that exists between Secretary Clinton and the labor unions that have helped and will continue to help her win elections is her history of favoring free-trade agreements. As First Lady, she frequently lauded the North American Free Trade Agreement, saying in 1996 that it had “proved its worth.” In 2000, while running for Senate in New York, Clinton campaigned heavily on bringing China into the World Trade Organization and uniting our two nations further with permanent normal trade relations. Most recently, as Secretary of State, Clinton pushed for foreign governments to sign onto the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, a trade deal that Clinton has repeatedly called the “gold standard” of trade deals.
Though she now claims not to support trade deals that prove harmful to American workers, Clinton’s previous support of free trade deals has ties to some quite harmful ramifications. According to Robert Scott of the Economic Policy Institute, NAFTA has cost mostly industrial, mostly unionized American workers 700,000 jobs since its implementation. China’s admittance to the WTO, on the other hand, has cost the nation’s workers roughly 3,000,000 jobs. This has had an undeniable effect on private sector union membership, dropping from 16% in 1993 to less than 7% in 2014. The outsourcing of jobs hasn’t only impacted the manufacturing, though; workers without college educations in all sectors have seen a dramatic decrease in wages, with said workers losing an average of $2,000 a year according to the EPI.
Clinton may very well have adopted Senator Sanders’ populist, protectionist rhetoric now after making her way to the general election, but questions linger about her dedication to the interests of organized labor… and rightfully so. Her vice presidential pick Tim Kaine’s views on the Trans-Pacific Partnership also prove problematic, demonstrating that it’s truly difficult to attempt to predict which path a Clinton White House would take on trade. Kaine, whose tenure as Governor of Virginia was marked by his dedication to upholding the state’s anti-union “right-to-work” laws, effusively praised the Trans-Pacific Partnership as recently as July 21, just one day before it was announced that he was to be Clinton’s running mate. “I see much in it to like,” Kaine said at a forum in Virginia. “I think it’s an upgrade of labor standards, I think it’s an upgrade of environmental standards. I think it’s an upgrade of intellectual property protections.” On July 23, he went on record to say that he wouldn’t support the deal in its current form, marking a rapid shift in viewpoint. It is, at the moment, incredibly difficult to discern just where Kaine and, by extension, Clinton lie on this pressing issue, and labor should expect more.
Democrats Need to Tread Lightly, and Labor needs to Demand More
The Democratic Party truly needs to find a way to tread lightly during this election cycle in regards to dealing with an alienated, disenchanted working class. Though it is true that, in the past, workers’ unions and the laborers whom they represent have widely (and often reluctantly) endorsed middle-of-the-road Democrats in favor of über-corporate Republicans in high-profile races, the 2016 presidential race is something of an anomaly. Donald Trump, the Republican nominee, has, despite his anti-union past in the private sector, captivated a more socially-conservative faction of the working class through his promises to move away from free-trade agreements and his depiction of Clinton as an out-of-touch member of the political elite.
The rhetoric that Clinton and her surrogates have used on the campaign trail truly paints a picture of someone dedicated to fighting for working- and middle-class families, but such words truly seem hollow in light of past positions and policies. It is essential, to make her campaign promises seem more authentic, for Clinton to acknowledge the harm that policies that she has previously supported have caused. It is mandatory, for her words to hold any weight, that Clinton explain why she vocally supported welfare “reform,” bank deregulation, and free-trade agreements during her husband’s presidency. It is necessary, to draw the working-class back into the political conversation, that Clinton discuss why it took her so long to begin discussing halting the development of the Trans-Pacific Partnership or pushing for a $15 minimum wage. Until Clinton is able to reconcile campaign promises with past policies, the very unions that helped her win the primary (and will likely carry through the general) election must do what is both uncomfortable and necessary and hold her accountable to ensure that the Democratic Party remains true to the workers it claims to represent.
- Copyright: Evan El-Amin