Union leaders back Perez after he wins Democratic National Committee chair

ATLANTA—Though most – if not all – union leaders on the Democratic National Committee supported the runner-up in the committee chair race, they quickly fell into line once former Labor Secretary Thomas Perez won the party’s top job.

Perez, the candidate of most of the Democratic “establishment,” including 2016 presidential nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton, narrowly defeated Rep. Keith Ellison, DFL-Minn., on the second ballot at the DNC meeting in Atlanta on Feb. 25. Perez promptly named Ellison, the progressive lawmaker and longtime organizer from Minneapolis, as deputy chair.

The committee chair’s job is important to workers because unions are a large part of the Democratic coalition, even if rank and file unionists split virtually down the middle between Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump. He beat her in the Electoral College by carrying key states with many former factory workers.

Perez and Ellison must lead Democrats in trying try to figure out how to come back from all the unexpected defeats they suffered last fall. Besides Clinton’s loss, an expected Senate takeover didn’t occur, some gubernatorial seats – notably in Missouri – flipped and Democrats gained few U.S. House seats, coming nowhere near to retaking the chamber.

To solve those problems, union leaders, including Mary Kay Henry of the Service Employees, Randi Weingarten of the Teachers, Lee Saunders of AFSCME and J. David Cox of the Government Employees, supported Ellison, the candidate of the party wing led by Sens. Bernie Sanders, Ind.-Vt. – runner-up to Clinton in Democratic primaries – and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.

So did the AFL-CIO, whose president, Richard Trumka, hosted a pro-Sanders reception in Baltimore earlier in the race for the party leadership, and National Nurses United.

Hundreds of NNU members traveled to Atlanta for pro-Ellison rallies in the days before the vote, emphasizing the Minnesotan’s grass-roots organizing prowess. Trumka and NNU did not comment after the vote. NNU has no leaders on the DNC, and Trumka does not sit on it.

Henry, Weingarten, Saunders and Cox all hailed the unification symbolized by Perez’ naming of Ellison as deputy chair, a move that kept almost all of the pro-Sanders, pro-Ellison delegates in the meeting.

And they all stressed a commitment to party-building, from the grass roots up.

Cox said Perez and Ellison will “build a party focused on the struggles of working and middle class Americans whose security and economic well-being must be at the center of all we do.

“The Democratic Party cannot succeed if it minimizes its historic commitment to economic justice and shared prosperity. The vast majority of Americans,” including AFGE-represented workers, “want political leaders to focus on their bread and butter issues: Higher wages, affordable health care, retirement income security, good public schools, good roads and public transportation, clean air and water, and safe communities.

“We cannot cater to every desire of Wall Street and our corporate donors and simultaneously meet the needs of the majority of American workers. It doesn’t work like that,” Cox said. Unity, he added “cannot occur if leaders ignore the pain that working and middle class Americans are experiencing with the assumption the other guy will always be worse.”

Weingarten said Perez and Ellison will “heal, unify, and activate Democrats and Americans across the country.

“We must pierce the division and polarization that engulfs America today and harness the incredible energy in the streets to fight for the aspirations Americans have for themselves, their families and our nation. The Democratic Party is the party to do that. We are the party that fights to give people a fair shot, and for economic and educational opportunity and inclusion,” said Weingarten, a New York City high school civics teacher. “That requires rebuilding our party county by county, state by state, and winning elections,” she added.

Saunders, a Cleveland native and New York City Democratic convention delegate – who also chairs the AFL-CIO’s Political Committee — said Democrats must seize the moment, and the momentum, produced by grass-roots advocacy against Republican President Donald Trump and his policies.

“The heart and soul of our democracy are on the line — from voting rights to civil rights to workers’ rights. Meanwhile, you can look outside your window on any given weekend and see grass roots energy and engagement are at an all-time high. As a party, we do not have a moment to lose. The Democratic Party must present a bold vision that lifts up working people from all walks of life, and pursue strategies that turn that vision into reality,” he said.

“Tom Perez is a tenacious champion for all working families. As DNC Chair, I know he will bring the same passion for economic and social justice that made him such a remarkably effective Labor Secretary, and I am confident that the entire Democratic Party will move forward together in unity,” Saunders said.

With Perez, who is a Latino-American, and Ellison, who is a Muslim-American, the Democratic leadership represents the diversity of the country, Henry said.

“For working families demanding a say in America’s economic and political systems at this pivotal time in our democracy, Perez and Ellison will unite the Democratic National Party and get to the important work of rebuilding a party in which the needs of America’s working families lead,” she added.

And Cox reminded colleagues that Perez was a very pro-union Labor Secretary. “And growing and strengthening the labor movement should be the Democratic Party’s top priority, because union members are the Party’s most reliable progressive voters, and unions are the most effective means of raising up the standard of living of all Americans,” he said.

DNC members also elected three vice chairs, including Maria Elena Durazo, who won a second term in that post. She’s the Unite Here Vice President for civil rights and the former Executive Secretary, and leader, of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.  Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., an Asian-American, was also elected as a vice chair.