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Clinton Wanted Political Benefits Of Supporting ‘Fight For 15’ Without Backing $15 Wages

Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign wanted all the political advantages of supporting the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in their fight for a $15 minimum wage. They just never wanted to come out in support of a $15 minimum wage, according to campaign emails published by WikiLeaks.

Before the campaign officially launched, progressives hoped Clinton would put out something in support of the “Fight For 15” on a day of action on April 15. The campaign struggled to come up with a tweet Clinton could send out without suggesting she supported a $15 federal minimum wage.

The emails come from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s account, which he says was hacked.

Ann O’Leary, a senior adviser to the Clinton campaign, shared on April 14, “When I spoke at the Democracy Alliance today, a number of our friends came up to say that they hope to see HRC put out something supportive on “4-15″ in the Fight for $15.”

“Of course, they most want us to come out for $15, but absent that they expect that she tweets support for their efforts. SEIU is also using this opportunity to roll-out their child care campaign push for $15 for child care workers.”

“Can we do something creative to support efforts without coming out for a number?” she asked.

The “Fight For 15,” as journalist Sarah Jaffe detailed in her book, “Necessary Trouble,” was born out of the energy of the Occupy movement. It started in 2012 with a focus on organizing fast-food workers. McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, Domino’s Pizza, and Taco Bell workers were all encouraged to join actions in support of raising wages. They also rallied for a union.

For the day of action on April 15, 2015, a rapid response team mobilized after Peter Colavito, director of government relations for SEIU, made a request.

“We are really hoping the Secretary will react, through social media or however you see fit, to the incredible day of action that just kicked off to spotlight the crisis of underpaid work in the economy,” Colavito stated. “We expect strikes in 236 cities in the U.S, as well as strikes and support actions in 123 cities outside United States in 35 countries on six continents.”

SEIU had yet to endorse a presidential candidate, but before the year was over, SEIU president Mary Henry would rebuff any rank-and-file supporters who favored Bernie Sanders and make sure the union endorsed Clinton.

The team started with the following, “Every American deserves a fair shot at success with a true living wage. I stand with fast food workers in the #fightfor15. —H.”

But O’Leary didn’t approve. “I’m worried it is too strong. Don’t want her to come out for $15 at this stage. Instead of standing with them, better to applaud them?”

Another staff member, Joel Benenson, wondered why they were not challenging CEOs. She could tweet, “With corporate profits at record highs, it’s time for a real raise for all working Americans.”

Christina Reynolds, a part of the communications team which handles press, was concerned about whether this would take Clinton out of her “policy/political safe zone.”

“We’re going to need to determine how our people should answer the question either on TV or with the many reporters who are asking,” Reynolds added.

What if Clinton was asked, “Does she support a nationwide $15 minimum wage?” Reynolds recommended campaign spokespeople or surrogates respond, “She supports raising the minimum wage, and believes we need to have a conversation about the target and the timeline.”

Staff member Jennifer Palmieri chimed in with the argument, “The fight for fifteen is not about raising minimum wage to fifteen. It is just about fifteen dollars for these jobs.”

In fairness, Palmieri was not wrong. SEIU’s messaging does not explicitly call for raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour. This made it possible for Clinton to technically support paying workers in some cities $15 per hour wages without having to commit to raising the federal minimum wage to a specific amount.

The rapid response team came to a consensus that the “Fight for 15” was not about raising the minimum wage, but there was still worry it would be linked to support for increasing the minimum wage.

O’Leary recommended this language, “Every American deserves a fair shot at success. Fast food & child care workers shouldn’t have to march in streets for living wages #Fightfor15.”

It was specific. Only the people in the union, whose support was needed to compete against the Sanders campaign were covered by it.

Reynolds responded, “Love the tweet, although given the points you guys have raised, it seems like we need to be careful about endorsing the Fight for 15 completely.”

At one point, Podesta jumped into the conversation, “Why can’t we just say she supports low wage workers organizing for higher pay, which is what fight for 15 is about?”

Now, the campaign agreed this was the tweet that should be sent: “Every American deserves a fair shot at success. Fast food & child care workers shouldn’t have to march in streets for living wages. -H”

But there was still a problem. Should the campaign use the “Fight for 15” hashtag?

“We could tweak if needed, but we were worried given the notes that we might not end up supporting $15 for fast food workers,” Reynolds replied. “We didn’t want a full-throated/hash-tagged support.”

Nearly five hours later, Palmieri got cold feet and thought the campaign was making a big mistake sending a tweet in solidarity with fast-food and child care workers.

“You know what? I don’t think we should do this,” Palmieri argued. “The press [are] frothing for any hint of hypocrisy or change in position. If we tweet, we will immediately get asked if we support fifteen and then attacked when we have to answer that we do not. Doesn’t seem worth it.”

An adviser, Amanada Renteria, shared her opinion, “Torn. If we don’t say anything, it will be noticed by labor and they will ask her at some point. We can burn a chip on it now and apologize that we tried to get it in her talking points. however, I do worry about commenting on some other policy and not on this one.”

To that, Benenson reasoned, “We should not be forced into a position on $15 because labor will ask at some point. We will have to address at some point, and if on day 3 she takes a position for labor that she hasn’t taken before, the press will slam her for calculation before she gets back home.”

Although the debate was shifting to saying nothing in support, O’Leary insisted they had done good work, and it should not go to waste. “I feel strongly that we came up with good language that doesn’t use hashtag for 15 but supports workers’ fight.”

The tweet was finally sent later in the evening after many of the rallies and actions had taken place.

Indeed, the campaign supported the “Fight for 15” campaign without “coming out for a number.” Fifteen never appeared in the tweet.

Sanders challenged Clinton on her position on the federal minimum wage throughout the primary. During a Brooklyn debate in April, Clinton expressed support for $12 federal minimum wage. Sanders reacted, “I don’t know how you’re there for the fight for $15 when you say you want a $12-an-hour national minimum wage.”

In June, when the Democratic Party platform committee voted in St. Louis on a resolution to specifically include language supporting a $15 federal minimum wage, the following Clinton appointees made sure it was defeated: AFSCME’s Paul Booth, former EPA administrator Carol Browner, Congressman Luis Gutierrez, Ohio State Representative Alicia Reece, former under secretary of state Wendy Sherman, and Center For American Progress president Neera Tanden.

The Sanders campaign did not give up. It came up for a vote again in a final platform drafting meeting in Orlando. The Clinton campaign was forced to make concessions and a larger group of Democrats approved language supporting a $15 federal minimum wage.

Tanden sent an email days after the April 15, 2015, action, which very cavalierly addressed the “Fight for 15.”

“Substantively, we have not supported $15 – you will get a fair number of liberal economists who will say it will lose jobs,” Tanden stated. She later joked about the base of the Democratic Party being the “Red Army.”

In January, Dan Schwerin, a campaign speechwriter, admitted, “Compared to Bernie, we’re never going to be the ‘change candidate’ and so we’re either confident in our own identity or we’re chasing him and offering ourselves as a pale imitation.”

SEIU endorsed Clinton in November. In a video SEIU put together for the endorsement, Clinton tells a worker it is “just so wrong” that she is only paid $8 per hour. She does not say how much she thinks workers should be paid.

The video never once suggests Clinton is the best presidential candidate for those who want to see the federal minimum wage raised to $15, and it barely mentions whether she supports the “Fight for 15.”

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."