Much has been made of the pragmatism of black voters (especially older black voters) as they shift decisively behind Joe Biden in the Democratic presidential primary. But what of Latino voters? What has driven them to the polls? For generations, political scientists have routinely called the Latino electorate the “Sleeping Giant” — yet it is clear the giant is already awake.
To write of “Latino” voters is always misleading given their tremendous internal diversity. There are left-wing Mexican Americans in Texas and right-wing Cuban Americans in Florida, recent transplants and multigenerational residents. Still, it’s clear from exit polls that Latinos have, as a demographic bloc, delivered wide and resounding support to Bernie Sanders. While pundits continue to talk about the inevitability of a Biden nomination, they tend to underestimate the influence of a population that has quietly shaped the contest and still has a chance to swing this election, including by staying home in November.
Win or lose, Sanders has done two things that none of his opponents have been able to pull off: first, win big with Latino voters; and second, draw Latino support by speaking directly to the issues that matter to them. Studies conducted by the UCLA Latino Policy Initiative show that where Sanders has won, he’s done so by targeting Latino-heavy districts, some in places where the Democratic Party never goes. For example, in the Washington State primary, Sanders carried three predominately Latino districts by more than 50 percent, giving him a boost against his competitors. In California and Iowa, his campaign targeted rural communities with Spanish-language flyers and canvassing that paid off spectacularly: some Latino-heavy areas awarded all of their delegates to Sanders. And in West Texas, despite narrowly losing the state as a whole, “Tío Bernie” won overwhelmingly.
A Pew Research Center study points to why: 82 percent of Latinos believe that government should take a more active role in resolving social problems; 88 percent believe the minimum wage should be $15; and 84 percent believe that the government should provide health care for all Americans. All three are central to Bernie Sanders’s campaign. In terms of strategy, the Vermont senator’s efforts to reach Latinos early and often have paid dividends, even when it’s provoked controversy, as with the Culinary Workers Union Local 226 in Nevada.
The spat with the union leadership proved to be an early proxy battle between the establishment and Sanders. The union leadership attempted to dissuade their membership — more than 50 percent Latino — from backing Sanders by criticizing his Medicare for All proposal and refusing to endorse him. The rank and file overwhelming went for Tío Bernie anyways, issuing a strong rebuke to the union and asserting their own interests.
Throughout the primary, Latino workers have demonstrated their appetite for democratic-socialist politics. But harnessing the potential of this massive voting bloc will require drawing the right lessons from the primary and the historical record. The Nevada imbroglio exposed the pitfalls of confusing rank-and-file workers with union leadership. US Latino labor history shows that “the endorsement” is sometimes the least important — and most fraught — factor in achieving progressive goals. Above all, both show that left politicians should focus on speaking to the needs and aspirations of Latino workers — not simply try to build a brokerage relationship with leadership.
Chavez, the Kennedys, and the Browns
Perhaps no Latino-oriented organization has had more influence on US politics than the United Farm Workers (UFW), founded in 1962 by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, among others. In the UFW’s heyday in the 1960s and ‘70s, Democrats courted the union for endorsements and touted their relationship to Chavez. But these endorsements were not always beneficial to the candidate, the party, or even the union.
Initially, Chavez resisted handing out endorsements to political candidates. It was an easier call during the early years of the farm workers movement, when California governor Pat Brown pursued pro-agribusiness policies were virtually indistinguishable from his Republican opponents. All of this began to change, however, when Brown came out in favor of the movement in the mid-sixties. Chavez rewarded Brown in 1966 by backing the governor in his reelection bid against Ronald Reagan. (Brown lost the race.)
But the endorsement wasn’t the only arrow in the UFW’s quiver. Using a range of tactics, most importantly the boycott, the Chavez-led UFW awakened Americans to the exploitation of farm workers and reshaped politics in California and the United States during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Organizers fanned out across the country, urging grocery stores to stop selling nonunion grapes and consumers to stop buying them. Millions obliged. Increased participation in the movement across all sectors of society and intense media coverage made it impossible for either political party to remain neutral or dispassionate about La Causa.
On a national level, John and Robert Kennedy were the first Democratic politicians to embrace the needs and desires of the farm workers as their own. As a younger man, Chavez participated in “Viva Kennedy!” drives for John F. Kennedy’s campaign in 1960. He quickly regretted his decision when President Kennedy chose to continue the Mexican guest-worker program — the Bracero program — which impeded unionization among the mostly Mexican American and Filipino fieldworkers.
Chavez’s suspicion of the Kennedy family relaxed when John’s younger brother Bobby, then a New York senator, challenged a California sheriff’s anti-union repression in 1966 as a member of the Senate’s Migratory Labor Subcommittee. Two years later, the younger Kennedy joined Chavez in Delano, California to mark the end of the labor leader’s first and most successful fast. Bobby’s trip to the Golden State corresponded with his decision to jump into the presidential race, raising the question of whether he would ask for Chavez’s endorsement. Although Chavez remained weak from the hunger strike, Bobby secured the union leader’s official support through his aide, Peter Edelman. It was a wholly top-down affair: as he recuperated in bed, Chavez manufactured a vote by the UFW rank and file to support Kennedy. (The national AFL-CIO, helmed by Vietnam War supporter George Meany, endorsed Lyndon B. Johnson.)
Once he recovered from his fast, Chavez oversaw a giant UFW get-out-the-vote effort in East Los Angeles, which Kennedy credited with helping him win the California Democratic primary. Dolores Huerta, another famed leader of the union, stood at Kennedy’s side just moments before Sirhan Sirhan assassinated the senator at Los Angeles’s Ambassador Hotel in June 1968. The UFW’s relationship with the Kennedys would be renewed four years later at the Democratic National Convention in 1972, when Ted Kennedy addressed delegates as “fellow lettuce boycotters” — a statement of party solidarity at a time when the UFW was battling the Teamsters for the hearts and minds of lettuce workers.
Meanwhile, Chavez continued to develop ties with another political family dynasty, the Browns of California. Dispassionate endorsements of Pat Brown in the sixties gave way to a sincere, productive working relationship with Pat’s son, Jerry Brown, who was elected governor in the mid-seventies. On June 5, 1975, Brown signed the Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA), which delivered state-sanctioned collective bargaining rights to farm workers for the first time in California history. Brown’s aides worked closely with UFW lawyer Jerry Cohen on the bill, and Brown would later tout it as one of his signature achievements as governor. Chavez, although ambivalent about working within the law, agreed that farm workers were better off with ALRA than without it. He showed his appreciation for Brown by endorsing him for president in 1976. (Brown lost the nomination to Jimmy Carter.)
The Endorsement Game
While Chavez’s endorsements of presidential candidates, including George McGovern in 1972, heightened awareness of the farm worker struggle, it dulled the union’s ability to achieve what mattered most — boosting membership and worker power. When Chavez and the UFW got swept up in electoral politics, it was usually to the detriment of organizing for union election wins on farms across California.
Unfortunately, the UFW never learned its lesson. Today, the UFW and its veterans, notably Dolores Huerta, continue to play the endorsement game at the expense of farm worker organizing and the wishes of younger Latinos. Huerta’s support of Hillary Clinton, and her lies about Bernie Sanders suppressing Spanish-speaking at his rallies during the 2016 election, placed her at odds with a younger generation of Latino voters. This year, the UFW again failed to anticipate Latino workers’ support for Sanders, endorsing Kamala Harris for president.
Although UFW vets have not learned from the past, other Latino-oriented labor organizations have — some with headquarters in upcoming primary states. Most of the contemporary farm worker organizations, including Oregon-based Piñeros y Campesiños Unidos Noroeste (PCUN), Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), Ohio-based Farm Labor Organizing Committee, and Vermont-based Migrant Justice/Justicia Migrante (Vermont Dairy Workers) have declined to endorse to Sanders’s opponents. Instead, they have focused on meeting the immediate needs of their members and building alliances with local and regional partners.
In 2016, PCUN and Migrant Justice trained their attention on immigration raids, taking their message directly to ICE offices with marches and protests. During this election cycle, Migrant Justice has concentrated its resources behind a boycott of Hannaford’s Supermarket, extending the reach of the Milk With Dignity program signed with Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream. They have also worked with municipal governments to pass laws prohibiting state and local law enforcement from collaborating with ICE agents in immigration roundups in Vermont and New Hampshire.
CIW has thrown its energy behind expanding their highly successful Fair Food Program, which uses funds from participating retail food companies to monitor conditions in the field. Notably, just hours before Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump in November 2016, CIW held a “Behind the Braids” rally in Pennsylvania to advance the boycott against Wendy’s (a non-signatory to the Fair Food Program) while Hilary Clinton held her last rally beneath Independence Hall. The Wendy’s boycott remains a focal point for CIW this year.
Maintaining a laser-focus on the issues affecting the day-to-day lives of their members has been their most important tool for politicizing the Latino electorate and building on previous wins for Latino people more broadly. Like many other labor organizations — and most Latino families —these institutions have a mix of undocumented and documented members and constituents. That a good portion of their campaigns seek to protect those who cannot vote is part of the reason why they have succeeded, particularly in the Trump era, where every Latino person is perceived as a threat to the nation.
Bernie, the Latino Vote, and the Left
Why has “Tío Bernie” built such a strong following with Latino voters? His message “Not Me, Us” is consistent with the experience of most working-class Latinos, who have been made to feel like enemies of the state, no matter if they have papers or not, if they have a union job or not, if they have medical insurance or not. His commitment to a moratorium on deportations and his promise to abolish ICE and US Customs and Border Protection puts him squarely on the side of Latinos, even as it inflames the political establishment. And although his calls for universal health care, elimination of student debt, and a $15 minimum wage have not yet resulted in the broad, multiethnic support he needs to win in states with smaller or nonexistent Latino voters, a number of upcoming states will be worth watching. The Latino electorate has been awake in Arizona since the 2016 election, helping to deliver a Democratic senator to Congress in the 2018 midterms. Georgia has seen a significant influx of working-class Latinos who, along with Asian immigrants, could shift the balance of power in that state.
As for the Culinary Union, the caucus results signal a profound misunderstanding of the source of their power. Rank-and-file members who bucked their leaders by voting for Sanders routinely cited concerns for their family or friends who did not have the union’s premium health insurance. They also wondered, aloud, what would happen if they lost their jobs. Union officials, on the other hand, seemed more concerned with the perquisites that came from a union health care plan than the well-being of the broader working class. Such a position stands in conflict with a Latino community bound together by the common experience of being singled-out as rapists, criminals, and “bad hombres.” Solidarity, not parochialism, is their ethos.
The assumption that Latinos are malleable, gullible, or just plain apathetic misses the potency of this vast, mostly working-class population. Rather than speak down to them or ignore their concerns, Bernie Sanders has dared to see the world from their perspective. He’s offered Latinos a “small-d” democratic vision that promises them a place at the table.
And as with so many other things, he’s offered a powerful model for future organizing drives and political campaigns, one that sees Latino workers as central to democratic-socialist politics.