Union locals bristle at top-down endorsement rule

The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Metal Trades Council was finalizing plans to announce their endorsement of a presidential candidate earlier this month when "DC leadership" stopped the process, according to the local union president.

"We were about to embark on the process that would not favor the beltway candidate," MTC President Paul O'Connor said Monday, referring to Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y.

Earlier in the day, Somersworth resident John Joyal, who belongs to another Shipyard union, sent a letter to newspapers saying shipyard workers did their homework and that "the endorsement has taken place, however word has it the BIG shots in DC wouldn't let the message be heard publicly."

Joyal, a member of the American Federation of Government Employees, also offered his personal endorsement of former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C. "I have a sneaking suspicion that people inside the beltway are trying to pick our candidate, and I'm offended by it," he said in an interview.

O'Connor, who personally backs Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., would not say who the MTC was poised to endorse, but he made it clear it was not going to be Clinton.

He said the council was told that it could not endorse a candidate because it is an affiliate of a department within the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations and therefore is not allowed to adopt policies that conflict with those of President John J. Sweeney, who said there will be no endorsement this primary.

O'Connor said there's nothing new about local affiliates having to fall in line with in-house mandates — even though endorsement rules have "never been stuffed down our throats in the past" — but what is new is the policy impacting the primary.

That prevents some New Hampshire unions from publicly getting behind a candidate in a state that helps set the tone for the rest of the nominating race, he said.

Asked about the change, O'Connor said the AFL-CIO was protecting its "status quo" interests. He noted his 2,400-strong council, comprised of 11 trade unions, is stronger now than it was in the last presidential contest — the council prevailed in its 2005 fight against the base realignment and closure process and it's status as a "strong political force" was strengthened with its support of Carol Shea-Porter's successful 2006 election to Congress.

A phone message left with the AFL-CIO on Monday was not immediately returned.

On the AFL-CIO website, there is an Executive Council statement from August saying the union — after thousands of its members heard from the candidates — "decided not to proceed with a decision process that would lead to support for a single candidate at this time."

The decision came after the union found the Democratic candidates strong on issues of most concern to working people, experienced enough to lead the nation and it was clear "our members support a number of the candidates — many of our union members have told us all the candidates are impressive and they are eager to support many of them."

O'Connor said the national group "found a way to legally quote-unquote silence us, and it's quite offensive."

Four days after the council was ordered in early December not to endorse a candidate, O'Connor said he received a call from one of the AFL-CIO bosses looking for his take on the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades staging, at the shipyard, a news conference announcing its endorsement of Clinton.

O'Connor said he wasn't having any of it, telling the IUPAT President James Williams that if he allowed it the local council would be forced to have their own news conference. The IUPAT, unlike the local council, does not operate under the same chain of command with the AFL-CIO, O'Connor said.

Numerous candidates have visited the shipyard for private tours in recent months.


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