Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
 / Updated 
By Leigh Ann Caldwell

Hillary Clinton’s relationship with labor unions has been relatively strong. But like any long-running courtship, it has had its problems. Even as she's the overwhelming favorite to win the nomination, labor unions so far are withholding their support - and their resources - to ensure that Clinton takes up their priorities, including an increase in wages, the ability to organize and protecting social security.

It's long been a complicated relationship and one previous and costly battle with unions that spilled into the public had dire consequences for Clinton. During her bid for the Democratic nomination in 2008, an ugly battle between her and then-candidate Barack Obama during the Nevada primary exposed the cracks in Clinton’s coalition and the uneasiness that some unions had with the then-New York Senator.

Just days before Nevada Democrats headed to caucus sites for the third nominating contest that year, a major union, UNITE Here, endorsed Obama, giving him a major boost heading into Nevada where 60,000 of its members live and work for the Culinary Workers Union in Nevada.

That endorsement led to packed, raucous caucus sites, especially in hotels on the strip, President Bill Clinton making personal pleas to caucus goers inside hotel casinos and a lawsuit filed by the National Education Association, a Clinton-backed union, challenging the rules of the caucus.

While many of the public sector unions backed Clinton back then, the Culinary Workers weren’t the only ones to side with Clinton’s opponent. Other major unions, SEIU, the Teamsters, the Food and Commercial Workers and the federation of unions, Change to Win, also backed Obama that year.

Eight years later, Clinton is back in the presidential game and took her first trip to Nevada Tuesday, she made a strong appeal to the culinary workers with promise to address immigration – a top priority for the Latino dominated union.

“We are in a global competition, and I intend for us to win it. And I’m not about to let anybody who can make a contribution to our economy and our society get thrown away,” Clinton told the audience.

The culinary workers aren’t yet ready to endorse Clinton. Yvanna Cancela, political director for the union said on MSNBC’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports” Tuesday that the organization is “open to all of our options.”

And that’s the stance of many of the unions.

The Culinary workers parent organization, UNITE Here, which represents more than a million workers, is also not ready to jump behind Clinton, the overwhelming frontrunner in the Democratic race.

“We’re looking for authenticity and identity,” D. Taylor, the president of UNITE Here said. “For someone who’s the voice of those whose voices have not been heard.”

Last week, Richard Trumka, the head of the AFL-CIO, failed to pledge support of Clinton. Instead he put pressure on her in a national policy speech, saying a portion of working class voters “couldn’t see any significant different between the two parties.”

“Working people, together, are rising. The question is, will our candidates listen? Will they seize this opportunity? I wonder, and so do the vast majority of working Americans. The truth is we’re skeptical,” Trumka said.

He went on to say that workers are “tired of taking ‘maybe’ for an answer” on some of their core priorities.

One of the issues particularly concerning to the AFL-CIO is the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement President Barack Obama is pushing and Congress is considering. It’s an issue that is splitting the Democratic Party with its leader, Obama, pushing it and many members of Congress, as well as the AFL-CIO, strongly opposed. Clinton hasn’t yet staked out a position on it, saying generically that any trade deal must include environmental and American labor protections.

Labor groups are also looking to see who she will hire as an indication of the type of policies she’ll espouse. They’d prefer that Bill Clinton’s economic advisers, many of whom also advise(d) President Obama, aren’t on her roster, including former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers and others who come from Wall Street. Unions battled her husband, President Bill Clinton in the 90s over NAFTA, a free trade deal they vehemently opposed. (During her 2008, Hillary Clinton said she doesn't support NAFTA.)

While Clinton is the formidable frontrunner, her only opponent – so far - is Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a strong ally of the unions and could provide a stark contrast to Clinton.

While Clinton was addressing Nevadans, Sanders was holding a town hall talking about federal budget impacts at a International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Hall in Maryland where he comfortably peppers his economic remarks with union support.

At that event, Sanders said, "Today the largest private sector employer in America is Wal-Mart – low wages, minimal benefits, vehemently anti-union. That in one metaphor is the transformation of the American economy – from an economy that produced real products, paid people real wages, had a real union, to the Wal-Mart economy."

Paco Fabian, spokesperson for the Good Jobs Nation Campaign, a coalition of low-wage workers pushing for a $15 per hour wage and collective bargaining, said Sanders has been a solid ally of workers.

“He’s been a champion of working families,” Fabian said. “His willingness to show up to speak to wokers where they are whether it’s the strike line or the union hall, he’s willing to hear what workers have to say.”

In her soft roll out, Clinton has not laid out any specific policy details. As she formulates them, she's likely to weigh political reality with the plight of unions.

A new NBC Poll found, for instance, shows that for the first time since 1999, a plurality of Americans are supportive of trade deals. Thirty-seven percent say that trade deals has benefited Americans compared to 31 percent who say the deals haven’t.

In addition, the influence of unions in electoral politics has diminished in recent years and union membership has lagged, especially private sector unions, as well as changes to campaign finance law that have increased the influence of the individual donor through third party political groups such as super PACs.

Taylor, the head of UNITE here, however, says that while union membership is on the general decline, unions are still able to have a voice in politics because union members vote at a higher proportion than the general public. He says that Democrats have to excite and mobilize the base.

“In the 2014 elections was a lack of enthusiasm,” he said attributed to Democrats’ losses around the country. “Democrats have to show results every year, not just during election years.”