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The AFL-CIO has a perfect champion in Bernie Sanders. Is that enough for an endorsement?

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Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

The AFL-CIO’s executive council meeting is this week, which means visits from presidential candidates: Martin O'Malley, Bernie Sanders, Jim Webb, and, of course, Hillary Clinton, who has a 1 pm with the union federation tomorrow. There's also a sole Republican visitor: Mike Huckabee.

I talked to the AFL-CIO's president, Richard Trumka, along with progressive economist and Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, who is leading a discussion on economic policy at the meeting, about what they're looking for in the 2016 contenders, and what the next president can do for the middle class.

Rewriting the rules

Rich people Tim Graham/Getty Images

(Tim Graham/Getty Images)

The focus, Trumka and Stiglitz say, is on determining how serious candidates are about wanting to "rewrite the rules" of the economy. This is a deliberate echo of the title of a report Stiglitz and a team at the Roosevelt Institute released a couple of months ago, which argued that tackling rising inequality and slow growth means more than redistribution. The problem is that the economy is fundamentally broken, shot through with opportunities for the rich to get richer not by building wealth but through exploitation and taking. Increased regulation of the financial sector, reforms to copyright and patent law, and other changes to the way markets work are needed, not just more taxes and spending.

"The economy is nothing but a set of rules," Trumka says. "The rules are made by the people we elect, and the president has the biggest bully pulpit there is. We want someone who's committed to changing these rules for working people, and we'll be endorsing the person who's most likely to make that happen."

When asked which of these rules is more important to change first, Stiglitz demurred.

"We need to rewrite all of them, and I don't think there's any necessity of doing one at a time," Stiglitz says. "In fact, I would say it's more helpful if we undertake a number of things simultaneously."

But he did single out one, perhaps unsurprisingly given that he was speaking in the context of a union meeting: increased collective bargaining rights.

Obviously that and many other changes on the union's agenda require congressional action, as well. So how important is a president, really, especially if Democrats hold little hope of retaking the House next year?

"Some of what can be done requires congressional action, but a lot of this is set by tone, is set by executive order," Stiglitz says. "In a broad democracy such as ours, there are many ways of trying to go about this enormous challenge of rewriting the rules." Stiglitz also emphasized the importance of executive agencies' implementation powers: "It's not just writing the rules, it's also how they're interpreted and how they're enforced."

Trumka and Stiglitz are also interested in the president's role in shaping the Federal Reserve.

"The Fed shouldn't all come from Wall Street or the financial industry," Trumka says. "We'd like to see other people with varying backgrounds on the board as well." He also wants presidential appointments that emphasize the "full employment" side of the Fed's mandate, in addition to its duty to fight inflation: "Janet is one of the first heads of the federal reserve to say she has two jobs, and she's focusing on full employment. We'd like to see that on various regional Feds."

Comparing the options


Will the AFL-CIO get on board the Hillary train? (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Mike Huckabee, alone among Republicans, made the cut for the executive meeting today and tomorrow.

"We submitted a questionnaire to all the candidates who have declared," Trumka says. "Mike Huckabee was the only Republican that submitted the questionnaire, and thus he was invited to come."

In 2008, Huckabee stood out from his peers as left-leaning on economics, and it appears that at least rhetorically he's willing to speak labor's language in a way that other 2016 Republicans aren't. "I won’t agree with the AFL-CIO on everything," he wrote in a Daily Caller post explaining the visit, "but I do agree that American workers have been getting punched in the gut and kicked in the teeth."

Realistically, though, the federation's choices come down to two: Bernie Sanders, who has been a union stalwart his whole career and enthusiastically embraces the agenda Trumka and Stiglitz are pushing for; and Hillary Clinton, who, while economically progressive, isn't the AFL-CIO dream candidate that Sanders is. It's a choice that requires weighing Sanders's superior (from a union standpoint) stances on the issues against the fact that Clinton is definitely going to win the nomination, and that declining to endorse her could jeopardize unions' sway in a Clinton White House.

Pressed about this, Trumka appealed to procedure: First the affiliate unions will talk to their members, then they'll endorse, then the federation will come to a decision. "Each affiliate union will have to, before they endorse, go back and find out from their rank and file where they want them to be," he said. "I've encouraged every affiliate not to do any endorsement until they've find out from their members where they want them to be, so they're giving voice to that membership."