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Pa. last big Dem battleground for unions

Pennsylvania Unions
Retired teacher Elizabeth Jackson places calls for Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., at the American Federation of Teachers call center, in Philadelphia, Tuesday.Matt Rourke / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Pennsylvania primary is more than a contest between Democratic Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton. It's a showdown between two rival factions in organized labor and whether they can deliver for their presidential candidate.

With by far the largest bloc of union voters remaining on the campaign calendar — 830,000 workers, the April 22 primary could demonstrate whether Clinton has expanded her edge over Obama among working-class voters and emerged as labor's decisive favorite for president. Or whether Obama has whittled her support to a virtual draw in a state where unemployment is at its highest in more than two years.

Each Democrat has the backing of a well-financed coalition of unions determined to produce a crucial victory for its preferred candidate — and in the process earn the enduring gratitude of the person it hopes will be the next president.

Clinton has a larger number of unions on her side: 12 AFL-CIO member unions — including the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the American Federation of Teachers and the International Association of Machinists — and one Change to Win union, the United Farm Workers.

Obama is backed by some politically powerful unions as well: Change to Win's Teamsters, SEIU, UNITE HERE and United Food and Commercial Workers — as well as the Change to Win organization and five smaller AFL-CIO unions. Obama picked up the endorsement Tuesday from the 10,000-member Laborers District Council of Metro Philadelphia.

The AFL-CIO has not endorsed either candidate, focusing instead on criticism of Republican nominee-in-waiting John McCain. The labor federation challenged McCain to talk with its workers about the economy during his April stops in Maryland, Arizona and Florida.

A divided outcome is certainly possible, but there's a mystery that could tip the balance: Two large unions that once backed departed candidate John Edwards — the steelworkers and mine workers — haven't decided whether to endorse Obama or Clinton.

Pennsylvania has the fourth highest total of union workers in the nation, and they will have a strong say in how more than 4.1 million Pennsylvania Democrats, a record registration, vote to allocate 158 delegates to the Democratic national convention.

In the American Federation of Teachers' basement call center in downtown Philadelphia last week, Elizabeth Jackson wore a Clinton T-shirt, a warm Phillies hat and a toothy grin as she made her pitch in a phone call to an Obama supporter. She chatted amicably, her smile getting wider by the second. After hanging up, she triumphantly placed a checkmark on her notepad and announced, "She said they're for Clinton," and grinned for a second before dialing a new person.

All around Pennsylvania, union members like Jackson are working their friends, families and complete strangers to secure votes for Clinton or Obama. The unions have a lot of prestige and bragging rights tied up in their endorsements — and perhaps better access to the next president. More AFL-CIO unions are on Clinton's side; the majority of rival Change To Win's unions are on Obama's.

In an appeal Tuesday to the AFL-CIO convention here, Clinton boasted about her work alongside labor on issues from extending unemployment insurance to collective bargaining rights. "I'll keep standing with you, fighting with you and speaking out for you every single day as president of the United States," Clinton told the meeting.

Obama was scheduled to address the convention on Wednesday.

"Whoever wins those primaries is going to have closer ties and working relationships with the unions that are on their side," said Richard Hurd, professor of labor studies at Cornell University.

That's why Jason Claybrook and Ralph Sharper, both purple-shirted Service Employee International Union members, were knocking on doors for Obama a few blocks south of Temple University more than four weeks before the election.

The two men originally worked voter registration drives, but when registration closed March 24, they began knocking on doors for Obama. They're looking for non-committed voters, but, if they run across Republicans or even Clinton supporters, they'll work on them too, the men said.

"People are really enthused. Some people who haven't voted in years, they want to get out here and vote," said Claybrook, a 37-year-old nursing home cook. "It's more of a movement, I feel. Seeing as how I'm younger and still in touch with the streets and what people are talking about, I can tell everyone's really excited."

It would take an extraordinary showing from Claybrook and other Obama supporters in urban areas like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh for Obama to win the state, election observers say.

Clinton holds a double-digit lead in polls and they point to Ohio, where Clinton won by 10 percentage points, as a harbinger of what could happen in Pennsylvania. Both states are home to many older voters and white, blue-collar workers with little or no college, the heart of Clinton's support.

Clinton already has won five of the eight states with the largest union populations: California (2,474,000), her home state of New York (2,055,000), the disputed primary in Michigan (819,000), New Jersey (748,000) and Ohio (730,000).

Obama won two, his home state of Illinois (842,000) and Washington state (579,000).

Labor has a rich history in Pennsylvania, where the AFL has roots in Pittsburgh dating to 1881 and the CIO since 1928. The Steelworkers remain strong in western Pennsylvania, the United Mine Workers in the mountains and the Teamsters, SEIU and the teachers dominate the urban centers. The power rests with Pennsylvania's AFL-CIO, which claims 900,000 workers and retirees and at least one AFL-CIO member in each of the state's 67 counties.

Union endorsements are powerful in Pennsylvania, where January's seasonally adjusted unemployment rate was 4.8 percent, the highest since December 2005.

Teamster Lenny Young, wrapped up warmly at work in a refrigerated Quaker Valley Foods, Inc. warehouse, is basing his decision to vote for Obama largely on the Teamster endorsement.

"Whoever the union endorses, I've got to be behind it, because they look out for the working man," Young said. "You've got these other people, they don't care about the little man. If the Teamsters tell you that's it, then that's the way to go. If they're telling me they're going to support this candidate, I'm pretty sure they're not going to support someone who is going to take our jobs and run overseas."

AFSCME president Gerald McEntee plans to go all-out for Clinton with appearances, ads, leafleting and phone banks. AFSCME has spent more than $5 million on Clinton's behalf since December, including in the Ohio primary and plans the same effort for Pennsylvania.

"Listen, brother, we're on the move," McEntee said.

But whatever Clinton's union supporters do, Obama's labor supporters are likely to match. For example, SEIU and its affiliates also have spent more than $5 million to help Obama.

"I think that the efforts of the labor movement could cancel either other out," said Paul Clark, head of the labor studies and employment relations department at Penn State University.

But the United Steelworkers and the United Mine Workers unions could affect the outcome. Both are strong in Pennsylvania's western and Appalachian regions; both have been neutral since Edwards dropped out.

The Steelworkers asked the Democratic candidates and McCain this month for their positions on the nation's trade policies, and Steelworkers President Leo W. Gerard said the answers "will be especially important" in helping their 175,000 members and retirees decide how to vote in the primary.