On a downtown street in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, a crowd of Democratic lawmakers led by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi joined striking Verizon Communications workers on the picket lines. The demonstrators, in front of a Verizon store, called on the telecom giant to come to the table and negotiate an alternative to sending jobs overseas and hiring more non-union workers.
“We’re asking Verizon to come to the table, to respect the value of work, to recognize their success is only possible because of the productivity of all of you and all your work,” Pelosi said to the strikers before taking a protest sign and pressing it up against the glass of the store so that it could be seen inside.
At another time, it might have been seen as a typical piece of political theater: Democratic leaders support unions. No big deal. But in the 2016 primary season, almost everything carries some political baggage, and Wednesday’s appearance by House Democrats at the rally was no exception.
In the Democratic primary, underdog Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has seemingly spent as much time attacking frontrunner Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party establishment as Republicans. One of his biggest complaints has been a lack of commitment to the needs of working people -- whose labor unions have lost influence and whose jobs are still being sent overseas -- and excessive deference to Wall Street.
It’s created enormous tension in the Democratic race, as the challenger has wrested typically reliable support -- from labor unions among other groups -- away from the establishment candidate. He’s done it, in part, by using the fact that she gave several speeches to Wall Street for hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece as a cudgel.
Sanders’ attacks on Clinton have also created a lot of worry about how she will be able to unify the party in the general election if, as expected, she eventually wins the nomination.
Wednesday’s demonstration of support from House Democrats for striking Verizon workers offers a hint that Clinton won’t be going it alone in the fight to win back Bernie supporters in a general election.
One major union backer of Sen. Sanders is the 600,000-member strong Communications Workers of America. It was CWA workers who were on the sidewalk in D.C. Wednesday. In fact, with 39,000 of his members out on strike against Verizon Communications for the past 43 days, CWA president Chris Shelton on Tuesday released a statement that read as though it had been cribbed from a Sanders campaign speech.
“Working people across the political spectrum are fed up with Wall Street's overwhelming power in our nation's economy and politics, and with a system that’s rigged against ordinary Americans,” the statement said.
Verizon workers are on strike he said, “precisely because of Wall Street’s excesses.” Demand for ever-increase share prices, he said, is driving U.S. jobs overseas and slashing benefits. “The result is the expanding impoverishment of the middle class that provides a short-term benefit for corporations like Verizon and big Wall Street players but crushes working families and communities.”
He concluded, “We know that people are frustrated by a corrupt system that rewards the billionaire class over working people families. Working together and looking ahead to January 2017, we expect to win this fight against corporate greed.”
It’s similar to the critique that Sanders has leveled not just at Republicans but at Democrats whom he sees as complicit in the process, like Clinton.
Clinton and other Democratic Party leaders strongly reject Sanders’ arguments, claiming that they are very much the party of working Americans. That’s what made the composition of the delegation from the House so interesting.
In her capacity at the top Democrat in the House, Pelosi has not endorsed a candidate in the primary. However, as she rattled off a list of other Democrats who were on the picket line or who had been there earlier in the day, it sounded like a roll call of Clinton endorsers: Reps. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, Nydia Velazquez, Eliot Engel, and Nita Lowey, all of New York, and Mark Takano of California -- all on the record endorsing Clinton for the nomination.
The only Democrat Pelosi named who has not endorsed Clinton was Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, who has not yet endorsed anyone.
Clinton, whose unfavorable ratings are actually worse with Sanders supporters than they are with the general public, looks to have an extremely difficult task ahead of her when it comes to winning them over before November. But on the picket line in D.C. Wednesday, her supporters on the House showed that she won’t be doing it on her own.