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With Convention Over, Can Clinton Reach Working-Class Voters?

August 1, 2016 
By Steven Wishnia

Philadelphia, PA – The biggest theme of this year’s election is not left vs. right or Democrat vs. Republican, but “establishment versus nonestablishment,” Stefanie Hahn, a 39-year- old National Nurses United member from Berkeley, California, said at a “Bernie or Bust” rally here July 26. “It’s the people at the top making all the money controlling our politics versus the rest of us.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders dramatically ended his bid for the Presidency later that night, deep in the crowded bowl of the Wells Fargo arena, when he moved for the Democrats to nominate Hillary Clinton for President. Yet the rage that defined the primaries remains, the rage of those dispossessed by the economy of the last generation—from middle-aged people whacked by the recession and factory closings to people in their 20s juggling and struggling with precarious gigs, high housing costs, and college debt. Whether Sanders supporters who blame corporate oligarchs or Trump backers who blame Mexican immigrants, they have demanded major economic change.  

“Democrats are the party of working people,” Clinton said in her acceptance speech July 28. “But we haven't done a good enough job showing that we get what you're going through, and that we're going to do something about it.”

Clinton supporters say she is well aware of those issues and has the programs to address them. “We live in the greater context of hardworking people not being able to get ahead, wages flatlined for so long, pensions in turmoil and in jeopardy in some cases,” Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) told LaborPress during the convention. But Clinton is “squarely focused on reducing barriers to opportunity.”

“Whether you are from the Rust Belt or from the states and cities hardest hit by the global recession,” said Tallahassee, Florida Mayor Andrew Gillum, Clinton’s agenda “is congruent with those communities.” Her plans to invest in infrastructure, he added, will “penetrate at every level of society. The architect goes to work. The engineer goes to work. The construction worker goes to work. The food-truck guy who feeds all of the construction workers goes to work.”

Some Sanders supporters aren’t convinced. “I would never vote for Hillary Clinton,” said Andi O’Rourke, communications director for Democratic congressional candidate Dan Smith in the Seattle-Tacoma area. “I don’t approve of the way she and her husband managed the economy the first time around, and I really don’t want to give them a second chance,” she explained, citing the loss of industrial jobs in her native Midwest after the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement. 

“She has a long history of screwing over people in other countries, as well as of not being aware of the struggle of the regular American,” said Gina Paredes, a Sanders delegate from Terre Haute, Indiana—a city she says has been “bleeding good jobs for a long time.” “I don’t believe she really has it at heart to raise the wage to a living wage, but I’d like to see her do that.”

Key Labor Issues
Both Clinton and Sanders supporters, whether elected officials, union members, or grass-roots activists, generally give similar lists of what they consider the most important labor issues facing the country. Raising the minimum wage. Stopping the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, specifically by preventing a vote during Congress’s post-election lame-duck session. Stopping the spread of “right to work” laws. Making it easier for unions to organize, such as by reintroducing the Employee Free Choice Act, a bill that would let unions win the right to represent workers by getting a majority to sign cards. And the “family issues” of paid sick leave, health care, and paid family leave.

“Pensions and retirement security are a huge issue. We have to fight tooth and nail to make sure nobody messes with Social Security,” says Sen. Baldwin.

“Equal pay for women,” said Pete Misinkavitch, one of the Philadelphia union electricians who installed more than 1,000 miles of cable in the arena for the convention. A member of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98, he wore a “We’re With Her” T-shirt with a caricature of Clinton holding hands with a hardhat.

After a year working in the Bakken oil and gas fields in North Dakota, Misinkavitch also believes that environmental issues are crucial. “It’s really bad for the environment, all the fracking. It’s ridiculous,” he said. Creating environmental- infrastructure jobs, such as installing solar panels or building wind farms, would be “awesome.”

“We’ve got to do a better job of making teaching a worthy and honorable profession,” said Clinton delegate Sheryl Abshire, a National Education Association member from Lake Charles, Louisiana. With baby-boomer teachers retiring, she explained, “we’re not filling the ranks with young people, because they don’t see the salary or the benefits or the working conditions, or quite frankly, the respect for teachers and educators that we had back in the ’70s when I started teaching.”

“Social justice,” said Billy Moffett, the Communications Workers of America’s Missouri campaign director. Like the rest of the Missouri delegation, Moffett, who is white, wore a Black Lives Matter T-shirt.

How Can Clinton Reach Voters?

What can Clinton do to reach voters who demand dramatic change, not the incremental policies that have been her trademark? “Honestly, just be a champion,” said Service Employees International Union organizer Wendy Howell, a Sanders delegate from Denver. “Be up front and lead with the issues. I think she’s a little bit uncomfortable with them sometimes, and I think she needs to lose that discomfort.” While Clinton has been “really good about connecting with SEIU’s low-wage workers,” she added, it doesn’t seem that general working-class concerns are “a core issue” for her.

“Get face-to- face with these people. Hear their issues. Get them on the table,” said Clay Smith, political director of National Association of Letter Carriers Local 158 in Philadelphia, taking a break from handing out Clinton signs near the arena’s food court.

“To show that she’s supporting unions, she should say that she will oppose TPP, and there will be no vote on it in the lame-duck session,” said Sanders delegate John Ferguson of Pennsylvania, an official of the Lehigh Valley Labor Council in Allentown. Clinton supporters on the platform committee nixed specific language declaring the party’s opposition to such a vote, however. “She’s the candidate,” Ferguson said. “I’d like to hear it from her.”

In her acceptance speech, Clinton urged people to vote for her “if you believe that we should say ‘no’ to unfair trade deals” and “that we should support our steelworkers and autoworkers and homegrown manufacturers.” She did not get more specific.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer said Clinton’s incremental-policy skills show her practical ability. “As somebody who’s been working in government for 40 years, I believe you have to have a program to fix things and not just talk about it,” she said. “And I think that’s what she’s good at doing.” For example, she added, simply constructing “passive buildings” with thicker walls and windows would significantly reduce the amount of fuel burned to provide heat and air- conditioning.

Barring a significant surge by Green Party candidate Jill Stein (who espouses a “Green New Deal” that she says will create 20 million jobs and convert the country to renewable energy by 2030) or Libertarian Gary Johnson (liberal on social issues such as legalizing marijuana, a hardline free-marketeer on economics), the election will come down to a choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Clinton may
focus on appealing to moderate Republicans who see Trump as irresponsible, rather than pursue an agenda that would offend the wealthy. Trump has fulminated against the TPP and the loss of jobs to low-wage countries, but his businesses have left a trail of stiffed workers and contractors, and the Republican platform calls for a national ban on the union shop (“workplace freedom”) and appears to advocate repealing the federal minimum-wage law. A Republican National Committee statement in mid-July charged that the Democratic Party “encourages paid

“What I would ask the working people of this country that are maybe considering Donald Trump would be, don’t go on a soundbite,” urges Clay Smith. “Do some research. How do these people affect your lives?”

“I’m going to vote Democrat in November,” said Joshua Clennon, a 23-year- old Sanders delegate from Harlem, but he believes Clinton needs to do more to earn the votes of the Vermont senator’s supporters. “It’s our role as young people to push the path of the party and hold our elected officials accountable,” he said. “We heard a lot about Trump during this convention and not enough about Black Lives Matter. We
have citizens being slaughtered in the street like animals, and none of our elected officials are doing anything about it.”

Stefanie Hahn is committed to organizing a third party, but said she would vote for Clinton if she lived in a state Trump might win. Sanders “mobilized more people than we’ve ever seen on the progressive side,” she said. “What we’re going to do is use this energy and use this movement to continue to fight for the causes we believe in and to put progressives into office.”

“I’m a Bernie delegate. He asked us to get behind her, and I think we all should now,” said John Ferguson. “Because our alternative is Donald Trump wants to ship our jobs overseas. He wants to do ‘right-to- work.’”

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