“We’ve got to stand up for unions,” Hillary Clinton declared in her closing statement during the Democratic debate in Milwaukee last month. The line offered the labor-friendly audience a comforting rebuke to Gov. Scott Walker’s relentless attacks on Wisconsin’s unions. It generated passionate applause.
[Dan Kaufman| March 12, 2016 |The New York Times]
But Mrs. Clinton’s show of support contrasted with her long indifference to the concerns of organized labor. The results of Michigan’s primary last week highlighted this problem; exit polls showed that Mrs. Clinton narrowly lost union households to Senator Bernie Sanders. Over all, nearly 60 percent of Democratic voters thought free-trade agreements, which Mrs. Clinton has generally supported, caused job losses. Mr. Sanders won a majority of those voters, too, which raises the possibility of further upsets on Tuesday in primaries in Illinois and Ohio, where opposition to free-trade pacts is strong.
Mrs. Clinton’s troubles with labor began before she arrived in Washington. From 1986 to 1992, as a corporate lawyer in Arkansas, she served on the board of Walmart. By then, Sam Walton, the company’s founder, was notorious for his anti-union fervor; in the early 1970s, Mr. Walton hired an attorney named John E. Tate to break up an organizing campaign at two Missouri Walmart stores. For decades afterward, Mr. Tate drove Walmart’s successful anti-union strategy. In 1988, Mr. Tate joined Walmart’s board, where he served alongside Mrs. Clinton.
During Mrs. Clinton’s first presidential run, a former Walmart board member told ABC News that he could not recall her ever defending unions during more than 20 private board meetings. “She was not a dissenter,” Donald G. Soderquist, the vice chairman of the board during Mrs. Clinton’s tenure, told The Los Angeles Times in 2007. “She was a part of those decisions.”
“I’m always proud of Walmart and what we do and the way we do it better than anybody else,” Mrs. Clinton said at a 1990 shareholders meeting in Fayetteville, Ark. But over the years, as Walmart’s reputation was sullied by allegations of unsafe working conditions, overtime theft and sex discrimination, Mrs. Clinton distanced herself from the company. Still, the Walton family’s fondness for her endures; in December, Alice L. Walton, Mr. Walton’s daughter, donated more than $350,000 to the Hillary Victory Fund.
It is Mrs. Clinton’s past support for free-trade agreements, though, that has most antagonized labor. In 1996, she said that the two-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement was “proving its worth,” a position she reaffirmed years later as a senator. In 2000, while running for her Senate seat, Mrs. Clinton supported China’s entry into the World Trade Organization and granting the country Permanent Normal Trade Relations.
More recently, as secretary of state, Mrs. Clinton praised the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership repeatedly (at one point she called it the “gold standard” of free-trade deals) and lobbied foreign governments for its adoption. But last October, Mrs. Clinton announced that she opposed the agreement.
During her 2008 presidential campaign, Mrs. Clinton also publicly opposed free-trade agreements with Panama, South Korea and Colombia, the last of which was opposed by human rights groups as well as organized labor in Colombia and the United States. “I will do everything I can to urge the Congress to reject the Colombia Free Trade Agreement,” she said at a gathering of the Communications Workers of America in Washington.
But recently released emails from Mrs. Clinton’s private server show that as secretary of state Mrs. Clinton lobbied Congress to support the agreement with Colombia, which passed in 2011. Describing her effort to sway Representative Sander M. Levin, Democrat of Michigan, Mrs. Clinton wrote to a State Department official: “I told him that at the rate we were going, Columbian workers were going to end up w the same or better rights than workers in Wisconsin and Indiana and, maybe even, Michigan.” According to Escuela Nacional Sindical, a Colombian labor rights group, 105 union activists have been assassinated since the agreement passed.
Robert E. Scott, a senior economist at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, estimates that NAFTA is responsible for the net loss of roughly 700,000 American jobs to Mexico, while China’s admittance to the W.T.O. cost the United States more than three million jobs. Roughly three-quarters of those losses were in the more heavily unionized manufacturing sector, contributing to the steep decline in private sector union membership, which went from 15.7 percent in 1993 to a nadir of 6.6 percent in 2014, the lowest figure in a century.
Mr. Scott’s research has shown that these agreements not only drive down manufacturing wages, but they also have a ripple effect, pushing down the pay in other jobs typically held by workers without a college education: home health care worker, truck driver, waitress. A 2013 paper by Mr. Scott’s colleague at E.P.I., Josh Bivens, found that, on average, noncollege-educated American workers, the people who make up roughly 70 percent of the labor force, lose nearly $2,000 a year in wages owing to the growth of trade with low-wage countries promoted by free-trade agreements.
The depth of Mrs. Clinton’s estrangement from labor may not be known until April 5, when Wisconsin holds its primary. Since 1960, no Democrat has won the general election without winning the state, and a loss to Mr. Sanders in Wisconsin could foreshadow trouble against Donald Trump, whose opposition to free trade helped propel him to victory in Michigan. Exit polls there showed that a majority of Republican voters also believe that free trade takes away American jobs. Mr. Trump decisively won that group. “You know, Michigan has been stripped,” Mr. Trump told CNN’s Anderson Cooper the day after his victory. “You look at those empty factories all over the place. And nobody hits that message better than me.”
While Mrs. Clinton’s pro-union shout out at the debate resonated widely, many of Wisconsin’s labor activists remain skeptical. “A lot of our job problems stem from NAFTA, and the TPP will kill us,” Gerry Miller, a United Steelworkers welder at a Caterpillar plant in South Milwaukee, told me last month. “We can’t compete with people being paid two dollars a day in Vietnam. The thing that we’re most upset about is the pandering. Democrats like Clinton speak labor out of one side of their mouth, but the corporate interests pull the strings.” (Mr. Scott estimates that adoption of TPP will result in the net loss of roughly 40,000 jobs in Wisconsin, 215,000 in Michigan and 113,000 in Ohio.)
While Mrs. Clinton has received the endorsement of many of the large national unions, the A.F.L.-C.I.O. has not yet taken sides. Many union locals have chosen to back Mr. Sanders. David Poklinkoski, the president of IBEW Local 2304, a Wisconsin utility union, said his local had never endorsed anyone for any office before, but recently passed a unanimous resolution endorsing Mr. Sanders. Mr. Poklinkoski praised the senator’s consistent opposition to free-trade agreements.
After the Milwaukee debate, Mr. Poklinkoski told me that two of his members who watched it came away as Sanders supporters. But Mr. Poklinkoski was alarmed to hear that the men’s second choice was Mr. Trump. Mr. Poklinkoski believes Mrs. Clinton could be vulnerable in Wisconsin.
“I’m worried about Trump versus Hillary,” Mr. Poklinkoski said. He noted that at home Governor Walker had successfully portrayed himself as an anti-tax, blue-collar politician, an image that helped him divide Wisconsin’s workers during the state’s labor battles. “If you have a right-wing populist, you can beat a corporate Democrat,” Mr. Poklinkoski said. “Scott Walker did it three times here.”