Sen. Bernard Sanders brags about his ties to working people, so it was a particularly harsh shot Tuesday when a California union blasted his idea to have the state take over a large power utility and said they were more disappointed he never ran the proposal by the workers.
The criticism from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1425, which claims 25,000 members, is the second anti-Bernie blast from unions. Nevada’s biggest union, the culinary workers, criticized the presidential hopeful’s “Medicare-for-All” health care plan.
The dual attacks could signal weakness for Mr. Sanders among union members as the Democratic presidential race shifts to states where organized labor plays a larger role in picking a nominee.
The IBEW 1425 ran an ad in the Sacramento Bee newspaper laying out its grievances with the senator from Vermont, saying he had adopted “the democratic socialists’ proposal” for a state takeover of Pacific Gas & Electric without bothering to ask the local workers what it would do to the state.
Answering that question, the union said it would cost the government $100 billion, would hike prices for energy consumers and wouldn’t improve on the utility’s already expansive efforts to improve environmental policy.
“Senator Sanders did not even bother to ask the hardworking women and men of IBEW 1245 for our views and expertise before he launched a slick video proposing to dramatically impact our jobs and our communities,” the union said in its ad.
Mr. Sanders’ campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment, though the attack may not have been unexpected.
The IBEW at the national level endorsed former Vice President Joseph R. Biden this month. The endorsement reportedly angered some of the union’s members, particularly Sanders supporters, who said they never got a chance to voice their opinions.
The Culinary Workers Union declined to endorse anyone in the race, though their blast at Mr. Sanders has drawn a lot of attention given that they attacked his signature government-run health care plan.
Officials from the 60,000-member Nevada chapter said they have negotiated a generous health care plan for their members and would have to give that up under Mr. Sanders’ vision.
Other union officials plan to fire back Wednesday, saying more workers will benefit than lose out under the Sanders plan. They point to 19 major unions, which they say account for a majority of the country’s labor groups, that have endorsed Mr. Sanders’ bill in the Senate.
“If we could better control the cost of health care while guaranteeing quality care, it would enable unions to better negotiate for improved pay and benefits other than health insurance. Medicare-for-All is in the best interests of this country’s working class,” said Mark Dimondstein, president of the American Postal Workers Union and a national vice president of the AFL-CIO.
The battle for endorsements of union leaders is intense, and Mr. Sanders does have his share of fans. In California, several unions for workers in the University of California system are backing him for the state’s March 3 primary.
Considered reliably Democratic voters in recent decades, union members surprised analysts with their more enthusiastic embrace of Donald Trump in 2016. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton won the demographic by only 8 percentage points, down from President Obama’s 18-point lead among union households in 2012.
Still, unions remain symbolically important for the party.
One of the Democratic primary debates was threatened last year over a labor dispute with the venue, and the candidates said they would ditch the debate rather than end up crosswise with the union.
In the New Hampshire primary this month Mr. Sanders won 30% of the vote of those from union households, according to exit polling. Next highest was former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg at 23%. Mr. Biden, who had an early line on major union endorsements, was fourth with just 11%
But just 16% of New Hampshire Democratic primary voters said they were from union households. Nevada, whose caucuses loom this weekend, should be a better test of union power.
The Sanders team says his union outreach goes much deeper than health care ideas. He has offered a comprehensive “Workplace Democracy Plan,” a hybrid of ideas that have been floating around the labor world for years and others that might strike many American voters as novel if not radical.
He backs a $15 national minimum wage and is pushing for higher labor standards for federal contracts, which are staples of Democratic orthodoxy.
But he also says he would issue an executive order attempting to strike down right-to-work laws that exist in a majority of the states. The laws allow workers to avoid being forced to join unions for some kinds of work.
Mr. Sanders also favors what is known as a sectoral bargaining system, a mechanism present in some European economies. Under that system, one or two of the major players in a sector negotiate a union contract, and then all companies in that sector have to adopt the terms of that contract, fixing wages and benefits industrywide.
A sectoral system would have to go through Congress, as would the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act, which would require all states to give public service workers collective bargaining power and the right to unionize.
Mr. Sanders said he could take executive action to end federal contracts that don’t include a base $15 minimum hourly wage, and with companies that have executives paid more than 150 times the average workers. Companies would also lose federal contracts if they hire strikebreakers, close all or parts of their businesses after a vote to unionize or outsource jobs.
His goal is to double union membership, reversing a decadeslong slide for a number that hit a low of 10.7% of the workforce in 2018. In the 1950s, the rate was more than 30%.
Paul Frymer, director of the Program in Law and Public Affairs at Princeton University, said Mr. Sanders’ ideas are par for the Democratic field.
“I can’t think of a group of Democratic presidential candidates that is as labor-friendly as this year’s since Walter Mondale,” Mr. Frymer said. “While Sanders and Warren are the two pushing sectoral unions, they all want to abolish right-to-work states and some other things.”
Mr. Frymer said it isn’t clear Medicare-for-All would free up money for wage increases during union negotiations as it is just as likely companies would use the cash in other ways, such as raising dividends or buying back shares.
Mr. Sanders has “an idealistic agenda that relies on idealistic responses on all sides,” Mr. Frymer said. “Employers tend to be fairly cynical. But if unions don’t have to negotiate health care plans, it is certainly true there should be more money available for other goals.”