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Debate a key opportunity for Bernie Sanders to court union support

Sanders supporters have been trying to delay crucial union endorsements while candidate builds mainstream influence

Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential debate could be a crucial viability test for left-wing candidate Bernie Sanders, who is making a strong showing in the polls but still lacks support among Democratic elites skeptical of his outspoken socialist politics and rejection of large-donor fundraising. Some of his rank-and-file supporters in the labor movement are hoping that a strong debate showing will demonstrate Sanders’ mainstream appeal as a candidate — and help sell him to powerful labor leaders in the process.

Sanders, a long-serving legislator from Vermont with deep ties to organized labor, has commanded significant support among movement activists and rank-and-file members. But he is currently losing the union endorsement race to Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, who is seen as a likelier bet in the general election.

“Sanders has stood with labor for 30 years. So the fact that union leaders are making endorsements for other candidates almost always reflects a concern about his viability,” said Rand Wilson, a volunteer for the independent group Labor for Bernie and a staffer at the union SEIU Local 888 in Massachusetts. “It’s not about his policy, it’s that they don’t think he can win."

Most prominent labor unions have yet to endorse a candidate, but Clinton can already claim support from eight of them, including two key players in the public sector: the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA). The latter is the biggest union in the country.

Sanders has the backing of National Nurses United, the sole national union to announce its support for him thus far. He has also garnered endorsements from both co-chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, a team of Democratic legislators that often serves as a link between the party’s congressional branch and the labor movement.

But Labor for Bernie has been agitating within numerous unions to secure more Sanders backing, or at least stall for time until the candidate has demonstrated that he’s a credible contender for the White House. And the two big teacher union endorsements for Clinton led to a mild uproar among pro-Sanders membership.

Other unions are taking their time with the endorsement process. SEIU, one of the biggest unions in the country, told Al Jazeera it is consulting its members and hosting “tele-town hall meetings” as part of a “rigorous membership engagement process” to determine who its rank-and-file members would like to endorse for president.

An official from the public-sector union AFSCME told Al Jazeera its endorsement process started months ago and is “the most in-depth process for endorsements” they’ve ever attempted, polling membership on which candidates they favor and their top policy priorities. Additionally, the official said, AFSCME members want to make sure they endorse someone who “will definitely win in November” — one of the main reasons cited by labor officials for getting behind Clinton.

All the candidates “have presented strong plans for victory, but this is going to be in the eyes of our membership,” said the official, who requested anonymity in discussing internal union deliberations. “It’s a very high-stakes election."

Meanwhile, Clinton has made significant overtures to the labor movement over the past few months as she attempts to lock up the Democratic primary. Last week she announced her likely opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free-trade agreement negotiated by the White House but reviled by most American labor unions. And the day before Tuesday’s debate she appeared at a labor rally in Las Vegas, where members of Culinary Union Local 226 were protesting Trump International Hotel as part of an effort to unionize its employees. Fellow Democratic candidate Martin O'Malley made a similar appearance in late August.

Yet Clinton is still further from the labor movement than Sanders on a handful of core issues, most significantly the minimum wage. Sanders has endorsed a $15 minimum wage and even introduced federal legislation to raise the nationwide wage floor to that level; Clinton has expressed support for raising the minimum wage, but has expressed reticence at the notion of bringing it up to $15.

“When Hillary moves closer to labor’s position on issues and to the positions that Sanders has taken, that’s a victory for Bernie and a victory for labor,” Wilson said. “We applaud it. But I think she’s 10 minutes behind Bernie Sanders, and I think everybody’s pretty aware of that."

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