Candidates Don't Count Unions Out

By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 1, 2007

In Detroit last week, one of America's most storied unions agreed to shoulder the long-term burden of members' health-care costs, a reluctant recognition of the brutal economic forces that have been weighing on its industry.

Meanwhile, not far away in Chicago, members of other big unions gathered to listen as the top Democratic presidential candidates paid fealty in hopes of winning their endorsement in the upcoming primaries.

The juxtaposition of the United Auto Workers' negotiations with General Motors and the Change to Win alliance's summit underscored one of the more notable features of the 2008 presidential race. Organized labor may be on the wane, trammeled by outsourcing, foreign competition, automation and an unfriendly administration, but you would not know it from the courting unions are enjoying from the Democratic field.

The leading Democratic candidates made their pitch to the unions in Chicago one week after they addressed the Change to Win alliance's biggest contingent, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), in Washington. Former senator John Edwards (N.C.) has, by his count, participated in 240 strikes or organizing efforts since 2004. But his rivals are hardly ceding the territory -- Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) reportedly made several last-minute calls to the United Steelworkers to try to stave off their endorsement of Edwards, while Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) is hoping that his backing in the Illinois chapter of SEIU will block the 1.9 million-member union from endorsing Edwards.

Unions say their endorsements will carry more weight than ever, given how motivated their members are in an election season in which they believe they have a chance of putting Democrats in control of the White House and Congress for the first time since 1994.

When Edwards picked up the support of both the steelworkers and the United Mine Workers of America on Labor Day in Pittsburgh, mine workers President Cecil Roberts gave such a rousing call to arms that one might have thought the nearby steel mills were still working at full strength. "We are still the shock troops of the American labor movement, and when this process is over, millions of workers are going to stand up and be counted!" Roberts shouted.

The reality, from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is this: Twelve percent of the workforce is unionized, down from more than a third in the 1950s and 20 percent in 1983. Slightly more than a third of the public sector is unionized, but only 7 percent of the private sector. Roberts's union, with a membership of 100,000 workers and retirees (down 50 percent in a decade) represents fewer than half of the nation's coal miners.

Yet the candidates keep coming. The reason, say campaign officials, union leaders and labor experts, is that today's political landscape is so fragmented that even shrunken unions offer an organizational capability that is hard to match. While unions cannot contribute money from their treasuries to candidates, they can mount mailing or media campaigns on their favorites' behalf. And candidates can count on union volunteers -- armed with invaluable membership lists -- for phone banks and canvassing.

"There aren't that many institutions in American society that can do that" kind of mobilizing, said Joshua Freeman, a labor historian at the City University of New York. "You're basically talking about a 16, 17 million-person organization -- what else is there out there on that scale that engages in politics?"

There are less tangible benefits, too -- momentum and the perception that a candidate is a friend to the working man, crucial in a party reborn during the New Deal. "You're showing the rest of the Democratic community that you're on the side of the angels," said Steve Rosenthal, a former political director for the AFL-CIO.

As an example, Clinton strategist Harold Ickes said her endorsement from the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers shows that organized labor is willing to overlook past disagreements with her husband, notably over NAFTA.

The Edwards campaign, lagging those of Obama and Clinton in fundraising, may be counting most on the practical benefits of endorsements, but it casts its pursuit of labor as more than strategic. For someone as focused on poverty as Edwards is, an alliance with labor is natural because boosting unions is one of the best steps to closing the wealth gap, said campaign manager David Bonior. "It's really at the core of what John Edwards is all about," Bonior said.

Just how much impact labor backing carries today is a matter of debate. The large unions stake a big claim to aiding the Democratic victories in the 2006 elections, when the AFL-CIO alone spent $40 million, was in contact with 13.5 million voters and saw about 75 percent of members vote for union-endorsed candidates, according to its political director, Karen Ackerman. Despite the decline in members, union households make up a quarter of voters in general elections -- and more than a third of the vote in heavily unionized states such as Ohio, exit polls show. For the 2008 election, the AFL-CIO has budgeted $53 million and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) $60 million.

The impact in primaries is less clear. In years when the AFL-CIO gave a unified endorsement to a primary candidate -- Walter Mondale in 1984 and Al Gore in 2000 -- the backing helped the candidates stave off well-funded challengers (there will be no unified AFL-CIO endorsement this year).

In 2004, though, labor backing was more fractured and its impact less obvious. Howard Dean got a big credibility boost from endorsements by the SEIU and AFSCME but then collapsed in the Iowa caucuses. Richard A. Gephardt languished from the outset, even with support from the steelworkers and other industrial unions, and John F. Kerry got a boost from the International Association of Fire Fighters.

AFSCME President Gerald W. McEntee said his union's endorsement of Dean did not pack a bigger punch in Iowa because its leadership failed to gauge its membership's support for Dean; after the candidate's late missteps, many of AFSCME's 19,000 members in Iowa ended up swinging to Kerry or Edwards. The union, which plans to endorse by early November, will not make the same mistake this time around, he said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company