Unions dominate U.S. political elections

If the national news media had been right, the culinary workers' union would have swept Sen. Barack Obama to victory in Nevada's Democratic presidential primary.

That, of course, is not what happened; Sen. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote -- though not the most delegates to the party's national convention -- in the Silver State. But the attention paid to the culinary workers' endorsement of Obama suggests labor unions will play a more prominent role in this year's presidential election.

Pennsylvania's presidential primary isn't until April, but the lack of a clear front-runner in either party leading up to Super Tuesday -- on Feb. 5, when 24 states will vote -- could keep it on candidates' radar. Union endorsements could be key for presidential contenders seeking Pennsylvania's 21 electoral votes.
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Gov. Ed Rendell announced his endorsement of Clinton on Wednesday. Political analyst G. Terry Madonna said Rendell's endorsement is significant because if the races stay as muddy as they are right now, despite the late primary, Pennsylvania could still be a key player in the election, much like it was in 2004.

"We will be a battleground state, no question," said James Kunz, business manager of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 66. "The 2004 election went Democrat in large part because of the efforts of organized labor going door to door. Our impact comes from our grassroots work."

With Pittsburgh's designation as the birthplace of the modern labor union­s -- it was home to the first conventions of both the AFL and the CIO -- and the state's above-average union representation, it's not a leap to expect labor to play a major role in the upcoming election.

Nearly 14 percent of Pennsylvania workers -- 745,000 people -- are union members, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Union members don't vote in lock step, said Jack Shea, president of the Allegheny County Labor Council, but the figures are pretty high. About 70 percent of union workers vote how their union advises them, Shea said.

"Our program is very simple; we want to touch you anywhere from eight to 12 times, whether it's literature, on the phone, in person or on the job," he said. "All we try to do is make people aware. You can talk to some folks who don't realize what's going on."

At their zenith 50 years ago, labor unions had about a third of the work force organized in this country, said James Craft, professor of business administration at the University of Pittsburgh's Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business. It is around 12 percent today.

"They've lost a lot of potential clout in terms of numbers," Craft said.

Unions have adapted by using more sophisticated strategies to influence the outcome of elections.

First, despite the restrictions of campaign finance laws, labor unions still make sizable contributions to political candidates, Craft said. "It's about half the amount that business contributes, but we're still talking hundreds of millions of dollars," he said.

Unions have extremely active programs to get their workers to the polls, Craft said. They call members personally, they go door to door, they even register people to vote and then make sure they do vote, he said.

And that on-the-ground effort includes members of different unions, Shea said: "It may be a transit worker visiting a Teamster, or a Teamster visiting a steel worker."

United Steelworkers International President Leo Gerard was surprised at the attention received by the 60,000-member culinary workers union in Nevada. "I think it was impossible to think you would see a unanimous consensus from a membership that diverse," Gerard said.

They made the mistake of not identifying their issues until late in the game, he said, unlike the steel workers, who decided early on they wanted a candidate who would work for change. Gerard said his union has endorsed John Edwards. Kunz's and Shea's unions haven't decided whom to endorse yet, but both said it will almost certainly be a Democrat.

Madonna, a professor of public affairs and director of the Center for Political and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, said labor unions in Pennsylvania typically play little to no role in Republican primaries, but are extremely active on the Democratic side.

Labor activists are usually well-represented among Pennsylvania's convention delegates, Madonna said, to the tune of about 35 percent.

And if the Democratic nominee is still undecided by March 4, Pennsylvania and its labor unions will play a huge part in the process, he said.

"There's no other primaries between March 4 and April 22, and no one bigger than us after April," Madonna said. "Labor could end up being a major element in this campaign."


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