Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on Tuesday night jockeyed for support from enraged airline food workers threatening to walk off the job in the nation’s capital.
Speaking to a rowdy crowd of several hundred union members and their supporters, the presidential candidates pledged to stand behind workers’ demands for $15 an hour and better health care — two issues at the focal point of the Democratic primary — and endorsed their rallying cry of “one job should be enough.”
“This is a fight not just for the workers here. This is a fight for all of America,” Warren said. “It is a fight for fair wages, it is a fight for health care, it is a fight for dignity.”
Warren confirmed her attendance well before the rally at Reagan National Airport, as she continues to vie for the progressive wing of the party. In press materials sent out Monday morning, she was the headliner and no other candidates were listed as attending.
But Sanders, one of her 2020 rivals, RSVP’d at the last moment, one union leader told POLITICO, and he stormed into the UNITE HERE rally to chants of “Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!”
“Bernie was very last-minute,” said Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants, who had the crowd roaring in her own speech Tuesday night. “There was no plan for Bernie to be here. I can show you the lineup I had yesterday, and he wasn’t on it.”
Several hundred union supporters crammed into an old terminal, threatening to strike if airlines didn’t offer concessions on wages and other benefits. The union is systematically targeting major airlines — in this case, American Airlines — asking executives to require better working conditions from companies with which they contract. Labor activists have long sought to highlight outsourcing in-house jobs to low-wage contractors, a practice that is common in air travel.
A strike will ultimately depend on approval from the National Mediation Board, a federal body that regulates labor relations in air and rail travel. But the threat is especially acute at the major domestic airport for Washington, which virtually every member of Congress uses for travel to and from their home districts.
Last month, 11,000 workers in more than two dozen cities voted to authorize a strike.
“The labor movement has really been trying to bring economic issues into these debates we’re seeing [with] the candidates, and I think this symbolizes what’s happening all across the economy, which is the corporate greed that’s run amok,” said Liz Shuler, secretary-treasurer for the AFL-CIO.
The Sanders campaign has been roiled over the past week as internal union disputes with their own staffers over wages spilled into the open. The public sniping threatens Sanders’ labor-centric candidacy.
The campaign has used its own voter list to encourage volunteers to join picket lines, and Sanders has applauded unionization efforts across the country.
While the Sanders campaign and its workers announced a resolution earlier on Tuesday, the fallout clearly bothered the presidential aspirant. He told the Des Moines Register on Friday that going to the media “is really not what labor negotiations are about, and it’s improper.” Sanders did not mention the strife in his short speech on Tuesday evening, but some organizers suggested that his appearance was connected to the conflict and his not wanting to cede the stage to Warren.
Sanders and Warren have been circling each other for months as Sanders tries to recapture the grassroots energy from 2016 and Warren tried to start her own insurgent, populist movement. Some members of the Sanders campaign have been frustrated by Warren’s rise over the past few months, even as the candidate has made clear he does not want them to attack her. While polling indicates they aren’t necessarily drawing support from the same demographics at the moment, many strategists and some staffers on the campaigns believe that many in the left wing of the party will begin to consolidate behind one of the two.
City Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York, a fellow presidential candidate, also made a last-minute appearance at the rally on Tuesday and made his own pitch to be the progressive standard-bearer. While the audience appreciated his tough criticism of the airlines, he lost some of the crowd when he made an unwieldy pitch for his latest campaign proposal.
“Who likes the idea of a bill of rights for workers, raise your hand,” he said. “And If you want to know more about it, I suggest you go to BilldeBlasio.com, where you will find out all the details.”
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