Ugly union politics pollute Ohio

With just days to go before Ohio's primary, union members across the state are on the march, but they're not marching in solidarity. Labor's house is divided between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in the state's most hotly contested presidential primary in decades. Obama, who casts himself as the candidate for change, has the "Change to Win" unions on his side. That's the group that formed in 2005 when five unions bolted the AFL-CIO, the nation's main labor federation, dissatisfied with the continuing decline in union membership and determined to do a better job of organizing.

The seven unions that now make up Change to Win include the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the Teamsters and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW).

Altogether, unions in the group have 175,000 members in Ohio, according to the Obama campaign. Other Ohio unions backing Obama have an additional 17,000 members, the campaign said.

Meanwhile, Clinton is getting major support in Ohio and across the country from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), representing state and local government employees.

In Ohio, the union has 150,000 members, according to the Clinton campaign. Other unions backing Clinton have an additional 80,000 members, the campaign said.

"It is interesting that the unions dissatisfied with the direction of organized labor are backing the candidate that is most critical of the old ways — including the Clinton administration," said political scientist John Green, director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron.

On both sides, hundreds of union members are making phone calls and knocking on doors to get the vote out for their candidates on Tuesday, March 4. While only 14.1 percent of Ohio workers now are union members — compared to 25 percent in 1983 — their support still is key to Democratic candidates.

"Labor union support is likely to be very helpful to both candidates because it gives them grassroots activists," said Green. "It may matter more to Obama than Clinton because she has the support of the governor and the Democratic Party activists."

There's another dimension to union support for the candidates both in Ohio and nationally: money. Independent expenditures on behalf of candidates are legal but can't be coordinated with the candidates' campaigns. Unions backing Clinton have made more than $3.6 million in such expenditures, while unions backing Obama have spent more than $3.7 million, according to the Federal Election Commission. In addition, AFSCME has spent $234,483 opposing Obama.

SEIU alone has spent more than $3 million on Obama's behalf, including money for a TV ad for Obama in Ohio that has sparked controversy. The UFCW also has aired a TV ad in Ohio for Obama.

The Clinton campaign has said Obama spoke out against such outside spending in Iowa when unions helped John Edwards, but now that the ads help him his response has been "underwhelming" and inconsistent.

Ben LaBolt, Obama's Ohio campaign spokesman, responded that Clinton has benefited from more than $5 million in spending from outside groups, including from unions, and has said nothing.

"Sen Obama has long said that he would prefer those who want to support him do it directly through the campaign," LaBolt said.

Such bickering could make it difficult for labor and the candidates to close ranks once the primaries are over, but Jamie Fant, an AFSCME retiree in Dayton who is making phone calls for Clinton, said he doesn't have time to worry about that.

"I'm not even concerned about that," Fant said. "Our primary concern is we're supporting Hillary Clinton."


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