Before the 1992 Democratic primaries, Bill Clinton was hardly the favored candidate of organized labor. Unions in Arkansas faulted the governor for his state’s right-to-work law, low wages, unsafe working conditions and for backing management during strikes. “Bill Clinton is mainly the friend of big business,” the head of the Arkansas AFL-CIO said at the time. Many unions threw their early support behind Iowa Senator Tom Harkin. With a few major exceptions, Clinton earned labor’s endorsement by default after he won the party’s nomination.
Upon securing labor’s blessing, Clinton accused President George H.W. Bush of “sucker-punching” American workers and pledged a “common commitment” to the “forgotten middle class.” Those words soon rang hollow, as Clinton’s presidency confirmed labor’s worst suspicions. Clinton scrapped an economic stimulus package in favor of balancing the budget, appointed Wall Street bankers like Robert Rubin and Roger Altman to top positions in the Cabinet and ferociously twisted arms to pass the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and subsequent trade pacts. Bill and Hillary Clinton rejected single-payer healthcare reform in favor of a complicated “managed care” plan meant to appease the private sector and only tepidly supported a strikers’ bill of rights, which failed to pass Congress. He named a good progressive, Robert Reich, as Labor Secretary but gave decision-making power affecting labor and the economy to Rubin and Altman and, later, political strategists Dick Morris and Mark Penn. By 1996 Reich had resigned, accusing Clinton of selling out.
Despite this poor record, Clinton defanged much of labor’s hostility through his personal charm, by cultivating friendships with top union bosses and signing union priorities like the Family and Medical Leave Act and repealing antilabor executive orders from the Reagan and Bush I era. By the end of his presidency, attitudes in labor circles were decidedly mixed. Depending on whom you asked, Clinton was either “a rose in the middle of the desert” or “a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” says Mark Smith, president of the Iowa AFL-CIO.
Today, operating in a very different political climate, Hillary Clinton has been careful to avoid animosity from labor in her own run for the presidency. As a senator from union-friendly New York, she has shown solidarity with battered upstate industrial cities and built close ties to the local labor movement, receiving an enthusiastic endorsement and “favorite sister” status from the New York AFL-CIO. She’s courted labor nationally as well, championing issues like the Employee Free Choice Act, dining with union bosses and recruiting veterans from labor, such as Mike Monroe of the Painters’ Union, to work on her staff. Her campaign treats labor officials with respect, returns their calls and solicits their opinions. She asked to hold a recent forum with the AFL-CIO in Detroit, a city ravaged by deindustrialization and trade policies like NAFTA. At her frequent appearances before labor crowds, she’s well versed and usually at ease, earning respectful and sometimes boisterous ovations.