Are unions going soft on the Clintons?

Tuesday's Wisconsin primary is shaping up to be a critical test of whether Hillary Clinton can hold onto her base of support among low-wage and blue-collar workers despite the growing number of labor unions endorsing Barack Obama.

The Service Employees International Union -- which represents 150,000 health care workers, janitors, security guards and municipal employees in Wisconsin, Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island -- announced Friday it will campaign for Obama. Primaries in those states have not yet taken place.

For Clinton, who has stressed that Obama's health care plan does not require universal coverage as hers does, it's a major setback because the service employees union has been one of the most vocal advocacy groups for universal coverage.

"It speaks to the constituency that Obama needs, which is low-income immigrant, Latino workers," said Jefferson Cowie, an associate professor of labor history at Cornell University.

Both candidates are honing their messages to appeal to blue-collar workers.

Obama -- who has done well among higher income voters, blacks and young adults -- delivered what his campaign described as a major economic address Wednesday at a General Motors Corp. factory in Janesville, Wis.

Clinton, whose voter base has been people over age 50, rural whites and voters with incomes under $50,000, spent most of last week campaigning in Texas and Ohio. Her first stop in Ohio was a factory in Youngstown. On Friday, she visited a Lockheed Martin plant in Akron. Earlier in the week, she visited a factory in Maryland that makes transmissions for hybrid vehicles.

Many labor unions are finding their members split on the candidates and have decided to wait until there is a clear winner in the quest for the nomination.

The biggest unions that remain neutral include the Teamsters, the UAW and the Communications Workers of America.

On Thursday, the United Food and Commercial Workers union representing supermarket and food processing employees endorsed Obama.

Clinton continues to have the longstanding backing of nearly a dozen national labor unions representing building trades and construction workers, machinists and public employees, but her string of presidential primary losses has made it imperative that she register blowout victories in the upcoming primaries to whittle down the lead Obama has in pledged delegates to the Democratic National Convention.

While former Sen. John Edwards remained in the race, many labor unions were deeply split among the three candidates, with Clinton and Edwards capturing most of the endorsements that were made and many unions choosing to stay on the sidelines.


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