Even in Nevada, however, I heard some of the same reservations as in Ohio. D. Taylor, president of the Culinary Union’s parent organization, Unite Here, told me there’s a good deal of disappointment among his members in Nevada over Obama’s failures to deliver on campaign pledges, including comprehensive immigration reform. The top complaint, however: the Cadillac tax on health care plans. While Clinton has said she supports repealing the levy, the union is pushing her and the other candidates to be more specific—to support existing legislation and to call on Obama to sign a bill this year. “They can show it’s not just a promise,” Taylor says. “They can endorse those bills right now.”
Some organizers are working to tamp down rank-and-file enthusiasm for Clinton in order to win more concessions from the candidate. “Hillary Clinton is very popular,” especially among Latinos, says Efrain Becerra, a room-service attendant at Harrah’s who’s also a Culinary Union organizer. “I feel it’s my job to inform them, ‘Yes, we do like what she’s saying, but we don’t want just empty promises. We’ve heard all that before, and it didn’t turn out the way we hoped.’ I’m telling them, ‘Just sit back, there’s a long time until we hit the polls.’ ”
IT ISN'T JUST on the ground in places like Ohio and Nevada that one hears divergent opinions within organized labor about Clinton. That same split—between purists and pragmatists—is playing out at the leadership level as well.
RoseAnn DeMoro, executive director of the 185,000-member National Nurses United, told me that her union endorsed Sanders over Clinton because of the Vermont senator’s consistency. “He’s not going to become president and all of a sudden have a change of policy,” she said. “He’s fought for the very same things for his entire career, so they know they can trust him. It’s trust at a fundamental level.”
Mark Dimondstein, president of the American Postal Workers Union, put it like this: “Myself and a lot of other people are sick of business as usual. And we interpret her history and her campaign as more business as usual. And business as usual isn’t helping the labor movement or the working class survive or thrive.”
Those supporting Clinton are not blind to these concerns, but they view them through a different lens—one more sympathetic to pragmatism. “Some people would doubt the ability of Jesus Christ to solve our problems. What I care about is somebody who gives it a real try,” Tom Buffenbarger, president of the International Association of Machinists, told me. “I want someone seeking office who might know how to find the right ways to get to where you want to go.”
Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, recalled how Clinton battled to pass a post-9/11 bill to help ill rescue workers and suggested that she is more liberal on labor issues than people realize. “I don’t think Hillary gets enough credit,” Weingarten said. “If you look at the way she ran in ’08 and you look at her positions now, she is a progressive Democrat. She knows and understands that wages and attacking income inequality are the issues of this election.”
In the end, for organized labor, it’s something of a guessing game—about how Hillary Clinton really feels on their issues, and how they, in turn, should feel about her. “I think in her heart of hearts that she is probably as progressive as she now sounds,” Robert Reich, who was Labor secretary under Bill Clinton and has known Hillary for five decades, told me. “But that’s not to say that she will stay this progressive during the general election or if she’s elected president.”