Big Nurses Union Backs Bernie Sanders and His Push for ‘Medicare for All’
WASHINGTON — The country’s largest nurses union will endorse Senator Bernie Sanders for president this week, a significant boost to his campaign from a major ally in the fight for his signature health care proposal.
The union, National Nurses United, fervently supported Mr. Sanders’s last bid for the White House in 2016, and its members have been significant players in Democratic politics since then, showing up in red T-shirts to support Mr. Sanders’s progressive allies in intraparty battles. They have also canvassed neighborhoods in swing congressional districts, urging voters to get behind “Medicare for all,” Mr. Sanders’s plan for a nationalized health insurance system.
“We know what we have done and what it takes to bring about fundamental change, and it’s massive organizing and a mass movement,” said Jean Ross, a co-president of the union. “Of all the candidates, Bernie is the one who understands that.”
The union plans to formally endorse Mr. Sanders on Friday at a news conference in Oakland, Calif.
After being so tied to Mr. Sanders in 2016, the nurses union was unlikely to endorse anyone else in the 2020 race. Mr. Sanders, of Vermont, was the only candidate to sit for an in-person interview with the union to seek its endorsement; Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts called in on a video chat and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., sent a three-minute video. Union officials said they had invited former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Senator Kamala Harris of California to interview but each declined to do so.
Ms. Warren, another leading candidate for the nomination and Mr. Sanders’s top progressive rival, has also laid out a sweeping plan for single-payer health insurance, but the union stuck with the original architect of Medicare for all.
“We enjoyed the difficulty this time around because last time the field was so barren” aside from Mr. Sanders, Ms. Ross said.
The endorsement also brings Mr. Sanders the support of the union’s super PAC, a thorny issue given that Mr. Sanders, like most of the Democrats seeking the party’s 2020 nomination, has disavowed support from super PACs.
In 2016 the union’s super PAC spent $5 million backing Mr. Sanders in the primary contest against Hillary Clinton, a relative pittance in the world of super PACs (the one supporting Jeb Bush blew through $87 million). Still, it spent more money backing Mr. Sanders than was spent by any other super PAC on behalf of Mrs. Clinton or other Democrats in the run-up to the Iowa caucuses.
The union’s super PAC “will be activated” on behalf of Mr. Sanders, said Bonnie Castillo, the union’s executive director. But she said union members and the super PAC would not attack Mr. Sanders’s rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination.
“We’re not going negative,” she said. “We are a very positive force. It’s a reflection of who we are as a profession. We are healers.”
When talking to voters, Mr. Sanders often rails against the influence of money in politics, vowing to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010 that opened the super PAC era in American politics. Since Mr. Biden dropped his resistance last month to receiving the support of such groups, Mr. Sanders has become more pointed.
“I don’t need a super PAC,” he said during a town hall-style event last month in Marshalltown, Iowa, in response to a question from the audience about Mr. Biden. “I am not going to be controlled by a handful of wealthy people. I will be controlled by the working people of this country.”
This weekend, he continued the theme, saying, “We don’t have a super PAC,” at a rally in Coralville, Iowa.
But Mr. Sanders did not disavow support from the nurses union’s super PAC in 2016, even as he pointed out that he did not have a super PAC of his own. On Monday, Mr. Sanders thanked the nurses union for its support but did not address its super PAC.
“What the nurses understand is that the current health care system is not only dysfunctional but extraordinarily cruel,” Mr. Sanders said in a statement relayed by his campaign. “Together we are finally going to do what should have been done decades ago and make sure that every man, woman and child in this country has quality health care as a human right.”
Few major labor unions, typically significant players in Democratic Party politics, have endorsed candidates in the 2020 presidential contest. Mr. Biden kicked off his campaign in a Teamsters hall with the endorsement of the International Association of Fire Fighters. The United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America backed Mr. Sanders in August. The National Union of Healthcare Workers endorsed both Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren in September.
National Nurses United was born out of a 2009 merger of three smaller unions. The organization, with about 155,000 members, is a staunch proponent of liberal politics and movement-building in the Sanders mold. The union’s nurses were active in providing health care to protesters at the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Lower Manhattan in 2011, and the organization has lobbied forcefully for single-payer health care and a financial transaction tax.
Deborah Burger, a union co-president, said if Mr. Sanders did not win the primary the union was committed to fighting for whoever wins the party’s nomination against President Trump.
“We have made a commitment to endorse Bernie Sanders,” she said. “But in the end we have made a commitment to our communities that we live in that we will do whatever it takes to defeat Donald Trump.”
Sydney Ember contributed reporting from Des Moines.
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