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Unions divided: Labor splits over Obama, Clinton

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David Broder
February 17, 2008
— When Walter Mondale was threatened by the insurgent candidacy of Gary Hart in the 1984 Democratic presidential contest, he turned to his friends at the AFL-CIO for help, and their endorsement was instrumental in pulling him through to the nomination.

When another veteran officeholder, Al Gore, was challenged in 2000 by Bill Bradley, the same thing happened. In both cases, loyalties nurtured over the years and reinforced by White House ties helped determine the Democratic winner.


As the current Democratic campaign heads for the industrial states of Wisconsin on Tuesday, Ohio on March 4 and Pennsylvania on April 22—places where union membership is important—Hillary Clinton is similarly in need of a rescue effort against the surging Barack Obama.


But this time, organized labor is divided, and the latest break has gone to Obama, with the United Food and Commercial Workers endorsing him Thursday and the Service Employees International Union expected to follow. The two unions have about 3 million members between them but are outside the AFL-CIO. Conversations with leaders of the labor federation and both the Obama and Clinton campaigns last week convinced me that there is no chance of an AFL-CIO endorsement in time to affect the battle for elected delegates.


And the splits within labor mean that other elements of the Democratic coalition—women, African-Americans, Latinos and activist liberals—are likely to play bigger roles in the race.


That does not, however, mean the labor vote or the unions themselves are unimportant at this stage of the race. Both campaigns are targeting workers and their families in the three big industrial states and in Texas, which also votes March 4.


Jerry McEntee, head of the largest single AFL-CIO affiliate, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, is a Clinton superdelegate. His union and the American Federation of Teachers are well represented in the upcoming states, and both have deployed massive staff and financial resources there. Now, SEIU, which also has a powerful political machine, and the smaller food and commercial workers will enter the battle against them.


As McEntee readily concedes, without unity in labor’s leadership, it is far harder to mobilize votes—and unity within the federation is conspicuously lacking this year. No one sees a prospect of either candidate amassing the 60 percent support of membership required for an AFL-CIO endorsement.


Why is labor so conflicted? An Obama strategist said that “as long as there were three potential winners in the race, there was a lot of hedging of bets.”


John Edwards, with his populist rhetoric and attacks on NAFTA, made a strong pitch to some of the industrial unions and won an early endorsement from the Steelworkers. Clinton enjoyed close relations with New York unions, and AFL-CIO President John Sweeney had White House ties with both Clintons. Obama counted on union support in his Illinois campaigns but was less well known to unionists from other states.


For many months, Clinton and Obama focused more on denying endorsements to Edwards than on winning the nods for themselves.


In Nevada, the union representing casino employees gave Obama its backing, but it came only four days before the caucuses and left little time to mobilize the workers.


The result has been a very mixed picture in the labor vote. Exit polls through the Tuesday Potomac primary showed Clinton with the edge among union members in eight states, Obama in six, and four states where they were in a statistical tie.


Nationally, when members of union households, including spouses and children, were polled, Clinton led in 10 states, Obama in five, with seven ties. (Four states—Iowa, Nevada, Oklahoma and Utah—had enough members of union households to be sampled but not enough union members for reliable numbers.)


Clinton fared best with labor people in New Hampshire, Arizona, California, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Mexico, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and her home states of New York and Arkansas. She won all of those states except Missouri.


Obama did not win union households until Georgia and his home state of Illinois, but last week he rolled up big labor margins in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia—a trend his campaign hopes to see continue.


But the rivals fought themselves to a virtual draw among union households in Iowa, Nevada, Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey and Utah—a signal that the competition might continue to be very tough.


David Broder is a columnist for The Washington Post. Readers may write to him via e-mail at davidbroder@washpost.com.

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