Unions Look to Wield Clout in Frontloaded Democratic Primaries

The delegate-rich state of California advanced its primary to Feb. 5. Its 2.2 million union members comprise 15.7 percent of the state’s employed population, making it the largest union state in the country, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In neighboring Nevada, caucuses are set for Jan. 19, just after the first caucuses in the nation are held in Iowa on Jan. 14. One of the largest unions in the nation, UNITE HERE, a service industry union, boasts more than 60,000 hotel, restaurant and casino workers in the state.

In late March, the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, cosponsored a forum on health care in Las Vegas that was attended by most Democratic candidates. SEIU is also California’s largest union with about 650,000 members, and was one of the special interest groups that lobbied Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to approve universal state health care legislation.

Candidates are vying for the support of these voters as they deliberate on legislation important to these constituencies, such as the Employee Free Choice Act, which is pending in the Senate.

The bill would grant “card check” privileges, also called majority sign-up, making it easier for employees to organize. In other words, if a majority of workers sign forms authorizing the union to represent their interests, the National Labor Relations Board can certify the union as the employees’ collective bargaining representative without an election.

The bill has the support of all the Democratic candidates except former Alaskan Sen. Mike Gravel, who has yet to address the issue. Support of the bill is a key issue among the union demographic, along with universal health care and immigrant rights.

“There is a need to change the rules of the game in health care and human right to organize,” said Nathan Newman, policy director at the Progressive States Network and a blogger who writes about labor politics. “There’s a fundamental problem within U.S. law that doesn’t match international rights when it comes to labor laws.”

And the labor movement is becoming far more effective in political organizing than it used to be, he said.

“Compared to where the strategies were 10-15 years ago, the labor union across the board is sharper. Members are internally more mobilized, and there’s much more of an understanding how to work with a broader array of allies,” said Newman, referring to organized labor’s attempts to find common causes with environmental, immigrant and civil rights groups.

As a way to bring these various groups together, the AFL-CIO recently launched a voter education Web site titled “Working Families 2008.”

AFL-CIO official Donna Jablonski, who directed the creation of the site, said she hopes it will democratize the endorsement process.

“We wanted to make [endorsement] a bottom-up process, so our members are hearing from the candidates and are in an excellent position to hear about the issue,” said Jablonski. “We know that informed citizens are the most likely to vote. This is part of a way to mobilize voters so they vote in their best interests.”

Although the site has information about both the Republican and Democratic candidates, many of the linked blogs lean liberal, including MyDD, DailyKos and AMERICAblog. Additionally, one of the head writers for the AFL-CIO blog, Tula Connell, also has written for the liberal blog Firedoglake.

“We’re not pretending we’re not who we are,” said Jablonski, though she emphasized that the AFL-CIO had not endorsed any candidate yet. “We want all working families to have information on all the candidates, who has the right platforms and will represent them best.”

Newman, meanwhile, said he doesn’t believe the Republican candidates will offer much for union voters. He predicted the labor base will solidify around a Democrat in the 2008 election, in part because of the Bush administration’s record on workers’ rights.

“It’s George Bush and the right wing of the party; They have made it much harder for compromise. Labor folks sign contracts, and look for a deal for their members … and that [opportunity] hasn’t been there for the past six to seven years,” said Newman.

Recent elections have shown that an endorsement by major labor unions can give a boost to Democratic candidates and that voters associated with labor organizations are more likely to show up on Election Day in some key states.

In the 2006 midterm elections, after a $40 million campaign in 21 targeted states, an estimated 75 percent of union members voted for Democratic candidates. After a similar campaign in the 2004 presidential election, voter turnout among union families was much higher than the general populace in battleground states such as Ohio, where 89 percent of union families voted compared to 71 percent of non-union families, and Florida where the ratio was 71 percent to 54 percent.

During the 2004 nomination process, the early labor support went to former Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., who had the endorsement of over a dozen nationally affiliated unions in the early fall of 2003. However, the former House minority leader failed to receive the two-thirds endorsement of the national AFL-CIO, representing 13 million American workers, amid doubts concerning his viability as a candidate to defeat President Bush, and placed a distant fourth in the Iowa primary.

After the 2000 campaign, in which some unions criticized the AFL-CIO for prematurely endorsing Vice President Al Gore in the fall of 1999, the national organization withheld its endorsement of Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., until mid-February, after the race had essentially become a two-man campaign between Kerry and Sen. John Edwards.

Yet the 2004 failure of the Gephardt campaign, as well as that of Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, exacerbated the emerging political divide among the labor movement. In July 2005, SEIU which supported Dean, and the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, or UNITE, which supported Edwards, broke away from the AFL-CIO along with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union, or HERE, to create a new organization called Change to Win. The Teamsters union, led by James Hoffa Jr., also voted to leave. All together, the AFL-CIO lost one-third of its membership.

SEIU President Andrew Stern told reporters at the time that the AFL-CIO was a “loose operation, where campaigns have no accountability, where money is given out for political purposes.”

In a 2005 interview on the NewsHour, Anna Burger, the treasurer of SEIU and officer of the Change to Win coalition, noted the “fundamental differences” between the two organizations.

“The AFL-CIO believes that they should be spending more time talking to politicians and more time — more money spending it on politicians,” said Burger. “We believe that we have to be out there talking to workers, uniting workers and giving them a voice so that we can actually change their lives.”

Yet since the split, the AFL-CIO and Change to Win have been operating on similar platforms to both increase voter turnout and push issues important to union members to the forefront of the campaign. Both have hosted series of forums for the candidates to present their “working families” platforms to local unions in the key primary states.

According to Newman, the labor movement has little reason to complain so far in the campaign.

“Labor folks, in general, are probably more pleased than in many years,” he said. “They have [candidates] who are willing to talk about labor issues, people who have been in the campaign.”