Obama 2008
Alex Brandon  /  AP
Sen. Barack Obama D-Ill., shakes hands before speaking at the Communication Workers of America legislative conference on April 8.
By NBC/National Journal Reporter
updated 4/9/2008 10:24:53 AM ET 2008-04-09T14:24:53

Ellen Williams walked down two flights of stairs to answer the door. Before she even got to the landing, she was already telling the canvasser that she'd be voting for Barack Obama — just like the Service Employees International Union wants her to. But she also told the union representative that she holds a place in her heart for Bill Clinton.

"He kept us working for eight years," she told Thea Jackson at the door. "I was making $18 an hour then. I came from a higher class, and I'm not making what I used to make. The unions are not as strong as they used to be."

Jackson spent a brisk Sunday afternoon canvassing north Philadelphia for the Illinois senator. The 40-year-old housekeeper at Lankenau Hospital said she has been involved in union politics for 18 years, and she sees a more active and engaged membership for this election than ever before.

"This has been our biggest voter registration turnout," Jackson said. "A lot of people are watching the news, listening to the issues and getting involved."

Although she said she doubts Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has the strength to be president, she also remembers the Clinton administration fondly. "He did right by us," she said.

Pennsylvania is the sixth-largest union state in the country, with 745,000 members in 2006, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And now that the 2008 primary race is largely centered in the Keystone State, Pennsylvania's unions have a rare opportunity to influence the future of the Democratic Party.

The community is largely split. Several major groups, such as SEIU and the Teamsters, have backed Obama; groups including the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT) have endorsed Clinton. They are spending the cash to back up their endorsements, as well: In the most recent example, the New York Times reported Tuesday, SEIU and affiliated local groups will spend $976,000 for a statewide campaign focusing on door-to-door canvassing for Obama.

"I think what we have here is the reverse of a perfect storm," said Jack Shea, president of Allegheny County Labor Council, the AFL-CIO group in Pittsburgh. "We have two really good candidates, and I believe when this is all over the union vote will come together."

But in the meantime, there is some friction. Take the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees: Even though it is a member of AFSCME, the group endorsed Obama.

"I know I'm going to pay dearly for the position I took. You can imagine, my international movement is not happy," said William Nicholas, the group's national president and local leader in Philadelphia.

Nicholas said he believes that members of his union connect with Obama's vision and that the excitement Obama generates has brought in a new cadre of volunteers. That's why the union made the relatively unusual decision to go against its international parent.

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"You have to be in step with the rank and file of the membership," Nicholas said. "It would be crazy and unwise if 96 percent of my members are with Obama and I'm with somebody else."

As Williams attests, Obama is going up against a name that evokes strong feelings in the labor community. "There's a relationship between Clinton and labor," Shea said. "It's like an old friend. You're more comfortable with an old friend than someone you just met."

That personal connection makes sense to Debbie Christen, an AFSCME member in Shamokin, Pa., who has been phone banking other union members on Clinton's behalf. She said Clinton played an important role in helping her son, an Iraq war veteran who suffers from traumatic brain injury, get insurance coverage for his treatment.

"I support her because of her commitment to union families," said Christen, a revenue enforcement collection agent. "I like her plan to strengthen our economy and protect our jobs, as well as her health care plan."

Both candidates have heavily courted labor, speaking at the AFL-CIO's state conference last week, touring union facilities throughout the state and touting plans to create new jobs that would minimize the threat of outsourcing and provide federal health care.

Unions "are certainly one of the components to performing well in the primary," said Nello Giorgetti, a lobbyist and political consultant in Pittsburgh. "Though they may not have the membership they had 30 years ago, they still have a strong network."

Gerald McEntee, AFSCME's national president, said his members are just as enthusiastic for Clinton as other groups are for Obama. "I think it will really play a very meaningful role," he said. "It won't be a sole factor [for a Clinton victory] but one of the top factors."

Union leaders hope their endorsements will play a larger role in Pennsylvania than it has in other states. Anna Burger, secretary-treasurer of SEIU, said her group came out for Obama too close to the Ohio and Texas primaries to have a huge impact, but it has had six additional weeks to focus on Pennsylvania.

"I think we had a great influence in all these states, we just didn't have time to educate," she said. "Pennsylvania gives us an opportunity to be on the ground early." Most volunteers first worked on voter registration before the March 24 deadline, and they are now engaged in voter education. Turnout comes next.

But political consultants in the state say union influence there is changing. Labor groups no longer bring large swaths of voters to an endorsed candidate.

"I think as we become a more mature and sophisticated society, members of unions have access to much more information than before," said Larry Ceisler, a Philadelphia political analyst and former Democratic strategist. Members "used to just get something from the unions saying vote this way. Now they see things on the Internet and look at television advertising."

Video: Clinton: No trade deal with Colombia Labor groups are now more valuable for their organizing skills and armloads of volunteers. "If they organize and get their members out to vote, there's less for the campaign to organize and get out to vote," Giorgetti said. "It's like having an ancillary campaign."

And union representatives can also serve as key surrogates. Eileen Connelly -- executive director of the Pennsylvania State Council for SEIU, which is backing Obama -- made a statement to the press on Tuesday as news broke of Clinton strategist Mark Penn's departure from the campaign.

"One will have to wonder what Senator Clinton is thinking and what she believes is right with the role Mark Penn is playing in her campaign," Connelly said. She also suggested Penn had several clients at Burson-Marsteller that should raise concerns for labor, including Blackwater USA and Countrywide Financial.

Union groups speak directly to their constituencies, and with so many people paying attention in a primary campaign, Burger added, unions can help their members focus on worker's issues and contrast candidates' positions.

"I'm sure there are people who come into this with strong opinions and will keep them," Burger said. "They don't want us to just give them a name, they want us to give them information."

Christen believes a union endorsement still means something to members. "I think it sways them because people have a lot of respect for their unions and what their unions have done to protect their jobs," she said.

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