By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 19, 2008; A06
Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) met here last night with dozens of union leaders in an effort to mobilize their support for the general election as lingering rifts from a hard-fought primary campaign as well as broader tensions among major unions threaten to undermine organized labor's efforts on his behalf.
Several of the largest unions in the AFL-CIO supported Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees spent heavily on ads attacking Obama. AFSCME's president, Gerald W. McEntee, criticized Obama until the end of the primaries, declaring in late May that Obama was a weak candidate who "will literally walk almost lame into the Democratic National Convention" and who "has a problem with the blue-collar worker and relating to that worker."
It was the second straight election cycle in which AFSCME picked a loser. In 2004, it endorsed former Vermont governor Howard Dean.
Now, Obama needs McEntee -- both to bring AFSCME's resources to bear and because of McEntee's influential role as the chairman of the AFL-CIO's political committee. AFSCME signaled it was on board this week. It helped pay for a hard-hitting TV ad by the antiwar group MoveOn.org attacking Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), and AFSCME's political director had a four-hour meeting with the campaign.
AFSCME leaders declined to comment last night, but leaders of other AFL-CIO unions said they expect McEntee to fall in line. "One of the things with Jerry is that he certainly gets fired up, and he may have overextended himself on this one. He is going to take a serious look at Obama," said Paul Shearon, secretary-treasurer of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers.
James Little, president of the Transport Workers Union, the first AFL-CIO union to endorse Obama, said McEntee's misgivings about Obama will not keep the labor federation's political committee from doing all it can for Obama. "He does a good job chairing that committee, but it's a committee decision and not a Jerry McEntee decision in how we move forward," Little said.
Obama met last night with the leaders of many of the 56 unions in the AFL-CIO, but one who was missing was R. Thomas Buffenbarger, president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. Buffenbarger delivered several stinging riffs against Obama while campaigning for Clinton.
"Hope! Change! Yes, we can! Give me a break!" Buffenbarger said in February. "I've got news for all the latte-drinking, Prius-driving, Birkenstock-wearing, trust-fund babies crowding in to hear him speak! This guy won't last a round against the Republican attack machine!"
AFL-CIO spokeswoman Denise Mitchell said last night that the coalition will wait a short while before officially endorsing Obama, but she noted that the coalition has already spent four months casting McCain as unfriendly to labor, with 16,000 homes visited, 1.5 million leaflets distributed and 500,000 mailings sent out. The AFL-CIO is budgeting more than $50 million for the fall campaign. "While our unions may have a few things to work out, we believe that we'll be strong and united," she said.
There is also tension within the rival Change to Win coalition, which broke away from the AFL-CIO in 2005 and whose leaders will meet with Obama this morning. Its largest member, the Service Employees International Union, initially declined to offer a nationwide endorsement in the primary, instead letting state chapters endorse on their own. After former senator John Edwards (D-N.C.), a labor favorite, dropped out in January, the union's national leadership signed off on a full endorsement of Obama in February -- later than many Obama supporters in the union had hoped.
Among those pushing hardest for an Obama endorsement after Edwards dropped out was United Healthcare Workers-West, a 150,000-member SEIU chapter in California that is embroiled in a nasty power struggle with SEIU President Andy Stern. Yesterday, the chapter's leader, Sal Rosselli, said his union's attempt to protect itself from a breakup being sought by Stern would distract from its efforts on Obama's behalf.
Already, Rosselli noted, the national leadership had blocked his staff from leaving California to campaign for Obama during the primaries. A recent proposal by SEIU's large New York chapter to impose a moratorium on the internal power struggle until after the election was defeated by the national leadership, Rosselli said.
The presidential campaign "is not going to be our priority, and if we could focus on that, that would be our preference," he said.
SEIU secretary-treasurer Anna Burger dismissed his charge, saying SEIU had agreed to campaign for Obama at its recent convention and that it was up to Rosselli's chapter to follow that. "I would expect every single local to go out and implement the program we adopted," she said. "This is no [power] struggle that we started. We're focused on winning the election and winning real change for working families."