4/21/08

Big Labor dominates Pennsylvania voters

Fresh from a multiday bus tour of Pennsylvania on behalf of Barack Obama, Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa was enthused last week about the prospects of his presidential candidate. Pushing just as hard for Hillary Clinton was Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. He campaigned over the weekend in Pennsylvania, where nearly 100,000 AFSCME members make it the state's biggest union.

The two labor leaders exemplify the nationwide division among union members in the Democratic presidential race, and Tuesday's primary outcome in union-rich Pennsylvania will depend in part on which one proves more persuasive. The state's 900,000 union members have long been a key swing vote.

Union members in Pennsylvania are not only numerous, they are "very enthusiastic right now" and will play a major role Tuesday, says Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College and founder of the Keystone Poll, Pennsylvania's oldest survey.

"I think labor is marshaling its forces for the election," Madonna said Friday. "They are a major part of the infrastructure of the Democratic Party in Pennsylvania, and they organizationally still have the ability to deliver votes. This is an election they consider one of the most important in many years."

Hoffa and McEntee are two of the toughest, most unyielding leaders in the American labor movement.

Each oversees a mega-union of 1.4 million members. Hoffa bears the legacy of a muscular union and of his namesake father, while the intense McEntee long has led labor's political program. In a time of declining labor membership, each has managed to expand his union.

And each is unaccustomed to losing.

CLINTON'S MARGIN

Most observers expect Clinton, who is leading in the polls, to win Pennsylvania, but the size of that victory may prove critical — which is where labor votes could prove decisive.

If Obama comes within 6 percentage points or so, it will be seen as a so-so showing for Clinton, who would face renewed pressure to leave the race so Obama can focus on presumptive Republican nominee John McCain.

But if Clinton wins handily, it will reinforce the idea that despite his multiple wins in small states, Obama can't close the deal in large states that look like America. It also will reflect his continuing weakness — and her strength — among blue-collar conservatives or 'Reagan Democrats,' who have proven decisive in swing states in recent elections.

Madonna said last week that Clinton is ahead of Obama 44-33 percent among the state's union households. That's down by 23 points from a few weeks earlier, Madonna said, with the gain largely reflecting Obama's recent presence in Pennsylvania.

The state's labor vote has geographic overtones, notes Pennsylvania AFL-CIO President Bill George. Obama is holding even with Clinton among union members in southeastern Pennsylvania, including Philadelphia, where members tend to be younger, more educated, more diverse and more liberal. But in industrial western Pennsylvania, including Pittsburgh, where workers are older, have more traditional views and earn less, "she'll do 60-40, if not higher," he predicted.

BACKING OBAMA

Leading 'Hoffa's working class convoy for change' in Pennsylvania, the Teamsters president focused on smaller cities like Scranton and Reading as well as rural areas in the middle of the state, where Clinton is strongest and he felt he could help Obama cut into her lead.

He also made 'robo calls' to all 83,000 Teamsters in the state and visited work sites. A major issue is the state's loss of thousands of jobs, including at well-known plants that produced the York Peppermint Pattie, Gold Toe men's socks and one that since 1795 had made the No. 2 pencil. Foreign trade deals are blamed by many.

"A lot of people said they wanted to know what the union had to say," Hoffa says. His message to his fellow Teamsters was that Obama will "change America, with regard to trade, the Employee Free Choice Act and, most of all, he's going to be able to win in November."

Hoffa bases that on Obama's success thus far, his large donor base and his ability to "fill a basketball arena that seats 30,000. People come out at 3 in the morning to get a seat, and they're thrilled."

Hoffa says it would be a "scandal" if the superdelegates "overturn the will of the people" by not voting for Obama.

BACKING CLINTON

McEntee, whose career with AFSCME began 50 years ago, was in Pennsylvania through Sunday talking to union members and helping get-out-the-vote efforts. Aides say the effort "is personal to him," given his Pennsylvania roots and long involvement with the Clintons dating from his early backing of Bill Clinton's presidential bid in 1992.

McEntee says Obama has built his lead by winning southern and western states the Democrats are unlikely to capture in the fall. Meanwhile, he says, Clinton has scored victories in battleground states key to Democratic chances in the general election, because of her positions on jobs and the economy.

"He is losing the strong base of the Democratic Party," McEntee says. "Now, he is carrying African-Americans by about 90-10, but he is losing white middle-class to lower-class voters. He's losing women. He's losing many trade-union voters."

McEntee expects Clinton to win Pennsylvania, Indiana and West Virginia, while facing a "tough road" in North Carolina. At the end, he argues, "I think it'll be so close in the popular vote that it won't be an issue of the superdelegates overturning the popular vote" if they decide Clinton would be a stronger general election candidate.

Exercising independent judgment is why the superdelegates were created, McEntee says, adding that if they merely "rubber stamp" prior decisions, they are irrelevant and serve no function.

(stltoday.com)

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