A half-dozen political candidates spent an hour saying hello, shaking hands and taking photos as they made their way through the crowd at Bayfront Festival Park on Monday.
The parade of candidates through the AFL-CIO's annual Labor Day picnic at Bayfront made it clear that area labor unions are firmly in support of DFL candidates in this year's state and federal elections. The candidates - all DFLers - each took a turn at the microphone to voice their support of unions on a stage covered with candidate signs mixed in with posters declaring "I'm sticking with my union" and "My union my vote."
Eighth Congressional District DFL candidate Joe Radinovich took the stage at Bayfront. His opponent, GOP candidate Pete Stauber, walked in the Labor Day parade in Cloquet, posting on Facebook that his support in the community is continuing to grow. Radinovich and Ray "Skip" Sandman, the Independence Party candidate in the 8th Congressional District, also took part in Cloquet's parade.
Labor votes aren't in play for the campaigns this year, said Chris Rubesch, a member of the Minnesota Nurses Association's endorsement committee.
"Based on the signs that are here, based on the people I see here, I think that labor is pretty unified around the candidates that we see are really furthering issues that are important to us - good-paying jobs, safety in our communities, safety in the workplace. What I see is a strong unified labor," said Rubesch, who is also chair of the Senate District 7 DFL.
Union members at the picnic said labor issues are central to this year's election at a time when they say politicians are chipping away at union rights.
Alan Netland of AFSCME Local 66 said labor issues are "absolutely" an issue in this year's election. He noted that there are several state and federal races where the Republican candidates support right-to-work laws that prohibit mandatory union membership.
"We have candidates who don't want anything to do with labor and they want to attack labor," said Netland, who is also the president of the North East Area Labor Council.
When it comes to endorsements, it's about explaining to union members the reason why the union is endorsing the candidate and the differences between the candidates. AFSCME has endorsed DFL candidate Joe Radinovich in the 8th Congressional District this year, despite endorsing Pete Stauber when he was a St. Louis County Board candidate in the past. Now that Stauber is a GOP candidate for the 8th Congressional District, Stauber's support of President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence lost him AFSCME's endorsement because of Trump and Pence's lack of support for unions, Netland explained.
"Mike Pence wrecked the state of Indiana for unions - it's a right-to-work state, disbanded collective bargaining for public employees in Indiana. We don't want anything to do with that," Netland explained.
Bernie Burnham, president of the Duluth Teachers Federation, said labor issues are always important when it comes to politics.
"There are folks coming out to go after unions and trying to get our membership to walk away, and that's not going to happen," Burnham said. "They're going to try to get people to save money, but in the long run, that's not what it's about. It's about being part of a greater collective of people who have a voice for public education and to do what's best by our children and our families."
It's not about which candidate is pro-union, it's about supporting candidates who are pro-public education, and the Duluth teachers' union follows Education Minnesota's lead for endorsements, she said.
To endorse candidates, the Minnesota Nurses Association formulates questions for candidates based on the issues its members have said are important. All candidates are invited to answer the questions with the union and then the union endorses based on the answers, Rubesch said.
It's important for unions to endorse candidates because "unions have their power through unity" - that same collective power that unions have to improve workplace safety and wages, he said.
"By screening candidates, by letting the candidates know which issues are important to us, we gain power by being in the room with the candidate," he said.
Margaret Kirtley-Sternberg, a nurse in Duluth, said she takes into consideration her union's endorsement of candidates, but she doesn't agree with the union on everything.
"When I look at candidates, I try to look at the whole package," she said.