In the friendliest way they could, 9,000 members of the Service Employees International Union decided to make a break with the union’s national leadership on Thursday.
Earlier this week, the national SEIU endorsed Hillary Clinton. But two days later, SEIU Local 1984 — which represents the majority of state workers in New Hampshire — announced it is endorsing Bernie Sanders.
Officials from the New Hampshire union and the SEIU’s national headquarters stressed that the the differing endorsements do not suggest a rift inside SEIU over the presidential race. But the backing of New Hampshire’s SEIU local gave a boost to Sanders in a week that’s seen the Vermont senator on the defensive over his politics, foreign policy, and his ability to woo significant parts of the Democratic political establishment to his cause.
The Sanders campaign touted the New Hampshire endorsement as evidence rank-and-file union members are behind their man.
“No matter what happens inside the Beltway, today’s news shows without a doubt that the passions of working families are clearly with Bernie,” Julia Barnes, Sanders’s New Hampshire state director, said in a statement.
That’s a better story for Sanders than yesterday, when Sanders told PBS, “What you are going to see all over this country is leadership sometimes doing things that I think the rank-and-file don’t support” when asked about the SEIU endorsement. He singled out the fact that New York’s huge SEIU 1199 local had not announced an endorsement yet. Hours later, the local released a statement supporting the endorsement of Clinton.
Officials at SEIU in Washington said their endorsement of Clinton came in part from polls of the rank-and-file as well as hundreds of meetings across the country to discuss the presidential race. In the end, the union decided not to endorse either of the two candidates running in support of a $15 federal minimum wage — a signature issue at the SEIU — and instead backed Clinton, who supports a $12 minimum wage.
In New Hampshire, byzantine union rules dating back to 1984 when the union representing New Hampshire state workers joined up with the SEIU — that’s where the “SEIU Local 1984” comes from — allow the local to make its own endorsements regardless of what the international does. SEIU locals have made endorsements on their own before, such as when some locals endorsed President Obama ahead of the international in 2008, but officials at both the SEIU national and the 1984 local in New Hampshire declined to say how often the union in the first primary state and the overarching national union back different presidential candidates.
The New Hampshire union represents 11,000 mostly state workers and has around 9,000 active members. The endorsement from 1984 came out of a poll of members and meetings of the union’s leadership.
The local’s has the potential to be a significant ground army for Sanders in New Hampshire, but it’s not likely to translate into the kind of political spending the national SEIU will likely be doing on behalf of Clinton.
“We don't have the resources to do a media buy,” SEIU 1984 spokesperson Beth D'Ovidio told BuzzFeed News. She said the local’s political team is still figuring out how it will work to help Sanders win in New Hampshire.
D'Ovidio said that the 1984 endorsement shouldn’t be taken as evidence that rank-and-file members are in open revolt against the SEIU’s leadership.
“We don't have any big beef with anybody, everybody's playing for the same team,” she said. “I don't think there's going to be any kind of competitiveness. We're basing this on the issues and not the person.”
Evan McMorris-Santoro is the White House correspondent for BuzzFeed News.
Contact Evan McMorris-Santoro at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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