Democrats debate; unions delight - In national spotlight, candidates to court Big Labor in Chicago
By Stephen Franklin
Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune
August 7, 2007
They will probably sound like a giant barbershop quartet, singing different notes in the same song.
And that's perfectly fine with leaders of the AFL-CIO, who are savoring the prospect of the Tuesday night debate among seven Democratic presidential candidates that the labor federation is sponsoring at Soldier Field.
"All of them are talented and all of them are our candidates," Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees told a group of union political activists this weekend in Chicago. The forum will be "the biggest job interview ever," he added with a broad smile.
The labor federation's glee is easy to understand.
The candidates' eagerness to court organized labor is viewed as a message that labor is still a major player in national politics, despite its steadily shrinking numbers and a deep division within its ranks that led to a splinter federation two years ago. Organized labor, with 16 million members, today represents about only 1 out of 8 workers in the U.S.
The AFL-CIO's leaders are similarly pleased by the fact that the candidates' wooing will be very public.
More than 12,000 union members and their families are expected to attend the 90-minute gathering that will be broadcast live on MSNBC and WMAQ-Ch.-5 and over XM Satellite Radio, starting at 6 p.m.
In fact, the meeting was switched from McCormick Place West to the massive open-air stadium when ticket requests soared beyond expectations, union officials said. More than 17,000 tickets have been handed out to unions in the Chicago area, added officials with the half-million-member Chicago Federation of Labor.
MSNBC host Keith Olbermann will be the moderator. The candidates also will field questions from about 10 union members, who have been selected from across the U.S., as well as questions culled from several thousand submitted to the AFL-CIO over the Internet.
Just as the unions hope to gain from the much-publicized debate, the payoff for the candidate that wins labor's embrace can be critical.
As AFL-CIO officials point out, their ability to churn out voters has steadily improved since their political efforts were stepped up in 1996.
Nearly three-fourths of the union members taking part in the 2006 election voted for the union-endorsed candidate, the highest such figure ever, according to Karen Ackerman, the AFL-CIO's political director.
So, too, unions have been able to turn out large numbers of their members and families in traditionally union-friendly states. For example, union households made up 35 percent of the voters in Michigan in 2006 and 32 percent in Illinois, according to Ackerman.
$200 million given in 2004
In order to get such numbers, unions have matched traditional techniques with high-tech support, she said. In 2006, union campaign workers knocked on 8.2 million doors, sent out 30 million pieces of mail and handed out 14 million fliers, she said.
In terms of campaign support, organized labor gave more than $200 million in 2004 to its candidates, according to AFL-CIO officials, and that number is likely to grow in the coming year, labor officials predicted.
AFSCME alone expects to spend more than $50 million, outstripping the $48 million the AFL-CIO spent in 2004, and the Service Employees International Union intends to spend over $60 million, said union President Andy Stern.
To measure the Democrats' ability to identify with workers, the SEIU has asked them to spend one day doing one of their union member's jobs, and several have already put in their time, said Stern, who was in Chicago last week for the YearlyKos convention.
One of the union leaders who spurred the competing Change to Win Federation, Stern said his 6-million-member group cooperated with the AFL-CIO in its political efforts last year and would continue to do so.
Ackerman agreed, but added that not all of the rival federation's seven unions have joined in.
A longtime critic of politicians who take unions' support but then ignore them once in office, Stern also noted his federation's role in helping set up a new political action committee meant to keep elected officials accountable, Working for Us PAC.
AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said he will be listening closely Tuesday to hear the candidates' views on health care. "They all have to recognize that the health care issue has to be addressed effectively after they get elected," he explained.
The AFL-CIO's leadership, which is meeting now in Chicago, has yet to decide on the endorsement timetable and spending, and Sweeney said the debate could have an impact on union leaders when they bring up these issues at a Wednesday meeting.
As for individual unions' early endorsements, Sweeney said that "nobody is making any quick decisions like they did several years ago."
Unlike 2004, when several unions rushed to back Howard Dean or Richard Gephardt, "they all want to make sure they make a decision their members can live with," Sweeney said.
"People want the process to play out a little more," suggested John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees. Gage said he personally favors former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, but his union has yet to reach a decision on a candidate.
A GOP endorsement?
Edwards, who has played to labor's heart with a focus on poverty and working-class issues, told a union meeting Monday in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, that "it remains to be seen" who will win labor's support.
"Obviously, I have friends in organized labor because I've done a lot of work in the last several years on behalf of issues that I care about and they also care about. But I think it's very much an open question what the unions are going to do," he said.
Some unions are also looking at Republican candidates. About 1 in 5 members of AFL-CIO unions consider themselves Republicans, union officials said.
The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, for example, plans to endorse a Republican candidate as well as a Democrat, marking the union's first such effort, said machinists spokesman Rick Sloan. "Some members are pretty adamant about supporting their brand of politics," he said.
Republican presidential candidates were also invited to take part in Tuesday's debate, but none returned the questionnaires sent to them, AFL-CIO officials said. Neither did Democratic candidate and former U.S. Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska, they added.
In case of bad weather, AFL-CIO officials said they will have heaps of ponchos ready and lots of crossed fingers.
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Tribune political reporter Rick Pearson contributed to this report from Iowa