In Ohio, Candidates Court Unions
Sunday, March 2, 2008
PARMA, Ohio -- The side streets of this Cleveland suburb of modest Cape Cods were barely plowed last week and the street signs obscured by snow as Gina Knapp and Teri Harris, 48-year-old school bus drivers from a nearby town, crept along in Knapp's minivan looking for the homes of union members whose leadership has endorsed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).
Their targets were the mainstays of Ohio organized labor -- teachers, state employees, machinists, mostly the descendants of Italian and Eastern European immigrants -- and their pitch was straightforward: Clinton will get things done for working America.
"She's more experienced and has a definite plan," said Knapp, who is on leave from her job to canvass for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which has 120,000 members in the state. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), she said, "is a speechmaker."
Not far away, in northeast Cleveland, two representatives of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which has 30,000 members in Ohio, made their way across a mostly African American neighborhood of worn Victorians in a mud-streaked Buick Regal to drum up support for Obama among a new vanguard of organized labor -- hospital workers, grocery store clerks, home-care aides. Their pitch: Obama would make things happen because he is building a movement.
"He's been able to bring together different people, black and white, different parts of the country, and that's what it's going to take to get health care and jobs," said Gabe Kramer, 32, an SEIU organizer.
It was thankless work on both sides, with many residents not at home and others not deigning to open the door. But it represented the most visible manifestation of a clash that will help decide the outcome of Tuesday's Ohio Democratic primary and with it, perhaps, the outcome of the party's extended presidential nomination battle.
In a state where organized labor still holds sway -- 14 percent of workers are unionized -- Clinton and Obama each have several major unions on their side, with hundreds of labor troops brought in from outside the state for the showdown. Which of these unions delivers more votes will help determine not only who will be the nominee but also which unions will be able to claim an edge in an ongoing nationwide confrontation about how best to revive organized labor after years of steady decline.
The battle lines are clear. On Clinton's side are some of the biggest unions in the AFL-CIO, such as AFSCME, the American Federation of Teachers and the machinists' union. Working for Obama, who until recently had little organized-labor backing, are some of the unions that broke off from the AFL-CIO in 2005 to form the Change to Win coalition: the SEIU, the Teamsters, Unite Here (hotel workers) and the United Food and Commercial Workers.
There are exceptions: The United Farm Workers are part of Change to Win but back Clinton; the Plumbers and Pipefitters Union is part of the AFL-CIO but backs Obama. Remaining neutral are several big industrial unions, such as the United Steelworkers, which endorsed former senator John Edwards (D-N.C.), and the United Auto Workers.
But with most Change to Win unions behind Obama, the Ohio battle is looming as a chance for the coalition to assert itself against its former partners. When they quit, the unions argued that the AFL-CIO was spending too much time and money on campaigns and lobbying, and not enough on organizing workers at a time of declining union membership. The breakaway unions argued that labor had to undergo internal reform, while the AFL-CIO unions argued that the main challenge remained external political forces.
The breakaway unions, led by the service employees, have shown no sign of giving up on politics but see themselves as practicing a new brand of it, infusing campaigns with the grass-roots energy of organizing drives. Now that they are backing Obama, they hail his movement-driven campaign as a perfect match. The AFL-CIO unions, meanwhile, want to show that they still have the upper hand.
"It gets bitter at the national level," said Gary Chaison, a labor specialist at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. "For the two federations, it's for bragging rights for who's still a potent political force."