Clinton Camp Sticks to 'Platitude' Over Facts in Forced Union Fee Case

'I like staying more at platitudes about what unions have done for workers'

Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton / AP
October 19, 2016

The Hillary Clinton campaign privately argued that "platitudes" would better serve its defense of forced unionism than details about "fees."

The Supreme Court announced on June 30, 2015 that it would hear California elementary school teacher Rebecca Friedrich's case challenging California's practice of forcing educators to pay dues or agency fees to the teachers union as a condition of employment. The Clinton campaign decided to draft a statement shortly after the announcement in order to gin up support from organized labor, according to hacked emails obtained from campaign chairman John Podesta.

"Would it be possible to get a statement today? We can use it to bring with us to policy and political meetings with the labor movement we have in DC tomorrow and Thursday. This would be very helpful," Clinton Labor Outreach Director Nikki Budzinski said.

Senior Policy Adviser Ann O'Leary drafted the first statement in the early afternoon. The statement emphasized that Friedrichs was merely paying "fair share" fees since they are covered by collective bargaining agreements negotiated by their union regardless of whether they actually want to join it.

"These fees ensure that our public sector unions can continue their fight for fair wages and benefits," the statement said.

Clinton Political Director Amanda Renteria took issue with the statement. She said that focusing on the fees could hinder the message and asked that the statement include more "platitudes" rather than the issues at the center of the case.

"I worry about being talking 'fees'. I like staying more at platitudes about what unions have done for workers," she said.

Labor watchdogs said that they were not surprised by this recommendation. Terry Pell, president of the Center for Individual Rights, which initiated the suit with Freidrichs, told the Washington Free Beacon that the need for platitudes "reflects the unpopularity of state laws that compel public employees to pay fees to unions as a condition of employment."

"The Clinton campaign understood that compulsory union 'fees' are problematic and shied away from even using the term in its public announcements," Pell said.

The Clinton campaign was struggling to woo support from labor organizations and union members during the time that the email was sent. Longtime Communication Workers of America union president Larry Cohen was about to endorse socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders, and an informal poll of union members taken in June found that Sanders enjoyed support from more than 70 percent of workers.

As Clinton's campaign debated the Friedrichs statement, her team leaked news of an upcoming private meeting with more than a dozen labor leaders to address their concerns about her support for the TPP and other trade deals.

Patrick Semmens, spokesman for the National Right to Work Foundation, said that the context of the email exchange demonstrates why the campaign wanted to appear in lockstep with union talking points.

"They still wanted the support of Big Labor’s massive political war chest," Semmens said. "So Clinton’s political team resorts to 'platitudes' instead of addressing the fact that millions of workers who would be fired if they refused to pay money to the union are the ones funding Organized Labor’s political machine currently working to put Hillary in the White House."

The campaign ultimately did not send out the statement. Speechwriter Dan Schwerin settled the debate over fees in an email sent at 7:02: "Would a tweet not do the trick here?" Less than 90 minutes later, Clinton appears to have personally taken to Twitter with her response. She did not mention fees, instead hailing collective bargaining—which was not at issue in the case.

"The ability to organize & bargain collectively is a fundamental American right. Proud to stand with unions & working families. ‪#SCOTUS –H," the tweet said.

The Supreme Court deadlocked on the case following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. The tie vote had the effect of upholding a recedent that allows for forced government unionization. Clinton hailed the outcome on Twitter.

"‪#Friedrichs‪ decision rightfully leaves in place protections for workers and unions—and is a reminder that our values are at stake on SCOTUS," Clinton tweeted in March.

Former National Labor Relations Board boardmember Peter Schaumber characterized Clinton's approach to the case as "misleading."

"It is unfortunate that Mrs. Clinton seems to confer only with one side, the unions, when adopting a position on a major Supreme Court case and not any of the workers who will be impacted by the decision," Schaumber said. "Fees are what the case was all about. Avoiding use of the word is misleading and not helpful."