Samuel Gompers, the immigrant cigar maker who led the American Federation of Labor from the 1880s to the 1920s, argued that the purpose of political action by trade unionists was to “reward our friends and punish our enemies.”
Today, when election endorsements by labor unions are often portrayed as little more than component parts of the broader bureaucracy of contemporary politics, the Gompers premise might sound old-fashioned. Yet it still comes into play now and again, as with the American Postal Workers Union endorsement of Bernie Sanders illustrates.
Unions have divided with regard to the Democratic presidential race, as have environmental groups and other organizations that frequently support the party and its candidates. Front-runner Hillary Clinton has attracted a number of major national endorsements, from the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Sanders has the support of National Nurses United, the activist union that has been in the forefront of the fight for single-payer healthcare, along with endorsements from union locals in key states—such as International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local Union 490 and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 560 in New Hampshire. And now he has the 200,000-member postal workers union.
The APWU endorsement recalls the historic “reward our friends” calculus, as Sanders has for years been an ardent congressional advocate for postal workers and the United States Postal Service. Long before he considered presidential politics, the senator from Vermont was arguing against the austerity economics that seeks to balance the books by cutting public services. An ardent foe of privatization, he as well has championed the expansion of its mission, backing innovative initiatives such as postal banking.