On September 4, brandishing a megaphone and wearing the trademark scowl he reserves for talk of “millionaires and billionaires,” Senator Bernie Sanders stood before around 100 picketing employees outside the Penford Products corn-processing plant in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and denounced “the war against working families.”
“I want you to know being out on a picket line and standing with workers is something I have been doing for my entire life,” he told the union workers. “I did it when I was mayor of the city of Burlington, did it in Congress, did it in the Senate. This is what I do.”
Campaign contributions from Sanders’s recent past, however, paint a slightly different picture. During his 2012 reelection race, Sanders accepted $10,000 from a Midwestern sugar conglomerate that was at the time locked in a long, bitter battle with its labor force — a fight that ultimately left more than 1,000 union workers out of a job.
Unlike his chief Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, Sanders derives much of his appeal from the notion that he is above politics, beholden to no one, and unwavering in his support of liberal values. That he took money from a union-busting company might give his fans pause, expose him to charges of hypocrisy, and harm his uphill battle to secure critical union endorsements.
Contribution data from the Sunlight Foundation shows Sanders received two $5,000 donations from American Crystal Sugar on July 12, 2012. The sugar company finished in a three-way tie as the single largest donor to Sanders’s campaign that cycle, and was his only corporate donor in the race, which he ultimately won with 71 percent of the vote.
At the time Sanders took their money, American Crystal was already deep into one of the most contentious labor disputes of the decade. In September 2011, the company locked out 1,300 Iowan, Minnesotan, and North Dakotan workers from the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers, and Grain Millers Union for their refusal to ratify a labor contract. In the 20-month standoff that followed, American Crystal did everything it could to cow the union into submission, hiring replacement workers and suing to revoke the locked-out workers’ unemployment benefits.
Even after the union members’ children wrote to American Crystal executives in September 2012, begging the sugar-processing giant to let their parents return to work before they lost their homes, the company refused to budge. “For more than a full calendar year — for two Christmas seasons, for more than 18 months — these men and woman have struggled to pay their bills and put food on the table for their families,” Tom Ricker, North Dakota’s AFL-CIO president, wrote in a local newspaper at the time. “[They’ve] been tortured by the question: How could the company they gave their lives to just throw them away so callously?”
After hundreds of workers quit or retired, the remaining 660 finally voted to ratify the original contract in April 2013, achieving next to nothing for their 20 months of hardship. Just 400 of them showed up for work the next month, in a blow to the small Midwestern communities whose economic well-being depends on the beet-sugar industry.
That Sanders took the same kind of money in smaller quantities from American Crystal — which over the years has given politicians in both parties millions of dollars to protect federal sugar subsidies — affords Clinton the opportunity to call him a hypocrite. Sanders is “obviously making a big deal about Hillary Clinton’s corporate campaign contributions,” says Democratic strategist Brad Bannon. “This is something the Clinton campaign could throw back in his face.”
Sanders’s one-time alignment with American Crystal won’t do him any favors in the race to rally major labor unions to his side. The senator’s shock of white hair has been a fixture at union pickets across the country as he has grappled with Clinton for labor support. And despite a clear preference for Clinton among union bigwigs — in recent weeks, they’ve steered titanic unions like the SEIU and AFSCME to endorse her campaign — many rank-and-file union members see Sanders as a true believer. His affiliation with American Crystal tarnishes that image and will probably undercut his push to win endorsements from the AFL-CIO and other undecided unions.It’s not clear if Sanders was aware of American Crystal’s lockout when he took their cash; neither his presidential campaign nor his Senate office returned a request for comment. But either way, Clinton is unlikely to give Sanders a pass. Though she holds a strong lead in Iowa and a slimmer one in New Hampshire, Clinton appears determined not to become complacent after her surprise defeat in 2008. She has hit Sanders repeatedly on gun control, pointing to his votes against the Brady Bill when he was in the House. If she now turns to his American Crystal contributions, there might not be enough picket marches in the world to save the Sanders campaign.
“I think the Clinton campaign’s strategy for Sanders all along [was] to knock the pins from under his campaign by going right at his credentials as a liberal,” Bannon says. “They figure that if they do that, there’s nothing left. And they’re probably right about that.”
— Brendan Bordelon is a political reporter for National Review.