MILWAUKEE, Wis. — As Sen. Bernie Sanders widens his lead in a state that has devastated its unions, rank-and-file union members are rallying behind him, creating a potential split with union leadership when it comes to which candidate to back.
Unions, considered a pillar of the Democratic Party and a potent force in Wisconsin, have been greatly diminished under Republican Gov. Scott Walker. In what is perhaps the first time, a Democratic presidential candidate could win Wisconsin without union support, Kevin Jaskie, 42, a former welder who is now part of USW leadership, said.
Jaskie is split between supporting Hillary Clinton and Sanders, and he notes how much Sanders’ anti-Wall Street platform has resonated with his colleagues, as well as with younger people like his son. He calls the union vote the difference maker when it comes to Sanders’ lead over Clinton going into the state primary.
“They’re concerned about their paychecks, health care, shipping their jobs overseas, fair trade – all those issues, it all affects their bottom line,” Jaskie said.
Though Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton has received the formal backing of the labor majority, the USW has not yet made a national endorsement. And while union leadership is often perceived as supporting Clinton, that perception hasn’t necessarily influenced rank-and-file members.
Dewey Lewis, 66, is a retired member of United Steelworkers 1343, the South Milwaukee local of the largest industrial union in America. In Milwaukee, the union is made up of almost all manufacturers, though membership numbers are shrinking both nationally and locally. Membership of the Caterpillar unit, which makes mining and excavating equipment here, has declined by two-thirds since 2013 — from 804 members to about 230.
Lewis points to the wealth gap as the most pressing issue facing the country, one that he and his fellow union workers feel acutely along with rising health care costs. Lewis, who is on Medicare, says he and other union workers support Sanders because Sanders is “actually addressing those issues.”
Caterpillar, the biggest employer of USW 1343 members, just had nine more layoffs yesterday. Support for Sanders and his economic vision, Lewis said, continues to grow among the plant workers.
“He’s talking to me about the things I care about,” Lewis said.
Jeffrey Caminski, 57, agrees. The gas worker and president of USW local 2006, representing utility workers, says his office is a Sanders office.
“Look, unions are not the problem. Unions are the solution to the problem. And Bernie Sanders understands that and he’s saying it, and I sure hope he pulls it out,” Caminski said. “I think he will. He’s really starting to resonate with the rank and file.”
While Clinton does not represent some of these union workers’ first choice, there seems to be a consensus that Republican candidates, especially Trump, who has attracted union members’ attention in previous contests, do not share their concerns about the issues. Breahn Quigley Knackert, 38, a former Harley-Davidson assembly line worker who is now a staff representative for USW in Wisconsin, said there’s little to no Trump crossover voting because people here don’t like the negative aspects of his campaign.
Cory Oliver, 26, is a bus driver in Kenosha. His union, the Amalgamated Transit Union, is one the major unions that has endorsed Sanders over Clinton, and Oliver himself is a big Sanders supporter.
However, he says he’d rally for Clinton in the general election if he had to.
“I will fight for the revolution, but I will settle for reform,” Oliver said.
He thinks other union members will do the same.